Salomon Maimon.

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About this time I became acquainted with a sect of my
nation, called the New Chasidim^ which was then coming
into prominence. Chasidim is the name generally given
by the Hebrews to the pioiis^ that is, to those who dis-
tinguish themselves by exercising the strictest piety.
These were, from time immemorial, men who had freed
themselves from worldly occupations and pleasures, and
devoted their lives to the strictest exercise of the laws of
religion and penance for their sins. As already men-
tioned, they sought to accomplish this object by prayers
and other exercises of devotion, by chastisement of the
body and similar means.

But about this time some among them set themselves
up for founders of a new sect. They maintained that
true piety does not by any means consist in chastisement
of the body, by which the spiritual quiet and cheerfulness,
necessary to the knowledge and love of God, are dis-
turbed. On the contrary, they maintained that man must
satisfy all his bodily wants, and seek to enjoy the plea-
sures of sense, so far as may be necessary for the deve-

, r 2 Solomon Mai?no?i :

lopment of our feelings, inasmuch as God has created all
for his glory. The true service of God, according to
them, consists in exercises of devotion with exertion of
all our powers, and annihilation of self before God ; for
they maintain that man, in accordance with his destina-
tion, can reach the highest perfection only when he re-
gards himself, not as a being that exists and works for
himself, but merely as an organ of the Godhead. Instead
therefore of spending their lives in separation from the
world, in suppression of their natural feelings, and in
deadening their powers, they believed that they acted
much more to the purpose, when they sought to develop
their natural feelings as much as possible, to bring their
powers into exercise, and constantly to widen their sphere
of work.

It must be acknowledged, that both of these opposite
methods have something true for a foundation. Of the
former the foundation is obviously Stoicism, that is, an
endeavour to determine actions by free will in accordance
with a higher principle than passion ; the latter is founded
on the system of perfection. Only both, like everything
else in the world, may be abused, and are abused in
actual life. Those of the first sect drive their penitential
disposition to extravagance; instead of merely regulating
their desires and passions by rules of moderation, they
seek to annihilate them ; and, instead of endeavouring,
like the Stoics, to find the principle of their actions in
pure reason, they seek it rather in religion. This is a

Ati Autobiography. 153

pure source, it is true ; but as these people have false
ideas of religion itself, and their virtue has for its foun-
dation merely the future rewards and punishments of an
arbitrary tyrannical being who governs by mere caprice,
in point of fact their actions flow from an impure source,
namely the principle of interest. Moreover, in their case
this interest rests merely on fancies, so that, in this
respect, they are far below the grossest Epicureans, who
have, it is true, a lo\v, but still a real interest as the end
of their actions. Only then can religion yield a principle
of virtue, when it is itself founded on the idea of virtue.

The adherents of the second sect have indeed more
correct ideas of religion and morals ; but since in this
respect they regulate themselves for the most part in
accordance with obscure feelings, and not in accordance
with distinct knowledge, they likewise necessarily fall
into all sorts of extravagances. Self-annihilation of
necessity cramps their activity, or gives it a false direction.
They have no natural science, no acquaintance with
psychology ; and they are vain enough to consider them-
selves organs of the Godhead, — which of course they are,
to an extent limited by the degree of perfection they
attain. The result is, that on the credit of the Godhead
they perpetrate the greatest excesses ; every extraordinary
suggestion is to thsm a divine inspiration, and every
lively impulse a divine call.

These sects were not in fact different sects of religion;
their difference consisted merely in the mode of their


,-^ SolomoTi Maimon :

religious exercises. But still their animosity went so far,
that they decried each other as heretics, and indulged in
mutual persecution. At first the new sect held the upper
hand, and extended itself nearly over the whole of Poland,
and even beyond. The heads of the sect ordinarily sent
emissaries everywhere, whose duty it was to preach the
new doctrine and procure adherents. Now, the majority
of the Polish Jews consist of scholars, that is, men
devoted to an inactive and contemplative life ; for every
Polish Jew is destined from his birth to be a rabbi, and
only the greatest incapacity can exclude him from the
office. Moreover, this new doctrine was to make the
way to blessedness easier, inasmuch as it declared that
fasts and vigils and the constant study of the Talmud
are not only useless, but even prejudicial to that cheer-
fulness of spirit which is essential to genuine piety. It
was therefore natural that the adherents of the doctrine
spread far and wide in a short time.

