Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In Part IV, we discussed the incremental steps taken by Haskalah leadership to chip away at the Torah’s foundations. What began as encouragement for Jewry to engage in secular education, quickly became a battle cry to topple the “archaic” and “backward” practices of the traditional community, a debasement of the Talmud, and a rejection of Jewish law, all under the guise of being a force for the preservation of Torah, the preservation of the Jewish people. (Maskilim manipulated Torah sources effectively to support their agenda.)

Although there was clearly heresy in Friedlander’s claims that rabbinic authority should be overturned and the minutia of Judaism neglected in favor of a focus on the broader Jewish experience, it’s less clear where personalities like Mendelssohn and Wessely went wrong in their fairly uncontroversial advocacy for Jewry to incorporate secular education into their studies. After all, that’s about as vanilla a suggestion for 21st century Jewry, and nearly ubiquitous amongst religious Jews.


Unless we’ve got it all wrong? Is the incorporation of secular education the death nail to Jewry’s survival?

To answer that, we need to turn to the rabbinic response to figures like Mendelssohn and Wessely, such as the Noda B’Yehuda (Rav Yechezkel Landau), Rav Dovid ben Natan of Lissa, and of course, the great “champion of religious Jewry,” as Rav Avigdor Miller calls him – the famed Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch himself. Yet we must also look at Rav Akiva Eiger, the Chasam Sofer, and other rabbinic personalities who presented a different vision during an era of modernization and swift change.


Torah Im Derech Eretz

Shortly after Wessely published his treatise encouraging Jewry to engage in “human knowledge,” not just “Torah knowledge,” the Noda B’Yehuda, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, gave the following sermon: “An evil man has arisen from our own people and brazenly asserted that the Torah is not all-important, that etiquette is more vital than the Torah…”

However, instead of condemning the call for education outright, Rav Landau makes the following interesting statement: “Now as to the substance of the matter – the value of etiquette and of grammatical knowledge… I too esteem these things. The government has done a great favor in deciding to teach our children to speak German correctly… Even in the time of the last prophets, the king commanded that Daniel, Chanania, Mishael and Azaria be taught the language of the Chaldeans…”

This acknowledgement that secular education is of benefit to the Jewish people is perhaps surprising. He continues, getting to the crux of the matter: “Those who fear the L-rd will be able to master both, making Torah the basis, yet also learning to speak correctly and behave according to the patterns that guide a person on the right path.”

Rav David ben Natan of Lissa weaves a similar tale: “We speak of an act of a sycophant, an evil man, a man poor in understanding, the most mediocre of mediocre of men. This man, Herz Wessely of Berlin, has addressed an epistle to those of the house of Israel who dwell in the land of his majesty the emperor. This epistle, called ‘words of peace and truth,’ makes one’s heart heavy. It consists of eight chapters of bootlicking… our children shall study the sciences as an adornment; however, the foundations of their education will be in accordance with the command of our ancient sages of the Talmud.”

Again, a similar theme emerges, and a strong emphasis is put on the word “adornment.”

Yet it is perhaps Rav Hirsch who expresses the idea most eloquently. The prestigious Rav of Moravia who left his position in order to minister to the tiny remnants of religious Jewry in Frankfurt-am-Maine, Rav Hirsch’s lifework was dedicated to preserving Jewry against the chafing forces of the period.

Coining his approach as “Torah im derech eretz,” he explains the essence of that philosophy: “When we study and occupy ourselves with other spheres of knowledge we still never leave the basis and aims of the Torah to which alone our intellectual work is dedicated.”

Everything is a support staff, a means to an end.

One of the hallmarks of his leadership was the bold claim that Western culture has nothing over Torah and Judaism. Culture can act as a vehicle to better human behaviors. Education serves to reveal G-d’s hand in the world. But all is ultimately utilized in the service of the Creator.

One of his famous essays, “Religion Allied to Progress,” (1854) conveys the point. 

