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Lilienthal, Max

(1815–1882), German rabbi, born and educated in Munich; famous for establishing modern schools for Jews in the Russian Empire. In 1839, Ludwig Phillipson, a moderate reforming rabbi and editor of the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums, recommended Lilienthal to serve as rabbi and teacher in the largely German-speaking Jewish community of Riga. Lilienthal’s role in establishing a modern school for Jewish children there came to the attention of the minister of education of the Russian Empire, Count Sergei S. Uvarov, who hired him in 1841 to serve as special adviser for Jewish affairs. Lilienthal’s mission was to replicate his Riga school throughout the Pale of Settlement, as part of Uvarov’s plan to “enlighten” the Jews of Russia by weaning them away from conventional Talmudic learning, introducing them to secular studies, and training them to become artisans. Although viewed traditionally as a malignant scheme aimed at converting Jews to Russian Orthodoxy, recent scholarship has argued that Uvarov’s plan was not, in fact, aimed at proselytizing, but was a small part of his overall goal to introduce Western-style and classical education throughout the Russian Empire. This plan, however, faced severe opposition from some top governmental authorities in Russia, and in many ways contradicted the basic ideology of Tsar Nicholas I, for whose regime Uvarov was a major theoretician, and which emphasized autocracy, Russian Orthodoxy, and Russian nationalism.

The most serious opposition to Lilienthal’s mission, however, came not from the Russian government, but from traditional Jews themselves, and especially from their rabbinical leaders, who opposed any changes in the education of Jewish children and viewed attempts in this direction by Russian officials—or their German Jewish plenipotentiaries—as promoting conversion by definition. Many adherents of the Russian Jewish Enlightenment movement, the Haskalah, also were suspicious of Lilienthal, given his German reforming background and especially his weakness in Hebrew. To convince Jews of his benign intentions, Lilienthal traveled throughout the Pale of Settlement, where he encountered a great deal of opposition.

Despite resistance, the Russian Ministry of Education under Count Uvarov issued a law in 1844, calling for the creation of a network of state-sponsored schools for Jewish children throughout the Pale. A substantial number of such schools were opened, for boys and soon for girls as well. Although traditional Jews viewed these schools with grave suspicion and refused to register their children, other parents—those without means, those supporting the ideals of Enlightenment, or those who simply wanted their children to learn Russian and secular studies for practical reasons—did enroll. The schools also provided employment opportunities for nontraditional teachers, and thus furthered the cause of the Haskalah in Eastern Europe.

A year after the law was passed, however, Lilienthal declined to return to Russia after a vacation in Germany, where he had married. His abandonment of the project has conventionally been explained as a result of his unmasking of the missionary intent of the Russian regime, but was most probably the result of personal matters unrelated to his position in Russia or the supposed intentions of Uvarov or Nicholas I. In 1845, Lilienthal immigrated to the United States, where he served for long years as the rabbi of a Reform congregation in Cincinnati.

Suggested Reading

Simon Dubnow, “Uvarov and Lilienthal,” in History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, vol. 2, pp. 50–59 (Philadelphia, 1918); Sophie Lilienthal, The Lilienthal Family Record (San Francisco, 1930); Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825–1855 (Philadelphia, 1983).