Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Recap: With various forces at work, the traditional, stalwart Jewish community of the Middle Ages, who resisted tremendous pressures, anti-Semitism and oppression, faces a new challenge in the 18th century: Toleration. The gentile perception that the Jew might deserve toleration but not genuine acceptance into high society provokes modernizing Jewry. The seductive idea presented by Moses Mendelssohn, of a Jew who has breached the tightly-guarded entrance of European academia and culture, further goads them.

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When we think of Haskalah, perhaps we conjure up images of the fictional character Perchik, husband of Huddle in Fiddler on the Roof who is a secularist and a committed revolutionary. Or perhaps we conjure up images of Germany’s Reform rabbis in their pulpits or maskilim intellectuals at meeting centers in Odessa.

But in its infantile stages, Haskalah was nothing so radical. It was composed mostly of religious thinkers and activists, mostly in the mold of Moses Mendelssohn, who were advocating for modest to moderate reforms in education.

Furthermore, early maskilic thinkers affirmed their commitment to doing this within the framework of religion and Torah.

The nuances are best characterized by Naftali Hertz Wessely. A student of the famed Reb Yonasan Eibishutz and a religious Jew, he later became associated with Mendelssohn and his social circle, and quickly adopted the philosophy that it was necessary to provide secular education to the Jewish community.

He describes two types of knowledge: human, and Torah. The first includes etiquette, academics, language, proper behavior and education. The second, of course, he acknowledges as being central to Jewish life, but for Wessely, the dearth of human knowledge is a stain on the Jew. He writes:

“There is one people in the world alone who are not sufficiently concerned with human knowledge and who have neglected the public instruction of their youth in the laws of etiquette, the sciences and the arts. We, the children of Israel, who are dispersed through all of Europe and who live in most of its states, have turned our back on these studies… Many among [Yisroel] are men of intelligence and great understanding, and many are also men of faith and piety, but from childhood their exclusive preoccupation has been G-d’s laws and teachings. They have not heard or studied human knowledge… Many of them do not even know how to read or write the native language [of their country].”

Wessely continues by saying a Jew cannot please G-d if he is not well-versed and knowledgeable.

Thus the shiny new object of this era was education, an attractive accessory, and not necessarily in conflict with Jewish identity, therefore making it all the more difficult to tease apart the errors in reasoning, the misguided mission, and the dangerous path this presented.

(A future installment will focus on the religious response to Wessely’s objective and particularly the Hirschian approach to secular education and its place in a Jew’s life.)

Ultimately, Wessely was a mostly inconsequential character, of whom Rav Avigdor Miller says little, other than to call him a “naïve and poetic man who dwelt in the clouds of emotion, incapable of seeing reality,” however, each figure who contributed to the movement helped to move the line of acceptability, to secularize and dismantle the long-held standards of the community.

David Friedlander, a student of Mendelssohn, characterizes this trend. Advocating a “pure Judaism” which would eliminate the halachic and customary practices upholding the Torah – the trimming of ritual, custom and d’rabannan – his ambitions were to bring Judaism back to its original roots and norms. He writes:

“Three thousand years after the granting of the Torah, these rabbis are still busy pondering the question whether on consumption of less than a morsel, one must recite the grace after meals or not… in short, we do not know anymore what religion is, and what is virtue…The natural consequence of all this must be – my hairs bristle at the thought of it! – that our sons will first abandon Judaism and then convert to Christianity… I have found only one possible solution: to throw off the heavy yoke… of our own rabbis and communal leaders. Only if we are free, neither afraid of the ruling party nor intimidated by the threat of excommunication and the refusal of burial rites, will it be possible to raise Israel’s prestige, our Torah and the teachings of Moses from the dust.”

Ironically, after such “impassioned” words and a goal of protecting Judaism from decay, Friedlander petitioned the Protestant Church to allow him a “dry baptism” only seven years later. (This form of conversion would allow him to become Christian without accepting the divinity of Jesus). His request was denied, although that’s hardly relevant.

What is relevant is how quickly the evolution occurred. It was only a matter of a decade or two before the Mendelssohnian perception of Judaism had morphed into a creature of no resemblance.

The rejection of Jewish custom, followed by the rejection of the oral and rabbinic law, and soon after, the rejection of the written law, completely did away with traditional Judaism, forcing Enlightenment thinkers to reconceptualize what it means to be a Jew.

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Thus there emerged a series of Haskalah communities, societies and philosophies, ranging from Hebraists, whose goal was the revival of the Jewish tongue in place of Yiddish, to Bible critics, whose work centered on studying the Torah as an ancient artifact via archeology and anthropology, (which one religious opponent mocked by saying, ‘we (the religious) are much more interested in what Rashi said than where he lived and what color his robes were’), to “Tanach-ites,” whose emphasis on Tanach was in direct opposition to the Talmud.

Undergirding it all was a belief that modernization, acculturation and education were of paramount importance, that a Jew could relegate his Jewishness to the confines of his home, or radically adapt his Jewishness so that it mimicked Christianity to the point of making it no longer a distinct religion.

One of the shocking elements of this period is the masterful use of Torah to justify Haskalah ambitions. Many of the maskilim were well-read and highly learned, manipulating and citing a vast array of Jewish sources to justify a decidedly un-Jewish agenda. Even the name of the movement – Haskalah – was handpicked from a pasuk in Daniel: “and the intelligent [hamaskilim] shall shine as the brightness of the firmament” (12:3) (This employment of Torah sources for haskalah will be discussed in a later segment.)

The vehicles of Haskalah were of course broadly-read publications like Hameasef, which was initially put together by Mendelssohn’s followers, and which purported to be a periodical devoted to illuminating Torah teachings. With this innocuous mission-statement, it quickly became the vanguard in smearing religious leaders, mocking traditional Judaism and deconstructing religious life.

Shulamith, another publication, claimed a similar program. Assuring its readership that its intentions were pure, the editor, Joseph Wolf, printed the following introduction:

“Religion is the essential intellectual and moral need of a cultured man. It is the purpose of Shulamith to expose this religion to the highest light… It wants to revitalize the urgent need for religious sentiment and concepts… Further it desires to bring the Jewish nation back to its native level of education. It will demonstrate thereby that this education is entirely pure… in no way do we desire, by vain artifices to graft foreign fruit upon this tree which could not grow by itself.”

And of course, despite the reassurance, it quickly devolved into virulent attacks on the traditional community, becoming a megaphone for anti-religious expression.

Aside for the philosophical assault, secularizing Jewry launched a practical assault on Jewish communities as well. Weaponizing government against ideological opponents, maskilim succeeded in using politicians to achieve their ends. Herz Homberg, a student of Mendelssohn, assumed the position of advisor on all things Jewish to the Austrian emperor. In a letter to the emperor he writes:

“The Jews are conceited ad nauseam, in proclaiming themselves the chosen people… their rabbis cannot change and are therefore hopeless and should be dismissed…their yeshivas must be closed down, and the Hebrew studies discontinued.”

For his efforts, the government awarded him the “great gold medal.”

One example of many.

Some maskilim petitioned the government to draft the Jews into the army, others acted as constant informers on Jewish behavior – business activities, minor misbehaviors, lack of patriotism and the like, all in an effort to use force where intellectual debate had failed.

In a period of such devastating advancement, such paradoxical growth and decay, one can only guess at the turmoil wrought upon Jewry’s youth, as it was presented with sundry opportunities, social acceptance, academic prospects and a rapidly transforming religious landscape.

One can only imagine, how agonizingly difficult it was, to be young and impressionable in 19th century Germany.


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