Each leader in his own way is trying earnestly to better the situation of the Jewish people.
While the role of the hassidic master was primarily that of spiritual guide, mentor and authority, many rebbes also served in other leadership roles, such as itinerant preachers, doctors, community rabbis and halachic decisors. One famous hassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809), was even involved in organizing a conference to discuss the political situation of the Jews.
This little-known episode is recorded in the writings of Avrom Ber Gottlober (1811-1899), a Jewish writer, historian and educator. Gottlober was a significant figure in the Haskala movement, the 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment in Eastern Europe. His disciples included one of the founders of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature, Mendele Mocher Sforim (1836-1917), and the father of Yiddish theater, Avraham Goldfaden (1840-1908). Gottlober’s scholarly research extended to the history of the Karaites, Hassidism and Kabbala, and is still cited by scholars today.
Gottlober recounted Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s conference in his memoirs that were first published in the periodical Haboker Or (The Morning Light), a publication aligned with the Haskala movement that appeared in Lemberg in 1876- 1886. In his report, Gottlober described how Rabbi Levi Yitzhak called the conference, inviting other hassidic masters, as well as mitnagdim and maskilim – leaders who were not aligned with Hassidism and may have even been opponents of the new movement. The conference took place in Berditchev, the town where Rabbi Levi Yitzhak served as rabbi from 1785 until his death.
Is Gottlober’s report reliable? On one hand, he was born soon after Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s death, and his report of the event was written many years later as he approached his 70s. This gap surely calls into question the veracity of the account. Moreover, we have no corroborative evidence – not in contemporary hassidic literature nor in other sources.
On the other hand, Gottlober was born in Starokonstantinov, about 120 km. west of Berditchev. His father, Haim, had been appointed as cantor in the city at the recommendation of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. Gottlober himself grew up in the hassidic milieu: His father-in-law from his first marriage was aligned with hassidic movement, and as a young man Gottlober was a hassid of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad Hassidism.
The historian Israel Halperin (1910-1971), who researched the entire episode, concluded that while the details of the report may be somewhat inaccurate, its essence is reliable. Thus, when the conference was actually held is unclear: From Gottlober’s description, it would appear that he thought that the conference was held around 1809, late in Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s life. Another famous historian, Simon Dubnow (1860-killed during the Holocaust in 1941), understood that the conference was held in 1802 or 1803, just before Czar Alexander I (1777-1825) issued regulations on the settlement of Jews in late 1804.
Halperin suggested that the conference took place in 1791 just before the second partition of Poland in early 1793.
Gottlober described the conference as a failure: “The advice of those who gathered there was altogether nonsense, for nothing was done.” He described how the conference sent a delegation to the authorities in Warsaw to plead on behalf of the Jews. Alas, the delegation was unsuccessful – according to Gottlober – because their approach was primitive and unenlightened.
While many details of the conference remain hazy, if the account is true it is striking that Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was willing to turn to political activism in a bid to improve conditions for the Jews. Even if the account is not historically accurate, it is noteworthy that in the second half of the 19th century a Haskala historian recorded the political involvement of a hassidic master.
The import of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s course is pronounced when we compare his approach to that of one of his contemporaries: Rabbi Nahman of Breslov (1772- 1810). Rabbi Nahman’s prime disciple and scribe, Reb Nosson Sternhartz of Nemirov (1780-1844), recorded how his teacher reacted to the political situation in the lead-up to the 1804 regulations: “I heard from his holy mouth that he himself said: This year I danced a lot, because at that time we heard that the decrees they call pinktin [points] was being issued against Israel, for by means of dancing and clapping hands we can sweeten harsh judgment and annul decrees.”
Both hassidic masters were acutely aware that the plight of the Jews called for action: Rabbi Nahman of Breslov employed the theurgic route, dancing and clapping in a bid to annul the decree; Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev chose the political route, organizing a broad-based conference in the hope to be able to exert political pressure on the rulers. Each leader in his own way, trying earnestly to better the situation of the Jewish people.