Pilgrimages were made to K. M. and other holy places,
where the enlightened superiors of this sect abode. Young
people forsook parents, wives and children, and went in
troops to visit these superiors, and hear from their lips
the new doctrine. The occasion, which led to the rise
of this sect was the following.*

• In our times, when so much is said both /r(? and contra about
secret societies, 1 believe that the history of a particular secret
society, in which I was entangled, though but a short time, should
not be passed over in this sketch of my life.

An Autobiography. 155

I have already remarked that, since the time when the
Jews lost their national position and were dispersed
among other nations where they are more or less
tolerated, they have had no internal form of government
but their religious constitution, by which they are held
together and still form, in spite of their political
dispersion, an organic whole. Their leaders, therefore,
have allowed themselves to be occupied with nothing so
much as with imparting additional strength to this, the
only bond of union by which the Jews still constitute a
nation. But the doctrines of their faith and the laws of
their religion take their origin in the Holy Scriptures,
while these leave much that is indefinite in regard to
their exposition and application to particular cases.
Consequently the aid of tradition is of necessity called
in, and by this means the method of expounding the
Holy Scriptures, as well as the deduction of cases left
undetermined by them, is made to appear as if specified
in determinate laws. This tradition could not of course
be entrusted to the whole nation, but merely to a
particular body — a sort of legislative commission.

By this means, however, the evil was not avoided.
Tradition itself left much that was still indeterminate.
The deduction of particular cases from the general, and
the new laws demanded by the circumstances of different
times, gave occasion for many controversies ; but through
these very controversies and the mode of their settlement,
this body became always more numerous, and its

1^6 Solojnon Mainion :

influence on the nation more powerful. The Jewish
constitution is therefore in its form aristocratic, and is
accordingly exposed to all the abuses of an aristocracy.
The unlearned classes of the people, being burdened
with the care of supporting not only themselves but also
the indispensable learned class, were unable to give their
attention to abuses of the kind. But from time to time
men have arisen out of the legislative body itself, who
have not only denounced its abuses, but have even
called in question its authority.

Of this sort was the founder of the Christian religion,
who at the very outset placed himself in opposition to
the tyranny of this aristocracy, and brought back the
whole ceremonial law to its origin, namely, a pure moral
system, to which the ceremonial law stands related as
means to end. In this way the reformation at least of a
part of the nation was accomplished. Of the same sort
also was the notorious Shabbethai Zebi, who, at the close
of last century* set himself up as Messiah, and was
going to abolish the whole ceremonial law, especially
the rabbinical institutions. A rhoral system founded
upon reason would, owing to the deeply rooted
prejudices of the nation at that time, have been power-
less to work out a wholesome reformation. To their
prejudices and fanaticism therefore it was necessary to

* That is, of course, the 17th century. — Trans.

An Autobiography. 157

oppose prejudices and fanaticism. This was done in
the following way.

A secret society, whose founders belonged to the dis-
affected spirits of the nation, had already taken root in
it for a long time. A certain French rabbi, named Moses
de Leon, is said, according to Rabbi Joseph Cand"a, to
have composed the Zohar, and to have foisted it upon
the nation as an old book having for its author the cele-
brated Talmudist, Rabbi ben Jochai. This book con-
tains, as stated above, an exposition of the Holy Scrip-
tures in accordance with the principles of the Cabbalah ;
or rather, it contains these principles themselves delivered
in the form of an exposition of the Holy Scriptures, and
drawn, as it were, from these. It has, like Janus, a
double face, and admits, therefore, of a double interpre-

The one is that which is given with great diffuseness
in Cabbalistic writings, and has been brought into a sys-
tem. Here is a wide field for the imagination, where it
can revel at will without being in the end better instructed
on the matter than before. Here are delivered, in figu-
rative language, many moral and physical truths, which
lose themselves at last in the labyrinth of the hyperphysi-
cal. This method of treating the Cabbalah is peculiar
to Cabbalistic scholars, and constitutes the lesser mys-
teries of this secret society.

