The Jewish Enlightenment: A Brief Overview
there was a jewish enlightenment?
I would like to hear more about the Jewish Enlightenment
Oh yes there was, and I am beyond willing to do a deep dive!
It’s fairly long complex process, so I’ll give you a general rundown, and then after reading it, you (or any interested party) can tell me what aspects you’d like to hear more about (if any) and I can write more specific posts for you.
So, after the general European Enlightenment, rulers of various German polities were like “Hey, now that we’re Enlightened, maybe we should stop treating the Jews like crap?” and then others were like “Yeah and once they see how great it is to be part of German society they’ll convert to Christianity and this be officially part of The State(tm)! What a great plan!” So over the course of the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries, you see the rulers of various German polities emancipating their Jews.
Some Jews were not interested in becoming part of German society, but others, like Moses Mendelssohn, embraced the opportunity, perceiving acculturation as a path out of oppression. Mendelssohn was one of the, if not the, founding thinkers of the Jewish Enlightenment, and his writings and the intellectual circles he founded influenced most post-Emancipation German Jewish thought and behavior in bourgeois circles. The Hebrew term for the Jewish Enlightenment is Haskalah.
While it did result in conversions to Christianity—especially amongst Jewish women—it also led to the German Jewish Reform Movement, created unique patterns of assimilation, and significantly altered Jewish conceptions of gender. German Jewish Enlightenment thinking and action is part of the reason why the actions of the Nazi Party took the Jews so by surprise in the 1930s, and is part of the reason why the German Jews had so much trouble taking Hitler seriously, at least in the early years.
The Haskalah reached Eastern European Jewry in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century—a fictionalization of this process may be seen in Fiddler on the Roof; the daughter who sings “Far From the Home I Love” marries a maskil, or a secular scholar of the haskalah. In Eastern Europe, the haskalah intersected with the embrace of revolutionary and socialist ideals.
As German and Eastern European Jewry immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1920, their encounters with the haskalah in Europe affected the processes of assimilation they underwent in America.