Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Schlesinger, Akiva Yosef

(1837–1922), pioneer of ultra-Orthodoxy, early Jewish nationalist, and Yiddishist. Akiva Yosef Schlesinger’s father, Yeḥi’el (1814–1891), a close disciple of Rabbi Mosheh Sofer, was a minor rabbinical functionary in his hometown of Pressburg. As a child, Schlesinger was raised in an ascetic manner, wakened by his grandfather at midnight to mourn the destruction of the Temple. His first teacher was his father, whom he would recognize as his sole master and mentor. It was he who imbued the boy with the spirit of Orthodoxy and the conservative legacy of Sofer. Nevertheless, Schlesinger also attended four years of elementary school, learning to read and write German and mastering mathematics, at which he particularly excelled.

After attending the yeshiva of Avraham Shemu’el Binyamin Sofer in Pressburg, Schlesinger studied briefly with Ḥayim Sofer and Mosheh Schick. He then went to Leipnik in Moravia to the yeshiva of Shelomoh Quetsch (1798–1856). This was an interesting choice, as yeshivas in Moravia had a reputation for openness to general culture that was rare in Hungary. Schlesinger would later write that at this stage in his life he seriously considered the path of modern Orthodoxy, and that the experience granted him insight into the mindset of those tempted to succumb to its temptations.

Schlesinger returned to Pressburg, where in 1857 Avraham Shemu’el Binyamin Sofer ordained him morenu, noting that “his fear of God precedes his wisdom,” and entrusted him with tutoring Sofer’s son and future successor, Simḥah Bunem. However, relations with the rabbi soured when Sofer objected to the betrothal of his niece to Schlesinger (his primary objections had to do with Schlesinger’s poor financial prospects). The festering resentment Schlesinger long harbored would be tempered somewhat by the genuine affection he held for his former teacher. Instead, in 1860 he married Liba (1842–1917), the daughter of Hillel Lichtenstein, who was then serving as rabbi of the small community of Margareten in eastern Hungary. When Lichtenstein became a widower, he then married Schlesinger’s younger sister Fradel, at his son-in-law’s urging. Until the Schlesinger family moved to the Land of Israel in 1870, the two couples lived together. Akiva Yosef followed family tradition and refused to consider the rabbinate as a career, becoming instead Lichtenstein’s right-hand man as a judge in his court and lecturer in his yeshiva in three communities—Margareten and Szikszó in Hungary, and Kolomea in Galicia.

At a time when Hungarian Orthodoxy was entering a period of deep crisis, the two men, along with Ḥayim Sofer, were close ideological collaborators, laying the foundations of ultra-Orthodoxy. Schlesinger and Lichtenstein produced the only significant explicitly ideological publications of Hungarian Orthodoxy during the tempestuous 1860s. Schlesinger was the first to make his appearance in print, publishing half a dozen Hebrew and Jüdisch-Deutsch publications between 1863 and 1869 that earned him a reputation equal to his father-in-law’s for uncompromising zealotry. His early anonymous publications were, in fact, at first attributed to Lichtenstein precisely for this reason.

In 1863, Schlesinger published Tsava’at Mosheh . . . ve-nilveh elav sefer Na‘ar ‘Ivri, the Hebrew text of Ḥatam Sofer’s last will and testament, along with an appendix of his own. The book met with limited success. But the following year he was more successful and issued the text of Sofer’s testament, glossed with a running commentary and titled Lev ha-‘Ivri (Heart of the Hebrew). (The word ‘Ivri appeared in its plene form [that is, spelled with an extra yud], hinting at the Hebrew acronym formed by his name: Akiva Yosef ben Rabi Yeḥi’el.) A second part followed in 1866, mostly an anthology of texts and the 1865 pesak din of Michalovce (an ultra-Orthodox “manifesto” imposing strict limits on innovation in synagogues). Schlesinger’s passion-driven, racy Hebrew prose, his unbridled condemnation of assimilation and of religious reform, and his brutal, at times vulgar attacks on any manifestation of acculturation made the book a sensational best-seller. In his 1873 survey of contemporary Jewry, the Russian maskil Eli‘ezer Tsevi Zweifel marveled at the work’s enormous and unprecedented success on the book market of Eastern Europe.

