Modern Jewish History - Maurice Harris




The Passing of Poland and the Rise of Russia

Vaad of the Four Provinces.

We have seen that Poland became a haven for the Jews from the time of the first Crusade, 1098, and that they supplied to that country the need of a middle and commercial class. While clerical persecution began to disturb their security at the end of the fifteenth century, their condition in Poland was never as hapless as it had been in German States. Then came Protestantism, bringing with it a wave of liberalism, which somewhat brightened the Polish outlook again. Although through the activity of the Jesuits, Catholicism regained its sway, yet the occasional oppressions that followed were not sufficiently severe to prevent Poland's continuing to be a growing centre of Jewish settlement.

From the seventeenth century it contained more Jews than any other land, Turkey not excepted. As the latter was the centre of the Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese), so the former became the centre of the Ashkenazim (German). In spite of occasional bursts of animosity and slanderous charges of ritual murders, Polish Jews were largely left to themselves and to their own local administration. So their status there was somewhat akin to that of old Babylonia. Old privileges that had been taken away were nearly all restored again. So they were freer here than in any land outside of the Porte both as to choice of occupation and place of residence. Of their own accord they lived apart with little concern in the interests of their surroundings. This by the way was not an unmixed good and Jews in Poland are suffering from it today.

What was the character of this separate life led by Polish Israel? It was an intensely Jewish life. From Poland now "went forth the Law." The rabbis were not only their spiritual but also their secular guides; for the Talmud as law and as literature, of which they were the chief European authorities, was made the concern of daily life. It also formed the content of the curriculum of their schools (Yeshibath), making their training intensive, though one-sided. The frequent unfriendliness of their surroundings explains in part their indifference to secular studies without making this neglect less regrettable. To foster Talmudic study, poor students were given free maintenance. The Yeshiba methods imparted a manner, style and gesture that became characteristic of Polish Jews. Talmudic' study became a kind of religious ritual, a virtue in itself. In a sense it usurped the place of the Bible, though its training was a mental discipline rather than a religious impetus. Further, Talmudic scholarship gave social standing and took the place of wealth.

The Jews of the four provinces — Little Poland, Greater Poland, Russia and Lithuania (the last united to Poland in 1659), were organized into separate Jewish communities, each known as a Kahal. Representatives of these met two or three times a year in a sort of congress styled the Vaad. These conferences were more regular than the occasional Synods of earlier days and the questions they considered covered a wider sway.

Their work was judicial, administrative and legislative. They became permanent courts of appeal for all practical needs. Thus the rabbis, granted local jurisdiction by the Government, could divorce as well as marry and were enabled through the Vaad to settle differences without resorting to the outside authorities. This constant exercise of legal discrimination made them keen lawyers but marred somewhat their religious function and value. The historian Graetz asserts that it also vitiated their ethical sense. This may be too sweepingly severe. Certainly it may be said that economically the prudent, sober and industrious Jews of Poland supplied a needed human complement to the somewhat unsteady Polish nationality.

The Cossacks.

All went well until they came in fatal contact with a new racial group. To some refugee outlaws known as Cossacks, colonies were granted in the Ukraine and Little Russia, that they might ward off attacks of Tartars and Turks. They were followers of the Greek Church, i.e., that form of Christianity that had prevailed in the Roman Empire of the East overthrown by the Turks in 1453. The Jesuits, who justified any kind of means for furthering Catholicism, made life hard for them. This was intensified by the burdensome taxes imposed by the Polish nobility.

