Thursday, September 03, 2009

What's a 'maskil'?

In the comments to this post I was asked (pressed?) "How do you define a maskil?" given that the meaning of the term is somewhat elusive, or rather what made (or makes) someone a maskil appears to be elusive. At the time I responded "It depends on time and place. The same definitions will not apply in late 18th century Berlin as in early 19th century Galicia or in mid 19th century Russia, although some common ground will be found between all of them. I cannot offer a concise definition, but I do have thoughts about it and I will happy to dedicate a future post to those thoughts." This is that post.

Now, I am aware that historians of the haskalah (eg, Klausner, Zinberg, Feiner, Pelli) proposed definitions or modifications. But I am not going to touch on their views. I am also not going to subdivide by place or time. Rather, I will try to provide the common-ground criteria which I think are what a maskil should be defined by to correctly get at the term. So broadly speaking, there will be a list at the end of this post that can apply equally to late 18th century Berlin, mid-1820s Lemberg and late 1890s Odessa.

Awhile ago Gil had a post called Reflections on Who is a Maskil. His definition became so broad that somehow it allowed room for R. Hershel Schachter and R. Elchonon Wasserman to be maskilim. Obviously I cannot accept that except as a fun exercise in arguing the absurd. Clearly being a maskil was something other than "a Jew who manifests an interest in Jewish history or Hebrew."

Getting back to the thread which sparked this post, why isn't the answer simple and why would it require a post at all? I think it's because there are two kinds of people who want to know what a maskil is (sometimes both types are found in the same person). Someone who wants to know out of pure historical interest. It is obviously a fact that there was something called Haskalah and it was espoused by people called maskilim. What made them maskilim? Was it a time and place bound term? Then there are people who have inherited what we may as well call the traditional or Orthodox attitude toward Haskalah and maskilim, namely that it was a destructive and seductive force among European Jewry, and it spelled destruction of much of the character of traditional society, and to be fair, present sympathizers of Haskalah who do not have only a detached historical interests, perhaps those historians included.

Now, countless traditional stories and anecdotes, new and old, have to do with maskilim, whether it's Rabbi Mordechai Gifter trying to foil the speech of a famous maskil (here) or Malbim giving a sharp reply to an arrogant question from a maskil (here), or the Neziv explaining his success in acquiring Hebrew language and grammar (here), or Elizer Ben Yehuda being bested in Hebrew proficiency by a ga'on (here) or the Vilna Gaon ordering lashes be applied to a maskil, perhaps the elusive or even fictional Abba Glusk [Salomon Maimon?] (here, and also see here). There are hundreds and hundreds of these stories. It is obvious from them that Haskalah is bad and the maskilim are the villains and seducers and on the wrong track, not to mention delusional, at best, about being enlightened.

Just search the online archive of part of the Israeli Yated Ne'eman's English version for the word "enlightenment." There are many such results, including the story that the famous maskil Adam ha-kohen tried to seduce the Chafetz Chaim in his youth toward Haskalah (here).

On the other hand, there are people who are identified as maskilim who appear not as villains but to have been semi-colleagues and friends of traditionalists, and at times they are even quoted as authorities in this or that matter. These do not usually appear in "stories," because what's the story in the Neziv being close with Shmuel Yosef Fuenn or R. Dovid Zvi Hoffmann writing about Shadal (Melamed Le-hoil II YD 16) that ידוע שהחכם הנ"ל היה מדקדק מאד במלותיו ועדותו עדות ברורה just after he quotes him concerning a tradition for the kashrut of pheasant? A better example than these is the case of Matisyahu Strashun, who was one of the most prominent maskilim of Vilna (1817-1885), and who I will return to in a moment.

Because of this latter phenomenon, or at least I think it's because of it, when such figures come up the approach seems to be to disagree with the contention that they were really maskilim at all. This is what I encountered about Heidenheim. How could the author of a venerable commentary on Rashi, an excellent guide to the trope, the highly qualified printer of important works and authoritative prayer books, a man held in high regard by the Chasam Sofer be a maskil? The answer then for some would be that in light of the positive facts presented, he really was not a maskil at all, and it would be wrong to say he was.

That he was held in high regard cannot be questioned, I think. Moreover, although the Chasam Sofer refers to him as ר" , מו"ה and even once as הג"מ "ר, he usually refers to him by some variant of the title חכם, which while hardly insulting, especially the particular ways he uses it for Heidenheim, at that point in time already was the conventional way of refering to a maskilic scholar. This is suggestive both that the Chasam Sofer held him in good regard, but also knew very well what sort of scholar and manhe was.

