Jewish Religious Movements

The Haskalah

          The most important liberalizing religious movement for Lithuanian Jews, as for their brethren elsewhere in Europe, was the Haskalah.  The Lithuanian maskilim, or adherents of the Haskalah, helped the government in its cultural "russification" efforts, but they also encouraged the study of Hebrew and Yiddish and the development of a Jewish literature in both these languages.  In its embracing of Yiddish, the Haskalah in Lithuania differed from the Haskalah elsewhere.   But although it was less assimilationist than in other areas of Eastern Europe, the Haskalah was still a basically assimilationist movement in Lithuania.  In its liberalism, it was the precursor of Reform Judaism.  And in its recommendations that Jews broaden their economic base by striving to enter less traditional Jewish occupations like agriculture, it was also linked to the concept of "return to the land" that eventually helped to produce Zionism.

The Musar Movement

            The founder and primary proponent of the Musar Movement in 19th-century Lithuania was Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883), who established the first Musar Society in Vilna in 1842.   Musar (literally, "moral instruction or ethics") stressed the study of medieval Jewish ethical texts.  Musar  was basically Orthodox Judaism like that propounded by the Vilna Gaon.  But Salanter, unlike the Gaon, considered it unethical for religious Jews to withdraw from the affairs of their communities--even for Talmudic study.

            Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Musar Movement

Musar, by its de-emphasis on Talmudic and Torah study and its emphasis on involvement in the wider community, had been designed to unite Hasidic elements with elements common to the Haskalah.  However, it never had the appeal for the common people that Salanter had hoped it would.  Additionally, the Jews who wished to concentrate on Talmudic and Torah studies eventually rejected Musar also.  Ultimately, although Musar established itself in Israel, the United States, and Britain, it was not able to gain a lasting foothold in Lithuania.


Copyright 2000 M S Rosenfeld