Shmuel Feiner. The Origins of Jewish Secularization in 18th-Century Europe. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 2010. 460 pp. $24.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-965-227-266-9.
Reviewed by Michael A. Meyer (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati)
Published on H-Judaic (July, 2010)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
The Journey from Aberration to Norm [Hebrew]
As far back as ancient times and ever since there has been a variety of Jewish heretics: individuals who broke with communal norms in theology and/or in practice. What distinguishes recent centuries is the expansion of aberrant behavior to the point that norms have become multiple and lacking in coercive power for all but a few on the religious right. Fifty years ago, when the Israeli scholar Azriel Shohet first extensively called attention to the early breaks from tradition in the seventeenth century in his Beginnings of the Haskalah among German Jewry (published in Hebrew, 1960), he stirred a bitter debate over whether the crucial rupture with the past occurred then or not until a positively formulated alternative was set forth by the Haskalah a century later. Nineteen years after Shohet, in The Jews of Georgian England 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society (1979), Todd M. Endelman argued that in England the abandonment of norms proceeded with great rapidity and without new ideology during the period from 1714 to 1830. In this new volume, Shmuel Feiner, who has gained an outstanding reputation as the leading student of the central European Haskalah, follows in the footsteps of Shohet and Endelman in seeing the Haskalah as part of a broader process, which in some respects it furthered and in others tried to halt: the various and mostly expanding movements in eighteenth-century Judaism that began with aberrations from acknowledged norms and ended up creating norms of their own.
Feiner's Hebrew volume, which is scheduled to appear in an English translation this fall, is laid out broadly, from Ukraine and Lithuania in the East to England in the West (at one point even citing Abigail Franks in colonial America). Its focus, however, is fixed on six major communities: Altona/Hamburg, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, Breslau, and Prague. The accelerating growth of secularization is reflected in the diminishing size of the four periods into which the book is divided, sixty years, then twenty, and finally two covering only a decade: "Liberation and Heresy, 1700-1760"; "In a New World, 1760-1780"; "In an Upside-Down World, 1780-1790"; and finally "Piety and Confrontations, 1790-1800." One may question the neatness of this division--as well as the selection of the round eighteenth century as the lake out of which the author fishes his data--but in fact these numbers are not understood to represent clear divisions, rather only as a device to divide up the mass of sources on which he has drawn. They do not impede the recognition of continuities between them. Nor does the author hesitate to reach back to the seventeenth century and, in his conclusion, to project forward into the nineteenth.
Feiner does not view the process of Jewish secularization in isolation. Repeatedly, chapters begin with relevant contemporary events in the non-Jewish intellectual and religious environment. They provide not only background but in some cases clear influence as well. Thus we meet the leading French and English iconoclasts of the Enlightenment and learn how their writings affected Jews who were exposed to them. Similarly, we see how religious norms gradually lose their influence for Christians, resulting in a waning of ecclesiastical authority. More broadly, the modern world that Jews increasingly joined was losing its religious enchantment and church authority was giving way to state power. Similarly, in the Jewish communities, rabbinical control began to be questioned ideologically at the same time that governments were stripping rabbis of their temporal powers.
Secularization, as Feiner understands it, is characterized in its early stages especially by disregard of rabbinical prohibitions. As social control weakened, individuals dared to defy established religious norms. No longer did they pray regularly in the synagogue. Instead they visited coffee houses, theaters, and brothels; men ceased to wear beards and adorn their heads with the fashionable wigs of the day; married women read novels and exposed both their hair and their décolletage. Feiner has dug up an astonishing number of sources, some of them taken from manuscripts, attesting to such aberrant behavior, drawn not only from the angry sermons of contemporary rabbis but also, in some of the most interesting instances, from the deviants themselves, most prominently Solomon Maimon, who repeatedly enters the narrative. Characteristic for this group is that their acculturation (Feiner eschews the term "assimilation") came without proposals for reform. In some instances, their consciences were burdened, in others not. Like the Court Jews of the seventeenth century, they gave no thought to an alternative Judaism that would have integrated elements of tradition with contemporary culture.
