from Reb Yisrael Salanter (author).
CHAPTER ELEVEN: FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD
There was an atmosphere of celebration. Even the smoke curling from the tarred chimneys seemed ebullient, leaping into the light blue sky.
Rabbi Israel--the great Rabbi Israel who had left Salant as a boy--had returned to his hometown, would be staying here through Shabbos.
On Friday morning, Rabbi Israel stepped out of the inn onto the familiar street. Even the tree in the distance was familiar. His student, Rabbi Eliyahu Levinsohn of Cartinga, stepped out after him.
Suddenly, a disheveled woman who had been walking down the street threw herself at his feet. "Sir, rabbi, please...!"
"Please stand up," Rabbi Israel urged her. "Stand, poor woman, and I will listen to you."
The woman climbed up from the ground, streaks of earth on her hands and long, black skirt. Her face was ugly with weeping, her cheeks scratched. "It's my son--they've taken him--to the army--"
"Let us go inside," Rabbi Israel said. "You will have a tea and I will listen to you there." He exchanged a glance with Rabbi Eliyahu, and the two men urged the woman inside. "Innkeeper! Please bring another chair to our room."
In the small room, it took a long while before Rabbi Israel could piece together her story.
She was a widow from another town. She had come here with her son, and went from door to door with a music box, begging. "Was that a crime? Did they have a right to take her boy?"
The heads of the community had seized the boy for the army in order to fill their quota. They had changed his name for the name of a boy who lived in Salant, and were ready to send him away.
She had run from rabbi to rabbi, from communal leader to communal leader. She shrieked, tore at her flesh, pulled her hair from her head. But no one would reply to her, and the servant girls were told to close the door in her face.
"I saw you--you looked like a rabbi--a respectable man--"
"Calm down," Rabbi Israel said. "Come and see me again after Shabbos."
"Will you help me?"
"I will do what I can."
That Friday night and Shabbos morning, Rabbi Israel said nothing.
After the morning services, the heads of the community came to Rabbi Israel's room for a celebratory Kiddush. They were in a light mood, honored by such a guest, eager to show him their hospitality. "But why does he look so grave?" whispered one man to the other. The other replied in a low voice, "Don't worry, it's just the way he is."
Rabbi Israel made kiddush and set his cup down, looking sternly at the men sitting about the table, sipping the kiddush wine.
He burst out, "Murderers! Kidnappers!"
There was a shocked silence. What was Rabbi Israel talking about?
Rabbi Israel turned to the communal leader next to him. "You are so pious that you tie your kerchief around your neck on Shabbos in order not to carry, even where there is an eiruv. But does it mean nothing to you when you transgress the verse, 'If one kidnaps a man and sells him, one shall surely die'?"
He turned with burning eyes to the next man. "And you--you always go out of your way to do mitzvos in the most exacting way; we always see how you follow each halachah, the slightest and the gravest. But is it permitted to deliver a Jewish soul to certain conversion?"
And to the next man: "You are so careful with your shmurah matzah and your beautiful esrog. But when it comes to the prohibition, 'Do not oppress the widow and orphan,' which is punishable with death from heaven, does that mean nothing to you?"
And in this way, he spoke to the fourth and the fifth man at the table.
Everyone sat dumbstruck. Rabbi Israel sat down, but leaped up again. "It is forbidden to remain in the company of such criminals!" He hurried out of the house and strode down the road leading out of Salant.
Meanwhile, the shock in the room was turning into dismay, recognition, grief. "What should we do...?" One of the men stood up, ashen-faced. "We have to release the boy." No one protested, and he said, "I will go now and let him return to his mother."
And then: "We must find Rabbi Israel and bring him back."
"But who will dare go?"
"I will." It was Rabbi Eliyahu, Rabbi Israel's companion.
Rabbi Eliyahu set out and soon found Rabbi Israel, within the Shabbos boundary, on a small, wooded path that led up the side of a hill.
Rabbi Eliyahu climbed up after his teacher. "Rabbi Israel!"
Never had Rabbi Eliyahu seen Rabbi Israel's face so dark, so troubled. Rabbi Israel turned his head away and continued walking.
"The community leaders have set the boy free!"
Only then did Rabbi Israel turn around and accompany Rabbi Eliyahu back to town (Hameoros Hagedolim).
When Rabbi Israel returned to Kovno, he grew deeply involved in saving such children and in fighting the recruitment decree. He raised money, organized committees and sent people to deal with the government in St. Petersburg. Among the people that helped Rabbi Israel over the coming years were his student and son-in-law, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Grodzenski, Rabbi Hillel Milikovsky, and others. Sometimes, Rabbi Israel himself would travel to collect funds and meet with other rabbis or government officials. Once, hearing that a government minister was opposed to the ukase, Rabbi Israel travelled to a distant part of Russia to meet with him (Tenuas Hamusar).
Rabbi Israel never spoke of these activities, and much of what he did has not been recorded.
Rabbi Israel sent his student, Rabbi Elchanan Cohen, to St. Petersburg to live there permanently and devote himself to Jewish affairs. In St. Petersburg a new class of Jews had begun to gather: wealthy men involved in the railway, industry and mining, and grain and timber industries. Here Rabbi Cohen stayed for almost twenty years, where he was in touch with influential Jews and government ministers, and he was instrumental in having a number of decrees revoked.
One day, Rabbi Israel came to the wealthy Rabbi Eliyahu Levinsohn. "Sixteen hundred rubles are needed urgently for Rabbi Cohen's expenses. Can you raise the money?"
