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Rabbi Isroel Salanter, the Haskalah
and the "Theory of Secularization":
An Analysis from a Folkloristic Point of View

1. The 'theory of secularization' and the Haskalah
2. Folkloristic construal of secularization: legends about Rabbi Isroel Salanter
3. Legends about Rabbi Isroel Salanter as a historical source

In 1910, embarking on a description of the life and deeds of the renowned, Rabbi Isroel Salanter, Samuil Rozenfeld wrote: "The struggle between Enlightenment and traditional Jewry has, so to say, found its personification in two great figures of that epoch: Dr. Lilienthal and Rabbi Isroel Salanter".1 Such an understanding of the epoch, and of Salanter's role in it, was destined to live on for a long time. At the close of the 20th century, Emmanuel Etkes also depicts Salanter's activities as an attempt to strengthen Jewish tradition from within, which should enable it to withstand the increasing influence of the Haskalah.2

Thanks to the recent research on the Haskalah movement and the formation of Jewish Orthodoxy, there is no longer any need to argue that the picture of "the struggle between Enlightenment and traditional Jewry" cannot be reduced to a simple binary opposition. So, for instance, Shmuel Fainer observes that the maskilim "often altered their stance from a straightforward struggle against the 'old' to conserving and protecting the 'old' against the 'new'".3 Yet the very idea of an opposition between "new" and "old", which was brought into circulation in Jewish culture by the Haskalah, was a novelty whose momentous role in the process of the modernization of Jewry often escapes the attention of investigators. The present article is an attempt at filling this gap.

In the first part of this study, the influence of the Haskalah on Jewish religious life is viewed in the context of contemporary debates on the "theory of secularization." This influence, as I will endeavor to show, consisted mainly in the idea of a division of Jewry into "old" and "new" that was formulated by the Haskalah and subsequently gained general acceptation.

The Jews, who now conceived themselves as divided, needed new rabbis to serve as keepers and protectors of the "old" while being, at the same time, not completely foreign to the worldly interests of the "new" Jews. Precisely such traits are ascribed to Rabbi Isroel Salanter in numerous legends which took shape toward the close of the 19th century and are attested in the maskilic, religious and subsequently, also the scholarly literature. The folkloristic analysis of these legends that will be presented in the second part of this article enables us to see in them a narrative means of surmounting the schism of Jewry into "old" and "new" and of restoring, albeit in an illusory way, the former unity.

The application of folkloristic methods to texts that are usually considered to be historical testimonies allows us also to cast a critical glance at these sources and set apart the dominant motives (i.e., those that were important to narrators and audiences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) from the subsidiary motives. Only the latter can be regarded as evidence concerning Salanter himself (the former can, of course, be dated to later times and can be a source for research into collective representations rather than of Salanter's biography). Some details contained in these subsidiary motives, together with archival documents and other sources, enable us to reconstruct the events immediately preceding Salanter's departure from Vilna toward the close of 1848 and the rise of the Mussar movement. The picture emerging from this reconstruction (which remains, of course, hypothetical) shows Salanter as a person quite different from his legendary image, and entitles us to assume the existence of close and complex connections between the Haskalah and the formation of Orthodoxy, irreducible to a mere spontaneous reaction of "old Jewry" to the maskilic criticism of tradition.

The 'theory of secularization' and the Haskalah

The 19th century was a period of radical changes in the religious life of the East European Jews. These changes, inscribed in the general context of European modernization, are usually understood as the decline of the role and authority of religion, whose "golden age" now belongs to the past. This view of the development of religion, which has received the name of "theory of secularization" and was elaborated in the works of Max Weber, Peter Berger,4 Marcel Gauchet5 and others, was prevalent in scholarship until quite recently. Yet the demise of religion expected by most western intellectuals since the times of Enlightenment did not take place after all, and at the close of the 20th century, the theory of secularization became an object of lively debate in the social sciences.

In this debate, we can single out two main approaches to the theory of secularization. The first approach, which is characterized as descriptive, the attention of both critics and advocates of the theory of secularization focuses on the parameters along which the secularization of society could be established quantitatively and qualitatively.6 The second approach, the ideological one, "reveals secularization to be an orienting concept grounded in an ideological preference rather than a systematic theory".7

Critics often reject the very idea of secularization, pointing out the irrelevance of the key parameters of the descriptive theory. It turns out, for instance, that religious pluralism results (at least, in certain regions of the USA) in increased rather than diminished individual involvement in church life. The political influence and authority of the religious elites often rise in the course of the modernization of society instead of decline. Religious revivals, the growth of fundamentalism and the emergence of "new religious movements" attest to the preservation of a social need for faith and the like. Contemporary versions of the secularization theory, advanced by its champions, are becoming more and more ingenious. They provide for several levels of analysis and a multitude of separate parameters to characterize the consequences of the differentiation of social life - the separation of secular and religious institutions and values.8

