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Sketches of Jewish Life in Russia: A General Survey of the Condition of the Jews in Russia

By The Chief Rabbi Dr. Lilienthal

No. II.

It is, alas, too well known, how mournful is at present the situation of the Jews under the Russian government; but to judge rightly of the whole of their condition, it needs to hold a general survey; and promising to give in those pages a general outline of the state of the Jews in Russia, let us begin with their religious sects. Although the Jews in Russia, as everywhere, adhere to the general principle of our religion, and cannot be said, as it is the case with the followers of Christianity, to hold different views in essential points: yet they can be divided into six different classes. The first are the Jews of the Baltic provinces, where they are only permitted to live in Riga, in Livonia, and in the state of Courland. As those Baltic provinces: which belonged formerly to Germany, are full of German civilization; and are far ahead in enlightenment of all other Russian provinces: so do the Jews who live here approximate the nearest to the German Jews in their religious ideas.

Long ago, before the peculiar Jewish dress was prohibited, a great many could be seen here dressed after the German fashion, speaking pure German, and having their whole house arranged after the German custom. The works of a Mendelssohn were here, טרפה פסול , the children visited the public schools, the academies, and universities; but, again, it is true enough, that from the thirty thousand apostates, who live in Petersburg and Moscow, the greater part hails from the Baltic provinces. Those men, who have acquired, from study, an idea of the rights of man, and that the Jew ought to enjoy the same privilege with every other citizen; those men, who tried by the knowledge they had obtained, to open for themselves better prospects for life, and seeing now every hope frustrated by laws inimical to them only as Jews, ran, from mere despair, into the bosom of the Greek church. The harassing cares for a living, the terrible difficulties to surmount it, forced them, in an hour of distress, to deny their faith. I always compared them with the אנוסים (forced converts) of Spain. Among them is no religious indifference, as is the case in western Europe and Germany; and I have met with many an apostate Jew there, who, with tears in his eyes, complained of the heartburning and the pangs of his conscience, and they look at themselves as eternally lost. Those tears will show a heavy balance against Czar Nicolas, when he, bereft of his earthly power, stands before the eternal tribunal.

The second class are the Jews of the states of Wilna, Minsk, Grodno, and Bialystok. Here is the great home of talmudical lore; for centuries were here living the Coryphaei of the later rabbinical literature. Here flourished the ש"ך as Parnass of Wilna; here, as Rabbi, the celebrated Gaon Eliyahu, and it was Wilna which took such a lead in Jewish colleges and Jewish sciences, that it was called עיר ואם בישראל the metropolis and mother of Israel. A disciple of the Gaon, Rabbi Chayim, is the founder of the Yeshiba in Walosin, which, at this day, is still flourishing, and was the alma mater of numberless renowned talmudists, who spread their glory over the whole empire. And, when I visited the present Rector, the Rosh Yeshiba Rabbi Yitzchak, in the year 1842, the college numbered more than three hundred students. This zealous study of the Talmud, the tenacious orthodox hold with which they observe all points; the clearness and acuteness of mind with which they argue every case of the Talmud, characterize them, and keep them far from the visionary views of the Chasidim, who call them therefore their opponents מתנגדים .

The first class of the Chasidim we find under the name “Lechawitzer,” (from the town of Lechawitz,) in all the southern provinces of Russia, where Jews are permitted to sojourn. They adhere more to the Kabbalah than to the Talmud, although they acknowledge its authority. They distinguish themselves less by a thorough knowledge of the Kabbalah, or by a full acquaintance with the theosophical works of the Zohar, than by the strongest belief in wonders and superstitions; the Rabbi is their idol, his word is law, and cannot be revoked. He has not the limited power of a Rabbinical Talmid Chacham; but he is viewed as inspired by the divine spirit, and as in connexion with angels; he is revered as a worker of miracles, who can see into futurity, and he is looked upon, although these men are very often but little learned, as the powerful mediator in the divine counsels. I was often astonished how Jews could arrive to such superstition, to such a reverence of human saints;—but facts are stubborn things, and gainsay all doubts. I was often astonished how Jews, really intelligent in all worldly affairs, could be so deaf to every rational objection; but alas, it is too true, that a superstition reigns here, which is an entire stranger to the pure and undefiled principles of the Jewish faith, which they cannot comprehend. Therefore, we find here so little knowledge of rabbinical literature, so much distaste for scientific culture, which brought about many a blunder and excited early the unfavourable opinion which the Russian government has of our people.

Another class, again, are the Jews of Odessa. As this city is the only European one from Petersburg to the Black Sea, so are also the Jews residing here among all their southern brethren, the only ones who have a high state of civilization. They are mostly emigrants from Gallicia, where the schools of the blessed Pearl of Tarnopol and Brody wrought so much good. Disciples of these schools brought with them a spirit diametrically opposed to the Chasidim, so that the Chasidical Rabbi Yisrolzi said: “He sees round Odessa the flames of the Gehinam.” And under the humane treatment of the generous Governor-general, Count Woronzoff, the condition of the Jews of this city developed itself to such a height, that the Emperor said, after a visit to the Jewish institutions there, “In Odessa I have also seen Jews, but they were men.” The school of this congregation, under the direction of the learned Stern, a scholar of Pearl, is an institution, the yearly expenses of which amount to twenty-eight thousand rubels banco [ ? ] and is attended annually by four to five hundred scholars of both sexes, and has diffused, for many years, a great deal of knowledge among the inhabitants. This congregation enjoys also a divine service, in which order reigns throughout, and a splendidly-trained choir assists the minister during worship. In most of the families can be found a degree of refinement which may easily bear comparison with the best French saloons.

From here, eastward, we find Jews in the states of Poltava, Cherson, and Ekaterinaslav, who reckon themselves as belonging among the Leuchawitzer Chasidim, but have already more of Russian nationality. Although they speak, as yet, the Jewish jargon, it is, nevertheless, already mixed up with a great many Russian words. On the ordinary week days they dress already in Russian style; they are entire strangers to modern scientific education.

To the north of this we pass the states of Tschernigoff, Witebsk, and Mohilev, the home of another sect of Chasidim, the Chabadniki, from חכמה בינה דעה knowledge, understanding, wisdom. From these words we should judge that though they enforce a study and thorough knowledge of the Kabbalah, and although they cannot be entirely cleared from the charge of superstition and the belief in the power of their Rabbi: yet we find among them a more positive knowledge of the Theosophy of the Zohar. The family Schneyersohn, to which their Rabbis belong, embraces great Talmudists, and Rabbi Salman was a man of great learning, and he edited some very valuable works. Yet all the Chasidim together were excommunicated by the renowned Gaon of Wilna, Rabbi Eliyahu, which excommunication brought about enmities and denunciations before the government.*

* We intend to give our readers a separate article on the sects of Chasidim.*

* The Chasidim give their impressions of Lilienthal.

Differing from each other, therefore, as we find the Jews in Russia in their religious views, yet they all are sedulous in a warm attachment to the religion of their forefathers. The power with which they feel attached, the adoration which they feel for everything Jewish, inspires them with a resignation which braves all the machinations of the Emperor to bring them from their faith. Thousands would rather be martyrs מוסרי נפש and sacrifice their life, before yielding in the least degree; and only the refined policy of the Czar may attain, after years of trouble, something of that mournful end, which he aims at with such consistent perseverance.

(To be continued.)