Throughout the Middle Ages, Northern and Eastern European Jews — called Ashkenazim — lived entirely separate lives from their Christian neighbors (who occasionally turned into their Christian persecutors). By monarchs’ mandates, Jews were forced to live in ghettos (generally the worst part of a city), barred from most professions, and made to pay higher taxes. (One monarch forced Jews to buy rejected porcelain that his factories couldn’t sell on all celebratory occasions.) Jews had to wear a yellow patch on their clothing and were frequently forbidden to travel or even leave the ghetto. The blood libel that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for rituals became common, and entire communities were either forcibly converted or murdered because of it. Some countries expelled all Jews from within their borders, including England. The idea that a Jew could be noble or trustworthy was laughable.
Even without these restrictions on Jews, Jewish communities knew to remain separate from the outside Christian world: there’s even a line from the Ethics of the Fathers that warns against getting involved with the government.1 To marry outside the faith was seen as an act of rebellion, of rejecting the basic precepts of Judaism, and those who did were considered dead to the community. Most Jews in Eastern Europe could read and speak Hebrew but not the language of the kingdom in which they lived: in their daily lives they instead spoke a dialect of Yiddish, reserving Hebrew for prayer and study. A relatively small number of Jews lived outside of the ghetto, protected by their position and wealth.
The state of Jewish thought in that time was relatively poor. While most men and women were at least literate in Hebrew in prayers, few had any personal connection to the words. For the most part, Jewish thought was learning by rote the sayings of the generations before them. The people frequently reverted to mystical beliefs and messianism — most famously Shabbatai Tzvi, the 17th century mystic who many thousands of Jews believed was the embodiment of the Mashiach, the one who will bring about the redemption of the Jewish people. When in 1666 Tsvi was given the option of death or conversion to Islam and picked the latter, Jewish faith was thrown into disarray.
Jewish standing in the world changed perhaps irrevocably because of the Enlightenment, which preached — for the first time in the history of Western Civilization — that all people are created equal, including the Jews. Along with the Enlightenment rose a new movement, the Jewish Enlightenment, called the Haskalah, which comes from the Hebrew word for “intellect”.
The father of Haskalah is widely considered to be Moses Mendelssohn. Born in 1729 and trained as a rabbi in a time when the study of any secular subjects was forbidden, Mendelssohn secretly learned German, Latin, French, English, and mathematics. Instead of taking a position in the rabbinate, he became a tutor and bookkeeper for a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, which gave him plenty of time to write and engage in discourse with non-Jewish friends with similar leanings in philosophy. In 1763, he entered and won the Berlin Academy’s essay contest on the application of mathematical proofs to metaphysics: in second place was Immanuel Kant.
After a heated open exchange about the truth of Jesus with a fervent physiogonomist (Mendelssohn maintaining that he respected the morality of the Jewish rabbi of the first century C.E., but not the divinity), Mendelssohn turned more towards Jewish philosophy. He published multiple works pushing for Jewish acceptance in the Gentile world, arguing that “diversity is evidently the plan and purpose of Providence.” 2 At the same time, he pushed Jews to be more open and accepting toward the Christian world. He rejected mysticism and pushed for rationality.
Perhaps the biggest game-changer Mendelssohn made was his translation of the Torah into German. Throughout the ages, the rabbis had looked very harshly at translations of the Torah into any language but Hebrew: the very words themselves were holy, and there were meanings in the words that could not be understood in translation. But Mendelssohn felt that understanding German was an essential step for the Jews of the German states. By translating the Torah into German, he hoped to bridge the gap between the Jewish world and the outside world: by understanding German, Jews could enter not just the elite academic halls, but the mainstream Germanic world.
After Mendelssohn’s death in 1786, the Haskalah movement took off. The main message of the movement was to encourage Jews to come out of the ghetto, physically, mentally, and spiritually. The leaders of the movement, called Maskilim, felt that the current methods of Jewish learning being taught were stultifying and irrelevant: there was too much learning by rote and not enough innovation. While the Haskalah movement originated in the circles of wealthy, relatively assimilated Jews, an effort was made to spread it to all levels of Jewish society.3 They established schools and published secular Jewish works in Hebrew and German. The effort was in large part successful: Jews all throughout Eastern Europe learned of these ideas and incorporated them into new political movements for emancipation and Jewish nationalism.
But there was a price to pay for greater intercourse with the outside world, for the world to find that Jews were not irredeemable and thus to be written off. Assimilation and conversion, once unthinkable, became commonplace. In Germany, the conversion rate of Jews to Christianity soared during the early part of the 19th century. Out of Moses Mendelssohn’s six children, four converted to Christianity, and several more of his grandchildren also converted.
For centuries, the Ashkenazi Jewish world had been basically united, with no major divisions beyond differing interpretations between two rabbis. With the rise of a movement that tolerated differences in opinion, it inevitably allowed for more voices for divisions — including those that lasted far longer than the Enlightenment movement.
1 Pirkei Avot 1.10 http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/2165/jewish/Chapter-One.htm
Rachel Landau is a graduate student in public policy. She previously worked as a museum security guard. She has lost on Jeopardy!
Corrections: Thanks to Erin for pointing out the Ashkenazim are not the only Jewish group in Europe. The Ashkenazim in the article refer to a group of Northern and Eastern European Jews; we’ve made note of that clarification in the above article. ~RL & Ay-leen