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Max Lilienthal

(1815 – 1882)

Max Lilienthal was an educator, author, and rabbi. Born in Munich, Bavaria, Lilienthal completed his studies at the university of his native town, and in 1839, on the recommendation of Ludwig Philippson, was appointed director of the Jewish school of Riga. He succeeded in this position, and also became known for the sermons which he delivered in German at the Riga synagogue (published as Predigten in der Synagoge zu Riga, 1841). He formed a friendship with the Russian minister of education S.S. *Uvarov, to whom he dedicated the above work.

In 1841, on the recommendation of Uvarov, the czarist government invited Lilienthal to draw up a project for the establishment of state schools for Jews providing a European-type education. Lilienthal set out upon his task by attempting to persuade the community leaders in the *Pale of Settlement to accept the project. His mission encountered opposition and mistrust among Jews there. Orthodox circles, and particularly the Hasidim, considered the project an attempt by the government to destroy traditional Jewish education, and possibly even to convert the Jews, while the maskilim also expressed misgivings. Lilienthal's meetings with the representatives of the Jews of Vilna, one of the main centers of Russian Jewry, ended in failure. His attempts to issue threats in the name of the government (it is not clear whether he was authorized to do so) aroused revulsion, while his strategy of contacting the representatives of the Orthodox and Hasidim and ignoring the maskilim alienated the latter from him. The publication of his proposals to invite teachers from Germany for the projected schools was a cause of further mistrust. In *Minsk Lilienthal found open hostility accompanied by personal abuse. His reaction, in 1842, was an appeal to Uvarov to enforce "educational reform" on the Jews through a series of laws. The minister of education refused to do so, but by means of a decree (June 22, 1842) he hinted to the Jews that the czar himself was in favor of the reform.

In order to sever the connection between the projected "reforms" and the personality of Lilienthal, Uvarov appointed a commission composed of Jewish personalities to study the proposals. Lilienthal was called upon to undertake an extensive journey through the Jewish centers to assess public opinion and guide it in the desired direction. Having learned from his previous experiences, Lilienthal on this occasion did not repeat his former suggestions, such as the employment of teachers from abroad and the imposition of a tax on the melammedim (heder teachers), and succeeded in winning sympathy. However, his tactics in seeking an alliance with the Orthodox against the maskilim once more led to his failure. Lilienthal's appeal in Maggid Yeshu'ah (Vilna, 1842) brought a sharp retort from Mordecai Aaron *Guenzburg in the pamphlet Maggid Emet (Leipzig, 1843). The Commission for the Education of the Jews completed its task in 1843, and in 1844 a law for the establishment of state schools for the Jews was issued. In 1844, however, at the height of his success, Lilienthal had to leave Russia secretly. It appears that he had become convinced that the intentions of the czarist government were insincere and that it was scheming to exploit the network of schools as an instrument for eventual conversion to Christianity. The government's demand to exclude the study of Talmud from the curriculum marked the turning point in his outlook. Additionally, the law for the establishment of the schools was accompanied by other anti-Jewish laws in various spheres.

In 1845, Lilienthal immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City where he conducted a private boarding school for a few years. In 1849 he became rabbi of a short-lived union of the city's German congregations and directed their day schools. From 1855 until his death Lilienthal was rabbi of the important Bene Israel congregation of Cincinnati, which he led in the direction of moderate Reform. As a civic leader in his city on friendly terms with its Christian clergy, he was a member of its board of education (1860–69) and a trustee of the University of Cincinnati from 1872 until his death. He was perhaps the leading Jewish exponent in his day of the rigorous exclusion of all religious teaching from the public schools. Lilienthal actively cooperated with his fellow townsman Isaac Mayer *Wise in promoting Reform Judaism throughout the West, and was the publisher of The Sabbath Visitor from 1874, founder of the scholarly Rabbinical Literary Association, and taught at *Hebrew Union College from its opening in 1875. In 1857 he published Freiheit, Fruehling und Liebe, a collection of poems.


D. Philipson, Max Lilienthal, his Life and Writings (1915); idem, The Reform Movement in Judaism (19312), index; D. Kahana, in: Ha-Shilo'ah, 27 (1913), 314–22, 446–57, 546–56; J.S. Raisin, The Haskalah Movement in Russia (1915); P. Wengeroff, Memoireneiner Grossmutter, 1 (1908), 123–43; J. Shatzky, Yidishe Bildungs-Politik in Poyln fun 1806 biz 1866 (1943), 71–80; H.B. Grinstein, in: HUCA, 18 (1943/44), 321–52; The Sabbath Visitor (April 14, 1882); Der deutsche Pionier, 14 (1882), 162–70, 211–6.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia.