The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Rabbi Israel Salanter and Cholera: Anatomy of a Legend

The presentation deals with legends about Rabbi Israel Salanter’s activities during the cholera epidemic of 1848. Commonly, these legends are considering as historical evidences about one episode in the life of the great rabbi and the Mussar movement founded by him. Obviously, the validity of these stories recorded 50+ years after the events they narrate about is highly questionable. I examine these legends in the context of documents related to the "medical police" of the Russian Empire in order to find some reliable motives (not subjects) in them.

In the 19th century, epidemics were a crystallization center of new concepts and management technologies, that M. Foucault termed "biopower". The Enlightenment’s resentment to the imagination was transforming into the idea of "moral contagion" as one of the main causes for the spread of disease. At the same time, the Reason, designed to protect people from the imagination excesses, turned into a belief in the healing power of self-discipline and strict adherence to the Government instructions. In 1848 this belief reached its apotheosis in Russia. I will argue, basing on legends examination, that Salanter shared this belief in the discipline as the best cure for cholera.

This finding raises the question about an impact of the cholera epidemic experience on Rabbi Israel Salanter’s thinking and the Mussar movement emergence. I will try to find out this impact in some Salanter`s texts. I will also consider archival documents which show that in the Salanter’ yeshiva in Vilno Mussar has not been studied yet.

The central legend of the Salanter cycle (about the Yom Kippur fast interruption) reveals a typological similarity with the legends about Napoleon visiting the plague victims in Jaffa and about the cholera riot suppression by Nicholas I. I assume that this subject, firstly recorded the David Frishman’s story “Shlosha she-akhlu”, has the literary origin.