In Bruce L. Ruben’s new biography, Max Lilienthal: The Making of the American Rabbinate, about one of the pioneers of the American Reform movement, I was surprised to learn that Lilienthal almost made a second trip to Tsarist Russia. In 1881, after the outbreak of epochal pogroms against the Jews of Russia, the American Jewish community appointed Lilienthal and Moritz Ellinger, the editor of The Jewish Times, to lead a mission there. Lilienthal would have accepted the charge and made the trip if he had he not died suddenly of a stroke on April 5, 1882.

Lilienthal’s first trip to Russia was a momentous one. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, when he was a newly minted twenty-something university-educated rabbi in Germany, the Russian government attempted to create a new, modern school system for what it – and he – regarded as the benighted Jews of the Tsarist empire. Lilienthal played a key role in the enterprise, journeying through the Pale of Settlement to promote the new project.

It wasn’t an easy job. While he found some support among the local maskilim, he was exposed to fierce opposition from hassidim and mitnagdim alike. Fearful of being poisoned, he traveled with a food-taster.

“Gangs of children chased him,” Ruben recounts, “calling him a ‘builder of shmad [conversionary] houses [missions] for children.’” Adults shouted him down, too. A communal gathering that he convened in Vilna came to a halt when the local fire department dispersed the angry crowd with hoses.

In the end, however, Lilienthal and the Tsarist government that backed him had their way. A 1844 law “set up a new modern system of primary, secondary and rabbinic schools alongside the older heder and yeshiva system.” This measure “should have guaranteed the success” of Lilienthal’s career, Ruben notes. Yet in July, 1845, about eight months after the promulgation of the new law, he suddenly left Russia. Why?

Thirty years ago, Columbia University historian Michael Stanislawski, in his Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews, surveyed the previous 140 years of efforts to answer this question – and dismissed all of them, including the most popular explanation, which was that Lilienthal was “disillusioned with the government.”

In rejecting this theory, Stanislawski noted that before Lilienthal’s departure from Russia he “never expressed anything other than complete and absolute confidence in the aims and policies of the government.”

He did indeed vituperate against the Russian regime in later years; but even then, he never explicitly connected his abandonment of his educational mission to a contemporaneous recognition of the government’s evils.

And what was Stanislawski’s own explanation for Lilienthal’s departure? In all the time he was in Russia, Lilienthal never got a raise. His salary was a respectable one, but it was only equivalent to that of a skilled worker in St. Petersburg; and on that kind of money he could not support his never-forgotten fiancée, Miss Pepi Nettre.

So, he took advantage of his first vacation in six years, went back to Munich, and married her on August 27, 1845. By November of that year, the newlyweds were busy settling into their new home – in New York City.

Stanislawski made this all sound so convincing that over the years, as I relayed his theory to students, I forgot that he himself labeled it an unprovable hypothesis. And Ruben now feels free to set Stanislawski’s hypothesis aside.

The fact that Lilienthal expressed confidence in the Tsarist government all the time he was in Russia proves nothing as far as Ruben is concerned – because, as Lilienthal testified more than once, the Russian secret police was spying on him. Ruben ascribes to Lilienthal a disillusionment with the government that he would probably have avoided expressing directly “for fear that his mail was being read.” This disillusionment, in Ruben’s view, may have been his real reason for leaving the country.

Ruben’s ascription of a motive to Lilienthal is not entirely convincing. Still, whatever may have prevented Lilienthal from bringing his new bride back to Russia, it is clear that his decision to take her to the United States was motivated by more than the desire for a good salary. He wrote home from Russia – evidently untroubled by any fears that prying eyes would be offended – that “I hope nothing for the Jews in Europe, everything in America.”

He flourished in the New World. Although Lilienthal was not the first rabbi in the new United States, as he sometimes liked to boast, he was certainly one of the first few. In his long and significant career, he evolved from a more or less traditional Jew, insisting on higher standards of kashrut in the production of matzot, to a leader of radical reform who “embraced a universalist approach that allowed him to equate his beliefs with those of the Unitarians.”

Whether that transformation was the result more of cogitation or of circumstances is something about which Ruben is not prepared to make a decisive judgment. But he leaves no room for doubt about Lilienthal’s constant and ever-growing love for the United States.

In the 1850s Lilienthal wrote patriotic poems, in German, with titles like “Der Obelisk auf Bunkerhill,” and “Der Vierte Juli 1776,” to inspire new immigrants from the fatherland. “For a number of years,” his friend Isaac Mayer Wise observed, “patriotism was the principal topic of his conversation and the main subject of his sermons.”

While he extolled his new country, however, he struggled to make it live up to what he considered to be its fundamental principles – by maintaining, among other things, religiously neutral public schools. And he berated politicians who forgot to include Jews in their Thanksgiving proclamations. “Having learned his lesson well in Russia,” Ruben notes, “he repeatedly reminded his audiences that vigilance remained the price of liberty.”

In the end, Lilienthal was unable to return to Russia and act on the basis of what he had learned, both there and in the United States. That’s too bad. His visit, of course, wouldn’t have made any great difference to Jews living under the Tsars’ oppressive rule; but it would have been fascinating to hear what the Old World looked like to him after all those years.

The writer is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University, and the senior contributing editor of
The Jewish Review of Books.

This article was originally published at Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with their permission.


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