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Shmuel Feiner. The Jewish Enlightenment. Translated by Chaya Naor. Jewish Culture and Contexts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. xiv + 440.

From Heinrich Graetz till Jacob Katz the Haskalah—purportedly initiated, inspired, and symbolized by Moses Mendelssohn—was portrayed as the first act in the drama of the modernization of the Jews. The conscious turn of the maskilim in Germany in the late eighteenth century to rationality, their openness to non-Jewish culture, their connections to general society, their criticism of Judaism, their efforts to revive or create anew Jewish literary genres—all of these not merely challenged traditional society but undermined it, bringing it into crisis. Not only did the "Haskalah Movement" fracture the coherence of the traditional world; it induced a series of processes that made the Jews modern: assimilation, religious reform, critical scholarship, emancipation, and nationalism. As such, Haskalah was the primary engine of Jewish modernization.

But after its utterly logical, orderly, elegant exposition in the third section of Katz's Tradition and Crisis1 (The Beginnings of Breakdown), this construction of the Haskalah, as fomenting the crisis of modernity and laying the foundations of Jewish modernization, became problematic. For all its explanatory power, it contradicted or ignored significant facts. The attack commenced with Azriel Shohet, who demonstrated that many of the features commonly associated with Haskalah—such as the search for "outside wisdom," close social and cultural contact with Gentiles, changes in educational practices, decline in intensity of ritual life—could be traced within German Jewry as much as a hundred years prior to Mendelssohn.2 According to Shohet, Mendelssohn, "as a perfectly religious [End Page 129] Jew," set out not to initiate new modes, but to moderate and modulate dangerous cultural trends that were already in process. To Shohet, he "was not 'the father of Haskalah,' not 'the harbinger of Haskalah,' and certainly not 'the creator of the Haskalah movement' . . . the Haskalah would have spread as well without him, just as it did not begin with him."3

Counterattack on Shohet4 did not blunt the force of at least two of the challenges he had posed to the "Graetz-Katz" Haskalah paradigm: If there were so many precedents, what was original about "the Mendelssohnian Haskalah"? What precisely was the relationship between Mendelssohn and "the Haskalah"?

Taking another tack, a series of scholars showed that Jewish Enlightenment was not necessarily German but manifest as well in Italy, Holland, Lithuania, England, Bohemia, Hungary, and elsewhere.5 If so, what was so special about German Haskalah? Why was it presented as the template for a historical phenomenon that took so many forms in so many places?

With regard to the causal relationship between Haskalah and modernization, Immanuel Etkes and David Fishman described early Haskalah in Eastern Europe without modernization; David Sorkin described both a progressively more radical Haskalah as well as "Orthodox Haskalah," with modernization more as cause than effect; Todd Endelman presented Jewish modernization in Georgian England without Haskalah; and Shulamit Volkov articulated various processes of Jewish modernization, both conscious and unconscious, not necessarily connected to Haskalah. Steven Lowenstein and Steven Zipperstein showed how difficult it was to ascribe to the typically poor, low-prestige, uninfluential maskilim social [End Page 130] leadership that inspired, much less imposed, modern sensibilities on larger circles.6

By the end of the twentieth century, historiography had sundered the chain, Haskalah-emancipation-assimilation-Wissenschaft-Reform-nationalism. While they all stood in some kind of relationship to each other, each of these phenomena had its own distinct history. The notion of Haskalah as generator of both the crisis of tradition and the onset of modernity was shaken.

Feiner's book brings about its demise. In his telling, rather than representing "a crisis or a milestone in the course of the Jews' integration, assimilation, or abandonment of the 'ghetto' for the sake of the temptations 'outside'," Haskalah was "an internal revolution affecting Jewish society and culture" (p. 369).

With keen insight, Feiner points out that by the late 1790s the Berlin maskilim, who—according to the conventional narrative—had succeeded in their initial objectives and were leading the way to the more advanced stages of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0604
Print ISSN
0021-6682
Pages
pp. 129-136
Launched on MUSE
2007-03-01
Open Access
No
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