Rabbi Eliyahu looked into his account book. "As it happens, I know someone from whom I could borrow fifteen hundred rubles."
"I beg you, add a hundred rubles of your own to make the full amount."
Rabbi Eliyahu shook his head. "I'm afraid I can't do that."
"But why not?"
At last, Rabbi Eliyahu admitted, "The truth is that the fifteen hundred rubles would come from me." He turned the account book around and pushed it in the direction of Rabbi Israel. "Look. I don't have any other money" (Tenuas Hamusar).
There were other scenes when Rabbi Israel saved children from the army. One Shabbos morning, as the aron kodesh was about to be opened, a poor woman entered the shul and cried out, "They've taken my son!" Before anyone knew what was happening, she threw herself against the aron kodesh.
One of the men glared at her. "Get out, women! You're stopping us from reading the Torah!" And two other men tried to push her away.
Rabbi Israel stormed up to the aron kodesh. "Is this woman keeping you from reading the Torah? Is that your problem? No, your problem is that you have hearts of stone!"
And some say that after the Torah scroll was taken out, Rabbi Israel left the shul and finished praying alone in his house. "To pray in that shul is forbidden" (Tenuas Hamusar).
Another time, a widow came to Rabbi Israel's house while he was eating. "Rabbi Israel, my son is about to be taken into the army. But he might be saved if someone would speak on his behalf to one of the communal leaders who has connections with the government."
Rabbi Israel immediately rose from his meal. He told his wife, "Esther Feiga, imagine if our son was in such a state. Would we be able to sit quietly and eat?" He left the room and hurried into the street, as though the boy were his own son (Tenuas Hamusar).
Rabbi Israel also did what he could for these young people after they were drafted. One time, a regiment of soldiers was stationed in Kovno. On the eve of a festival, Rabbi Israel arrived in shul long after three stars had appeared.
He explained to the men next to him, "I had to make sure that the Jewish soldiers had kosher meals."
One of the men replied, "You are always careful about praying early before Shabbos and festivals." Rabbi Israel had indeed explained, some years back, "The housemaid is not obligated to say Sh'ma, but she is obligated to hear Kiddush. So it is wrong to make her wait for Kiddush after she is worn out, just because we wish to be extra pious and recite the evening Sh'ma at the proper time" (Tenuas Hamusar).
Now Rabbi Israel said to the man, "This case is different. It is everyone's responsibility--including that of the housemaids--to see that these Jewish soldiers get kosher food. So I had the right to take as much time as I needed" (Tenuas Hamusar).
One year, the communal leaders forgot to ask the district army commander to free the Jewish soldiers for Yom Kippur. It wasn't until the eve of Yom Kippur that Rabbi Israel found this out, and he was grieved to his heart: Jewish soldiers, exiled the entire year--would they not have at least one day to pour out their hearts to their Father in heaven?
For tonight it was already too late, but there was still tomorrow--for it is never too late....
Rabbi Israel spoke with the leaders of the synagogue: "Tomorrow, let us begin services very early. This will give Rabbi Tzvi Nevyozer time to speak with the commandant and try to get the soldiers freed."
"We shall do whatever you say."
"And I would like to lead the prayers."
Early the following morning, Rabbi Israel began the morning prayers.
The congregation grew perplexed. "Why is he rushing so?" Why did he skip this favorite piyut, why did he not sing another one?
Services ended while the sun was still low in the eastern sky. Rabbi Nevyozer had time to run over to the commandant and obtain the release of the soldiers (Tenuas Hamusar).
It was part of Rabbi Israel's genius that he could play so many roles. No wonder that some Maskilim wanted to claim him as one of their own, for he was so innovative in his methods, and his critique of ethical malaise so trenchant. Rabbi Israel was a rosh yeshiva, a leader in the fight against haskalah, a political organizer. He searched for all means by which he might revitalize a Jewish society in decline, lacking enthusiasm from within, under siege by hostile governments and the Haskalah from without.
At first, Rabbi Israel tried to draw householders to the beis medrash. But in truth, a householder and a yeshiva student are two different types--in age, in direction, in intensity. Rabbi Israel saw that the householders of Kovno must be tended to separately from the yeshiva students.
He opened a musar shtiebel in the Zegershe Kloiz--the Sawmill Workers' Shul. He went to the most influential merchants, urging them to come to the musar shtiebel. "You are one of the most respected men in Kovno. If you are seen coming here, others will come as well."
The most wealthy and respected laymen came every day to the musar shtiebel between minchah and maariv. Here they learned musar with great feeling. Occasionally, Rabbi Israel would come and learn or give a fiery talk.
The men who learned here became noted for their sensitivity, their honesty, their civility--they were pointed out as baalei musar, musarniks.
Meanwhile, opposition to Rabbi Israel's musar system was growing sharper and more public.
Rabbi Leib Shapiro, chief rabbi, had welcomed Rabbi Israel to Kovno. But now, as he spoke one Shabbos morning in shul, he said, "The verse tells us, 'House of Israel, bless Hashem; house of Aharon, bless Hashem.' The people of Israel are called a house; the cohanim are called a house. But the verse continues, 'You who fear Hashem, bless Hashem.' Those who are outstanding in their fear of G-d are not called a house, and they do not need special houses to fear G-d'" (Tenuas Hamusar).
An uneasy laugh rose from the congregation. Everyone knew what Rabbi Shapiro meant, of course: the musar shtiebel.
And Rabbi Shapiro went on, "It is a great thing to have a regular time to learn musar--but to gather groups around this is very dangerous, for it can cause division in Israel, heaven forbid" (Hameilitz).
