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A promotor of the Haskala in Romania– Moses Gaster


Măriuca Stanciu




One of the truly complex figures of Romanian culture, Moses Gaster is known in Romania primarily as a folklorist concerned with the history of Romanian literature, particularly old texts, popular books and the circulation of folkloric motifs, and with the history of the Romanian language. Influenced, in his early youth, by Hasdeu, in whose review ”Columna lui Traian” he published several articles Gaster is considered to be part of the first generation of Romanian folklorists who based their studies on truly scientific methods – comparative and historical approaches and classification by themes.

Following his expulsion from Romania, in the fall of 1885, together with the entire intellectual elite of the Jewish society for purely political reasons, Gaster managed to impose himself as a reputed folklorist in his adoptive country, England, where he was even elected President of the Folklore Society. Concerned with Hebrew popular literature, both Talmudic and post-Talmudic, and with Samaritan literature, he also preserved his interest in Romanian folklore and folkloric literature, which provided the subject of his lectures at Oxford. He would lean with the same inquisitive passion over biblical apocrypha and pseudo-epigraphs and over folkloric books.

Less, or even not at all, known, until the publication of his ”Memoirs” [1] by Victor Eskenasy in 1998, are the other sides of Gaster’s personality. All his life Gaster fought for the emancipation of his co-nationals, the Jews of Romania, as well as the Jews of other East European realms. Today we can say that he actually lobbied for an overall solution to the condition of the Romanian Jews, respectively for the global granting of citizenship in the spirit of the Berlin Treaty, and not in that of the famous Article 7 of the Romanian Constitution of 1879. Disappointed that ”the history following this treaty is once again a picture of the manner in which us, Jews, were used as pawns in a chess game” [2] , Gaster decided to spare no effort in the attempt to obtain collective citizenship for the Jews. At the same time, as a member of the Hibat Zion movement, he organized the first settlements of Romanian Jews in Palestine. His name will always remain linked to the colony established by the Moinesti Jewish families at Samarin, nowadays Zichron Ya’akov. In England he became one of the Zionist movement’s leaders. Participant in the first Congresses in Basel, intimate of Herzl in the beginning but later opposing his Uganda Plan, adept of the use of Hebrew as national language in Palestine, Gaster played a major role in the adjustment of the British position regarding the construction of a ”national home” in Palestine, proclaimed in the famous Declaration of Lord Balfour.

I have tried, so far, to emphasize the main traits of a figure that may look outstanding in the Romanian society of the second half of the 19th century, in which Gaster was educated. At first sight, the features of the scholar Gaster and those of the militant Gaster may be joined in a portrait that brings him nearer to the Romanian intellectual elite of the 1848 and Unionist movements. Without denying the possible similarities, since, after all, Gaster attended high-school in Bucharest and his first philological attempts in the reviews of the time (Junimea, Columna lui Traian) dated from his student years in Breslau, while his concern with the Romanian language and literature was even older, it is obvious that his spiritual development fed from other sources. Gaster was a man of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, and more than that he was perhaps the most typical promoter in Romania of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism) movement, which gathered the second generation of maskilim (adepts of the Haskala). But before trying to prove this statement a brief explanation is necessary of the two terms: Haskala and Wissenschaft des Judentums.

