Jews and Judaism
JEWS AND JUDAISM. The term early modern applies differently to Jewish than to general European history. Jews experienced no Reformation or Counter-Reformation of their own, nor for that matter were all Jews geographically "European" (between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries approximately 30 to 40 percent lived outside of Europe proper). Perhaps for these reasons, nineteenth-century Jewish historians tended to view the modern era of Jewish history as proceeding immediately from a long Middle Ages (akin to the period Marxists traditionally ascribed to European "feudalism," roughly from the Christianization of the Roman Empire until the French Revolution). Modernity thus marked a sharp and sudden break with the past, a Reformation, Renaissance, and Revolution rolled into one. Meanwhile, the period between the expulsion of Jews from Spain and the era of the Enlightenment was cast in dark hues, a nadir in both mundane and spiritual terms, marked by intensive persecution and religious stagnation.
This depiction changed in the mid-twentieth century with a growing scholarly interest in the history of Jewish mystical and messianic movements, spurred by the writings of Gershom Scholem (1897–1982). Yet while Scholem's focus on the mystical cabala (kabbalah) and the great messianic pretender Shabbetai Tzevi (also Sabbatai Sevi) (1626–1676) gave the Jewish early modern period a distinctive cast, it also reinforced the earlier emphasis on external persecution and internal crisis. Indeed, in this new rendering, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 came to be seen as the root cause of virtually all changes in Jewish life in subsequent centuries.
In the last several decades—building on the earlier research of figures like Salo W. Baron, H. H. Ben-Sasson, Cecil Roth, Jacob Katz, and Selma Stern—Jewish historians have complicated this picture considerably. Among other things, they have offered a multifarious portrait of Jewish culture in early modern Italy and a more coherent picture of the key role played by mercantilist policies in shaping Jewish demography, economic activities, and political fortunes. The spiritual plight, economic importance, and cultural contribution of Iberian conversos (forced converts to Christianity in the period 1391 to 1497, many of whom secretly practiced Judaism) have also received renewed scholarly attention. These advances have tended to underscore the utility of the designation "early modern," albeit only when appropriately adjusted to fit the Jews' distinctive geographic and cultural-religious experiences.
DEMOGRAPHY AND GEOGRAPHY
The Jewish early modern period is marked by dramatic demographic shifts. The Iberian expulsions of the late fifteenth century left only small pockets of Sephardic Jews within Christendom and spurred new Jewish settlement in North Africa, Greece, Turkey, and Palestine. The Ashkenazic Jews of Germany likewise declined through expulsions and migrations between the late fourteenth and mid-sixteenth centuries, a factor that contributed to the explosive expansion of Polish Jewry from the mid-sixteenth century on. Moreover, from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, small numbers of Jews were readmitted to France, Holland, Germany, and England. Part of this latter process involved a segment of the Portuguese converso, or "New Christian," population, a number of whom had retained familial and commercial ties with the expelled Jews. Some of these—the so-called Marranos, who continued secretly to practice Judaism in Iberia—migrated to Spanish or Portuguese colonies in the New World, or fled to towns along the European Atlantic seaboard, where they were often eventually able to revert openly to Judaism. The consequence of these population movements, as historian Jonathan Israel has remarked, was to ensure the distribution of Jews and New Christians to many of the key nodes of Western trade (Iberia, Italy, the Balkans, Poland, central Europe, the Atlantic seaboard, and the New World). This, in turn, made it possible for Jews to become a leading commercial force from the middle of the sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century.
Expulsions and migrations. Expulsions from Spain (Castile and Aragon in 1492) and neighboring regions (Navarre in 1498, Provence in 1500, Sicily in 1492, and the Kingdom of Naples in 1541), as well as the forced conversion of the entire Jewish population of Portugal (including tens of thousands of Spanish refugees) in 1497, shifted the Jewish center of gravity, demographically and culturally, into the eastern zones of both the Mediterranean (North Africa, Palestine, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece) and Europe (Poland). The Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, Bulgaria, and large portions of Hungary complemented this eastward (or southeasterly) movement by opening avenues of migration into the Turkish hinterlands (and, to a lesser extent, facilitating the movement of Sephardic Jews to Buda and other Ottoman-controlled Hungarian locales). At the same time, due to the lack of state centralization, Jewish expulsions in sixteenth-century Germany and Italy resulted in a significant degree of "internal migration." In the German and central European case, this meant dispersion into the countryside and villages; in the Italian, it entailed an increased concentration within the provinces of Mantua and Tuscany, in Ferrara, and in the cities of Venice and Livorno, in many cases within walled ghettos.
It is important to keep in mind that not all Jewish population movements resulted from expulsions. Voluntary migration had accounted for the Jews' original presence in many parts of Europe and recurred throughout the Middle Ages. The most notable case during the sixteenth century was Poland. With the 1569 Union of Lublin formally uniting Poland and Lithuania (confirming a dynastic union of 1386), the nobility dangled extensive privileges to lure Jews to the frontier regions of the east. Large numbers of Jews shifted from more urbanized western and central Poland to the regions of Lithuania, Little Russia, and western Ukraine ("borderlands"). It is estimated that between 1568 and 1648 the Jewish population of eastern Poland increased twelvefold. Moreover, beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century, a reverse trend of sorts came into effect, with Polish Jews trickling back to the West, a phenomenon that increased with the exponential growth of the eastern European Jewish population, and that reached its climax in the late nineteenth century.