One of the parameters that have been cited in this connection is the formation of a market for religious ideas and practices allowing everybody to compose his individualized religion ? la carte by selecting from the proposed "menu" that is acceptable and rejecting everything else, just as one selects a meal in a restaurant. The most popular variety, according to Thomas Luckman,9 would consist of various mixture[s] of individual "spirituality" and nostalgic "fundamentalism".10 What remains unclear, however, is to what extent these pointedly observed features are characteristic of modern times. Were people in the past really content with the bread and water of a simple faith, satiating themselves with its austere integrity without attempting to season it with what they had at hand? At any rate, historic-anthropological investigations show that the so-called popular religion in societies unaffected by modernization is a rather complex formation that includes heterogeneous elements.11

The discussion around the descriptive theory of secularization is still far from its conclusion, but it is already clear that one of the principal terms in which the modernization of social life is described has lost its former self-evidence. In these circumstances, it would seem here, a most promising solution would be to turn to the alternative, viz. an ideological theory of secularization. Jeffrey Hadden's thesis, according to which the "theory of secularization" is not so much a scientific theory as a doctrine reflecting the ideological preferences of certain groups,12 can be used not only for a critique of sociological conceptions. It also enables a shift to the emphasis of historical research and draws attention to the insufficiently investigated question of the concrete forms which the ideology of secularization has assumed over several periods and in different societies, as well as of the reception and utilization of this ideology by different layers of society. Such an approach allows us to look anew at the history of the formation and activity of social institutions and groups that have, in some way or another, supported the idea of secularization or are indebted to it for their existence.

In particular, when we turn to Jewish history, such an approach enables us to view Orthodoxy and the Haskalah, not only as (divergent) answers to the notorious "challenges of modernity" but also, as movements actively involved in shaping this "modernity". In spite of the wide variety of assessments, both movements played a decisive role in the creation and spread of a new scale of Jewish religiosity, dividing Jews, not so much into "good" and "bad" ones or into sheyne and proste yidn, as into the "religious" and "secular", the "old" and "new" ones.

The appearance of a new system of categories to assess Jewish religiosity was, in my opinion, one of the decisive factors of the modernization of Jewish society. This new system comprised, as a constitutive part, a certain conception of its own origin, implying a past existence of an all-powerful religious tradition, overthrown in the process of modernization.

It needs to be emphasized that here the interest is in representations and categories of thought as such rather than in their degree of correspondence to reality. For tackling the latter, reliable criteria for measuring the relative authority and "strength" of religions is needed; however, such criteria are not available at present, as pointed out by the critics of the descriptive theory of secularization. In other words, the notion of an increasing secularization of Jewry, common to the Haskalah and Orthodoxy and often remaining an unreflecting conviction even by modern investigators of Jewish society13 should be viewed as an object rather than as an instrument of research.

Actually the descriptive use of the term "secularization" and related concepts do not add anything to our intuitive and vague understanding of the colossal changes that occurred in the religious life of the Jews in the course of the 19th century. What is worse, in its apparent self-evidence, it obfuscates the real problems that, in my view, deserve our attention.

Let me cite, as an example, Shmuel Feiner's article dealing with the so-called "pseudo-Haskalah", a phenomenon about which the East European maskilim of the 1860s and 1870s have written profusely: people defied traditional norms, but did this not so much in the name of the lofty ideals of the Haskalah as simply because they wanted to do so. In the concluding part of his article, which is excellent in many respects, Feiner attempts to translate this concept, borrowed from maskilic literature, into contemporary language: "When the maskilim discussed pseudo-Haskalah, what they meant was first of all the growing phenomenon among the different social strata of natural, uncontrolled, and unguided secularization that was indeed part of life itself: the attempt to make a living and the use of leisure time".14

Let us have a closer look at the logic of this affirmation. As we can see, Feiner's explanation for the appearance of pseudo-Haskalah is that people have worldly interests, alien to religion. Yet such interests which, in Feiner's own words, are "part of life itself", have at all times been proper to men. The upshot is that in earlier epochs, religion managed to subordinate people's worldly interests to itself, whereas in the 19th century, it no longer succeeded in doing so. Why was this? Well, following Feiner's logic, simply because, by common consent, a process of secularization was going on precisely at that time! This magic word removes all problems, but, unfortunately, it explains nothing.

As often observed, a theory that proves inadequate as an explanatory model may become a valuable object of investigation. The unreflecting faith in secularization was and still remains the common foundation on which Jewish cultural work was based. The whole Jewish world was conceived by its members as divided into two camps: that of the "old" and that of the "new". Let me emphasize that this reads, not was divided but was conceived as divided. Up to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, there were absolutely no organizational structures corresponding to these two "camps" or clear-cut borders dividing the two parties. It was simply at that juncture that the age-old and "natural" chasm between more and less acculturated Jews came to be conceived for the first time as a historical vector dividing Israel into champions of change and upholders of the old order.

The extent to which this mental map of Jewry corresponded to reality is of minor importance here. What is much more important is that, as a cultural fact, the representation of a Jewish world divided into "old" and "new" influenced reality and became an inalienable part of it. The Jewish ideologies, movements and political organizations that were being continually created anew defined their position with regard to these two centers, which were clearly marked on the mental map, however vague they might have been in reality.