Schlesinger argued passionately for the need to safeguard the most basic markers Jewish of identity and culture such as name, language, and dress. The acronym of the three words shem, lashon, and malbushshalem—encapsulated for him the ideal of the complete Jew, the “Hebrew” possessed of staunch integrity. In this way, he redefined the battlefront of the culture war. In its metaphorical trenches, no longer did the Orthodox face a Neolog (Reform) foe, but rather the lines of confrontation were drawn between the authentic Orthodox and the enemy within, the counterfeit Jews, the modern Orthodox.

Schlesinger’s shalem became his mantra, repeated endlessly in his writings. It came close to an expression of Jewish nationalism, something that was indeed made explicit in his Jüdisch-Deutsch pamphlet addressed to women and unlearned men, El ha-Adarim: Aufruf an alle treue jüdische Kinder (To the Flocks: A Call to All True Jews; 1863). That it was expressed in a contemporary German idiom, rather than classic Hebrew, made the nationalist discourse unmistakable. The preservation of name, dress, and language—what he called “national” characteristics—was invested with supreme religious value. Taking his cue from Hungary’s nationalist movements, he declared that one who espoused acculturation was a traitor to both nation and religion, and ceased to be a Jew. This was a Jewish nationalism, however, without a territorial dimension (that would come later). A second part, El ha-adarim sheni (1868/69), continued in this vein, condemning the Orthodox Shomrey ha-Das society for kowtowing to the authorities and willingness to pay lip service to the dissemination of the Magyar language.

A third pamphlet, Ḥevrah maḥazire ‘atarah le-yoshnah (Society for the Restoration of the Ancient Glory), also published in 1863, outlined the need for the Orthodox to organize. Taking its cue from the recently established Alliance Israélite Universelle, it proposed an Allianz der Hebräer, in effect the first international Orthodox supercommunal union. The masses in the East, untouched by modern currents, would lend spiritual and material support to the threatened Orthodox in the West. Ultimately, the East could also provide a safe asylum to escape the increasing intervention and cultural demands of the modern nation-state. The threatening urban environment, polluting both culturally and sexually, should be left behind for a pristine rural hinterland where Torah study combined with occupations such as crafts and agriculture would promote a moral life.

During the years of feverish activity that led up to the pesak din of Michalovce, Schlesinger played a key role as emissary of his father-in-law, crisscrossing the country on various errands. No doubt, he had a hand in the formulation of the document that drew its inspiration in no small part from Lev ha-‘Ivri.

Between May 1866 and February 1867, Schlesinger published a Jüdisch-Deutsch monthly titled Amud Hajirah, which contained the Hebrew supplement ‘Amud ha-Torah. In addition to his own articles, there were reports from various places including Palestine. He managed to raise several hundred subscribers for the journal. As he moved to the eastern part of Hungary and became exposed to Yiddish, he turned apologetic about writing in Jüdisch-Deutsch and eventually made a determined effort to shift to Yiddish in El ha-adarim sheni.

In 1870, Schlesinger and his family arrived in Jerusalem, where he was hailed as a celebrity. Within two years, he was waging the good fight against the Alliance Israélite Universelle and its schools, as well as against the efforts of his archenemy, the modern Orthodox rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, to found a school for orphans. In Kol nehi mi-Tsiyon (1872), he succeeded in getting hundreds in the Yishuv to endorse the pesak din of Michalovce as part of his campaign against secular education.