It should also be noted that an account of Jewish expulsions, migrations, and resettlements does not readily fit into a single schematic sequence. Although the most sustained wave of expulsions extended from 1470 to 1570, local ones persisted through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including the notorious cases of Vienna (1670) and Prague (1745). Even the period's general eastward trend was counteracted by a tendency, already apparent by the middle of the sixteenth century, to draw so-called "Levantine" Jewish merchants back from Turkey and the Balkans into Italy and to lure Iberian "New Christians" into southwestern France (Bordeaux and Bayonne), an increasingly attractive prospect with the intensification of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1579. A year later, Portugal's union with Spain intensified the exodus of Jews from Iberia to Livorno, Venice, Brazil, and Antwerp. A community of converso Jews had remained in Antwerp throughout the first half of the century, growing steadily in numbers and prosperity until the mid-1580s, while after the 1595 Dutch blockade against Spanish shipping, conversos sought refuge elsewhere, establishing new trading centers in Amsterdam, Rouen, and (though as yet only as New Christians) in London. Even the Hanseatic port city of Hamburg, long prohibited to Jews, permitted a converso settlement at this time. The Hamburg city council insisted upon the conversos' commercial value despite a public clamor to expel them for crypto-Judaizing activities. At the same time, the new Sephardic presence encouraged Ashkenazic Jews to trickle into the Netherlands, as well as Altona and eventually Hamburg itself.
International trade. As a consequence of these population shifts, Jews became positioned as key players in the burgeoning international trade of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Commerce linked the far-flung Jewish diaspora from the Jewish communities in the Ottoman lands and Poland in the East to the New Christian merchants in Iberia and South America and their Jewish Marrano cousins in southwest France, Amsterdam, and Hamburg. (Sincere "New Christians" often continued to do business with crypto-Judaizers or returned Jews, even when bitterly at odds religiously.) Between 1550 and 1630 Jews dominated the important overland commerce through the Balkans and played an important role in the Vistula lumber, grain, and fur trade. They likewise had a hand in overseas commodity trades, including tobacco, sugar, Brazil wood, alcohol, and slaves, as well as brokerage and the refinement of imported raw materials, such as diamond cutting and tobacco processing in Amsterdam and coral polishing in Livorno. By the seventeenth century the mere appearance of Jewish commercial prominence in so wide a range of locales often functioned to persuade rulers to open their territories to Jews, who operated not just as merchants but also increasingly as lenders and financial agents to crowns.
Court Jews. These developments helped make possible the rise of the court Jews (Hofjuden) in western and central Europe, a phenomenon that reached its acme in the period 1650–1750. The political aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), with its fractured sovereignties and attendant proliferation of state bureaucracies and armies, created a crushing need for cash on the part of states both large and small. Jewish financiers not only paid troops but also mastered the art of supplying armies in the field. The Hanover court factor, Leffmann Behrens, for instance, started as a financial intermediary between Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715) and his ally Duke John Frederick (1625–1679), then served as a military supplier and financier to John's brother Ernest Augustus (1629–1698) (along the way helping him raise the colossal funding needed to purchase a position as the ninth elector of the imperial college), and then, in a final incarnation, became an unofficial finance minister for George Louis (1660–1727), later George I of Great Britain (ruled 1714–1727).
Jews like Behrens formed the top echelon of an elaborate network of money, credit, and supplies, linked by religion, skills, and marriage. Yet the court Jews' demise was often as remarkable as their rise. Samuel Oppenheimer (1630–1703) brilliantly served Emperor Leopold I (ruled 1658–1705) as banker and military supplier through the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–1697) before his master (never an admirer of the Jews) abandoned him to the angry Viennese mobs. A similar fate befell the still more flamboyant and reviled Joseph Süss ("Jew Süss") Oppenheimer (1698–1738) who, much to the chagrin of his Protestant subjects, became the virtual viceroy to the Catholic Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg. With the duke's death, Jew Süss was summarily tried and executed, his remains left on public display in an iron cage. In earning extensive privileges for themselves by strengthening royal centralization against the jealous local estates (quasi-feudal corporate groups), the court Jews rendered their own circumstances intensely vulnerable. Still, no matter how precarious their individual fortunes, the entitlement to settle their Jewish entourages usually endured, such settlements becoming beachheads for many a fledgling Jewish community in the seventeenth century, scattered through Germany, Austria, Holland, Denmark, and Hungary.
Eastern Europe. In Poland, where by the 1600s a majority of European Jews lived, the court Jew phenomenon found its counterpart in the institution of the arendator, a lessee of economic privileges on noble estates in Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine. The opening up of latifundia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—making possible a Baltic grain trade whose vast expansion facilitated the enserfment of the Ukrainian peasantry—drew Jews into the towns and villages of Lithuania and western Ukraine to assist the nobility's economic exploitation of the eastern territories. In return for their services to the magnates, Jews won increasing religious, residential, and occupational freedoms, including protections against collective punishments and ritual murder accusations, limited rights to own real estate, and freedom to engage in a widening array of professions. With an expanding population, the Jewish economy became increasingly complex, diversifying well beyond the Jews' traditional banking and tax farming activities into crafts, transport, and estate administration. The price for all this, however (in addition to mounting taxes), was the Jews' insinuation into the dangerous and oppressive arenda regime.
The 1648 peasant backlash against the exploitative system, aggravated by religious tensions among Greek Orthodox, Catholics, and Jews, and inflamed by Ukrainian Cossacks' resentment against their misuse by the Polish crown, led to a ferocious rebellion under the generalship of Ukrainian hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595–1657). The Cossack phase of the conflict lasted until 1655 and exacted a devastating toll on Jewish population centers throughout Podolia, Volhynia, southwestern Lithuania, and even part of Galicia and central Poland. While contemporary chronicles exaggerated the extent of the loss, as many as 40,000 people—a quarter of Polish Jewry—may have perished. The Khmelnytsky uprising became the largest Jewish massacre before the twentieth century. But while the devastation created a drastic refugee crisis (the Cossack rebellion was followed by invasions from Sweden and Muscovy lasting through 1667) and accelerated Jewish migration to the West, it did not stem the tide of overall Jewish economic and demographic expansion in eastern Europe. On the contrary, within a century of the uprising the Jewish population reached one half million, with Jews becoming a key commercial force in an eighteenth-century Poland beset by economic woes.
