In this article, I examine the critiques of the rabbinate expressed by four major groups within eighteenth-century Polish Jewish society: the communal leadership, the maskilim, the rabbinic elite, and adherents to the nascent Hasidic movement. All were agreed that contemporary rabbis were venal, ignorant, and dependent on the Polish nobility for their posts. In proposing solutions to this problem, the communal leadership and the maskilim favored a severe reduction in rabbinic power and even the abolition of the post, whereas the rabbinic elite and Hasidic leaders proposed a renewal of spiritual leadership through the creation of a new learned elite. However, whereas the rabbinic elite favored a withdrawn ascetic group of scholars, Hasidic leaders favored scholars who were deeply involved in social affairs. Noting that the basic outlines of this critique had been made nearly two centuries previously, I suggest that the problems it identified did not constitute a crisis brought on by external factors but, rather, a structural development that arose in response to the Jews’ place in the early modern polity. Thus, the idea that modernization took place as the result of a crisis overtaking a static “traditional society” should be replaced with a model of incremental change.


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pp. 1-39
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