Early Modern Jewish History

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Jonathan Israel argues that mercantilism, an approach that advocates the deliberate pursuit of the economic interests of the state, irrespective of claims of existing law, privilege, tradition, and religion, signals the beginning of modernity

Mercantilism is epitomized in the role of the Court Jew. The Age of the Court Jew is generally considered to be from 1650‑1713. During this period, political upheaval required warring kingdoms to be in constant search of resources. Jews had the kind of resources that the kingdoms required as their role in gold, silver, metal and diamond trades gave them access to liquid capital. In addition, the widespread kinship ties of the Jews (especially Sephardim) allowed them to raise and move capital across the western world and the Ottoman Empire.

Court Jews thus aided European powers in militia purveying, providing them with munitions, food, and fodder. In return for his aid, the Court Jew was able to negotiate certain privileges. He frequently served multiple governments at the same time, and typically lived outside of the realm of the courts that he served.

Zionist historian Ben Zion Dinur selected 1700 as the beginning of the modern period in Jewish history. In that year, Rabbi Judah the Pious led approximately 1000 Jews to Palestine. Dinur argues that this event represents "a rebellion against the galut" (exile) and the first evidence of a movement to return to the Land.

All of these theories have their adherents and detractors. Those who criticize Scholem for granting Hasidism a pivotal role in the making of modernity argue that modernity inherently derived its spirit and strength from sources other than sacred authority. Israel is accused of over‑emphasizing the roles of mercantilism and the Court Jew, as these phenomena did not occur, for the most part, in the large 18th-century centers of Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire. Dinur is criticized for allowing ideology to cloud his analysis.

The causes and characteristics of modernity are complex. Historian Michael Meyer sums up the debate: "[I]t is by no means resolved whether the enlightenment and emancipation were the result of the rise of capitalist methods, the need for a more efficient government, or a more favorable social attitude emanating from a growing class of liberal intellectuals." Each of these factors deserves a closer look.

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