(First of Two Parts)
While there is of course more than one way to look at the last two centuries of Jewish life on the planet, one instructive way to summarize them might be as a two-hundred year search for an alternative to traditional Orthodoxy.
Beginning with the Haskala (Enlightenment) movement and the partial, or in some places total, emancipation of Jews from the constrictions of the ghetto, Jews faced the dilemma of how to deal with modernity and “rationality,” particularly in such matters as technology, science, and higher education. The dilemma of how to adapt Judaism to the modern era and how to merge it with modernity was particularly sharp in Western Europe and North America, but played a role elsewhere as well.
The attempts to resolve the dilemma took five principal forms:
* Quasi-assimilation in the form of radical reformation of Judaism
* Diminution of Judaism while conscripting Jews for Non-Jewish political movements
* Secular Zionism
* Modern Orthodoxy.
Before taking them on one by one, let us note that not all Jews felt the need to attempt to resolve the conflict between Orthodoxy and modernity. Large numbers of those popularly referred to as ultra-Orthodox (or haredim) resolved the dilemma by defying modernity altogether or seeking to minimize its presence in their lives. Their attitude might best have been summed up by Rabbi Moses Sofer of Pressburg: “All that is new is prohibited by the Torah.”
Their resolution of the dilemma took the form of refusal to adopt modern dress, lifestyle, and often even language. Yiddish-speaking haredim are still to be found everywhere from Brooklyn to Meah Shearim, often living in homes where there is no television, no radio, no Internet connection; where no form of higher education or training besides yeshiva study is pursued, where Darwin and astronomy do not exist; in short, where an embargo on modernity in most of its forms takes place.
The pole diametrically opposite to the rejection of modernity by haredim is the secularist extremism of modern Jewish assimilationists. These resolve the dilemma by rejecting all forms of Jewish tradition and embracing modernity and “progress,” not to mention consumerism, as its replacement.
Between the two extremes are those who have searched and attempted to develop and proffer various forms of blending of Jewish tradition with modernity. And all of these forms have failed in one way or another.
Trying To Blend
Perhaps the most commonplace form of “blending” in the Diaspora is the adaptation of Jewish tradition to modernity through religious reform. This has taken many forms. In its earliest manifestations in Europe and especially Germany, this took the form of adopting outer symbols and signs of modernity while maintaining a total commitment to Rabbinic, i.e., halachic, Judaism.
In the vision of Moses Mendelsohn and others, Jews would maintain their traditions while dressing in modern fashion, speaking German or whatever was the language of their surroundings, learning modern trades and professions, making synagogues less “backward” looking, making Jewish prayer less boisterous and disorderly and “offensive” to gentile
However, such modest tampering gave way within a generation to “reforms” so radical that the European reformers themselves often were indiscernible from the full assimilationists. Jews would move their Sabbath to Sunday, would refrain from circumcision, would abandon all observance of kosher eating laws, would pray in the language of whichever country in which they happened to live, would cease to attend separate Jewish schools, and so on. Some of the more radical reformers eventually converted to Christianity.
The radical reformers of tradition also were commonly involved in another effort to merge Jewish tradition in some form with modernity — namely, conscripting Jews into non-Jewish patriotic or political movements of one sort or another. Those who did so sought to gain acceptance for Jews through their being seen as integral parts of the progressive, liberal (occasionally conservative) and patriotic organizations and parties in their countries of residence.
Advocates of this solution to the modernity dilemma argued that such mobilization for “good causes” should be the primary expression of Jewish modernism. The specific causes selected varied from country to country. In Hungary it was Magyar patriotism. In Russia it was socialism and communism. In parts of Europe it was and is support for social democrats. In the United States it was and is political liberalism.
While there are many interesting case studies of the attempts to resolve the dilemma of modernity, I personally find that of Hungary to one of the most instructive. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Hungarian Jews essentially embraced all of the above methods to resolve the dilemma except secular Zionism, which came along two generations later.
Most Hungarian Jews embraced radical Magyar nationalism. Indeed, they participated in the Hungarian nationalist movement and in the army that attempted to fight a war of independence against Austria in numbers far exceeding their proportion of the population. They made enormous efforts to “Magyarize” themselves, and abandoned Yiddish and German for Hungarian. They even resented the immigration of non-Magyar Jews into Hungary and sometimes lobbied to prevent their admission.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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