The Jewish Enlightenment

The Jewish Enlightenment

The Jewish Enlightenment

The Jewish Enlightenment


At the beginning of the eighteenth century most European Jews lived in restricted settlements and urban ghettos, isolated from the surrounding dominant Christian cultures not only by law but also by language, custom, and dress. By the end of the century urban, upwardly mobile Jews had shaved their beards and abandoned Yiddish in favor of the languages of the countries in which they lived. They began to participate in secular culture and they embraced rationalism and non-Jewish education as supplements to traditional Talmudic studies. The full participation of Jews in modern Europe and America would be unthinkable without the intellectual and social revolution that was the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment.

Unparalleled in scale and comprehensiveness, The Jewish Enlightenment reconstructs the intellectual and social revolution of the Haskalah as it gradually gathered momentum throughout the eighteenth century. Relying on a huge range of previously unexplored sources, Shmuel Feiner fully views the Haskalah as the Jewish version of the European Enlightenment and, as such, a movement that cannot be isolated from broader eighteenth-century European traditions. Critically, he views the Haskalah as a truly European phenomenon and not one simply centered in Germany. He also shows how the republic of letters in European Jewry provided an avenue of secularization for Jewish society and culture, sowing the seeds of Jewish liberalism and modern ideology and sparking the Orthodox counterreaction that culminated in a clash of cultures within the Jewish community. The Haskalah's confrontations with its opponents within Jewry constitute one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of the dramatic and traumatic encounter between the Jews and modernity.

The Haskalah is one of the central topics in modern Jewish historiography. With its scope, erudition, and new analysis, The Jewish Enlightenment now provides the most comprehensive treatment of this major cultural movement.


The historian of Jewish modernization is faced with the formidable challenge of recreating in all its vitality the dramatic and convoluted historical development that gave birth to the contemporary Jewish world. One of the most fascinating and telling areas to explore regarding the aspirations of the Jews to drastically alter their values, modes of thought, and collective future is that of the elite of maskilim (enlightened Jews). This book is devoted to the history of the eighteenth-century Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement, weaving it into the broad and prolonged story of the changes that affected the Jewish people in the modern era. It provides a wide-scope reconstruction of the historical development and its ideas, and describes the public storms and the initial shocks that attended modernization.

The book opens in the early eighteenth century, with the story of several young men in European Ashkenazi society, who embarked on a conscious, deliberate course to change their cultural environment. They were motivated by a sense of intellectual inferiority, as well as by the strong desire to partake of the domains of knowledge of a cultural renaissance—the redemption of science and philosophy—the entrance to which had been denied them by those holding the keys to the traditional library. In relation to the state of knowledge and those who monopolized it, this was a subversive trend that began to break new ground for an alternative route. In the last quarter of the century, over a period of twenty years (1778–1797), this cultural trend crystallized into the Haskalah movement. With the intensification of the maskilim’s revolutionary demands for an autonomous status and the right to speak out on current issues and to shape culture, the critical and modernist character of the Haskalah became clear. As soon as it did, the guardians of the existing order sounded an alarm, and an inevitable struggle ensued between the two competing elites—the rabbinical-traditional elite and the innovative maskilic elite with its liberal worldview. The front lines of the Jewish culture war, then, were already drawn. The unity of the pre-modern Jewish society, at least in the minds of its members, was shattered once and for all. In the history of Jewish culture, the modern era opened, marked by controversies, conflicts and schisms.

When I entered the field of historical research, I was intrigued by the subject of the Haskalah movement. I realized that by attempting to fully under-

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