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Reviewed by:
  • New Perspectives on the Haskalah
  • Lev Hakak
New Perspectives on the Haskalah edited by Shmuel Feiner and David Sorkin. London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001. 260 pp. $59.50.

Eleven scholars of history and literature present in this volume their perspective on the Jewish Enlightenment movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, known as Haskalah (1770s–1890s). The Enlightened Jews (maskilim) were intellectuals who wanted to bring liberalism and rationalism to Jewish life, and the studies in this volume include fine points about major and minor maskilim. Some of the contributors emphasize the links between Haskalah and tradition, the old and the new, the modern and the traditional, the enlightened and the Orthodox, rather than the clash between them.

The glossary (pp. 221–223) caters to the non-expert in the field of Jewish Studies and to a reader who is unfamiliar with the Hebrew terminology, and includes terminology such as “aggadah,” “derush,” “halakhah,” and “Pirkei avot.”

In their introduction the editors suggest that Enlightenment studies should be deflated, that the milieu of the movers of the movement should be studied, and that there were “varieties” of Enlightenment.

Five of the participants have academic titles in history, three of them in Hebrew Literature, two in Jewish Studies and one in theology. Six out of the eleven contributors are Israeli scholars. I will first present the articles written by contributors in literature: Shmuel Werses, Tova Cohen, and Yehuda Friedlander.

Shmuel Werses, an Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a central figure in the research of Haskalah, wrote “Portrait of a Maskil as a Young Man.” Werses presents the cost of the attraction of young Jews to the Haskalah. The young maskil collided with his teachers, spiritual leaders, parents, and in-laws.

Tova Cohen, a Professor at Bar-Ilan University, in “Reality and its Refraction in Descriptions of Women in Haskalah Fiction,” argues that men wrote the Haskalah literature for men, and, influenced by literary conventions, they either idealized or harshly criticized women in this literature.

The position of Yehuda Friedlander, a Professor of Hebrew Literature at Bar-Ilan University (and its former rector), in the chapter entitled “The Struggle of the Mitnagedim and Maskilim against Hasidism: Rabbi Jacob Emden and Judah Leib [End Page 178] Mieses,” is that in their attack against their Hasidic “enemy,” the maskilim exploited the works of rabbis who opposed Hasidism beginning with the last third of the eighteenth century. The enlightened Judah Leib Mieses of Galicia used Rabbi Emden’s anti-Hasidic work in his satires.

The first article in this volume, “The Early Haskalah,” is written by David Sorkin and the last one, “Towards a Historical Definition of the Haskalah,” by Shmuel Feiner, both of them editors of the volume.

David Sorkin, a Professor of Jewish Studies and Senior Fellow in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, views the first sixty years of the eighteenth century as an “early Haskalah” rather than an anticipation of it. The intellectual figures of that time strove for a curriculum that could encompass the culture of the time and at the same time pursue the revival of the study of Hebrew, of biblical exegesis, and of philosophy written in Hebrew.

Shmuel Feiner, Professor of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, presents the ideology, history, and centers of the Haskalah, the portrait of a maskil, and the maskilim’s self-image in considering themselves as part of a voluntary, redeeming avant-guard movement. The Haskalah triggered a Jewish internal cultural war, which is still being fought between modernist and anti-modernist Jews, between secular and Orthodox Jews.

Other innovative ideas and significant information in this book are briefly presented below.

Edward Breuer, who teaches at the Department of Theology at Loyola University in Chicago, discusses Naphtali Hertz Wessley in the article “Naphtali Hertz Wessley and the Cultural Dislocations of an Eighteenth-Century Maskil.” Early in his life Wessley worked for the revival of biblical Hebrew and for the assertion of the credibility of the Oral Torah. Wessley was at least at one stage of his life estranged from modern, traditional, and enlightened Jews.

Harris Bor, who received his Ph.D. in...

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