The Fall of the Rabbi: The Shifting Societal Hierarchy During the Jewish Enlightenment


Until the dawn of the enlightenment Jews were considered foreigners in European countries. Although Jews received rights to settle in certain areas of Europe, they were not considered citizens of the countries in which they resided. This arrangement seemed to work well for the Jews, who for religious and cultural reasons, often actively sought to remain separate from the gentile population. Though Jews experienced anti-Semitism, were subject to additional taxes, and were barred from certain professions, Jews also benefited from their lack of citizenship. In particular Jews were not tied to the land on which they lived, and they were permitted to form autonomous communities, which had judicial, religious, and representative powers. Despite the many benefits the enlightenment brought radical change to Jewish communal life.

European enlightenment also led to a Jewish Enlightenment referred to as the Haskalah. Maskilim (leaders of the Haskalah) sought to redefine the relationship of Jews to the state. In their quest to support Jewish emancipation in Europe the Maskilim caused social upheaval with the disestablishment of the Kahal. Through research I seek to study why the Maskilim sought emancipation for European Jewry. Also of importance is how the Jewish community maintained unity as a people, when their autonomy was taken from them. The shifting Jewish social and political hierarchy of eastern Europe during this period is significant in its relation to Jewish communal views today.

Map showing the spread of Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) in Europe

Topic Overview:

Haskalah (Article)

This article from the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe provides a broad overview of the Haskalah movement. The article breaks down the Haskalah movement over various time periods and geographic locations. In doing so, the article defines what the Jewish Enlightenment is, as it is not uniform to all Jews. I will use this article primarily as a source to define Haskalah.

Etkes, Immanuel. 2010. Haskalah. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed November 13, 2012).

The Road to Modern Jewish Politics (Book)

This is an amazingly informative book that focuses on the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. The book gives an overview of the Jewish community, in both its attitudes and governance structure, from the Medieval to the formation of modern Jewish political thought. I will use this book as a resource in comparing Jewish communal attitudes during the Kahal’s zenith of power, and during the period of the Haskalah.

Lederhendler, Eli. The Road to Modern Jewish Politics: Political Tradition and Political Reconstruction in the Jewish Community of Tsarist Russia. Oxford University Press, USA, 1989.

Jewish Community Governance Pre-Haskalah:

Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century (Book)

This book from class is an excellent resource for specific examples of autonomous Jewish communal governance. In particular chapters of this book contain information on how the Kahal played a part in the daily life of the Jewish community. I will use this specific knowledge and contrast it with the Jewish identity elements of the Haskalah movement.

Hundert, Gershon David. Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity. University of California Press, 2004.

Kahal (Article)

This article from the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe provides a broad overview of the development of the Kahal. The article also does an excellent job of summarizing the decline of the Kahal over time. I will use this article to show how the Jewish Enlightenment led to the decline of Jewish autonomy.

Stanislawski, Michael. 2010. Kahal. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed November 13, 2012).

Societal Tensions:

Jews and the Urban Question in Late Eighteenth Century Poland (Journal Article)

This article from the Slavic Review explores the urban character of the enlightenment in Poland. Of particular interest is the focus on how urbanization fits hand in hand with Jewish societal changes. This source provides great contrast on enlightened Jewry in the cities, versus Jewish settlement in villages. Additionally this source also explores the desires of Polish reformers to seek integration of the Jews into Polish society.

Stone, Daniel. “Jews and the Urban Question in Late Eighteenth Century Poland.” Slavic Review. 50. no. 3 (1991): 531-541. (accessed November 8, 2012).

The Jewish Enlightenment (Book)

This book provides a great overview of the Haskalah movement, as well as the early maskilim. However, this book also explores in depth the relationship between the maskilim, Haskalah, and the Rabbis. Therefore this book (which contains some primary sources) is a great commentary on the shifting social hierarchy brought about by the Haskalah. The relevant chapters in this book are “The Rabbinical Elite on the Defensive”, and “On Religious Power and Judaism”.

Feiner, Shmuel. The Jewish Enlightenment. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Haskalah and the Ideal Jewish Community:

The Warsaw Kahal of 1894

The Processes of Jewish Emancipation and Assimilation (Journal Article)

This journal article from the Harvard Ukranian Studies Institute focuses on the city of Lviv, Poland during the 18th and 19th centuries. The article discusses the differences between the suburban Jewish community (surrounding Lviv) and the urban Jewish community. Importantly, this article focuses on the social distinctions within the Jewish community of Lviv. In particular this article will be used to examine how different social distinctions led to different political factions. The exploration of the Jewish community of Lviv will provide an example of the changing value system and societal structure of post-Haskalah Jewry at large.

Wierzbieniec, Waclaw. “The Processes of Jewish Emancipation and Assimilation in the Multiethnic City of Lviv during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Harvard Ukrainian Studies. 24. (2000): 223-250. (accessed November 8, 2012).

Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness (Book)

This book examines the views of Maskilim towards Jewish history. In particular the book explores divergent interpretations or historical emphasis used by the Maskilim to support the Haskalah movement. This book will provide contrast between the traditional interpretation of Jewish history and the enlightened interpretation. By examining the differences the different value systems of the Maskilim and the traditionalists will become apparent. Additionally the manner in which Maskilim interacted with the past should provide a glimpse into how they saw the future of Jewish society.

Feiner, Shmuel. Haskalah and history: the emergence of a modern Jewish historical consciousness. Littman Library of Jewish, 2004.

The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (Primary Sources)

This book is a collection of primary sources about the Jew in the modern world. The primary sources will be used to represent general viewpoints of different Jewish elements. Of particular will be the numerous essays by Moses Mendelssohn that are included in this book. Additionally texts of various laws regarding Jews passed by enlightened governments represents an important societal backdrop. This collection of essays showcases first hand examples of the social upheaval and change in values brought forth by the Haskalah.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul, and Jehuda Reinharz, eds. The Jew in the modern world: A documentary history. Oxford University Press, USA, 1995.