Lilienblum’s Journey

Originally published in the “Hebrew Encyclopedia,” Vol. 21, p. 797. 

Moshe Leib Lilienblum

Moshe Leib Lilienblum: born Keidan 1843, died Odessa 1910. He was an author and publicist, one of the founders of Hibbat Tzion (Lovers of Zion)1, and in his youth had a yeshiva education. At thirteen he was betrothed to a young girl and moved to the house of his father-in-law in Vilkomir (today Ukmergė). There he became proficient in rabbinic literature, and after his marriage established a yeshiva for young boys.

Lilienblum became greatly interested in the ideas of the moderate haskalah (enlightenment) movement while delving into the research literature of the Middle Ages. In 1867 he published a major article, “Orhot Talmud” (“The Ways of the Talmud”), in which he described the Talmud as the foundation of Jewish existence and morality; however, he took issue with the talmudic system for adapting the Torah’s laws to modern life and called on rabbis to rescind outdated customs, particularly those based on Kabbalah. On the other hand, he urged maskilim (followers of the enlightenment) not to abandon their faith, which he said was the only guarantee of Jewish existence.

In 1869 Lilienblum published an addendum to “Orhot” in which he emphasized these ideas more sharply. He denied the authority of the “Shulchan Aruch” (the Code of Jewish Law) and called on rabbis to create an updated “Shulchan Aruch,” to spread the love of crafts and labour throughout the nation, and to establish modern schools. This provoked a furious dispute: He was declared an outcast, his livelihood was harmed and he was nearly handed over to the authorities for conscription into the army. As a result he left for Odessa, intending to acquire a European education and a profession with which to support himself. (1869).

In Odessa Lilienblum suffered bitter disappointment when he saw how many Jews had stopped observing religious laws and distanced themselves from the culture of Israel and its national aspirations. He composed a satire in verse called “Kahal Refaim” (“A Crowd of Ghosts”), in which he highlighted the defects of 15 characters in communal life. Maskilim were also criticized there for devoting themselves to rhetoric and research rather than to urgent problems of the nation. He also criticized young people for leading dissolute lives, and using their education in superficial ways. Despite its minor literary worth, the work was well received.

In Odessa Lilienblum met Abraham Krochmal, and through him encountered biblical criticism and accepted its conclusions. At that time he perfected his Russian and began reading radical literature, which made a tremendous impression on him. He saw that the revival of the Jewish people would come from changes in their economic and cultural lives, while the question of religion seemed to him less significant. He expressed his views in the article “Yiddishe Lebensfragen” (“Problems in Jewish Life”) in the Jewish newspaper Kol Mevasser, of which he had become editor in 1871. When the anger of the orthodox forced him to resign this position, he published a series of articles in the newspapers HaMelitz and HaShachar, in which he explained that the Haskalah aimed to improve lives, that the Hebrew language and Torah of Israel were bound to be forgotten, and that the task of the Hebrew writer was “to give our people a realistic worldview, and cause the imaginary life that they cling to to disappear.”

Despite all this, Lilienblum never found spiritual peace. In 1873 he wrote a significant autobiography, “Hatat Neurim” (“Sins of Youth”, 1876) which was both frank and detailed. It mainly described a struggle in the soul of a young Jew who had been emancipated from his religious heritage, but who after abandoning it was overcome by despair and a recognition that he had become “miserable in the land.” Despite a lack of artistic or literary claims, the book’s influence on young people was profound, as many were at that same stage or treading the same path. The orthodox saw the book as dangerous.

Lilienblum struggled with great poverty in his private life, together with his family. He tutored and worked as a proofreader and clerk. He tried to acquire a secondary-school certificate so he could learn a profession. At the end of the 1870s he connected with the first group of Jewish-Hebrew socialists, and wrote Mishnat Elisha Ben Abuyah (“A Teaching of Elisha Ben Abuya”) for them. This article, the best in form and style of all his works, was written as a parody of the Mishna and its commentators.

The pogroms of 1881 drastically changed Lilienblum’s outlook, leading him to conclude that the Jews’ problems stemmed from their position as strangers among the nations. He therefore proposed buying the land of Eretz Israel from the Ottoman sultan, to establish there a “state under the supervision of the rulers of Europe.” After a time he concluded that the best course would be to acquire land and resettle gradually in Eretz Israel, even under Turkish rule. He wrote the essay, “On the Rebirth of Israel in the Land of Their Fathers,” in Russian (1884), and later translated it to Hebrew. In this booklet, really a founding document of the Zionist idea, he posited that antisemitism was not a passing phenomenon, even in those places where Jews had achieved equality, and that the only solution was a return to Zion.

