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The Zemach Zedek and the Haskalah Movement

Chapter 3
The Maskilim Form Assimilation Societies

Dr. Lilienthal requested permission to organize a society to be known as the "Seekers of Enlightenment." Its founders and directors would be selected Russian Maskilim. He explained that, besides providing a meeting place to counsel and discuss problems of education, with official consent, of course, the Society would be a center for the dissemination of Haskalah among the Jews, and an agency for publicizing the generous activities of the Government on behalf of the Jews. Uvarov granted Dr. Lilienthal's petition and recommended to the Minister of the Interior that "to implement the wishes of the Government," he sanction the establishment of the Society.

The Minister of the Interior approved the founding of the Society. Dr. Rotenberg organized a branch is Berditchev, and similar groups were started in. Vilna, Brisk, Kovno, Minsk, Kiev, and other cities under the aegis of local Maskilim. All were supervised by a special board including Gottlober, Mapu, Levinsohn, and Gunsburg, and headed by Dr. Lilienthal.

A young man of exceptional abilities, named Leon (Aryeh Leib) Mandelstamm,1 lived in Petersburg at that time. With the aim of enrolling in the University of Petersburg, he associated with many of the young scholars there. He was particularly close to one Yerachmiel Massayev, an intimate of the officials' sons, who served to introduce Mandelstam into the learned circles.

1 Leon's father was a pupil of Shimon Zamuter.

Once, in a debate among the young men, Mandelstam amazed the group with the clarity and logic of his arguments. It was an analysis of the emotions of religion, and Mandelstam contended that cool intellect can overpower the most impassioned, deeply-rooted faith. Consequently, he argued, one can easily exchange one faith for another, or even negate the entire concept of faith and rid oneself of all religious feeling. Mandelstam's thesis was the subject of a number of protracted debates. Though everyone admired the profundity of his contentions, the question of the battle between faith and reason remained a point of controversy.

Massayev was of the opinion that faith is omnipotent, and is decisive regardless of one's intellectual achievements. The powers of faith can develop latent abilities, bringing success in any endeavor, whether economic and commercial, or of ethics and intellect. Having been reared in a Chassidic atmosphere, Massayev had read and heard many stories of Zaddikim and their wonders, and drew upon them to illustrate and support his stand.

Young Mandelstam and his Jewish supporters of assimilationist backgrounds mocked Massayev's stories, but the young Christians, devout in their own faith, listened attentively. Most impressed was Nicholas Pavlov, son of Uvarov's assistant in the Ministry of Culture, who was persecuted by his liberal father for his piety. Once, young Pavlov told his father about the discussions, particularly about the debates on faith vs. reason, mentioning Mandelstam and Massayev as the leaders of the respective factions. Pavlov was intrigued, and invited the two youths and several others of the group to him. He outlined a formal debate on the topic: Faith vs. Reason: Their Triumphs and Consequences in Life --Civic, Ethical, Social, Filial, and Economic.

Pavlov was so impressed by the serious approach and maturity of the two young men and their supporters during the first two meetings, that he invited several prominent intellectuals and University faculty people to attend the third meeting. The audience was fascinated by the disputants, their articulateness, their conviction in supporting and attacking faith and reason according to their positions, the swift claims and counter-arguments, and the fluidity of the contest. The scholarly audience could not decide which young man was more persuasive, and the debate ended in a deadlock. From the perspective of reason, Mandelstam was justified, was the inconclusive verdict, for nothing can withstand the onslaught of knowledge and understanding. Conversely, from the vantage point of faith, Massayev would be correct, for the strength of deep-rooted feelings is unassailable. This was the most definitive decision the scholars could reach. As a result of the debate, both young men earned esteem in intellectual circles; they were treated with respect, and to a degree, even with awe.

Vice-Minister Pavlov introduced Mandelstam to Dr. Lilienthal, who recognized in him the requisite qualities for undermining the Jewish cheder system, and persuading the Minister of Culture to replace it with Government-sponsored schools. Dr. Lilienthal proposed to Count Uvarov that he appoint Mandelstam as the "Learned Jew" of his Ministry. Uvarov interviewed the young man and was convinced that the assessments of Mandelstam were realistic, finding him superbly qualified for the post of "Learned Jew" in the Ministry of Culture. Mandelstam had an excellent command of Hebrew, fluency in Russian, patience, oratorical ability, uninhibited views of the Jewish religion, and a bitter hatred of Rabbis. In short, he met every test for executing the Czar's wishes for converting Jews to Christianity, or, at the least, to intermingle them with the Gentile populace. Mandelstam was therefore appointed to the post.

Uvarov requested him to attend the University in Petersburg, but for personal reasons Mandelstam demurred, and after a year of study there, he transferred to the University of Moscow. Uvarov declined to relieve him of his duties as Learned Jew of the Ministry, so Mandelstam made regular visits to the capital to conduct his office.

