Sunday, May 19, 2013

Seridei Aish: Why were religious Jews attracted to Haskala?

 Continuing the investigation into the expression of "frum haskala" that was used by the Seridei Aish for the Mussar movement. In the following letter he describes the miserable life most lived in the ghetto and why Haskala was viewed as a desirable alternative - even though it meant religious compromises and rejection. I just added a comparable quote from Rav S. R. Hirsch's 19 Letters

Seridei Aish (Volume IV page 366 translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman in Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch page 16). The ghetto stood for hundreds of years and produced men of  great stature, righteous people, who devoted their energies to  Torah study and mitzvah observance, men whose entire joy and  pleasure in life was to rejoice in the Almighty. They attained lofty  spiritual levels and merited a degree of Divine inspiration that  raised them high above the bitter darkness of the exile. Such peo­ple's words and deeds were suffused with the sanctity of the  Torah, and its presence permeated their lives.

Nonetheless, within the ghetto's walls there lived also masses of people who were not privileged to taste the Torah's pleasures  and to experience its inspiration. These people thirsted for life,  and their inability to attain it made them depressed. They knew  only difficulty, and the lives of a significant portion of them were  twisted by an ascetic melancholy.

Finally the day came, new winds began to blow and the walls  of the ghetto fell before them. Rays of hope, of light and liberty,  the prospects of life and creativity, wealth and social position, wafted into the darkest corners of the ghetto, to human beings who had been so long deprived of any place in society. The innate thirst for a healthy and complete life which is so natural to every  Jew, a thirst repressed for so many centuries, was reawakened  amid sound and fury.

These radical developments brought the Jewish people to a state of crisis. One-dimensional life-denying; religiosity simply collapsed, totally unable to restrain its children who strayed from its framework, rejecting the indignities of oppression, who strove to break free from their constraints.
Confusion reigned in the Jewish community. On the one side stood the elders, preservers of tradition, who defended with all their might the accepted religious way, which was predicated on a rejection of the pleasures and accomplishments of the material world. On the other side were those drunk and dizzy with their new freedom, who lashed out mercilessly at everything that was precious and holy in the traditional order of Jewish life.

Rav S. R. Hirsch (Nineteen Letters #18): [The leaders of Orthodoxy] became at first enemies of this philosophical spirit, and later of all specifically intellectual and philosophical pursuits in general. Certain misunderstood utterances [e.g., Bereishis Rabbah 44:1] were taken as weapons with which to repel all higher interpretations of the Talmud . . . The inevitable consequence was, therefore, that since oppression and persecution had robbed Israel of every broad and natural view of world and of life, and Talmud had yielded about all the practical results for life of which it was capable, every mind that felt the desire of independent activity was obliged to forsake the paths of study and research in general open to the human intellect, and to take its recourse to dialectic subtleties and hairsplitting. Only a very few [e.g., R’ Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari and Ramban] during this entire period stood with their intellectual efforts entirely within Judaism, and built it up out of its own inner concept [Drachman translation]…. we are left with two generations confronting each other. One of them has inherited an uncomprehended Judaism, as practiced by men from habit, a revered but lifeless mummy which it is afraid to bring back to life. The other, though in part burning with noble enthusiasm for the welfare of the Jews, regards Judaism as bereft of any life and spirit, a relic of an era long past and buried, and tries to uncover its spirit, but, not finding it, threatens through its well‑meant efforts to sever the last life nerve of Judaism - out of sheer ignorance [Paritzky translation].


  1. Ultimately the Judaism of the ghetto was a negative one. Quite often one was religious because one had no choice or knew nothing else, not because one desired to be. Add to that the rejection of the non-Jewish society around them and it's no wonder it lasted so long and collapsed so quickly when the world opened up.

  2. "One-dimensional life-denying; religiosity simply collapsed, totally unable to restrain its children who strayed from its framework, rejecting the indignities of oppression, who strove to break free from their constraints."

    Has anything really changed?

  3. Are the haredim who praise Rav Hirsch aware of how he characterizes their way of life?

    -Ben Dov

  4. My only question is:

    This is such an important topic - why did it only garner three comments!!!!!

    So many of our youth forsake religion specifically for this reason - they are turned off by the hypocrisy and superficiality. They basically were never exposed to the REAL DEAL!

  5. I hate to say it Garnel, but this only characterizes ashkenazi Judaism.

    The Judaism of the gaonim and rishonim of sefarad who were immeressed in poetry, science, art, grammar, marrying rationalism and mysticsm (some) all in the path of the holy hazal, is not accurately characterized by this statement.


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