Haskalah

Be a Jew at home and a man on the street.

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It is not, therefore, correct to speak of Mendelssohn as the founder of the Haskalah movement. He has been more accurately described as the “Father of the Haskalah,” the central figure who helped to organize the movement and who, together with his associates, encouraged its spread.

A Complicated Set of Goals and Ideals

One of the aims of the maskilim was to help Jews to acquire equal rights in German society. This, they maintained, was impossible and would not be granted by the German govern­ment, unless the blinkers of the ghetto mental­ity had been removed from Jewish eyes. As part of their educational program, the maskilim sought to encourage Jews to substitute for the Yiddish they commonly spoke the German language of culture, a language that would give them access to German and other European literature and open their minds to new ideas.

But, aware that this aim could easily lead to a rejection of the rich Jewish literary heritage, the maskilimalso stressed the need to cultivate the Hebrew language of the Bible, so that Judaism could be expressed on its own terms as a philosophy of life in no sense inferior to that of their neighbour. The program required Jewish schools to be established in which the children would be taught both Hebrew and general science and literature.

An associate of Mendelssohn, Naftali Herz Wesseley (1725-­1805), published his Divrei Shalom Ve'emet  (Words of Peace and Truth), often described as the manifesto of the Haskalah, in which he made a typical Haskalah distinction between “the law of man” and the “law of God”; the former denoted Western patterns of life and secular learning, the latter, the traditional Jew­ish wayof religious life and study. The maskilim had to struggle for the realization of these two, often conflicting, aims.

As late as the mid­-nineteenth century the Russian maskil, Judah Leib Gordon, could still proclaim as the Haskalah ideal: “Be a Jew in your home and a man outside it,” as if a Jew could only make his way as a “man” by concealing his Jewish identity when associating with his non‑Jewish neigh­bours. The tensions arising out of the virtually overnight emergence of the Jew from the con­fines of the ghetto were bound to be acute. Jews had to try to achieve an accommodation with modernity in a single generation, a task in which their Christian neighbours had been involved for several centuries.

The German Jews found themselves suddenly precipitated from medievalism into the modem world with hardly any time to reflect on the totally un­familiar, new situation in which they found themselves. No wonder the efforts of the mas­kilim were often fraught with peril. No wonder the more traditional saw the Haskalah as sub­versive and preferred to remain within the confines of the old ways in all their coziness and with all their certainties.

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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.