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Germany - The Meassefim

( Originally Published 1909 )

The intellectual emancipation of the Jews in Germany anticipated their political and social emancipation. That is a truth generally acknowledged. Long secluded from all foreign ideas, confined within religious and dogmatic bounds, German Judaism was a sharer in the physical and social misery of the Judaism of Slavic countries. The philosophic and tolerant ideas in vogue at the end of the eighteenth century startled it somewhat out of its torpor. In the measure in which those ideas gained a foothold in the communities, conditions, at least in the larger centres, took on a comfortable aspect, with more or less assurance of permanent well-being. The first contact of the ghetto with the enlightened circles of the day gave the impetus to a marked movement toward an inner emancipation. Associations of Maskilim (" intellectuals ") were formed at Berlin, Hamburg, and Breslau. " The Seekers of the Good and the Noble" (Shohare ha-Tob weha-Tushiyah) should be mentioned particularly. They were composed of educated men familiar with Occidental culture, and animated by the desire to make the light of that culture penetrate to the heart of the provincial communities. These " intellectuals " entered the lists against religious fanaticism and casuistic methods, seeking to replace them by liberal ideas and scientific research. Two schools, headed respectively by the philosopher Mendelssohn and the poet Wessely, had their origin in this movement the school of the Biurists, deriving their name from the Biur,1 a commentary on the Bible, and the school of the Meassefim, from Meassef, " Collector." The former defended Judaism against the enemies from without, and combated the prejudices and the ignorance of the Jews themselves. The Meassefim took as their sphere of activity the reform of the education of the young and the revival of the Hebrew language. The two schools agreed that to elevate the moral and social status of the Jews, it was necessary to remove first the external peculiarities separating them from their fellow-citizens. A new translation of the Bible into literary German, undertaken by Mendelssohn, was to deal the death blow to the Jewish-German (jüdisch-deutsch) jargon, and the Biur, the commentary on the Bible mentioned above, produced by the co-operation of a galaxy of scholars and men of culture, was expected to sweep aside all mystic and allegoric interpretations of the Scriptures and introduce the rational and scientific method.

The results achieved by the Biurists tended beyond a doubt toward the elevation of the mass of the Jews. One of these results was, as had been hoped for, the dislodgment of the Jewish-German by the spread of the pure German. The influence wielded by the Biurists, so far from stopping with the German Jews, extended to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.

In 1784-5, two Hebrew writers, Isaac Euchel and Mendel Bresslau, undertook to publish a magazine, entitled Ha-Meassef (" The Collector "), whence the name Meassefim. The enterprise was under the auspices of Mendelssohn and Wessely. A double aim was to be served. The periodical was to promote the spread of knowledge and modern ideas in the Hebrew language, the only language available for the Jews of the ghetto; and at the same time it was to promote the purification of Hebrew, which had degenerated in the Rabbinical schools. Its readers were to be familiarized with the social and aesthetic demands of modern life, and induced to rid themselves of ingrained peculiarities. Besides its success in these directions, it must be set to the credit of Ha-Maessef, that it was the first agency to gather under one banner all the champions of the Haskalah in the several countries of Europe. It supplied the link connecting them with one another.

From the literary point of view Ha-Measse of is of subordinate interest. Its contributors were de-void of taste. They offered their readers mainly questionable imitations of the works of the German romantic school. The periodical brought no new talent truly worthy of the description into notice. Whatever reputation its principal writers enjoyed had been won before the appearance of Ha-Maessef. They owed their fame primarily to the favor acquired for Hebrew letters through the efforts of Luzzatto's disciples. Of the poems published in Ha-Meassef but a few deserve notice, and even they are nothing more than mediocre imitations of didactic pieces in the style of the day, or odes celebrating the splendor of contemporary kings and princes. A poem by Wessely forms a rare exception. It extols the residents of Basle, who, in 1789, welcomed Jewish refugees from Alsace. And if we turn from its poetry to its _historical contributions, we find that the biographies, as of Abarbanel and Joseph Delmedigo, are hardly scientific; they occupy themselves with external facts to the neglect of underlying ideas. On the whole, Ha-Meassef was an engine of propaganda and polemics rather than a literary production, though the campaign carried on in its pages against strait-laced orthodoxy and the Rabbis, did not reach the degree of bitterness which was to characterize later periods moderation that was due to its most prominent contributors. Wessely exhorted the editors not to attack religiousness nor ridicule the Rabbis, and Mendelssohn devoted his articles to minor points of Rabbinic practice, such as the permissibility of vaccination under the Jewish law.

