Discover History, Art, Writings - Primary Sources from Biblical Times to the 21st Century Discover History, Art, Writings - Primary Sources from Biblical Times to the 21st Century

Elisheva Carlebach, editor of Confronting Modernity, 1750–1880, discusses secular and religious options in Jewish life (from the introduction to Volume 6 of The Posen Library).

In many parts of the world, as cultural endeavors by Jews were no longer rooted in religion, Jews experimented with different definitions of Jewish identity. The quest to find a positive Jewish identification that was not exclusively religious yielded fascinating and varied new results. This volume traces the course of Jewish culture during a period of constant transformation. For some Jews, this period was marked by the transition into modernity, for others into a new form of colonial rule, and for others yet, a growing confidence that they could put down roots in lands of relative civic equality and freedom. Many of those who steadfastly championed religious tradition could nevertheless be seen as making conscious religious and cultural choices within the marketplace of competing identities, options that were themselves creations of modern times.

The dizzying array of choices about their very identity and the means of expressing it, as well as continuing hostility to Jews and Jewish culture through the nineteenth century, propelled some Jews to abandon their Jewish identities entirely. For others, social, religious, and cultural bonds to Jews and Judaism diminished over the course of generations, leading to a process that Todd M. Endelman [coeditor of The Posen Library, Volume. 8, Crisis and Creativity between World Wars, 1918–1939] has called “drift and defection.” This happened frequently enough that conversion out of Judaism in this period can be seen as one of an array of choices made by Jews, one that characterized the Jewish experience in this period no less than intense attachments. Religious conversion to another faith generally led to a historical dead end for an individual’s progeny as members of the Jewish people. The volume nevertheless includes the contributions of converts if their work could be seen as having been nourished in some way by their Jewish background. The poet Heinrich Heine, statesman Benjamin Disraeli, composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, salonnière Rahel Varnhagen, Russian schoolteacher Jacob Brafman, and founder of communism Karl Marx provide some of the more renowned examples of this category. [ . . . ]

Developments over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries provided more than new opportunities for Jewish encounters with non-Jewish cultures: they completely transformed the fields on which these interactions played out. The traditional templates of Jewish culture as existing within the framework of majority–minority relations, of those who belonged and barely tolerated aliens, receded. Instead, a growing Jewish self-consciousness emerged, with new definitions and articulations of the self. Where premodern life writing by Jews located the self firmly within the communal sphere, Western, and later Eastern European Jewish, autobiography emphasized the individual’s break from community and tradition.

Jews embarked on this odyssey along utterly different pathways depending on national community, geography, and individual proclivities. For some Jews, this passage meant mobility from village to urban settings, from economic margins to bourgeois prosperity, from old world to new, and in some parts of the world, from pariah to civic equal. In Western Europe, the demise of the kehillah (structured Jewish community) and its traditional authority, largely accomplished over the course of our period, meant the disappearance of a holistic Jewish life and culture that did not depend on the world outside it for validation. It opened the way for Jews to embrace the culture of the majority directly and consciously, and to do so in ways that ranged from the superficial to the profound, from head coverings, facial hair, and dress style to social, linguistic, economic, and occupational choices. Introduced to European philosophy, scientific and intellectual achievements, art, music, and theater, Jews immersed themselves in, and soon mastered, these genres. In nineteenth-century Russia, deep fissures characterized Jewish society. The vast majority of Jews became increasingly impoverished, with limited access to economic and educational means to improve their lot. Wealthier Jews migrated to St. Petersburg, where they lived like urban elites. The best of the Talmud scholars flocked to cities with famous yeshivot, as in Vilna, while a cadre of official rabbis administered to the religious needs of their often disenchanted flocks. [ . . . ]

In the Ottoman Empire, a different cultural pathway appeared. Within the Jewish court system traditional rabbinic leaders had to compete with state-supported (or appointed) rabbis. While state backing would appear to have strengthened these rabbinic courts, this was not the case. The rise of new “mixed” state courts alongside the existing Islamic and consular courts, where Jews also historically went to adjudicate various cases, made for a system of legal pluralism that weakened the hold of the Jewish courts over Jews in the empire. Nevertheless, religion resided far more closely with features of modern Western life and this is reflected in the cultural production of the period. The comfortable accommodation of state, religion, and culture in the Muslim sphere contrasted with the antagonistic relationship of state, religion, and culture in the Christian world.

New models of Jewish leadership emerged in this period: maskilic intellectuals, Hasidic rebbes, writers, artists, and a secular intelligentsia. They shared a rejection of the traditional model in which a combination of piety and rabbinic scholarship, with emphasis on the latter, formed the primary basis of authority. By overturning models of leadership, Jews challenged long-standing traditions of hierarchical values in Jewish society.

Two central themes intersect at the very foundations of the Jewish experience in this period. In the West they are traditionally termed Enlightenment and Emancipation. This volume construes these concepts in the broadest possible way, such that they embrace the Jewish experience without borders. The former term refers here to engagement with the larger culture, the adoption of new modes of Jewish self-definition, and a reconfigured relationship to the larger culture. The strong and varied forms of resistance, in many parts of the Jewish world, to such engagement were inextricably intertwined with these developments. The term emancipation refers broadly to the constantly shifting relationship of Jews to their states and to the societies of which they formed an integral part. This volume traces the emergence of cultural, religious, and political movements, as well as new individual identities, representations, and expressions of the Jewish self vis-à-vis the community and within the non-Jewish world. These movements and choices often appeared in innovative configurations introduction to confronting modernity, that had little precedent in Jewish culture. They alternately embraced, rejected, or revised the Jewish elements that emerged from the crucible of self-examination, public deliberation, and the private agony of modernization.

Elisheva Carlebach, editor of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, Volume 6: Confronting Modernity, 1750–1880, is Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture, and Society and director, Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University.

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