By the afternoon, Rabbi Shapiro's bon-mot had been repeated throughout Kovno.
Rabbi Israel was told the sharp words as he trudged to minchah on the brilliantly white, packed snow. All of Kovno was covered in white, and sometimes one could see through the houses glimpses of the snowy mountains surrounding Kovno.
Rabbi Israel breathed in the cutting, clean air. "People are mistaken," he said. "They think that the musar shtiebel is intended for an elite. That is not the case. The musar shtiebel is a necessity for anyone who knows himself to be diseased with sin. There he can go and pour out his soul in learning musar--perhaps it will save him somewhat from his suffering, perhaps it will somewhat crush his desire so that he does not follow the promptings of his instincts" (letter 13).
The two men walked down the broad street, along the brilliant snow that sparkled in the sunlight.
The other man said, "They say that you are trying to start a separate movement, like the Hasidic movement. As far away as Rossiyeny, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel has called your students the 'Hasidim of Zamot' (Kovno was the capital of the region of Lithuania known as Zamot). He said that we will cause more evil and destruction in the future than did the Hasidim of Galicia."
Rabbi Israel sighed. "Musar is not something new. It merely points out what is obvious. If it is possible to insert piyutim into the middle of our prayers, then it is certainly permissible to learn musar" (Tenuas Hamusar).
And they again continued walking on the crystal snow, which from time to time dazzled the eye with points of color.
There were other prominent rabbis who joined the battle against musar.
Sometimes, after Rabbi Israel gave a musar talk, Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel of Yonava would get up on the bimah and argue with all that Rabbi Israel had said.
Another leader, Rabbi Yishayahu of Salant, also fought musar. Before he passed away, he said to the men at his bedside, "I console myself that I have one merit that will stand by me in the world of truth: that I battled against musar" (Tenuas Hamusar).
But Rabbi Israel was not deterred.
For a certain period, Rabbi Israel spent his weeks in isolation. Shraga Feivel Frank, a well-known philanthropist, let Rabbi Israel stay at his home in Aleksot, a suburb of Kovno across the Niemen River. Frank assigned a man to be Rabbi Israel's servant. But Rabbi Israel refused to be served. Instead, he would offer the man his own bed while he stayed up all night learning Torah (Tenuas Hamusar).
Once a week, ten of Rabbi Israel's students visited him, crossing the Niemen River to the houses nestled amidst the fields and the forests that rose into the hills. Here were wild crags and forests inhabited only by wild birds and animals that scampered across the pine-strewn floors.
In trepidation, the students approached the villa where Rabbi Israel was staying. This was the pilgrimage to their leader, here they would purify their souls, giving themselves over to his vision and guidance, offering their hearts to Hashem.
In Rabbi Israel's room, the students prayed minchah. And then Rabbi Israel put on his tallis and began to speak about the fear of G-d. Candles were lit, and in their dim hue, the students listened in rapt silence.
At one point, the door opened and a servant looked in. Immediately, Rabbi Israel fell silent. And the students knew a secrecy, an intimacy--for these talks were meant only for them, closed to all outside the inner circle.
For hours Rabbi Israel spoke, pouring out his words with deep feeling, crying out, until the heart of every student in the darkened room was melted. Rabbi Israel began to weep, and through his tears, he continued to speak to his beloved students.
Here they were in a darkened room in Aleksot--but it was as though they were in a bright world of spirituality. Their hearts were being cleansed. They searched the recesses of their inner being, felt emptied out, ready for a new beginning, a true repentance.
Everyone was crying, purified like babies, each in his own world, intent, intense. The students began repeating after Rabbi Israel, crying out in voices that were both broken and ecstatic: "A clean heart create in us, a clean heart create in us! Purify our hearts to serve You in truth!"
And they continued calling out until their strength gave way and they fell into a silence of reverie and comfort, release.
For the rest of that night, and when they returned to Kovno, it was as though they walked through a new world. They looked at everything as though they had only now returned from heaven, as though they still reverberated with the heavenly echoes and saw the things of this world, its colors, its objects, its desires, with strange and wondering eyes.
And for all this, this truth and this vision, this re-creation of their being, this gift of hope, release, purification--how could they not venerate the tzaddik who had redeemed the purpose of their lives?
One of the students who was there wrote later, "At that time I saw my world--the world of truth--in my lifetime. There I found my soul standing beneath a new heaven and a new earth. And a unique man, the greatest of all the Jews, was standing and serving the countenance of He Who dwells in the heights. His lips expressed knowledge with holy sweetness, and swallowed up the darkness. And truth welled from its hidden places, bright and shining. It brightened the darkness of the imagination, chasing away from before it the shadows of falsehood--and my own darkness too was somewhat lit up.
"This holy memory is sweet. In all the days of my service upon this earth, it will never be erased from my heart. My heart rejoices at every moment, for in one chapter of my life upon this earth, Hashem brought me to enjoy the light of that man, the light of the world--and he illuminated me! He was sent from the heights as a sign to this generation, to strengthen the hands of the weak, to make firm trembling knees. Upon his heart rested a precious gem: Divine wisdom. And all who gazed at it were healed of their ills" (Tenuas Hamusar).
It was in the fields about Aleksot that Rabbi Israel would go to meditate, just as his own rebbe, Rabbi Zundel, had done years before in Salant. Here one strode alone amidst the works of creation, the hawks gliding overhead on outstretched, silent wings, the touch of auburn fire on the tip of a mountain as the sun set, the rippling of a field of grass when the wind swooped suddenly from the west. Here, one might be removed from the reality of this world and turn one's heart solely to G-d.