We will attempt broadly to outline the main stages of the formation of the new map of the Jewish world. Its first inhabitants were, of course, the maskilim. They were the ones, actually, who drew the map by defining themselves as champions of change and designating the inert mass that opposed their endeavors with the words "rabbinism", "the old Jewry" and such.15 Inspired by the support of the Russian government, the maskilim prophesied the imminent downfall of rabbinism.16 There was, however, no rabbinism in Russia of the 1st half of the 19th century: there were only rabbis, not united by any organization or ideology but largely dependent on their communities.17 It was not until the 1870s that the rabbinism, invented by the Haskalah, began to assume clear contours as a social movement in defense of the religious tradition, Orthodox Judaism.18 Here I wish, once more, to emphasize, not only the circumstance (as already noted in literature) that Jewish orthodoxy was a modernist innovation but also, that the orthodox defined their position in the same terms as the maskilim.19 That means that the scheme of a Jewish world divided into "old" and "new", as proposed by the Haskalah, was accepted by its opponents as something self-evident.

At the same time, another social innovation, the pseudo-Haskalah, ousted the maskilim from the forefront of innovativeness which they had, until then, regarded as theirs. When the disenchanted maskilim left the political scene, the drift from "old" to "new" was conceived on the map which they had left as a drift from religiosity toward secularity.

This was an innovation of uncommon importance. A person's degree of religiosity, formerly determined only by their allegiance to the holy texts and observance of the commandments, assumed a new dimension. This new dimension was institutionalized and determined by relative closeness to one of the two poles, the notions of which were brought into circulation by the maskilim. Nowadays, the whole range between these two poles is occupied by various institutionalized movements: secular, reformist, orthodox and ultra-orthodox. A person's degree of religiosity is determined, first of all, by his allegiance to one of these movements. Such a state of affairs seems natural today, but it is, of course, a consequence of the modernization of religious life.

The functions of the rabbis have also evolved. Nowadays, a rabbi is, first of all, a representative of an institution, entitled to interpret its ideology. His decisions are legitimated, not only, and even to a lesser degree, by his erudition in the holy texts but rather, by the powers delegated to him by an institution. But in the 1870s, the religious camp was not yet so well organized. Alongside the new institutional scale that was in the process of formation, the old textual one still existed on which Jews were classified with respect to their degree of religiosity, not by degrees of "old" and "new" but, by "good" and "less good" degrees, into szeyne and proste yidn. If the old scale was hierarchical, presupposing one norm of behavior and different degrees of compliance with this norm, the new scale was to measure, not the degree of compliance with the norm but, the norm itself, which had ceased to be unique.

Summing up the conclusions from the theoretical part, I would like to formulate my thesis once more: the main factor in the modernization of Jewish religious life in the Russian Empire was the division of Jewry into "old" and "new", worked out by the Haskalah, reinterpreted by orthodoxy and subsequently, generally accepted. The possibility was created by measuring religiosity according to one's allegiance to either of two camps (the institutional scale) rather than by one's level of knowledge and observance (the textual scale). This change in the way of thinking affected the whole structure of Jewish religiosity and became the cause and the foundation of many changes in social life.

Folkloristic construal of secularization: legends about Rabbi Isroel Salanter

The picture of Rabbi Isroel Salanter as one of the pillars of orthodoxy, now generally accepted, did not take shape at once. In his short review note on Rozenfeld's essay,20 Israel Tsinberg notes that various opinions were expressed on Salanter's position in the maskilic press of the 1860s, including the view of Salanter as a champion of Enlightenment.21 The definitive formation of the hagiographic legends on Salanter known nowadays evidently took place in the last quarter of the 19th century. An analysis of these legends allows us to view them as folkloristic reinterpretations of the modernization of the Jews' religious life.

The four legends, connected principally with the Vilna period in Salanter's life from the 1840s onward, will be examined. It was not until much later, however, in the works by Israel Bernstein,22 Magid-Steinschneider23 and others that these legends were recorded. In the course of the 20th century, these hagiographical narratives were repeatedly reproduced in biographical studies, Jewish encyclopedias and monographs dealing with Isroel Salanter and/or the Mussar movement.24

The legends are as follows:

1. The crying child

On the eve of Yom-Kippur, the people assembled in the synagogue were waiting for Salanter in order to start the prayers. But the Rabbi was late, and the prayers began without him. The reason for the delay was that on his way to the synagogue, Salanter heard the crying of a child whose mother had gone out to pray. Salanter entered the house and stayed with the child until the mother came back from the synagogue.25

2. The struggle with the epidemic

In 1848, when the cholera was raging in Vilna, Salanter took all possible care that the people should not be disheartened but should help one another without fear of becoming infected.26 More details of the organization of this relief are provided by Dov Katz:

He founded a committee charged with the task of bringing relief and organizing all rescue actions in exemplary order. He rented a separate hospital with 1500 beds, which he left at the disposal of the rescue team. . . . It was evidently under his influence that all the doctors worked without remuneration. . . . He mustered 60-70 young people and appointed emergency workers among them who had to be continually ready to provide relief at any time and in any place where it was necessary. . . . He ordered them to perform their duties on the Sabbath as well as on a working day, and to perform these duties themselves rather than to have them performed by Gentiles; this he demanded with strong insistence.27

3. The cancellation of the fast

On the eve of Yom-Kippur, in the cholera year of 1848, Salanter "announced in all the synagogues that there was to be no fasting that year, and no long prayers, and that people should stay in the open. On the very day of Yom-Kippur, after the Morning Prayer, he ascended the pulpit with a piece of cake in his hand, pronounced the blessing and ate it under the eyes of all, in order that they should follow his example.28 There are also literary reworkings of this theme, e.g., David Frischman's short story, Shlosha she-ahlu 'The Three Who Ate'.

