• entry
    1
  • comments
    6
  • views
    409

Haskalah and Enlightenment

Hello, and welcome to my blog! I’m Trutharchivist, your rambler for today. And I want to talk about a specific point in the history of Judaism: the Age of Enlightenment onward, to this very day.

I include about two or three centuries in the last period in the history of Judaism, because I think that some topics which rose at this era are still points of argument to this very day. At first, I thought to write on it all in one essay; then I realized that it’s going to be too much to talk about, so I decided to divide it to multiple essays, about Enlightenment, Haskalah and Reform, about the more inner religious world - Chassidus, Musar and Yeshivos, and about Zionism, Anti-Zionism and Secularity. This is the one about the direct effects of the Enlightenment on Judaism, starting from the Haskalah, with the next one probably being on how it led to Reform Judaism and different reactions to it.

I can probably assume you all know what the Age of Enlightenment was about; but for my own sake, and for the sake of those who don’t know, I’ll try to explain. 

It was an era, around the 17th-18th century, It was for a couple of centuries that modern printing existed and knowledge was relatively cheaper, free for everyone. This allowed more people to learn, and as something of a side effect, it caused equal rights to be given to many minorities, including Jews. 

The thing is, up until then the Jews were generally secluded. They lived in neighborhoods of their own - ghettos, if you will; this is merely the Italian term for it, the negative associations came relatively late. They mostly spoke their own language - Yiddish or Hebrew - and worked in semi-autonomous communities, though they did have some contacts with the general population. The Enlightenment, and the Emancipation that came with it, changed that. Or, well, the possibility of emancipation. We’ll get to that. Anyway, some Jews, probably those with contacts in the government or the general non-Jewish population, joined the flow of knowledge and learned general science and philosophy. In time, those Jews became the Haskalah Movement - a movement bent on causing Jews to learn more about things outside the Torah. One such person, a prominent member of the Haskalah movement, was Moses Mandelssohn.

Madelssohn was a German Jew, and a great philosopher at his time; he conversed with many gentile philosophers, won awards - surpassing Immanuel Kant for a prize, one time. He got special permission from the king to live in Berlin - and yes, most Jews didn't have this right this easily, sadly. He was also a G-d fearing Jew, well appreciated by at least some of the rabbis of his era.

The thing is, though, in all that fame and renown and contacts with gentile philosophers... Well, he was somewhere in between, sometimes a complete outsider to the people he discussed with; a great example for this is the Lavater incident.

Johann Kaspar Lavater was a Swiss Christian theologian who met Mandelssohn and discussed with him about his opinion on Jesus. Then, one day, he sent him a book of evidence on the truth of Christianity and asked him to either disprove the claims of the book or to convert to Christianity. Mandelssohn found himself trapped; if he'd prove Christianity wrong, it wouldn't do well with the people surrounding him, who were mostly Christians; if he'd refuse to dispute the book's claims, it will seem like Judaism has no answer; in short, Lavater has pushed him to the corner. His reply to that was a public letter, in which he says (among other things) that he thinks that one can appreciate the wisdom of another without trying to convert him. But a point has been made: it is hard for a Jew to both stay true to his religion and converse with Christian scholars.

One more point I'd like to make, in relation to Mandelssohn, is what in the end became his legacy: a translation of the Torah (the Pentateuch) to the German language. He started on this project for various reasons: one, that Christian translations were bound to be Christian in nature, and unfitting for Jews as a result; two, that most Jews at the time studied a Yiddish translation of the Torah, which he saw as an unfitting language for its complexity; and three, to help Jews get closer to the general German culture by helping them learn German.

Moses Mandelssohn was a great Jewish scholar and philosopher; he had a few things to say both about the Jewish Halacha and about philosophy, but he's remembered the most due to his translation. Remembered - and sometimes despised for it. You see, it worked; it did get Jews to learn German and be better integrated to the general culture. But it also had a negative impact on the religion. More on that later.

The Haskalah movement, because of the aforementioned gap between Judaism and general society, adopted the motto "be a Jew at your home, and a person outside". All that was bound to cause a problem.

Most of what I wrote so far is about Germany. This is because it was a huge center of enlightenment. Similar things happened in France, and to a lesser extent in easter Europe, in countries like Poland, Ukraine and Russia; in the Muslim countries - like North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and Yemen - the effects were less immediate, due to the Enlightenment being a European movement. It reached them via colonialism and education centres funded by European Jews, instead, and that actually made the Jews the enlightened people of this area, thus avoiding the gap the European Maskilim fell into. The Yemen Jews who accepted the Haskalah ideas mostly just estranged themselves from Jewish mysticism; the Jewish community in Babbel - Iraq of today - first accepted a school funded by French Jews, only to find out about the negative impact it had religiously and stop sending their children there. The North African Jews received French citizenship far easier than the Muslims around them, and many of them went to live at France at some point, though I don't know how they reacted to the ideas of the Haskalah.

That will be it for today, I'm afraid. I planned on talking about much more, but I delayed quite a lot in delivering in my promise. So this is the first chapter in the series, I don't know how many more I will post.


1


6 Comments


It's also interesting that part of the promise of emancipation was the quick tearing down of the walls both physical and metaphorical. The tradition was at stake during this period not because of enlightened ideas per se but more because of the extremes that some wished to go to in order to spread these ideas.

1

Share this comment


Link to comment

That's the thing: the issue was not that the ideas of enlightenment contradicted Judaism, it was that in order to access those ideas you had to jump over a cultural gap. Emancipation, in and of itself, doesn't have to damage religion... But when religion is what sets you apart from your neighbor, it's going to. Then there were well-intentioned extremists, though the well intentioned part depends on your point of view.

1

Share this comment


Link to comment

In some ways that is the saddest part. Their crusade sought something that could be argued to be noble. However, they would destroy the identity of their people to force them to accept these noble ideals. 

1

Share this comment


Link to comment

Very interesting and very cool article, and highlighting a sad element of history that many outside the Jewish community likely don't know about. I'll be interested to read more on this as you post them :)

In the words of Senator Palpatine, "We will watch your career with great interest."

... wait, maybe I shouldn't have quoted the bad guy ...

0

Share this comment


Link to comment

Hey, upvoting blog entries is possible! I did not notice that.

Also, I would like to not be turned into a Sith lord in the near future, thank you. Though Brandon apparently thinks they're moral, upright and good (that's a name of an Intentionally Blank episode).

Hopefully going to dive into Reform, Conservative and Ultra Orthodox Judaism soon.

1

Share this comment


Link to comment

Providing new information is one of the many services we provide ;):P

Huh ... I probably should watch some of those videos at some point then. Though if you're interested in an ... interesting play of some Sith Lords (well, they become Sith Lords ...) check out SFDebris's videos:

 

Looking forwards to the future posts!

0

Share this comment


Link to comment