One afternoon, Rabbi Yitzchak Blazer, still a youth, accompanied Rabbi Israel into the fields. They walked together in silence. Rabbi Yitzchak was afraid of this giant: what could he say to him? He only wanted to hear Rabbi Israel speak.
But at last Rabbi Yitzchak broke the silence. He told Rabbi Israel some mundane matter that was on his mind.
Rabbi Israel turned to the boy. "Yitzchak, did you have some reason to tell me that?"
Rabbi Yitzchak began to explain.
But Rabbi Israel interrupted him. "It doesn't matter," he said. "You don't have to explain yourself--what difference is it to me? But I only wanted to make you aware about idle talk" (Or Israel).
It was 1854. On 17 Shevat, 5614, Rabbi Leib Shapiro, chief rabbi of Kovno, passed away. His place was taken by Rabbi Yitzchak Avigdor, who was also an opponent of musar.
At about this time, Rabbi Israel began another innovation. One day, he gazed at the men in the musar shtiebel. Among them were merchants, artisans, workers. How was one to give them Torah?
These men were sincere, wanting to do the right thing. But--it could not be denied--they were not yeshiva students. They would never delight in a pilpul, they would break their teeth over a simple Tosafos. That was the problem--to them it wasn't simple at all. It was difficult, frustrating--and discouraging....Rabbi Israel gazed at the men with the feeling that he must do what he could for them--for the Haskalah was alluring, and to join it, one did not have to prove one could learn a Tosafos.
On a visit to Vilna (about 1854), Rabbi Israel had seen a system of learning designed especially for such workers, and he decided to emulate it (Iggeros Umichtavim). The workers would not try to imitate the yeshiva students, struggling through texts too difficult for them. Instead, shiurim were set up in Ein Yaakov and mishnayos. And for halachah, they did not go through the Shulchan Aruch with all its commentaries. Instead, they learned Chayei Adam.
Rabbi Israel organized such groups of workers not only in Kovno but all across Lithuania. One of the men who spread this method was Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak ben Noach Darshan, famous as the Kelmer Maggid, who had in 1849 as a young man of twenty-one spent some time in Rabbi Israel's circle. In 1853, Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak became the maggid mesharim of Zhagor, the birthplace of Rabbi Israel, and here he taught according to Rabbi Israel's instructions.
Another man who was inspired to open such study houses was the wealthy Kalonymus Zev Wissotzky, who went to Kovno in 1854 to learn musar from Rabbi Israel. He too returned to his home city of Zhagor and established a group of men who learned the Chayei Adam and musar works.
Rabbi Israel told the teachers to present the material so that the workers could learn the meaning of the text, and gain the skills to learn on their own. "When you teach Chayei Adam, first translate each word of sentence, then the entire sentence. And then have the men repeat the sentence a few times" (Tenuas Hamusar).
In 1855, the government passed a new repressive decree. No one would be allowed to teach without a high school or seminary diploma. In other words, another attempt to destroy traditional Jewish education.
And then: a miracle, a blessing. The Czar of Russia, the grand and mighty Nicholas I, committed the first positive act in his long career: an act that in one swoop benefitted the entire populace of Russia, Jew and gentile alike. He died.
The new ruler of Russia was Alexander II.
A man came into the beis medrash, told the shammash, "Quick, let me in to see Rabbi Israel."
The shammash knocked at the door to Rabbi Israel's study, and the man disappeared, closing the door behind him.
A minute later, he came out with Rabbi Israel. Rabbi Israel announced, his face shining, "My dear students, wonderful news! Alexander II has abolished the army cantonist decree!" And Rabbi Israel recited the full blessing of "shehechiyanu," with the pronunciation of Hashem's name.
The students looked back at Rabbi Israel, hesitant. He rebuked them, "Why do you not recite the blessing as well? Today is a holiday!" (Tenuas Hamusar).
The entire day, Rabbi Israel was filled with joy. Some Jews would still be drafted, but much fewer--and most important, the drafting of children was abolished.
Over the next few years, Alexander II instituted new reforms that filled all Russia with a mood of optimism. He liberated the serfs, established self-rule in various areas, reformed the judicial system, the military and the schools.
And the Jews too felt this wave of hope, this breath of freedom.
Among them, the maskilim believed that their dreams were crystallizing, that their belief in the progress of man through rationalism was being realized.
It was in the same year--1856--that the Haskalah weekly, Hamaggid, began to appear.
"What can we do? These papers are publishing the grossest slander against the rabbis, against the Torah itself."
This was Rabbi Israel speaking, walking home in the late night with a Torah leader of Kovno. After a wet snow had fallen, the waxing moon had come out, shining brightly on the street.
The other man waved his arm dismissively. "They are the 'foxes in the vineyard.' A Torah Jew ignores them."
"I cannot agree. We do not live in an ivory tower. We must make use of all the techniques we can to fight this poison."
"Aren't you making too much of this? After all, the only people who read these papers are other maskilim!"
"That is not the case. These papers are being read by many people, including Orthodox householders. And more than that, I can assure you that there is more than one yeshiva student who reads these magazines secretly."
"Well, if that is the case," the other rabbi asked, "what to you intend to do?"
Overhead, there was a silent shower of shooting stars, a celestial fireworks that faded into the indigo sky.
"There is one paper, Halevanon, in Paris, which is not hostile to Torah. Perhaps there is a way to use it as an organ of Torah thought."
