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Enlightenment, Jewish


Growing emancipation of European Jews in the eighteenth century was matched by an intellectual movement that came to be called the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah. Jews started to enter the mainstream of European society, in particular in major German cities such as Berlin, and Jewish thinkers had to accomplish two tasks. They needed to show their Gentile peers that they were just as committed to rationality as anyone else, and they needed to persuade other Jews that they should establish links with the local non-Jewish cultures in which they lived.

The main embodiment of this movement was Moses Mendelssohn, who participated fully in German philosophy and culture, and lesser thinkers were Marcus Herz (17471803), Salomon Maimon (1753/41800), and Nachmun Krochmal (17851840). Mendelssohn first of all emphasized the importance of mastery of the local secular language, and of the contemporary culture. But this did not imply abandoning Judaism; he argued on the contrary that one could use modern ways of argumentation to explain and justify religious systems such as Judaism. He comes to argue that Judaism is a profoundly rational religion and so highly appropriate for those committed to reason. Mendelssohn was here reacting to the widespread view that Judaism was a rule-bound and legalistic system that only those stuck in a worn-out culture would persist in following. It came to be argued in German philosophy by Kant and Hegel that Judaism was a religion essentially superseded a long time ago in the past, fossilized and unsatisfactory, and Mendelssohn and other maskilim (Enlighteners) argued that these criticisms were misplaced.

The basis of Haskalah was respect for reason, as the word suggests (sekhel being reason in Hebrew) and this was to have longstanding effects on Jewish culture. It contributed to the start of Reform Judaism in Germany, its basis being a putative rational attitude to traditional Judaism. It also played a part in the secular nature of Zionism, the idea that the Jews, like other national groups, had a right to a homeland that was based on reason not tradition. After its growth and development in Germany, Haskalah moved east to affect the Jewish communities there, and produced a schism between the "modernizers" and those concerned to defend tradition. The Haskalah raised the issue of how far a religion upheld by a minority excluded from mainstream society could survive when that minority was allowed to join that society. If it could be argued that the traditional religion was as rational as anything else in society then the intellectual presuppositions of such a change might not threaten the survival of the religion. The maskilim were confident that both Judaism and secular European society would benefit from a more intimate relationship, because the basis of both is reason.

See also Maimon, Salomon; Mendelssohn, Moses.


Arkush, Alan. Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Dubin, Lois. "The Social and Cultural Context: Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment." In History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by D. Frank and O. Leaman. London: Routledge, 1997.

Feiner, Shmuel. The Jewish Enlightenment. Translated by C. Naor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Harris, J. Nachman Krochmal: Guiding the Perplexed of the Modern Age. New York: New York University Press, 1991.

Rotenstreich, Nathan. Jews and German Philosophy: The Polemics of Emancipation. New York: Schocken, 1984.

Sorkin, David. Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Oliver Leaman (2005)

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