Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century

Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity

Gershon David Hundert
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 305
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp549
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century
    Book Description:

    Missing from most accounts of the modern history of Jews in Europe is the experience of what was once the largest Jewish community in the world—an oversight that Gershon David Hundert corrects in this history of Eastern European Jews in the eighteenth century. The experience of eighteenth-century Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not fit the pattern of integration and universalization—in short, of westernization—that historians tend to place at the origins of Jewish modernity. Hundert puts this experience, that of the majority of the Jewish people, at the center of his history. He focuses on the relations of Jews with the state and their role in the economy, and on more "internal" developments such as the popularization of the Kabbalah and the rise of Hasidism. Thus he describes the elements of Jewish experience that became the basis for a "core Jewish identity"—an identity that accompanied the majority of Jews into modernity.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94032-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. A Note on Place-Names and Transliteration
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  7. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xix-xx)
  8. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    I write to advocate a revision of the understanding of modernity in Jewish history. Treatments of the modern history of Jews in Europe have tended to minimize or even omit the community in Poland-Lithuania in the eighteenth century because the defining criteria of modernity cannot be found there. Most often, these defining criteria of modernity in Jewish history are understood to be the progressive integration of Jews into society at large and the exchange of particularistic Jewish values, in varying degrees, for a more universal worldview. Whatever the criteria, the largest concentration of Jews in the world is omitted from...

  9. CHAPTER 1 The Largest Jewish Community in the World When Is a Minority Not a Minority?
    (pp. 21-31)

    A consideration of demographic history is indispensable to an understanding of the Polish Jewish experience. The large numbers of Jews, their residence mainly in urban settlements, their concentration in the eastern half of the Polish Commonwealth, and their continuing expansion all profoundly affected, not only the relations of Jews with the Polish state and their relations with their non-Jewish neighbors, but also the quality of Jewish culture in East Central Europe.

    The term “minority” is used to describe groups outside of the imagined homogeneous citizenry in modern nation-states. It has a set of connotations that are misleading when applied to...

  10. CHAPTER 2 Economic Integration
    (pp. 32-56)

    The role of Jews in the economy of Poland-Lithuania became progressively more significant in the course of the eighteenth century.¹ This was largely a consequence of three trends. It was mainly Jews who managed the transformation in the use of grain (rye) from primarily an export commodity to its use in the production of alcoholic beverages. This activity accounted for a very large proportion of the income from rural estates. Secondly, the role of Jews as lessees of estate monopolies temporarily counteracted the continuing decline in the efficiency of serf labor. And, finally, growing Jewish numbers and other developments discussed...

  11. CHAPTER 3 The Polish Church and Jews, Polish Jews and the Church
    (pp. 57-78)

    By the beginning of the eighteenth century, being Polish had come to imply being Catholic.¹ The Reformation churches had found numerous adherents in Poland-Lithuania in the sixteenth century, when Lutheranism was popular among burghers, and Calvinism proved particularly appealing to members of theszlachta. Indeed, around the late sixteenth century, a majority of the Polish nobility was not Catholic. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the triumph of the Counter-Reformation Church in Poland was virtually complete. Although the eighteen Latin Catholic bishops continued to sit in the Senate during this period, churchmen of other denominations, even at the...

  12. CHAPTER 4 The Community
    (pp. 79-98)

    Kahalis the term used to designate the institutional leadership of the Jewish community, orkehillah. Since the Middle Ages, communal institutions had been integrated into the system of Ashkenazic halakhah. Thus, among members of the Jewish community, there was no distinction made between civil offenses and sins. Members of a limited number of prosperous and prominent families in each community held the offices of leadership. That is, the system is best described as oligarchic. The superiority of the wealthy and learned was taken for granted in Jewish society and was part of the order of things. Moreover, state authorities...