Economic decline. In contrast to the early sixteenth century, Jews in the eighteenth century found themselves residing throughout the Continent, though in small numbers in western Europe. Yet now the mechanisms that had allowed for their restoration and distribution—the overland Balkan trade; Dutch overseas commerce with the New World, North Africa, and India; war and state building in the petty sovereignties of central Europe—had diminished in importance or were no longer operative. Jews were ill placed to take advantage of the new commercial centers and dynamic forces fueling a changing European economy, such as British colonial trade, early industrialization, and regional, intrastate as opposed to trans-European or intercontinental trade. Even the growing importance of Jews in Poland seemed to go hand in hand with that land's political and economic decline, or so many anti-Semites believed. Polish Jewry's demographic growth fed emigration and itinerancy, thus aggravating the existing poverty of sister communities in central and western Europe. By the end of the early modern period a widespread perception emerged in the European press of an internal Jewish social crisis, leading to demands for Jewish political and occupational reform at the dawn of the modern age.
The autonomous community. In the wake of the Khmelnytsky massacres, Rabbi Nathan Hanover (d. 1693), himself a Polish refugee living in Livorno, concluded his chronicle of the devastation with an extensive elegy for the golden era of Polish Jewry, which he believed had now come to an end. In this idealized portrait, Hanover praised the features of Polish Jewry that made it so exemplary: its devotion to religious learning and scholarship, its highly developed and meritocratic system of religious education, its generous charitable institutions, and, finally, its extensive network of religious and civil courts and local, regional, and national administration. According to Hanover's depiction, Jews lived in a self-enclosed world, sealed off from all corrupting non-Jewish influences. "Never was a dispute among Jews brought before a Gentile judge or before a nobleman, or before the King . . . and if a Jew took his case before a Gentile court he was punished and chastised severely."
Despite Hanover's exaggerated claims (in seventeenth-century Poland, powerful Jewish interests—merchants, tax farmers, arendators —rarely hesitated to enlist non-Jewish authorities on their own behalf), Polish Jewry did enjoy a degree of autonomy almost unprecedented in the history of the diaspora, with self-governing institutions that extended from the municipal to the federal level. In earlier centuries the Polish crown had appointed chief rabbis for the entire Jewish community; such efforts died out by the middle of the sixteenth century when Jews won the right to administrative autonomy, even at the "national" level. Indeed, the crown benefited fiscally and the Jews administratively from the establishment of the Council of the Four Lands (first documented in 1581) and the Council of the Land of Lithuania (1623). Both were annual or biannual synods composed of delegates from regional Jewish councils who were entrusted with formulating general policies and recommendations for the Jewish population as a whole. Indeed, these councils exerted an influence well beyond their own lands, intervening on occasion in the internal disputes of other Ashkenazic communities (for example, Frankfurt, 1615–1628, and Amsterdam, 1660–1673), a development that underscored Polish Jewry's newfound preeminence in the early modern period numerically, institutionally, and intellectually.
The autonomous Jewish community had derived its historic legitimacy from two sources: the consensus of its constituent members, made sacred through oaths and rights of excommunication (herem) and the independent, quasi-corporate standing conferred upon it in governmental charters, such as that granted by Casimir the Great in 1364 and renewed periodically by his successors. Membership rights in the community (kehillah) were the prerogative of the Jewish municipal government (kahal ), rooted in local custom and conditioned by changing economic circumstances. Such membership, though normally heritable, did not automatically transfer to a new spouse; on the contrary, despite the premium placed on marriage in Judaism, communities exercised strict control over marriage and settlement. The medieval formula, according to which one acquired town citizenship by residence for "a year and a day," did not apply to the Jewish community of this period, which imposed waiting periods of between six and twenty-five years on prospective members, again depending on economic circumstances. On the other hand, visitors remaining for longer than several weeks were subject to special taxes—the city of Kassel, for example, required outsiders lingering more than a month to pay all of the taxes normally imposed on residents, in addition to the tolls to which travelers and merchants were otherwise subject. Itinerants might receive initial assistance with food and shelter, but they would be sent packing after a few days. Especially in northern and eastern Europe, by the second half of the seventeenth century, when population growth, war, and increased regional economic integration vastly multiplied the number of Jewish beggars, communities felt forced to impose strict rules against sheltering wanderers. In 1623 the Council of the Land of Lithuania insisted that "no beggar whatsoever shall be given anything except transportation to send him away; neither shall he be kept in one's house for more than twenty-four hours." The Jewish community was responsible for its own poor (if no kin were able) and could not support outsiders too, a factor that further aggravated the problems of homelessness and mendicancy.
Oligarchy. As social divisions widened, particularly in the larger communities, a trend toward oligarchic rule emerged. In theory, ultimate authority resided in the consensus or majority rule of the entire community, meaning, essentially, all married male taxpayers. Yet by the sixteenth century, Jewish communities throughout Europe entrusted the election of municipal officers to "the majority of wealth." Indirect election became the rule, with taxpayers of sufficient property choosing an initial assembly that in turn elected—depending on the community's size—two or three tiers of officers (in Poland: tovim, 'good men'; zekenim, 'elders'; and parnasim, 'pillars') for an annual term. The position of community executive was usually rotated on a monthly basis. Stiff regulations against reappointment and nepotism were enacted, though increasingly observed in the breach. Indeed, private money was an essential ingredient of community government. At times offices might be directly purchased—though this abuse was vigorously condemned in community record books (pinkasim) and rabbinic preachments. But even short of such extreme cases, serving as an officer was a privilege of wealth, indeed, one that might carry numerous costs. The privilege of self-government came at a price, since every appointment of new officers had to be ratified by the ruler or his agent, entailing the payment of a sizable fee on each occasion. Rulers generally made officers personally responsible for unpaid community debts and taxes, imprisoning them to extort the fine if necessary. For this reason, communities felt justified in imposing penalties on wealthy individuals who declined to serve.
