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Reprinted with permission from
The Jewish Religion: A Companion
, published by Oxford University Press.
Haskalah, “[the] Enlightenment,”[is] 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. This latter term is found in the verse: “And the intelligent [hamaskilim] shall shine as the brightness of the firmament” (Daniel 12:3), although, in this verse, the meaning of maskilim is simply “the wise,” the men of wisdom. These terms did not become prominent until the middle of the nineteenth century, though the trend they represent began a century earlier.
Maskilim visit the home of Moses Mendelssohn.
When Did the Middle Ages End?
The historian Leopold Zunz remarked that the Jewish Middle Ages did not come to an end until the French Revolution, when the new ideas of liberty were reflected in the German Aufklarung [Enlightenment]. During the eighteenth century, a number of middle‑class German Jews had begun to shake off the intellectual fetters, as they saw it, of the ghetto and had begun to take their place in German society, often meeting with hostility and having to fight against prejudice. There was, of course, considerable intellectual activity in the life of the ghetto but this was in the traditional mode of study, chiefly the study of the Talmud and the Codes, with no desire for instruction in the new learning that followed on the Renaissance, to which the Jews, with few exceptions, had no access.
Nevertheless, there were a number of German Jews in the middle of the eighteenth century who had managed to acquire a degree of general education and “enlightenment.” Out of their ranks the Haskalah emerged. The central figure here is Moses Mendelssohn, the great thinker who was an observant Jew fully trained in the traditional Jewish learning, and yet thoroughly at home in German philosophy and culture. A group of enthusiastic seekers gathered around Mendelssohn in Berlin, to be guided by him in the pursuit of the new knowledge.
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