The Haskala, or Enlightenment
In the Russian Empire

The Haskala flourished in the middle third of the 19th century in the Russian Empire until, as a result of the pogroms of 1881, Jews lost faith in the goodwill of Russians to accept “enlightened” Jews.

It was a tenet of the Russian Haskala that the Tsar was a benevolent leader who would bestow emancipation upon his Jewish subjects as soon as they proved themselves worthy of it; and that it was the task of the Jews, then, to transform themselves into model citizens, enlightened, unsuperstitious, devoted to secular learning and productive occupations.

Following the example of the Berlin Haskala, a Russian Hebrew-language writer, Isaac Baer Levinsohn, published a pamphlet, Te'uda be-Yisrael (“Testimony in Israel”) citing the benefits of secular education. At the same time, such writers as Joseph Perl and Isaac Erter, though Orthodox Jews themselves, in virulent satire attacked the superstitious folk customs of the masses and opened the way to the anticlericalism which was to become characteristic of the Russian Haskala.

In the 1840s and 1850s the emphasis shifted from satire and attack on the cultural parochialism of the Pale of Settlement (the regions to which the Jews were restricted) to romanticization of life outside the Pale, including periods of the Jewish past. Thus, Hebrew poets and novelists, such as Michal Levensohn and Abraham Mapu, arose on Russian soil to contribute their talents to the creation of a modern Hebrew literature. With the climate of government reforms in the 1860s, the Russian Haskala entered a “positivist” phase, calling for practical social and economic reforms. Hebrew-language journals were established and the Hebrew essay and didactic poetry, calling for religious and cultural reforms, came into their own, particularly at the hands of such stylists as the poet Y.L. Gordon and the essayist Moses Leib Lilienblum.

Abandoning the original Hebrew and German orientation of the Russian Haskala, a number of Jewish intellectuals, the most prominent of whom were Yoachim Tarnopol, Osip Rabinovich, and Lev Levanda, became Russifiers, founding Russian-language Jewish weeklies devoted to “patriotism, emancipation, modernism.” Like their contemporary fellow Jews in western Europe, they declared themselves to be Russians by nationality and Jews by religious belief alone.

In 1863 a group of wealthy Jews in St. Petersburg and Odessa created the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia for the purpose of educating Jewry into “readiness for citizenship.” The goal of all segments of the Russian Haskala in the 1860s and 1870s was to turn Jews into good Russians and to make their Jewishness a matter of personal idiosyncrasy alone. The period of reaction that set in with the pogroms (massacres) of 1881 was to prove how deluded the hopes of the Haskala had been.

"Judaism." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
19 July 2004 

From the middle of the 19th century Haskalah became influential among Russian Jewry. Its first manifestations, combined with signs of assimilation, appeared in the large commercial cities (Warsaw, Odessa, Riga). Among the Russian adherents of Haskalah there was a trend to preserve Judaism and its values; hence they tended to seek changes based mainly on a thread of continuity. Although there were also circles which stood for complete assimilation and absorption in Eastern Europe (the "Poles of the Mosaic Faith" of Poland, nihilist and socialist circles in Russia), the majority of the maskilim sought a path which would preserve the national or nationalreligious identity of the Jews, while some of them even developed an indubitable nationalist ideology (Perez Smolenskin). The herald of the Haskalah in Russia was the author Isaac Dov (Baer) Levinsohn. In his Te'udah be-Yisrael (Vilna, 1828), he formulated an educational and productivization program. The most distinguished pioneers of Haskalah in Russia were the author Abraham Mapu, the father of the Hebrew novel, and the poet Judah Leib Gordon. Even though the maskilim were at first opposed to Yiddish, which they sought to replace by the language of the country, some of them later created a secular Yiddish literature (I. M. Dick; Mendele Mokher Seforim; and others). At the initiative of the maskilim there also emerged a Jewish press in Hebrew (Ha-Maggid, founded in 1856; Ha-Meliz); in Yiddish (Kol Mevasser); and in Russian (Razsvet, founded in 1860; Den). The Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah ("Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia"), founded in 1863 by a group of wealthy Jews and intellectuals of St. Petersburg, was an important factor in spreading Haskalah and the Russian language among Jews.

These books and newspapers infiltrated into the batteimidrash and the yeshivot, influencing students to leave them. Severe ideological disputes broke out in many communities, often between father and son, rabbi and disciples. The government assisted the spread of Haskalah as long as its adherents supported loyalty to the czarist regime (as expressed by J. L. Gordon—"to your king a serf") and cooperated in promoting educational and productivization programs as well as in its opposition to the traditional leadership. By the 1870s the activity of the maskilim began to bear fruit. The mass of Jewish youth streamed to the Russian-Jewish and general Russian schools. The general conscription law of 1874 encouraged this process, and thus began the estrangement of the intellectual youth from its people and Jewish affairs—to the despair of the nationalist wing of the Haskalah which resigned itself to this situation. However the rise of the anti-Semitic movement within Russian society during the late 1870s resulted in a nationalist awakening among this youth. This was expressed in the development of a Jewish-Russian press and literature dealing with the problems of the Jews and Judaism (Razsvet; Russki Yevrey; Voskhod).


Copyright H. David Marshak, All Rights Reserved