The Jewish Enlightenment, Hasidism, and the "Haskalah" in the Ukrainian lands: Interview with Vitaly Chernoivanenko

Lessing and Lavater as guests in the home of Moses Mendelssohn. Painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1856.

[Editor's note: Russia's unprovoked and criminal war against Ukraine suspended the regular work of many organizations, reorienting their efforts. So it is with the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. In the coming weeks, we will run interviews and articles done before the beginning of the war, which reflect the myriad of interests undertaken by Ukrainian journalists, scholars and writers.] 

Our guest today is Vitaly Chernoivanenko, Senior Research Fellow at the Judaica Department of the Institute of Manuscripts of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine and the president of the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies.

On 31 August–1 September 2021, the international conference "Revealing Secrets": Hasidism and the Haskalah in the Ukrainian Lands" took place at the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, Ukraine, organized by the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies. Seventeen scholars and researchers from Israel, Ukraine, the UK, Germany, the US, Sweden, Poland, and Russia participated in the two-day event.

Vasyl Shandro: What sort of event was this?

Vitaly Chernoivanenko: This was an international scholarly conference that the Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies holds every year. It was scheduled to take place in Lviv last fall [2020] but was not held for understandable reasons. Due to the pandemic, we deferred it several times. Finally, literally one month ago, it took place at the Center for Urban History in the beautiful city of Lviv.

This time we decided to hold a conference devoted to Hasidism and the Haskalah — the Jewish Enlightenment — in the Ukrainian lands during the second half of the eighteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century. The conference was a hybrid one: Some people attended in person; others — online.

I would also like to share a pleasant surprise. We saw how much the local authorities in Lviv really support scholarly and cultural initiatives. It would be wonderful if this spread throughout the country. They announced during the quarantine that they were ready and willing to support scholarly conferences taking place in Lviv. They allocated funds, held a competition, and allocated some financial assistance to forty conferences in Lviv this year through the Lviv Conference Bureau. I think this is wonderful! It would be good if the same thing happened in other large Ukrainian cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa.

The "Haskalah" 

Vasyl Shandro: Could you explain the terminology for our listeners? What is Hasidism and the Haskalah

Vitaly Chernoivanenko: When we talk about these two concepts, Hasidism and the Haskalah, the issue is the Hebrew language. Hasidism comes from the word "חסידות," which can be translated as "piety." The Haskalah is connected with the word" השלה "— literally, "enlightenment."

A "Haskil" is a follower of the Haskalah, an enlightener. At issue here are two phenomena dating to the beginning of the Modern era. I think that everyone has heard about Europeans like Voltaire, Rousseau, and others; that is, about the European Enlightenment. This was a movement for secular life, a scholarly life, human rights, and the like. These starting points are what lead European civilization to a new level.

Since Jews live in various countries, most of them in Europe, they cannot stand apart. In one way or another, non-Jewish European movements affect them. Looking ahead, I must say that they do not affect a movement like Zionism, which emerges later. These are all movements of European Jewry. I will say straight away that Jews living in Morocco or Yemen do not bother with these questions like European Jews do. They have a completely different way of life and a different agenda. These phenomena concern European Jewry of the time; in general, we can say that it was all-European Jewry, but at the outset, it was not quite so.

Before this period, you often heard that everything began in France. The father of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, is considered to be Moses Mendelssohn, a rabbi, thinker, philosopher and author of various works. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, just when the Age of Enlightenment was gaining momentum in Europe, he raised similar questions in the Jewish milieu. His German-language pamphlet was entitled Was ist Aufklärung? (What Is Enlightenment?) In it, he broached the issue that Jews do not have to live in ghettos in their closed milieus. The contemporary world, contemporary scholarship, and universities exist; it is necessary to gain current knowledge and achieve certain successes like other people do.

Vasyl Shandro: There were certain reasons for this secretiveness and reticence. Was this a method for self-preservation?