Institutions. The religious prerequisites for the existence of a Jewish community were a prayer quorum (minyan) of ten adult males, a cemetery, a kosher slaughterer (shochet), and a ritual bath (mikvah). If a community's small size made any of these prohibitive, it would seek to affiliate with its nearest neighbor. A rabbi was not strictly necessary so long as a lay member possessed a respectable mastery of Jewish law. If no man was able, knowledgeable women would also sometimes serve as unofficial guides to the law and (in early modern Italy, at least) ritual slaughterers. The rabbinate became professionalized throughout Europe in the late Middle Ages, but financial arrangements for hiring rabbis differed according to region; in Poland, for instance, the rabbi received a salary as well as specified tax exemptions and monopoly rights; in Italy, on the other hand, he earned merely a nominal fee, which he had to supplement through teaching, preaching, writing, or business. Still, any community that could afford to have a rabbi did so, for he epitomized its highest values and embodied its authority. He was both teacher and judge—even if in reality his personal power was often subordinate to that of the lay communal leadership.
Once the framework of local government was in place, its chief functions were to collect taxes (for its own administration and on behalf of the government); to maintain good relations with the authorities (often entailing a special functionary, the shtadlan, as "lobbyist," and always requiring the allocation in the budget of special funds for "gifts"); to ensure internal order and observance of the law (civil and religious); to appoint clerical officials (a rabbi and religious teachers) and lay judges to oversee local courts; to provide essential services, such as health facilities and teachers for the children of the poor; to appoint and supervise special officers, such as those responsible for tax assessment or truancy enforcement; and to oversee committees (hevrahs) engaged in specific activities (both ritual and civic), such as the burial society (hevrah kadisha) or artisan fraternities, as well as those engaged in poor relief and other charitable pursuits (for example, providing dowries to enable poor girls to marry). With the expansion of the size and complexity of Jewish communities and the intrusion of class polarities, such hevrahs proliferated. They allowed for participation by the middling ranks in community bodies otherwise inaccessible to them. In fact, though most hevrahs were restricted to males, a minority also offered a rare channel for women to participate in self-governing organizations. Hevrahs were mutual aid societies in life and death, providing charitable funds to help the family of a deceased member, as well as intercessory prayers on behalf of their souls. They were vehicles for the expression of new forms of spiritual creativity, even quasi-autonomous loci for an emergent Jewish civic society. But whatever their specific functions, it is important to keep in mind that such hevrahs were viewed as religious institutions and not political ones.
Education. Public education at the elementary level, to the extent that it existed, was for the children of the poor alone. Poor but promising scholars were objects of private charity; it was considered a great religious virtue (mitzvah) to feed and house a penurious Talmudist. While valued as an end in its own right, scholarship also provided an avenue of social mobility and could secure a marriage into a wealthy family. Such meritocratic virtues served to elevate scholars and denigrate the illiterate. Promising children were urged to advance through the curriculum as rapidly as possible. Pedagogical theory held that the earlier something was learned, the longer it would be retained, and for this reason, ambitious parents sought to teach their sons to read Hebrew from as early as the age of two. As a proud father recorded in sixteenth-century Italy, at three his son began his religious studies, at four he chanted from Scripture, at five he learned to write, at eight he studied the legal codes, and at twelve he learned ritual slaughtering and led the morning service in synagogue. A childhood so attenuated—the process completed, as the historian Roberto Bonfil notes, even prior to any bar mitzvah rite of passage—expressed the premium placed by Jewish society on boys' achieving early intellectual maturity. Maturity for girls, on the other hand, meant early marriage (from twelve or thirteen up). The community placed no value on a girl's religious education (and only a wealthy family might train a girl in some secular arts), except that pertaining to the dietary rules and laws of ritual purity. Schools for girls, such as the one established in Rome in 1475, were rare. Nevertheless, learned women, self-taught or instructed by a parent, appear repeatedly in the early modern sources. Women's spirituality—exclusive of their domestic roles—found expression in special Yiddish prayers (tekhines) and moralistic stories, and through the communal experience of the hevrahs and their charitable and devotional activities.
Finances and taxes. The Jewish community was as much an economic institution as a social and religious one. What this meant in practice was that the kahal, in its corporate status, frequently engaged in business transactions, loans (as both lender and borrower), and the leasing of franchises. (A Jewish community in early modern Poland-Lithuania might be a general arendator, subletting specific functions to individual community members.) In late medieval Germany, entire communities, ostensibly the "property" of the crown, were pawned to princes, nobles, or municipalities to generate cash. Jewish communities frequently found themselves deeply in debt—to individual members of their own communities or to Christians (in Poland-Lithuania, monasteries in particular thrived on loans to Jewish communities for periods often lasting generations). The trend toward oligarchic rule tended to dampen the fortunes of the kahal, since corruption, tax exemptions for the wealthy, the growing burden of poor relief, and mounting interest on community debts placed communal financial burdens increasingly on the backs of the middle stratum of "householders" (ba'ale batim).
Paying for communal services and privileges entailed a wide array of taxes. The Jewish community received assessments from state and local governments based on its ascribed population size and then apportioned the fiscal responsibility of its individual members. This created considerable overlap between "external" and "internal" taxation, with the former generally taking the form of capitation and property taxes and the latter sales taxes on commodities and fees on services. The kahal' s ingenuity was continuously tested by increased demands from above. Taxes on kosher meat and candles for the Sabbath and holidays proved particularly onerous, since these items were religiously obligatory. These taxes began as community imposts but were eventually seized upon by governments as their own. Ritual items like citrons (for the autumnal "Festival of Booths" [Sukkoth]) as well as "luxury" items like tobacco were likewise taxed. The community imposed sales taxes not just on types of commodities but on the types of professions that produced them. For instance, eighteenth-century Cracow taxed all transactions by peddlers, jewelers, bakers, and tailors, among others, at fixed rates, regardless of their character or size. Indeed, marriage, death, and taxes went hand in hand since dowries and burials were often taxed as well.
