Essay: Enlightened Jews When One Thinks

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Enlightened Jews

When one thinks about the influences that have affected modern Jewry, the most obvious ones are Zionism and the Old Testament and other liturgical texts. But, as if often the case, what is most obvious is not only simply part of the story, it is also misleading. Jews have certainly been influenced by Zionism -- and this is true regardless of their own views on the subject because Zionism remains in many ways the loudest voice in the debate over the meaning of Jewish identity. But Jews at least as much as any other religious group (and arguably more) have also been influenced by the larger intellectual movements of their times. Even as the lives of Jews have often been circumscribed by the laws and customs of the nations in which they lived -- where they were often confined to ghettos and denied access to education and entry into most professions -- they have been influenced by important shifts in the zeitgeist.

This has been especially true when those intellectual movements parallel or reinforce basic tenets of Judaism as was the case with many of the core ideas of the Enlightenment, especially as these ideas were expressed through the French Revolution and the writers and political leaders associated with it. This embracing of Enlightenment values was encapsulated in the idea of Haskalah, a movement within Judaism that embraced the fundamentally humanistic beliefs of the post-Renaissance world. In this paper I will examine the influence of Enlightenment values on Judaism both in the eighteenth century as the Enlightenment swept across Europe and in the centuries since then.

Centuries in the Making

It is important to note that the influence of Enlightenment ideas on Jewish thought and identity was not coincidental. The Enlightenment itself, while arguably the most important event (although "event" does not quite capture a movement that was both diffuse and intellectual) of the eighteenth century, the architects of the Enlightenment were not working in isolation from either the past or from other events during this century. It is always difficult to know where -- or rather when -- to begin the description of an historical event, because there is always something that comes before whatever one begins as the starting point. I shall resist this temptation when writing about the Enlightenment, but it is important to place it generally within the precursors of Modernism in Europe.

The fifteenth century's opening of the New World to Europe and the beginning of the Renaissance must be taken into account when focusing on the Enlightenment, because everything from the astrolabe to Neoclassicism began to expand the world of Europeans. Jews were sheltered -- or exiled -- from much of the early developments of modernistic thought because of the rampant discrimination they faced across Europe (there is something supremely ironic in the fact that the same year that Columbus touched the soil of the New World, Ferdinand and Isabel expelled the Jews from Spain). But even as Jews remained threatened by a range of official and popular forces in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth (and into the eighteenth) centuries, changes were occurring in Europe that -- while not directly relating to Jewry -- would have significant effects on European Jews.

Since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the first decades of the sixteenth century, the hold of the Catholic Church over Europe was weakening. While the Middle Ages brought about an essentially one-to-one relationship between the Church and the State, the Reformation began to peel the two apart from each other. While a number of early Protestants entertained the idea of different forms of theocracy and few -- if any -- entertained the idea of a world in which Jews (or Muslims or agnostics) had equal status with Christians, the fact that the Reformation problematized the relationship between religious and temporal power had the effect of increasing the power of secular society in general. Even for Catholics, the partial disenfranchisement of the Church made it increasingly clear that there were different ways of organizing society. Different ways of organizing a life.

It would take generations for European societies as a whole to create any significant amount of space to be established in a consistent and widespread way between religious and secular life. But by the eighteenth century such a division would be widely felt. Indeed, arguably the modern world is marked by this distinction between religious and secular aspects of life more than by any other single demarcation. Jews would be released from what must have at times been a suffocating intellectual world in which the only access to information beyond daily activities was the rabbi. Changes in French law that were in many ways the culmination of centuries of religious reform and the increasing strength of the state allowed Jewish children to attend public schools. This fact -- both the "small" fact of public school attendance and the "large" fact of the divorce in the modern world of religion from state authority created an entirely new sense of Jewish identity.

(A caveat. There remains a strain of Christianity in many modern nation-states, including in Britain and -- in a very different way -- the United States. But the relationship between Christianity and state power is fundamentally different in the modern world than it was in the Middle Ages -- or than it is now in fundamentalist Muslim states.)

To understand the appeal of the Enlightenment as it manifested itself in France and in the French Revolution it is important to have a sense of what life was like for Jews in the decades (and even centuries) before the revolution. The position of Jews in France was no worse than in other parts of Europe (and was probably better than in some parts of Eastern Europe) but it was still stark and often terrible. In France before the revolution Christian kings had absolute power -- a power that came from their hereditary position as secular rulers as well as from the authority given to them by the Pope. The Catholic Church gave Christian kings a validity that they would not otherwise have had.

As a result of the close relationship between the Catholic Church and the temporal rulers of countries such as France, kings used their power backed by the weight of the church to institute laws and customs that punished Jews on a number of levels -- laws and customs that reflected the anti-Semitism of the church. Papal dictates forbid Jews to live outside of their ghettos, to work in certain professions, to own land, to mingle freely with Christians. Such dictates ensured that Jews lived in a constant state of repression, intimidation, poverty, and fear.

This was the condition in which Jews were living in the eighteenth century in France and the rest of Europe. And it must have seemed to many of them at least that this was simply the permanent state of Jewry: The way that it had always been, the way that it would always be. Life would be an unending series of terrible challenges and injustices, and if Jews ever got a little bit ahead, got some measure of financial security or partial cultural acceptance, they would become subject to exorbitant taxes or the victims of deadly pograms or of raids -- often by church officials and monastics -- to seize the property of Jews. But with the dawning of the Enlightenment came the possibility for change. Initially this idea was probably enough in and of itself: Simply the idea of change. Not necessarily change in a particular direction -- although the desire for this would quickly follow. But simply the idea of change itself. The possibility that the world in which Jews lived could be different from the world of their forebears. And then came the idea that it could in fact be better.

A Larger Piece of the World

The French Revolution brought about a number of changes in the lives of Jews, but most important (and this was true across Europe as the effects of the revolution and in general of Enlightenment values spread across Europe) was the way in which changes in French society, culture, and polity allowed for a greater integration of Jews into the larger society. In the segregated society that existed in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Jews had little contact with the gentile world. In this essentially closed community, Jews tended to interact only with each other and looked to the rabbi of their community for guidance in nearly all issues. Not only did rabbis serve as religious leaders, they also served as a role model for the scholarly ideal of the community. Rabbis often had civil duties and powers as well, for example, serving as judges when all the parties involved were Jewish.

In this system, the rabbi was the only conduit to a larger world. That larger world was defined by the Talmudic scholarship that boys pursued in the hope that they would… [END OF PREVIEW]

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