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Chapter 1: Misnagdim and Maskilim

Chapter 1: Misnagdim and Maskilim

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1 The public service of the holy Nesi’im of Chabad followed the principles set forth by the most holy Alter Rebbe, during the course of many years (from the time he was eight years old, until his last day in this world); it covered several eras of history, punctuated by periods of battle and unrest — both within [Orthodox Jewry], with the misnagdim; and with those outside [Orthodoxy], the maskilim.

I therefore deem it necessary to present (with G‑d’s help) a general outline of that period of history, including a general overview of the status of Torah-observance and morals during that period. Then, I will present some brief insights into the eras during which the Nesi’im of Chabad lived.

In the old days, even before the Council of the Four Lands2 was established (and even more so after its establishment), the rabbis of Israel and the giants of Torah and piety were the leaders of each generation. They held the exclusive power to dictate all aspects of public life. Together with committees elected by each community, they represented the Jewish people in all their affairs before the king and his government — both their religious and moral affairs, and their economic affairs.

Unfortunately, after the Council of the Four Lands was disbanded in the year 5524 [1764], a large number of rabbis and giants of Torah and piety emerged in open conflict against the teachings of our master the Baal Shem Tov, and his successor the Maggid of Mezritch. This caused division among the people of Israel.

At that time, the disease of Berlin Haskalah began to spread. Its founders — Mendelssohn3 and his assistant, Weisel (the linguist and master of grammar)4 — were more or less G‑d-fearing. However, the Haskalah Movement spread quickly among the Jews, and many of them aimed to free themselves from the authority of the rabbis. Thus, they began to be lax in observing mitzvos, and they scorned Jewish customs.

The disbanding of the Council of the Four Lands alarmed and distressed the giants of Torah and piety. They were concerned over the greatly diminished moral stature of our Jewish brethren (G‑d forbid), because there were few guides and leaders who would look after their flocks with watchful eyes (as had been the case when the Council was still in existence).

The leading Torah scholars then decided to place the burden of overseeing and guiding the holy Jewish communities upon a few special individuals who were among the greatest Torah personalities in each city and settlement. In the city of Vilna, the task of guiding and leading the community fell to the Gaon Rav Eliyahu.

At the time, the Gaon Rav Eliyahu was only forty-four years old — he was born 15 Nissan 5480 [April 23, 1720]. For the past thirty-five years he had been studying constantly and with extreme and unparalleled diligence — twenty hours a day. Torah study, piety, and sincerity were his only occupations. Though he had no desire for any role of leadership, or even a rabbinic post, he was nevertheless compelled to accept the position of leader of the congregation and head of the rabbinic court, so that the most important decisions would be made by him.

The Gaon Rav Eliyahu was a great gaon of Torah study, with an incisive and exhaustive knowledge of scripture, Mishnah, Gemara Bavli and Yerushalmi, Midrash, Zohar and all other works of Kabbalah, philosophy, and mussar. Beyond all this, he also had a passion for the sciences, claiming that the source of all natural science and philosophy was to be found in the hidden aspects of the Torah.

In fact, he claimed that the sciences were indispensable for proper Torah study, for all branches of science were actually limbs of the Torah. A favorite saying of his was that, “All the sciences are necessary for studying our holy Torah, and they are integral parts of it. To whatever degree one is lacking in knowledge of the sciences, he lacks in knowledge of the Torah ninefold, for science and Torah are bound together as one.”

The glory of the Jewish people and their wisdom formed the central theme of the Gaon Rav Eliyahu’s ministry. It was his great desire to increase the level of learning among the Jews, beyond the knowledge of Torah. He himself labored in the study of mathematics, medicine, music, etc.

The Gaon Rav Eliyahu also ordered several works of non-Jewish wisdom to be translated into Hebrew, so that the Jewish people could expand their knowledge. He wished to forestall any claim by the gentile nations that our people possess no science of our own, for that would desecrate the name of Heaven.