The triumvirate -- Dr. Lilienthal, the directors of the "Seekers of Enlightenment," and the Learned Jew Mandelstam -- fought concertedly against Torah and Judaism with weapons of malicious slander and official accusations. Agents of the Society were dispatched to cover the country to observe the Rabbis, communities, and Jews living in villages and in crossroads' inns. Scores of denunciatory letters arrived daily at the Ministries of the Interior, Culture, and the Third Section. Some letters concerned Rabbis and Chassidic leaders, some concerned communities, others merchants, villagers, or innkeepers. The letters charged rebellion, contempt for Christianity, complicity in concealing conscripts, misappropriation of taxes, violation of the Pale of Settlement, smuggling, bribery, usury, and so on and so on.

At a meeting of the Council of Ministers, in the presence of the Ministers of the Interior, Culture, Finance, Justice, Agriculture, and Security (Third Section, the highest ranking Secret Police), a report was submitted on the Jewish question. The report included a summary of the "information" received by the various ministries, with a breakdown of X reports of rebellion, Y reports of contempt for the Church, etc.

The ministers were upset. They swiftly reached unanimous agreement that stringent measures must be employed impose new taxes, double the severity of punishments, further restrict the boundaries of the Pale of Settlement, forbid change of domicile from city to city and from village to town. The Jew baiting Benkendorff, chief of the Third Section, urged that the Council propose that the Czar order the separation of the Jews from other citizens, and place them under the police supervision of the Third Section. Thus, he asserted, could they clip the wings of the arrogant Jews who boasted of being a Chosen People with a religion superior to all others.

The visit of M. A. Gunsburg to Lubavitch was one encounter in the struggle between the Russian Maskilim and the Rabbis and Chassidic leaders, as planned by the board of the Society. Gunsburg did not satisfy himself with a visit to Lubavitch alone; his itinerary included communities of Rabbi Menachem Mendel's Chassidim. He was interested in directly observing the Chassidic custom in every phase of their lives -- the family, society, education at home as well as in the cheder and yeshiva, the relationships between the people and their Rabbis, the influence of the Rabbis, and the attitude of them all to their leader, the Lubavitcher Rabbi, and the extent of his influence on the community of Chabad Chassidim.

Gunsburg called on the elders of the Chassidim: Rabbi Isaac in Gomel, Rabbi Isaac in Vitebsk, Rabbi Hillel in Bobroisk, Rabbi Yehuda Batlan in Dinaburg, and Rabbi Peretz in Nevel. He visited large cities and small towns, and various settlements in Vitebsk, Mogilev, Minsk, Chernigov, Poltava, and Kherson, in order to get a representative cross-section of the Chassidic community.

His journey lasted some six months. For the success of his mission he always concealed his identity. At times he posed as a weary traveler forced to stop to regain his health. Again, he was a marriage broker in search of a high-born young scholar (and until the fated young man would be discovered, he dared not reveal on whose behalf the "search" was being conducted). Another time he was an itinerant teacher seeking pupils. By means of such ruses he could learn the facts he sought, with ease.

Gunsburg was an unemotional and patient man who delighted in tracing matters to their ultimate conclusion. His sojourn in Lubavitch -- the life of this small town so completely immersed in Chassidus, the guests from all the world, the Rabbi's searching discourses -- all this affected him profoundly. His visits to the communities, the frank conversations with the local Rabbis, mashpi'im, teachers, and ordinary Chassidim, disturbed him.

The Rabbis, he learned, were consistently Torah scholars, wise and refined men of character with undisputed influence over their flocks, respected and loved by everyone. He noted that the lay folk, especially Chassidim, mostly merchants and artisans, crowded the synagogues every morning and evening for worship. Some rose at dawn to recite Psalms, and groups studied Mishnah, Talmud, Agadah, and Shulchan Aruch. All children attended cheder or yeshiva, and young men living with their in-laws1 diligently studied Torah in the synagogues and Houses of Study. Wherever he came -- city, town, or hamlet -- Gunsburg found Torah, piety, and Chassidic life.

1 Young married scholars were often maintained by parents or in-laws to enable them to pursue Torah studies for some years without concern for livelihood. -- Trans.

Gunsburg returned to Vilna in dismay. He was depressed by the gross misinformation of his German mentors and his Russian colleagues in estimating the power of the Chassidim, both numerically -- the Chassidim comprised three-fourths of the Jewish people -- and qualitatively, particularly the influence of the Chabad leaders and the determination of the Chassidim. He prepared a detailed report on the impressions of his tour, emphasizing the intense religious faith of the Chassidim, and, in particular, their devotion to their Rabbi. "In all my travels I found not a single village or inn whose residents failed to recite a portion of Psalms -- and on the Sabbath the entire Book -- at dawn, daily. Without exception the housewives would recount several stories of the Lubavitcher Rabbi's wonders. In fact I never saw one of these women so much as utter the Rabbi's name without laving and drying her hands first on her apron!