The Haskala emerged in Western Jewish society around the 1770’s and gradually expanded its influence towards the East up to the end of the 19th century. Besides the common traits of European Enlightenment, the Haskala was designed to find solutions to the specific problems of the Jewish society of that time. That is why the defining features of the Haskala visibly differ from those of Enlightenment in its general sense. The Haskala proposed a conscious effort to free from the constraints imposed by non-Jews but also by Tradition the Jewish society, or, better said, its elite, which the movement first addressed. We would not be wrong in saying that, when it emerged, the Haskala was intended to take further the rationalist thinking school initiated, almost half a millennium before, by the most illustrious philosopher of Judeo-Moorish Spain, Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides. In his ”Guide of the Perplexed”, Maimonides stated that the secular subjects should be taught to the young Jew as much as the Torah, since there was no controversy between them. Just like in Cordoban Middle Ages, the ”profane” subjects were regarded in the German communities of the 18th century with suspicion, as something that would push the young man away from the precepts of rabbinic Judaism and the strict observance of the commandments of the Law. The study of these subjects, however, provided the student with the prospect of a successful integration in the non-Jewish world. Successful integration led to the acceptance of the Jew as a loyal citizen of the state. The Haskala intended, and succeeded in a generation-time, to operate an important change in mentality. The study and learning of the local language (German, at the beginning) and the ”language of culture” (French) allowed for the breaking of the barriers imposed by the majority population, which the Jews had come to consider necessary. The traditional crafts and clothing were abandoned as well and the promoters of the Haskala (of which Moses Mendelsohn is the best-known) suggested that the productive trades and the crafts of all kinds, particularly agriculture, could be good living sources just as much as trade. Perhaps forcing, a little, the assimilation, they re-evaluated tradition, against the Talmudic teaching, considered obsolete but easy to reform, which they undertook to do.

In parallel with the linguistic assimilation we also witness a reconsideration of Hebrew, an attempt to turn it into a language of science, press and literature. This was not, however, the medieval, or the Mishnaic Hebrew, but the biblical one, seen as a model of purity, whose prestige was acknowledged by the protestant milieus as well. Prayers as well as the Torah were translated into German. The first periodicals in Hebrew (Ha-measef) appeared at about the same time. Repudiated in Western Europe, the ”jargon” – as Yiddish was called – was used by the promoters of the Haskala as a means to spread their ideas in the East, particularly in Russia, Lithuania and Poland. The first primary schools (”Freischule”) where the teaching language was German but which taught Hebrew and the Law besides the general subjects were also established during the same period.

Once they had legally become loyal citizens of Mosaic religion of their respective country, the Jews tried to redefine, with dignity, their identity, preferring to be called Israelites, which reminded of the biblical times’ prestige and removed the pejorative sound of the usual appellatives.

At a time when the non-Jewish society rejected the integration on grounds of economic anti-Semitism, turned into state policy in the name of protectionism, and when the anti-Semitic manifestations reached extreme forms – pogroms – the same principles of the Haskala provided a solution: the Jew could live in dignity and make a living tilling the earth nobody could deny it was his – Palestine, Eretz Israel. This was the answer provided by the Hibat Zion movement, founded in Russia after the Russian-Turkish war, extremely active following the 1881 pogroms and which soon spread in all Eastern Europe. The movement was aimed at establishing rural settlements in Palestine. Its militancy was partly influenced by the socialist ideas of the time.

The second generation of maskilim in Germany was not satisfied with the new statute they had acquired within the German society. The emergence of the modern state brought about the emergence of nationalism. The Jew could now obtain his national identity, by giving up the Galut (exile) – proposed the Hovevei Zion movement. But if a Jew considered that once a citizen with equal rights he was no longer an exiled, then he would have to build up his national identity starting from his historical-cultural identity. And this identity had to be proven with the arguments of science, not of faith. The Haskala had already appealed to the rationalistic approach of the Bible, underlining the ethical and legal character of Talmudic teaching. The pre-requisites for the Science of Judaism – Wissenschaft des Judentums (Hochmat Israel) were thus established. The need for a scientific approach of Judaism in all its aspects: exegesis of the Holy Scriptures, study of history, traditions, popular literature, research and collection of documents, became not only the must of the intellectual elite of Jewish society, but also the natural follow-up of emancipation. Scientific arguments to support this view were sought now, at the beginning of the 19th century, due to the increase of hostile reactions to this emancipation. Student and popular movements, an anti-Semitic literature claiming and even resorting to scientific grounds to prove its theses had to be combated from the same positions. The Science of Judaism was also designed to be a barrier in the way towards assimilation, facilitated by the negation or ignorance of the national identity. It was supposed to model the Jew’s self-awareness, to be an effective mean for national propaganda inside the Jewish community and to successfully plead their case outside it. Wissenschaft des Judentums was meant to help Jewish intelligentsia take over its rightful place, acknowledged and equal in rights, within the European scientific and cultural world.

