The period that the ‘Ershter Ruv’ z”l became Rav in Belz was also the time that the first generation of Maskilim appeared in Galicia and the whole surrounding region. In Berlin the Haskalah was already in full swing, but in Eastern Europe it took longer to take root.
The Ershter Ruv z”l became Rav in year תקע”ז -a1817 , a year earlier תקע”ו is the year marked as the Haskalah’s rise in Galicia. The Yeshuos Ya’akov, the great gaon and Rav of Lemberg, issued a Cherem on a few of the early Maskilim, among them, Shloma Yehuda Leib Rapaport. Rapaport was a great scholar in Torah who became a Maskil and started publishing books full of his bad views. The Maskilim countered the Cherem with their influence on the government. The government forced the Yeshuos Ya’akov to rescind the Cherem. From then on, the cultural war increased in intensity.
The Haskalah in Eastern Europe was led, at least in the first generation, by people who were Torah Scholars and they were not lacking in observance of Yiddishkeit. They looked and dressed just like all Eastern European Jews (see below). Their objective was to ‘civilize’ the Frum Yidden. They wanted the people to be well versed in Philosophy and the Sciences and to think like enlightened individuals. The Maskilim staged a face as coming to save the people from their antiquated world.
Their greatest enemy was the Chasidim. They disliked the Ruach and the worldview of the Chasidim. They didn’t like their piety, zeal, and Bren in Torah and Mitzvos. Much of the early Maskilim’s literature were aimed at the Chasidim. At first some of the non-Chasidim viewed them as only trying to fight Chasidim, but as times have shown, it didn’t take long for them to start vilifying the Torah learning of the Misnagdim.
It’s difficult to read about the tactics that the Maskilim took to further their agenda. They helped the authorities to levy a “kosher meat tax” and a “candle tax”. The Maskilim defended the government in claiming that it’s not illegal for them to discriminate and in turn they were placed in government positions which collected the taxes and enriched themselves.
They told the government many lies about the Chasidim. Many times they got the government to expel Rebbes from cities when they visited for Shabbos. They aimed to control the religious functions in the cities and towns and enforce their changes in Yiddishkeit.
The Ershter Ruv and the Tzadikim of that generation, most of them Talmidim of the Chozeh, waged a fierce war against the Maskilim. They worked hard to convince the authorities of the lies of the Maskilim and fought for their rights to lead Chasidic lives. They focused strongly on keeping the Chadarim and the towns’ positions far from Maskilic influence.
Even at times when secularism spread in Eastern Europe in later generations, the courts of the Rebbes were always full of vitality and Bren for Torah and Mitzvos. The Maskilim, on the other hand, changed ideologies every two generations.
In the generation of the Ershter Ruv, Chassidus became the defender of general Yiddishkeit and the other Frum Yidden followed their lead in keeping and cherishing the Neshama of Yiddishkeit even in modern times.
Cover picture is the Tziyon of the great Gaon Yeshuos Ya’akov in Lvov – Lemberg before it was destroyed in the Holocaust. Note the engraving of four Seforim above the wording, depicting the Sefer Yeshuos Ya’akov a four volume commentary on Shulchan Aruch.
Below is a portrait of Shloma Yehuda Rapaport. This illustrates the challenge the Chasidim had in convincing the general public that their agendas are bad.