Eighteenth-century developments. The imposition of tax upon tax mandated by indebtedness and state demands, interference in the kehillah's internal affairs by overweening magnates, increased oligarchic manipulation of the instruments of Jewish self-government, growing economic and social differentiation within the Jewish community, jurisdictional disputes between large Jewish communities and their numerous suburban satellites, and the eventual emergence of a strong Jewish artisan class jealous of its fraternal ties all conspired to transform if not destroy the traditional autonomous Jewish community in eastern Europe by the eighteenth century. In 1764, in an effort to extract more funds from the Jewish population, the Polish sejmiki dissolved the Council of Four Lands, thus ending one of the more remarkable experiments in the history of Jewish diaspora autonomy. With the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, the bulk of Polish Jewry fell under the administration of Prussia, Austria, and Russia, each with different policies affecting the future of the self-governing Jewish community.
Central, southern, and western Europe. Since medieval times the Jews of Germany and central Europe had made periodic use of rabbinic synods to deal with pressing political, economic, or religious problems. As absolutism became the order of the day, these interregional synods waned and were eventually replaced by regional councils or Landjudenschaften, backed, or sometimes even created, by the princes. Indeed, court Jews—acting as both agents of the crown and community lobbyists—would frequently play decisive roles in these bodies, at times even occupying the position of "state rabbi" (Landesrabbiner). Crown interference in the internal mechanism of the Landjudenschaften, a phenomenon that intensified in the eighteenth century, was not the only curb on their power and prestige, however. Perhaps more significant was the fact that a number of the major Jewish communities of central Europe—Vienna, Berlin, Prague—lay outside their jurisdiction. The increased independence of large urban communities in central Europe offered greater opportunities toward the end of the eighteenth century for institutional experimentation and religious reform.
A similar situation presented itself in Italy, where regional and peninsula-wide synods were held in the fifteenth century (Bologna, 1415; Florence, 1428; Ravenna, 1442–1443), but where localization was becoming the norm in the seventeenth. In Italian cities, as in Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Paris (not to mention throughout the Balkans and the Ottoman lands), Jewish community life was also fragmented by other centrifugal forces, such as linguistic and cultural divisions between Castilian, Aragonese, Portuguese, German (tedesco), Romaniot (Greek-speaking Jews), and other ethnic enclaves. In these settings communal solidarity transcending country of origin would have been unlikely, to say the least. Different rites and customs and endogamous marriages usually went together with different synagogues, cemeteries, and communal administrations. While each communal leadership demanded absolute obedience from its constituency, such institutional multiplicity and functional overlap tended in the long term to undermine the authority and prestige of autonomous Jewish institutions.
If these factors—state interference in the functioning of the super-communities, major urban communities that increasingly went their own way, and internal ethnic divisions—weakened Jewish self-government throughout Europe, they did not in themselves destroy it. On the contrary, in the "backward" societies of eastern Europe, unaffected by the French Revolution or liberal capitalism, the Jewish community persisted well into the nineteenth century, despite social divisions and frequent attacks on its legal basis and moral character.
RELIGIOUS AND INTELLECTUAL DEVELOPMENTS
Jewish law (halakhah). In the early modern as in the medieval period, Jews assumed that the proper and necessary expression of Jewish life was through the observance of Jewish law (halakhah). This was true even of the Marranos or crypto-Jews: their "Jewishness" expressed itself, inter alia, as the unfulfilled aspiration to observe the commandments of the Torah. For this reason, meaningful discussion of the inner life of the Jews of the early modern period must begin with the halakhah.
The halakhah was a highly elaborated system of study and praxis, based on the Mosaic law, alongside the "oral law" that, according to ancient custom, had been passed down from generation to generation as part of the original revelation at Mount Sinai. Scriptural and oral law were reintegrated, so to speak, both as a literary corpus and as a practical system of observance by scholars (rabbis) active between the second and sixth centuries in Palestine and Babylonia. The laconic Mishnah (c. 200 c.e.) and the vast "sea" of the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 c.e.)—the latter a compendium of scriptural and Mishnaic commentary, lore, and rabbinic hagiography—defined much of rabbinic Judaism and constituted the broad ideological and practical foundation for Jewish existence. Mastery of the Talmud—meaning not just its numerous tractates but also the successive layers of commentary and analysis that had evolved over generations—was also the prerequisite for entrance into the rabbinic class. Talmudic principles had to be applied and adapted to the specific circumstances of daily life as they emerged in different historical settings. Thus, a great deal of rabbinic literature is a literature of legal analysis, including commentaries on one or another aspect of the Talmudic corpus, codes of Jewish law, hiddushim (collections of legal novellae inferred from Talmudic literature and precedent), and responsa (answers by leading scholars to queries sent by letter from local rabbis regarding specific practical halakhic problems).
Responsa literature and legal codes. Because of the upheavals caused by wars, expulsions, migrations, and resettlements, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries abounded in responsa literature. Much of it concerned banal or not particularly topical issues, for instance, the use of embroidered images on a synagogue curtain, the legality of employing non-Jewish musicians at weddings or of divorcing a wife for her refusal to relocate to the land of Israel. But a considerable number of responsa from this period reflect larger historical changes: disputes over jurisdiction and custom that arose when new settlements of exiles developed side by side with older established communities, for example, or uncertainty over the status of marriages, divorces, and inheritances when one or several members of a family had converted to Christianity—as was not infrequently the case with Jews leaving Iberia. In Poland, topical problems such as population growth, the rise of the arenda, the subsequent spread of novel economic relationships, and, later, as a consequence of the Khmelnytsky massacres, the proliferation of widows ineligible for remarriage (because Jewish witnesses could not attest to the deaths of their husbands, as required by halakhah) prompted penetrating investigation into the legal sources.