Unfortunately the Jews were made farmers of these taxes and even of the Church revenues. The tax-collector had always been unpopular since hoary antiquity. The Jews were now regarded as the oppressors of the tax-payers of Poland, just as they had been considered many centuries earlier by the English and French. This very tax-farming had been forbidden by a decree of the far-seeing Yaad in 1557, but it seems to have been disregarded. To make matters worse, the Jewish collectors rather arbitrarily lorded it over the hard pressed Cossacks; for tax-farming carried certain powers with it. Alas, a day of reckoning came! Other people might wrong Jews with impunity, but if Jews dare wrong others, terrific must be the retribution. Terrific was it here. For the Cossacks rose, under the ruthless leader Chmielnicki, in rebellion against the Poles. This was around 1648, just as the Thirty Years War was closing. Next the Russians, claiming the Cossacks as subjects, proclaimed war against Poland. Chmielnicki now made common cause with them. The old score against the Jews was at last to be repaid with interest. The Poles were defeated and a terrific massacre of the Jews began. They remained staunch to the Polish cause and bravely loyal to Judaism, when the desertion of either would have brought them reprieve.

In the peace that followed the Jews were banished from the Cossack settlements, their places later taken by the Russians. At the hands of their former tributaries, the Cossacks, Poland suffered severely enough; but when Sweden turned its powerful arms against this much harassed land, it suffered more severely still. This was from 1655 to 1658. Yet it went hardest of all with Polish Jewry.

The Chassidim.

Poland, still the Jewish centre of gravity, evolved another religious sect — the Chassidim. This name, meaning pious, had once been taken by a group in ancient days, who interpreted the law w T ith extreme severity and rigidly lived up to their high standards. But these latter-day saints did not express their piety by extreme obedience to the Law. In fact, just as Kabalism was an escape from the dry formulas of rabbinic law through the fantasies of mysticism, so this neo-Chassidism was yet another attempt to escape stereotyped ceremonialism and rabbinic casuistry through emotion.

In times of political unrest people often seek salvation through religious enthusiasm, occasionally carried to the extreme of frenzy. It will be recalled that in Judea's darkest day under Roman oppression there had appeared a rapid succession of would-be saviours styled Messiahs. The demoralization of Polish Jewry that followed the Cossack persecution and the Swedish invasion offered a favorable environment for some new religious movement. Chassidism ultimately supplied the need.

Its founder was Israel Baal Shem, who flourished about 1740. The second name is rather a title, "Master of the Name" (of God). From Kabalistic times those versed in magical use of the name of God composed of the four Hebrew letters YHVH, were supposed to be able to perform miracles. So the title conveys in part the nature of his activity. He was regarded as a healer — exorcising disease, not by medicine but by prayer. But the masses that followed him were won rather by his simple sincere and lovable personality. With unquestioning faith they accepted his teachings.

What were they? It has already been intimated at the opening of this chapter that the movement he founded was a protest against rabbinism; among other things a protest against its pinning all faith to learning and legal lore. As against the rabbinic dictum, En Am-haarete chasid ("An ignorant man cannot be pious") one of Baal Shem's disciples taught "Where there is much study there is little piety". Here was revolt indeed against the hierarchy of the Polish Yeshibath.

Now to come to his more positive teaching. He laid great emphasis on the omnipresence of God. This he carried to a pantheistic extreme, almost identifying God with Nature. He, rather than Spinoza, should have been called "the God intoxicated".

Like the Kabalists he believed profoundly in prayer and in its power to influence the divine will. But such prayer must not be the body's craving for boons, but the soul's yearning for exaltation in communion with its Maker. This implied a state of ecstacy usually attained through wild gesticulation. The Chassid then sought fulfilment of religion not in learning but in faith; not in asceticism but in cheer. Humility should mark his relation to others, optimism his outlook on life, song its expression. The unlettered and the women-folk, the two less esteemed classes, were among his most enthusiastic followers. Naturally his movement did not take such a strong hold in the north Polish centres of learning, as among the southern village folk of Podolia and the Ukraine. Like the Essenes, the Chassidim affected frequent ablutions and white clothing, especially on the Sabbath.

So far, here was a genuine religious revival, a turning from the rut of legal formulas to spiritual sources. But the best of the movement ended with the death of its founder. Israel Baal Shem's mantle did not fall on any disciple's shoulders.

