The Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775-1787

The Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775-1787

The Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775-1787

The Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775-1787


Throughout the eighteenth century, an ever-sharper distinction emerged between Jews of the old order and those who were self-consciously of a new world. As aspirations for liberation clashed with adherence to tradition, as national, ethnic, cultural, and other alternatives emerged and a long, circuitous search for identity began, it was no longer evident that the definition of Jewishness would be based on the beliefs and practices surrounding the study of the Torah.

In The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe Shmuel Feiner reconstructs this evolution by listening to the voices of those who participated in the process and by deciphering its cultural codes and meanings. On the one hand, a great majority of observant Jews still accepted the authority of the Talmud and the leadership of the rabbis; on the other, there was a gradually more conspicuous minority of "Epicureans" and "freethinkers." As the ground shifted, each individual was marked according to his or her place on the path between faith and heresy, between devoutness and permissiveness or indifference.

Building on his award-winning Jewish Enlightenment, Feiner unfolds the story of critics of religion, mostly Ashkenazic Jews, who did not take active part in the secular intellectual revival known as the Haskalah. In open or concealed rebellion, Feiner's subjects lived primarily in the cities of western and central Europe--Altona-Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Breslau, and Prague. They participated as "fashionable" Jews adopting the habits and clothing of the surrounding Gentile society. Several also adopted the deist worldview of Enlightenment Europe, rejecting faith in revelation, the authority of Scripture, and the obligation to observe the commandments.

Peering into the synagogue, observing individuals in the coffeehouse or strolling the boulevards, and peeking into the bedroom, Feiner recovers forgotten critics of religion from both the margins and the center of Jewish discourse. His is a pioneering work on the origins of one of the most significant transformations of modern Jewish history.


The drafting and ratification of the Federal Constitution function as the founding myth of the American nation. Contemporaries called the Constitution a “miracle”: only God’s influence could explain the resolution of bitter conflicts of interest and ideology at the Philadelphia Convention. Subsequent generations have relied less on God and more on the godlike founding fathers to explain the convention’s success. The myth survives. Its continuing power is apparent in the exaggerated attention historians pay to the character, ideals, and interests of the founding fathers.

Charles Beard’s iconoclastic Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913) sought to show that the Constitution was “essentially an economic document” designed to promote the interests of a small class of security holders. Still, given the divergent interests of most Americans, the founders’ achievement was at least astonishing, if not miraculous. This same sense of wonder at the constitutionalists’ success, whether for better or worse, informs much of the historical literature on the Constitution. Beard’s followers and critics have revised or overturned his conclusions, but they have continued to subject the protagonists in the constitutional drama—drafters, ratifiers, and voters—to the same scrutiny. These investigations are supposed to explain the alignments for and against the Constitution. To a surprising extent, however, they simply provide occasions for praise or blame: Antifederalists, for instance, were (or were not) de-

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