Conditions in Palestine, however, left Schlesinger unsatisfied. The ḥalukah system, distributing charity from abroad, controlled by corrupt overseers, the memunim, could not provide a satisfactory economic solution to the rising tide of immigration from Eastern Europe. Many of the kolels sought to discourage immigration by denying the ḥalukah during the initial years of stay in Palestine. To Schlesinger’s mind this state of affairs was not only criminally unjust and economically disastrous, but it also ran counter to his messianic expectations. He had by this time fully internalized Tsevi Hirsh Kalischer’s activist messianism, which called for the restoration of Jews to the Holy Land and the creation of agricultural settlements as a means of both fulfilling religious commandments and solving pressing economic problems.

Schlesinger’s Ḥevrah maḥazire ‘atarah le-yoshnah ‘im kolel ha-‘Ivrim (1873) incorporated several strands of his thought, proposing an Orthodox utopia with many elements of a modern Jewish nation-state—Hebrew language, Jewish attire, a flag, a militia, an elected assembly—that would best secure traditional Jewish culture. Yet nowhere in the pamphlet was there an outright call for a Jewish state. That came a year later, in a letter to Moses Montefiore, in which Schlesinger made explicit his goal to establish a Jewish state, albeit under Ottoman suzerainty, in Palestine.

In 1875, disaster struck. Schlesinger published a work, Bet Yosef ḥadash, that went beyond all previous vilifications of acculturation and reform, but also contained a sensational proposal to suspend, in Palestine, Rabenu Gershom’s ban on marriage to two wives. All this may have been passed off as one more idiosyncratic work, had Schlesinger not also come out with a harsh condemnation of corrupt practices in the distribution of charity from abroad in Palestine. His book was banned and publicly consigned to the flames, his reputation destroyed overnight. Though his life was threatened, he refused to heed calls that he return to Hungary.

Forced out of the limelight, Schlesinger continued in his efforts to purchase land and establish agricultural settlements. He convinced his father-in-law to help raise money, and the first Jewish agricultural settlement, Petaḥ Tikvah, was purchased in 1878 in no small part with these funds. In the years to come, Schlesinger would publish interesting and provocative texts as the fledgling Zionist movement began to fulfill his prophecies. In addition to the dozens of writings that were printed in his lifetime, he left behind a trove of manuscripts that continue to be published to this day.

Schlesinger proved a paradoxical figure in the twentieth century, his legacy having paved the way for both the religious zealotry of the Edah Ḥaredit and Neturei Karta, and the nationalism of religious Zionism and Poyale Agudas Yisroel, all embracing him as their precursor and cultural hero. Moreover, his advocacy of Yiddish as a national language and his writings in Jüdisch-Deutsch qua Yiddish also earned him a place in the pantheon of early Yiddishism.

Suggested Reading

Rachel Elboim-Dror, “The Ultimate Ghetto: A Subversive Ultra-Orthodox Utopia,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 7.1 (2000): 65–95; Shoshana Halevy, Sifre Yerushalayim ha-ri’shonim . . . she-nidpesu be-otiyot ‘ivriyot, 1841–1890 (Jerusalem, 1975); Hirsh-Dovid Katz, “Dos ‘yidishistishe’ bukh fun Khasam-Soyfers talmid R. Akive-Yoysef Shlezinger,” Yidishe kultur 59.3–4 (1997): 38–40; 59.5–6 (1997): 34–40; Benjamin Mintz and Kalman Kahane, “Akiba Joseph Schlesinger,” in Men of the Spirit, by Leo Jung, pp. 85–105 (New York, 1964); Avraham (Alter) Ya‘akov Shachrai, Rabi ‘Akiva’ Yosef Shlezinger (Jerusalem, 1942); Michael K. Silber, “The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition,” in The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, ed. Jack Wertheimer, pp. 23–84 (New York and Cambridge, Mass., 1992); Michael K. Silber, “Pa‘ame lev ha-‘ivri be-Erets Hagar: R. ‘Akiva’ Yosef Shlezinger; Ben ultrah-ortodoksyah u-le’umiyut yehudit be-re’shitan,” in Me’ah shenot tsiyonut datit, ed. Avi Sagi and Dov Schwartz, vol. 1, Ishim ve-shitot, pp. 225–254 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 2003).