Because of his great piety and innocence, the Gaon Rav Eliyahu measured other people’s piety according to his own frame of reference, under the assumption that all their intellectual pursuits were guided by fear of G‑d. Because of this innocence, he failed to perceive [the peril that] the study of science entailed.

The sad fact is that this opened the gates of Haskalah to the otherwise outstanding Torah scholars of Vilna. The affair took place during the years 5534-37 [1774-77], during the Gaon Rav Eliyahu’s lifetime. His brother, the gaon Reb Yissachar, and his son, the gaon Reb Avraham were involved. The story is the following:

For many years, the Gaon Rav Eliyahu had expressed his distress to his disciples — his brother Reb Yissachar and his son Reb Avraham — over the fact that the five books of the Chumash had not been translated into the vernacular Yiddish with an easy-to-understand commentary, in an orderly manner that would be accessible to all.

The Gaon Rav Eliyahu’s brother and son possessed broad knowledge in various secular fields, and spoke Polish, German, and French fluently. This was besides their great Torah erudition. Now it became known that there lived in Berlin an outstanding Torah scholar5 who was scrupulous in his observance of mitzvos, and that he had translated the books of the Chumash into lucid German.

They then chose the five foremost disciples, and sent them to Berlin. They were to investigate this Torah scholar who had translated the books of the Chumash, and to obtain a copy of the translation. One of these disciples was Reb Moshe Meisels, who would later become a fervent chassid.

The disciples who were sent remained in Berlin for more than a year. They copied many pages of the Torah translation, which they brought to the aforementioned geonim. The translation met with their approval, and they praised it to the Gaon Rav Eliyahu. With his permission, the translation was handed over to his disciples, and dozens of copies were made. These copies were distributed among the scholarly people, and set times were fixed for teaching it publicly to the common folk.

The dissemination of Mendelssohn’s translation among the Torah scholars and learned folk served to diminish the sanctity and glory of the Torah. Furthermore, it was a bridge by which dozens of the most capable and outstanding Torah scholars in the batei hamedrash of Vilna, Shklov, Slutzk, Brysk, and Minsk began traveling to Berlin to study the German language, and the fields of medicine, science, and mathematics. Among these ... was the famous master of grammar, Reb Shlomo of Dubna.

While this Reb Shlomo was in Berlin, Mendelssohn suggested to him that he study grammar with his son, and that he write a commentary to the translation. For this, he would be paid a generous salary, in addition to room and board in Mendelssohn’s own home.

This grammar professor remained in Mendelssohn’s home for a year, while he completed his commentary to Mendelssohn’s translation. The commentary met with Mendelssohn’s full approval. But — as had been agreed between them — the commentary remained the private property of Reb Shlomo. Nevertheless, it was Mendelssohn’s hope that after Reb Shlomo remained in his home a while longer, they would come to some new agreement, and he would transfer to him the rights to the commentary.

This Reb Shlomo of Dubna had been a disciple of the gaon and chassid — and famous miracle-worker — the tzaddik Reb Naftali, who was Chief Rabbi of the town of Dubna, and a disciple of Moreinu the Baal Shem Tov.

At that time, the tzaddik Reb Naftali fell gravely ill, and his doctors advised him to consult with a specialist who lived in the town of Offenbach. This town was near Frankfürt am Main, and so, the gaon and tzaddik Reb Pinchas,6 author of Hafla’ah,7 sent several of his own disciples to greet Reb Naftali and to serve him during the time he spent in Offenbach.

When the medical treatments were completed, and the physician discharged him and permitted him to return home, the gaon Reb Pinchas himself came to see him and invited him to visit his yeshivah in Frankfürt. This visit would be an honor for the entire Jewish congregation of Frankfürt.

When the tzaddik Reb Naftali returned home, he traveled by way of Berlin, where he remained for a few days to rest from his journey. His disciple Reb Shlomo served as his valet, and took the opportunity to tell his master all about his sojourn in Berlin. He also told him about Mendelssohn and his translation.