"Well, good luck--if that's what you think you should be spending your time on."
The two men parted at the rabbi's house, and Rabbi Israel walked along the street, slippery with the wet snow, thinking.
Eventually, after some false starts, Rabbi Israel and Rabbi Eliyahu Levinsohn were instrumental in getting Halevanon under the editorship of the renowned Rabbi Meir Marcus Lehmann, and to appear as a supplement to the widely-distributed Der Israelit. Halevanon now became the representative of Torah-observant Jewry.
One issue of Hamaggid printed a particularly noxious article, "Additions to the 'Paths of the Talmud'" by M.L. Lilienblum. Most Jews again dismissed it. "Why get excited? There will always be apikorsim."
But Rabbi Israel disagreed. He wrote to Rabbi Yitzchak Margolios of Kovno, asking him to publish a reply. Rabbi Israel published Rabbi Yitzchak's essay in a pamphlet entitled "A Fortress in Defense of the Talmud," and distributed it across Lithuania.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Israel's musar shtiebels were spreading across Lithuania. It was precisely in those cities that the Haskalah had taken hold that musar shtiebels were established.
In their writings, the leaders of the Haskalah movement identified the musar shtiebels as the bulwark against the Haskalah. One Maskil, Avraham Mapu, complained bitterly, "The cheders continue their customary way: with no reference to Tanach, and the Hebrew language cast aside....In Rossiyeny, [which had been a city of maskilim,] I did not recognize the place, for it is changed entirely [i.e., more religious]--with six batei medrash and a musar shtiebel as well. And this is the spirit of the new generation: one goes either to the university or to Torah, marriage and the musar shtiebel. There is no middle way."
Yet the musar movement had a peculiar attraction for Maskilim. The well-known author who called himself Baal Machshovos wrote, "While it may seem strange to say, the musar movement comprised the aspiration to combine the Haskalah with the fear of heaven. The fact that a musar person paid more attention to his imagination and to understanding his heart than he did to the intellect alone had something in it of the spirit of a new age."
Perhaps this is why many Haskalah leaders seemed so fascinated with Rabbi Israel and praised him even as they slandered other Torah leaders. Although Rabbi Israel was clearly one of the leaders of the movement against the maskilim, some of them rhapsodized him. In the words of Nachum Sokolov, written years later, "His method of revival was not like our method today. His ways are very far from our ways. But this remarkable man harbored great ideas in his large heart. And the spiritual traces that he left behind are still noticeable today....He had a great communal sense, the feeling for the people beat in his heart, bringing him out of the house of study and making him a public crusader, a crusader with great vigor, strong-minded and ready for battle. He was great in spirit and great in ethics, and he bore great thoughts in his heart."
Rabbi Israel did not mince words in his denunciation of the maskilim. "Why do people in Lithuania call a maskil a 'kenner'--one who 'is able'? The answer is that he is able to do all that his heart desires. He is allows himself to transgress whatever he wishes, for he has no fear of heaven." And at another time, Rabbi Israel said, "Every person who has become a mumar"--an apostate or heretic--"because of his desires also has in himself an element of rebellion against G-d. The proof is as follows: after he has committed the sin to fulfill his gross desires that he couldn't control, why doesn't he at least regret his sin? Yet he still believes that he doesn't need rectification. And this is a sign that the desire was mixed with a tinge of rebellion" (Hameoros Hagedolim).
Some of the maskilim fought back with virulent propaganda. The most successful of these was Avraham Mapu, who lived in Kovno. He had at first written romantic novels set in biblical times, such as Ahavas Tzion.
But then he turned to the modern world in his Ayit Tzavua--The Hypocritical Vulture. This novel was a pernicious caricature of religious Jews. And the two main villains of the story--Rabbi Gadiel and Rabbi Tzaddok--were vicious portrayals of Rabbi Israel and Rabbi Eliyahu Levinsohn of Cartinga.
When Rabbi Israel had said that Haskalah literature was being secretly devoured by yeshiva youth, he had been correct. Ayit Tzavua was instrumental in driving scores of students out of yeshiva and into the camp of the maskilim.
And the figures of Rabbi Gadiel and Rabbi Tzaddok formed the archetypes of a hundred years of Hebrew-language defamations of Jewish religious leaders.
So unrestrained and vicious was Mapu's caricature that even other maskilim protested.
And the maskilim were split over another topic as well.
The news came to Kovno as it had to all the other cities of Lithuania. A merchant declared: "Rabbi Israel was right not to take the position in Vilna's rabbinical seminary! Have you heard what's going on there?"
Years before, Rabbi Israel had compared the two rabbinical seminaries of Vilna and Zhitomir to the two golden calves that Yerovoam ben Nevat had set up in Beis El: "Like the calves, these too will heaven forbid lead to the destruction of Israel" (Tenuas Hamusar).
What had happened now?
Other men at the inn crowded about the merchant, who had just returned from Vilna. "In Vilna, one of the teachers has become an apostate, and he is still teaching--in fact, he has persuaded several students to go on his path. And in Zhitomir, several students were discovered eating unkosher meat on Shavuos--and they still are continuing their studies there, to become rabbis!"
How could it be otherwise, when the school was supervised by Russian officials? They were the flunkeys of Sergei Ouvarov, who at last made his position clear: "The Talmud demoralized and continues to demoralize the Jews...Its influence can only be counteracted by the Haskalah." It had indeed been his intention to train rabbis who would influence Jews to despise the Torah. And then they would be ripe for conversion to Christianity....
Many students turned their back on Torah-observance; others apostasized.
