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Move Over Mendelssohn: Why Everything You Know About the Jewish Enlightenment Is Wrong

Move Over Mendelssohn: Why Everything You Know About the Jewish Enlightenment Is Wrong

Ask anyone about the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, and the first person they’ll likely mention is Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). Few would disagree that Mendelssohn played a key role in the Haskalah’s earliest stages, attempting as he did to modernize Judaism in 18th century Germany and bring it in line with the broader intellectual trend of his time—that is, the Enlightenment, or what historians often call the Age of Reason.

But in what promises to ignite a major intellectual debate, the scholar Olga Litvak, in her forthcoming book “Haskalah: The Romantic Movement in Judaism” (December 2012; Rutgers University Press) will argue that, in effect, Moses gets too much attention. The real movers and shakers of the Haskalah movement lived further east, in Eastern Europe, and were much less concerned with aligning themselves with 18th century Enlightenment thought than with its successor, and total opposite—Romanticism.

A 19th century phenomenon, borne in reaction to the Enlightenment, Romanticism was concerned with cultural regeneration. Romantics were ambivalent about human reason’s ability to equal the social playing field—the great promise of the Enlightenment—and instead stressed the cultural particularities that made any one group unique. A central focus of these cultural revivals was language—French in France, German in Germany, and, among 19th century Jewish Enlightenment thinkers, Hebrew for Jews. Poets, playwrights and novelists all began composing literary works that spoke to a vision of a lost, mythic past.

Litvak, a prominent young historian of modern Jewish history (and, full disclosure, a former professor of mine), will argue that the Haskalah must be understood primarily in this 19th century, Romantic context. Most scholars agree that the Haskalah movement didn’t really gain speed or cohesion until the early-to-mid-19th century. And yet there’s a strange tendency to still speak of the movement as if it were essentially Mendelssohn’s. Litvak instead focuses on the Eastern European Haskalah writers and thinkers, almost all from the 19th century, and how their ideas about Jewish revival were fundamentally Romantic.

Like their non-Jewish Romantic contemporaries, these writers were motivated by a nostalgic sense for a lost community, a quest for spiritual perfection, and a historical authenticity that would seem anachronistic, Litvak argues, if they were yoked to Enlightenment thought. It’s an argument anyone who takes Jewish history seriously should be highly anticipating. After all, without the Jewish Enlightenment—which brought Jews into modernity, and was the bridge to Jewish nationalism—the Jewish world we know now might never have existed.

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