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Levinsohn, Isaac Baer

LEVINSOHN, ISAAC BAER

LEVINSOHN, ISAAC BAER (1788–1860), Hebrew author, one of the founders of the *Haskalah in Russia. He also was known as Ribal (initials of R abbi I saac B aer L evinsohn). Levinsohn was born in Kremenets, Volhynia, Russia, into a wealthy family. Later he moved to Radzivilov, on the border of Austrian Galicia. He taught himself European languages, and served as translator for the Russian forces in the time of the French invasion (1812). From 1813 to 1820 Levinsohn lived in the Eastern Galician towns of Brody, Tarnopol, and Zolkiew where he was befriended by such leaders of the Haskalah as Naḥman *Krochmal, Isaac *Erter, Joseph *Perl, and S.J. *Rapoport, and taught in the modern schools established in Tarnopol and Brody. From 1820 to 1823 he spread the ideas of the Haskalah as a private tutor in wealthy homes in Berdichev and other towns. For reasons of health, Levinsohn returned to Kremenets in 1823. Levinsohn's connections with the Russian government gave him authority in Haskalah circles and protected him against the fury of his fanatical opponents. In his memoranda he tried to persuade the Russian authorities to mitigate the persecution of the Jews (his memorandum against the kidnapping of children for military service) and to introduce reforms in the spirit of the Haskalah. He supported a plan for agricultural settlement of Jews, especially those who had lost their livelihood owing to expulsion from the countryside and border areas. On his advice, the Russian authorities limited the number of Hebrew printing presses to three: Warsaw and Vilna in 1836, and Zhitomir in 1846, and imposed censorship on imported Hebrew books. In 1856, the Russian government decided to support him by buying 2,000 copies of his book Beit Yehudah and distributing them to synagogues and Jewish schools.

Levinsohn's literary work was mainly polemical and propagandistic. It dealt with the social, internal, and external position of the Jews in Eastern Europe. He started his public advocacy of the Haskalah by writing satires, mainly imitations of those by Perl and Erter. Divrei Ẓaddikim ("Words of the Righteous," 1830), written in the style of Perl's Megalleh Temirin, was published anonymously. In Emek Refa'im ("Valley of Ghosts"), Peloni Almoni ha-Kozevi ("So-and-So the Liar"), and his Yiddish play Di Hefker Velt ("The World of Chaos"), he satirizes not only the Ḥasidim and their ẓaddikim, but also the tyrannical leaders of the community, the tax farmers, and the "kidnappers." These works circulated in manuscript among the Jews in Volhynia and Galicia and were only published posthumously, the first in Odessa in 1867; the second in 1880; and the third, Yalkut Ribal, in 1878.

In 1823, Levinsohn completed his most influential work Te'udah be-Yisrael ("Testimony in Israel") which, because of Orthodox opposition, did not appear until 1828 (Vilna). Levinsohn listed five questions which he intended to discuss: (a) Was it essential to study Hebrew grammatically? (b) Was it permitted to study foreign languages? (c) Was it permitted to study secular subjects? (d) Was there any advantage in the study of sciences and languages? (e) Did the advantage of such studies outweigh the disadvantages? Levinsohn appealed to the authority of talmudic and medieval sources, and to national sentiments. He characterized the Hebrew language as "the bond of religion and national survival," uniting all the dispersions of Israel into one people. He severely criticized the traditional ḥadarim ("Hebrew schools") which he dubbed "ḥadrei mavet" ("rooms of death"). He denounced their talmudic-centered curriculum, their unsystematic method of instruction, and their employment of corporal punishment. He objected to the use of Yiddish and demanded its replacement by "pure" German or Russian. He demonstrated that great Jews of the past knew foreign languages and studied the sciences, and explained the advantages of such studies, both in business and in relations with the authorities. He devoted considerable space to the advocacy of manual labor, especially farming, and criticized Jewish fondness for petty trading. The book had a great impact on Russian Jewish life. Groups formed in many towns which undertook to carry out Levinsohn's proposals. Even a part of Orthodox Jewry received the book sympathetically; only the Ḥasidim regarded it as a dangerous work. They banned the book and labeled an adherent of the Haskalah with the pejorative epithet te'udke. The Russian government awarded him a prize of 1,000 rubles for Te'udah be-Yisrael.