The French Revolution precipitated events in an unexpected way. The tone of Ha-Meassef changed. It held that knowledge and liberty alone could save the Jews. More aggressive toward the Rabbis than before, it attacked fanaticism, and gave space to trite poems, glorifying a life, for instance, in which women and wine played the prominent part (1790). Six years after its first issue,' Ha-Meassef ceased to appear, not without having materially advanced the intellectual emancipation of the German Jews and the revival of Hebrew as a secular language. So important was this first co-operative enterprise in Hebrew letters, that it imposed its name on the whole of the literary movement of the second half of the eighteenth century, the epoch of the Meassefim.

Two poets and five or six prose writers more or less worthy of the name of author dominated the period.

Naphtali Hartwig Wessely (born at Hamburg in 1725; died there in 18o5) is considered the prince of the poets of the time. Belonging to a rather intelligent family in easy circumstances, he received a modern education. Though his mind was open to all the new influences, he nevertheless remained a loyal adherent of his faith, and occupied strictly religious ground until the end. He devoted himself with success to the cultivation of poetry, and completed the work of reform begun by the Italian Luzzatto, to whom, however, he was inferior in depth and originality.

Wessely's poetic masterpiece was Shire Tiferet (" Songs of Glory "), or the Epic of Moses (Berlin, 1789), in five volumes. This poem of the Exodus is on the model of the pseudo-classic productions of the Germany of his day; the influence of Klopstock's Messias, for instance, is striking.

Depth of thought, feeling for art, and original poetic imagination are lacking in Shire Tiferet. Practically it is nothing more than an oratorical paraphrase of the Biblical recital. The shortcomings of his main work are characteristic of all the poetry by Wessely. On the other hand, his oratorical manner is unusually attractive, and his Hebrew is elegant and chaste. The somewhat labored precision of his style, taken together with the absence of the poetic temperament, makes of him the Malherbe of modern Hebrew poetry. He enjoyed the love and admiration of his contemporaries to an extraordinary degree, and his chief poem underwent a large number of editions, be-coming in course of time a popular book, and regarded with kindly favor even by the most orthodox testimony at once to the poet's personal influence upon his co-religionists and the growing importance of the Hebrew language.

Wessely wrote also several important works on questions in Hebrew grammar and philology. The chief of them is Lebanon, two parts of which appeared, each separately, under the title Gan Na'ul ("The Locked Garden ", Berlin, 1765) ; the other parts never appeared in print. They bear witness to their author's solid scientific attainments, and it is regrettable that their value is obscured by his style, diffuse to the point of prolixity. Besides, Wessely contributed to the German translation of the Bible, and to the commentary on the Bible, both, as mentioned before, works presided over by Mendelssohn, to whom he was attached by the tie of admiring friendship.

Wessely's chief distinction, however, was his firm character and his love of truth. His high ethical qualities were revealed notably in his pamphlet Dibre Shalom wa-Emet (" Words of Peace and Truth," Berlin, 1781), elicited by the edict of Emperor Joseph II ordering a reform of Jewish education and the establishment of modern schools for Jews. Though well on in years, he yet did not shrink from the risk of incurring the anger of the fanatics. He openly declared himself in favor of pedagogic innovations. With sage-like modesty and mildness, the poet stated the pressing need for adopting new educational methods, and showed them to be by no means in opposition to the Mosaic and Rabbinic conception of the Jewish faith. In the name of Torat ha-A dam, the law for man as such, he set forth urgent reforms which would raise the prestige of the Law as well as of the Jews. He hoped for civil liberty, the liberty the Jews were enjoying in England and in the Netherlands. However, this courageous course gained for him the ban of the fanatics, the effect of which was mitigated by the intervention of the Italian Rabbis in favor of Wessely. On the other hand, it made him the most prominent member of the Meassefim circle ; he was regarded as the master of the Maskilim.

Among the most distinguished of the contributors to Ha-Meassef is the second writer acclaimed poet by popular consent. David Franco Mendes (1713-1792) was born at Amsterdam, of a family escaped from the Inquisition. Like most Jews of Spanish origin, his family clung to the Spanish language. He was the friend and disciple, and likewise the imitator, of Moses Hayyim Luzzatto. What was true of Eastern Europe, that the He-brew language prevailed in the ghetto, and had to be resorted to by all who would reach the Jewish masses, did not apply to the countries of the Romance languages. Here Hebrew had little by little been supplanted by the vernacular. Mendes, who paid veritable worship to Hebrew literature, was distressed to see the object of his devotion scorned by his co-religionists and the productions of the classic age of France preferred to it. In the pre-face to his tragedy, " Athaliah's Recompense " (Gemul Athaliah, Amsterdam, 1770), he set himself the task of demonstrating the superiority of the sacred language to the profane languages. Yet this very tragedy, in spite of its author's protestations, is nothing more than a rifacimento of Racine's drama, and rather infelicitous at that, though it must be admitted that Mendes' style is of classic purity, and some of his scenes are in a measure characterized by vivacity of action. His other drama, " Judith ", also published at Amster-dam, has no greater merit than " Athaliah's Recompense." Besides these dramas, Mendes wrote several biographical sketches of the learned men of the Middle Ages for Ha-Meassef.

It were far from the truth to say that Mendes succeeded in rivalling the French and Italian authors whom he set up as models for himself. Nevertheless he was endorsed and admired by the literary men of his time as the heir of Luzzatto.

An enumeration of all the writers and all the scholars who, directly or indirectly, contributed to the work of Ha-Meassef, would be wearisome. Only those who are distinguished by some degree of originality will be set down by name.

Rabbi Solomon Pappenheim (1776-1814), of Breslau, was the author of a sentimental elegy, Arba` Kosot (" The Four Cups ", Berlin, 1790). The poem, inspired by Young's "Night Thoughts," is remarkable for its personal note. In his plaints recalling Job's, this Hebrew Werther mourns the loss, not of his mistress that would not have been in consonance with the spirit of the ghetto but of his wife and his three children. The elegy came near being a popular poem. Its vapid sentimentality and its affected and exaggerated style were to exercise a baneful influence upon the following generations. It is the tribute paid by Hebrew literature to the diseased spirit of the age. Pappenheim wrote, besides, on Hebrew philology. His work, Yeri'ot Shelomoh (" The Curtains of Solomon "), is an important contribution to the subject.

Shalom Hacohen, the editor of a second series of Ha-Meassef, published in 1809-1811 (Berlin, Altona, and Dessau), deserves mention. He won considerable fame by his poems and articles, which appeared in the second series of Ha-Meassef and in Bikkure ha-`Ittim (" The First Fruits of the Times "), and especially through his historical drama, " Amal and Tirzah (Rödelheim, 1812). The last, a naďvely-conceived piece of work, is well fitted into its Biblical frame. Hacohen is one of the intermediaries between the German Meassefim and their successors in Poland.

Mendelssohn, the master admired and respected by all, contributed, as was mentioned before, only minor controversial articles to Ha-Meassef f . His preface to the Biur and his commentary on Maimonides' treatise on logic are in good style. His philosophical works, "Jerusalem" and "Ph aedon," translated into Hebrew by his disciples, were largely instrumental in giving prevalence to the idea that the Jewish people is a religious community. rather than a nation. This circumstance explains the banishment of Hebrew from the synagogue by his less religious followers, such as David Friedlander, and the attacks of Herz Homberg on traditional Judaism in his pamphlet " To the Shepherds of Israel " (El Ro`e Yisraël) .

The chief editor of Ha-Measse f, Isaac Euchel (1756-1804), became known for his polemic articles against the superstitions and obscurantism of the fanatics of the ghetto. Euchel wrote also a biographical sketch of Mendelssohn, which was published at Vienna in 1814.

There were also scientific writers among the Meassefim. Baruch Lindau wrote a treatise on the natural sciences, Reshit Limmudim (" The Elements of the Sciences ", Brunn, 1788) , and Mordecai Gumpel Levisohn, the learned professor at the University of Upsala, was the author of a series of scientific essays in Ha-Meassef, which contributed greatly to its success.