Despite the urgency surrounding the content of much of this literature, the stylistic convention of rabbinic responsa became increasingly intricate and scholastic (one is tempted to say, baroque) in character by the sixteenth century. Far more responsa have endured from this period than from the preceding era. Yet despite their great quantity and weighty contents, they abound in deferential pieties that insist upon the superior understanding of the juristic giants who came before. Indeed, it is from the sixteenth century that halakhic scholars begin referring to themselves as aharonim ('later authorities') and their predecessors as rishonim ('primary authorities').
Such terminology attests to an emergent consciousness among Jewish legal scholars in the sixteenth century of a temporal divide between their own and the preceding era. This was not conceived of in terms of "ancients and moderns." Rather, a wide array of sources attests to a growing sense within Jewish life that the providential plan had taken a decisive turn. In halakhah its clearest evidence emerges from the compulsion felt simultaneously by scholars in widely different places to devise a new and definitive code of Jewish law that would offer practical guidance to a people afflicted by seemingly continuous upheaval. The Shulhan Arukh (1564–1565; The prepared table) authored by Joseph Karo (1488–1575), a Spanish exile who lived first in Turkey and then in northern Palestine (Safed), appeared to answer that need. Its success derived from its pithy and accessible quality, no doubt. But backing this up was the unimpeachable authority of Karo's lengthier and far more academic legal code, the Bet Yosef. Still more decisive was the fact that the Shulhan Arukh was soon supplemented by the Mapah (Tablecloth) of the Polish rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles (1525 or 1530–1572), who glossed the Sephardic Karo in the light of Ashkenazic jurisprudence and custom.
Initially, Karo's compendium had provoked strong opposition in eastern Europe, on the grounds that a legal code so devoid of argumentation would attenuate direct study of the Talmudic sources, diminishing the stature of the rabbis and undermining local and regional usage (minhag). Why then did Polish rabbis eventually reconcile themselves to Karo's enterprise? The answer lies in the character of the problems generated by the mode of Ashkenazic legal studies in the early modern period. Polish Jewry had become perhaps the outstanding locus of halakhic scholarship by the sixteenth century. Its chief innovation was hiluk (both a form of pedagogy and a method of textual analysis), characterized by the continuous comparison of disparate Talmudic texts to uncover their underlying conceptual principles. While often denigrated as "casuistic," this dialectical approach made possible increased legal flexibility, a great virtue in the face of the many conundrums confronting early modern Jewish communities. At any rate, though the method of hiluk was antithetical to the spirit of codification, many Polish scholars came to realize that the vast amount of legal commentary and custom that had accumulated in recent generations necessitated a new and systematic organization of the law. (Note that similar controversies surrounding codification efforts were taking place among non-Jews in sixteenth-century Europe.) Broadly speaking, then, and despite the original controversy that surrounded it, the Shulhan Arukh triumphed because it addressed a range of pressing needs through its unique combination of practicality, scholarship, and universality.
Cabala (Kabbalah). Karo was no pedantic legalist, but a mystic and a visionary, the recipient, in fact, of nightly visitations from a heavenly messenger (maggid) who revealed divine secrets to him through the mechanism of automatic speech. His maggid aside, as a devotee of the cabala or kabbalah (a body of Jewish mystical thought and practice dating from twelfth-century Provence and Spain), Karo was hardly unusual—even among halakhic scholars. By the sixteenth century, cabala had become widely disseminated in almost every diaspora locale, due in part to the dispersion of Judeo-Spanish refugees throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. With roots in gnostic and Neoplatonic thought, and a core conception of divine ontology as corresponding to and interacting with human activity, cabala helped to invest Jewish ritual with fresh meaning and magical potency. Although cabalistic theosophy achieved its classical expression in the thirteenth-century Zohar (a pseudepigraphic work traditionally attributed to the second-century sage Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai), the sixteenth-century Safed cabalists Moses Cordovero (1522–1570) and Isaac Luria (1534–1572) lent it greater systematization and a new set of topical emphases. Cordovero's mystical fraternity produced instructional guides to moral behavior (hanhagah) that reified mystical abstractions into concrete practices and lifestyles accessible to such fraternities (hevrahs) throughout the diaspora. Luria, according to the formulation of the historian Gershom Scholem, took over the gnostic myth of an originary crisis existing within the godhead and highlighted its correspondence to the specific condition of Jewish exile, thereby focusing attention on the cosmic process of messianic redemption within Jewish collective consciousness.
Abetted by the new print revolution, the cabalistic currents emanating from Safed and elsewhere fused with the existing pietistic temperament of sixteenth-century Poland, the latter a legacy of that community's origins in medieval Ashkenaz and of its own syncretistic folk culture. Asceticism, strict penances, self-flagellation, and elaborate demonologies, though hardly alien to diaspora Jewish life elsewhere at this time, became especially pronounced in early modern Poland. Both pietistic and eschatological interests found expression in cabalistically inspired Bible commentaries that reveled in numerological interpretations of scriptural terms and calculations of the anticipated date of messianic redemption. In addition, musar literature, a genre dating to the early Middle Ages that aimed at guiding the reader to a life of mental and spiritual perfection through the adoption of an ascetic behavioral regimen, now came to function as an apt vehicle for transmitting cabala to a wider readership. Musar works took on a strongly cabalistic flavor, infusing prayer, Sabbath observance, study, and sexuality (or the strict avoidance of sexual sin, particularly masturbation)—indeed, nearly all areas of life—with a core of mystical symbolism. But cabala could also be disseminated orally through preaching, sermons, and homilies; through group study and recitation, as conducted by hevrahs ; or simply through the complex if unconscious processes by which new customs, such as midnight vigils, alterations in the order of prayer recitation, prohibitions on sons attending their father's funerals, and countless other tikkunim ('corrections' of the cosmos), become sanctioned and sanctified. There can be little doubt that the explosion of such practices signaled a heightened sensitivity to the new spiritual possibilities engendered by the contemporary moment.
