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  • Repairing Character Traits and Repairing the JewsThe Talmud Torahs of Kelm and Grobin in the Nineteenth Century
  • Geoffrey Claussen (bio)

The talmud torah in Kelm (Kelmė) was a yeshiva regarded by many of its students and admirers as offering a model of education that was unique in the world. Their pride in this model is well illustrated by the story that some told about a conference of German university chancellors at which one admitted that there was an important subject that was not taught in German universities: 'the repair of human character traits'. In fact, the chancellor noted, the repair of human character traits was taught seriously in only one place in the whole world: at a Jewish school in the small Lithuanian town of Kelm.1

The Kelm Talmud Torah was an institution of the pietistic musar (moral discipline) movement that sought to convince Jews to devote themselves to 'the repair of human character traits' in unprecedented ways. One of the early leaders of the musar movement, Rabbi Simhah Zisl Ziv (1824–98), founded the school with hopes that its graduates and the model it offered would transform Jewish communities—and perhaps even, as the above story indicates, provoke the envy of Europe's most distinguished educators. Such hopes were never fulfilled, and yet Simhah Zisl's vision of social transformation through the talmud torah remains an important chapter in the history of nineteenth-century east European Jewry.

The musar movement emerged in Lithuania in the middle of the nineteenth century under the guidance of Simhah Zisl's teacher, Rabbi Israel Salanter, who urged his fellow Jews to engage in a range of practices that would help to bring musar to their souls. With its focus on virtue and the role of the emotions in moral life, the musar movement emerged, in part, as a reaction against the intellectualist [End Page 15] culture of rabbinic circles; with its concern for piety and passionate defence of traditionalism, it was a reaction against the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah.2

Following Salanter's vision, Simhah Zisl hoped that the talmud torah would be a force for reshaping rabbinic culture and for combating the Haskalah, partially through isolating his students from the broader society and sending them out as missionaries for musar once their basic training had been completed. At the same time, as signalled by his establishment of the talmud torah as the first traditionalist institution in eastern Europe to teach general studies alongside Jewish studies, Simhah Zisl hoped to forge a model of traditionalism that could somewhat accommodate the Haskalah vision.3

This chapter explores the talmud torah's curriculum, its efforts to influence Jewish education by exporting its model of musar study to other yeshivas, its limited acceptance in the city of Kelm and by rabbinic authorities more generally, and its efforts to separate itself from many aspects of Jewish society while nevertheless hoping to effect social change. The talmud torah had limited success in directly influencing Jewish society on the whole, but it did have a significant influence on the development of traditional Jewish education in eastern Europe.

the establishment of the kelm talmud torah

In the 1860s, after years of study with Israel Salanter in Kovno (Kaunas) followed by years of private study, Simhah Zisl had settled in his hometown of Kelm in the region of Zamet (Žemaitija) on the western edge of the tsarist empire. For some time, he filled the role of preacher at the town's central synagogue. Following the example of Salanter, who had held a position as a public preacher in Kovno, Simhah Zisl's sermons were musar sermons, offering moral criticism of the city's Jewish community. As Eliezer Eliyahu Friedman, a native of Kelm who was particularly unimpressed by Simhah Zisl, put it in his memoirs:

With his sermons, he aspired to bring changes in the behaviour of the community and reforms to public institutions. These sermons did not please the leaders and elders of the community, and they stopped Rabbi Simhah Zisl's efforts in Kelm, and sought to push him aside, and they distanced him from the people in Kelm.4

Simhah Zisl's experience in Kelm...


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