4. The renunciation of honorary posts

"In 1848, when the Rabbinical Seminary was established in Vilna, the government, on the recommendation of the local maskilim, offered Salanter the post of head of the new institution. He declined an inspector's post, however, as he was convinced that the new school would not serve the cause of the old Jewry".29 In other versions of this story, additional details appear: "Just at that time, Uvarov happened to be in Vilna. Accompanied by Hayim Leib Katzenellenbogen, instructor in Bible and Talmud at the seminary, Uvarov sought out Rabbi Israel at his yeshiva and offered him the post. But Rabbi Israel declined."30 Mention is also made of the amount of the salary offered to Salanter: 800 rubles a year,31 which was four times more than what Salanter received as a rosh-yeshiva.32

Of the four anecdotes cited here, only the first is a "typical" folklore narrative. The remaining may be viewed (and are viewed) by investigators as historical testimonies. But to understand what "real" events are to which they refer, the folkloristic component must be singled out. Moreover, the folkloristic component in itself is also relevant to our topic, viz. as a reflection of popular representations connected with Rabbi Israel Salanter and the way in which the changes going on in the Jewish world were construed. Therefore, this proceeds with an analysis of the themes and motifs cited above.

In the last story, Salanter stands before us as a staunch adversary of the Haskalah. He acts and thinks in the categories worked out by the Haskalah, mentioned above: "the new school would not serve the interests of the old Jewry." Bernstein straightforwardly explains Salanter's rejection of the post by calling him "a man who did not know the taste of Enlightenment (she-lo ta'am ta'am Haskalah) and, like all other rabbis, hated every new movement among his people."33 No worldly considerations (such as a salary of 800 rubles) could shake his attachment to the traditional religion. We have before us a typical representative of "rabbinism" and an exemplary opponent of the Haskalah-exactly the man as whom the maskilim depicted him.

In the first three stories, however, Salanter behaves in a different way. Here, worldly concerns (a crying child, peoples' health) induce our hero to disregard the central precepts of the religious tradition (communal prayer and fast on Yom-Kippur, observance of the Sabbath). In other words, in the stories, the folkloristic Salanter seems to be reproducing the conduct of the pseudo-maskilim, who, in Feiner's words, flouted religion under the pressure of "life itself". But this is only an apparent similarity. From the halakhic point of view, the hero does not infringe any commandment: he just complies with the laws operating in a situation of pikuah nefesh, i.e., danger to life.34 Thus, there are before us, so to speak, three different solutions for one logical problem. In which cases will representatives of the religious and the secular camps behave similarly? Yet, these rhetorical exercises, not devoid of acumen, were perceived by both narrators and audience in a purely emotional way, as moving evidence of the Rabbi Israel's greatness.

In traditional stories about hidden tsadikim who displayed strange and even, at first sight, unkosher behavior, only subsidiary circumstances that accidentally come to the notice of the narrator allow a reinterpretation of this behavior as righteous.35 The point of such stories is connected with the revelation of the hidden aspects of an action, which the tsadik conceals from everybody. In the stories about Salanter, however, no subsidiary circumstances appear,36 and the whole deed is manifest from the start. The point rather consists, therefore, in the possibility of applying two different norms, the "old" religious one and the "new" secular one, to one and the same deed.

My contention is that these stories were a narrative means of providing a rationale for the changes going on in the Jewish world. Such a rationale involves the transition from the old, textual scale of religiosity, dividing Jews into learned and less learned ones, to a new and institutional one, dividing Jews according to their allegiance to either of two camps, each with its own norms. The new scale led to a break-up of Jewish unity but, in the narratives, an imaginary restoration of the unitary norm took place. The great Rabbi is seen behaving in the same way as a simple, not over-pious religious Jew would have behaved. The infringement of commandments (albeit only apparent) does not at all mean, in this case, that the infringer belongs to the secular camp; the lost unity is thus restored.

Legends about Rabbi Isroel Salanter as a historical source

It is clear that the legends discussed here picture not only Salanter himself, but also the philosophy of life of the people who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, told them and listened to them, published and discussed them. Still, they are often used as historical testimonies about Salanter and the events of the mid-19th century. Emmanuel Etkes, for instance, reads Salanter's conduct at the time of the cholera epidemic as "an appeal for activity on a rationalist basis. . . . it was driven by strong humanistic tendencies." Pointing out the contradiction between this life-asserting activity and the rabbi's ascetic philosophy, known from later sources, Etkes writes: "there can be no doubt that in the given case the humanistic principle prevails."37

There is some doubt, however. In this case, Etkes, revealing the opposition of the "old" and "new", the "religious" and "secular" which are crucial to the narrative structure of the legends, takes it to be an expression of the inner struggle of Salanter himself. But this is an aspect of the legend that is more likely to be folkloristic than historical. If we remove everything from the legend that is connected with the central opposition, too few details are left and it is difficult to piece together even a minimally coherent narrative from them. However, we can turn for data to additional sources and then, as I hope to show, the remaining details can yield highly interesting evidence.