The founders of the Science of Judaism were the ones to set up the bases of a critical approach of the Bible, the Talmud and the Halachic code – Zunz, considered to be the founder of Wissenschaft des Judentums, Zacharia Fraenkel, Abraham Geiger, known for his role in the crystallization of Reformed Judaism. This was also the moment of birth of Hebrew linguistics (Samuel David Luzatto), historiography (Heinrich Graetz), bibliography (Moritz Steinschneider) and study of the written sources (Solomon Schechter).

The first cultural periodicals disseminating the ideas of the Wissenschaft des Judentums appeared at about the same time: Zeitschrift fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Zunz, 1821), Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift fuer Judische Theologie (Geiger), Monatsschrift fuer die Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums (Z. Fraenkel, 1850). Nevertheless, the main reviews publishing Judaic studies were those related to the Haskala, spread all over Europe, many of them already in Hebrew: Bikurei ha-Itim (Prague), Keren Hemed (Galitia), Zion (Frankfurt), Pirchei Zafon (Vilna), but also in local languages: Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums, Der Orient and Israelitischen Annallen, as well as Revue des Etudes Juives and Jewish Quarterly Review.

One of the main desiderates of the Wissenschaft des Judentums’ founders was to build a Jewish Theological Institution of higher education whose curricula would include specific subjects, approached from the perspective of the Science of Judaism. In 1854 the ”Juedisch- Theologisches Seminar” of Breslau was opened under the management of Zacharia Fraenkel, while Heinrich Graetz would teach history there. During the first 40 years of its existence, over 300 students attended the seminary’s courses, and of the 100 graduates, teachers and rabbis, many consecrated their entire life to the study of Judaism. Soon, theological institutes following the pattern established at Breslau where opened in most large European academic centers: Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Berlin, 1870 - Geiger), Beit HaMidrash Lilmod u-Lelamed (Vienna, 1863), Ecole Rabinique (Paris, 1859), Jews' College (London, 1856), Landesrabbinerschule (Budapest, 1877). Later on such institutes emerged across the ocean as well: the Jewish Theological Seminary (New York) and the Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati).

With well-defined fields and a critical apparatus, with scholar societies, higher education institutes and own papers, The Science of Judaism became in the second half of the 19th century a consecrated academic subject. Moses Gaster was educated in its spirit. His father subscribed to one of the best-known Hebrew weeklies of the Haskala, ”Ha-Maggid” – Luck/Prussia [3] . His private teacher of Hebrew, Mr. Korn, had  also written some articles for ”Ha-Maggid”. The review had a literary supplement, ”Ha-Tzofe Le-ha-Maggid”, opened particularly for contributions in the field of the Science of Judaism.

The years spent by Gaster at Breslau, where, besides the courses of the Theological Seminary, he also attended those of the University, were the true shaping period for the future scholar. The model-school of Wissenschaft des Judentums gave him a new perspective on his cultural and spiritual inheritance, for ”the Seminary had one purpose only: to cultivate the historical values of traditional Judaism…” [4] Some of the most touching pages of Gaster’s ”Memoirs” are dedicated to his history teacher at Breslau, Heinrich Graetz [5] , while other outstanding figures of the Science of Judaism seem to have left no particular impression on him – as is the case of his philosophy teacher, Berthold Freudenthal [6] . His memory of the Seminary’s principal, Zacharia Fraenkel, was linked to his first days at Breslau. It was Fraenkel himself that received Gaster and guided his first steps. Gaster’s appreciation was in direct proportion with Fraenkel’s fame: ”great scholar, Hellenist and Talmudist… he belonged to that category of people to whom Jewry owed a lot” [7] , concluded Gaster in his ”Memoirs”.

Gaster would constantly publish his studies and exegeses of Hebrew folkloric literature and folklore in reviews belonging to the Wisseschaft des Judentums’ circles: Monatsschrift fuer Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums [8] , edited by Z. Fraenkel himself, later taken over by H. Graetz, Revue des Etudes Juives [9] , Jewish Quarterly Review [10] and Hebrew Union College Annual [11] .

