As we’ve seen in the last two articles of this series (here and here), the Austro-Hungarian Empire was very tolerant of its Jews. On the other hand, the liberal policies that the government and the Maskilim were trying to advance were a threat to traditional Judaism.
In the early 1800’s there were hubs of Maskilim in many cities and towns throughout Eastern Europe. Their efforts were concentrated in the scholarly fields publishing articles, books, and newspapers. These efforts were a big challenge to traditional Judaism. Later, the challenges grew into the political and communal spheres as well.
Many Maskilim, especially the early ones, were adherent to strict Halachah and many were great Talmidei Chachmim. Their main goal was to transform the “Ruach” – the spirit of traditional Judaism that it should become modern and liberal.
Chasidim were particularly sensitive to the Maskilim’s motives because in Chassidus the spirit and worldview of our forefathers are holy and of utmost importance to preserve. Actions and Halacha can always be taught, but feelings of Ahavah and Yirah, dedication to Emes and Emunah, a strong commitment to Avodas Hashem is not easily acquired. These qualities come from lifelong Avoda and from seeing the Avoda of Tzadikim and Chasidim of previous generations. It hardly exists in a world which is not steeped in Avodas Hashem.
By the time of the Mitele Ruv z”l in the second half of the 1800’s, many other Jews saw the destruction of the Maskilim’s motives and a broad consensus of Frum Yidden was built under the leadership of the Mitele Ruv.
The Maskilim organized in the city of Levov under an organization called “Shomer Yisroel”. In תרל”ה – 1875 they organized a day called “געמיינדע טאג” – Community Day, in which Maskilim from many cities and towns gathered to draft a list of statutes of how Jewish communal affairs should work. These statutes were later presented to the government with the goal of enacting it into law.
The statutes included establishing Rabbinic seminaries to ordain Rabbis. Rabbis will have to go through these trainings. The seminaries will have a mandated curriculum which included many studies that were antithetical to Torah.
They wanted that the Rosh Hakahol should appoint people to communal posts and not the Rabbis. Generally, the Maskilim were easier able to place their people in the Rosh Hakahol position. They wanted the votes should work through classes, in a complex system which would give them the majority, even though they were a very small minority.
The Mitele Ruv z”l saw this threat, and rushed to organize a counter organization called Machzikei Hadas. To everyone’s surprise the traditional Jews were able to organize professionally and they earned the respect of the Austro-Hungarian politicians as we’ll see next week.
To be continued…