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  • Emancipation, Haskalah, and Reform: The Contribution of Amos Funkenstein
  • David Sorkin (bio)

It was an unusual privilege to have studied with Amos Funkenstein. He lived and breathed the rarefied air of intellectual history, providing his students with an incomparable model of intellectual engagement, close textual analysis, and an unfailing ability to devise precise formulations. His range of expertise was so broad as to inspire, but—for the graduate student and even for the ordinary colleague—also to intimidate: the entire sweep of Jewish history, Western philosophy from the Greeks to the present, the history of science, and much more.

What was most extraordinary about Funkenstein was that he did not keep these spheres of knowledge separate. He understood them to be integrally related and was able to show the internal connections between apparently disparate and often distant phenomena. One of his oft-repeated mottos was that “ninety percent of medieval Jewish history is medieval history.” Although he did not extend that motto to other periods, he did exemplify it in his scholarship. His essays on emancipation, Haskalah, and religious reform are cases in point. He brought to those subjects methods and questions embedded in European history that offered new perspectives.

Funkenstein’s essay “The Political Theory of Jewish Emancipation” offered a thoroughly original approach to the subject; so far as I am aware, no one had previously contended that an actual theory of emancipation had existed on the Jewish side, and no one had previously placed Moses Mendelssohn, Karl Marx, and Theodor Herzl under a single rubric. Funkenstein’s emphasis on intellectual history allowed [End Page 98] him to break the parameters in which emancipation had hitherto been discussed.

Funkenstein worked in the German tradition of Ideengeschichte. He assumed that the best thinkers brought clarity to the intellectual discourse of an age by lucidly formulating the central concepts that others had only dimly perceived and then illuminating the linkages between those concepts. Studying these ideas was no mere exercise in theory: insofar as the leading ideas helped give an age its shape, examining them was an exploration of the internal logic of events. Although Funkenstein emphatically rejected the Hegelian notion that history was a rational process governed by an unfolding logic, he did espouse the historicist notion that major thinkers were often able to articulate the essential problematic of the periods in which they lived. Thus the study of the history of ideas was not the study of ethereal theory but rather the analysis of the most essential historical praxis.

The scholarship on emancipation, especially for the German states, had generally taken one of two approaches. Much of it had addressed the role and function of state and society. Salo Baron had, for example, emphasized the degree to which emancipation was driven by state needs rather than by any change in attitude toward the Jews or the desires or activities of the Jews themselves. 1 Reinhard Rürup similarly argued that emancipation was largely dependent upon the emergence of a bourgeois society and the accompanying changes to the state. 2

When scholars examined the Jews’ role, they tended to concentrate on the general adjustment to the new circumstances engendered by emancipation, especially assimilation and religious reform. Those scholars who treated the Jews’ ideological development usually restricted themselves to the phenomenon of the Haskalah, in which case they discussed its ideas of educational and occupational reform as part of a program to reform the Jews on the basis of rational principles. 3 H. D. Schmidt’s effort to analyze both sides of the equation—the “terms of emancipation” as understood by various thinkers and set by legislation as well as the Jews’ response to them, even if the latter was only briefly sketched out—was something of a novelty. 4

Although Funkenstein took account of these arguments, he departed from them, indeed subverted them, by asking at the highest level of abstraction which theories had penetrated to the heart of the emancipation debate. 5 The heart of that debate was the confusion between the political process of emancipation, on the one side, and the social process of assimilation and integration, on the other. That confusion was virtually omnipresent, besetting Jews and...

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