Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Priest, the Woman, and the Jewish Family: Gender and Conversion Fears in 1840s France

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The Priest, the Woman, and the Jewish Family: Gender and Conversion Fears in 1840s France

Article excerpt

In the first HALF of the nineteenth century, a growing number of West and Central European Jews sought to redefine their Judaism in light of bourgeois norms. During this period, European liberals as well as many of their political enemies understood religion as something that both belonged to and helped constitute the private sphere. As various authors have noted, this move also brought about a révaluation of the status of women, who acquired a new role as the pivots of this privatized form of religion. In particular, the substantial literature on Jews in German -speaking lands has explored how this shift altered the life of women within families and in associational life.1 Although women experienced new limitations on their public personas, most recent literature has emphasized how the "feminization of Judaism" gave women greater roles within a Judaism focused on domestic practices and religious feeling.2

Scholars of West and Central European Jewry have often noted that Jews shared many of their expectations about propriety and middle-class domesticity with their Catholic and Protestant neighbors. They have, however, spoken less about a question that has frequently appeared in recent literature on gender and religion in Germany and France more generally: how gendered spaces emerged from particular depictions of domesticity's enemies.3 When nineteenth-century liberals reflected on the value of family life, they frequently contrasted their ideals with visions of improper domesticity - forces that undermined the middle-class family. For liberals throughout nineteenth-century Europe, few groups exemplified this foil and threat like the Catholic clergy.4 Liberals frequently depicted priests as intruders into the household who challenged paternal authority and domestic peace through their privileged access to women.5 In the eyes of anticléricale, Catholic institutions such as confession made priests privy to information that subverted the authority of the pater familia*). For the most part, these debates revolved around the corruption of Christian women and Christian families by Catholic priests, yet they also shaped the way Jews imagined and articulated their expectations and fears concerning female domesticity and religiosity.

This intersection of debates on anticlericalism and Jewish gender expectations comes into focus in French debates of the 1840s. In this period new forms of Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant religiosity emerged across Europe, among them the expanding Jewish reform movement in Germany.6 Jewish lay and rabbinic leaders in France observed these German developments critically and sought to find a less disruptive French path to middle-class religiosity. While much of the debate over the question of reform took place behind closed doors in the statesponsored Jewish consistories, new public discussions also emerged within the pages oí two successful and long-lasting French Jewish periodicals, the Archive*) iâraélitej (est. 1840) and the Univers Uraélite (est. 1844). Among the conflicts that helped Jewish activists articulate their ideas of proper religiosity were the intensive debates between a new generation of French anticléricale and conservative Catholics that arose during this time. In heated polemics dominated by the more radical voices on both sides, liberals and Catholics of various shades attempted to rethink the spiritual glue ol society, always in counterdistinction to the concepts of their opponents.

One of the most widely read publications to emerge from these debates was Jules Michelet 's Du prêtre, de la femme et de la famille published in 1845 (and later republished as Le prêtre, la femme et la fumale).7 The work was written in the midst of intense polemics about the university's control over secondary education, an arrangement that conservative Catholics challenged. In reaction, Michelet and his fellow historian Edgar Ouinet held lectures at the College de France condemning ultramontanism (the Rome-oriented conservative strand of Catholicism) as well as the Jesuits as threats to both the state and the family. …

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