"Their respect and awe of the Rabbi are rooted in the depths of their souls. His name is constantly mentioned; any remark attributed to him, whether of a secular or religious nature, is holy to them, and is obeyed with devotion and self-sacrifice."

The Maskilim of Vilna summoned their colleagues of Poland and Vohlyn to a secret1 conference. The agenda included an appraisal of progress in disseminating Haskalah in Russia, and the report on the journey of the secretary of the Lithuanian Maskilim, Gunsburg. Dr. Lilienthal and Dr. Rottenberg also participated in the meeting.

1 "Secret" -- in that police permission was not requested.

Dr. Lilienthal reported on the resounding success of his activities in Government circles, and the assurances he had received concerning the substitution of schools for the cheder, and pedagogues for melamdim. He indicated that they -- the Maskilim -- must bring 250 qualified teachers, trained and licensed by the German Maskilim, to staff the new schools.

Dr. Rottenberg reported on the activities of the "Seekers of Enlightenment," and its establishment with the sanction, and even with some assistance, of the Government. Besides being a place for members to gather, to plan the campaign, and to compose propaganda letters, he explained, the Society also provides facilities for young men to read a scientific book and hear a live thought. In a short period of time, Dr. Rottenberg proudly claimed, they had succeeded in attracting -- or ensnaring -- more than fifteen promising youths of Chassidic background.

The detailed report by Gunsburg, and the talks by Mapu and Gottlober, describing the religious status of the Jews, in particular the Chassidim, provided the depressing note of the meeting. The problem was earnestly considered, and the conferees decided that the keystone of the opposition to their aims was the Lubavitcher Rabbi. At all costs, he must be fought.

After considerable deliberation the conference decided on its strategy. They would prepare denunciations aimed at the Chassidic Rabbis of Vohlyn, and against the Lubavitcher Rabbi. The latter accusation would consist of 1) his collecting funds for a foreign power1 for the purpose of rebellion, 2 ) his opposition to military service and his sending emissaries to provide kosher food for the conscripts, and 3) his opposition to Haskalah. These accusations were to emanate from within Russia and from abroad.

1 Turkey. Again the support of Chabad institutions and sages in the Holy Land would provide a weapon to attack the Rabbis.

When the Cantonist Law was extended to Jews, consternation spread among the Jewish people. The Rabbi organized a special committee of three divisions. One was to devote itself to the communities, to assist them in lowering their quotas1 of conscripts. The second was to ransom conscripted children, by organizing a Chevra T'chiyas Hamaisim ("Society of the Resurrected").2 The third division sent picked men to the assembly points for Jewish contingents, to comfort the children and encourage them to be loyal to Judaism. This enormously responsible work entailed heavy expenses and the grave danger of charges of sedition. Still, for twelve years (1827-1839 ) only those directly involved in the work were aware of these activities.

1 A certain portion of the quota could be redeemed by payment.

2 When children were ransomed for payment, officers made notations on the record that the children had died. The records were sent to higher echelons who informed the communities of the "deaths." The rescued children were dubbed the "Society of the Resurrected," and sent to distant chadorim or Talmud Torah schools. Thousands were thus rescued from death and apostasy.

While in Vitebsk, Gunsburg spent many hours in the home and Synagogue of Rabbi Isaac. The Rabbi's son, Rabbi Yeshaya, though a rare Torah scholar and an authority on philosophical literature, was a fool. Being Rabbi Isaac's only son he had access to all communal affairs conducted by his father. Among the interesting tidbits Gunsburg elicited from him were details of the Lubavitcher Rabbi's work in foiling the abductors of children for the army, rescuing children, and arranging assistance programs for servicemen.

At the conference of the Maskilim another report was prepared describing at length the work of the Haskalah in Russia and the obstacles encountered. The report emphasized the sincere religious faith inculcated in Russian Jewry by their Rabbis, teachers, and Roshei yeshivos. It discussed Chassidim and the staunchest of them -- the Chabad group -- and their head, the Lubavitcher Rabbi. A survey on the scene, the report continued, indicated the necessity for outside assistance, which would promote the progress of Haskalah work proceeding in Petersburg. Knowing the scruples of the German Maskilim for whom the report was intended, they hesitated to suggest an official denunciation of the Rabbi. Instead it was decided to request their German colleagues to publish in Germany the information and articles that would be sent.

A denunciatory letter was drawn up at the meeting to be sent to the Third Section in Petersburg, informing the officials of the Rabbi's doings. The letter stated that he sent spies and organized groups to foment revolution among the Jewish soldiers and Cantonists, he urged Jews to disobey the law to attend Christian schools, and threatened excommunication of those who obey the law. The letter concluded with a suggestion that an investigation by expert agents be instituted to reveal the machinations of the Rabbi and his revolutionary cohorts.

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