The theory developed that only to a few was given the power of complete communion with God, which carried with it miraculous gifts. Such a one was called a Zaddik (righteous). Soon we see a series of men, claiming to be Zaddikim and gaining the worship of the credulous masses, who came to them with rich gifts to work wonders on their behalf. "Wonder-working rabbis" they were called. Here was temptation for the unscrupulous adventurer to pose as a Zaddik and gain at once wealth and allegiance. Starting then as a needed protest against the casuistic legalism of the Academies that dried up religious emotion — Chassidism soon degenerated into a worship of wonder-working Zaddikim by the unintelligent masses, who looked upon them as mediators between God and man and who sought the cheerful serenity taught by Baal Shem, through artificial stimulants.

The movement at first rapidly spread through Eastern Europe. The breaking up of Jewish centralization in Poland through the disbanding of the Vaad, aided its propaganda. Rut it met with opposition both from the rabbinites on the one side and of rationalists on the other. Though it declined in numbers as well as in spiritual force, it still has tenacious life, even to this day.

Partition of Poland.

Poland had been declining ever since the Jagellon dynasty ended in 1572, when the crown became elective. Since its dual defeat a century later it was more and more at the mercy of its avaricious neighbors. At last Prussia, Austria and Russia decided to seize the weak State and divide it among themselves. The partition occurred in three stages — the first in 1772, the second in 1793, the third in 1795. In this way Prussia acquired Posen, Austria obtained Galicia, while to Russia there fell the prime spoils of "White Russia" Lithuania and Courland. Poland as a nation was wiped off the map. Most of the Polish Jews found themselves under Muscovite Russian rule. What was this to mean? A mere change of masters, as when Greece conquered Persia twenty-one centuries earlier? It took long before the significance of the change dawned upon the Jews and upon the world.

Russia.

A word should here be said about this country and its people.

Russia was comparatively a late comer into the family of nations. Jewish settlements even preceded theirs. Some Jews settled to the south east of what was later Russia, as early as the Babylonian Exile (600 B.C.) it is said. Small groups drifted in from that time on. Later still many more came from the eastern half of the Roman Empire and became sufficiently numerous and influential to convert a people known as the Chazars located there.

The Russians who now arrived in vast numbers and took possession of this East European area, were a Slavic people from Asia made up in part of Mongolians and Tartars. They established centers in Kieff and Moscow. A generation before Columbus discovered America, Ivan III, the first to be called Czar, consolidated the kingdom.

Here as in early Poland Jewish settlers helped develop its resources; nor was their lot in those early days altogether an unhappy one, but their attempts to make proselytes to Judaism was put down with an iron hand. Ivan IV, deservedly styled "The Terrible" drowned those whom he did not succeed in baptizing.

Then came the Romanoffs in 1613 (seven years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth.) As the Slavs extended their conquests over what came to be called White Russia and the Ukraine, many Israelites were brought under their sway. Their's was a checkered career with occasional gleams of light.

A new era began for Russia when Peter deservedly styled "The Great" mounted the throne in 1682. This Czar reformer, it is said, broke through a window into Europe. That is, he endeavored to bring something of Western enlightenment into his barbaric country though the civilization he brought was but skin deep. Although he shared some of the prevalent prejudice and misconceptions about the Jews, he was not ill disposed toward them. In time of war he prevented their massacre. Indeed, it may be put down almost as a dictum that a Russian monarch enlightened in dealing with his subjects in general, has usually been liberal toward the Jew. The reverse principle, alas, alike holds true; and, when Peter was succeeded by three narrow minded Queens, Catherine, Anna and Elizabeth, the Jews naturally suffered in consequence of their bigotry, for they were women of the Spanish Isabella type who persecuted Israel on strictly religious grounds.

