Moses Mendelssohn (Johann Gotthard von Müller/Wikimedia)

Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment

Originating in 18th-century Germany, this movement of "maskilim" sought to integrate Jewish ideas and Jews into Western society.

Haskalah (השׂכּלה), “[the] Enlightenment,”[is] the movement which originated in 18th‑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 (שׂכּל)  “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.

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.

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 its neighbors. 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.

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.

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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