  13. CHAPTER 5 Was There a Communal “Crisis” in the Eighteenth Century?
    (pp. 99-118)

    The consensus of scholarly opinion since the beginning of the twentieth century has been that the institutions of Jewish autonomy experienced a profound crisis in the eighteenth century.¹ The interrelated ingredients in the explanation of this phenomenon have been variously emphasized. Some have stressed increasing oppression and persecution, rising fiscal exploitation, and economic decline. Others have pointed to the “interference” of magnate-aristocrats in the internal affairs of Jewish autonomous institutions. Benzion Dinur, who extensively analyzed the ethical literature and sermons of the period, concluded that the chief complaint was “that the Jewish community establishment was being overrun by strongmen, habitués...

  14. CHAPTER 6 The Popularization of Kabbalah
    (pp. 119-130)

    Beginning in the latter part of the seventeenth century, what some anthropologists call “the grammar” of Jewish culture was changed by the addition of kabbalistic systems of meaning. Jacob Katz describes this as “a general shift in religious values.”¹ In a manuscript culture, the study of kabbalistic texts had been an esoteric tradition restricted to a tiny elite. The printing press facilitated the spread of knowledge of Kabbalah among the learned. Simultaneously, beginning in the latter part of the seventeenth century, works that popularized kabbalistic ideas in homiletic and ethical treatises and in regimens of daily life appeared in substantial...

  15. CHAPTER 7 Mystic Ascetics and Religious Radicals
    (pp. 131-159)

    A late-eighteenth-century manuscript prayer book, clearly intended for use by the person conducting prayers in the relatively small Jewish community of Wschowa in western Poland, contains a prayer that at first sight is surprising.¹ Among the Sabbath prayers that follow the readings from Scripture, between the prayer for the government and the prayer for the new month, there is an instruction that the congregation should recite this prayer while the leader chants the prayer for the new month. On the festivals, at New Year and on the Day of Atonement, the allotted time for this same prayer was during the...

  16. CHAPTER 8 The Contexts of Hasidism
    (pp. 160-185)

    Hasidism was one of many movements of religious enthusiasm that arose in the eighteenth century. It appeared among a population with particular and noteworthy demographic characteristics, namely, a continuously diminishing average age. The concentration of Jews in the eastern half of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as I have emphasized, facilitated the production of spiritual, social, and theological innovations, using the palette of Jewish culture. When Hasidism began, Jewish society was still in the thrall of the messianic movement that arose in 1665 around Shabbetai Tsevi and engulfed large numbers of Jews in North Africa, Asia, and Europe. Of primary concern here...

  17. CHAPTER 9 Hasidism, a New Path
    (pp. 186-210)

    Hasidism was a spiritual awakening led by charismatic masters. It transformed the configuration of the religious life of Jews in East Central Europe in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Although some saw Hasidism as a challenge to the status quo, its innovations never actually threatened the normative foundations of Torah and commandments. Hasidism was the culmination of earlier trends that had popularized kabbalistic ideas and practices and sought to accommodate devotional life to individual, personal religious experience.

    The appearance of kabbalists—old-stylehassidim—andbaʿalei shemcontributed to the emergence of the leadership form that characterized Hasidism. In...

  18. CHAPTER 10 Jews and the Sejm
    (pp. 211-232)

    If the Hasidic movement can be seen as a social configuration of Jews outside of the reach of the state, there were Jews and Christians associated with the Enlightenment who deplored it as a corrupting influence and sought to use the authority of the government to break down the barriers and to have them enter a putative civil society.

    In the course of the eighteenth century, the Polish parliament (Sejm) rarely enacted legislation that singled out Jews.¹ Legislation against non- Catholics exempted Jews.² When Jews were discussed in the regional assemblies(sejmiki)and in the Sejm, it was because it...

  19. Afterword
    (pp. 233-240)

    The view that there are fundamental distortions in the way modernity in Jewish history has been described lies at the heart of this book. As I argue in the Introduction, historians have placed too much emphasis on change and focused too much on ideology. They have assigned too much weight to religious behavior and belief as indications of change; they have concentrated too much on regions where few Jews lived and not enough on the areas where most Jews lived. History is not a train that moved progressively across Europe from west to east bringing the same developments to different...

  20. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 241-268)
  21. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 269-270)
  22. Index
    (pp. 271-286)