Renaissance trends. In early modern Italy, however, cabala seemed to take an altogether different turn. There it became linked to Renaissance trends, of both a Neoplatonic and a hermetic variety. In contrast to Isaac Luria's mythical and intensely anti-Gentile formulations, the Florentine Johanan ben Isaac Allemanno (c. 1435–c. 1504) constructed an enduring synthesis of cabala and Neoplatonism, reflective of and conducive to a Jewish-Christian dialogue. Allemanno exerted an important influence on Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) and on the development of Christian cabala more generally. Indeed, in Italy—despite the proselytizing aims of its Christian practitioners—Christian and Jewish cabala shared many features, reflecting a common philosophical vocabulary and devotion to the ancient wisdom lying beneath the surface meaning of the scriptural text.
Italian cabala functioned as one component of a Jewish Renaissance humanism that embraced the aesthetic values of the general environment. Italian Jews were active in every sphere of Renaissance literary production—biographical, linguistic, poetic, and philosophic. Strikingly, the Aristotelianism that since the time of Maimonides (1135–1204) had created deep fissures in the Jewish world was now deployed in a failed rearguard action against the rising forces of cabala and Neoplatonism. The latter—with Jewish roots in eleventh- and twelfth-century Spain—achieved its highest Italian-Jewish expression in the Dialoghi di Amore of León Hebreo (also Judah León Abrabanel, c. 1460–after 1523).
Sixteenth-century Italy (though the phenomenon extended beyond the peninsula) also experienced a brief efflorescence of Jewish historical writing, a genre that possessed rather shallow roots in post-biblical Jewish culture. Some of these works exhibited a decidedly apocalyptic character—again, suggesting a widespread sense of approaching cosmic crisis—but others, like the Me'or 'Enayim (The light of the eyes) of Azariah ben Moses dei Rossi (c. 1511–c. 1578), were produced with an unmistakably humanist orientation. Indeed, Jewish humanists viewed the pagan arts then being revived in Italy as derivative of their own ancient creed. As the geographer Abraham Farissol (1451–c. 1525) explained, "at the foot of Mt. Sinai God crowned us with the Torah in its entirety: it contained all the sciences, natural sciences, logic, theology, law, politics, and it was here that the whole World slaked its thirst." Such one-upmanship served Jews well. In a milieu where acculturation offered opportunities and enticements, the claim of Judaic priority in the humanistic curriculum enabled Jews to act as their own cultural gatekeepers.
"CRISIS" OR "INCIPIENT MODERNITY"?
Italian ghettos. Though the broad humanist curriculum was the province of a relative handful of Jews, the adoption of Italian names, folkways, melodies, delicacies, and pastimes permeated the Italian Jewish community as a whole, even when secluded behind ghetto walls. Indeed, the impact of Italian ghettoization—few Jewish communities outside of Italy lived in ghettos proper—did not necessarily mandate inwardness or insularity. The famous Venetian rabbi Leone Modena (1571–1648), although admittedly an exceptional case, records that during the December festival of Hanukkah, the friar whom he called "Satan," "duped me into playing games of chance . . . by the following [May holiday of] Shavuot, I lost more than three hundred ducats." At the same time, while ghettos did not seal Jews hermetically from the outside world, they did offer protection from physical attack (though not plague and wrenching poverty), and a defined if circumscribed and degraded place within Christian society. That for many historians "the ghetto" became a catchall for the premodern Jewish experience in Europe as a whole is unfortunate, since it violates the actual ghetto's historical specificity as well as misconstrues its paradoxical value to those Jews who experienced it.
This paradoxical nature of ghetto life manifested itself in a psychological need to define the moral and conceptual boundaries of Judaism within a Christian society. Indeed, ghetto existence appears to have given rise to a number of apologetic works that defended Judaism and advertised the purported benefits of maintaining a Jewish presence to Christian state and society. In a work by the aforementioned Leone Modena, written in Hebrew but readily accessible to a host of contemporary Christian Hebraist scholars, the author brought forth a penetrating analysis of the New Testament, depicting Jesus as a Pharisee whose later epigones had distorted his original Jewish message. In 1638 Modena's younger Venetian colleague, Simone Luzzatto (d. 1663), offered Christians a quite different message, unabashedly insisting that Jews act to enrich the gentile polity with their unmatched commercial skills. Luzzatto's argument on behalf of "mercantilist philosemitism" influenced debates on Jewish readmission to England in 1654–1655 and continued to have an impact well into the eighteenth century.
