To the lover of mankind the history of the Russo-Jewish renaissance is an encouraging and inspiring phenomenon. Seldom has a people made such rapid strides forward as the Russian Jews. From the melancholy regularity that marked their existence a little more than two generations ago, from the darkness of the Middle Ages in which they were steeped until the time of Alexander ii, they emerged suddenly into the life and light of the West, and some of the most intrepid devotees of latter-day culture, both in Europe and in America, have come from among them. Destitute of everything that makes for enlightenment, and under the dominion of a Government which sought to extinguish the few rushlights that scattered the shadows around them, they nevertheless snatched victory from defeat, sloughed off medieval superstition, and, disregarding the Dejanira shirt of modern disabilities, compelled their countrymen to admit more than once that
Tho’ I’ve belted you and flayed
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am!
Similar movements were started in Germany during the latter part of the eighteenth century, and in Austria, notably Galicia, at the beginning of the nineteenth, but none stirred the mind of the Jews to the same degree as the Haskalah movement in Russia during the last fifty years. In the former, the removal of restrictions soon rendered attempts toward self-emancipation unnecessary on the part of Jews, and the few Maskilim among them, satisfied with the present, devoted themselves to investigating and elucidating the past of their people’s history. In Russia the past was all but forgotten on account of the immediate duties of the present. The energy and acquisitiveness that made the Jews of happier and more prosperous lands prominent in every sphere of practical life, were directed toward the realm of thought, and the merciless severity with which the Government excluded them from the enjoyment of things material only increased their ardor for things spiritual and intellectual.
In its wide sense Haskalah denotes enlightenment. Those who strove to enlighten their benighted coreligionists or disseminate European culture among them, were called Maskilim. A careful perusal of this work will reveal the exact ideals these terms embody. For Haskalah was not only progressive, it was also aggressive, militant, sometimes destructive. From the days of Mordecai Guenzburg to the time of Asher Ginzberg (Ahad Ha-’Am), it changed its tendencies and motives more than once. Levinsohn, “the father of the Maskilim,” was satisfied with removing the ban from secular learning; Gordon wished to see his brethren “Jews at home and men abroad”; Smolenskin dreamed of the rehabilitation of Jews in Palestine; and Ahad Ha-’Am hopes for the spiritual regeneration of his beloved people. Others advocated the levelling of all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, or the upliftment of mankind in general and Russia in particular. To each of them Haskalah implied different ideals, and through each it promulgated diverse doctrines. To trace these varying phases from an indistinct glimmering in the eighteenth century to the glorious effulgence of the beginning of the twentieth, is the main object of this book.