Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry's Construction of Modern Jewish Thought

By A, Daniel | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry's Construction of Modern Jewish Thought


A, Daniel, Shofar


by David Ruderman. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000. 291 pp. $39.50.

David Ruderman's Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key is, as he states, "the first comprehensive effort to describe the emergence of Anglo-Jewish thought in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries". This seminal work, based upon much original archival research and examination of heretofore unknown or neglected texts, as well as a reformulation of previously isolated articles, maps a terrain barely glimpsed before.

Presenting a complex understanding of Anglophone Jewish intellectual life and religious polemic, it deliberately complements (as it revises) Todd Endelman's The Jews of Georgian England (1979), an equally important book that virtually denies Anglo-Jewish intellectual activity during the period under review. With Endelman, however, Ruderman argues (in a theoretically valuable introduction) for a regional and pluralistic approach to both the Enlightenment and the Jewish Haskalah, one that credits the contributions of Anglo-Jewish thinkers in their own right, rather than subordinating them to Eurocentric (Germanic or Mendelssohnian) perspectives which occlude the distinctive characteristics of English culture. Ruderman keeps the European scene usefully in view, however. While overt differentiations between a Lockean world of (ostensible) religious toleration and European antisemitism are not part of his design, the pressures of Anglo-Christian antisemitism against Anglo-Jewish processes of thought and social interaction with Christian clergy are never far from the surface.

Because Ruderman illustrates the tonal quality as well as the content of Anglo-Jewish engagement with this Gentile world, the reader hears the substrate of rancor beneath supposedly scholarly Anglo-Christian argument (thus, Julius Bate, writing in 1751, against Jewish editorial traditions conceived by "that execrable Rabble called the Rabbins," p. 65). Ruderman's book, illuminating central figures in the Anglo-Jewish community, also helps explain how the Victorian eruption of Anglo-Jewish writing came into being, not ab ovo but from a prior history and the gathering of a critical mass of Anglo-Jewish men and their books -- all writing in defense of Jewry if not Judaism, and against their Anglo-Christian hosts. That much nineteenth-century literature in all forms was generated by women (notably Grace Aguilar and the Moss sisters) -- theological commentary and histories of Anglo-Jewry, as well as poetry and fiction -- is particularly striking when viewed against the intellectual patriarchy Ruderman explores.

The hero of this book is David Levi, Hebraist, translator, polemicist, and much more. Levi was not only Joseph Priestley's antagonist and a man who dared challenge the inconsistencies in Priestley's mix of Christianity and Unitarianism at a time when no other Anglo-Jew dared challenge (what Ruderman does not sufficiently stress) Britain's national identity as defined by its established Anglican Church. He was also the chief adversary of repeated efforts by Benjamin Kennicott, John Hutchinson, and their various followers, to claim "Christian ownership" of the Bible. Following Raphael Baruh's rejoinders to Kennicott in 1775, Levi, like the more radical Abraham ben Naphtali Tang in politics, mocked with satiric boldness the Anglo-Christian disciples of the magisterial Robert Lowth, Bishop of London, for their misunderstandings of both Hebrew and the editorial principles guiding the creators of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. Ruderman's arguments, while sometimes more digressive than those of the exegetes (both Christian and Jewish) to whom he gives voice, make clear the presence of committed Anglo-Jewish writers who created a climate of intellectual exchange in which Anglo-Christian power-plays would not pass unchallenged. While they did not actually constitute a "movement" as in Germany, Ruderman shows that many (whether conservative or radical) were Freemasons, chiefly identified with Jewish lodges (thus connected to each other but having lessened contact with Gentiles). …

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