Perhaps the most interesting and novel--certainly the most entertaining--are the fascinating accounts that Feiner has discovered of Jewish hedonism and libertinism. Once they had cast off the restraints imposed by the community, Jewish men mixed easily with non-Jews, participating in all the pleasures of the flesh and acting much like the rake portrayed by the British artist and critic William Hogarth. Feiner's richest source for the activities of these moral deviants is Rabbi Jacob Emden of Altona, a proud representative of the rabbinical elite, who devoted abundant attention to them, perhaps because he suffered some of their temptations (e.g., the coffee house) himself. Feiner sums up this aspect of secularization thus: "Even before the crystallization of a rationalist critique by secularly educated Jewish intellectuals, directed at the limitations and narrow horizons of Jewish culture, there began to take shape a practical substitute, consisting of the fashionable life and the adoption of an individualistic hedonistic ethos intent upon achieving personal satisfaction in this world" (p. 84).
The eighteenth-century hedonists Feiner describes usually had no alternative faith to set in place of the traditional one; they simply strayed from the normative Jewish religious path into the arenas of secular activity. But there was also a different sort: the sectarians who were no less vigorous in their rejection of established institutions and practices, but set their antinomianism within a framework of heretical belief. Judging Frankism to be part of the secularization process, Feiner gives it considerable attention. Jacob Frank's adherents were no less given to the temptations of the flesh even as they did not assert their individual right to deviate, instead justifying their nonconformist behavior by faith in the autocrat who ruled their Sabbatean cult. In a sense, Frank and some of the other Sabbateans did something quite different from the religious indifferentists drawn to hedonism; they brought libertinism under the umbrella of religion.
The third major category, after pleasure seekers and cultists, to which Feiner gives repeated attention consists of the Jewish deists. Influenced by the strong currents of deism in their day, these eighteenth-century Jews rejected revelation and providence. Few of them were atheists, but Feiner shows clearly that the dismissal of God's role in history and hence of the obligation to pray and the efficacy of prayer were to be found in many corners of the Jewish Diaspora. Deism in the eighteenth century was no less fashionable than men's wigs, and through figures like Voltaire and the Marquis d'Argent in France and Reimarus in Germany it exercised broadening influence on Jews.
In the course of the eighteenth century, sectarianism declined, but both cultural adaptation and deism became more widespread. To be sure, there were also countercurrents in the Christian world, such as pietism and Methodism, but skepticism and this-worldliness remained dominant at least in the cultured circles that Jews increasingly sought to enter. We now find not only aberrant behavior but also reasoned arguments in justification of it.
My only problem with this outstanding contribution to Jewish historiography lies in its very broad use of its central concept of "secularization." Feiner does not give us a full discussion of the various definitions of the term nor a justification for why he has chosen to understand it so broadly. If secularization in relation to Judaism means that increasing numbers of Jews were drawn to norms reigning in the non-Jewish world and to activities within that world or a particular segment of it then the term that most broadly describes that phenomenon is "acculturation," especially as the non-Jewish world was not free from Christian religious ideas and practices that exercised an attraction of their own. In its narrower and fuller sense, secularization refers to a process of increasingly seeing the world as totally apart from the divine. That narrower definition would not hold for Frankists, nor for nonobservant Jews who engaged in practices contrary to Judaism with a strong sense of guilt, not even for deists who continued to believe in a divine Creator even as they held that all actions in the world were governed by human agency. The fully secular individual, I would argue, is only the self-confident atheist, whose world is utterly devoid of the sacred. Thus, I would hold that Feiner (who is by no means unaware of this problem--e.g., see page 52) might have been more nuanced in his use of the term, speaking of degrees or realms of secularization, which could exist along with religious ones. Moses Mendelssohn and Naphtali Herz Weisel were both decidedly acculturated individuals; they were both active in the world of secular culture, yet in their theology and practice they were certainly religious. They differed from earlier generations in that the secular sphere of their existence had expanded to include culture as well as commerce. Yet both, I am certain, regarded their religious beliefs as permeating all aspects of their lives. To varying degrees, I suggest, this was true of other actively secularizing Jews as well.
. Unlike Endelman, and following David Ruderman, Shmuel Feiner pays attention not only to the behavior of certain British Jews but also to intellectual trends in England. See David Ruderman, Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
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Michael A. Meyer. Review of Shmuel Feiner, The Origins of Jewish Secularization in 18th-Century Europe.
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