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Mendelssohn's Bible Taught Both German and Critical Reading

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 Bi'ur (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.

This is not to say that the Commentary is truly iconoclastic. Writing before the rise of Biblical Criticism, the Biurists adopted a stance that was completely traditional with regard to such things as the authorship of the biblical books, and was in fact fully in line with the exegesis of the medieval commentators such as Abraham Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, who tried to understand the Bible on its own terms unencumbered by midrashic elaborations. In further pursuit of their aim, the maskilim arranged for the first modern Jewish school to be opened in Berlin in 1778 and, in 1784, the periodical Hame'asef (The Gatherer) began to be published.

The Traditional Community Saw Danger Ahead

The German Haskalah may have been wel­comed by some of the traditional Rabbis but when they observed that the new tendency led many to a rejection of Judaism and even to apostasy they opposed it vehemently, forbid­ding any devout Jew to read the Biur, for example. The Rabbis saw clearly that the Haskalah was engaged in a transformation of Judaism, a shifting of its centre from the religious ideal of Torah study '”for its own sake,” with secular learning at the most an adjunct, to secular learning “for its own sake” with the study of the Torah as an adjunct. The Rabbis perceived the Haskalah as a modem version of the old struggle between Judaism and Hellen­ism, as in one sense it was. The maskilim were repeating in new form the medieval attempt to reconcile Judaism with Greek philosophy, with all the dangers to faith in the enterprise. The maskilimadmitted the charge. It was no acci­dent that Maimonides was the great hero of the maskilim, who were seeking to do for their age what the sage did for his.

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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.