The second method, on the other hand, concerns the
secret political meaning of the Cabbalah, and is known


Solomon Maiinon :

only to the superiors of the secret society. These supe-
riors themselves, as well as their operations, remain ever
unknown; the rest of the society you may become
acquainted with, if you choose. But the latter cannot
betray political secrets which are unknown to themselves,
while the former will not do it, because it is against their
interest. Only the lesser (purely literary) mysteries are
entrusted to the people, and urged upon them as matters
of the highest importance. The greater (political) mys-
teries arc not taught, but, as a matter of course, are
brought into practice.

A certain Cabbalist, Rabbi Joel Baalshem * by name,
became very celebrated at this time on account of some
lucky cures which he effected by means of his medical
acquirements and his conjuring tricks, as he gave out
that all this was done, not by natural means, but solely
by help of the Cahbalah Maasith (the practical Cabbalah),
and the use of sacred names. In this way he played a
very successful game in Poland. He also took care to
have followers in his art. Among his disciples were
some, who took hold of his profession, and made them-
selves a name by successful cures and the detection of
robberies. With their cures the process was quite natu-

* Baalshem is one who occupies himself with the practical Cab-
balah, that is, with the conjuration of spirits and the writing of
amulets, in which the names of God and of many sorts of spirits are

An Autobiography. 159

ral. They employed the common means of medicine,
but after the usual method of the conjurer they sought
to turn the attention of the spectator from these, and
direct it to their Cabbalistic hocus-pocus. The robberies
they either brought about themselves, or they discovered
them by means of their detectives, who were spread all
over the country.

Others of greater genius and a nobler mode of think-
ing, formed far grander plans. They saw that their
private interest, as well as the general interest, could be
best promoted by gaining the people's confidence, and
this they sought to command by enlightenment. Their
plan was therefore moral and political at the same time.*
At first it appeared as if they would merely do away with
the abuses which had crept into the Jewish system of
religion and morals ; but this drew after it of necessity a
complete abrogation of the whole system. The principal
points which they attacked were these : —

I. The abuse of rabbinical learning. Instead of sim-
plifying the laws and rendering them capable of being
known by all, the learning of the rabbis leaves them still
more confused and indefinite. Moreover, being occu-
pied only with the study of the laws, it gives as much

* As I never attained the rank of a superior in this society, the
exposition of their plan cannot be regarded as a fact verified by ex-
perience, but merely as an inference arrived at by reflection. How
far this inference is well founded, can be determined merely by
analogy according to the rules of probability.

,(,o SolofTion Maimon:

attention to those which are no longer of any application,
such as the laws of sacrifice, of purification, etc., as to
those which are still in use. Besides, it is not the study,
but the observance of the laws, that forms the chief con-
cern, since the study of them is not an end in itself, but
merely a means to their observance. And, finally, in the
observance of the laws the rabbis have regard merely to
the external ceremony, not to the moral end.

2. The abuse of piety on the part of the so-called
penitents. These become very zealous, it is true, about
the practice of virtue. Their motive to virtue, however,
is not that knowledge of God and His perfection, which
is based on reason ; it consists rather in false representa-
tions of God and His attributes. They failed therefore
of necessity to find true virtue, and hit upon a spurious
imitation. Instead of aspiring after likeness to God, and
striving to escape from the bondage of sensual passions
into the dominion of a free will that finds its motive in
reason, they sought to annihilate their passions by anni-
hilating their powers of activity, as I have already shown
by some deplorable examples.