Vitaly Chernoivanenko: Of course. There were internal and external factors. On the one hand, throughout the centuries, particularly during the Middle Ages, Jews lived apart. The environment preferred that Jews live separately, but the Jews themselves were not opposed to this. These people simply imagined themselves as a separate people chosen by God who must ensure that their identity is preserved, mainly via religion.

Vasyl Shandro: Is the Haskalah a religious trend? Or is this too narrow a definition?

Vitaly Chernoivanenko: On the one hand, the Haskalah emerges as a secular movement against religion if we overlay the Haskalah with the idea of the European Enlightenment. Obviously, Voltaire and Rousseau were fervid opponents of religion. Their ideas were aimed at a complete rupture with religion. Meanwhile, the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, and the father of this enlightenment, Mendelssohn, did not come out in his pamphlet in favor of a break with religion. Mendelssohn himself was a rabbi and remained one. His followers were also religious people. They expressed support not for a rupture with religion but for its modernization and renewal.

Perhaps more needs to be said about Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Haskalah, than about subsequent generations and followers, particularly those who led, in the nineteenth century, to the appearance of other branches on the religious map of Judaism. Today we call the traditional Judaism of the time Orthodox Judaism, which gives rise to more liberal branches.

The first to appear in the early nineteenth century is Reform Judaism. In the late nineteenth century, Conservative Judaism emerges. Reform Judaism is more liberal. And Conservative Judaism appears in the nineteenth century when Jews begin to think that Orthodoxy and traditional religion are very conservative for them, while Reform Judaism is very liberal. Therefore, they create a middle ground, and that is how so-called Conservative Judaism arises.

First and foremost, the Haskalah [geographically] is not France, as in the case of the general European Enlightenment, but the German lands, the German-speaking milieu. Much that is important in Jewish history is born precisely in the German-speaking milieu in the nineteenth century: the above-mentioned branches of Reform and Conservative Judaism, and the activities of Moses Mendelssohn. It is Prussia and the emergence of Jewish scholarship. This is what I am involved in: Jewish Studies, the study of Jewish history, culture, and languages. The original German name was Wissenschaft des Judentums.

Two years ago, we celebrated the bicentennial of our field. A field of studies emerges from the milieu of pupils of the German philosopher Hegel. Еduard Gans and his other pupils establish the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews in 1819. This gives birth to scholarly Jewish Studies. Furthermore, when the scholarly study of the Bible begins in the nineteenth century, it does not take place in the Jewish but in the Christian, Protestant milieu, also German.


Vasyl Shandro: Can you discuss Hasidism briefly?

Vitaly Chernoivanenko: First, a few words about Hasidism as such, then about Hasidism and the Haskalah. Hasidism is a religious movement that appeared in the eighteenth century. It emerges in the contemporary Ukrainian lands: Podillia, Galicia, and Volyn. It emerges as an alternative to the reigning version of traditional Judaism in Eastern Europe.

The Hasidism that appeared at this time is somewhat different, an alternative. Over time it becomes the Orthodox type of Judaism — even ultra-Orthodox. When this branch appears, it serves as an alternative.

Traditional Judaism has existed for many centuries, especially in the period when, apart from biblical writings, a different literature appears, especially the corpus of texts that are sacred to Judaism: the Talmud. At the heart of Jewish religious doctrine is the study of the Talmud. This takes place practically within the span of a whole lifetime. In other words, it is keeping the commandments, which must be observed in Judaism, and the study of the Talmud. In the eighteenth century, some people began saying that it is tedious to do this. Questions then arise: "You believe in the Almighty, so what? Is the Almighty just waiting for you to sit around day and night reading books? Maybe it would be a good thing to communicate, talk with him?"

Unlike some branches of Christianity, there is no mediation in Judaism between believers and God in the person of a priest. It is not that every Jew can pray — he must pray directly to God. Consequently, when Hasidism emerges, it focuses attention first and foremost on certain practices — prayer practices.

Vasyl Shandro: Are you talking about the formulation of a ritual?

