The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe

The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe

The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe

The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe


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.


One major difference between the new world, which emerged in Europe as a reality and an image at the dawn of the modern era, and the preceding age is the dramatic change in the role of religion in human life. the philosopher Charles Taylor recently claimed that the secular age was created in the course of a change that “takes us from a society in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God, to one in which faith, even for the staunchest believer, is one human possibility among others.” the modern age was marked by the growing tension between the traditional religious structure of the society and culture with the dominant, all-embracing presence of religion, in both private life and the public sphere, and the erosion of this structure by processes of secularization. As it unfolds, the historical story tells of a complex relationship between secular thought and behavior and fundamentalist religious reaction. This is one key narrative of the modernization in general and of Jewish modernization in particular.

Secularization has been one of the most significant historical processes in Jewish history from the eighteenth century until the present day. the rebellion against the religious norms and discipline demanded by the rabbinical elite, along with the skepticism and religious permissiveness of individuals and groups, may have been openly declared or kept private. in either case, it radically changed Jewish society and culture. Aspirations for liberation clashed with the anxiety of those who were faithful to tradition. It was no longer selfevident that Jewish self-definition would be based on the beliefs and practices of “Torah and commandments.” National, ethnic, cultural, and other alternatives emerged. From this moment in history, a long, circuitous course of “secular” or “religious” searches for identity began, which took on various forms and were attended by severe cultural struggles.

Throughout the eighteenth century, the distinction grew sharper between Jews of the “old world” and Jews of the “new world”. On the one hand, there was the great majority of observant Jews, elites of talmudic scholars and those who accepted the authority of the rabbinical leadership; on the other, the gradually more conspicuous minority of “freethinking” Jews. At this early stage, the boundaries of the internal split were already drawn and gave the members of the two camps a new identity. This identity marked each individual, labeled . . .

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