Rites and Passages: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Culture in France, 1650-1860

Rites and Passages: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Culture in France, 1650-1860

Rites and Passages: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Culture in France, 1650-1860

Rites and Passages: The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Culture in France, 1650-1860


In September 1791, two years after the Revolution, French Jews were granted full rights of citizenship. Scholarship has traditionally focused on this turning point of emancipation while often overlooking much of what came before. In Rites and Passages, Jay R. Berkovitz argues that no serious treatment of Jewish emancipation can ignore the cultural history of the Jews during the ancien régime. It was during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that several lasting paradigms emerged within the Jewish community--including the distinction between rural and urban communities, the formation of a strong lay leadership, heightened divisions between popular and elite religion, and the strain between local and regional identities. Each of these developments reflected the growing tension between tradition and modernity before the tumultuous events of the French Revolution.

Rites and Passages emphasizes the resilience of religious tradition during periods of social and political turbulence. Viewing French Jewish history through the lens of ritual, Berkovitz describes the struggles of the French Jewish minority to maintain its cultural distinctiveness while also participating in the larger social and economic matrix. In the ancien régime, ritual systems were a formative element in the traditional worldview and served as a crucial repository of memories and values. After the Revolution, ritual signaled changes in the way Jews related to the state, French society, and French culture. In the cities especially, ritual assumed a performative function that dramatized the epoch-making changes of the day. The terms and concepts of the Jewish religious tradition thus remained central to the discourse of modernization and played a powerful role in helping French Jews interpret the diverse meanings and implications of emancipation.

Introducing new and previously unused primary sources, Rites and Passages offers a fresh perspective on the dynamic relationship between tradition and modernity.


This book delves deeply into the dynamics of Jewish society and culture in an era when, according to most accounts, the most interesting events and developments were taking place outside the Jewish community. Accordingly, the history of European Jewry has focused mainly on the process leading to the attainment of citizenship, on what was expected of Jews in order to gain acceptance in their host countries, on the resistance they frequently encountered, and on the case or difficulty they experienced in their efforts to integrate into the society around them. Selected aspects of this extremely complex social, political, and cultural process have been taken to epitomize the modern Jewish experience in lolo, insofar as they seem to confirm the durability of antisemitism and assimilation or explain the emergence of Jewish nationalism—to mention a few of the most powerful forces affecting Jewish life today. The Jewish fascination with general culture has, likewise, attracted the unending attention and considerable talents of historians, philosophers, and students of literature. Each of the foregoing subjects is as contemporary as it is historical.

Although I do not ignore the importance of representation and symbolic meanings, in the present study I am interested principally in the social significance of culture, that is, how the internal cultural dynamic shapes the social ethos and communal policy. My main interest is the inner life of the Jews and the manifold ways they have struggled to make sense of their unique historical predicament. These concerns fall under the general rubric of “cultural history,” an enterprise aiming to clarify the history of meaning and feelings. It seeks to explain how generations have labored to reconcile the heritage of the past with the unprecedented demands of the present and future. In each of these respects, Jewish history exemplifies cultural patterns characteristic of humanity at large; indeed, no less than others, the Jews have wrestled with la condition humaine. At the same time, it is abundantly clear that the Jews’ historical experiences over the course of centuries, and the weight of the social and religious teachings of Judaism, have thoroughly informed their perceptions of the world around them and have influenced virtually all of the choices they make as individuals. Historically and in the present day, to be Jewish has meant, inexorably, to live in tension between the universal and the peculiarly “Jewish” aspects of their identity.

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