The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe

The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe

Shmuel Feiner
Translated by Chaya Naor
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 352
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe
    Book Description:

    Throughout the eighteenth century, an ever-sharper distinction emerged between Jews of the old order and those who were self-consciously of a new world. As aspirations for liberation clashed with adherence to tradition, as national, ethnic, cultural, and other alternatives emerged and a long, circuitous search for identity began, it was no longer evident that the definition of Jewishness would be based on the beliefs and practices surrounding the study of the Torah. In The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe Shmuel Feiner reconstructs this evolution by listening to the voices of those who participated in the process and by deciphering its cultural codes and meanings. On the one hand, a great majority of observant Jews still accepted the authority of the Talmud and the leadership of the rabbis; on the other, there was a gradually more conspicuous minority of "Epicureans" and "freethinkers." As the ground shifted, each individual was marked according to his or her place on the path between faith and heresy, between devoutness and permissiveness or indifference. Building on his award-winning Jewish Enlightenment, Feiner unfolds the story of critics of religion, mostly Ashkenazic Jews, who did not take active part in the secular intellectual revival known as the Haskalah. In open or concealed rebellion, Feiner's subjects lived primarily in the cities of western and central Europe-Altona-Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Breslau, and Prague. They participated as "fashionable" Jews adopting the habits and clothing of the surrounding Gentile society. Several also adopted the deist worldview of Enlightenment Europe, rejecting faith in revelation, the authority of Scripture, and the obligation to observe the commandments. Peering into the synagogue, observing individuals in the coffeehouse or strolling the boulevards, and peeking into the bedroom, Feiner recovers forgotten critics of religion from both the margins and the center of Jewish discourse. His is a pioneering work on the origins of one of the most significant transformations of modern Jewish history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0189-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction: Sins and Doubts
    (pp. 1-26)

    In 1768, Moshe Lapidoth and Shlomo ben Yehoshua, two Jewish teenagers from the Nieswiez community in Lithuania, decided to take an extreme, deviant step: to stop praying. It is hard to know in this case whether it was skepticism and the crisis of faith or the irrepressible temptation to indulge in sin that induced them to cast doubt on the truth and justification of this religious commandment.¹ Although they were very young (both were born in 1753), they already had families of their own. They earned their living as melamdim (teachers of Torah in the poor, depressing homes of village...

    • Chapter 1 Pleasures and Liberation from Religious Supervision
      (pp. 29-47)

      More than a generation had passed since the furor aroused by the movement of the false messiah, Shabbetai Zevi, which bore the subversive message of imminent release from the obligation to obey the halakhah, and since the critique of Baruch Spinoza’s atheism had appeared in print, yet the Jewish communities of Europe were becoming more sensitive to every sign of heresy or breach of religious discipline. Growing numbers of Jews aspired to improve their standard of living and to indulge in the pleasures that contemporary European culture offered, even if this meant ignoring harsh rebukes by rabbis and preachers. On...

    • Chapter 2 Temptations of Fashion and Passion
      (pp. 48-63)

      Rabbi Jacob Emden was a sensitive seismograph of the emergence of secularization in Western and Central Europe. His writings, as we have seen, contain numerous testimonies to the contemporary pursuit of pleasures and harsh criticism of those Jews who were attracted to the temptations of the European city. In defense of religion, he denounced the submission to one’s passions and viewed the sins of fashion and the sins of sexuality as equally heinous. “I will mention some of the customs of these epicureans,” said Emden in his 1731 sermon: “When the Jews enter into the synagogue to pray and worship...

    • Chapter 3 The Mystical Sect: Subversive Sabbateans
      (pp. 64-83)

      The goings-on in the home of Leibush and Liba Shabbetai in the small Podolian community of Lanckorona on the winter night of January 27, 1756, were like a scene taken from the libertine literature of the time. Behind windows covered by heavy curtains, the sounds of “drinking, rejoicing, and dancing” were heard, arousing the suspicions of local Christians and Jews. A servant lad sent to peek through a crack in the wall saw men and women dancing ecstatically. Others who also took a peek reported that the followers of Jacob Frank were having an orgy: “Nude men and women frolicking...

    • Chapter 4 The Rationalist Sect: Neo-Karaites and Deists
      (pp. 84-100)

      The rabbinical elite viewed the threat of heresy as a two-headed monster: the Sabbatean sect and the rationalist sect. The boundaries between the mystic, libertine heresy of the Sabbateans and the philosophical heresy of the critics of religion were blurred to emphasize the intensity of the double threat. Jacob Emden observed these occurrences with frazzled nerves, his body shaken repeatedly by tremors as he gathered information on the underground streams of contemporary heresy. He also thought that there were contacts and similarities between the two sects. For example, he cited testimony about the physician Yekutiel Gordon from Shklov in White...