Their lot was certainly better under the broader minded Catherine II (1762-1796). They were given more freedom in the observance of their religion, in their places of settlement, and in their occupations. When it came to seeking further civic rights, their inability to speak the language of the country put them at a disadvantage. The bulk only understood Juedisch-Deutsch.

Under Catherine began Poland's partition. This made Russia ultimately the home of the larger half of the Jews of the world. A Jewish problem was henceforth presented in that country. In 1791 Catherine II sought to solve it by instituting the 'Tale of Settlement' — i.e., that portion of Russia wherein Jews might reside. Its area has varied under different Czars. Roughly, it covered about one-twenty-third of the Russian Empire. (See map of Pale.) Again, Jews were allowed residence in some places not included in the Pale. But restrictions increased. The tendency grew to forbid to the Jews anything not granted by special law.

The Nineteenth Century.

They experienced a change for the better in the beneficent reign of the fair-minded Paul I, who extended citizenship to the Jews of Courland and stopped the previous practice of expelling them from the towns; scholars, artisans and farmers were exempt from all disabilities. This liberal policy was continued under Alexander I (1801-1825). He raised Russia to the first rank among European States. Hisj policy has been styled that of Enlightened Absolutism. But a reaction set in under his successor, Nicholas I (1825-1855); this meant forced baptisms into the Church and forced conscriptions into the army. Even the plan to give the Jews a broader education and to turn many to agriculture was vitiated by the avowed purpose of undermining their religion thereby. Heavy taxation, expulsion from villages, especially of those dwelling along the border, and local tyrannies all tended to the impoverishment of the Russian Jews. This oppression by the government had the further damaging effect in that it fostered the attitude of contempt for the Jews in the minds of the people at large and widened the gulf between Jew and Gentile.

But a new order of things began under the enlightened and beneficent sway of Alexander II, who will always be gratefully remembered by mankind as the liberator of the twenty-two million serfs in 1861. He organized his government on liberal lines and introduced many humane reforms. This was reflected favorably in all industries, in the advance of science, and in a freer press. He was the monarch who abolished corporal punishment, introduced trial by jury and the local Zemstvos, that is, district assemblies. Liberal to Russia in general, it naturally followed that he was benignant towards his Jewish subjects. He opened the elementary and high schools to them, and permitted their scholars, artisans and wholesale merchants to settle outside the Pale, under some limitations; though his officials often evaded his kindly intent. The Jews on their part encouraged more liberal education, and produced quite a literature in pure Hebrew and in Russian.

Among other notable scholars we may mention Daniel Chwolson, an Orientalist, who though he left the Jewish faith, remained a staunch ally of the Jewish people. Much of his scholarly research was given to expose the slander of the Blood Accusation; in defending the Talmud against its detractors; in demonstrating the groundlessness of the charge that the Jews crucified Jesus. He further brought his researches to bear to show the superiority of the Jewish race.

Abraham Harkavy, famous historian and philologist, did much to promote culture among his brethren.

Furthermore, the Russian Jews began to identify themselves more closely with Russia's welfare. On the other hand, following the royal example, Russian society likewise evinced a more liberal attitude toward Israel, thus encouraging the spread of general culture among them. This kindly sway of the man whom Disraeli called the most benevolent prince that ever ruled in Russia, was quietly solving the Jewish problem. To come into more congenial relation with their surroundings, Jews were dropping those exclusive customs that kept them aloof from their fellow countrymen, and were entering socially and intellectually into the great world.

Reaction.

