Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An 1850s response to biblical criticism in Yitzchak Baer Levinsohn's Guide to the Perplexed.

In 1839 Isaac Baer Levinsohn printed his book Beis Yehuda, which he had written ten years earlier. It was a sort of history of and explanation about Judaism and a sequel to his Te'uda Be-yisrael. (It's the book which I quoted in one of my favorite posts, about the word "daven.") Ostensibly written in answer to queries from an official of the Russian government - the questions are in the beginning; indeed, the book is subtitled "Collected responses which I sent on 1 Iyyar 1837 to the great scholar and Nobleman, the wonderful Christian teacher, Immanuel Liven" - it was in reality nothing of the sort and Immanuel Liven wasn't a real person.

What happened was that once Levinsohn sent his sheets to the printer and word got out what was contained within them the rabbis became upset. The printer then refused to print it. So Levinsohn, in his letter to some of the rabbis opposed to the book, told them that the aforementioned government official had asked him those questions, and this was his responses. The person didn't exist, but his name was very similar to the actual minister of education, so the opposition was withdrawn. These facts arise from a letter printed 36 years after his death, where he explains to a friend what had happened.

I think it's reasonable to note that it was not, evidently, the content of the answers per se which were opposed, but the very format in which they were discussed together. After all, once it was "known" that the questions were posed by the government, if the answers were totally objectionable then how could opposition to it be withdrawn? I think the problem was a book of this style was not appreciated, much the way contemporary books raising questions and giving answers in accordance with classical and traditional sources may well be opposed. Perhaps you will agree with me once you read the questions (at the end).

Interestingly, when it was reprinted in 1859 I noticed that it included an interesting footnote that was not present in the first edition (1839). It says page 579, but it's really 179. Here it is:

and by comparison, here is the same passage, without the footnote, in 1839:

As you can see, the footnote attempts to refute nascent biblical criticism, specifically the idea that Ezra really wrote the Torah, not Moshe. It should be noted that nothing had changed in Western European bible scholarship between 1839 and 1859 in the sense that in 1839 it was accepted that Moses wrote the Torah, but not in 1859. On the contrary. So my guess is that what had changed in those 20 years is what Jews in Eastern Europe had been, or could have been, reading.

Levinsohn provides four objections to the suggestion that the Torah is the work of Ezra. They are

1) The Samaritan Torah is in essence the same as ours, except for some minor differences, including many that are clearly intentional changes. The Samaritans arrived on the scene some 200 years before Ezra, and there was great mutual hatred between them and the Jews, and especially between them and Ezra.

2) How could Ezra have fooled the remnants of the Kohanim and Levi'im, who were the elders and sages of the generation? Even after the building of the Second Temple there were many elders among them who remembered the First Temple. They knew the Torah and its commandments, and were raised on it. Furthermore, Chagai, Zechariah and Malachai, Daniel, Chanania, Mishal, Azariah, Nechemia, Mordechai and Zerubavel were around, and these knew Yirmiyahu, Yechezkel and Baruch.

3) All the books of the Early and Later Prophets, and the Hagiographa, are intimately tied to one another, and all are connected with the Torah of Moshe, and its commandments and narratives. Those who argue that Ezra wrote the Torah implicitly must claim that these books and Psalms, and Proverbs, all were written by Ezra. It is also known that every prophet and writer and poet has a distinct writing style, and all differ greatly in terms of clarity, strengths, etc. So how could Ezra have written so much literature in so many styles?

4) Isn't the books of Ezra and most of Chronicles, which were written by Ezra, written in a different style from the Torah and the Prophets? Not only that, Ezra's writings are inferior in quality.

All these responses are sufficient to shut the mouths of these allegedly wise men who sow doubt amongst people, says Levinsohn.


Here is a vintage postcard (?) of Levinsohn who, incidentally, considered his greatest works to be his works against the blood libel (Efes Damim) and against Alexander McCaul's Old Paths, the 19th century's most successful and widely disseminated missionary attack on Judaism (Zerubavel):


Here are the questions which the book is supposed to answer - and, incidentally, after the 1858 edition the subsequent editions do not even give the questions:

1) What are the fundamentals of the faith of the religion of Moses according to the Talmudic rabbis and their counterparts among the rabbis who followed them?

