Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tradition and Crisis by Jacob Katz

Professor Katz of Hebrew University wrote a seminal contribution to modern Jewish history in discussing the convergence of massacres, the Enlightenment and Hasidism that resulted in the breakdown of the corporate structure of the traditional Jewish community of Germany and Eastern Europe.

After a detailed description of the different parts of the Jewish community of the Middle Ages, Katz explains that historical events were too profound for the community to withstand.  The impact of the new age was like a juggernaut that left the leaders of the community staggering to recover the past.  With a new neutral society the Jewish community had to resort to the power of persuasion to retain the allegiance of the membership. 

The traditional isolation of the Jewish community in Western Europe saw an open door to the outside world with the rise of the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment.  Moses Mendelssohn stepped out the of Study Hall and into the Salons of Philosophy with the hope of acceptance.  Although acceptance did not really come, the lure of the outside was overwhelming.  The requirement of Jewish domicile was loosened and the Jew could live among the gentiles.

The despair that resulted from the attacks on the Jewish people created new trends among the people and instead of traditional scholarship and Torah study, charismatic and ecstatic experience attracted the simple folk.  Individuals of charisma, not known for their scholarship created an atmosphere of equality  instead of the 'elitism' of Torah Scholars.  This new group now wanted to create their own communities and NOT to integrate into the traditional society.  Their especially sharpened slaughter knives were not just a halakhic stringency but rather, a guarantee that their adherents would not eat the meat of the traditional community!

Professor Katz believes that the Enlightenment and Hasidism were successful assaults against the traditional Jewish community from opposite ends of the social spectrum.  The Enlightenment created a neutral society that essentially disarmed the rabbinic ban.  If one disagreed with the community, one was free to live somewhere else.  The ban meant little.  Hasidut demanded fervor and enthusiasm that the traditional community lacked.  Hasidim encouraged defection from the traditional community.  As a result, the corporate structure crumbled which gave rise to talented individuals who had to rely on their ingenuity to rebuild, reconstruct, and retain their constituency.

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