Religion allied with progress, [is what the reform members say]. How leaderless is this new congregation of prophets before this new messenger with this new message of salvation… Since the beginning of the century the ancient religion had been to them –

ancient. It no longer fitted into the society of the sons and daughters of the new age with their frock coats and evening dresses. In the club and fraternity, at the ball and supper party, at concerts and in salons – everywhere the old Judaism was in the way and seemed so completely out of place… throughout the steam-driven lightening activity of the new age, the old Judaism acted as a brake on the hurrying march of progress…  

Our aims, [that of the religious community] also include the conscientious promotion of education and culture, and we have clearly expressed this in the motto of our congregation: an excellent thing is the study of the Torah combined with the ways of the world… [then] what is it that separates us from the adherents of ‘religion allied with progress’?… 

They aim at religion allied with progress – we have seen that this principle negates the truth of what they call religion – while we aim at progress allied to religion. To them, progress is the absolute and religion is governed by it; to us, religion is the absolute. For them, religion is valid only to the extent that it does not interfere with progress; for us, progress is valid only to the extent that it does not interfere with religion. 

Rav Hirsch proved an elusive target for the Reform movement and sundry Haskalah entities. Educated, sophisticated, and with a veneer of Western mannerisms, his stalwart dedication to Jewish law and philosophy presented a perplexing contradiction. Finding what to critique in him was difficult.


Chadash Assur Min Hatorah

The Hirschian response to modernity was not the only response.

Central and Eastern European rabbinic authorities generally took a more absolute approach in their treatment of Haskalah.

Rabi Akiva Eiger became an active foe of Haskalah, writing in his treatise published in Eileh Dibrei Habris (1819) – “if one disturbs only a one-thousandth part of the words of our rabbis in the Talmud the whole Torah would collapse.”

This assertion boldly challenged the Haskalah’s belittlement of rabbinic authority and Jewish custom.

Rav Akiva Yosef Schlesinger warned his community of allowing changes to tradition, recounting the following warning: (He quotes this in the name of another Rabbi).

Once a community appointed a learned and pious rav who preached in German. Next they will likely hire a weak and unlearned German-speaking rav. And eventually, they will simply employ a gentile.

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The suggestion here, which was echoed by numerous Eastern European communities, was that altering tradition a bit meant relinquishing it all in the end.

This philosophy was best encapsulated by the Chasam Sofer: Chadash assur min haTorah, newness is forbidden. Unless something is sanctioned by Torah, it is inherently harmful to Judaism.

As the rav of Pressburg, he sent many of his students to different communities to act as authorities, armed with the motto: “it shall not pass through our gates” (in reference to anything Haskalah-oriented).

He went further than Rav Hirsch in condemning Reform, saying: “If it were left to me, I would remove [reform] completely from the Jewish camp. We should not marry their children, nor should we follow them in any fashion. They are like the Sadducees, the Karaites. We will remain with our tradition and let them leave.” (Rav Hirsch, at least initially, hoped to draw Reform Jews closer by maintaining ties.)

Despite this absolutist approach that may have conveyed the impression that the Chasam Sofer was averse to all forms of general knowledge, he was actually well-versed in biology, astronomy, mathematics and history. He wrote eloquently in German, and represented Jewry in the emperor’s court. His yeshiva similarly demonstrates his “progressive” attitude. Students were required to take public speaking courses and learn to swim in the Danube River.

However, he spent his life building fences against spiritual dangers.

His ethical will conveys much of his life’s mission:

Do not live in their vicinity [near maskilim] and do not associate with them at all, and never occupy yourselves with the writings of R.M.D. [Reb Moshe of Dessau – Mendelssohn], then your foot will never stumble…

Be warned not to change your Jewish names, speech and clothing – G-d forbid. Never say: times have changed. We have an old Father, praised be His name, who has never changed and never will change (

While sometimes the various rabbinic responses to Haskalah were homogenous, other times the differences were subtle, and occasionally, significant. However, as will be discussed in the next installment, religious Jewry was united in its efforts to ward off assimilating forces, utilizing all of its tools, all of its long history of preservation, and all of its ingenuity, to ensure the spiritual endurance of the Jewish people.


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