2) Is it true that the Jews possess books that are earlier in time than the Torah? If this is the case, why didn't Moses or another prophet mention them?

3) With which form of script was the Torah written?

4) Are they other books apart from the Bible, but from the same period?

5) Is it true that the commandments in the Torah, according to the view of the Talmudic rabbis, lack any rational explanation? If so, what about the fact that the Torah itself gives reasons for many mitzvos?

6) Is it true that the Talmudic and later rabbis considered the commandments in the Torah regarding behavior between people, to apply only concerning Jews, but not people of other religions? Is it permitted for a Jew to to do any bad thing to a non-Jews, particularly against Christians whom they harbor a great hatred toward; that it is even a mitzvah to wrong them?

7) What is the Talmud like? What's it about? What can it be compared to? Which time and place and in what language is it?

8) Which books are considered "the Talmud"? Do you have other books considered to be as important? If so, who wrote them and what are they about?

9) Are there wise things in the Talmud? Because rumor has it that it is filled with disgusting things and baseless, irrational stories?

10) How did the sages of the Talmud permit themselves to add and subtract from the commandments of the Torah, to the extent that today the rule of the Torah appears different from what is inside it, although the Torah says one may not add or subtract from it? And many of these things are built upon explanations of the verses which go against the plain meaning of the text and the rules of the Hebrew language? And an amazing thing - the sages did not enact leniencies, only stringencies?

11) Are there any remnants today of the Jewish sects which were around during the Second Temple period? What are the Karaites? When did they begin?

12) Is it true that today there are Jews of the sect of the Pharisees of the Second Temple period?

13) What are these millions of laws and fences which you are concerned with all your days?

14) Who enacted millions of baseless customs, and is there not a spirit of idolatry in them? What is the Pesach Seder like, with all its practices, about which Jews were at times suspected of consuming the blood of Christians on that night?

15) Is it true that in the Jewish books there are passages against the Christian religion in general, against its savior and apostles, which generate great hatred against us [Christians] and against the relgion in general, and our Messiah in particular? This is alleged by many Jews who converted, and by certain Christian writers.

16) Is it true that according to the Talmud and related rabbinic literature to learn foreign languages, or secular wisdom, or mathematics, of farming and the like? This is what many Jewish scholars who converted allege in their books. Similarly, such is alleged by born Christians who have mastered the Talmud and rabbinic literature - specifically the Italian priest Chiarini, who tried to translate the Talmud into French in order to prove to everyone that the Talmud is that cause of every aforementioned bad habit of the Jews. Furthermore, we see that today's Karaites, who did not accept the Talmud, are very honest men, for they pursue the Torah of Moses alone, a Torah of truth which is in their mouth, the source of which is the living God, master of the universe. Apparently this priest admired them very much. We see that they are multilingual, whereas the greatest rabbis do not even know the vernacular of their country, and certainly no foreign language, and a fortiori secular knowledge they do not know, and all the more so the masses of Jews. For it is prohibited according to Talmudic law? Is it true that you don't have any thinkers or farmers? If one were to teach them languages or some sort of wisdom, is it true that in your view they are heretics and excluded from the grouping of the Jews?

17) Who established the prayers of the Jews? What are they like?

18) Who established the melodies for prayers which seem to have no order and whomever hears them believes they hear wailing? Why are there many small minyanim? Isn't it better to pray together in one synagogue? Do you not conduct yourself frivolously in the synagogue?

19) Is it true that your prayers contain content against believers of other faiths?

20) What is the Zohar? Who wrote it? What is Kabbalah, both theoretical and practical? Who originated it? When?

21) What is the "Shechina"? What are Kelipos and Satanim? What are the 'secrets,
the kavvanot and the kabbalistic names?

22) Is it true that the Zohar and the Kabbalists consider the Torah of Moses to be entirely allegorical, both in its commandments and in its narratives?

