The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe
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.
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