  6. PART II A NEW WORLD, 1760–80
    • Chapter 5 Providence Is Tested: Secularization on the Rise in the 1760s
      (pp. 103-118)

      On Saturday morning, November 1, 1755, a tremendous earthquake struck Lisbon, and tens of thousands were killed, buried under the ruins, burned in the great fire, or swept away in the tsunami. That disaster shook the religious faith of many in Christian Europe. Where was divine providence? Why were innocent people killed? Was there no other choice but to assume that God, if he existed at all, was a cruel, tyrannical ruler, indifferent to human suffering? Goethe, who at the time was a seven-year-old child in Frankfurt, wrote in his memoirs: “Perhaps the demon of terror had never so speedily...

    • Chapter 6 The Supremacy of Nature: Deists on the Margins
      (pp. 119-141)

      While Mendelssohn’s Phädon was translated into European languages and numerous copies were distributed, raising the spirits of enlightened believers, The System of Nature, by the German atheist and materialist Baron d’Holbach, who endorsed the counter-position, was published in 1770. The believers apparently had very good cause for alarm. In Holbach’s view, religion blocked man’s way to happiness, enslaved him, filled his mind with superstition, contradicted reason, and—as Spinoza had asserted a century earlier—exploited his archaic fears. Man created the illusion of God for himself, but in truth, he himself is a product of Nature, and even his thought...

    • Chapter 7 The Emergence of the New World
      (pp. 142-160)

      In the 1770s, stormy anticlerical winds that blew from the salon of Baron d’Holbach in Paris shook the religious establishments in Europe. D’Holbach wanted not only to free human beings from their dependence on faith in God and the clergy, but also, as an inevitable conclusion from materialistic philosophy, to free them from the shackles that prevented them from finding satisfaction and happiness in this world. In his “Common Sense,” he wrote:

      Religion, occupied with its gloomy reveries, considers man merely as a pilgrim upon earth, and therefore supposes that, in order to travel them more securely, he must forsake...

    • Chapter 8 Scandals and Rebellions
      (pp. 163-179)

      In his 1781 drama The Robbers, Friedrich Schiller, then a twenty-one-year-old officer cadet in Stuttgart, exposed the depths of sin and heresy in the minds and hearts of men of his generation. The play caused a scandal in Germany, and in several places the authorities forbade its performance. The audience was particularly shocked by the character of Franz, the atheist, libertine, and blasphemer. He shouted his materialistic worldview at the audience in the theater: “There is no God! . . . Our whole body is nothing more than a blood-spring, and with its last drop, mind and thought dissolve into...

    • Chapter 9 Replacing Mosaic Laws with Laws of Freedom
      (pp. 180-202)

      In the Berlin of the 1780s, where Marcus Herz wrote the sharp comments that closed our previous chapter, the rebellion against the rabbinical elite and religious norms caused an open rift. In 1789, during the morning service at a Berlin synagogue, at least one young educated Jew learned that his deistic views were distancing him not only from religious faith and practices but also from the society of his coreligionists. Lazarus Bendavid (1762–1832), son of an established Jewish family of silk merchants and manufacturers in Berlin, was a philosopher, mathematician, and member of the literary republic of the German...

    • Chapter 10 On the Decline of Judaism: The Last Decade
      (pp. 205-228)

      Two years after Wessely called for the formation of the congregation of believers, an extreme reaction set in against the Enlightenment in Prussia, then under a new king, Friedrich Wilhelm II, and legal measures were introduced to protect religion. In August 1788, the minister for religious affairs, Johann Christoph von Wöllner, issued an edict against religious and moral permissiveness, depravity, and deist heresy. It was no longer permissible, the spokesman for the Prussian government announced, to nurture deists under the flag of the Enlightenment, who deny the divine validity of the Holy Scriptures and challenge the existence of divine providence....

    • Chapter 11 Soon Our Faith Will Be Lost: Deists and Believers
      (pp. 229-250)

      The alienation that Hönig felt in Prague might not have been so intolerable if he had lived in a community that included many freethinkers. But in most other European cities, except London, the largest of them all, the Jews did not yet feel free of religious control and were not a sufficiently large proportion of the society to be acknowledged or accepted as secular Jews. We have seen how Rahel Levin tried to conceal that she had traveled on the Sabbath in Berlin and how David S. was attacked there when he was exposed as an epicurean.

      In 1799, David...

  9. Summary: Free Jews and the Origins of Secularization
    (pp. 251-264)

    Was the King removed from his throne? Did God abandon the world that he created, leaving it to the laws of nature and man’s free will? Or is he still overseeing the world, and is it necessary to restore him as a ruler who demands faith and ritual? Was the rebellion against God so sweeping that fear of God has dissipated and the status of the clergy has crumbled? Have the mechanisms of discipline and religious supervision broken down completely? Will men and women be happier in their lives without the guidance of the Holy Scriptures, whose reliability is dubious...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 265-292)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 293-316)
  12. Index
    (pp. 317-328)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 329-330)