23) Is it true that the Zohar contains material opposed to the religion of the Talmud? And that it took some of its principles from other religions? That it's holier in your eyes and more accepted than the Talmud, for it is believed that its teachings come from Elijah the Prophet, angels and God Himself? It is alleged that it contains much that is far stranger than things in the Talmud, and practices that are bizarre to God and man?

24) Is it true what I heard from one rabbi, a great Kabbalist, famed among the Jews, who derived from the Kabbalah the Christian belief in the Trinity, which can be found in the Zohar and other Kabbalistic books?

25) Are they secular books of learning among the Jews? Who wrote them? When? What do the masses think of them and their authors? After all, without a doubt the masses must consider them to be opposed by the Talmudists and the rabbis?

26) Do the Jews have schools of secular learning?

27) Is it true that the faith of Shabbetai Zvi still exists today?

28) Is it true that the Shabbatian faith is premised on the Zohar and Kabbalah?

29) Are there good takkanot which Jews established for the benefit of their poor, their sick and their poor students? Are there today schools for those in need?

30) What about the Chassidim of this country? Who established them and when? Which cities are they found? Do they have separatist synagogues?

31) How many sects are they divided into today?

32) Are there still new sects being established among the Jews these days?

33) Is there yet hope that the Jews will be able to repair many of their ills? How?

34) What is the Messiah which they hope and pray for? Who is the Messiah, son of Joseph, who will be killed? If it is true that they hope to rule the world when their Messiah comes? Is it true that because of the belief in the Messiah the Jews do not labor for the good of the country which they live in? Is it not for this reason that many monarchs will not give them citizenship?

35) How can Jews become closer to the Christians, if the Jews distance themselves from them every way possible? If it is prohibited, as I wrote, according to the Talmud to learn any language or secular subject, or even manners? And all the customs which Jews learn from their babyhood, even good ones, aren't their instances where they ought to accept good customs and manners of the nations?


You can see that these "questions" are designed to elicit the answers, i.e., the discussions in the book. For example, what kind of questions are the 2nd and 4th one? Clearly they are meant to generate a discussion about the books mentioned in the Torah and other Prophets, which we do not possess, as well as the Apocrypha.

Lest one thinks from the content of these questions that Levinsohn's book is a gigantic attack on rabbinic Judaism, it is nothing of the sort. It is a defense of it. The antisemitism and so forth was highly plausible in the mouth of a Russian official, and Levinsohn's points were that the answer to questions of the "Aren't the Jews just awful?" sort is no, to the contrary. Is it true that the Jews are forbidden to learn languages? No, on the contrary, etc.


  1. What is his answer to whether or not the Pharisees still exist today?

  2. He doesn't answer these questions directly. He basically discusses the Pharisees, their place in the Second Temple period, the etymology of the term, their beliefs, and acknowledges that included among them are the sages of the Mishnah, and tries to offset the negative Christian view of them. I don't think he explicitly says that Rabbinic Jews are Pharisees (which technically they are not) but the implication is certainly that the roots of Judaism are found in them.

  3. Perhaps they really were opposed to the answers given, not just the format of presentation, but they were (rightly) afraid of the gentile government. Once it was mentioned that this was a govt request, they felt it was a matter of safety/life and death to satisfy the govt official's inquiry in whatever way possible. That would seem quite likely given our precarious situation in the various exiles in that time period.

  4. Also, if his first point about the Samaritans is correct, I thought that was a very good point. Do you agree?

  5. >Also, if his first point about the Samaritans is correct, I thought that was a very good point. Do you agree?

    In a vacuum it's a good point, but there is no vacuum. He is countering the claim that Ezra wrote the Torah yesh me-ayin, but was this even the critical claim in his time? It certainly isn't now.

    Secondly, a neat idea like "they hated the Jews and especially Ezra so they wouldn't..." is wrong-headed because people often act differently from how you would think they do. By this principle it would seem to be impossible for Tanach to be part of the Christian canon, and yet there it is. Is it impossible for a sect to adopt and adapt the writings of their enemy for themselves, especially when the text also tells over the story they accept about their own ancestry and faith? Not necessarily.

