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Mieses, Yehudah Leib

(1798–1831), Galician maskil. Yehudah Leib Mieses was born in Lemberg (Lwów) to a wealthy family of rabbinical lineage; he received a broad Jewish and secular education. From his early years, Mieses was acknowledged as a forceful champion of Haskalah and an opponent of Hasidism. He supported yeshiva students who wished to receive a university education, supplying them with books from his large personal library and providing generous financial assistance. With his help, many young men were able to attend universities in Germany and Austria.

Mieses engaged in a zealous battle against Hasidism. He expressed his views in a memorandum presented to Austrian authorities in 1823, demanding that Hasidim be denied the right to organize prayer quorums because of what he regarded as their subversive customs. He maintained strong ties with maskilim in Galicia (some of whom he supported financially), especially the satirist Yitsḥak Erter, who became a close friend. Mieses lived in Lwów for most of his life, except for a stay in Germany in 1829–1830, where he associated with maskilim and took advantage of the rich German libraries. He died in the cholera epidemic that struck the towns of Galicia in 1831.

Mieses’s main work, published in 1828, is Sefer kin’at ha-emet (an expanded edition was issued in 1879). This text is constructed as an imaginary dialogue between Maimonides and the commentator Shelomoh ben Mosheh Khelm (1715/16–1781), author of Mirkevet ha-mishneh (1750). A third character in the work is the editor who, as it were, published the conversation of the two sages and provided an introduction and notes. In fact, all three figures reflect the decidedly rationalistic worldview of Mieses himself. His main goals in writing it were to condemn popular beliefs in angels, ghosts, spirits, amulets, and the transmigration of souls (in doing so, he revealed the beliefs’ roots and channels of transmission from kabbalistic literature to Hasidism) and to condemn the magical practices of ba‘ale shem and wonder workers of various kinds, whom he felt were deceiving the ignorant masses. The appendix to his book, Likute peraḥim is an anthology of rabbinical sayings from many eras, condemning belief in such supernatural phenomena.

He also published and included his own additions to a text by the Prussian maskil David Karo (1782–1839), titled Tekhunat ha-rabanim (The Attribute of the Rabbis). Mieses’s original contribution to this book was a plan for modern Jewish education, which would include systematic study of Jewish religious literature along with European humanistic instruction and the study of practical skills. In this spirit, Mieses also published articles in Galicia’s Hebrew periodicals (Ha-Tsefirah, Bikure ha-‘itim, and Kerem ḥemed).

Naturally Mieses was especially hated by Hasidim, who feared him while he was alive and celebrated his death with shouts of joy. However, even some of his allies among maskilim (Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport; Ya‘akov Shemu’el Bick) were offended by the excessive extremism of his anti-Hasidic ideas and actions. By contrast, he made a strong impression on Erter, who fashioned some of his fictional allegorical satires under the direct influence of Sefer kin’at ha-emet.

Suggested Reading

Yehuda Friedlander, “Ha-Ḥasidut keba-vo’ah shel demonizm: ‘Al yetsirato ha-satirit shel Yehudah Leb Mezes,” in Be-Mistere ha-satirah, vol. 3, Perakim ba-satirah ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah ba-me’ah ha-19, pp. 17–47 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1994), see also the scholarly edition of part of Sefer kin’at ha-emet, pp. 48–144; Samuel Werses, “Tofa‘ot shel magyah ve-demonologyah ba-aspaklaryah ha-satirit shel maskile Galitsyah,” in “Hakitsah ‘ami”: Sifrut ha-haskalah be-‘idan ha-modernizatsyah, pp. 353–384 (Jerusalem, 2001).



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green