Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity

By Gershon David Hundert | Go to book overview

Introduction

I write to advocate a revision of the understanding of modernity in Jewish history. Treatments of the modern history of Jews in Europe have tended to minimize or even omit the community in Poland-Lithuania in the eighteenth century because the defining criteria of modernity cannot be found there. Most often, these defining criteria of modernity in Jewish history are understood to be the progressive integration of Jews into society at large and the exchange of particularistic Jewish values, in varying degrees, for a more universal worldview. Whatever the criteria, the largest concentration of Jews in the world is omitted from the discussion. Since historians have always been part of the very process they describe, they tend to seek out the origins of modernity along the same continuum of westernization in which they find themselves, rather than seeking it in the considerably different experience of eastern European Jews. I contend that the criteria for dividing Jewish history into periods should be drawn from the Jewish experience itself—in particular, from the experience of the majority of the Jewish people.

The contention that modern Jewish history should be seen in its own right is not new. Almost seventy years ago, Benzion Dinur (1884–1973), the founder of Zionist historiography, pointed out that historians have most often invoked criteria drawn from outside the realm of Jewish historical action to define the modern period in Jewish history. By action, he meant something akin to what contemporary students of postcolonial history refer to as “agency. ” Dinur rejected both the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) and Emancipation as beginning points of modernity, because neither development reflected “the real historical content” of the

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Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents *
  • Maps xi
  • Tables xiii
  • Preface xv
  • A Note on Place-Names and Transliteration xvii
  • Abbreviations xix
  • Introduction 1
  • Chapter 1 - When is a Minority Not a Minority? 21
  • Chapter 2 - Economic Integration 32
  • Chapter 3 - The Polish Church and Jews, Polish Jews and the Church 57
  • Chapter 4 - The Community 79
  • Chapter 5 - Was There a Communal “crisis” in the Eighteenth Century? 99
  • Chapter 6 - The Popularization of Kabbalah 119
  • Chapter 7 - Mystic Ascetics and Religious Radicals 131
  • Chapter 8 - The Contexts of Hasidism 160
  • Chapter 9 - Hasidism, a New Path 186
  • Chapter 10 - Jews and the Sejm 211
  • Afterword 233
  • Select Bibliography 241
  • Acknowledgments 269
  • Index 271
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