The Secularization of Relations between Jews and Non-Jews: An Introduction


It was clear from the outset that Jewish emancipation had both positive and negative aspects . The change was based on the principles of the Enlightenment , but , in the final analysis , it was the needs of the authorities that dictated its nature and scope . At that juncture the Jews were not asked their opinion , but the great majority was undoubtedly ready to face the risks involved . In fact , the main reason for the enthusiasm with which the Jews generally accepted the first attempts at emancipation , in Austria and Prussia , in revolutionary France , or in early nineteenth-century England , can be explained by the degree of their own closeness to the general population at the time . When Dohm proposed that they be given full rights , many Jews had already , in effect , become regular subjects of the state . The non-Jews as well , it should be recalled , were not yet citizens in the fullest sense of the word . Only the French Revolution , and in its own way the American Revolution too , offered the Jews equal rights within a complete civil framework . They did so at the same time as they established democratic republics which presumed to grant universal emancipation . In most European states “ civil improvement ” was of greater import in the economic and cultural spheres than in the political , and in these two realms the Jews were indeed making considerable progress on their own . The Jews ’ energetic entry into cultural life in the lands in which they resided was particularly impressive , though its extent was not the same everywhere . In the German cultural sphere , the number of Jewish students of medicine and of the natural sciences had already begun to increase during the course of the eighteenth century . From the first half of that century we also have reports of Jews attending local theater performances , or of Jews who were members of reading clubs and who participated , both as readers and as writers , in the new periodical culture that sprung up in the various cities at this time . Passive or active interest in the surrounding culture was also recorded in Russia , though this would receive significant expression only much later . Generally speaking , Jews were nowhere active as a collectivity in the realm of culture . Bur despite the individual nature of acculturation , the need arose at times to give collective responses to current issues . The Jewish maskilim , for instance , aimed to disseminate the conclusions of the new science among the Jews and to bring them , as a group and not just as individuals , into the public discourse typical of the Enlightenment . In the first stage , they sought to achieve this by publishing extensively in Hebrew . They believed that the use of a natural , “ pure ” language - Hebrew , in the case of the Jews , and not Yiddish , of course - was a preliminary step for any true education . Within a short period of time a small group of single-minded maskilimproduced an alternative Jewish bookshelf that could replace the traditional religious library or proudly coexist with it . In keeping with the Zeitgeist , mainly in Central Europe , where the general Enlightenment was not distinctly antireligious , the Jewish maskilim usually refrained from a head-on struggle against the Jewish religion , its institutions , and its formal representatives . This may explain why the rabbinic establishment did not immediately take action against them . A sort of Kulturkampf erupted between these sides only later , when the maskilim as a secular elite presumed to replace the old establishment . At that stage , most of the maskilim , like their shining example Moses Mendelssohn , insisted that nothing in Judaism precluded secular education , or interfered with the ongoing presence and activity of Jews in society , or with granting them equal rights in the state . The small community of maskilimno doubt championed a rapprochement with the surrounding non-Jewish culture , and despite its numerical weakness , wielded far-reaching influence everywhere . The question of the curriculum in Jewish schools was a central issue for both moderate and radical maskilim . Criticism of the traditional heder and of the general ignorance of its pupils intensified toward the end of the eighteenth century , and the exclusive authority of the rabbis began to be undermined in

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