On the other hand, those who sought to enlighten the
people required, as an indispensable condition of true
virtue, a cheerful state of mind disposed to every form of
active exertion ; and they not only allowed, but even re-
commended, a moderate enjoyment of all kinds of
pleasure as necessary for the attainment of this cheerful
disposition. Their worship consisted in a voluntary

An Autobiography. i6i

elevation above the body, that is, in an abstraction of
the thoughts from all created things, even from the
individual self, and in union with God. By this means
a kind of self-denial arose among liiem, which led them
to ascribe, not to themselves, but to God alone, all the
actions undertaken in this state. Their worship therefore
consisted in a sort of speculative adoration, for which
they held no special time or formula to be necessary,
but they left each one to determine it according to the
degree of his knowledge. Still they chose for it must
commonly the hours set apart for the public worship of
God. In their public worship they endeavoured mainly
to attain that elevation above the body, which has been
described ; they became so absorbed in the idea of the
divine perfection, that they lost the idea of everything
else, even of their own body, and, as they gave out, the
body became in this state wholly devoid of feeling.

Such abstraction, however, was a very difficult matter ;
and accordingly, whenever they came out of this state by
new suggestions taking possession of their minds, they
laboured, by all sorts of mechanical operations, such as
movements and cries, to bring themselves back into the
state once more, and to keep themselves in it without
interruption during the whole time of their worship. It
was amusing to observe how they often interrupted their
prayers by all sorts of extraordinary tones and comical
gestures, which were meant as threats and reproaches
against their adversary, the Evil Spirit, who tried to dis-

J 62 Solomon Maimon :

lurb their devotion ; and how by this means they wore
themselves out to such an extent, that, on finishing their
prayers, they commonly fell down in complete exhaus-

It is not to be denied that, however sound may be the
basis of such a worship, it is subject to abuse just as
much as the other. The internal activity following upon
cheerfulness of mind, must depend on the degree of
knowledge acquired. Self-annihilation before God is
only then well-founded, when a man's faculty of know-
ledge, owing to the grandeur of its object, is so entirely
occupied with that object, that he exists, as it were, out
of himself, in the object alone. If, on the contrary, the
faculty of knowledge is limited in respect of its object, so
that it is incapable of any steady progress, then the
activity mentioned, by being concentrated on this single
object, is repressed rather than stimulated. Some simple
men of this sect, who sauntered about idly the whole day
with pipe in mouth, when asked, what they were thinking
about all the time, replied, *' We are thinking about
God." This answer would have been satisfactory, if they
had constantly sought, by an adequate knowledge of
nature, to extend their knowledge of the divine perfections.
But this was impossible in their case, as their knowledge
of nature was extremely limited \ and consequently the
condition, in which they concentrated their activity upon
an object which, in respect of their capacity, was unfruit-
ful, became of necessity unnatural. Moreover, their

An Autobiography. 163

actions could be ascribed to God, only when they were
the results of an accurate knowledge of God ; but when
they resulted from a very limited degree of this knowledge,
it was inevitable that all sorts of excesses should be com-
mitted on the credit of God, as unfortunately the issue
has shown.

But the fact, that this sect spread so rapidly, and that
the new doctrine met with so much applause among the
majority of the nation, may be very easily explained.
The natural inclination to idleness and a life of specula-
tion on the part of the majority, who from birth are des-
tined to study, the dryness and unfruitfulness of rabbini-
cal studies, and the great burden of the ceremonial law,
which the new doctrine promised to lighten, finally the
tendency to fanaticism and the love of the marvellous,
which are nourished by this doctrine, — these are suffici-
ent to make this phenomenon intelligible.

At first the rabbis and the pietists opposed the spread
of this sect in the old fashion ; but in spite of this, for
the reasons just mentioned, it maintained the upper
hand. Hostilities were practised on both sides. Each
party sought to gain adherents. A ferment arose in the
nation, and opinions were divided.