Marranism and messianism. The ghetto was not the only stimulus to such literature, however. The return of many Iberian New Christians to Judaism prompted a number of them to produce treatises, addressed not just to Christians but to wavering fellow Marranos as well, that attested to what the former New Christian Isaac Cardoso (1603 or 1604–1683) called "the excellences of the Hebrews." Such former New Christians constituted a volatile addition to the Jewish communities of Italy, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and London during the seventeenth century. Unlike their sixteenth-century predecessors, a number of whom retained a living memory of open Jewish practice in Iberia, many of these Marranos possessed only the most rudimentary knowledge of rabbinic Judaism, its observances, doctrines, and mentalities. Their subjection to the discipline of the Sephardic kahal government (the Mahamad ), its alien customs, and halakhic regimen sometimes evoked in the minds of these "returnees" comparisons with the very tyranny they had fled. Even an insincerely felt Christianity might leave an enduring impression on the soul. When combined with a sense of disappointment with their recovered faith, this could lead in the most varied directions. The roughly contemporaneous Uriel Acosta (1585–1640) and Abraham Miguel Cardoso (c. 1630–1706)—brother of the above-mentioned Isaac—demonstrate the polar range of alternatives. Acosta fled the Portuguese Inquisition in 1615, but was later excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish community for his increasingly radical criticisms of the oral law. His case dramatically illustrates how the abandonment of Christianity could feed a religious skepticism irreconcilable with an equally powerful need for membership within a Jewish community. Abraham Cardoso, however, seemingly presented the opposite phenomenon. His intense hostility to his former Christian faith manifested itself in a dogged adherence to the cause of the messianic pretender Shabbetai Tzevi, even justifying on cabalistic grounds the latter's conversion to Islam. The fact that these cases are extreme ones should not obscure the intimate and complex connections between Marranism and messianism in the Jewish history of the seventeenth century. Messianic pretenders had not been lacking during the previous century. But figures like Asher Lemlein and Solomon Molcho (c. 1500–1532), however great the fascination they engendered, secured relatively few actual followers, whereas the messianic fervor surrounding Shabbetai Tzevi appears at its height to have seized the hearts of close to a majority of Jews worldwide. The messiah's appeal cannot be attributed to any single historical cause; neither the expulsion of 1492, nor the dissemination of Lurianic cabala, nor the rough phenomenological equivalents that appeared simultaneously within Christendom are sufficient to account for a movement that swept from Adrianople to Amsterdam—sweeping up all types and classes of Jews along its path.
Less speculative are the reasons why the modest achievements and erratic and sometimes psychotic behavior of the pretender himself did not induce a greater skepticism. The momentous announcement in the summer of 1665 of the messiah's advent, emanating from the holy land and in the guise of a solemn appeal from his "prophet," Nathan of Gaza (1643/1644–1680), for mass repentance, appears to have successfully undercut competing reports of Shabbetai Tzevi's bizarre sexual behavior and evidence of the physical thuggery that his followers unleashed upon "infidel" dissenters. Concerns raised by reports of his February 1666 arrest at the hands of the sultan were likewise dampened by word that the messiah's prison was actually a palace where the "king" hosted emissaries from throughout the exile. Only the profound shock of Shabbetai's apostasy on 15 September 1666, once absorbed, transformed joy into disappointment, and elation into rage or despair. Cooler heads among the community leaders now emerged to supervise a systematic effort to cover up the extent of official collusion with the movement and to root out lingering pockets of belief.
If in most cases the status quo ante was restored relatively quickly, two minority tendencies also made themselves felt: conversion from Judaism, on the one hand, and participation in the heretical Shabbetean movement, on the other. In the first instance, Christian missionaries proved adept at capitalizing on the disillusionment Shabbetai had inspired in many Jews. As for the case of Jewish heresy, Shabbetai's propagandists (including Abraham Cardoso and Nathan of Gaza) succeeded in formulating doctrines to demonstrate that the apostasy actually "proved" Shabbetai's messianic or (in extreme versions) divine nature. It seems that such claims may have found a particular resonance among former Marranos. For them, after all, the outward conversion and crypto-Judaizing that Shabbetai and some of his followers now engaged in constituted the very crux of their own past religious experience.
Shabbeteanism would cast a shadow over the next century of Jewish intellectual and religious life in Europe. This did not occur because the heresy was itself so widespread. Admittedly, respected community leaders such as the Sephardic chief rabbi of Amsterdam, Solomon ben Jacob Ayllon (1655–1728), and even a revered Talmudist, Jonathan Eybeschuetz (1690–1754), were secret though moderate Shabbeteans, while at the other end of the spectrum, the shocking heretical messianism of Jacob Frank (1726–1791) seems to have taken the form of a perverse experiment to see if the original shabbatean debacle could be outdone. Yet while these instances should not be overlooked, more significant still was the degree to which self-appointed heresy hunters in the decades following Shabbetai Tzevi's demise claimed to see incarnations of Shabbeteanism extremism almost everywhere they looked—in the pietistic conventicle of the brilliant Italian mystic Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (1707–1747), in the acrobatic "enthusiasm" of the fledgling Hasidic movement, and even in some of the mild pedagogic reforms advocated by the early Jewish Enlightenment. The Shabbetean scare, in short, seems to have produced a form of reductionism within some orthodox circles, which in itself helped to determine the dynamic interplay of "tradition and crisis" in the Judaism of the eighteenth century.
Conclusion. If heresy calls forth inquisition, skepticism dogma and laxity enforcement, then it is plain why some historians have depicted early modern era Judaism as engendering a crisis. The crisis they describe pits the irresistible force of acculturation, antinomianism, and apostasy against the immovable object of cultures and communal institutions turned inward and rigid. According to this view, by the middle of the eighteenth century, such tensions proved too powerful to contain, leaving the fabric of traditional Judaism exposed and vulnerable to the simultaneous eruption of Enlightenment in the West and Hasidism in the East. However, more recently, an alternative narrative has vied for dominance, one that emphasizes a comparatively seamless transition to modernity. According to this view, an "incipient modernity" was engineered, more or less unconsciously, by representatives of a moderate tradition within Judaism—philosophical in medieval Spain, humanistic in the Renaissance, and scientific in the Enlightenment—who were at home in both the world of Jewish observance and that of commerce and culture. However, if both scenarios possess merit, they likewise equally exaggerate, particularly with regard to the degree of autonomy they accord to European Jewish history. Modernity did not "arrive" at all Jewish communities simultaneously. Rather, as was the case with most minorities within Europe—as well as most populations outside of it—modernity imposed itself as an alien but ineluctable force that left no choice but to react, resist, or adapt.
See also Cabala ; Conversos ; Ghetto ; Inquisition, Spanish ; Jews, Attitudes toward ; Jews, Expulsion of (Spain ; Portugal) ; Khmelnytsky Uprising ; Messianism, Jewish ; Shabbetai Tzevi .
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"Jews and Judaism." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/jews-and-judaism
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