Some of the maskilim had been active collaborators in these schemes, so bitterly did they hate the religious world.
For others, this news was a shameful blow, and they denounced the seminaries as "a house infected with the plague, which had been rotten from its very inception." Particularly the Torah-observant maskilim, such as Shmuel Yosef Fuenn, were dismayed at this betrayal of their ideals: "Woe to us because of the pails of dirty water that our sons, our students, spill upon us! Our sons, who we thought would be our pride and glory among Israel and the nations, have heaped shame and disgrace upon us. I am ashamed of my colleagues--especially of my masters and all our faithful friends, because of this degradation."
One morning, Rabbi Israel summoned one of his outstanding students, Israel Isar Einhorn, to his study.
"Isar," Rabbi Israel said. I have a proposal to make to you.
"You have seen how the common folk look up to university students, how they view an advanced degree as some sort of magic pass." Rabbi Israel paced back and forth, his brow wrinkled. "To them, a person with a university education is a superior being, an angel who does not have to keep mitzvos, to be loyal to the Torah!
"If we could show them a Jew who has attained a higher education yet who remains not just observant but pious--then what an impression that would make.
"I believe in you, Isar. I believe in your strength, in your pure heart. So my question to you is: would you be prepared to go to a university, amidst all the temptations and difficulties?"
Isar Einhorn remained silent for a long time, then groped for words. "I don't know if I can trust in myself. But I believe that I can trust in your belief in me."
Isar Einhorn left Rabbi Israel's yeshiva for St. Petersburg, where he soon graduated the St. Petersburg Military Medical Institution, and rapidly rose in the ranks of the Russian army as a doctor.
One day, when a colleague of Rabbi Israel entered the beis medrash, he saw Rabbi Israel sitting with his head buried in his hands. A letter lay open on Rabbi Israel's desk. It contained the news: "I am sorry to tell you that Isar Einhorn has converted to Christianity." He later became famous in Russian society as General Einhorn.
Isar Einhorn's younger brother also became a military physician, but he remained faithful to the Torah (Tenuas Hamusar).
"What have I done?" Rabbi Israel lamented. "A soul of Israel has been lost because of my advice." And he determined that, in Russia at least, Torah could not be mixed with secular learning (Tenuas Hamusar).
Rabbi Israel often made sharp comments about maskilim. "Do you think that a person who walks around without any head-covering is an apikorus?" he once asked. "Even a person who covers his head but walks about without a hat is already an apikorus" (Hameoros Hagedolim)--for even such a deliberate change in the accepted Jewish culture was a sign of degradation.
But in the years to follow, Rabbi Israel showed the greatest warmth to non-religious university students, trying to bring them back to Torah-observance.
Rabbi Israel continued teaching his own students. He was uncompromising in his standards. He put together a small group of elite students to whom he would devote special attention. He tested his son, Rabbi Aryeh Leib, and told him, "I'm sorry, but you are not on the level of the others, and you cannot join us."
Rabbi Israel was also unbending with his oldest son, Shmuel, who had moved to Kovno and become a merchant. Whenever Shmuel came for a visit, Rabbi Israel would not ask him about his business. All he would ask him was, "Have you set aside time to learn Torah?"
At about this time, Rabbi Israel's second daughter, Hoddah Libbah, married Aharon Sidersky of Grodno. And his second son, Aryeh Leib, became rabbi of Brezneh, in Minsk.
Rabbi Israel continued travelling across Lithuania, speaking to the people, attempting to organize the rabbis, and opening musar shtiebels wherever he could--because the musar shtiebel was the foundation of the musar movement.
In 1858, Rabbi Israel published a new edition of the classic musar sefer, Tomer Devorah--and appended to it was an unsigned essay called Iggeres Hamusar, the Epistle of Musar. This short essay has come to be regarded as the manifesto of the musar movement.
Rabbi Israel apparently faced the writing of this work with trepidation. He once said, "I feel that I have the ability to write a number of works of chiddushim on the level of the Noda Biyehudah. But I lack the strength to write even one page on the level of Mesillas Yesharim" (Hameoros Hagedolim).
To describe this essay very much in brief: Rabbi Israel began by describing a terrifying picture of man's state, drawn by his desires, not cognizant that he will be punished dreadfully for his sins. However, if one is good, one will gain a wondrous reward.
And the way to keep this in mind is by developing one's fear of G-d.
There are two kinds of sin, wrote Rabbi Israel. One comes from one's lust for pleasant things. This is to be countered by vivid visualization of the punishment one will suffer for committing these sins. The corresponding good inclination comes from the common sense of seeing where one's sins will lead one.
The second type of sin is irrational, and stems from an unclean spirit, a force of uncleanness. It is to be countered by regular meditation on the fear of G-d. Its corresponding good inclination is an unreasoned force of holiness.
How does one strengthen the good inclination of common sense? By learning the halachos in those areas where one has sinned, with profound depth of feeling, with fear of the consequences of one's sin; and as well by meditating on the fear of G-d.
And how does ones strengthen the good inclination of the force of holiness? By studying any part of the Torah, for the spirituality of the Torah protects a person.
Finally, one should not only devote oneself to learning musar, but one has an obligation to inspire others to this practice as well.
There were those who, reading such words, protested that they concentrated on fear and ignored joy; that they were gloomy, even depressing. Instead of discussing on the pleasure of doing mitzvos and experiencing the closeness of G-d, musar spoke of the punishments that would come as a consequence of sin. Instead of urging a man to seek the sparks of goodness even in his unrefined acts, musar urged him to seek the uncorrected even in his piety. Rabbi Israel proclaimed, "A person can find a reason to allow himself mirth and frivolity. But the power of musar is to show that even his weeping and seriousness can be flawed" (Tenuas Hamusar).
