Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Jewish Enlightenment by Shmuel Finer

This volume studies the beginning of the Enlightenment as it affects the Jewish community emerging into the modernity of Central Europe.  Moses Mendelssohn, Naftali Herz Wessely, David Friedlander, and Isaac Euchel are highlighted in this very informative text.  The author puts force a thesis that the adherents of modernity attempt to break the power of the "rabbinic elite" by suggesting changes to the educational curricula and how the "rabbinic elite" react and fight back.  [I am not sure the author uses this term, "rabbinic elite" in a neutral way or gives away his attitude toward some very famous and great rabbis like Landau and Emden.]

With the fall of feudalism, modernity ushers in personal autonomy; Voltaire strikes hard against the Church and monarchy with his Reason and the independent press is exploited as a tool to communicate beyond any church or government.  The Jewish community in Germany emerges from the ghetto with activists promoting emancipation, and tolerance attempting to join the common ground of contemporary general culture as observant Jews.

Mendelssohn comes off as a traditional Jew with no interest in innovating new ways. He is depicted as a commanding silent figure all the while believing that the East European Jew is too obscurantist.  Finer astutely points out that Mendelssohn believed in 'tolerance' in this new age.  He believes the rabbinic ban is completely inappropriate in an age of personal autonomy.  For example, Mendelssohn does not seem to be put off by Solomon Maimon's non-observance and certainly does not believe that he should be excommunicated.  He supports the liberal notion of tolerance.  Nevertheless, Mendelssohn prefers not to be an activist but rather the sage philosopher and most famed Jew of the era.

His student, Naftali Herz Wessely makes the sparks fly by independently calling for a new curriculum for Jewish schools:  traditional Torah Talmud study coupled with the rigors of modern science and contemporary language and etiquette.  Wessely's criticism stings implying that the traditional Jew is backward in need of some training to be of modern worth.  Rabbi David Tevele delivers a fiery sermon denouncing any innovation.  Moreover, the rabbi rejects Wessely's premise that a traditional Jewish education precludes one from being a worthy modern human being.

The traditional rabbis rally around Tevele denouncing Wessely as a heretic!  The hyperbole come fast and furious, forcing the rabbis to eventually articulate their traditional position.  The shock, however, of an independent voice in the Torah community is initially dumbfounding!  The rabbis refuse to engage Wessely directly who is stunned at their ferocious response of heresy.  Wessely a traditional observant Jew, can not understand what could be so terrible about his program.

Friedlander eventually breaks from traditional observance becoming a radical reformer and ultimately an apostate.  Isaac Euchel directs the Jewish Enlightenment press, pressing for changes until the Jewish enlightenment loses its support to assimilation.

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