Up to the time we are speaking of, Poland had supplied the Jewish people with Rabbis and Talmudistes, and when the German Jews became imbued with the new spirit, their Polish brethren did not lag behind. Polish authors are to be found among the Meassefim, and several of them deserve special notice.

Kant's brilliant disciple, the profound thinker Solomon Maimon, published only his exegetical works and his ingenious commentary on Maimonides in Hebrew. Another Polish writer, Solomon Dubno (1735-1813 ), one of the first to co-operate with Mendelssohn in his Biur, was a remarkable grammarian and stylist. Among other things he wrote an allegorical drama and a number of poetic satires. Of the latter, the " Hymn to Hypocrisy ", published in Bikkure To'elet, is a finished production.

Judah Ben-Zeëb (1764-1811) published in Berlin a Manual of the Hebrew Language (Tal-mud Leshon 'Ibri), planned on modern lines, a work contributing greatly toward spreading a knowledge of philology and rhetoric among the Jews. His Hebrew-German Dictionary and his Hebrew version of Ben Sira are well known to Hebraists.

Isaac Satanow (1732-1804), a Pole residing at Berlin, was a curious personage, interesting alike for the variety of his productions and the oddity of his mental make-up. He possessed a surprising capacity for assimilation. It was this that enabled him to excel, whether he imitated the style of the Bible or the style of mediaeval authors. Hebrew and Aramaic he handled with the same ingenious skill. All his works he attributed to some ancient author. His collection of Proverbs, bearing the name of the Psalmist Asaph (Mishle Asaph, Berlin, 1789 and 1792, in three books), would cut a respectable figure in any literature.

A few specimens of his Mishle, or maxims, follow :

"Truth springs from research, justice from intelligence. The beginning of research is curiosity, its essence is discernment, and its goal truth and justice" (7:5,6).

"On the day of thy birth thou didst weep, and those about thee were glad. On the day of thy death thou wilt laugh, and those about thee will sigh. Know then, thou wilt one day be born anew to rejoice in God, and matter° will no longer hinder thee" (15:5, 6).

"Rule thy spirit lest others rule thy body" (24:2).

"Pincers are made by means of pincers; work is helped on by work, and science by science" (34:23).

"Think not what is sweet to thy palate is sweet to thy neighbor's palate. Not so; for many are the beautiful wives that are hated by their husbands, and many the ill-featured wives that are beloved" (43:6,7).

"Every living being leaves off reproducing itself in its old age; but falsehood plays the harlot even in her decrepitude. The older she grows, the deeper she strikes root in the ground, the more numerous becomes her Iying progeny, the further does it spread abroad. Her lovers multiply, and those who pay respect to the old adhere to her, that her name be not wiped from the face of the earth" (42:29-31).

Satanow pleaded for the language of the Mishnah as forming part of the Hebrew linguistic stock, but the moment was not propitious to the reform of the prevailing literary style suggested by him.

On the whole, as was intimated before, the literary movement called forth by the Meassefim produced nothing, or almost nothing, of permanent value. The writers of this school acted the part of pioneers and heralds. Being primarily iconoclasts and reformers, they disappeared, with but few exceptions, as soon as their task was completed and the emancipation of the Jews was an accomplished fact in Western Europe. They survived long enough, however, to see the movement with which they were identified sweep away, along with the traditions of the past, also the Hebrew language, the only relic dear to them, the only Jewish thing capable of awakening a responsive thrill in their hearts.

Passionate humanists, and not very clear-sighted, they permitted themselves to be dazzled by modernity and promises of light and liberty, and forswore the ideal of the re-nationalization of Israel, so placing themselves outside the fellowship bond that united, by a common hope, the great masses of the Jews who were still attached to their faith and to their people.

Writers of no consequence in many cases, and of no originality whatsoever, failing to recognize the grandeur of Israel's past, the Meassefim despised their Jewish surroundings too heartily to seek inspiration in them. For the most part they were. shallow imitators, second-rate translators of Schiller and Racine. The language of the Jewish soul they could not speak, and they could not formulate a new ideal to take the place of the tottering traditions of the past and the faltering hope of a Messianic time. An entire generation was to pass before historical Judaism came into its own again, through the creation of a pure " Science of Judaism " and the conception of the mission of the jewish people.

Nevertheless the movement called into being by the Meassefim caused considerable stir. For the first time the Rabbinic tradition, petrified by age and ignorance, was assailed, in the sacred language at that, and the attack was launched in the name of science and life. For the first time the Haskalah, Hebrew humanism, declared war on whatever in the past trammelled the modern evolution of Judaism. In vain the Meassefim, save the exceptional few, refrained scrupulously from violent declamation against primary dogmatic principles. In vain their master Mendelssohn, contravening good sense and historical Judaism, went so far as to proclaim these principles sacrosanct. The secularization of Jewish literature and Jewish life had made a breach in the ghetto wall. Thereafter nothing could oppose the march of new ideas. The Rabbis of the period saw it clearly; hence the stubbornness of their opposition.

Beginning with this time a new class appeared among the Jews of the ghetto, the class of the Maskilim, or men of lay learning and letters, a class with which the Rabbis have since had to reckon, with which, indeed, they have had to share their authority over the people.

So far as the Hebrew language is concerned, the Meassefim succeeded in purifying it and restoring it to its Biblical form. Wessely and Mendes obliterated the last vestiges of the Middle Ages, and many of the litterateurs of the period bequeathed models of the classic style to posterity. But the return to the manner of the Bible had its disadvantages. It went to extremes, and led to the creation of a pompous, affected style, the Melizah, which has left indelible traces in neo-Hebrew literature. In the effort to guard the Biblical style against the Rabbinisms which had impaired the elegance of the Hebrew language, the purists had gone beyond the bounds of moderation. To express the most prosaic thought, the simplest ideas, they drew upon the metaphors and the elevated diction of the Bible. This rage for academic correctness is responsible for the reputation, not merited by Hebrew literature, that it lacks originality, that it is no more than a jeu d'esprit, a jumble of quibbling conceits.

Italian men of letters also took part in the literary movement of the end of the eighteenth century. Two of them are worthy of mention by name. The first is the poet Ephraim Luzzatto (1727-1792), whose love sonnets, written in a sprightly style, sound a lyric note. The other is Samuel Romanelli, the author of a melodrama, much admired by his contemporaries, and of a Journey to Arabia."

In France, also, especially in Alsace, there were collaborators of the German Meassefim, the best known among them Ensheim. Besides, France harbored the only poet of the period who can lay claim to originality, but he was not of the school of the of Paris, the grandfather of Ludovic Halévy, by far surpasses the other poets of his day in poetic temperament and fertility of imagination. Unluckily, we do not possess all the poems written by Halévy, who, moreover, was not a very prolific author. In what has come down to us his talent is abundantly proved by the charm of his individual style and the wealth of his images. The reader feels that the breath of the Revolution has blown through his pages. His " Hymn to Peace (Shir ha-Shalom) , published at Paris in 1804, is the apotheosis of Napoleon, whom the poet hails as " liberty rescued " and beautiful France ", the home of liberty. This unique poem is characterized by unbounded love for France and the French, the beautiful country, the free, high-mettled people, bearing love of country in its heart and in its hand the avenging sword, and cherishing hatred against " tyranny on the throne, which had changed a terrestrial Paradise into a charnel house." The poet extols the dictator not only because he is a friend of victory", but because he is at the same time and still more a " friend of science." He salutes the victorious armies. Although they bring destruction and misery in their wake, they bear before them the standard of science, civilization, and progress.

The cry of liberty wakened a loud echo in the ghettos of even the most backward countries. He-brew Iiterature contains a number of curious mementos, tokens of the ardent hopes which the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests evoked in the breast of the Jews, whose character has little enough affinity with the rule of despotism. In numerous Hebrew hymns and songs' they welcomed the armies of Napoleon as of the savior Messiah. Before the first flush of joy died away, the reaction set in, and their hopes were blighted. The Jews relapsed into their olden social misery. Nevertheless, the clash between received notions and the new conceptions had contributed not a little to produce a ferment of ideas and create new tendencies in the ghetto, at last aroused from its millennial slumber.

at Vienna by the Polish grammarian Ben-Zeëb; and the hymns sung in the synagogue at Frankfort (1807), at Hamburg (1811), etc. The Revolutionary Code published at Amsterdam in 1795 is also worthy of mention.

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