    >Perhaps they really were opposed to the answers given, not just the format of presentation, but they were (rightly) afraid of the gentile government. Once it was mentioned that this was a govt request, they felt it was a matter of safety/life and death to satisfy the govt official's inquiry in whatever way possible. That would seem quite likely given our precarious situation in the various exiles in that time period.

    I don't see why they couldn't have demanded that he let them answer the questions themselves. Or come out strongly against its publication. Why couldn't a letter to the minister of education suffice? Why did it have to be published as a book in Vilna? Furthermore, in point of fact the rabbonim opposed many things the government was trying to implement. It's hard to see how this one book was such a big deal that it was a matter of life and death not to interfere with its publication.

  6. I don't know, I thought that people do/did claim Ezra wrote the Torah. Even if he is posited as some kind of editor nowadays, still it does seem odd as to why they would accept him as editor of what they claim as their own. Whatever holy scripture existed up until that point, it would seem that Samaritan sect would not go along with changes made by the Ezra followers. Of course that doesn't make it an "impossibility" - By calling it a good point I did not mean that.

    I don't really get the analogy with Christians.
    They weren't around when the thing was first written. They don't have a choice but to use what is already there in front of them and everyone else.

    As to the book, I posed an answer to your question of "After all, once it was "known" that the questions were posed by the government, if the answers were totally objectionable then how could opposition to it be withdrawn? "

    If you don't find my answer a logical explanation, I think that your question still stands. If they were against a book addressing these types of questions in this format, why would the education minister excuse cause them to retract their opposition? It didn't change the book, did it?

    As to "I don't see why they couldn't have demanded that he let them answer the questions themselves."

    Do the people who "banned" Rabbi Slifkin's book demand to answer his very incisive and interesting questions themselves with their own approach to reconcile difficult issues? No, they attack the questioner, negate the questions, and then deny that the answers posed by Rabbi Slifkin have a basis in the sources therefore further negating the basis of the questions and the need to answer them. (ie - how to reconcile Torah with evolution, they simply say there is no such thing as evolution, no need to reconcile... etc) How do we know we're not dealing with a similar type of response? In any case, the real question is what changed that caused the retraction of opposition?

    I guess I'm less aware of the history in that period, but couldn't the rabbis and other Jews be killed for opposing whatever the gentile govt wanted?

  7. 1. re Ezra. I understood what you meant by "good point." I said it is, in a vacuum. If these kinds of things were solved by asking one bomb kasha, then it's a good point.

    2. re Christianity. My point was that Christianity developed such a negative relationship with Judaism that you'd think they would not have accepted the Jewish scriptures. Islam dispensed with both Jewish and Christian scriptures. Why couldn't Christianity have dispensed with Jewish scripture? The analogy with the Samaritans isn't perfect, but I meant to say that you also have an example of an antagonistic sect adopting the Jewish scriptures, however much it would make sense for them not to have done it, like Islam. But "making sense" isn't really part of the process. The Samaritans apparently considered themselves the Bnai Yisrael. The Torah would, in their view, be their own history. Since there are several changes in the Samaritan Torah reflective of their unique beliefs, you can posit that yes, Ezra's Torah was acceptable to them with a few changes.

    3. re the book, not that life in the 1830s under the Czar was a bowl of cherries, but the persecutions increased very much in severity later in the century, pogroms and so forth. Rabbis and Jews were generally jailed, not killed, for their funny business (in the eyes of the Russian government).

    Again, I'm not sure why answering the minister's query required publishing a book rather than simply sending the manuscript to the minister. *Perhaps* the point was that Levinsohn was able to show that he had political support, and they decided that in picking their battles this isn't one they would fight.

    Good point re the questions. However, the Slifkin questions aren't raised by antagonistic goyim, whereas the questions Levinsohn tried to answer were. The rabbis knew full well that in some way these kinds of questions had to be answered to the government. Levinsohn wrote Efes Damim, to answer the blood accusation, and the rabbonim were grateful for that book, the Chasam Sofer initially supported Pinner's Talmud translation meant to counter Chiarini's, etc.



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