We do not know exactly what the gaon Reb Naftali replied to his disciple, but a few days later Reb Shlomo departed from Mendelssohn’s home and traveled to Vilna. Knowing that the study of grammar was dear to the Gaon Rav Eliyahu and to his son-in-law the gaon Reb Uri Feivel (in fact, the Gaon Rav Eliyahu’s brother Reb Yissachar had written a book on the Torah based on linguistics and grammar), he hoped that they would approve of his printing his commentary on the Torah.

Reb Shlomo of Dubna was warmly received by the Gaon Rav Eliyahu and his disciples. The famous and wealthy Reb Feteles, a relative of the Gaon Rav Eliyahu, accommodated him royally in his guest quarters, and the geonim Reb Chayim [of Volozhyn] and his brother Reb Zelmele approved the printing of his commentary.

The famous gaon Reb Zalman, a foremost disciple of the Gaon Rav Eliyahu, (who had himself spent a great deal of time in attempting to produce the ultimate straightforward translation of the Torah), wrote the following about Reb Shlomo Dubna and his commentary:

“The words of your ... commentary are very dear to me, for you have collected them from all the earlier commentators who explain scripture according to its straightforward meaning.”

In his letter of approval for the printing he went on to urge the readers to support the “Sage of Dubna” financially, and thus to enable him to compose works on the Prophets and the Holy Scriptures also.

The local preacher of Vilna, Reb Yechezkel Feivel, who served as the Gaon Rav Eliyahu’s right hand, was honored by all the great sages of that generation for his piety (even more than for his great wisdom). He was also famous for his highly ascetic lifestyle. He used to reprimand the Torah scholars for spending so little time studying Scripture. He demanded that they set aside fixed times to study Scripture with commentaries that follow the straightforward meaning, and to avoid the imaginative works of those who sought to reveal hidden things in the Torah according to Kabbalah.

At that time, the young Torah scholars were experiencing a great desire to study the Hebrew language, and they toiled at this with much diligence. From time to time, the gaon Reb Yissachar, the brother of the Gaon Rav Eliyahu, would organize committees of linguists, who would lecture to the young folk on Shabbos. This excited their spirits.

A famous master of grammar once visited Vilna, and he spoke at one of these lectures. His topic was on the science of linguistics, and he expressed his ardent love for the Scriptures. He also exhorted his listeners to spend time studying the language in which they were written.

At about the same time, a society of youth was founded, called the “Enthusiasts of the Holy Tongue.” Among its members were numerous people of great capability. They attempted to compose their own poems and essays. Eventually, they even authored whole novels, written in clear language. From then on, the Berlin style of Haskalah began to steal its way into Lithuania.

Concerning this situation, the disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch had a tradition handed down to them about a story that took place in the year 5503 [1743]. It was our master the Baal Shem Tov himself who summoned his elder disciples of the Holy Society and told them the story:

In a certain city in Germany there lived a Torah scribe named Reb Menachem, who was very pious, and an outstanding scholar. G‑d had given him a son with great capabilities, and he studied with him the Scriptures, Mishnah, and Gemara. But the father did not believe in Kabbalah, and he would belittle it in his heart. In fact, he often disparaged it verbally, and spoke against the holy Zohar. This attitude had a detrimental effect on his son’s religious beliefs.

When Reb Menachem died, his son was only twelve years old. Having a strong desire to study Torah, the orphaned son left his hometown and traveled to another city in Germany. There, he developed a desire to study other sciences in addition to the Torah. Satan indulged the lad’s desires, for he had chosen him as his instrument to subvert Israel with heresy, and to cause damage to the Jewish nation by developing non-believers in G‑d and His Torah. But, whoever followed our [chassidic] path managed to save himself, his disciples, and their disciples from the devil’s plan.

