Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Enlightenment/Haskalah: What's in a Name? Recent Work on Judaism and the Enlightenment

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Enlightenment/Haskalah: What's in a Name? Recent Work on Judaism and the Enlightenment

Article excerpt

LAUREN B. STRAUSS AND MICHAEL BRENNER, EDS. Mediating Modernity: Challenged and Trends in the Jewish Encounter with the Modern World - Essays in Honor of Michael A. Meyer. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. Pp. xi + 380.

DAVID SORKIN. The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews and Catholics from London to Vienna. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008. Pp. xv + 339.

RESIANNE FONTAINE, ANDREA SCHATZ, AND IRENE ZWIEP, EDS. Sepharad in Ashkenaz: Medieval Knowledge and Eighteenth-Century Enlightened Jewish Discourse. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007. Pp. xvii + 334.

ABRAHAM P. SOCHER. The Radical Enlightenment of Solomon Maimón: Judaism, Heresy and Philosophy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii + 248.

HARVEY MTTCHELL. Voltaire 's Jews and Modern Jewish Identity: Rethinking the Enlightenment. London and New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. xxxiv + 257.

ANDREA SCHATZ. Sprache in der Zerstreuung: Die Säkularisierung des Hebräischen un 18. Jahrhundert. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009. Pp. 304.

THE HASKALAH, as we all know and teach, was the "Jewish Enlightenment." But what exactly does this formulation mean? At first sight this question might seem redundant, even obtuse. The Enlightenment, once conceived as a unified enterprise firmly headquartered in Paris, has in the historiography of the past couple of decades been thoroughly variegated, enabling the notion of a Jewish Enlightenment to sit very comfortably alongside many other Enlightenments of varying flavors.1 However, as is so often the case, the Jewish example is here awkwardly anomalous. The Haskalah could be described equally loosely as a national, denominational, or an ideological Enlightenment, but it does not entirely fit any of these categories. Moreover, Jewish participation in the Enlightenment is not the same thing as "Jewish Enlightenment." Eighteenth-century Sephardic intellectuals such as the Anglo-Jewish naturalist Emmanuel Méndez da Costa (1717-91) or the Dutch economist Isaac da Pinto (1717-87) are examples of Jews active within the Enlightenment but with no connections to the Haskalah. Moses Mendelssohn himself is part of the German Enlightenment as much as of the Jewish Enlightenment, while Solomon Maimon's writings defy easy categorization, and indeed, as Abraham Socher shows in his excellent book here under review, their fascination is in no small measure precisely because of this. The very word "Haskalah," meanwhile, bears a distinctiveness that is lost in translation. This term, as Andrea Schatz points out in her equally excellent monograph also reviewed here, does not signal light or explanation as in "Enlightenment," "Lumières," or "Aufklärung" but is derived from the verb k-hcwkil that was already in use in the Middle Ages to refer to the acquisition of knowledge and appears in the Bible (Gn 3.6) in connection with Eve's eating of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. The ambiguities of the relationship between "Jewish" and "general" history are, then, thrust to the fore by this basic question of terminology.

According to Shmuel Feiner the Haskalah was an epochal movement: nothing less than the equivalent in Jewish history of the French Revolution.2 Feiner acknowledges the limited reach and, in its own terms, limited success of the Haskalah movement. He nonetheless ascribes to a small band of maskilim key transformational agency, albeit very gradually and to a large extent indirectly, in shepherding much of European Jewry into the modern era. This interpretation stands in a tradition of Jewish historiography that favors internalist over externalist explanations, and which clearly defines the Haskalah as the Jewish variant of Enlightenment, and in particular of German Aufklärung.3 For historians of European Jewry focused elsewhere than on the axis from Germany eastward, this perspective has often appeared problematic. Lois Dubin, for example, in her influential study of the Jews of Trieste, has emphasized the extent to which Italian Jewry, particularly in the intensely mercantile port environment of a city such as Trieste, had its own distinctive "path to modernity" and adopted maskilic ideology selectively rather than slavishly. …

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