People were asking: what was the utility of a teaching that stressed weeping, and meditation on sinfulness and the punishments of the after-life--a movement whose watchword was yirah--fear?
In later years, Rabbi Blazer wrote that such a state of mind led to a transparency and purity of self, to--ultimately--an ecstasy. "A man shakes denies his connection with fear and musar, afraid that it will bring him to depression. But this is a false delusion. When he will accustom himself to learn works of fear and musar, then he will realize that what he imagined is not the case, and that his suspicion was false.
"...After one accustoms oneself over a period of time to learn works of fear and musar, one will subjugate one's uncircumcised heart and one's soul will awaken to leave the filthy depths through the gate of hope.
"Learning musar will make an impression on one's soul. Even though one is burdened with the fear of G-d and the fear of His punishment, one will not be depressed. Rabbi Israel compared this to a soldier who is burdened with much work and when he errs is punished and whipped. Yet we do not see such a solider walking about depressed. He gets up from the ground, wipes the tears from his eyes and returns immediately to his work. So great is his burden that he has no time to think of anything else that is of no help to him.
"Similarly, in serving G-d, when one learns works of fear and musar and realizes how much one has to do...one's fear will drive out all other thoughts and will force one to be as strong as a lion in serving G-d without letup.
"When a person accustoms himself to learn works of fear and musar, he will see how great is the reward of those who do His will...He will rejoice in his lot, he will 'rejoice with trembling' (Tehillim 2:11). He will be able to see what is good and what is evil, to consider consequences. Fear will give him power and strength. The [knowledge of] reward will sustain him. The hope of improving his ways yet more, to save his soul from the dark cloud of the depths of hell, to be illuminated in the light of life eternally--all this will renew his strength and awaken a spirit of truth within him" (Or Israel).
Musar did not speak of the joy one can experience by doing a mitzvah, by learning Torah, by praying. It did not speak to a person's desire for pleasure, the pleasure of clinging to G-dliness. Instead, musar appealed to one's sense of the future consequences of sin.
And Rabbi Israel said that this was the difference between musar and another movement that had attempted to transform the consciousness of the Jewish people: Chassidus. Rabbi Israel proclaimed, "Chassidus legitimatized dancing and drinking a schnapps. But musar says that even weeping and tears are not necessarily good enough" (Tenuas Hamusar).
Many of Rabbi Israel's pronouncements expressed other moods as well: a lyricism, sharpness, wry humor, a shrewd evaluation of human nature. A number of these sayings follow:
Man is like a bird: a bird can fly high in the air as long as it beats its wings. But if it ceases beating its wings for a moment, it falls to the ground.
Man is like a violin: if it is flawless, then it makes music.
In your heart, which is the size of a handbreadth, you can understand the entire world.
When a man proclaims that G-d is one, he bears in mind that G-d is King of the entire world--but he forgets to make G-d King over himself.
A man lives with himself for seventy years--yet he does not know himself.
A person gives everything away for a small whistle--and in the end, it doesn't work.
Spirituality is like a bird--if you hold it too tightly, it will suffocate; if you hold it too loosely, it will flee.
A rabbi whom the people do not want to chase out of the city is no rabbi; and a rabbi who can be chased out of the city is no man.
The world says: If you can't pass over, you have to go back. But I say: If you can't pass over--then you still have to pass over!
One does not have to say everything that one thinks; nor write everything that one says; nor publish everything that one writes.
Writing is one of the easiest things in the world; erasing, one of the hardest.
There is no greater self-interest than that of self-conscious piety.
In the past, a person only committed a sin when a spirit of foolishness entered him (Sotah 3a). Nowadays, a person only does a mitzvah when a spirit of purity enters him.
There is no greater illness than despair.
If only the great person would do what the small person knows.
When it comes to someone else's affairs--don't "trust in G‑d."
A person running to do a mitzvah can destroy the world on his way.
A person has to try not to ruin things; and then, the rectification will come of itself (Tenuas Hamusar).
Meanwhile, Rabbi Israel engaged in actions that later became legendary stories.
His concern for others was tremendous. "Regarding yourself," he said, "you should give precedence to your soul over your body. But regarding others, you may not disregard their physical needs, for their physical needs are your spiritual concern" (Tenuas Hamusar).
Like all Jewish communities, Kovno had a hekdesh, a poorhouse.
Early one morning, daylight was shining through the cracked, dirty pane of the hekdesh, stuffed with a rag. The damp walls were still in shadow, and there were darker spots on the wall where mildew was growing. A few beggars were picking themselves up from the earth floor, where they had used rags for a blanket and a fist for a pillow. One of the men was different, though--he was well-groomed, and his black frock well-cared for.
One of the beggars exclaimed in astonishment, "It's the rabbi!"
By late morning, the beggars had spread the news that the musar rabbi was staying in the hekdesh, that he wouldn't leave.
A group of community leaders walked through the refuse-littered alleyway to the hovel, whose roof sagged over the doorway.
"Rabbi Israel?" one of the men asked tentatively, gingerly sticking his head into the room. "Are you all right?"--for he saw that it was indeed Rabbi Israel standing in the squalid room.
"I am all right," Rabbi Israel replied. "But what about you? You are able to raise money. Why have you not done so to make the hekdesh a decent place to stay in?"
