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The Jews in Russia

by Dr. Max Lilienthal

Translated from Les Archives Israelites

The Hasidic response to Dr. Lilienthal 
by Rabbi Joseph I. Schneersohn 
the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe זצ"ל

As suitable to this work, its readers will peruse, not without interest, a letter which we received some time ago from St. Petersburg, concerning the Jews in Russia. We did not then think ourselves authorized to publish it with the name of our correspondent, who is no other than Dr. Lilienthal. But having seen a letter of the same import in No. 41 of the Jewish Gazette, we no longer hesitate to publish it nearly entire. Mr. Cremieux, who, together with Sir Moses Montefiore, has been invited to Petersburg for the sake of taking part in the deliberations relative to the Israelites in the Russian states, received a letter of nearly the same tenor as the one we are about to present to our readers.

St. Petersburg, 13th August, 1842.

Dear Sir,

You no doubt have learnt from last year's German newspapers the intentions of the Russian government towards its Israelitish subjects; and to judge from the ardour which animates you for the welfare of your co-religionists, and from the enlightened zeal with which you pursue every thing which can be useful to them, you must doubtlessly look forward with impatience for the solution of this important question.

I know too well how to appreciate and to esteem you on account of your influential periodical, the Archives Israelites, and the liberal spirit with which you conduct it, not to hasten to make you acquainted with what has already taken place, and the hopes which we can justly indulge on this subject, hopes which will speedily be realized.

The establishment in Russia of a system of schools, where, instead of a purely talmudical instruction, a more liberal education might be given, which should be both religious and scientific, was then the point which engrossed so much of our attention; it was the subject of our dearest hopes, and the appeal which was made to the Jewish theologians and teachers of Germany caused a lively sensation, and excited the attention of the Israelites of Germany in the highest degree.

Since then a calm has supervened; the Jews of Europe commenced already to renounce every hope of seeing this great thought of the Emperor realized, precisely, because that appeal had not been followed immediately by any effect; but in Russia this hope is still entertained.

We have seen in the solicitude of his excellency Count Uwaroff, the minister of public instruction, the first symptom of a real success, and we have only been looking for the opportunity which should bring his philanthropic plan to maturity.

This opportunity presented itself when Mr. Uwaroff, who, in the eminent post he occupies, labours with a tolerance not very usual, and with much humanity and kindness for the moral improvement of our people, gave me permission to go from Riga* to Wilna, for the purpose of inducing the Jewish congregation of the latter city, the first in the empire, to found a free school, but particularly for the sake of examining into the physical and intellectual condition of the Polish Jews, and of furnishing a report on this subject.

*Dr. L. was formerly preacher at this city, and he resigned his office lately in order to devote himself entirely to the duties of the mission entrusted to him by the Russian government. He is a native we believe of Munich in Bavaria, and is represented to us as being scarcely more than thirty years old. Ed. Oc.

I reserve to myself the pleasure of giving you, when I have more leisure, some more circumstantial details of this mission, which certainly possess some interest for you, likewise the result of a journey performed through all parts of Russia, inhabited by the Jews. I wish to tell you merely at present that, despite the most diversified intrigues, every thing passed off well at Wilna, where they have contributed about 9200 francs for the establishment of a free school, and that the secret opposition saw itself obliged to yield to the large number of those who openly appeared to favour this establishment; talmudic rabbinism carried off the victory against zoharic hassidism;* but the chief difficulty was to make an impression on that sect to which three-fourths of the Polish Jews belong. I accepted therefore the invitation of all the rabbis, of the directors of the congregation and of the principal Jewish inhabitants of the city of Minsk, the chief city of that district, situated in the vicinity, and distant from Wilna only seventeen and a half leagues; and the motive which had induced me to repair to the latter city, also impelled me to visit Minsk.

*The Hassidim, who form in Poland a sect of Israelites, important from its numbers, attach a much greater importance to the Zohar than to the Talmud; our correspondent therefore styles them zoharic hassidim. 

But my arrival was the signal for the explosion of the most savage fanaticism; every engine was set in motion to render every attempt at succeeding impossible, and to defeat every step of their opponents; and after three months passed unpleasantly in that city, I saw myself compelled to return to Wilna without having been able to effect the least.*

*The Jewish Gazette gives us the alleged motives of the opposition at Minsk: "So long as the state does not grant to the Jews the rights of citizens, education must be an unhappiness to them. Ignorant and without education, the Jew disdains not to procure by trading in a small way the humble support he can provide for his numerous family; he finds his consolation and his joy in his religion; he is content with little, by placing his trust in God. But should he even possess education and learning he would at present, nevertheless, see himself excluded from all honourable offices, and the feeling of discontent would lead him towards apostacy; and no honest father of a family ought to educate his children for the purpose of placing them in a situation which could cause them to renounce their religion." 

At Wilna the opposition, as might be expected, gloried over the pious courage of the Israelites of Minsk, and every thing was tried to take back what had already been granted.

During the last feast of Passover, the opposition succeeded in creating the disturbances which they desired, and in intimidating those who were animated by better feelings.

It required much firmness to contend against these outward and disagreeable influences, so as not to counteract the sacred object which was to be attained; it was the combat of truth, of light, and enlightened religion against fanaticism and bigotry.