When — in the year 5536 [1776] — news arrived about the publication of Mendelssohn’s translation, the elder disciples of Moreinu the Baal Shem Tov and the disciples of the Maggid voiced their opposition to the study of this translation and its commentary. As a precaution [against this study], they also opposed the study of Hebrew grammar. They carefully supervised their chassidic flocks, to ensure that they studied only Rashi’s commentary on the Tanach. This caused a great storm of protest among the Torah scholars who belonged to the camp of the misnagdim.

With each passing year, the number of young folk who traveled to Germany to study at various universities increased. They went to study medicine, rhetoric, vocabulary, musicology, linguistics, etc. Most of them were highly gifted, and they pursued their studies with much diligence. Some of them amassed great knowledge of the natural sciences, and amazed their professors with their proficiency. These were appointed to the faculties of their universities, receiving handsome salaries. The rest, returned to their native countries.

Of the students who returned home with academic degrees in the arts and sciences, only a small minority retained their faith in Torah and mitzvos. As for the majority, their piety had been eroded. They began to be lax in performing the mitzvos, and many of them came to (what was considered in those days) a bad end.

Professors of medicine were appointed to prominent positions in provincial capitals or in rural county seats. Most professors in other disciplines achieved positions in the large cities, and they devoted their whole energy to poisoning the Jewish youth with the seeds of Haskalah. However, to hide their true intentions, they disguised themselves in the robes of piety. Most of them chose to become melamdim, and since they had adopted German manners and conventions, they met with the approval of the pupils and their parents.

They had an enormous effect on the system of education in Poland and Lita in those days. This affected the whole style of education in general, and specifically, it strengthened the desire of the young folk to study the Hebrew language. At that time, the following two things happened in Germany (the headquarters of the Haskalah Movement):

i. A curriculum was established for the elementary school founded by the orator and linguist Weisel; numerous elementary schools founded in Germany and Austria in those days adopted this curriculum.

ii. A society was founded consisting of Jewish lawyers, doctors, engineers, and scientists who had been born in Berlin; the aim of this society was the study of the Hebrew language.

Beginning with the period 5534-36 [1774-76], the maskilim took the offensive against the leaders of Chassidus in Galicia, Poland, Vohlynia, Ukraine, and Lita. They resorted to the use of false accusations, denouncing, and anonymous inflammatory literature. The Chabad Chassidim suffered from this twofold, compared to other chassidic camps; for they were attacked by the maskilim on one side, and by the misnagdim on the other side.

The literature of the maskilim [about the chassidim] is enough to make one’s hair stand on end. So too, the literature of the misnagdim [on this subject], which was obviously written by maskilim who despised the Jewish religion and denied the sanctity of the Torah and of the Creator (blessed be He).

This was also true of the historians who wrote about Jewish history. When they came to the history of the Chassidic Movement — from the Baal Shem Tov until the last generation — they ignored the rules of truth and propriety.

It is said that even members of the underworld, including thieves and murderers, have their code of justice (according to their own creed). But not so the writers of history. With their pen, they turn black into white and white into black, according to their own whim and notion. What’s more, they base everything on irrefutable “documentation.”

The father of Jewish historians was Mr. Graetz, who denied the sanctity of the Torah and profaned the pure words of the Prophets. He totally disparaged the literature of Kabbalah and Chassidus. Like a deadly serpent, he injected his poison into the short article on Chassidus appearing near the end of his book. For this, he justly earned the nickname “Kretz,”8 for his book is like an infectious leprosy within Jewish culture.

Another historian who derived his information from “documented sources,” all of them from the maskilim, was Mr. Dubnov. He too gave vent to his hatred of Chassidus and chassidim in every line of his writing on this subject. He begins his biography of our master the Baal Shem Tov with a thick assortment of miraculous stories and other glorious exaltations.