Levinsohn's second major book, Beit Yehudah ("House of Judah"), was published in Vilna in 1838 after considerable argument with the printers who refused to print it because of rabbinical opposition. The book purports to be a reply to 35 questions asked by "the great Christian nobleman Emanuel Lipen" (the name is a scramble of the Hebrew letters Peloni Almoni "So-and-So"). The questions deal with the nature of the Commandments, the Talmud, the Karaites, the Pharisees, the Zohar, Shabbateanism, Hasidism, and poses the question: "Is there still hope to reform the House of Israel and how?" In his basic assumptions Levinsohn follows Moses *Mendelssohn's Jerusalem. Judaism is a law; it should not be limited to "divine law," rather it should include "civic law," involving the practices of society and the sciences required for its maintenance and development. "Civic law" may be reformed and altered, with the consent of the people, in accordance with the spirit of the times and national needs. "The Jew is free to accept the legends of the Talmud or to reject them." Modern Christians should not be regarded as idolaters because they obey the seven *Noachide commandments and worship God. They are equal to Jews in respect to all the precepts involving the relations between men. The second half of the book is devoted to a historical survey of the teachings of the Jewish sages in all periods, including *Elijah of Vilna and Moses Mendelssohn. His historical survey follows traditional lines and contains numerous errors, demonstrating the backward state of Jewish knowledge at the time. Toward the end of the book, Levinsohn presents a five-point program for the reform of Jewish life in Russia: (a) The establishment of elementary schools for boys and girls of the lower classes. At the same time, boys and girls should learn a trade or a craft. For gifted pupils only, central colleges should be established in Warsaw, Vilna, Odessa, and Berdichev to teach Talmud and Codes, as well as "science, and various languages." (b) The appointment of a rav kelali ("chief rabbi"), assisted by a supreme religious court, who would appoint rabbis and preachers in all the towns of Russia, under his supervision. A committee of parnasim kolelim ("communal leaders") should also be appointed mainly to defend the poor and the ordinary people "against their leaders and the rich men who suck their marrow and drink their blood." (c) Preachers and orators should be appointed to arouse the people to good behavior, encourage them to take up trades and handicrafts, and explain to them their duties "to the Lord, to themselves, to their fellows, to the State, and to every man." (d) Representations should be made to the government to transfer one-third of the Jews of Russia to agriculture. (e) Luxuries should be forbidden, especially expensive feminine jewelry. These reforms should be carried out without asking for the people's consent.

Efes Damim (1837; "No Blood"), written to refute *blood libel, was published in Vilna in 1837 in the form of a debate between a Jewish rabbi and the Greek patriarch in Jerusalem, supplemented by statements of popes and kings protesting the blood libel. It was translated into English on the occasion of the Damascus blood libel in 1840, and into German and Russian. Another pamphlet called Shorshei ha-Levanon (or Beit ha-Oẓar, Vilna, 1841), containing minor studies, was published during the author's lifetime. He bequeathed his numerous unpublished works to his nephew Jacob Israel Levinsohn who asked David Bernhard *Nathanson to edit and publish them.

The most important of these posthumous works was Zerubbavel, which appeared in an incomplete form in Odessa in 1863, and later in several complete editions. It was written as a reply to Netivot Olam (1838–39), Stanislav *Hoga's Hebrew translation of Old Paths, a critique of Judaism published by the British missionary, McCaul. Levinsohn demonstrates McCaul's ignorance and the unfairness of his attacks on Judaism. He explains the evolution of the Oral Law from the Written Law, pointing out that in the course of this development reforms have been introduced in accordance with the changing needs of the times. Levinsohn insisted that only the halakhic ("legal") and not the aggadic ("legendary") elements of the tradition are binding for the observant Jew. Unlike Christianity, which is restricted to the spheres of faith and ethics, Judaism encompasses all spheres of individual and public life, and its aim is the strengthening of Jewish society: "The survival of the nation is the greatest of all the commandments." The book served to modify the hostile views about the Talmud and rabbinical literature which were often held by the followers of the Haskalah. Since Zerubbavel was intended for publication, Levinsohn phrased his remarks cautiously, so that the book could pass the censor. At the same time he wrote another work containing the rest of his arguments against Christianity. This manuscript was published after his death under the title of Aḥiyyah ha-Shiloni ha-Ḥozeh ("Ahijah the Shilonite, the Prophet," 1863). Here Levinsohn condemns the Christians for their persecution of the Jews, and their intolerance toward members of other faiths and various Christian sects, despite the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. As Christians did not carry out the Christian precepts of love, how can they demand that the Jews become Christians? He compares the sobriety and normal family life prevailing among the Jews, with the higher rate of alcoholism among non-Jews. "All these virtues have come to us from the Talmud." He uses the arguments of *Maimonides and others to show that whatever is positive in the New Testament is of rabbinic origin. Jesus himself, he argues, was an observant Jew who fulfilled all the commandments and believed that the Jews are the "chosen people."

Most of Levinsohn's other works were included in the collections Bikkurei Ribal (1888), Yalkut Ribal (1878), and Eshkol ha-Sofer (1891). Levinsohn's work was derivative. His views were drawn mainly from Mendelssohn, and his practical proposals followed those of the earlier Haskalah. The Hebrew readers of his day who belonged to the generation of transition from Orthodoxy to Haskalah enjoyed his defense of Judaism and his easy style, studded with biblical and rabbinic quotations. His books appeared in numerous editions, and Nathanson's biography of Levinsohn, Sefer ha-Zikhronot ("Book of Remembrances"), went through nine editions between 1876 and 1900. His contemporaries called him "The Russian Mendelssohn." For the modern reader, only his first book, Te'udah be-Yisrael, is of some historical value. By his personality and literary activity, Levinsohn undoubtedly did much to strengthen the moderate Haskalah. Certain ideas formulated in Te'udah be-Yisrael, such as educational reform and the transition to a life of labor and agriculture, later became a part of the programs of *Ḥibbat Zion, *Zionism, and other organizations and movements which preached "the productivization" of the Jewish masses and their adaptation to life in the modern world.

bibliography:

L.S. Greenberg, A Critical Investigation of the Works of Rabbi Isaac Baer Levinsohn (1930), includes bibliography; J.S. Raisin, The Haskalah Movement in Russia (1913), 204–13; S. Spiegel, Hebrew Reborn (1930), 167–72; Waxman, Literature, 3 (19602), 202–12; Klausner, Sifrut, 3 (19522), 33–115; S. Halkin, Modern Hebrew Literature (1950), 67.

[Yehuda Slutsky]

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