One, a historic Ashkenazic ambivalence toward spending any significant amount of time in study that was not related to Talmud and halakhah. Traces of this can be found in the accepted interpretation of the Talmudic expression מנעו בניכם מן ההגיון (Berachos 28b; mentioned in the article below). Rashi regards הגיון as too much Bible study. Rabbenu Tam famously permitted the neglect of Bible study, seemingly, by defining Talmud study as encompassing Bible, Mishnah and Talmud (and therefore one could fulfill the Talmudic dictum that one should divide one's study in thirds). In view of the fact that both Rashi and Rabbenu Tam were masters of the Bible and Hebrew language, no one should regard the simple meaning of their words as prescriptive, and besides, other interpretations have been offered. For example, perhaps Rashi meant that "too much Bible" is more than its allotted third of one's time. Mendelssohn proposed, without evidence, that Rashi meant the detailed study of massoretic minutiae, such that one shouldn't spend most of one's time delving into Bible text criticism of the sort that exults in making discoveries about a single letter. In any case, Rabbenu Tam certainly did not envision ignorance of the content of the Bible or the language. His suggestion is that Talmud study encompasses both of these (along with "Mishnah"), and certainly one who possessed neither is deficient in his Talmud study; obviously he wasn't suggesting one pretend that ignorance of the subjects is acceptable, so long as one spends the time studying the Talmud.
In any case, there are numerous other example that can be marshaled to show the place that Bible and Hebrew study occupied on the totem pole of Jewish learning. For example, the Bach has an aside (שו"ת ב"ח החדשות סימן מב) a
שאינו אלא כאחד מהתלמידים שכל כוחו אינו אלא במקרא ובטעמים ואפשר שכל ימיו לא למד אפילו הלכה אחת בתלמודIt sounds like he's describing a professor at Bresslau or the Hebrew University, but he died in 1640!
These examples can be multiplied. On the other hand, in general the rabbinic literature from this period certainly shows mastery of, or at least familiarity with, Hebrew language and Bible. In addition, until Hebraists of the caliber of Sebastian Muenster and the Buxtorfs established Christian independence in Hebrew studies, instruction from Jewish teachers and books were a necessity, and these were never in short supply. In short, the neglect and de-emphasis of Bible and formal Hebrew study was only relatively speaking, but neither was it a complete myth.
The second reason, was the rise of a class of modern Jewish Bible scholars (ie, maskilim) and their struggle with the old order and rabbinic class. The more serious study of the Bible and its language was adopted by those viewed as outside or hostile to the tradition, the more it was suspected and neglected on principle. A subset of this reason was missionary activity among Jews and the distribution of Hebrew Bibles printed without an authorized rabbinic commentary like Rashi. In short, study of the Bible and its language was no longer associated with piety.
The third reason, I'll save for the comments.
In any case, on one point both maskilim and missionaries were in agreement: that the Jews purposely neglected these subjects, because if they had cultivated them then they would have no choice but to adopt their respective points of view. Numerous maskilic writings testify to personal experiences from their youth of getting in trouble or accused of heresy for being discovered reading this or that Bible commentary or book of Hebrew grammar. Furthermore, one of their chief complaints against their greatest antagonists, Hasidic society, was that ignorance of Bible and Hebrew was itself regarded as a pious act!
Although there is no question that there is some, perhaps even much, truth to these testimonies--and in fact plenty of people today, in 2009, can testify to this attitude from their own personal experiences--many of them seem to be exaggerated or even parodic. For example, in SJ Fuenn's Ha-karmel (#49, 1861) a letter appears from a writer living in Uman. He writes that he is intellectually lonely, everyone around him regards someone who reads a newspaper as a heretic, one would be persecuted if seen reading from a Chumash with Biur (ie, Mendelssohn's edition). None of this seems in any way implausible, however in the 7th issue of the paper in 1862 a reply from people in Uman appears, which defends the honor of the townspeople as pious and upstanding individuals who certainly adhere to the rabbinic dictum שאסור לאדם ללמד את בנו מקרא! Being that this is a) not true and b) a parody of a true (and some would say highly unfortunate) rabbinic statement I conclude that the writer of that letter was not of the simple pious townsmen of Uman, but making fun of them. (Fake letters to the editor weren't invented by the Yated.) If this seems obvious to the reader, it didn't seem obvious to the original readers of Ha-karmel, nor to Israel Zinberg, who takes it at face value!
As for Christian missionaries, their journals were full of notices in this regard.
So it is below that I reproduce a translation of a page from Yehuda Leib Gordon's newspaper Ha-meliz. This appears in the Jewish Missionary Intelligencer published by the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews. The article was written by Tzvi Kasdoi (1862-1937), then a Jewish traveler in the Crimea. He discusses an encounter at the home of one of the most celebrated rabbis of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, R. Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini, a Jerusalem rabbi who spent many years in Crimea ministering to the local Jews (who were known as Krymchaks) who had been largely ignorant of how to properly practice traditional Judaism. He personally taught them and raised their level of observance. In addition, as readers surely know, he is famous for writing the encyclopedic Sde Chemed. As a preface I will note that he was a renaissance sort of rabbi and it is very difficult to square the attitude below with the historic Hacham Medini (although I will offer a couple of suggestions below).
But, first, R. Medini:
Download שדי חמד I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII and IX.
Here is it in the original. First a key excerpt:
Then the entire article (click to enlarge):
Could this be true? There are three possibilities: total untruth, partial truth and completely true. As I said, it is hard to square this with the historical author of the Sde Chemed. If it is entirely true, I might suggest that this was something he was teaching to the ignorant population in his charge while he was trying to strengthen their faith and knowledge of Jewish tradition, and probably to insulate them from Christian missionaries. If so, then this was a kind of horaah shaah. Not necessarily any less shocking, or even outrageous, but at least that's an explanation. If entirely false, nothing more need said except that it is hard to believe that--the writer quotes him and asserts it is a direct quote--לשונו ממש! The editor of Ha-meliz was Yehuda Leib Gordon, who had a major bone to pick with Orthodox rabbis who were moderately touched by Haskalah. It seems that he regarded them not as moderates, but as radical, reactionary, fundamentalists. It was in that spirit that he brutally skewered R. Yosef Zechariah Stern as the cruel "Vafsi Ha-kuzari" who would allow a Jewish women to be chained as an agunah because of a missing jot in the smallest of letters in her bill of divorce (the poem is called Kotzo shel yud). Yet R. Stern was actually not a great representative of fanatical Orthodoxy at all. Similarly, R. Medini quotes Haskalah sources in his Sde Chemed, was personally friendly with maskilim, etc. Perhaps Gordon ran the article as written because it placed Medini in just such a context that made him look bad, and that was fine because he did not like rabbis of Medini's ilk.
A final possibility is that Medini's student was, well, a dope and did not accurately represent his views. However, Medini himself responded as he did without really having heard the conversation between Kasdoi and the student, except in the retelling. Then, sizing Kasdoi up as he did (fairly or not) he responded with a spirited defense of traditional Judaism.
Finally, lest readers accuse me of apologetic tendencies, it is surely possible that the story occurs in all it's exact detailing and it means just what it means. All in all, how interesting!