Religfion: Rabbinic Tradition
and the Response to Modernity
Arguably, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were the most dynamic and rapidly changing years of human history. For Judaism, as for many other religions, the central challenge of these years was secularization—the marginalization of religion in social and individual life. Science and technology posed another significant challenge. On a philosophical level science seemed to enable the understanding of nature without a need for the divine; on a more practical level ever more rapid technological advances led to correspondingly rapid change in patterns of everyday life, creating gaps between religion and social reality.
In the eighteenth century the Jewish communities of Western and Central Europe were the first to face the consequences of modernity's challenge to traditional religion. By the midnineteenth century, however, the Jews of most Muslim lands also were feeling the consequences of developments in Europe. By the eve of World War I modernity was significantly affecting Jews in North Africa and the Middle East in direct proportion to their economic status, their level of education, and their urban location. That is to say, a wealthy Jew who had been educated by the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) and who was living in a newly built quarter of Cairo was quite modernized, whereas modernization had little effect on the life of a lower-class Jew educated in a kuttab (religious school for young children) and living in a Kurdish village. The interwar years saw the extension of modernization to large sectors of the Jewish middle and lower-middle classes. After the midtwentieth century, finding any Jew in these regions whose lifestyle and mind-set remained unaffected by modernity would have been extremely difficult.