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Haskalah (Hebrew: השכלה; "enlightenment," "education" from sekhel "intellect", "mind"), the Jewish Enlightenment, was a movement among European Jews in the late 18th century that advocated adopting enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing education in secular studies, Hebrew language, and Jewish history. Haskalah in this sense marked the beginning of the wider engagement of European Jews with the secular world, ultimately resulting in the first Jewish political movements and the struggle for Jewish emancipation. The division of Ashkenazi Jewry into religious movements or denominations, especially in North America and anglophone countries, began historically as a reaction to Haskalah.
In a more restricted sense, haskalah can also denote the study of Biblical Hebrew and of the poetical, scientific, and critical parts of Hebrew literature. The term is sometimes used to describe modern critical study of Jewish religious books, such as the Mishnah and Talmud, when used to differentiate these modern modes of study from the methods used by Orthodox Jews.
As long as the Jews lived in segregated communities, and as long as all social intercourse with their Gentile neighbors were limited, the rabbi was the most influential member of the Jewish community. In addition to being a religious scholar and "clergy", a rabbi also acted as a civil judge in all cases in which both parties were Jews. Rabbis sometimes had other important administrative powers, together with the community elders. The rabbinate was the highest aim of many Jewish boys, and the study of the Talmud was the means of obtaining that coveted position, or one of many other important communal distinctions. Haskalah followers advocated "coming out of ghetto," not just physically but also mentally and spiritually in order to assimilate amongst Gentile nations.
The example of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), a Prussian Jew, served to lead this movement, which was also shaped by Aaron Halle-Wolfssohn (1754–1835) and Joseph Perl (1773–1839). Mendelssohn's extraordinary success as a popular philosopher and man of letters revealed hitherto unsuspected possibilities of integration and acceptance of Jews among non-Jews. Mendelssohn also provided methods for Jews to enter the general society of Germany. A good knowledge of the German language was 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 Torah. This work became a bridge over which ambitious young Jews could pass to the great world of secular knowledge. The Biur, or grammatical commentary, prepared under Mendelssohn's supervision, was designed to counteract the influence of traditional rabbinical methods of exegesis. Together with the translation, it became, as it were, the primer of Haskalah. Haskalah did not stay restricted to Germany, however, and the movement quickly spread throughout Europe (Map of the spread of Haskalah). Adherents of the haskalah movement were called maskilim (משכילים).
Language played a key role in the haskalah movement, as Mendelssohn and others called for a revival in Hebrew and a reduction in the use of Yiddish. The result was an outpouring of new, secular literature, as well as critical studies of religious texts. Julius Fürst along with other German-Jewish scholars compiled Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries and grammars. Jews also began to study and communicate in the languages of the countries in which they settled, providing another gateway for integration.
Even as emancipation eased integration into wider society and assimilation prospered, the haskalah also resulted in the creation of secular Jewish culture, with an emphasis on Jewish history and Jewish identity, rather than religion. This resulted in the engagement of Jews in a variety of competing ways within the countries where they lived; these included the struggle for Jewish emancipation, involvement in new Jewish political movements, and later, in the face of continued persecutions in late nineteenth century Europe, the development of a Jewish Nationalism. One source describes these effects as, “The emancipation of the Jews brought forth two opposed movements: the cultural assimilation, begun by Moses Mendelssohn, and Zionism, founded by Theodor Herzl in 1896.”
One facet of haskalah was a widespread cultural adaptation, as those Jews who participated in the enlightenment began in varying degrees to participate in the cultural practices of the surrounding Gentile population. Connected with this was the birth of the Reform movement, whose founders such as Israel Jacobson and Leopold Zunz rejected the continuing observance of those aspects of Jewish law which they classified as ritual, as opposed to moral or ethical. Even within orthodoxy the Haskalah was felt through the appearance of the Mussar Movement in Lithuania and Torah im Derech Eretz in Germany. Enlightened Jews sided with Gentile governments in plans to increase secular education amongst the Jewish masses, bringing them into acute conflict with the orthodox who believed this threatened Jewish life.
- Resources > Modern Period > Central and Western Europe (17th\18th Cent.) > Enlightenment (Haskala) The Jewish History Resource Center - Project of the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
- Rashi by Maurice Liber Discusses Rashi's influence on Moses Mendelssohn and the Haskalah.
- Jewish Virtual Library on Haskalah
- (French), Valéry RASPLUS "Les judaïsmes à l'épreuve des Lumières. Les stratégies critiques de la Haskalah", dans ContreTemps, n°17, septembre 2006
- Jeremy Dauber, Antonio's Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2004).
- Marcin Wodzinski, Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland: A History of Conflict (Oxford, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2009), 350 pp.
- Jews, The Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia Second Edition, William Bridgwater, Ed. Dell Publishing Co. [New York] 1964. p.906.
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