Vitaly Chernoivanenko: Yes, but it is not always a ritual; that is something obsolete. Among the Hasidim, this did not always take place in the form of rituals; it could be something spontaneous. In some subgroups of Hasidism, this has been preserved to the present day. Hasidism, too, is not heterogeneous.

In the nineteenth century, there are already many different subgroups. Today there are dozens of different subgroups and dynasties. They are distinguished from each other on the level of prayer, liturgy, and clothing. If you walk down the streets of Jerusalem in the religious districts, you will see someone dressed in black, another in white; someone is wearing a hat of a particular color and shape, someone else is wearing something different. According to these features, you can distinguish between the various subgroups of Hasidism: Breslov, Radzin, Gur, Belz, and Chornobyl, also known as Chabad.

They may have different ideas about certain questions, for example, regarding the attitude toward the secular national movement and the State of Israel. There are subgroups that accept the State of Israel and support it. Their attitude may have evolved from non-acceptance of the State of Israel, of the very idea of it and its founding, to subsequent acceptance. There are subgroups that did not accept it, and they continue not to support it; they are thoroughgoing opponents of the secular Jewish state.

Vasyl Shandro: Hasidism with Ukrainian roots today: What is it?

Vitaly Chernoivanenko: Many listeners have heard about Hasidim, mainly because pilgrimages take place from time to time, particularly to Uman. If we are talking about the Besht [Baal Shem Tov], the founder of Hasidism, he is buried in Medzhybizh. Thus, pilgrimages are made to that place.

There is the Karlin-Stolin branch of Hasidism. Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin is buried in Ludmir (current name: Volodymyr Volynsky), in Volyn oblast. There are people who make pilgrimages there; they are members of a different subgroup. Uman is Bratslav Hasidism, and pilgrimages are made to the grave of its founder, Rabbi Nachman. This is an interesting, separate question: Who goes on pilgrimages, and how do other Judaic branches view this?

Vasyl Shandro: Compared to the Haskalah, which was something new and modern, does Hasidism tend toward greater conservatism? 

Vitaly Chernoivanenko: Hasidism emerges mainly in the Ukrainian lands, as I mentioned. In the case of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, this is from the German-speaking German environment. This view is widespread to this day, although some researchers claim that the roots of the Jewish Enlightenment do not lie either in Western or Central Europe, but partly in Central and Eastern Europe; historically speaking, in the Ukrainian lands. There are researchers who demonstrate this. I can even list such names as   Menachem Mendel Lefin from Sataniv or Israel Zamosz [Ukr. Zamostie], or Solomon Dubno, or Pinhas Eliyahu Hurwitz. These are Haskalah thinkers from the Ukrainian lands.

Why did we hold a conference in Lviv? In the nineteenth century, a regional type of this Haskalah emerges; the so-called Galician Haskalah. Some researchers believe that the thinkers who formed this body of thought in Eastern Europe and in the Ukrainian lands are the source of the European Enlightenment. They say that some of them were taught by those who then loudly publicized it in Central Europe and in the German-speaking milieu.

In which historical context do we place Hasidism and the Haskalah? There is a traditional, stereotypical cliché, according to which the Haskalah is something modern, contemporary, while Hasidism is a breath of fresh air in the religious milieu, although its opponents would not agree. In fact, Hasidism is also a phenomenon of the modern world and time, as is the Enlightenment, to a certain degree. Researchers who are studying this in-depth have shown this. There have been lectures on this in our conference.

For example, I mentioned Rabbi Nachman, the founder of Bratslav Hasidism, who is buried in Uman. One of the lectures was entitled "Rabbi Nachman As a Reader of Maskil Literature." Researchers have demonstrated that he read the literature of enlighteners and gleaned information from physics or medicine from outside the Jewish milieu and from his opponents, the representatives of the Haskalah. Thus, they engage in a discussion with each other. On the other hand, despite all the polemics, they exert mutual influence over one another, form one another, and borrow ideas.

For the complete program, listen to the audio file (in Ukrainian).

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.