Moses Isaac

views updated


MOSES ISAAC (Darshan ; also known as the Kelmer Maggid ; 1828–1899), the main preacher of the *Musar movement, Moses Isaac was born near Slonim. In his youth he already showed exceptional abilities as a preacher and delivered his first sermon in Slonim at the age of 15. Moses Isaac became a shopkeeper in a nearby town, but, failing to earn a livelihood, returned to Slonim to seek other means of subsistence. Reluctant to make a living from religious activity, he refused tempting offers to serve as a preacher, but at last accepted a position as preacher to a synagogue in Slonim, requesting the meager salary of half a ruble a week. Dissatisfied with his lack of influence, he accepted a similar position at Novaya Mysh, but there also he found no satisfaction. At the age of 21 he relinquished his position and proceeded to Kovno (Kaunas) in order to study under R. Israel *Lipkin, the founder of the Musar movement. He remained there until he had absorbed the teachings of that movement, and Lipkin, recognizing his outstanding abilities as a preacher and his potential influence, charged him with propagating its ideals. For over half a century Moses Isaac was the outstanding Maggid of the Musar movement. He accepted positions as preacher to various communities – Kelme (1850–53; whence his name, the Kelmer Maggid), Zagare (1853–58), Oshmyany (1858–60), and Minsk (1860–63) – but essentially he was an itinerant preacher, traveling from town to town.

In his sermons Moses Isaac departed entirely from the exegetical and expository method of preaching current in his time and applied himself solely to raising the moral and ethical standards of the communities. Wherever he went, he would first pay a visit to the local rabbi in order to acquaint himself with the social evils prevalent in the community and then fearlessly denounce them. The following extract from one of his published sermons (Tokhaḥat Ḥayyim, no. 7) is indicative of the content of his homilies: "If a man recites Psalms from morning to night but tells lies and is guilty of slander; if he prays with devotion and recites the Grace after Meals aloud, but has no compassion for his fellowman; if with the same enthusiasm as he fulfills every precept between man and God, he vindictively persecutes anyone who has done him a wrong… he can be called a wicked man." He inveighed particularly against commercial malpractices, exploitation of the poor, and dishonest practices toward non-Jews. His influence was unbounded. Contemporary newspapers report how on the morrow of his sermons he would visit the local market, and shopkeepers would destroy their false weights and measures. A dishonest shopkeeper is said to have lost his reason as a result of these denunciations, while another committed suicide. He did not hesitate to name flagrant transgressors, especially unworthy communal leaders, from the pulpit. As a result, on more than one occasion he was maligned, denounced to the government, and imprisoned, but, undeterred, he continued his reproofs.

Moses Isaac used to preach in a unique singsong, sometimes bursting into song, and although he was ridiculed for it, especially by the maskilim whom he vigorously attacked, the effect upon the masses was hypnotic. J.L. Gordon, the leader of the maskilim, complained (in Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums, 25 (1861), 168–70) of his "obscurantism" in establishing "Musar shtiebels" (conventicles for the study of Musar), and that he was so successful that he had established one in Mitau (Jelgava), Latvia, a center of the maskilim. Moses Isaac established scores of such "Musar shtiebels" throughout the country, synagogues for humble workers, arranging study courses for them, and philanthropic societies. In 1884 he visited London where the chief rabbi, Nathan Adler, and Samuel Montagu (the first Lord Swaythling), founder and head of the Federation of Synagogues, were greatly impressed by him and defrayed the expenses of his visit. In 1898 he moved to Lida, to settle with his son Ben Zion Darshan, and died in the following year. His only published work is the Tokhaḥat Ḥayyim (Vilna, 1897), ten of his sermons which he chose as examples of his teachings.


D. Katz, Tenu'at ha-Musar, 2 (1954), 395–407.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]