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Lefin, Menaḥem Mendel

(1749–1826), maskil, author, and translator. Born in Satanów, in Podolia—a heartland of Hasidism—Menaḥem Mendel Lefin (also Levin) was a figure who linked the Haskalah between Western and Eastern Europe. Raised in a traditional Jewish family, Lefin was drawn in the late 1780s to Berlin, where he befriended Moses Mendelssohn and other maskilim. Unlike Salomon Maimon and Yitsḥak Satanov, two Polish Jewish contemporaries who also traveled to the West, Lefin returned to Poland and sought to further the ideals of the Enlightenment in a manner suited to East European Jews.

Lefin had the financial means to write and publish maskilic works due to the patronage of Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski (1734–1823), one of the leading figures of the Polish Enlightenment whose extensive landholdings in Podolia included Mikołajów, the town in which Lefin settled. Lifelong proximity to the important centers of Podolian Hasidism and the experience of observing the radicalization of Jews in Berlin shaped Lefin’s formulation of the Haskalah, which he defined as the moderate midpoint between the extremes of Hasidism and atheistic rationalism.

As was the case with his peers in Berlin, Lefin engaged in a programmatic critique of Jewish culture in an effort to rejuvenate it. He did so through appropriating European Enlightenment writings and by appealing to the medieval Jewish rationalist tradition. His first works, Moda‘ le-vinah (Insight to Understanding; 1789), which contained examples from his Igerot ha-ḥokhmah (Letters of Wisdom; 1789), and Sefer refu’at ha-‘am (The Book of Popular Healing; 1794), encouraged East European Jews to study natural sciences and medicine in order to expand their traditional educational curriculum, to emphasize the harmony between God’s creative power and New Science, and to combat the popular mystical healing practices widespread in Poland.

With Czartoryski’s patronage, Lefin participated in debates over Jewish reform that took place during the Four-Year Sejm (1788–1792), anonymously writing a French pamphlet (Essai d’un plan de réforme ayant pour objet d’éclairer la Nation Juive en Pologne et de redresser par là ses moeurs; 1791), published in Warsaw, urging the integration of Polish Jews into the modernizing Polish state. All the while, he insisted on the compatibility of rabbinic Judaism with the political aims of Poland’s reformers. Lefin continued to advocate for a moderate reform of the Jewish community after the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth’s final partition (1795) when he accompanied Adam Jerzy Czartoryski (1770–1861), his patron’s son, to Saint Petersburg. Through Czartoryski he influenced the discussions of Alexander I’s “Unofficial Committee on the Jews” and the promulgation of the edicts of 1804, which protected the autonomy of the kahal (Jewish municipality).

Lefin’s later writings sought to persuade young Polish Jews of the dangers of Hasidism. He created an alternative body of reading material that included satires, translations of European literature, and original philosophic works. Seeking to combat the influence of the Hasidic chapbook, Lefin wrote Sefer ḥeshbon ha-nefesh (Moral Accounting; 1808), an enlightened musar (ethical) text influenced by Benjamin Franklin’s program of moral self-reform. The work criticized Hasidic dependence upon the tsadik or rebbe for the moral self-improvement of young Jews, and condemned Hasidic hitlahavut (ecstatic prayer) and techniques for expiating sin.

Lefin also adhered to Maimonides’ belief that rationalist philosophy could find harmony with the concept of revelation. Believing that Maimonides offered the antidote to Hasidic extremism, Lefin completed a translation of the philosopher’s Guide of the Perplexed into mishnaic Hebrew (1829) and relied on his epistemology—as well as that of Immanuel Kant—in a lost treatise, “Nachlass eines Sonderlings zu Abdera” (The Literary Estate of a Crank from Abdera).

Lefin’s decision to use Yiddish, the vernacular of East European Jews, to communicate Enlightenment ideals was characteristic of his regional formulation of the Haskalah. Rejecting the use of melitsah (biblical phraseology) and German as ineffective for disseminating the Haskalah in Eastern Europe, Lefin composed several didactic works (“Maḥkimat peti” [Making Wise the Simple] and “Der ershter khosed” [The First Hasid]) in Yiddish. He also turned to Yiddish translation of Scripture to encourage Mendelssohn’s goal of renewing interest in the Bible. Lefin’s Yiddish translation of Proverbs (1814) engendered a full-scale language polemic among maskilim when Tuviah Feder, in his satiric play Kol meḥatsetsim (The Archers’ Voice; first published in an expurgated version in 1853, though it had circulated in manuscript form among maskilim in the first two decades of the nineteenth century), decried the use of Yiddish as a betrayal of the linguistic and cultural ideals of the Berlin Haskalah.

Lefin spent the last part of his life in Brody and Tarnopol, new centers of the Haskalah in Austrian Galicia. There he influenced the efforts of figures such as Yosef Perl, Betsal’el Stern, and Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon to modernize the Jews of Eastern Europe.

Suggested Reading

Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1985); Nancy Sinkoff, Out of the Shtetl: Making Jews Modern in the Polish Borderlands (Atlanta, 2004); Samuel Werses, Megamot ve-tsurot be-sifrut ha-Haskalah (Jerusalem, 1990).