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Haskalah

The haskalah was the movement among European Jews in the late 18th century toward adopting enlightenment values, integration into the larger gentile society, and acquiring the knowledge, manners, and aspirations of the gentile nations among whom they lived.

In a more restricted sense haskalah denotes the study of Biblical Hebrew and of the poetical, scientific, and critical parts of Hebrew literature. It is identified with the substitution of the study of modern subjects for the study of the Talmud; with opposition to fanaticism, superstition, and Hasidism; with the adoption by Jews of agriculture and handicrafts; and with a desire to keep in touch with the times. Its adherents were called Maskilim.

As long as the Jews lived in segregated communities, and as long as all avenues of social intercourse with their gentile neighbors were closed to them, the rabbi was the most influential member of the Jewish community. To the offices of religion he added the functions of civil judge in all cases in which both parties were Jews, as well as other important administrative powers. The rabbinate was the highest aim of every Jewish youth, and the study of the Talmud was the means of obtaining that coveted position, or one of many other important communal distinctions.

The extraordinary success achieved by Moses Mendelssohn as a German popular philosopher and man of letters revealed hitherto unsuspected possibilities of influence for the cultured Jew. An exact knowledge of the German language was, of course, necessary to secure entrance into cultured German circles, and an excellent means of acquiring it was provided by Mendelssohn in his German translation of the Pentateuch. The familiar text of the Pentateuch, which for many centuries had served as a school-book in the earlier stages of a rabbinical education, became the bridge over which ambitious young Jews could pass to the great world of secular knowledge. The "bi'ur," or grammatical commentary (see Biurists), prepared under Mendelssohn's supervision, was designed to counteract the influence of the Talmudical or rabbinical method of exegesis, and, together with the translation, it became, as it were, the primer of haskalah.

See also: Judaism, The Enlightenment



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