From this, he concludes that this person appears to have been a total fabrication, invented from people’s fantasies. Nevertheless, to his own disappointment, he must admit that there did indeed exist a person called the Baal Shem Tov, whose real name was Reb Yisrael. For, unfortunately, a noted writer and scholar who was a contemporary of the Baal Shem Tov, bears eyewitness testimony to his existence.

Thus, we see a total disregard for truth and fairness, even by the standards of ordinary people, and certainly by what should be the standards of Jewish historians with academic degrees. All Jewish writers who were disciples of the maskilim loved to denigrate the honor of the teachings of Chassidus and its leaders at every opportunity. They would always point to [what they referred to as] “their insignificance and lack of contribution to the spiritual and economic good of the Jewish people.”

One biographer rants hysterically that the Baal Shem Tov took no part in the debate against the Frankists.9 From non-existent proof, he concludes that the Baal Shem Tov was considered of little worth among his contemporaries. Otherwise, why did they not even bother inviting him to an event that was so important?

How absurd it is, that so prominent a bibliographer ignored the well-known fact that the leading figures in that debate were the Baal Shem Tov’s adherents! It is clear that his sole motivation was his hatred for Chassidus and chassidim. Any impartial scholar reviewing the anti-chassidic literature of the maskilim would surely mock and ridicule their lies and false accusations.

The Nesi’im of Chabad, foundation stones of the world, strong in their convictions and beliefs, dedicated themselves totally to the Torah and mitzvos. Through the inexhaustible kindness of G‑d, they remained steadfast in their position, and fortified the banner of Chassidus with G‑dly strength.

For one hundred and twenty-five years10 the Nesi’im of Chabad did battle against the maskilim. During seventy-five of those years, they waged war on two fronts — against both the maskilim and the misnagdim. This was accomplished by using their superior wisdom and knowledge. Eventually, they vanquished their enemies and opponents, forcing them to pay homage to the teachings of Chassidus; that is, all branches of the “tree of life,” Moreinu the Baal Sham Tov in general, and the teachings of Chabad in particular.

During the past thirty-five or forty years, Jewish writers of all factions have begun to take an interest in the teachings of Chassidus, and in its leaders. Many of them even heap praise and acclaim upon the chassidim and their leaders. Only a few isolated ones, who were fattened upon the flesh of swine and rodents, continue to rebel against the dictates of truth and fairness, and attack their colleagues who speak well of the teachings of Chassidus and the honor of its leaders.

Footnotes
1.
The material in this supplement is taken from a collection of the Previous Rebbe’s notes. This material was circulated among chassidim in typewritten form, as part of a collection known as “Shimon HaKofer” [“Shimon the Heretic”]. Portions of these notes have been published elsewhere by various authors. The last part of the collection appeared in Vol. 1 of this translation, Supplement E: “The Alter Rebbe’s Later Years.”
2.
[An assembly of the leading rabbis in the provinces of what was then the Polish Empire, and some neighboring territories. This council was recognized by the civil authorities, and exercised broad power and authority over both the religious and the worldly aspects of Jewish life.]
3.
[Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1780), German Jewish Philosopher and founder of the Haskalah Movement.]
4.
[Naftali Hertz Weisel (1725-1805; also known as Wesseley).]
5.
[I.e., Mendelssohn.]
6.
[Reb Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz of Frankfürt, a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch.]
7.
[A commentary on the laws of marriage and marital finances, and the relevant Talmudic tractates.]
8.
[A play on words; kretz, which rhymes with his name (Graetz), means “leprosy” in Yiddish.]
9.
[The Frankists were followers of Yaakov Frank (1726-1791), who misled many Jews by claiming that he was a reincarnation of Shabbatai Tzvi (1626-1676), a false messiah.]
10.
[Apparently, from about 1795 (after the final partition of Poland during the time of the Alter Rebbe), to the passing of the Rebbe Rashab in 1920.]
Translated from the classic columns of HaTamim by Shimon Neubort
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