Shemu’el Yosef Fuenn, Vilna, ca. 1890s. Fuenn’s signature (right) has been reproduced on this mass-produced portrait, which was intended for sale and distribution to his admirers. (YIVO)

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Fuenn, Shemu’el Yosef

(1818–1890), a leading figure of the Russian Haskalah. Shemu’el Yosef Fuenn (or Fünn) taught at the Vilna Rabbinical Seminary, was founder and editor of the journal Ha-Karmel, and was one of the leaders of the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement.

Fuenn’s decision to change his career path and become a modern teacher and newspaper editor rather than a Lithuanian-style Talmudic scholar was never challenged by his family or by his social circle. At nine, he was gripped by the fear that had overcome Vilna’s Jewish residents as a consequence of new military recruitment decrees, the application of the cantonist institution, and “kidnapping” activities that caused great tension. However as a single child of a well-established merchant, he was able to devote himself completely to Torah study. During his teenage years he widened his intellectual horizons and through some older friends was introduced to Haskalah literature, Bible studies, and Hebrew and German. The text that most shaped his worldview was Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon’s classic Te‘udah be-Yisra’el (variously translated as A Warning to or Study in Israel), which became the Russian Haskalah movement’s founding document. Fuenn did not leave his yeshiva, but when word spread in the Vilna Jewish community that he was reading “external literature,” his market value as a learned suitor fell, and his parents married him off to a woman from a family that was neither affluent nor pedigreed. In any event his wife initially supported him so that he could continue his Talmudic studies, until at the age of 20 he managed to obtain work as a private tutor to Yehudah Julian Kleczka, the son of a wealthy family.

In the 1830s, and especially during the 1840s, Fuenn was recognized as one of the most prominent members of the circle of young Vilna maskilim, a group that included Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn), Mordekhai Plungian, Ayzik Meyer Dik, Kalman Schulman, and others. Vilna society tolerated these maskilim, and most were not made to feel estranged from their community or families. While Fuenn and his associates did not openly act in contravention of religious norms, they were of a single mind as to their mission to be at the vanguard of society, and they imagined themselves as soldiers at the frontiers of the battle to rouse the Jewish community to modernize. They directed their immediate attention to two areas: education and rabbinical leadership.

During the 1840s, the maskilim were gripped with fervor. They interpreted the plan to set up a modern education system for Russian Jews (the brainchild of the Russian government and its minister of education, Sergei Uvarov, reflected in the “Compulsory Enlightenment” episode, during which the government attempted to establish a network of Jewish schools that would integrate the Jews into the state) as an extraordinary opportunity to impose reforms that they felt were vital for Jewish society, and they thus supported this project unreservedly.  Fuenn played a central role in planning conferences and in composing memoranda, correspondence, and initiatives aimed at assisting the government to implement its grand plan. At this early stage, Fuenn stood at the helm of a very beligerent Haskalah, which was harshly critical of the flaws of Russian Jewish society, of Hasidim, and of religious passion in general, and which saw the reform of the educational system as the panacea for all of society’s ills. In 1841, he was appointed to teach Hebrew and Bible at one of two modern schools that had been established at the initiative of Vilna’s philanthropists, with the government’s authorization. That same year, with Eli‘ezer Lipman Horovitz, he compiled the Russian Haskalah’s first literary anthology, Pirḥe tsafon (Blossoms of the North). When the state-appointed emissary Max Lilienthal toured the Pale of Settlement to garner support for a plan to establish Jewish government schools, Fuenn lent his assistance and even translated into Hebrew the open letter that was addressed to the various communities, titled Magid yeshu‘ah (The Announcer of Salvation). When Moses Montefiore visited Vilna in 1846, Fuenn was granted an audience and even read him a short memorandum that he had composed about problems confronting the local Jewish community.

Immediately after opening its doors, the Vilna rabbinical seminary (a government-sponsored institution) appointed Fuenn as its Jewish studies teacher. He played a key role in devising the seminary’s curriculum and was commended by the government’s administrator. In 1856, he was appointed to be the inspector general of Jewish government schools in the Vilna region, and served also as the government’s chief adviser on Jewish affairs.

Fuenn’s personal life was marred by a number of crises: in 1845 his young wife died, leaving him with a baby daughter. His second wife, who bore him a son, died of cholera during the 1848 epidemic, two years after their marriage. Three years later he married for a third time. In the 1840s, Fuenn published his first compositions: two textbooks in 1847 (Shenot dor va-dor [The Years of the Generations], a chronology of the Bible) and Talmud leshon Rusyah (Learning the Language of Russia). The manuscript of Darkhe ha-Shem (The Ways of God), a work refuting the missionary Alexander McCaul’s attacks on the Talmud, was completed by 1843, but Fuenn was unable to cover the costs of its publication.

In the late 1840s, Fuenn announced his intention to compile a series of books on all of Jewish history, emphasizing the role it played in world history, but only one book was eventually produced (Nidḥe Yisra’el [The Banished of Israel]; 1850).