What was going on in Vilna in the cholera year of 1848? That mysterious and terrible illness of the 19th century, cholera, played a specific role in the formation of Russian ideology. The causes of the illness were unknown, medical prevention was largely ineffectual and administrative measures were harsh. Medical recommendations to the population boiled down to calls to be temperate, keep calm and turn to the authorities on the slightest suspicion of a breakout of the epidemic. In officious rhetoric, these recommendations represented not only a civic duty but also a moral and religious obligation.38

As soon as cholera broke out in Vilna in 1848, the Vilenskie gubernskie vedomosti 'Vilna Gubernia's News' published a series of Predochranitel'nye mery 'Preventive measures'. The next are a few cited recommendations: "In eating and drinking one should practice temperance and caution, however, without radically changing one's way of life in this respect. : As a general rule, one should not go outdoors on an empty stomach. : One should take care that the air surrounding us should be dry and clean. : One should avoid longer stays in places where large crowds gather and where a large number of candles and lamps are burning. : . In general, one should lead as regular and temperate a life as possible".39

In the next issue of the Vilna Gubernia's News, the government authorities, aiming at "reassuring the population and preventing possible misunderstandings and delays in the execution of the indispensable measures," announced the creation of cholera committees and the division of the town into "cholera districts" that coincided with the police districts, each to be supervised by a doctor, a sufficient number of medical assistants and other workers. The inhabitants of the town were enjoined to "be guided by the instructions laid down in the Preventive measures, printed in the preceding issue of the Vilna Gubernia's News. All workers of the cholera emergency team were paid remuneration from the public treasury.40

Let us now look once more at the details, provided by Rozenfeld and Katz, concerning Salanter's activities during the epidemic-his solicitude "that people should not be disheartened but should help one another," his "organizing all rescue actions in exemplary order" and his mobilizing doctors and "emergency workers" along with their unremunerated work. With respect to their aims (the preservation of peace and order) and methods, these measures practically coincide with the aims and methods of the cholera committees created by the government. The details of the announcement, made by Salanter in the synagogues on the eve of Yom-Kippur, "that there was to be no fasting that year, and no long prayers, and that people should stay in the open" also virtually coincide with the "instructions laid down in the Preventive measures". It is possible and even highly probable that Salanter performed duties on one of the cholera committees, i.e., acted as a government servant rather than at his own initiative. If this is so, then naturally the question of the conflict between the humanistic and the religious principles in Salanter's philosophy of life recedes into the background. A more relevant question is that of his cooperation with the Russian government, something that is characteristic of the maskilim and difficult to reconcile with the image of Salanter as an opponent of the Haskalah.

Of course, only the documents of the cholera committees could satisfactorily confirm or refute our conjecture. Unfortunately, I have not been able to trace these documents in the archives until now. But in the legends about Salanter there are also other details deserving a closer scrutiny.

As Etkes correctly observes in his analysis of the legend on the cancellation of the fast, its "dramatic version, which has Rabbi Isroel pronounce the blessing on food from the bimah and eat under the eyes of the congregation, is of course a legendary transformation of the story of this event." A more reliable version is provided, in Etkes' opinion, by Yakov Mark, according to whom "Rabbi Israel himself did not, in fact, taste any food."41 The attention given to Salanter's gesture (both by those who believe it to be authentic and by those who regard it as spurious) emphasized its crucial role in the narrative and its significance, already pointed out above, for the representatives of this folklore: the more blatant and striking the apparent infringement of the norm was, the more forcibly the point of the story was driven home. But, overshadowed by this gesture, there was also another collision, more central to the interpretation of the event, though lacking in some versions. Magid-Steinschneider and Mark tell us that Salanter's announcement was met with protests: "One of the praying people, one of the most respected ones, cried out loudly: 'Have we no rabbis versed in the laws of pikuah nefesh? Yet they have not publicly given such permission!'" Etkes writes: "We should remember that in Vilna Rabbi Israel did not officially have the right to give halakhic instructions." In his opinion, Salanter's readiness to embark on a conflict with the rabbinate can be explained by his self-assumed and conscious responsibility for the whole of Israel, which gave Salanter the moral right to proclaim himself a leader.42 Here, Etkes is obviously following the folkloristic meaning of the legend in which Rabbi Isroel appears as the unifier of a divided Jewry. On the other hand, if our conjecture about Salanter's cooperation with the Russian is correct, then his action appears in a much more prosaic light-he is merely transmitting to the Jews a decree of the authorities, expounded in the Preventive measures.43

But that is not all. Sometimes it is useful even to check facts that seem to be established beyond doubt. For instance: was there any cholera?