Alas, in 1881 the bomb of an anarchist brought the career of this enlightened Czar to an untimely close. For alarmed at the spread of liberalism, he, yielding to his illiberal advisers, had begun to show a restrictive tendency toward the end of his reign. His son, Alexander III, a thorough-going reactionary, turned back the hands on the dial of time. All the privileges granted by his predecessor were removed, and the tragic history of modern Russian Jewry now began. His policy was endorsed and re-enforced by Pobiedenotseff the Procurator General of the Greek Church, a second Torquemada, with his Panslavic program ( complete dominance of the Slavic Church and the Slavic race). He brutally voiced Russia's proposed solution of the Jewish problem as follows: One-third would be forced to emigrate, one-third would be forced into the Church and the rest reduced to starvation. King and priest together made life intolerable for the Russian Jews. The reign began with a series of pogroms (riots) against the Jews, secretly fomented by the government and aided by the military and police. The purpose was to divert the popular antagonism away from the Czar — once more in history the Jew was made the scapegoat. In nearly two hundred places homes were destroyed, families ruined and many slain. This treatment roused the indignation of the entire civilized world.

The Barbaric May Laws.

In May, 1882, a series of harsh laws against the Jews were put into operation. Except a minute percent, they were excluded from high schools and universities. They were gradually excluded from all civil posts and all public offices, and were not allowed to hold landed property. Most cruel of all — on summary notice, they were expelled from the villages and forced into towns, — thus creating a Pale within the Pale, This meant the ruin of millions. This inhuman law, local officials still more inhumanly administered. A converted Jew or Jewess could by entering the Church, be freed from marriage and enter into an alliance with an Orthodox Christian. Children of the age of 14 could join the Church without parental permission. Converts to Christianity received monetary compensation, thus placing a premium on apostasy. Jews conducting divine worship in their homes without permission, were to be punished by law. In addition to the ordinary taxes, Jews were further to be taxed on all meats slaughtered according to Jewish ritual, on their Sabbath lights, or house rents, on profits of their factories and on their clothing. All Jews of the age of 20 should serve five years in the active army and thirteen in the reserve, but no Jew could become an officer or even an officer's servant. Alexander died unrepentant in 1894.

Nicholas II, his successor, superstitious and vacillating, was at the mercy of adventurers. Under his rule, the same repressive policy was continued down to this twentieth century and further expulsions were carried out. Violent pogroms broke out against the Jews that began in Kishineff in 1903, in Homel in the following year, and continued intermittently in other places until they reached Bialystok. Thus the Russian Jews, reduced to poverty by legislation, were thankful when they were not massacred. Public opinion forced the calling of a Parliament — the Douma — but it meant little for the people and less for the Jews.

When the Russian people, suffering under tyrannical restrictions, asked for a constitution, which was finally given, they were deliberately told that the Jews were really at the bottom of all their troubles. This resulted in inciting the ignorant masses to further pogroms in the first week of November, 1905. The casualties were over 2,100 and the money loss exceeded $25,000,000. Some 37,000 families were tragically affected.

A sturdy few changed privation into opportunity by turning from trades to handicrafts and agriculture. Some were aided by the benevolence of their co-religionists throughout the world in various ways. Others have solved their lot by leaving this country of Egyptian darkness and emigrating to more enlightened lands, to Western Europe, to Great Britain and her colonies, to South America, and chiefly to the United States. But this nineteenth century survey brings us rather ahead of our story.


NOTES AND REFERENCES:


Poland:—"History of the Jews in Poland and Russia,'' 3 vols., S. M. Dubnow, trans, by I. Friedlander, J.P.S.A.

Jewish Dialects:—Juedisch-Deutsch: This was a mixture of old High German dialects with some Hebrew words.

Ladino:— This common speech of Turkish Jews was a mixture of Spanish w T ith Hebrew. By the same process, some Russian and some English words have crept into the Yiddish of today. This is more fully treated in a later chapter.

Chassidim:—Schechter, Studies in Judaism, J.P.S.A., 1st Series.

Persecution of Russian Jews:—Pamphlet, J.P.S.A., Persecution of the Jews from Kishineff to Bialystok, Jewish Year Book, Vol. 5667, J.P.S.A.

Themes for Discussion:— (a) Show the influence of environment on religion in the kinds of Judaism developed in Turkey, in Poland and in the latter day Orient. (b) Why have Jews so often developed variants of the languages in their lands of settlement?