During the 1850s, Fuenn was the prototype of the Vilna Haskalah establishment: he was affluent and respected (thanks to his wife’s wealth); their home hosted Haskalah meetings; he was a government employee (regional inspector general); was named honorary citizen by the state; and was decorated with medals. During the 1860s his status was enhanced even further: he received a government license to establish a Hebrew printing press; was appointed treasurer of the Vilna community’s Tsedakah Gedolah (Grand Charity Fund); and became a member of the Vilna Town Council.

Yet during this period Fuenn and his contemporaries found themselves attacked and challenged by younger, more radical maskilim. To counter this situation and to fend off growing secularization among Russia’s urbanized Jews, his group created a platform for the moderate Haskalah. Fuenn and his associates maintained that while modernization could remedy the defects of the Jewish life, it could also weaken bonds between individual Jews and their religion and nation. He grew increasingly disheartened and worried about the future when both his daughter and his first student, Kleczka, converted to Christianity and when his son ceased to be an observant Jew. Furthermore, Fuenn was disappointed with many of the graduates of the rabbinical seminary.

With the ascension in 1856 of the relatively liberal tsar Alexander II, Fuenn was given official permission to publish the Hebrew weekly (with a Russian supplement) Ha-Karmel; its first edition was released in Vilna under his editorship in 1860. Ha-Karmel was published without interruption as a weekly until 1870. From then on, and as a result of Fuenn’s decreasing involvement, it appeared as a monthly until 1880, when it ceased publication. As editor, Fuenn was fully conscious of his role and of the power of the print medium. He wanted to appeal to Jews to implement reforms and to develop an affinity toward the Russian state. At the same time, he warned that modernization could not come at the expense of Jewish identity, culture, and religion. He regularly published Russian government regulations, international news, news about the Vilna community, and articles on contemporary Jewish scholarship; along with opinion editorials, serialized prose, poetry, translated works, and book reviews. Fuenn’s columns and his editorial policy reveal that for a member of the moderate Haskalah movement his views were quite conservative, and that he saw himself as a spokesman for all of Russian Jewry. He rejected radical criticism of Jewish society. Like other moderate maskilim, Fuenn was most impressed with the religious denomination that advocated “positive historical Judaism,” and indeed Zachariah Frankel’s portrait adorned the walls of Fuenn’s home alongside that of Maimonides.

Along with public activities, Fuenn tried to gain a place in the circle of mostly Central European researchers who had developed the discipline of Judaic Studies. He published a number of books on history and the history of the Hebrew language; among these were Kiryah ne’emanah (The Loyal City; 1860); Divre ha-yamim li-vene Yisra’el (The History of the Children of Israel; 1871–1877); Safah le-ne’emanim (A Language for the Loyal; 1881); Ha-Otsar (The Treasure; 1884–1888); and a number of translations of historical tales, in particular Ya‘akov Tir’ado (1874).

In the 1880s, Fuenn played a key role in the leadership of Ḥibat Tsiyon. Though he served as a liaison between the movement’s traditional rabbinic wing and its maskilic secular wing, Fuenn was only interested in the practical work of the Zionist enterprise. It even appears that he was not partial to Zionist ideology, as he advocated Jewish integration within Russia and did not see Palestine as the only answer for the Jewish people. Despite an apparent conflict in ideology, he led Ḥibat Tsiyon’s Vilna branch and served as one of the treasurers of the movement as a whole (at the Katowice Conference in 1884). Finally, in 1889 Fuenn was elected at the Vilna conference to be one of the movement’s three leaders.

Fuenn, who in the 1830s gradually changed from being a Lithuanian-style Talmudic scholar to being a maskil, who in the 1840s fought for the Haskalah’s values and vision to be imposed on Jewish society, and who from the mid-nineteenth century became a chief spokesman for the moderate Haskalah establishment, did not undergo one more revolution during the 1880s: he did not adopt the idea of modern nationalism as a substitute for the vision of emancipation. He regarded his participation in this (proto-) Zionist movement during its first years and until his death in 1890 as a continuation of his lifelong mission to ease the oppression of the Jews. He also saw in Zionism an opportunity to consolidate the forces of Judaism, to strive for a general consensus, to reach a grand compromise between the rabbis and the maskilim (for example, the shemitah [sabbatical year] controversy of 1888), to advance the goals of the moderate Haskalah, and to enrich his own maskilic belief—a belief in the possibility of a Jew being able to become a Russian citizen, to improve his financial situation, and to change the face of Jewish culture and the spiritual attributes of the Jewish nation—with the biblical narrative, the Hebrew language, and Jewish science.

Suggested Reading

Gedaliah Elkoshi, “Shemu’el Yosef Fin” in Yahadut Lita’, ed. Natan Goren et al., vol. 1, pp. 438–441 (Tel Aviv, 1959); Shmuel Feiner, ed., Me-Haskalah loḥemet le-haskalah meshameret: Mivḥar mi-kitve R. Sh. Y. Fin (Jerusalem, 1993); Shmuel Feiner and David Sorkin, eds., New Perspectives on the Haskalah (London and Portland, Ore., 2001); Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825–1855 (Philadelphia, 1983); Mordekhai Zalkin, Ba-‘Alot ha-shaḥar: Ha-Haskalah ha-yehudit be-Imperyah ha-Rusit be-me’ah ha-tesha‘ ‘esreh (Jerusalem, 2000).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler