Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon, 1895. The Hebrew inscription reads, “Born on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 1788, died on 17 February 1860 in the city of Kremenets.” Lithograph, copy of a portrait from the gallery of Count L. N. Tolstoi, 1895. (YIVO)

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Levinzon, Yitsḥak Ber

(1788–1860), thinker and teacher; considered by some as the father of the East European Haskalah. Born in Kremenets, Ukraine, where he received a traditional Jewish education, Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon (Isaac Baer Levinsohn; known also as Ribal) married a woman from the town of Radzhivilov in 1807 and lived there until 1812. He learned Russian, German, French, and Latin and served as an official interpreter for the Russian army.

In 1813 Levinzon went to Galicia, first to Brody and then to Lwów, Tarnopol, and Żołkiew (mod. Zhovkva, Ukr.). In these places he became acquainted with some of the leading figures of the Haskalah—including Yehudah Leib Mieses, Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport, Yitsḥak Erter, Menaḥem Mendel Lefin, Naḥman Krochmal, Me’ir Letteris, Ya‘akov Shemu’el Bick, Shimshon Bloch, and Berish Blumenfeld—who greatly influenced his worldview.

While living in Tarnopol, Levinzon received a teacher’s certificate from the school of Yosef Perl. In 1820, he returned to the Russian Empire, spending about two years in Berdichev, and for short periods living in Ostróg, Nemirov, and Tulchin. During these years, he mastered Aramaic, Syriac, and Greek. In 1823, Levinzon returned to Kremenets, where he was struck by a severe illness that kept him in that location for the rest of his life. Despite his illness, he persisted in his studies and in broadening his intellectual horizons, and was assisted by the library of the Catholic lyceum in the town.

While still quite young, Levinzon adopted the principles of the European Enlightenment. He reached the conclusion that a basic and essential change was needed in the world of East European Jewry, in the areas of education and employment. Only an enlightened and productive society could cope, in his view, with the changing conditions to become integrated into the dynamic social and political reality.

Levinzon worked on two planes to achieve the reforms he thought necessary. First, he tried to convince Russian Imperial authorities of the need to transform Jewish educational and occupational structures. As early as 1823, he submitted a detailed memorandum to Grand Duke Constantine, recommending the establishment of special schools for Jews, along with measures to encourage as many Jews as possible to enter agriculture. In 1831, he sent a similar plan to the minister of education. Levinzon’s recommendation to concentrate the printing and publication of Hebrew books in the Russian Empire in the hands of three printing firms was part of this same strategy; it aimed to reduce the damage that might be caused as a result of more radical tendencies among certain circles in the Russian government. Levinzon even turned to Tsar Nicholas I in 1834 with a request to grant land to Jews who were interested in agricultural settlement. As a result of these interactions, Russian authorities displayed a certain degree of interest in Levinzon, which found expression both in letters conveying esteem and in monetary grants for his publications.

Levinzon’s second goal was to disseminate Enlightenment ideas in “Jewish garb” to various circles in Jewish society. His first and most important work in this area was Te‘udah be-Yisra’el (variously translated as “A Warning to,” “Study in,” or “Testimony in” Israel), which appeared in 1827. Here Levinzon dealt at length with the need for general education, for a knowledge of languages, and for the mastery of Hebrew and its grammar—and for Jews to engage in more productive forms of employment. He based his arguments on a wide range of sources from the canonical works of Judaism, and pointed out numerous examples of scholars, rabbis, and workers in various trades who had received secular training.

Te‘udah be-Yisra’el was widely circulated and made a strong impression on many of its readers. It quickly became the manifesto of the Haskalah in Eastern Europe (with Levinzon perceived as its most articulate and outstanding representative). Consequently, opponents to Enlightenment viewed the mere reading of the book as decisive proof of a reader’s association with this worldview. He expanded on the ideas presented in Te‘udah be-Yisra’el in the book Bet Yehudah (House of Judah; 1839). Levinzon also launched strong attacks against Hasidism—mainly through his satirical writings such as Divre tsadikim (Words of the Righteous; 1830) and ‘Emek refa’im (Valley of the Ghosts; published posthumously in 1867).

Levinzon’s knowledge of Jewish sources and his writing abilities found expression in another direction as well: in defense of the Jewish people against blood libels and in opposition to efforts to represent Judaism in a distorted fashion. He took action in these areas even in response to appeals from conservative and Hasidic circles all over the Pale of Settlement. Regarded as someone with contacts in government circles, he was called upon despite the fact that many people disagreed with his views. Levinzon, for his part, did not hesitate to fulfill their requests. Among his works on these issues were Efes damim (No Blood; 1837), written in response to blood libels advanced in Velizh (between 1827 and 1835) and Zaslav (in 1830). Some of his other works were published only after his death, either because of monetary difficulties or problems with the censor: Zerubavel (1863) and Aḥiyah ha-shiloni ha-ḥozeh (Ahijah the Shilonite, the Seer; 1864), both of which aimed to refute the claims of the British missionary Alexander McCaul in his book The Old Paths (1837); Or le-arba‘ah ‘asar (On the Evening of the Fourteenth [i.e., the evening of the day before Passover]; 1864); and Yemin tsidki (My Vindication; 1881), written in response to the apostate Asher Temkin’s Derekh selulah (Paved Path; 1835).

At the same time, Levinzon did not hesitate to direct sharp criticism against the Jewish community, not sparing its administrative officials and wealthy members. In his play Di hefker velt (The Lawless World; 1888), he severely criticized various phenomena that had become widespread in East European Jewish society, including inequalities in both the distribution of taxation and the communal obligation to supply draftees to the Russian army; large-scale smuggling to avoid paying customs duties; false oaths given by Jews in secular courts; giving and taking of bribes, and widespread illiteracy. Levinzon devoted his work Ta‘ar ha-sofer (Razor of the Scribe; 1863) to refuting Karaite claims about the antiquity of their religion.

Levinzon’s image as father of the Haskalah in Eastern Europe—or, alternately, as the Russian Mendelssohn—developed thanks to the diversity and range of his writings. Indeed, there is no doubt about his decisive contribution to the expansion of Haskalah consciousness in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, because of his distance from the centers of Haskalah in Vilna and Odessa, his poor health, and his poverty, Levinzon took little part in Haskalah activity and the struggles of the maskilim to achieve legitimacy in the fields of education and society. Moreover, for most of his life Levinzon was dependent for his livelihood on sympathetic philanthropists, both within and outside the Russian Empire, and much of his correspondence was devoted to requests for assistance. With these circumstances in mind, it is easy to understand why his initiatives to found a broad organizational framework for Jewish supporters of the Enlightenment in the Russian Empire and to publish a maskil periodical failed to come to fruition. After his death, none of the maskilim in the Russian Empire evinced interest in publishing his writings.

Suggested Reading

Immanuel Etkes, “Introduction,” to Te‘udah be-Yisra’el, by Isaac Baer Levinsohn, pp. 3–19 (Jerusalem, 1977); Shmuel Feiner, Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness, trans. Chaya Naor and Sondra Silverton (Oxford and Portland, Ore., 2002); Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 3, pp. 33–115 (Jerusalem, 1953); Eli Lederhendler, The Road to Modern Jewish Politics (New York, 1989); Mordechai Levin, ‘Erkhe ḥevrah ve-khalkalah ba-ideologyah shel tekufat ha-haskalah (Jerusalem, 1975); Stefan Schreiner, “Isaak Ber Lewinsohn: Der ‘Mendelssohn der Russischen Juden,’” Judaica 47.1–2 (1991): 82–92; Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews (Philadelphia, 1983); Mordechai Zalkin, Ba-‘Alot ha-shaḥar (Jerusalem, 2000), pp. 143–151.



Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson