Jewish Emancipation and Enlightenment

How Enlightenment ideals in Europe created the potential for Jewish citizenship.

The spread of the ideals of the Enlightenment in the countries of Western and Central Europe throughout the 18th century brought about a profound change in the attitude of the educated class of Europeans toward the Jews. But this new approach was not lacking in ambivalence. Though ready to recognize the equal value of each individual as a “human being,” whatever his origin or religious affiliation, it was totally unwilling to accept the existence of historical groups that sought, for whatever reason, to preserve their separate identity within the state. Furthermore, the demand of certain Jews to be accepted into European society while belonging to the “separate” Jewish group was regarded as hypocritical.

As a young man, the well-known German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote a play entitled The Jews (1749) with the sole purpose of proving that even among the Jews there were decent and honest people worthy of esteem. In Nathan the Wise (1779), he depicted the Jew as a proponent of natural religion, opposed to positive religions both in theory and practice. To the accusation leveled against the Jews that they had introduced the religious split between human beings and were the first to regard themselves as the “chosen people,” Nathan replies, “I did not choose my people nor you your people…I am a man first and a Jew second and you are a man first and a Christian second.”

The philosopher Herder, on the other hand, after defining the Jews as “a parasitic plant, clinging to almost all the European nations and sucking their marrow to a lesser or greater extent,” envisaged the day “when it will no longer be asked in Europe who is a Jew and who is a Christian, since the Jew will also live according to European laws and will contribute his share to the good of the state.”

A substantial section of the educated class in the 18th century nevertheless believed that it was possible to find ways of improving the Jews so that they could be absorbed and integrated into European society, even without altering their religion and beliefs. The Jews, it was argued, had many flaws and were infinitely inferior to the Christians. Yet it was the duty of Europeans to help reform them, ­as the laws of mediaeval Christian rulers and the persecutions by the church were what led to the Jews’ isolation and their preoccupation with trade and money-lending, which were the causes of their moral corruption.

The plans put forward included far‑reaching changes in the economic occupations of the Jews, their way of life and their communal organization. In his book on the Civil Reforms of the Jews (1781),C. W. Dohm proposed that they be granted equal rights and complete freedom in choice of occupation, although, above all, they should be encouraged to engage in crafts. He also proposed freedom of worship and the opening of synagogues, the abolition of special Jewish quarters (ghettos), admittance into schools, and permission to engage in science and the arts. At the same time, he advocated the prohibition of commercial bookkeeping in Hebrew in order to increase mutual trust and prevent deception.

He also favored supervision to ensure that Jewish schools should not be infiltrated, “by anti‑social attitudes towards those who think differently…(and that) some of the pure and holy truths of the religion and moral theory of rationalism (be nurtured), in particular the respect of all citizens for the state and acknowledgement of their obligations towards it.” Dohm also warned that Jews should not be encouraged to train for state service and suggested that if a Jew were equal in qualifications to a Christian, the latter should be preferred. His point of departure was, naturally, the belief that Jews had a tendency to be dishonest and were afflicted with greed, and that their religious tradition was imbued with hatred of Christians and of the state. A new educational method was required, therefore, under efficient government supervision “to prepare the coming generations, at least, for a more moderate attitude toward those with different views.”

Dohm’s book greatly influenced enlightened writers in other countries in their discussion of the Jewish question and their proposals for the reform of the Jews. These proposals differed in detail. The French cleric Abbe Henri Gregoire, who was awarded a prize by the Society of Sciences and Arts in Metz for his “Essay in the Physical, Moral, and Political Renaissance of the Jew” (1789), proposed the dissolution of Jewish communities and their transformation into private associations, occupied only with questions of religious worship and not with political or social matters. All Jewish gatherings would be chaired by a government representative and all deliberations would be conducted in the language of the country. Abbe Gregoire was the sworn enemy of all local dialects, but especially of the “German-Hebrew-Rabbinical jargon which the Jews of Germany employ and which only they understand, the main aim of which is to increase their ignorance or camouflage their lust.” In short, Gregoire wanted to restrict to the minimum all those factors differentiating Jews from their surroundings. In 1785 a Polish author had proposed that the Jews be forbidden to use their language in any document whatsoever, so that it would die out naturally. They should also be prohibited from wearing special clothing, from selling alcohol, and above all, in order to reform them completely, they should be conscripted for military service.

Reprinted with permission from A History of the Jewish People, edited by H.H. Ben-Sasson and published by Dvir Publishing House

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