This Day in Jewish History

1883: The Founder of the Ethical School of Judaism Dies

Rabbi Israel Salanter did not denigrate ritual: He felt that ethical behavior, such as caring for sick Jews on Shabbat, should supersede.

U.S. Library of Congress

On February 2, 1883, Rabbi Israel Lipkin (Salanter), founder of the “musar” (ethical) school of Jewish religious thought, died, at the age of 72. Though controversial during his lifetime, the teachings of Lipkin, who is better known as Israel Salanter, were to a large extent eventually adopted by most of the leading “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic) ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.

Israel Ben Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin was born on November 3, 1810, in the town of Zagare, in present-day Lithuania, where his father, Ze’ev Wolf Lipkin, served as rabbi. At the age of 12, Israel was sent to Salant — whence the epithet “Salanter” — to study with Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Broide, who referred to his prize student as “the little Alfasi,” a reference to Rabbi Isaac Alfasi, the 11th-century Moroccan scholar of Jewish law.

Salanter also found himself another teacher in Salant, Rabbi Yosef Zundel. It was from him that Lipkin became exposed to the imperative of moral self-improvement, which Zundel called musar — literally, “moral” or “ethic” in Hebrew — and which had its origins as a Jewish concept in the writings of a number of medieval Jewish thinkers.

Ethics versus ritual

Salanter married young, at age 15 or less. In 1842, he was appointed head of the Meile Yeshiva in Vilna. When there were complaints that he had received the position over other, more established rabbis, he resigned and moved to nearby Zarechya, where he opened a new yeshiva. His public lectures about traditional ethical teachings attracted a large following in Vilna, and he established the institution of a separate beit musar — house of ethical teaching — to be adjacent to, but separate from, the traditional yeshiva.

In an era when traditional Judaism was encountering the dual challenges of secularism and the Reform movement, an ethically minded approach to religious life and study fell on fertile ground.

In 1848, when the czarist government opened an officially sanctioned yeshiva in Vilna and invited Salanter to become its head, he declined the offer, and, fearing retribution for his response, left the city for Kovno, where he opened a new yeshiva.

Salanter was no slacker on religious observance or study; he simply felt that the ethical commandments were no less important than ritual ones. As a kind of proto-behavioral therapist, he recommended the repetition of a single ethical teaching to the point where it would enter the individual’s subconscious, and become part of his character and thus behavior.

Care for Jews on Shabbat

When Vilna was in the throes of a cholera epidemic, in 1848, Salanter insisted that Jews themselves should undertake the care of sick Jews on Shabbat, rather than relying on non-Jews to perform acts that might transgress the prohibition on work on the Sabbath.

He also urged his followers to eat on Yom Kippur that year, believing that fasting would exacerbate the effects of cholera, and by one account set an example by bringing food into the synagogue and eating it in front of worshipers.

In both of these positions, he was emphasizing a Jewish law that allows, even requires, transgression of most other laws if a human life is at risk.

Salanter stressed the need for constant reflection and self-examination, and even called for keeping a record of one’s negative attributes.

It is perhaps not surprising that he had a tendency toward depression. In one group of his followers, in the town of Novaradok, the philosophy developed into a practice of self-affliction, in which acolytes would dress like beggars so as to avoid the sin of pride.

In fact debilitated by depression, he left Kovno in 1857 for Halberstadt, Germany, where he recovered, and then moved on to Koenigsberg, today Kaliningrad, Russia. During these travels, Salanter corresponded with his students back in Lithuania: these letters were later collected to serve as one of the major written sources of knowledge about his teachings.

Salanter began, but did not complete, a German translation of the Talmud, the first attempt at rendering this monumental work in a secular language. He also proposed the creation of an Aramaic-Hebrew dictionary, to aid in the study of Talmud, and in introducing the study of this compendium of the oral law into general universities.

Rabbi Israel Salanter died in Koenigsberg.