It is even more interesting to note that the studies in Judaism published by Gaster in Romanian, which he contributed primarily to the ”Anuarul pentru israeliti" (Annual for the Israelites), edited by his friend Moses Schwartzfeld, were also written in the spirit of the Wissenschaft des Judentums. They stand proof for Gaster’s concern and erudition in many fields, such as the themes circulation in folkloric literature, for which the Talmud provided an unending source – ”Talmudic Stories and Accounts” [12] , ”Lilith and the Three Angels” [13] , ”Talmudic Tales and Stories” [14] , ”1000 year-old Jewish Stories” [15] – Jewish mysticism –”Cabala; Its Origin and Evolution” [16] – and the history of the Jewish people, with a special emphasis on Judaic or Jewifying heresies – ”The Karaites” [17] , ”Sabbateans of Hungary” [18] – but also the history of anti-Semitic persecutions – ”Running against the Talmud” [19] , ”Terrible Acts of the Cossacks under Hmelnitzchi” [20] . Another major concern for Gaster was the history of Hebrew literature – ”A Glance upon Hebrew Literature from its Beginnings until Today” [21] and ”Judeo-Spanish Folkloric Literature” [22] . In fact, the ”Anuarul pentru Israeliti” was actually organized as a tool for Wissenschaft des Judentums propaganda. Besides Gaster’s contributions, the review included many others, such as Elias Schwartzfeld’s articles on the history of Jews in Romania and, later on, Lazar Saineanu’s studies in philology and folklore, to name just two of the best-known authors.

The fact that Gaster continued to publish in the ”Anuar…” even after he had imposed himself as a reputed figure in the British academic community proves that, to him, the main concern of this long cooperation was the educative side of his studies. He admitted, many times, in his ”Memoirs”, that the apathy, lack of organization and ignorance of the Jewish masses in Romania was in fact responsible for the political condition of Romanian Jewry. The change had to come from the inside as much as from the outside, through the construction of a new identity. One could not claim equality unless one felt equal with those whose equality he claimed.

In his comparative folklore studies published in the ”Anuarul pentru Israeliti”, Gaster apparently attempted to prove that it was possible to build a cultural bridge between the Romanian and the Jewish people. It is also true, on the other hand, that he was an adept of the theory of the circulation of themes from popular books to folkloric literature and from the Orient, often represented by the Indic space, to Europe, with ancient and early Medieval Israel as the intermediate link. Nevertheless, studies like ”A Talmudic Story in Romanian Literature” [23] and ”Had-Gadia and the rooster” [24] , designated primarily to the Jewish reader, had, in part, the same evident purpose like the propaganda for learning the local language of the first generation of maskilim, namely to prompt cultural integration through a press which sustained educational change.

It is, of course, possible to interpret Gaster’s passion for the Romanian folkloric literature and popular books, but also for the shaping of the Romanian language with its toponymy and history, in a word, his passion for the Romanian culture, as an application of the Haskala ideals. It is obvious that he sincerely felt he belonged to this culture, to the research of which he dedicated his entire life, as proven by the dozens of studies he published. It is also interesting to note that in his selection of articles and authors – amongst which P. Ispirescu and L. Saineanu were two of the best examples – to be published in the review with which he cooperated and in whose editing he got involved – G. Tocilescu’s ”Revista pentru  Istorie, Arheologie si Filologie” – he actually applied the principles of Wissenschaft des Judentums to Romanian culture. The titles of Gaster’s articles in the first year of the review’s activity speak for themselves: ”Stratification of the Latin element in the Romanian language” [25] , ”New Roman texts of the 17th century” [26] , ”New carols, folk songs and star-songs” [27] .

When speaking about Gaster’s cultural shaping role we must also recall the fact that after becoming Hacham (Chief Rabbi) of the Sephardi community in London he tried to bring the Judith Lady Montefiore College in Ramsgate, whose Rector he was during 1890-1896, to the standards of the Juedisch-Theologische Seminar in Breslau. The failure of this enterprise marked him for many years after his resignation and his decision to withdraw from any public positions within the British Jewish community must be regarded from this perspective too.

