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Haskalah


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‘Enlightenment’, the movement which originated in eighteenth century Germany with the aim of broadening the intellectual and social horizons of the Jews to enable them to take their place in Western society. The term Haskalah, in medieval Jewish literature, is from the Hebrew word sekhel, ‘the intellect’, but, as here applied, refers to the attitude of attraction to general knowledge, secular learning, and Western culture. The followers of the Haskalah movement were called Maskilim.

The first major contribution of the Haskalah to modernization was the translation of the Bible into German by Mendelssohn, provided with a Hebrew commentary by a number of his associates called the Biur (Commentary). Through the translation, Jews, familiar with the Hebrew of the Bible, acquired a fair knowledge of the German language. Through the Commentary, they were introduced to a new approach to the Bible since the Commentary departed radically from the fanciful homiletical style, popular for centuries, in favour of what they felt was the plain meaning of the biblical text.

From Germany the Haskalah spread to Galicia and later to Russia. In these countries the Jews were far more deeply immersed in the traditional Jewish learning and far more observant of Jewish practices than their German coreligionists and had little reason to feel culturally inferior to their Polish or Russian neighbours. Nevertheless, the Haskalah ideal proved extremely attractive to a number of thoughtful Jews in the Galician towns of Lemberg and Brody. The Reform movement had its origin in the German Haskalah as did the neo-Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch. After the Haskalah, there was no longer any need to argue that a Jew could be loyal to his religion without ignoring the values of Western society. Zionism can be said to be a more Jewish version of the Haskalah and, of course, the State of Israel is a modern state in which the liberal values of the West are accepted without reservation.

The final verdict on the Haskalah has not yet been given. For all their attacks on some aspects of the traditional way of life, the Maskilim were, in the main, religious men who wished to further the cause of Judaism in the new environment. They saw their struggle as directed against what they considered to be the superstitious and reactionary elements in the tradition, not against the tradition itself and certainly not against the Jewish religion. Despite their espousal of secular learning, the Maskilim were remote from secularism. It is going too far to see the Haskalah as a religious movement, but the religious motivation was rarely absent from their thinking and activities.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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