Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Review of Shmuel Feiner's The Jewish Enlightenment

Shmuel Feiner's The Jewish Enlightenment is a very good overview of the haskallah movement. It is the only good historical survey that coveres the whole period from about 1780-1800. It covers all the major players, literature, and crises in the movement.

The historiography of the Jewish Enlightenment usually focuses on Moses Mendelssohn and his circle of students. Feiner's discussion is much more nuanced, and comprehensive. The book makes a few things clear: The haskallah seems to have been motivated by a few things including equal rights for Jews, a feeling of intellectual inferiority by Jews, the need for scientific knowledge and culture, and a need to break Jews away from the authority of the rabbinical elite. The rabbinical elite were suspect for many things, but their anti-enlightenment attitude was especially problematic. Their stance on the early burial issue seems to have been particularly annoying to the maskillim.

The book argues a few very interesting pionts: Mendelssohn didn't really have students. He had a circle of people who revolved around him, went to his home and took part in discussion with him and his salon. Also, there is no clear way to deliniate when the enlightenment was actually taking place. Feiner uses the publication of Ha'me'asef, their main literary journal as to dilineate the endpoints of the haskallah.

The book tells the story of all the important battles the haskallh fought, including the ones with Wessely, the ones over the schools, the fight over the Bi'ur, the Posner affair, Mendelssohn's battle with the Priest, the Kohn problems. . . . Part III of the book tries to show what the haskallah movement was and how they organized, and what their institutional structures were. Part IV then chronicles their ultimate demise. Mendlessohn dies, their reaison d'etra is less clear. Their are battling both the "ignorant rabbis" and also the secularized Jews. The movement ultimately looses momentum and cannot attract interest.

The book is a good read and I learned quite a bit about the history of the haskallah.

1 comment:

erica said...

I learned a lot about Haskalah in A History of Jewish Literature: Volume IX - Hasidism and Enlightenment by Israel Zinberg.