Friday, August 11, 2023

Rav Yisroel Salanter: Relationship of Musar Movement & Haskala - Rabbi Hillel Goldberg

I have discussed a number of times the Seridei Aish's assertion that the Musar Movement was a frum haskala.  The clearest exposition of this idea, however, is found in the following analysis excerpted from the writings of Rabbi Dr. Hillel Goldberg. There is much more and it is worth while reading his conjectures on the matter. As he acknowledges there is very little documentary evidence or oral traditions describing what Rav Salanter was doing in Europe and what his actual plans were to revitalize European Jewry.
Rabbi Hillel Goldberg (Between Berlin and Slobodka - Rav Yisroel Salanter chapter III):

It is critical to distinguish between Rabbi Israel’s opposition to Haskala (“Enlightenment”) as it was constituted in Jewish circles in Vilna and Kovno and his attitude toward it in principle. The modernization of East European Jewery went through a pronounced assimilatory phase in the 1840s and 1850s, according to which Jewish lanagues and customs were not to be complemented but replaced by Russian language, religion or culture. Lithuanian Haskalah seemed particularly dangerous to Rabbi Israel since its emphasis on secular study, not in tandem with but in opposition to Talmud study, could be especially compelling in a cultural environment readily inclined to use of the mind. The Musar Movement, with its emphasis on knowing and transforming the psyche, was an attempt to ground the Lithuanian inclination to intellection solidly in the will, such that the respective allure of secular and religious study would be unevenly matched. On the one side would be the cultural and economic advantages of secular study. On the other side would be the integrated religious personality. His commitment to talmudic study and custom would encompass but also reach below his intellect into what Rabbi Israel conceived to be the more powerful, determinative unconscious, or will, able to resist an allure that, whatever its intrinsic merits, entailed the abandonment of Jewish study, custom, and community.

Rabbi Israel’s estimate of the intrinsic merits of Haskalah was clouded by his fierce opposition to it in Vilna and Kovno, yet a positive estimate contributed to his early successes there. In a traditional society breaking down, the endeavor to preserve it has a better chance of success if some of the corrosive forces acting on it can be accepted as consonant, on a profound level, with the tradition that, on the manifest level, they attack. It was the differentiated vision of this kind that Rabbi Israel’s seemingly blind opposition to Haskalah was masked, for Rabbi Israel sought to raise to the consciousness of traditional Lithuanian Jewry certain tendencies of Haskalah that bathed in light forgotten segments of tradition, while staunchly attacking Haskalah generally on account of its assimilatory impulse. Haskalah’s humanistic stress on individual development and its pungent critique of ethical laxity in the community – these were precisely the segments of tradition that Rabbi Israel’s own Musar studies had irradiated and that he worked to propagate. And yet, Haskalah, notwithstanding its merits, could not be countenanced.

It was the explosion of this unstable tension that took Rabbi Israel’s fourth oscillation – between working with masses and working with an elite – to extremity: leaving Eastern Europe altogether. The positive evaluation of Haskalah, even if only partial, could not forever be hidden if it was precisely the Musar teachings of Rabbi Israel that dovetailed with the positive aspects of Haskalah. And yet, Haskalah could not be praised – and yet, it was increasingly victorious in the struggle for Lithuanina Jewry, so its positive elements could not wisely be hidden.A vicious circel – especially since any praise of Haskalah would destroy Rabbi Israel’s credibility in the Orthodox rabbincal community. Impasse.

A way out was to turn to a culture in which individual elements of Haskalah could be praised against a background on which the essential failure of Haskalah could be presumed. Rabbi Israel explained his unexpected decision to remain in Western Europe (to which he had traveled temporarily in 1857 for medical treatment) with a parable.
When horses panic on a mountaintop and begin to gallop downhill, they cannot be restrained. Whoever tries to halt them will endanger his life; the horses will surely trample him. Once the horses have reached level ground, however, it is possible to bridle them, to bring them under control. So it is with rejuvenation of Judaism. In Russia, the large Jewish communities gallop on a downward spiritual slope; it is impossible to bring them to order. But the German communities have been on level ground for some time; it is possible to halt them, to restore them.


  1. Do we know anything about R'Israel's life in Western Europe? Did he teach in secular establishments/institutions? Or did he run a yeshiva of some sort? Did he write anything?

    1. Etkes's biography lists the little that is known about his life in Western Europe. Golderberg summarizes

      Residence in Western Europe accelerated and radicalized Rabbi Is¬rael's penchant for pedagogic innovation, but here, too, the tension in the second oscillation – between tradition and innovation - was reduced. The Orthodox who could find Rabbi Israel's inovations objectionable were culturally, if not gcographically, distant, in Lithuania, while the Orthodox of Germany were themselves the originators of new departures. More important, little to nothing came of Rabbi Israel’s innovations, which amounted mostly to suggestions and projects that he could not bring to fruition, The one success, the first jourual of talmudic investigations and Mussar thought, lasted less than two years (Tevunah 1861 – 1862). The stillborn suggestions included the preparation of an Aramaic-Hebrew dictionary to facilitate the study of the Talmud by beginners; the translation of the Talmud from Aramaic to make Talmud accessible to non-initiates; the elucidation of methodological principles of Talmud study, to make it understandable to a systematic mind; the introduction of Talmud into university curricula to increase respect for it among Gentiles (this, as a way of establishing a locus of respect for Talmud that would speak to the assimilating mentality of West European Jewish students, who did not respect Talmud in its own right); and finally, the publication in Russian of Jewish books for assimilating East European Jewish students.[...]
      Finallv, we may imagine that also the first oscillation, between Musar and talmudic studies received a certain quieting over the years, for Rabbi Israel's writings develop with progressive clarity the interrelation of the two-the subsuming of Musur under the rubric of talmudic teaching, the understanding of talmudic norm as the substance of the Musur person¬ality" And yet, if tension in Rabbi Israel's oscillations did recede, tension surely persisted. First and foremost. on the scale that mattered to Rabbi Israel, he failed. Many of his projects in Western Europe failed. His Musar movement in Eastern Europe never took hold of the community as did its analogue, Hasidism, in other parts of Eastern Europe. In 1881, two years before he died, Rabbi Israel wrote mournfully about the spiritual decomposition of the community he had set out to fortify in 1838. Then there was his illness, never posthumously diagnosed. Symptomatically he suffered from migraine headaches and fits of melancholia. Some link these symptoms to Musar excesses of self-criticism, but they apparently were a hereditary disorder, as his brother and one of his sons (neither of whom was identified with the Musar movement) suffered from similar symp¬tomes. In any case, he was often ill and sometimes virtually disabled, especially in his last years. And finally, he grieved over another one of his sons, Lippman Lipkin, who apparently inherited his father's intellec¬tual ability but turned it, against the wishes of his father, to mathematics (the Lippman parallelogram) instead of to Talmud, dying at the age of thirty. Rabbi Israel's wife also predeceased him, leaving him a widower for thirteen years. And here we reach the ultimate oscillation in Rabbbi Israel Salanter. the struggle between struggle and tranquility. Struggle: his oscillations, travels, projects, tragedies. And tranquility: memoirs paint a picture of a man of self-transcendcnce and serenity, calming and soothing by his presence Contradictory poles coalesce as dynamic equilibrium


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