Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86) inspired the Haskalah movement in 18th century Germany

Haskalah (Hebrew: השכלה‎; "enlightenment," "education" from sekhel "intellect", "mind"), the Jewish Enlightenment, was a movement among European Jews in the 18th–19th centuries 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. Leaders of the Haskalah movement were called Maskilim (משכילים).

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.

Haskalah differed from Deism of the European Enlightenment by seeking modernised philosophical and critical revision within Jewish belief, and lifestyle acceptable for emancipation rights.[1] Rejectionist tendencies within it led to assimilation, motivating establishment of Reform and Neo-Orthodox denominations. Its outreach eastwards opposed resurgent mysticism and traditional scholarship. While early Jewish individuals such as Spinoza[2] and Salomon Maimon[3] advocated secular identity, it remained until the late 19th century for secular Jewish ideologies to replace Judaism. In the 20th century Gershom Scholem reestablished the historical significance of Jewish mysticism, dismissed by Haskalah historiography.


Origins in Germany

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.

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.

Spread of Haskalah in Eastern Europe

Haskalah did not stay restricted to Germany, however, and the movement quickly spread throughout Europe. Eastern Europe was the heartland of Rabbinic Judaism, with its two streams of Misnagdic Talmudism centred in Lithuania and other regions, and Hasidic mysticism popular in Ukraine, Poland, Hungary and Russia. In the 19th century Haskalah sought dissemination and transformation of traditional education and inward pious life in Eastern Europe. It adapted its message to these different environments, working with the Russian government of the Pale of Settlement to influence secular educational methods, while its writers satirised Hasidic mysticism, in favour of solely Rationalist interpretation of Judaism. Isaac Baer Levinsohn (1788–1860) became known as the "Russian Mendelssohn". Joseph Perl's (1773–1839) satire of the Hasidic movement, "Revealer of Secrets" (Megalleh Temirim), is said to be the first modern novel in Hebrew. It was published in Vienna in 1819 under the pseudonym "Obadiah ben Pethahiah". The Haskalah's message of integration into non-Jewish society was subsequently counteracted by alternative secular Jewish political movements advocating Folkish, Socialist or Nationalist secular Jewish identities in Eastern Europe. While Haskalah advocated Hebrew and sought to remove Yiddish, these subsequent developments advocated Yiddish Renaissance among Maskilim. Writers of Yiddish literature variously satirised or sentimentalised Hasidic mysticism.


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.”[4]

One facet of the 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.

Another important facet of the Haskalah was its interests to non-Jewish religions. Moses Mendelssohn criticized some aspects of Christianity, but depicted Jesus as a Torah-observant rabbi, who was loyal to traditional Judaism. Mendelssohn explicitly linked positive Jewish views of Jesus with the issues of Emancipation and Jewish-Christian reconciliation. Similar revisionist views were expressed by Rabbi Isaac Ber Levinsohn and other traditional representatives of the Haskalah movement.[5][6]

See also


  1. ^ Brinker, Menahem (2008), The Unique Case of Jewish Secularism, London Jewish Book Week, http://www.jewishbookweek.com/2008/240208m-transcript.php .
  2. ^ Yovel, Yirmiyahu (2008), Spinoza and Secular Jewish Culture, London Jewish Book Week, http://www.jewishbookweek.com/2008/240208f.php .
  3. ^ While Salomon Maimon wrote about his visit to Dov Ber of Mezeritch, the first prominent Westernised Jewish visitor to Hasidism, his own philosophical work was in non-Jewish Modern philosophy
  4. ^ Jews, The Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia Second Edition, William Bridgwater, Ed. Dell Publishing Co. [New York] 1964. p.906.
  5. ^ From rebel to rabbi: reclaiming Jesus and the making of modern Jewish culture, By Matthew Hoffman, Stanford University Press, 2007
  6. ^ Complex identities: Jewish consciousness and modern art, by Mathew Baigell and Milly Heyd, Rutgers University Press, 2001


External links

This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.

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  • HASKALAH — (Heb. הַשְׂכָּלָה), Hebrew term for the Enlightenment movement and ideology which began within Jewish society in the 1770s. An adherent of Haskalah became known as a maskil (pl. maskilim). The movement continued to be influential and spread, with …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Haskalah — Haskala Les Juifs et le judaïsme Généralités Qui est Juif ? · Terminologie · Conversion Judaïsme : Principes de foi Noms de Dieu dans le judaïsme Tanakh (Bible hébraïque) : Torah · …   Wikipédia en Français

  • haskalah — ˌhaskəˈlä, häsˈkȯlə noun ( s) Usage: usually capitalized, often attributive Etymology: New Hebrew haśkālāh, literally, intellect, enlightenment : an intellectual enlightenment movement among Jews of eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Haskalah — Haskala (השכלה) (auch: Haskalah) entstammt der hebräischen Wortwurzel שכל s k l, woraus unter anderem das Wort Sechel (Verstand) abgeleitet wird. Haskala bedeutet Bildung, Aufklärung und bezeichnet insbesondere die jüdische Aufklärung in der Zeit …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Haskalah — /hah skeuh lah /; Ashk. Heb. /hah skaw leuh/; Seph. Heb. /hah skah lah /, n. an 18th 19th century movement among central and eastern European Jews, begun in Germany under the leadership of Moses Mendelssohn, designed to make Jews and Judaism more …   Universalium

  • Haskalah — Ha•ska•lah [[t]hɑˈskɑ lɑ, ˌhɑ skɑˈlɑ[/t]] n. jud an 18th–19th century movement among central and E European Jews, intended to modernize Jews and Judaism by encouraging adoption of secular European culture • Etymology: 1900–10; < Heb haśkālāh… …   From formal English to slang

  • Haskalah — (‘enlightenment’)    A movement from mid 18 century for introducing general European culture into Jewish life. A follower is called maskil (plur. maskilim) …   Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament

  • Haskalah — n. Jewish enlightenment movement in the 18th and 19th centuries that was influenced by European intellectuals and sought to offer secular education to European Jews …   English contemporary dictionary

  • haskalah — has·ka·lah …   English syllables

  • Jewish Enlightenment — Haskalah, Jewish philosophical movement of the 18th and 19th centuries which promoted the teaching of secular knowledge within the Jewish community …   English contemporary dictionary

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