During the epidemic, the Vilna Gubernia's News published weekly records of the number of illnesses in Vilna and the government. In the summer of 1848, the number of illnesses from cholera in the town ran into hundreds. But in that year, Yom-Kippur fell on 25 September (old style), when the epidemic was already past its peak. If, on 28 August, the number of illnesses was 466, it had already fallen to 67 by 04 September, to 41 by 11 September, to 27 by 18 September, to 26 by 25 September to 15 by 2 October, and from 9 October, it stayed at the level of 1 to 3 persons.44

Of course, the official decree canceling all exceptional measures against cholera was issued only in November;45 in September and even in October, the danger of being infected still existed. Still, if credit is to be given to the testimony of the legend, which schedules the cancellation of the fast on Yom Kippur, it must be acknowledged that during the fasts of 17 Tamuz and 9 Av, which coincided with the very peak of the epidemic, Salanter did not yet realize his "responsibility for the whole of Israel." This is, of course, quite conceivable. Such a realization may dawn on a person suddenly, especially on the eve of the Day of Atonement. But precisely on the eve of that ill-fated Yom-Kippur, Salanter evidently also had another reason for realizing not so much, unfortunately, his responsibility for the whole of Israel, but rather his dependence on the Russian authorities. The fact is that in the last days of September and the early days of October, the Ministry of National Enlightenment was distributing appointments to the Vilna Rabbinical Seminary, whose ceremonial opening was to take place on 17 October 1848.46

A number of hitherto unpublished documents enabling to reconstruct, in part, the course of events are at disposal. On 4 December 1848, the Curator of the White Russian Educational District, Grubarg, wrote to the Minister of National Enlightenment: "Your Excellency's substitute, authorizing me by his missive No. 9287 of 29 September to make arrangements for the opening of the two first classes of the Vilna Rabbinical Seminary, has instructed me, among other things, to appoint to this school, as a teacher of Mishnah and Gemarah, Rosh-Yeshivah Israel Salanter. The latter, however, having been immediately apprised of the above-mentioned appointment, left Vilna and has only just now sent an answer to the Director of the Rabbinical Seminary, in which he declines to occupy the aforesaid post on account of his poor state of health".47 On 23 December, the Minister sent Grubarg the following answer: "I consent to the appointment of the Jew Gershon Kagen Klyachko as teacher of Mishnah and Gemarah in the Vilna Rabbinical Seminary instead of Rosh-Yeshivah Israel Salanter, and authorize you to make the corresponding arrangements".48

Additional information can be found in the "Historical facts on the Vilna Rabbinical Seminary", published in the newspaper, Vilenskij Vestnik 'Vilna Messenger' in 1872. In preparing this publication, use was evidently made of archival materials that have not come for the purpose of this study. As we learn form the newspaper, the teaching program of the two first rabbinical classes was approved by the Ministry on 29 September. On 8 October, the post of "inspector of the Rabbinical Seminary charged with supervising the teaching of Jewish subjects" was assigned to Hirsch Katzenellenbogen, and the post of director of the Seminary to Ivan Khristoforovich Vyshkevich, who was "assigned a salary of 800 silver rubles a year." On 14 October, appointments were made to the posts of "senior teachers: Rosh-Yeshivah Israel Salanter as teacher of Talmudic subjects, and Berel Lebenson as teacher of Bible, Jewish history, grammar and spiritual eloquence." "For every weekly course all teachers were to receive 23 rubles 43 kopeck a year." In all, the program provided for 14 hours of "Divine Law" every week.49 Salanter would, of course, have to share these hours with other Jewish teachers.

Comparing the documents, there are only two, available coinciding details at disposal concerning Salanter's appointment with the legend around this event. These details were: a salary of 800 rubles assigned to the director of the Seminary and Salanter's non-acceptance of the post. However, the post he declines, according to the documents, is altogether different from that proposed to him in the legend: it is considerably less honorable and less well remunerated.

There is little plausibility in the alleged persuasions which, according to the legend, were addressed to Salanter by the Vilna maskilim, Rabbi Itzhak, head of the Volozhin yeshiva, Katzenellenbogen and the minister himself. Many maskilim aspired to the posts of teachers in the newly opening schools,50 and there must have been some competition among them. But even if Salanter, by virtue of his authority as a Talmudist, outstripped all competitors, it is hard to imagine the appointment to have taken place without his preliminary consent. It follows that Salanter either changed his mind at the last moment, having revised his attitude to this governmental-maskilic project or was appointed to a post other than the one to which he had aspired.

It was seen that on the eve of the announcement of the decree, Salanter expressed no distrust of the Russian authorities. On the contrary, during the epidemic, even if he was not employed on the official Cholera Committee, he felt and behaved like a representative of the authorities. In my opinion, the following assumption would fit the facts adduced above best of all: Salanter changed his attitude to the rabbinical seminaries after the publication of the appointments made by the Ministry, and the reason was that these appointments did not satisfy his ambitious expectations.

In establishing the rabbinical seminaries, the government endeavored, as is known, to lean on the Jews and to strike a balance between the government's purposes and the alleged lethargy (kosnost') of the Jewish masses. The first project for the Seminary was worked out in 1843-1848 by the Rabbinical Commission that held session in St. Petersburg. According to the original plan, the director was to be a Jew and his substitute, a Christian. During processing by the bureaucratic machinery, a switch occurred, as was to be expected: the post of director was given to a Christian. It is not known here how the candidatures for the Jewish posts were weighed. However, more likely than not, the government charged those Jews with preparing a project, who were well acquainted with local circumstances. If, in this project, the rather high post for a Jew of inspector was reserved for Salanter, then, in the course of the approval process, the same switch could have occurred as in the case of the post of director. This post was given to a person, more loyal from the authorities' point of view. Evidently Salanter, who was known only as a Talmudist, seemed less fit to occupy a responsible post in the eyes of the officials. The information about his loyal stance during the epidemic did not reach the Ministry in time.