But, as mentioned earlier, Gaster never resigned from his other public position – that of a militant for the rights of Jews. His involvement in the fight for emancipation dates back to his years at Breslau and his merits in the birth of the Zionist movement, in the elaboration of the Balfour Declaration, and in the foundation of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are well known. When the Hibat Zion movement for national rebirth was set up in Odessa, in the spirit of the Russian Haskala, Gaster became a member of its Romanian branch. He defined the organization as ”the national movement with political character aimed at obtaining Palestine for the Jews” [28] . As such, Gaster got involved in the organization of the first colonies of the Romanian Jews in Palestine, in a period when ”despite the virulent anti-Semitism… the movement caught on roots… Among the Jews there were soldiers who had fought in the war and felt betrayed by the emancipation promises; they gladly saluted the new trend which… would have given them complete freedom, particularly in the country of their parents” [29] . And thus, ”on the land that I had bought in my capacity as leading member of the small committee” [30] (the ”Central Committee for the facilitation of Jewish emigration”, headquartered in Galati), the Samarin colony was built, which Gaster called ”the true beginning of rebirth” and which would later become, through the generous care of Baron Edmund de Rothschild, the prosperous Zichron Ya’akov of today.

In the light of this optimistic view we can conclude that Moses Gaster’s polyvalent activity is a perfect reflection of the Haskala principles.


English version by Felicia Waldman



Măriuca Stanciu holds a B.A. in English from the University of Bucharest, an M.A. in Library Science from the Postgraduate School of Library Science and Archives of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and she is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculty of Letters of Bucharest University. She is currently Hhead of the Automated Library Services Dept. of the Romanian Academy Library. She is teaching Hebrew Grammar and Jewish Art at the M.A. program in Jewish Studies organized by the Bucharest University.




[1] Moses Gaster, Memorii, corespondenţă, ed. by Victor Eskenasy, Bucharest, Hasefer, 1998.

[2] Idem, p. 156.  

[3] Idem, p. 31, 42.

[4] Idem, p. 165.

[5] Idem, pp. 167-170.

[6] Idem, p. 188.

[7] Idem, pp. 161-166.

[8] Beitraege zur verleichenden Sagen und Maerchenkunde in ”Monatsschrift fuer Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums (M.G.W.J.)”, XXIX, 1880; Ein Targum der Amidah in M.G.W.J., XXXIX, 1894; Das Schiur Komah in M.G.W.J., XXXVIII, 1893; Die Ketubbah der Samaritaner in M.G.W.J., 1910.

[9] La Source de Yalkout II. Yalkout Makhiri in ”Revue des Etudes Juives”, 1892, pp. 44-60.

[10] A New Fragment of Ben Sira in ”Jewish Quarterly Review”, 1900, pp. 688-702.

[11] Eliezer Crescas and His Bet Zebul, the Bible References in Talmud and Midrash in ”Hebrew Union College Annual”, 1929, VI, pp. 277-295.

[12] Anuar pentru Israeliti (A.P.I.), 1879, III, pp. 25-29.

[13] A.P.I., 1881, IV, pp. 73-91.

[14] A.P.I., 1882, IV, pp. 21-29.

[15] A.P.I., 1896, XVIII, pp. 161-177.

[16] A.P.I., 1883, VI, pp. 25-36.

[17] A.P.I., 1884, VII, pp. 1-12.

[18] A.P.I., 1890, XIII, pp. 95-106.

[19] A.P.I., 1895, XVII, pp. 63-75.

[20] A.P.I., 1894, XVI, pp. 2-14.

[21] A.P.I., 1885, VIII, pp. 41-50.

[22] A.P.I., 1892, XV, pp. 97-109.

[23] A.P.I., 1884, VI, pp. 62-66.

[24] A.P.I., 1884, VII, pp. 61-67.

[25] Revista pentru Istorie, Arheologie si Filologie (R.I.A.F.), 1883, I.

[26] R.I.A.F., 1883, I.

[27] R.I.A.F., 1883, I.

[28] Moses Gaster, Memorii, p. 223.

[29] Idem, p. 223.

[30] Idem, p. 224.

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