"History was like a mirror for humanity, reflecting its real image and enabling a new identity to take shape." That's a quote from Shmuel Feiner's Haskalah and History, and as the history class I'm taking unfolds, I find that I keep returning to it. I like the idea that we can treat our history like a mirror. When we face our history, what new sides of ourselves might we see?
We're studying the Haskalah: the Jewish Enlightenment, a movement among the Jews of Europe in the late 1700s and early 1800s which centered around adopting Enlightenment values and integrating with European society. (That link goes to its Wikipedia entry, which is worth reading if you're curious.) The shift was sparked by external phenomena (particularly Jewish emancipation, which made Jews citizens; France was the first to emancipate Jews, in 1791) but I suspect it was motivated by some internal yearnings, too, among them a nascent or latent desire to bring Judaism into engagement with the wider world.
In a certain way, the class itself is a product of its subject matter, since the Haskalah legitimized the Jewish study of history. Feiner writes that "[t]he maskilic legitimization of history, which turned Torat ha-adam (in its broad sense as a store of knowledge, a mode of thought, and a system of humanistic ethics) into the organizing principle of history, was perceived as a threat to the values of traditional culture." The views of the maskilim (Jewish enlightenment figures) didn't necessarily go over well in traditionalist communities where the study of secular history was viewed as either unimportant or threatening, and engagement with the wider world was perceived to have dubious value at best.
Unsurprisingly, it's that engagement with the wider world that attracts me most to the Haskalah.
What resonates for me about the Haskalah? For one thing, the beginnings of a cautious ecumenism, in which Jews and Christians began to explore the possibility of relating in a new way. Given my interest in interfaith dialogue, it makes sense that I'd be fascinated by these early stirrings of ecumenical interaction. Naphtali Herz Wessely wrote about this; he saw that an opportunity had presented itself "to uproot hatred from the hearts of men, senseless hatred about a quarrel that is not their own, which originates in changes in faith and worship." For him religious tolerance was the most revolutionary expression of the new era, and could only herald good things for the Jewish community. We've collectively spent the last 200+ years continuing to wrestle with the question of how members of different religious traditions can and should interact.
I'm intrigued, too, by the tightrope I think the early maskilim
needed to walk between the desire to engage with the world and
the desire to maintain their Jewish observance and practice. In his
Moses Mendelssohn (arguably the maskil par
excellence), Alexander Altmann notes that
Mendelssohn lived in two worlds, and had to express his
Jewishness "with varying emphases and in different keys."
That has to resonate for many of us who live in this post-Enlightenment
world. No matter where we fall on the spectrum of observance and
practice, we can't help being impacted by the shifts in Judaism
that the Haskalah brought forth, and one of them is this
sense of bifurcated identity. Most of us today are "Jewish and"
-- Jewish and citizens of the place where we live; Jewish and gendered; Jewish and located in the contexts of race, culture, class. I think that's a blessing, but it isn't always an easy one.
One of my collegiate Judaic studies professors used to say that being Jewish today inevitably means feeling a little bit schizophrenic, having one foot in each of two rowboats. Reb Victor spoke along similar lines on the first day of this class. With emancipation and the enlightenment, being Jewish became problematic in a new way. "How we define ourselves, how we sketch our identity, who we are, is the emancipation's gift to the future," he said. It makes sense that the words and experiences of the maskilim would resonate for us; they lived through a profound change, encountered the possibility of becoming something other than what they had been, and it was uncharted territory for them. Modern Jewish identity is uncharted territory for us, too. And what better way to school ourselves for the paradigm shift we're living through than paying attention to how we handled previous changes in paradigm?
The Judaisms we know are necessarily post-Haskalah Judaisms. The Reform movement arose out of the Haskalah (and it can be argued that the other denominations of Judaism arose in reaction/response to the binary division between Reform Judaism and what we would now call Orthodoxy.) I'm not necessarily a fan of all of the liturgical and practical changes that the early Reformers enacted. For instance, the shift to a more decorous, Protestant-style mode of worship which the maskilim so welcomed makes me feel disconnected from other Jewish modes of prayer. But I appreciate why that shift was valuable when it arose, and I see the leap itself as a valuable part of the dialectical process. Today the Reform Jews I know aim for synthesis, bridging the gap between classic and classical. I see that kind of synthesis at work in every branch of Judaism today.
If we are the inheritors of the Haskalah, how do we want to carry this turn of the spiral forward? What can the maskilim's struggles with identity and practice teach us about our own? Which of the standards they rallied around are ones we still want to champion? These are the questions the course is raising for me so far. I don't want easy or glib answers; for now, the questions are satisfying enough.