Of course, all these are only conjectures based on incomplete data. It is quite conceivable that Salanter was, actually, a hidden tsadik, and that part of the events that is invisible will suddenly be revealed and turn upside down our conception of the motives behind his actions. Still, our sources point, in any case, to a higher degree of involvement of Salanter in governmental-maskilic projects than is reflected in the legends. How did this Vilna experience affect Salanter's subsequent activities and his teachings, which were to become one of the pillars of orthodox ideology? The answer to this question, which requires, of course, a special investigation, would probably shed a new light on the history of the formation of Jewish orthodoxy and its connections with the Haskalah.

Alexander Lvov. Rabbi Isroel Salanter, the Haskalah and the 'Theory of Secularization': An Analysis from a Folkloristic Point of View // Central and East European Jews at the Crossroads of Tradition and Modernity. Vilnius: Center for Studies of the Culture and History of East European Jews, 2006. P. 106-128.


1 C. Розенфельд, "Рабби Исроэль Сaлaнтeр (Липкин), eгo деятельность и последователи", Пережитoe, vol. 1 (C-Петербург: 1910): 67.

2 E. Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter ve-reshita shel tnu'at ha-mussar (Jerusalem: 1982); in English translation by J. Chipman: Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Mussar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth (Philadelphia: 1993).

3 Sh. Feiner, "Towards a Historical Definition of the Haskalah", Sh. Feiner and D. Sorkin, eds., New Perspectives on the Haskalah (London: 2001): 219.

4 P. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, New York: 1967).

5 M. Gauchet, Le desenchantement du monde. Une histoire politique de la religion (Paris: 1985).

6 See, e. g., K. Dobbelaere, "Toward an Integrated Perspective of the Process Related to the Descriptive Concept of Secularization," Sociology of Religion, vol. 60, no. 3 (1999): 229-247.

7 J. K. Hadden, "Toward Desacralizing Secularization Theory," Social Forces, vol. 65, no. 3, (1987): 587.

8 For the basic bibliography and comprehensive surveys of the secularization debate, see. Dobbelaere, "Toward an Integrated Perspective of the Process Related to the Descriptive Concept of Secularization" 229-247; and P. Gorski, "Historicizing the Secularization Debate: Church, State, and Society in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ca. 1300 to 1700", American Sociological Review, vol. 65, no. 1, Looking Forward, Looking Back: Continuity and Change at the Turn of the Millennium (2000): 138-167.

9 T. Luckman, "Shrinking Transcendence, Expanding Religion?" Sociological Analysis, vol. 50, no. 2 (1990): 127-138.

10 Gorski, Historicizing the Secularization Debate 140.

11 For examples of how these results are construed by sociologists, cf. R. Stark and L. Iannacone, "A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the 'Secularization' of Europe", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 33 (1994): 230-252; and Gorski, Historicizing the Secularization Debate 144-146.

12 Hadden, "Toward Desacralizing" 587-661.

13 See, e. g., J. Katz, "Introduction," J. Katz, ed., Toward Modernity: The European Jewish Model (Brunswick and Oxford: 1987): 1-2.

14 The emphasis is mine. Sh. Feiner, "The Pseudo-Enlightenment and the question of Jewish modernization", Jewish Social Studies, vol. 3, no. 1 (1996): 77.

15 Though in a straightforward, explicit way, the opposition of "old" and "new" Jewry was formulated relatively late. See, e. g., С.Дубнов. Письма о старом и новом еврействе (С.-Петербург:1907). It is implicitly present in the writings of the maskilim as early as the 1st half of the 19th century. Let us cite a few examples, chosen at random from the notes of Lev Mandelshtam, 1839-1840. He wrote: "from my early childhood I am accustomed to converse with officers and Christians of higher rank : The principal benefit I derived from this acquaintance is the uplifting of my spirit to the new, the free, the elegant"; ":in the journal Ha-measef, famous among us for its renewal of Hebrew literature"; "You are leaving us - you are heading for a new, spacious and high-skied country:But we! Our feeble elders trudge along, leaning on their staffs, weary and disheartened" (from a letter of L. Mandelshtam's brother, written on the occasion of his departure for Moscow, where he was to enter the university); "the Talmud teacher and under-rabbi, a thoroughly old-fashioned, pedantic and inflexible character:"; "... the Russian Jew has retained these ancient customs up to this day"; ":Enlightenment already shines forth with radiant sunbeams and instills peace and love into people's hearts - and we, overgrown with ivy, are still sitting in the stuffy room of bygone days" (Л. Maндельштам, "Из записок первого еврея-студентa в России," Пережитoe, т. 1 [C.-Петербург: 1910]: 14, 18-19, 32, 37).

