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The Haskalah today

August 18, 2014 – 6:35 am2 Comments

By Peter Schattner:

moses mendelssohn phaedon

If you were a curious person who had to wear a distinctive hat and a yellow star, and could not understand what the neighbours were saying because you only spoke Yiddish, you may have welcomed the age of emancipation.

The era of the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment, was a movement that helped Jews make the transition from medievalism to modernity. However, does the Haskalah still enlighten us now that we are free and ‘just like everyone else’? What lessons does this landmark period, spanning the 18th and 19th centuries, offer to well integrated Australian Jews?

The word Haskalah, loosely translated as the ‘Jewish Enlightenment’, comes from Hebrew and means the gaining of intelligence. The Haskalah was an intellectual movement which began in Germany in the latter part of the 18th century. It arose partly because Jews were starting to obtain their civil rights following the French Revolution and Napoleon’s victories. They could therefore begin to venture beyond the ghetto walls, the confines of the Jewish quarters or the Judengasse.

The Haskalah also closely followed the era of the general enlightenment in Europe (the ‘Age of Reason’) in which science and rationalism were promoted. This movement encouraged some Jewish intellectuals to apply this learning to their own religion, history and culture. The active members of this movement were called Maskilim.

A leading figure of the Haskalah was Moses Mendelssohn whose role was so significant that he became known as the father of the Jewish Enlightenment.  Mendelssohn (1729 – 1786), who initially spoke only Yiddish, moved to Berlin at the age of 14 and soon learned mathematics, philosophy, Latin and basic French and English.

His book Phaedon (1767) became the most widely read book of its time and contributed to him becoming known as the Jewish Socrates for his general philosophical brilliance. However, he increasingly turned his attention to the Jewish problem of how to become a well integrated member of society while remaining a religious Jew.

Mendelssohn understood that for Jews to be truly emancipated, they would have to speak German rather than Yiddish, learn secular subjects at school and spend little if any time studying the Talmud. It was in many ways a rebellion against the rabbis who had attained control of the Jewish communities (or ‘kehilot’) of Europe.

The Haskalah in Germany led to the development of a secular education system and new directions in Jewish literature. The movement was transported via the German language into the Austrian Empire, and especially to its eastern region of Galicia. It finally ended up in Russia where it took a slightly different turn because of ongoing anti-Semitism and restrictions placed on Jews in the 19th century.

The main outcomes of the Haskalah in Germany were: the end of Yiddish, the drastic reduction of the Talmud from the school curriculum with the introduction of scientific and other secular subjects, a widening of employment opportunities including crafts and agriculture, increasing communal participation by women, including the hosting of cultural ‘salons’, reform in religion and the rise of nationalism (‘Germans of the Jewish faith’). It was perhaps summed up best by the poet of the Russian Haskalah, Judah Leib Gordon, who declared that one should ‘Be a man on the streets and a Jew at home’.

In 19th century Germany, the Haskalah led to a great number of off-shoots and succession movements. This included the Wissenschaft movement (founded in 1818) which championed a non-theological interpretation of Jewish history, modern orthodoxy founded by Samson Raphael Hirsch and of course Reform Judaism.

In Russia, the successor movements were Bundism, Zionism and assimilation, the last often linked with communism. The Haskalah as a recognisable movement was therefore overtaken by other trends by the late 19th century and disappeared from history.

For those who still held to their traditional religious beliefs, such as Mendelssohn himself, there did not appear to be any major difficulty in integrating into society as a strongly self-identifying Jew. However, for people who had lost their faith, such as the poet Heinrich Heine, conversion to Christianity and cultural assimilation reduced the barriers that Jews still faced in a society that had not fully granted them equality. Why not assimilate if one was not really different to the predominant social milieu? Indeed, four out of six of Mendelssohn’s children converted to Christianity.

For today’s religious adherents, the dualism of being a man on the street and a Jew in the home (and synagogue) may seem straightforward in free societies such as ours. However, what does this dual identity mean to Jews who are either not very religious or completely secular? If inter-marriage is a barometer for assimilation, then it seems that this dualism is not be sustainable when one pillar – the religious one – is weak.

What does it mean to be ‘a secular Jew in the home’ and for how many generations can that last? The Maskilim did not really answer this; perhaps they were too busy removing the vestiges of the ghetto and making themselves ‘normal’. The question for loosely observant Jews now is: Where do we go from here?


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  • frosh says:

    I very much enjoyed your article.
    I agree entirely that the Haskalah dramatically increased the proportion of Jews who could speak fluently another language besides Yiddish. However, I was still surprised to read that “The main outcomes of the Haskalah in Germany were: the end of Yiddish…”
    I’d like to expore this contention further,
    I had always believed that the main factors in the decline of Yiddish were, in order or importance

    1) The Shoah (I had assumed by far the major factor)
    2) The establishment of the State of Israel and modern Zionism’s negative attitude toward Yiddish
    3) The Haskalah

    I know it’s a bit complicated, as the above factors may not be completely independent of each other, although I contend that the State of Israel would have been established without the Holocaust, as the process was already well underway, and it was fitting with world events at the time (e.g Indian Independence). And of course, as you’ve stated, the Zionism movement that developed in the 19th century is itself a product of the Haskalah.

    It’s obviously difficult to speculate about what the world would have been like today if the Shoah had not occurred, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on if you think Yiddish language and culture would have so badly declined.

    I don’t say ‘end’ since I live on a street where Yiddish is regularly spoken and understood by even the children, although I accept that this is very particular, and that both literary Yiddish as well the common man’s secular Yiddish are unfortunately dead.

  • Joe in Australia says:

    Frosh, my family were middle-class Hungarians. None of them spoke Yiddish at home, even though they had high communal positions in their respective Orthodox communities. Things were very different in eastern Hungary (e.g., Szatmer) whose kehillas actually insisted on the use of Yiddish as a point of principle, but in central Hungary the idea was that you spoke Hungarian at home and in the street, just like other Hungarians, and you used Hebrew for prayer.

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