The words stung. "You are right, Rabbi Israel. We shall set up a committee to raise the money immediately. But please come out of there" (Mark).
Rabbi Israel was always acutely disturbed by complacent piety combined with insensitivity to others. He would quote the verse, "Let us fall into the hand of Hashem...and let me not fall into the hand of man" (Shmuel II 24) and interpret it, "It is better to stumble in mitzvos between man and G-d than to stumble in mitzvos between man and man" (Tenuas Hamusar).
One time, he was walking down the street with a rabbi known as a gaon. The rabbi held an umbrella under his arm at an angle, so that the end stuck out.
Rabbi Israel pointed this out. "Carrying an umbrella in that way is like 'scattering one's thorns in a public way' (Bava Kamma 30a), and one is liable for any damage one may cause."
The rabbi moved the cane so that it faced the ground. A few minutes later, he again shifted it under his arm so that it stuck out at an angle.
This time, Rabbi Israel rebuked the man and had nothing more to say to him (Hameoros Hagedolim).
And similarly, Rabbi Israel would rebuke students who would lean their shtenders into the aisle, for they were creating "an obstacle in a public domain."
People could so easily combine an utmost sensitivity for ritual concerns with insensitivity to their fellow-Jews. Rabbi Israel once remarked ironically, "Many times, I have seen someone passing by a shul and the people inside call out to him, 'Kedushah, Kedushah, please come in and join us!' But I have never seen someone passing by a house where a meal is being eaten, and the people inside calling out to him, 'A meal, a meal, please come in and join us!'" (Tenuas Hamusar).
One Elul, Rabbi Israel explained how in the course of rising early for selichos, one can commit many sins. "Imagine a person who makes so much noise getting up that he wakes other people, who might be old or sick.
"He may insist that his housemaid get up to make him tea--usually such a woman is a widow or orphan, and so he transgresses the prohibition, 'You shall not afflict any widow or orphan' (Shemos 22:21).
"Then, hurrying to get to shul on time, he quickly washes his hands, spilling water on the floor where people might later slip.
"At last, he enters the shul. Here, he is infuriated to find that his shtender has been moved from its place, and he loudly rebukes the gabbai--now he has committed slander and shamed his neighbor publicly. It may be that the shtender had been used by a talmid chacham who had learned throughout the night" (Tenuas Hamusar).
Rabbi Israel took great care not to disturb another's sleep. Once he attended a wedding that was held in an inn. By the time the wedding came to an end, it was very late. Rabbi Israel decided to spend the night at the inn. "If I go home and knock on the door, I may wake the neighbors and rob them of their sleep" (apparently, he knew that his family would still be awake) (Hameoros Hagedolim).
Late one night, a beis medrash caught fire. The next day, men stood at the smoking shell of the building. "Did you hear how the fire started?" one man asked his neighbor. "Reb Kalman, the masmid (a man who was always learning) was learning with a candle in his hand so that if he would doze off, the flame would burn him and wake him up. But he fell asleep, and the candle set fire to the building."
The other man said, "That's a talmid chacham! In the merit of his learning, G-d saved him from the fire."
When Rabbi Israel heard that people were praising this masmid, he protested. "Look at what a disaster he brought on himself for the rest of his life. From now on, he can no longer learn, for he has to go to work and earn the money to pay for the damage that he caused" (Tenuas Hamusar).
Rabbi Israel scoured the sources of Jewish law to make novel practical applications, and this became a trademark of his. His student, Rabbi Simchah Zissel, wrote of him later, "Rabbi Israel innovated many new laws in monetary and torts (damages) that seemed strange in the eyes of many. There were even outstanding gaonim who were surprised at his wondrous innovations that had never been heard of until now" (Tenuas Hamusar). And Rabbi Blazer also wrote, "He showed wondrous things, specific examples according to the law of the Torah, of how a person can stumble easily in the sin of thievery and damages" (Or Israel).
One time, a rabbi expressed his surprise at such an example. "I have never seen this in the Talmud!"
Rabbi Israel replied with a light smile, "Perhaps it isn't in your Talmud, but it is written in my Talmud." He opened a volume of Gemara and showed where he had derived the law from (Tenuas Hamusar).
For instance, Rabbi Israel made it a point always to arrive first at an appointment. "Our sages say that wherever a congregation of Jews gathers, 'G-d's Presence comes there first' (Berachos 6a). And since the Holy One, blessed be He, acts this way, surely every Jew has to do so as well" (Tenuas Hamusar).
Rabbi Israel said, "My Shulchan Aruch is broader than the Shulchan Aruch of others. What others fail to see, I find" (Tenuas Hamusar).
Whenever Rabbi Israel went to pray in one of the shuls of Kovno that had been inherited by minor orphans, he used only a little water to wash his hands. "The water that spills from the pitcher splashes onto the wall and damages it, and 'orphans are not competent to renounce their rights'" (Tenuas Hamusar).
Rabbi Israel was sensitive not only to others' physical needs but to their emotional needs as well.
Once, he spent a Shabbos in Keidan, where a bar mitzvah was taking place. The bar mitzvah boy had prepared himself for maftir. But instead, someone else was called to the Torah. No one meant to hurt the boy's feeling. And after all, what is an aliyah? Is that something one should cry about?
But Rabbi Israel noticed the boy's crestfallen face. Rabbi Israel did not discount the boy and his feelings. He approached the boy after the morning services: "Let us go for a walk." For a long time, the two walked together, and Rabbi Israel spoke to the youngster, and consoled and cheered him (Tenuas Hamusar).