Jewish Denominations: Emergence and Growth

Modernization and its discontents.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

There is much truth in the observation by the pioneering historian, Leopold Zunz, that the Jewish Middle Ages lasted until the end of the eighteenth century, in that the currents of thought and life which followed the Renaissance and shattered the medieval picture largely passed by the Jews. Confined in the ghetto, European Jewry, constituting by far the largest segment of Jewry at the time, cultivated its own traditional way of life until the Western world and its culture was opened to the Jews after the French Revolution and the subsequent Jewish Emancipation.

The Jewish Enlightenment 

Yet already in the second half of the eighteenth century, the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement had its aim certainly not the disavowal of traditional Judaism but the encouragement of the new science and learning among the Jews, of an openness to Western ideas and norms that might result in a rationalist approach to the tradition, and a general widening of Jewish horizons. The Haskalah did not necessarily imply that Jewish observance should be abandoned. Many of its adherents, the maskilim, were totally observant in their private lives.

Nevertheless, the traditionalists were bitterly opposed to the Haskalah, fighting it with every means at their disposal. And the Maskilim were not content with the introduction of the new learning into the Jewish schools. The traditional method of Torah study, with its complete emphasis on the Talmud and codes of Jewish law and without any systematic approach to education, also came under attack. The Maskilim urged a return to the study of the Bible in its plain meaning, unencumbered, as they saw the ideal, by the older type of rabbinic exegesis.

New Reforms

The Haskalah paved the way for the emergence of the Reform movement in early nineteenth-century Germany, a movement that posed the severest threat to the traditional way of Jewish life. It was in Germany, in the first instance, that the Jew who had recently emerged from the ghetto to take his place in Western society experienced the tension between the traditional way of life and the allure of the new ways. Some of the more intellectual and wealthy Jews were so enamored of the German culture that they cast off entirely what they considered to be the fetters of tradition, to become completely assimilated even to the point of converting to Christianity.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.