Note from the Webmaster: Lilienthal is unfortunately indulging in the most insulting language against the followers of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe who opposed his plan. The Hasidic view of Lilienthal's visit to Russia can be found in "The Tzemach Tzedek and the Haskala Movement", published by Kehot Publications in 1969. Because this booklet is out of print and hard to find, the full text can be viewed on this website, with the permission of the publishers. It is very sad to observe the exact same conflict persisting to this day, with the Reform movement's attempt at demonizing the Lubavitch organization in Russia, because Chabad enjoys more success than they do. The articles on this website show the roots of this conflict.

I hastened my return thence to St. Petersburg, where Mr. Uwaroff received me with the greatest kindness, he inspired me with courage by advising me to have confidence in the triumph of the good cause, and at the same time he assured me of his efficacious intervention; and this was indeed sufficient reason for me to have confidence in the triumph of the good cause, seeing that a man in so high a position in the state, of so enlightened a spirit, of such transcendent merits, would labour in the department which is entrusted to him with so much love and perseverance for the welfare of my people.

In preparing the report which was presented to the minister, I principally kept in view the following points:

  1. To repair what the Jews had injured by their resistance.
  2. To find some means of calming the existing fanaticism; to convince the people that the Russian government is serious in its intentions, and to impress upon them that the actual condition of things and any retrograde steps cannot be tolerated.
  3. To convince the government of the wishes of the better disposed portion of the people, and to induce it to continue in the path of emancipation in which it embarked with so much humanity.
  4. To devise the means by which the Jews might have their own representatives, who should occupy themselves with the various interests of their people, and who, in faithfully complying with all their instructions, might inspire confidence in their fidelity, and afford a prospect of the success of the minister's philanthropic undertaking.

His excellency accepted this report, which under the four divisions above mentions, presented an account of what had been done, at the same time that it explained the spirit of the Jewish congregations, and pointed out the means how the evil may be remedied, and proved the necessity of a prompt interference on the part of the government.

His Excellency immediately transmitted this report to the ministerial committee charged with the affairs of the Hebrews, and he found in the president of this body, the Count Kisseleff, the minister of the imperial domains, a man zealously in favour of his generous plans, the most humane and the most just friend of an unhappy people.

The government had to choose between two plans; it either could command and exact obedience, or it could adopt the course of conciliation, seek to satisfy all parties, and gain by this means the confidence of the congregations, to the advantage of the future development of its ulterior views. The government adopted the latter course, and the imperial ukase published on this subject is of the following tenor:


  1. In accordance with the law of 1827, all the Jewish schools in the empire, of whatever name, are placed, in virtue of the general ordinances and regulations concerning schools, under the supervision of the minister of public instruction.
  2. In conformity with this measure, a committee is appointed, consisting of four rabbis of the empire, Director Stern and Rabbi Lilienthal. This committee, which has for its object the civilization [webmaster: i.e. complete assimilation] of the Jews, is to hold its sessions at St. Petersburg, near the department of public instruction. The minister of public instruction and the governor-general are charged with the choice of the members of this committee.
  3. The minister is charged with the internal organization of this committee.
  4. The members of the committee are to deliberate under his personal direction concerning the establishment of schools, the manner of regulating them, the appointment of the professors, and the organization of district school committees.
  5. The minister is charged to give the necessary instructions to these committees.
  6. At the conclusion of their deliberations the members are to receive from the minister an especial compensation in money out of the funds destined for the schools.

This law is certainly conceived in a conciliatory spirit, and ought to satisfy all parties. It satisfies those whose intentions are good, who see herein the first steps towards improvement, and a cause for hope that others may speedily follow. It likewise tranquilizes the fanatics, who are to be represented by the best men among them. But it raises the Jews also in general in the eyes of their Christian fellow-citizens by this convocation of their chiefs to deliberate at St. Petersburg.

Although the above letter is not of very recent date, we trust that it will be perused with much interest by our American readers. Candidly speaking we do not approve altogether of the tone with which Dr. Lilienthal expresses himself of the Russian rabbis; they are certainly wrong in opposing the establishment of free schools for the purpose of giving to young Jews a change of liberal education; nevertheless, we do not like the term of fanaticism applied to all those who have not felt the necessity of such a course of study. We doubt greatly whether the learned and pious Doctor himself would have been anxious for the acquisition of the ancient languages and the liberal sciences, if he had been born at Wilna instead of Munich, or in the year 1600 instead of (probably) 1808. Views very antagonizing may be honestly entertained by different persons, and still one have no cause to accuse the other of fanaticism, any more than he ought to be charged with too much liberality. It is unfortunately this want of toleration with each other's imperfections which works so much mischief among our people.

We could enlarge, but we must forbear for the present. We only meant to accompany the evidence of the dawning of liberality towards nearly two millions of our people with some few remarks, and to express a hope that the establishment of the schools contemplated may lead to farther improvements, and the introduction of a more kindly feeling than formerly towards our brethren in the Russian empire, on the part of the civil authorities. We look forward to farther development with much solicitude, and we shall acquaint our readers with whatever details may from time to time reach us. ED. OC.