(In an article in Hakirah 4 called Setting the Record Straight: Was the Chasam Sofer Inconsistent? by Rabbi Nosson Dovid Rabinowich the question of Heidenheim is touched upon. Rabinowich notes that Heidenheim is not only said to be a maskil, but even took a Reform-friendly stance in a notorious instance. Unfortunately Rabinowich only touches on the question, but doesn't really probe Heidenheim further. Instead, he proceeds to deny strongly that another particular rabbi could be rightfully called a maskil.)

"Oh come, on. Heidenheim wasn't really a maskil," seems to be the attitude, and the reason? Because we don't have a laundry list of negative things to say about him. I encountered this much more strongly on this thread, regarding Mendel Lefin. When I noted that he was a maskil, someone responded that him being titled that on the title-leaf of one of his books doesn't mean he was a maskil, because the term was being used in its classical sense (see below). The problem with this analysis is that Mendel Lefin really was . . . a maskil! But he and Heidenheim are just illustrative of the fact that unless we're playing with definitions "maskil" doesn't mean "rasha who worked nefarious schemes in Europe from about 1775 to 1925," although some or even many of the maskilim certainly might have been that. Maskil means espouser or participant in Haskalah. Obviously then I also contend that Haskalah doesn't mean "Godless plot to secularize and introduce impurity into traditional Jewish society between 1775 and 1925," although perhaps some manifestations of Haskalah were that.

Getting back to Strashun, unlike Heidenheim there is no question that he was a maskil. The Yiddish Wikipedia cuts right to the chase: מתתיהו שטראשון איז א זון פון ר' שמואל שטראשון באקאנט אלץ די רש"ש, ער איז געווען א משכיל

From an interesting book:



Here is Strashun's name on the board of the Mekize Nirdamim Society, in an edition of commentary of Wessely on Genesis, a very maskilic page:

But then here he is alongside the Malbim in another publication society, this time for Rabbenu Chananel on Pesachim. The book is dedicated to Shir Rapoport; be sure to read all the names:


Finally, what makes him most interesting is the letters of bracha included by one of the most famous 19th century kannoim, Yaakov Lipschutz, (referred to as "the chareidi writer and thinker R' Yaakov HaLevi Lipshitz" in Yated, famous also for having been the secretary of R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spector) upon the formation of his Machzike Ha-das Society (let's just say it wasn't Edah):


See here what Lipschutz writes about Strashun:



In short, Strashun was a maskil, there is no doubt, but he doesn't seem to have been considered a rasha, did he?

To define a maskil then, my definition would start with some of the following criteria:

  1. A maskil is time bound. No one who lived in the 15th century was a maskil, no matter how many features he held in common with later maskilim. Furthermore, a true maskil does not arise until the second part of the 18th century. That doesn't mean that Moses Mendelssohn (b. 1729), who obviously has to be considered a maskil, was not a maskil on December 31, 1749, but was one the next morning. However, this excludes all figures who matured and flourished the bulk of their life in the first part of the 18th century. R. Zalman Hanau and Asher Anshel Worms were therefore, in my definition, not maskilim. They may have presaged the haskalah; after all I do not deny the existence of proto- figures in various fields, whether artistic or intellectual. Movements and types usually don't arise ex nihilo.
  2. Prior to the Haskalah the term maskil was really just a nice compliment meaning something like "erudite scholar," and possibly one with unique or refined interests. In Italy, until well into the 19th century the term maskil was a title granted to young, learned Jews, much the way chaver was in other parts of Europe. For example, in the famous exchange between R. Ya'akov Emden and Moses Mendelssohn, the former called the latter a maskil in his salutation. He was using it in its original sense of an erudite scholar and meant nothing about a haskalah movement. In this post I reproduce the haskamah for a book by the grammarian Seligmann Baer. R. Samson Rafael Hirsch calls him a maskil. Now, Baer may have been a maskil in the full sense of the term, but clearly Hirsch means it in the older sense.Thus, if a person is called or titled maskil, that is not in itself evidence of being a maskil. (As an aside, an interesting research project would be to analyze the term maskil as it is applied in letters and other writings down through the ages, especially as we get into the real era of haskalah.)
  3. In the context of his own traditional or Orthodox culture, his interests and ways are perfectly normal and he isn't seen as espousing anything different or contrary. Thus, attending university or engagement with Wissenschaft des Judentums in Neo-Orthodox 19th century Germany was not a signpost of being a maskil, and neither was writing Hebrew poetry or studying Hebrew in Italy, or being a very British Jew in the UK.
  4. He cannot have widely been considered to not be a maskil in his own time and place. This causes us to exclude after-the-fact shoe-fitting, most especially if the person specifically did not consider himself a maskil. Thus, R. Yisrael Salanter, who was seen by maskilim as a partial or potential maskil (because his mussar approach was manifestly a critique of traditional society, and it dovetailed with the morals agenda of many maskilim, his engagement with modernity and modern languages, especially in Germany, and the stories about his lenincies typified most strongly by the Yom Kippur cholera story) must be excluded. He himself forcefully rejected the overtures and association. For example, he declined to head the maskilic Rabbinic Seminary in Vilna, and famously wrote to Ha-maggid that he was not proud of his accomplished mathematician son, Lipmann Lipkin.
  5. It doesn't matter if he was Orthodox. A maskil may or may not have been Orthodox; being Orthodox is not itself a sign of not being a maskil.
  6. A maskil is in possession of outside areas of interest besides studying Shas and Poskim, especially if these outside areas include secular studies (ie, in addition to an interest in Hebrew language or Tanach, for example, also an interest in mathematics or biology). In addition, he is interested in Jewish and general history, and interested in the kinds of things found in abundance in classical literature, but mentioned only incidentally, and derided as details or trivial by traditionalists (ie, "what color was Rashi's shirt").
  7. Perhaps as a corollary to number 6 a maskil knew or desired to know European languages, a point which of course is only relevent when and where the Jews were not already speaking a non-Jewish European language.
  8. A maskil did not apologize for reading, knowing or citing or non-Jewish secular literature. There are all sorts of Jewish works from earlier eras and the period in question (beginning in the 2nd part of the 18th century) where these kinds of works and study are mentioned, but the author feels obligated to justify it, sometimes tortuously, even if the author is really being disingenuous. The point is that he felt the need to do it, and thus his secular knowledge is not really a signpost of haskalah per se. Obviously there are exceptions, especially in a persecutory environment where there was great hostility toward maskilim. But generally, maskilim are proud of their secular attainments and don't secretly feel that it is really not allowed. On the contrary, it is preferred and it is a must!
  9. The maskil was attracted to the so-called rationalist mesorah and its precursors, and to earlier scholars who manifested a critical scholarly approach like Azariah de Rossi, Elijah Levita and Yashar Del Medigo; not necessarily major figures.
  10. The maskil manifested a highly positive attitude toward so-called rationalist rishonim like Rambam and Ibn Ezra, because of their rational tendencies. Thus, Briskers and Lubavitchers who incline toward the Rambam are not manifesting a maskilic trait in doing so.
  11. The maskil was critical of superstition, folkways and the popular eschewal of modern medicine and science.
  12. The maskil was critical of kabbalah and/ or Chassidus.
  13. Although some might say that this is similar to 11 and 12, the maskil had in at least some measure a critical attitude toward norms in the traditional culture. "This is the way we do it" didn't cut it for a maskil. He probably had something critical to say about everything from hygiene to education.
  14. A maskil manifested an appreciation for pshat; even where he also upheld, defended or appreciated rabbinic drush, he made a point of asserting that the drush was really the pshat. Consequently, he denigrated pilpul and casuistry, real or imagined.
  15. He associated with other known maskilim and/ or published in their journals, such as the first one, Ha-Meassef (mentioned here because several probably debatable figures published in that journal).
  16. He saw himself as a maskil or adherent or proponent of haskalah.
  17. A maskil had a positive attitude toward Moses Mendelssohn, even veneration toward him. On the surface this would seem to apply to the second generation of haskalah and later, but in reality it also applies to the first. Rambama"n was the gadol of Haskalah par excellence. This is not to say that there were no maskilim who were critical of him, eg, Shadal. Very late in the haskalah game it became almost de rigeur to denigrate Mendelssohn, but that was mostly the iconoclastic tendency of the young generation toward their forebearers.
  18. He saw European governments and/ or non-Jewish thinkers as having a positive role or potentially positive influence on the Jewish people.
  19. Finally, the maskil provoked some kind of opposition from his right. Although this can ultimately apply to almost anyone, since almost everyone is attacked from his right, whether R. Moshe Feinstein or R. Aharon Leib Steinman, it's all about taking many of these elements together.
I don't have any kind of formula, like if you answered yes to seven then you have a 60% chance of being a maskil, but if a good many of these points apply to an individual in question, and the exclusionary ones don't disqualify a candidate altogether, then I think it is safe to say that we are in fact dealing with a maskil. I think enough of these points apply to Heidenheim to safely establish that I am justified in asserting him to be a maskil, although obviously of a different kind from a Moshe Leib Lilienblum, who would probably qualify on every single count (maybe except for 16, being a Zionist, and moreover living under the severely oppressive Czarist rule in the latter part of the 19th century).

It will probably be fun to point out that, say, the Chasam Sofer had interests outside of Shas and Poskim, knew German, wrote Hebrew poetry, obviously knew Tanach perfectly well, expressed an interest in secular knowledge, even seems to have read Bikkure Ha-ittim. But of course he was not a maskil. Maskilim do not own poetry and grammar or morals, and no one is saying they do. I reserve the right to contradict this post entirely in future posts.

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