Lilienblum strongly opposed Y.L. Gordon, who saw reform of Jewish religious life in the Diaspora as a precondition to national redemption in Eretz Israel. Lilienblum claimed that national existence was paramount, and that rabbis and maskilim should unite for the sake of a common national enterprise. He also warned secularists to beware lest they cause a split in the nation, and argued that religious reform would happen of itself when the nation was established. Lilienblum became a committed Zionist; he helped organize the Hibbat Tzion movement in Russia and encouraged Pinsker2 to be its leader. His most significant Hebrew article of that time was an incisive critique of the poems of Y.L. Gordon (1884), saying that Gordon had criticized the faults of the Jewish people without acknowledging that their cause lay in the lack of a state. Lilienblum argued that Gordon could not be called a “national poet” unless he “dedicated his pen” to the vision of a return to Zion. This criticism signaled a break by the new generation with the views of their elders, of whom Gordon was one of the leaders.

At the end of 1884 Lilienblum was elected secretary of Mazkeret Moshe, which acted as the managing group of Hibbat Tzion until the government allowed the establishment of “The Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Eretz Israel” (1890). Lilienblum served in this position as a liaison between the movement’s orthodox and secular wings, without renouncing his views. He generally expressed the leadership’s official line, and despite his opposition to the system of support, he called on the dependent settlements to accept administration by the Baron.3. He discouraged the poor from making aliya, advising them instead to immigrate to America.

Lilienblum believed that realizing the Zionist idea required steady, even if slow immigration and settlement, accompanied by gradual adjustment to existing conditions. In 1899 he wrote two books, “Derech Teshuvah” (“The Path of Return”) and “Derech La’avor Golim” (“The Path Out of Exile”) which completed his autobiography. In his final twenty years he remained a strong supporter of “practical Zionism”. He waged a prolonged struggle against Ahad Ha’am, contending that there was no alternative to promoting the still-weak agricultural settlement in Eretz Israel. Later he struggled also with those supporting spiritual Zionism and insisted on using the movement’s meagre material resources to support the settlements, rather than cultural and educational institutions.

While he warmly greeted the arrival of Herzl and political Zionism, he still insisted that the work of Hibbat Tzion should continue alongside political efforts. He himself did not join the new movement, for fear of arousing the Russian government’s suspicion of the “Support Society”, but he always supported Herzl. Lilienblum viewed the Uganda plan4 as a failure of the new Zionism, and in a series of articles, he called for this idea to be rejected in favor of even a modest settlement in Eretz Israel.

In 1909, Lilienblum began preparing his literary works for publication. He collected the main ones, softened some passages and divided them into four volumes. Volume one (1910) was published during his lifetime; the rest appeared after his death (1911-1912), edited by Dr Y. Klausner. The moshav Kfar Malal (Moshe Leib Lilienblum) was named for him.

The spiritual strength that drove Lilienblum throughout his life stemmed from his strong connection to his people. Concern for existence of the nation was always in his thoughts. His great influence grew from his honesty and courage. He helped many young people to leave the yeshiva, but he also led many of them back to the fold through Hibbat Tzion.

In his meticulous work as secretary of Hibbat Tzion, Lilienblum helped hold the weak organization together. He made peace between its different factions until the establishment of the Histadrut Hatzionit, (Zionist Organization). His work to promote for an armistice between the maskilim and the orthodox, to unify them in the task of settling Eretz Israel had a decisive value in the history of the Zionist movement, helping it to acquire a character of a real national political movement. Lilienblum was among those who introduced the idea of labor into the Zionist movement and was thus among the fathers of the labor movement within the Histadrut Hatzionit.

In the history of Hebrew literature, Lilienblum’s writings serve as a link between the essays of Smolenskin, wrapped in heavy, rhetorical mist, and the polished, deep articles of Ahad Ha’am. His language is to the point, simple and natural, without rhetoric or decoration, aiming to explain the goal ahead. Because of this, he greatly influenced the literary style of Hebrew writers in his time.

Translated by Bella Golubchik



  1. A forerunner of the Zionist movement, Hibbat Tzion arose in response to the Russian pogroms of 1881, and initiated early agricultural settlements such as Rishon LeTzion, Rosh Pina and Zichron Ya’akov.
  2. Yehuda Leib (Leon) Pinsker, a Russian-Jewish physician and early Zionist.
  3. Facing difficult conditions, the early settlers turned to Baron Edmund de Rothschild of France, who provided support for industrialization and economic development. Yet his administration was met with some resistance. While Lilienblum criticized aspects of this system, he realized that the settlements could not survive without this support and called on the settlers to accept Rothschild’s authority.
  4. At the Sixth Zionist Congress at Basel in August, 1903, Herzl proposed that Russian Jews be resettled in British Uganda as a temporary refuge. The plan was formally rejected at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905.

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