The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe
The decline of religious observance in modern Europe—commonly referred to as "secularization"—is a highly contested historical phenomenon. As originally conceived by sociologists more than forty years ago, the "secularization thesis" assumes that the more modern a society is, the more secular it will be. Although there is no denying that the role of religion in some modern societies has become noticeably shrunken, such critics as José Casanova, Talal Asad, and now Peter Berger reject the claim that this decline was inevitable. They have also rejected the structural assumptions upon which the idea of secularization is based.
With the publication of Israeli historian Shmuel Feiner's Origins of Jewish Secularization, we have a work that aims to rehabilitate the beleaguered secularization thesis. Organized chronologically, the book examines the background to the abandonment of religious norms, the denial of beliefs, and the growing indifference to religious authority in six leading cities in Western and Central Europe: London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin, Breslau, and Prague. Feiner is concerned primarily with the behavioral aspects of secularization and how these reflected changes in Jewish self-definition. In his view, polar differences between the secular and religious orientations account for the emergence of two socially distinct and ideologically charged camps.
Feiner's main historical claim is that the roots of Jewish secularization extended back to the beginning of the eighteenth century, more than two generations before the cultural revolution of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). On this point, he repeats the argument made by Azriel Shohet a half-century ago, though Feiner has broadened his study to include the Netherlands and England in addition to Germany. He argues that such marginal groups as conversos, neo-Karaites, and [End Page 627] Sabbatians, which openly challenged religious norms and rabbinic authority, were crucial to the early history of secularization, though it was the influence of Deism that was felt most concretely by those who broke with religious orthodoxy. As to internal forces, Feiner attributes deviations from religious norms to the decline of rabbinic authority. Here he follows Gershom Scholem and Jacob Katz, who argued that the messianic Sabbatian movement irrevocably weakened religious authority across the continent.
The volume's most important contribution is its detailed illustration of secularizing trends, including the rich biographical sketches that fill its pages. This approach follows from the author's suggestion that the process of secularization was sparked by men and women who hoped to realize their individuality through the enjoyment of autonomy and the pursuit of pleasure. Biographical vignettes portray the varied lives of men and women who experienced religious doubt, philosophical dilemmas, and the attraction of European culture and amusements. Feiner also details the growing tension in urban communities where individuals identified as deists, skeptics, and subversives were marginalized and vilified. The ensuing culture wars were, in the author's view, fueled by the perception that after mid-century secularization had intensified and expanded in scope. Feiner links these developments to the emergence of the city in the eighteenth century as a cultural center to which the broader public had access. Evidence of Jews' participation in European high culture is drawn from published and unpublished sources, as well as from the more official communal record books. These details add depth and texture to an otherwise familiar picture; they also attest to the prodigious research upon which this book rests.
As to the interpretation of the data he has assembled, Feiner is on less certain ground. His description of secular behavior, especially in the first half of the eighteenth century, relies heavily on the perspective of rabbinic critics. Although one can surely learn a great deal about patterns of religious behavior from rabbinic sources, these materials overwhelmingly reflect the perceptions of the rabbinic class, their concerns about the erosion of traditional behavior, and their hypersensitivity to minor infractions. On occasion, Feiner even appears to adopt the judgment of rabbinic critics who railed against fashionable dress, wigs, and beardlessness because these signified, in their estimation, the subversion of Jewish values. Certainly aware of the unreliability of the rhetoric of rabbinic exhortation, he nonetheless considers it "a good yardstick" (59), and in the absence of other sources employs this literature to determine the motivations and intentions of transgressors. In fact, Feiner's insistence that pleasure seeking had become more defiant and unburdened by guilt in the eighteenth century is likewise based on evidence drawn from rabbinic detractors.
A broader concern is that Feiner has incorporated too much under the rubric of secularization. For example, Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn is presented as having advanced a theory concerning pleasure that was comparable to the hedonism of secular Jews. This is a difficult claim to maintain, since the "pleasure" referred to by Mendelssohn (61) was a form of intellectual satisfaction that he described using religious and spiritual language. The fact that he was guided by a "humanistic ethos," as Feiner asserts, should not be taken to imply that his appreciation of pleasure was contrary to Jewish religious teachings. Nor is it clear that by wearing a wig, frequenting coffee houses, or developing an appreciation for the theater, this traditionally observant Jew ought to be viewed as having "vigorously favored the secularization of life." Some of Feiner's other exemplars of secularism [End Page 628] also fail to fit the mold, including a woman who expressed misgivings about the abandonment of religious practice, and a man who reported that he prayed when so moved. And a radical disciple of Mendelssohn, highly critical of rabbinic authority and of rituals he regarded as questionable, arguably was motivated to work toward reform out of deeply religious concerns. Evidence of this sort suggests that the category "secular" is not adequate to describe the complexities of Jewish identity, especially in the eighteenth century.
Nevertheless, Feiner deserves thanks for undertaking this exceedingly difficult work. He has ambitiously enlarged the focus of his study beyond questions of religious laxity and authority in order to consider the blurring of Jewish cultural boundaries as well as their expansion. But this agenda also runs the risk of conflating acculturation and secularization. Recent studies suggest that even advanced acculturation was possible within a traditional religious framework, so that the equation of modernization with secularization is likely to be too limiting. At the same time, the enormously valuable details of fashion, amusement, and cultural consumption that Feiner has assembled offer clear evidence of the unremitting appeal of modern trends.
As a next step in what remains an uncommonly complex and multifaceted project, scholars will need to historicize the material Feiner presents here so that the voices and perspectives of those who were deeply absorbed in European culture, as well as the arguments advanced by their detractors, can be considered within a comparative analytical framework. Attention to structural issues and broader patterns of social change, and to gender as well, will enable scholars to assess how deviations in the eighteenth century compare to those of the medieval period and to corresponding patterns in contemporary Christian society. These steps are necessary in order to clarify how and to what degree social, cultural, and political forces shaped the local character of religious and secular pursuits. Building on Feiner's work, efforts such as these will deepen our understanding of the complicated role of religion in modern society.