16 See, e. g., L. Mandelshtam's account of a journey on which he visited Jewish communities (Российский Государственный Исторический Aрхив 'Russian State Historical Archives' (hereafter: RGIA) f. 733, op. 97, d. 248 [1847-1853], l. 83; and С. Лозинский, Ed., Kaзенные eврейскиe училища (C.-Петербург: 1920): 257.

17 A similar dependency can be observed later on as well; see M. Zalkin's article in this volume.

18 Y. Salmon, "Orthodox Judaism in Eastern Europe", The Gaon of Vilnius and the Annals of Jewish Culture (Vilnius: 1998): 104-115.

19 Suffice to mention that Hatam-Sofer's famous maxim is hadash assur min ha-tora 'the new is forbidden by the Torah'.

20 See Пережитoe, т. 2 (C.-Петербург: 1910): 296-298.

21 See Hamaggid, no. 7, 11 (1865); and Hamelitz, no. 3, 11, 17 (1868).

22 I. Bernstein, "Lemaher Geule," Ha-Sakhar (1878): 230-231.

23 H. N. Maggid-Steinschneider, Ir Vilna (Vilna: 1900).

24 In addition to the above-mentioned essay by Rozenfeld and Etkes' monograph, a few more sources can be mentioned: G. G. Menahem, Israel Salanter, Religious-Ethical Thinker (New York: 1953); I. Cohen, Vilna (Philadelphia-Jerusalem: 1992); D. Katz, Tenu'at ha-mussar, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: 1996); J. Mark, "Truth and Legend about Israel Salanter," L. S. Dawidowicz, Ed., The Golden Tradition (New York: 1996); "Lipkin, Israel ben Ze'ev Wolf," Encyclopaedia Judaica; and "Салантер," Краткая еврейская энциклопедия.

25 Bernstein, "Lemaher Geule" 230-231; Maggid-Steinschneider, Ir Vilna 130; and Mark, "Truth and Legend" 173-174.

26 C. Розенфельд, "Рабби Исроэль Сaлaнтeр" 74.

27 Katz, Tenu'at ha-mussar 149-150.

28 C. Розенфельд, "Рабби Исроэль Сaлaнтeр". For different versions of this narrative and their analysis, see A. Львов, "Легенда o добром раввинe (гуманистическая идеология в eврейских религиозных практикax)", Mифология и повседневность, вып. 2 (C.-Петербург: 1999): 288-306.

29 C. Розенфельд, "Рабби Исроэль Сaлaнтeр" 75.

30 Mark, "Truth and Legend" 176.

31 Menahem, Israel Salanter 42; and Katz, Tenu'at ha-mussar. Mark mentions almost the same amount: "about 1000 rubles a year."

32 See C. Розенфельд, "Рабби Исроэль Сaлaнтeр" 73.

33 Bernstein, "Lemaher Geule" 233.

34 In the only doubtful case, the one in which the Rabbi is late for prayers because of a crying child, one educated narrator inserts an additional detail: burning candles are placed so low that the child could overturn them (Mark, "Truth and Legend" 174).

35 For instance, one of the characters in the Sefer hassidim used to assemble all the town's harlots in his house every night and drink and dance with them till the late hours. But, as it turned out, he did this only in order to lock up the harlots in his house afterwards, thereby preventing debauchery in the town.

36 Only the first story (the crying child) partly reproduces the traditional narrative scheme of the story of the hidden tsadik, especially in Bernstein's dramatized version, where the people assembled in the synagogue are conjecturing possible reasons for the Rabbi' delay, and the situation becomes clear only when he appears. But the invisible part of his deed is not revealed accidentally here; it is disclosed by the "righteous man" himself. Moreover, any narrators simply ignore the possibility, seized upon by Bernstein, to dramatize the episode and describe the event from the point of view of the omniscient storyteller. The traditional point is not important to them.

37 Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter 182.

38 See K. Богданов, "Xoлерныe эпидемии в России: зaрaзa, риторикa, сoциальная мифология", Врачи, пациенты, читатели: Патографические тeксты русской культуры XVIII-XIX веков (Moсква: 2005): 345-406.

39 Виленские губернские ведомости, №. 25 (19 June 1848)

40 Виленские губернские ведомости, № 26 (26 June 1848).

41 Mark, "Truth and Legend" 173; and Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter 184.

42 Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter 184.

43 Let us also note that according to the testimony of Salanter's son, Rabbi Itzhak Lipkin, Rabbi Israel himself directly connected his action with the view that could be taken by the Russian authorities, publicly declaring that he apprehended "a defilement of the Name before the Gentiles, who - may God prevent! - could say: 'the faith of Israel has brought the disease on us.'"

44 Cf. Виленские губернские ведомости, № 37, 38, 40, 41, 43, 44, 46-48, 1848.

45 Виленские губернские ведомости, № 48.

46 Виленские губернские ведомости, № 45.

47 RGIA, f. 733, op. 97, d. 322, l. 1-1v.

48 RGIA, ibid, l. 2.

49 Виленский вестник, № 152,1872.

50 See И. Цинберг, "Исаак Бер Левинсон и его время," Eвреи в Рoссийской империи XVII-XIX веков (Moсква-Иерусалим: 1995): 460-461.