Shmuel Feiner on the 19th century Kulturekampf

Review of New Book by Shmuel Feiner on the tension between Orthodoxy and the Enlightenment. This book focuses on middle positions- Religious haskalah, nationalist theists, enlightened Hasidism- each seeking a third way between Orthodoxy and Enlightenment. Feiner highlights observant maskilim -Shadal, Rashi Fuenn, Eliezer Zweifel. They are invested with maintaining of Jewish national consciousness that was not Zionist, or assimilationist (contrasted with Kovner or ILGordon).

Milhemet Tarbut (Kulturkampf: The Jewish Enlightenment in the 19th Century‏), by Shmuel Feiner. Carmel Publishing House (Hebrew), 387 pages, NIS 96

The word “kulturkampf,” or culture war, has been tossed around a lot lately, and has turned into such a cliche ..A culture war is not just any conflict that takes place between people with different opinions, or even people with different lifestyles, but is, rather, a battle over the fundamental nature of life.

Shmuel Feiner illustrates that belligerence at the beginning of “Kulturkampf: The Jewish Enlightenment in the 19th Century.” He describes how a rabbi in Zhytomyr, Ukraine, forced a young maskil ‏(a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment‏) to divorce his wife because “forbidden” books – nontraditional books that dealt with “modern” issues – were found in his satchel.

All the while, he tells us about the various and sometimes conflicted parts of the whole: “The tensions and the many splits that were caused by the enemies of the Haskalah during the course of the 19th century, the counter-Haskalah, the moderate Haskalah, the radical Haskalah, the religious Haskalah, the anti-clerical Haskalah, the false Haskalah, the nationalist Haskalah and finally, the post-Haskalah.”

The period of expansion ended, in Feiner’s opinion, in 1824, with the publication of an issue of the Jewish weekly Hatzfira that espoused a more radical modernization than the Eastern European maskilim had been advocating. Four years later, Isaac Ber Levinsohn published “Teudah Beyisrael,” in which he demanded that the Jews of Russia undergo cultural and economic changes by adopting modern education, speaking the Russian language, and turning to the trades and agriculture instead of mid-sized and petty commerce.

But the most important step Levinsohn took was to request a monetary grant from the Russian authorities. Within the Jewish community, writes Feiner, this “defined the place of the maskil as an ally of the government,” since the changes he suggested were favored by the Russian government at the time.

At the same time, the maskilim generally described “the new era” as an unprecedented period that God himself had granted to mankind, including the Jews, if only they would accept the fact that the new era was a manmade change that was taking place within history rather than outside of it.

The reaction of the Orthodox establishment was, of course, very negative. It saw the new era “as a crisis and a threat, as though the very awareness of Jewish survival in exile was gradually disappearing, and with it the expectation of redemption.”

The result was that the controversy over the Enlightenment seemed to become “a battle between faith and heresy,” a viewpoint that prevails to this day among a large part of the Orthodox establishment. The historical truth, notes Feiner, was different: Few, if any, of the maskilim could be considered atheists, and only a few of the most radical maskilim might be considered deists, meaning that they believed in the existence of a primordial power but did not believe that such an entity intervenes in the day-to-day functioning of the world – thus rejecting such concepts as miracles, redemption and the role of divine providence in individual lives.

The polarization between the two camps was clearly described by someone who adhered to Orthodox belief but had one foot in the Haskalah camp: Samuel David Luzzatto, a man of contrasts who after a nighttime discussion with a young intellectual in Padua wrote an article that begins with the sentence: “World civilization at this time is a result of two different foundations: Ethicism and Judaism.” Feiner devotes a chapter to Luzzatto that deals with the counter-Enlightenment, and writes that it can be seen as one of the early signs of “the historical trend of the formation of a modern national consciousness in light of the challenges of modernism.”

Feiner depicts Eliezer Zweifel, who “dared to question the branding of Hasidism as an enemy reflecting everything against which the Haskalah was fighting,” as the founder and representative of this group. Zweifel was aware of the weakening of collective Jewish identity in Europe and observed two ways to strengthen it: the literature created by the moderate maskilim, which preserved the spirit of the nation “like an iron wall of Jewish identity that separates Israel from the other nations,” and “the path of the members of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, who take care of the actual physical survival of the Jewish people.”

Zweifel considered the success of Hasidism and the large number of admirers of the Ba’al Shem Tov, “a fact that obligates the maskilim to free themselves of prejudices and anti-Hasidic images,” and rejected the portrayal of Hasidism as representing the opposite of rational wisdom.

“Zweifel integrated Hasidism into a complex historical scheme of Jewish development,” writes Feiner. He rejects the idea that Zweifel “gave up at the height of a kulturkampf against Hasidism” and notes that he did harshly criticize the Hasidim of his time, going so far as to ask Hasidic leaders to change Hasidism based on “ten pieces of good advice” that he thought would pave the way to an end of the kulturkampf.
The Hasidic leaders, of course, did not agree to the changes, but Zweifel did succeed in raising the possibility of a “third path” that remains available to contemporary Jews: a moderate and harmonious Haskalah that would preserve “improved Hasidism” as a spiritual asset.

Feiner attributes another attempt to stop the kulturkampf to Samuel Joseph Finn, a moderate maskil who called the battle between Orthodoxy and Haskalah “the war of knowledge.” Feiner calls Finn’s philosophy “religious Haskalah,” which was expressed mainly in Finn’s involvement in the establishment of the rabbinical school in Vilna, which opened in 1847.

In contrast to Finn, Feiner brings the message of the radical Haskalah in Russia as expressed by Isaac Eisik Kovner, who harshly criticized the Jewish lifestyle in that country. But Kovner, who wrote “Sefer Hamatsref” and who was one of the first of the Russian maskilim to identify the existence of “false maskilim” ‏(assimilationists‏), remained on the margins of the maskil experience. Unlike Finn, another native of his city, Vilna, Yehuda Leib Gordon, was very influential. Gordon, who introduced the expression “kulturkampf” in its original German into the maskilic discourse, is described by Feiner as having been influenced by the anti-clerical wave that swept through several European countries during the last third of the 19th century.

In this spirit, Gordon demanded that control over education and various political functions be taken away from the Orthodox establishment. read Full version here- 3k of words with reviewers own political application of the book for today’s problems.

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