I could not form any accurate idea of the new sect,
and did not know what to think of it, till I met with a
young man, who had already been initiated into the
society, and had enjoyed the good fortune of conversing
with its superiors. This man happened to be travelling

,64 Solomon Maimon :

through the place of my abode, and I seized the oppor-
tunity of asking for some information about the internal
constitution of the society, the mode of admission, and
so forth. The stranger was still in the lowest grade of
membership, and consequently knew nothing about the
internal constitution of the society. He was therefore
unable to give me any information on the subject ; but,
as far as the mode of admission w^as concerned, he
assured me that that was the simplest thing in the world.
Any man, who felt a desire of perfection, but did not
know how to satisfy it, or wished to remove the hin-
drances to its satisfaction, had nothing to do but apply
to the superiors of the society, and eo ipso he became a
member. He did not even require, as you must do on
applying to a medical doctor, to say anything to these
superiors about his moral weakness, his previous life, and
matters of that sort, inasmuch as nothing was unknown
to the superiors, they could see into the human heart,
and discern everything that is concealed in its secret
recesses, they could foretell the future, and bring near at
hand things that are remote. Their sermons and moral
teachings were not, as these things commonly are, thought
over and arranged in an orderly manner beforehand.
This method is proper only to the man, who regards
himself as a being existing and working for himself apart
from God. But the superiors of this sect hold that their
teachings are divine and therefore infallible, only when
ihcy are the result of self-annihilation before God, that

An Autobiography. 165

is, when they are suggested to them ex tempore^ by the
exigence of circumstances, without their contributing
anything themselves.

As I was quite captivated by this description I begged
the stranger to communicate to me some of these divine
teachings. He clapped his hand on his brow as if he
were waiting for inspiration from the Holy Ghost, and
turned to me with a solemn mien and his arms half-
bared, which he brought into action somewhat like
Corporal Trim, when he was reading the sermon. Then
he began as follows : —

" 'Sing unto God a new song ; His praise is in the
congregation of saints' (Psalm cxlix., i). Our
superiors explain this verse in the following way. The
attributes of God as the most perfect being must surpass
by far the attributes of every finite being ; and conse-
quently His praise, as the expression of His attributes,
must likewise surpass the praise of any such being. Till
the present time the praise of God consisted in ascribing
to Him supernatural operations, such as the discovery of
what is concealed, the foreseeing of the future, and the
production of effects immediately by His mere will.
Now, however, the saints, that is, the superiors, are able
to perform such supernatural actions themselves.
Accordingly in this respect God has no longer pre-
eminence over them ; and it is therefore necessary to
find some new praise, which is proper to God alone."

Quite charmed with this ingenious method of inter-

, 66 Solovion Mamon :

preting the Holy Scriptures, I begged the stranger for
some more expositions of the same kind. He proceeded
therefore in his inspired manner:—" 'When the minstrel
played, the spirit of God came upon him' (2 Kings iii.
15). This is explained in the following way. As long as
a man is self-active, he is incapable of receiving the in-
fluence of the Holy Ghost \ for this purpose he must
hold himself like an instrument in a purely passive state.
The meaning of the passage is therefore this. When the
minstrel (f.3?en, the servant of God), becomes like his
instrument (fj^.s), then the spirit of God comes upon

"Now," said the stranger again, "hear the interpreta-
tion of a passage from the Mishnah, where it is said,
'The honour of thy neighbour shall be as dear to thee
as thine own.' Our teachers explain this in the following
way. It is certain that no man will find pleasure in doing
honour to himself : this would be altogether ridiculous.
But it would be just^as ridiculous to make too much of
the marks of honour received from another, as these
confer on us no more intrinsic worth than we have al-

• The ingenuity of this interpretation consists in the fact, that in
Hebrew pj may stand for the infinitive oi play, as well as for a
musical instrument, and that the prefix D may be translated either
flj, in the sense of 'luhen, or as, in the sense of like. The superiors
of this sect, who wrenched passages of the Holy Scriptures from their
context, regarding themselves as merely vehicles of their teachings,
selected accordingly that interpretation of this passage, which fitted
best their principle of self-annihilation before God.

An Autobiography. 167

ready. This passage therefore means merely, that the
honour of thy neighbour (the honour which thy neigh-
bour shows to thee) must be of as httle value in thine
eyes, as thine own (the honour which thou showest to

I could not help being astonished at the exquisite re-

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