In the early 1850s, Simcha Zissel (Broida) Ziv (1824-1898) left his hometown of Kelm, Lithuania to meet Rabbi Israel Lipkin Salanter, the controversial rabbi who had recently been hired by the Jewish community in the city of Kovno. Rabbi Salanter had been giving public sermons that called on his fellow Jews to devote time and energy to musar—to the deliberate and methodical improvement of one’s moral character. Salanter urged his listeners to fear for the punishments that would await them if they did not focus on developing virtues of reverence, humility, just
ice, and kindness. Many traditionalists admired Salanter’s fierce opposition to the Jewish Enlightenment movement (Haskalah), but they were disturbed by the prospect of a new sectarian movement that, like Hasidism, seemed to reject the central role of Talmud study and to introduce other models of piety.
As a devoted student of Talmud, Simcha Zissel seems to have initially shared the concerns of these traditionalists. Having also studied some of the modern subjects favored by the Haskalah, including German, he may have also been troubled by Salanter’s fierce opposition to general studies. But he found himself enthralled by Salanter’s spiritual vision and personality. When Salanter resigned from his communal post and established a new private study hall for young men in Kovno, Simcha Zissel followed him.
In the 1860s, Simcha Zissel returned to his hometown and founded a unique yeshiva inspired by Salanter, the Talmud Torah of Kelm. In some respects, the Talmud Torah was fiercely traditionalist, expelling students who challenged Orthodox theology, including Isidor Elyashev, who later became a distinguished literary critic. In other respects, however, it was open to the Haskalah’s legacy. The Talmud Torah was the first traditionalist yeshiva in Eastern Europe to set aside time for general studies, including mathematics, geography, and Russian language, literature, and history. Simcha Zissel also insisted on adopting the manners and dress of European bourgeois culture, encouraged many of his students to consider careers in commerce, and made periodic references in his lectures to figures such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whom he regarded as great ethical teachers.
Perhaps most radically, Talmud Torah’s curriculum cut yet further into the time traditionally allotted for the study of Talmud by devoting an unprecedented number of hours to the study of moral literature, contemplative visualization exercises, impassioned chanting, meditative prayer, and group discussions on issues of moral development. This was met with political opposition in the Jewish community, and Simcha Zissel was eventually forced out of Kelm. He briefly reestablished the yeshiva in Grobin (in modern-day Latvia), but was forced to close it down after only a few years due to his declining health. He spent the last decade of his life back in Kelm teaching a few close disciples who would eventually spread the Musar movement throughout Europe and beyond. He came to be known as the “the Alter,” or elder, of Kelm. Among the most influential of his students were Rabbis Reuven Dov Dessler, Yerucham Halevi Levovitz of the Mir Yeshiva, and Nosson Tzvi Finkel (who was eventually known as the Alter of Slobodka).
Rabbi Simcha Zissel posted the following notice on the door of the Kelm Talmud Torah in the month of Elul, which immediately precedes the High Holidays. In its specific prescription for ethical self-development through meditation and its careful, rigorous, even philosophical, linking of devotion to God with devotion to one’s fellow man, it is characteristic of the Musar movement. It is translated here by Geoffrey Claussen, who directs the Jewish Studies program at Elon University and is working on a book about Simcha Zissel’s ethical thought.
As is known, the sages taught [that God commanded]: “recite verses of kingship before me . . . so that you make me king over you” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 34b).
When we meditate upon the power to maintain a kingdom [ruled] by [a king of] flesh and blood, [we find that] the kingdom is maintained only when the king’s subjects are all like one person in their service to him. And if . . . division were to emerge among the subjects of the king, the knot of the kingdom would be untied, and (God forbid) the world would be destroyed. As our sages of blessed memory said, “were it not for the fear [of the government], a person would swallow his neighbor alive” (Mishnah Avot 3:2). Thus the unity of the subjects maintains the kingdom.
Rabbenu Tam of blessed memory wrote in his Sefer Ha-yashar that we can find the way to serve the King of Kings, the Holy Blessed One based on the service given a king of flesh and blood. And so we can understand that the essence of fulfilling [the commandment] “that you make me king over you” is in the unity of the servants of the Blessed One. Thus it is written, “There will be a king in Jeshurun”—when?—“when the heads of the people will be gathered, when the tribes of Israel will be united” (Deut. 33:5).
Therefore there is an obligation upon us, prior to the Day of Judgment (may it come upon us for good), to occupy ourselves during the entire year with the positive commandment “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). And through this there will be unity among the subjects of the Blessed Lord, and [God’s] Kingship will come into our hands well . . .
But if (God forbid) the sin of hating people is on our hands, how can we not be ashamed and disgraced to be speaking lies . . . when we ask [in prayer for God to] “rule over the entire world, in Your glory”? We have not prepared ourselves to do what is essential for maintaining the kingdom of heaven in power over us . . . And so we must accept upon ourselves the work of loving people and of unity. With this, one’s path will slowly, slowly improve—and, in any case, one will already have turned a little bit toward repentance. And, if we merit a community that is immersed in this work during the entire year, who can measure the greatness of the merit for us and for the entire world?
No one should say that this work is too difficult. It is not only the decree of the King, but we hope that when one works at this, with appropriate reflection, it will slowly, slowly, become easier, and one will find great joy in it . . . This message should remain before our eyes all year long. And so may we all merit to be written and sealed for good [in the Book of Life] with the whole people of Israel. Amen—may this be God’s will.
It is good to set aside a place for thinking of this matter every day during prayer. The clear place for it in prayer is in the blessing “True and Firm” [when praising God for redeeming Israel from Egypt, with these words]: “Upon the shore of the sea, they were all together”—this is love and unity. And thus [the liturgy continues] “they all praised God and made God King.” Without such [love and unity], God forbid, there is no full acceptance of the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to continually make an effort at this, and may we merit to fully accept the kingdom of heaven with the whole people of Israel.
Toward the end of his life, the talmudist Saul Lieberman published his only Yiddish essay, an appreciation for his friend, the novelist Chaim Grade, the great witness to a lost world. Translated and with an introduction by Allan Nadler.
When Woodrow Wilson became the first president to nominate a Jew for a seat on the Supreme Court, much of the opposition to his appointment revolved around his Jewishness.
A new book traces the path of American Jews from participation to affiliation.
Michael Weingrad responds to readers of his essay on the dearth of Jewish fantasy literature.