Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland: A History of Conflict

By Feiner, Shmuel | Shofar, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland: A History of Conflict


Feiner, Shmuel, Shofar


Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland: A History of Conflict, by Marcin Wodzinski, translated by Sarah Cozens and Agnieszka Mirowska. Oxford & Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2005. 335 pp. $59.50.

This book by Marcin Wodzinski, Director of the Center for the Culture and Languages of the Jews in the University of Wroclaw, Poland, is unquestionably one of the most important, original contributions to an understanding of the various competing trends in the culture of Polish Jewry from the end of the eighteenth century until the early twentieth century, and is of particularly great value to the new research of the Haskalah.

In the last generation, Haskalah research has undergone a sweeping, significant revision that has thoroughly altered the insights of the traditional research. This revision was extensively influenced by an innovative view of the European Enlightenment: the differentiation of the Enlightenments, the dismantling of what was perceived as a uniform movement, sometimes even as a subversive party within the ancien regime, into a large number of phenomena, persons, streams, and trends. The new research shows to what extent this was a varied historical phenomenon given expression in numerous areas and painted in diverse local, national, and personal colors. Today it is more correct to speak about the Enlightenments in the plural and to seek a common denominator less in any ideology, meta-narrative, or uniform agenda, and more in the mode of socialization (the creation of the "public sphere" and the republic of writers), the discourse, rhetoric and overall trends-criticism, on the one hand, and programs for reforming the society, state, economy and culture, on the other. The new directions in research on the European Enlightenment are extremely important to the study of the Haskalah because they enable us to understand this movement in both its aspects: in the European context in which it was created and developed, and within the Jewish culture from which it emerged and that it wanted to change. It was an integral part of the modern world of values of contemporary Europe, but it was also painted in the colors of Jewish tradition: revolutionary from the standpoint of its subversive aims and its call for integration but also advocating the preservation of Jewish identity and rejecting assimilation.

Haskalah research in the last generation has been taking several major directions: the expansion of the scope of the research through a relatively large number of articles, books, and conferences; the formation of an international community of scholars, in particular historians and students of literature and thought in Israel, the United States, and Germany, and recently, as Wodzinski's book impressively shows, in Poland as well; the shift in emphasis from the texts, from the products of the Haskalah, to the maskilim themselves and their activity in the varied historical contexts of their time; the differentiation of the maskilic phenomenon and the drawing of fine distinctions in the various shades and the changing ideological and local colors so that today it may be more correct to speak of Haskalahs in the plural and not of one Haskalah as a uniform phenomenon; the breaking down of the familiar Germanocentric narrative in favor of expanding the boundaries of the Haskalah, and reducing the historical role filled by the Haskalah in the processes of the modernization of the Jews.

This book fits all of these trends and hence merits special attention as a milestone in Haskalah research. It was published in Polish in 2003 and now is available to the reader in English translation, in an expanded revised edition, enabling many to gain a close acquaintance with one of the prominent achievements of the new research in present-day Poland in Jewish studies in general and on the Haskalah in particular. …

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