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

Haskalah (Hebrew: השכלה‎; "enlightenment" or "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 (Hebrew: 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[edit]

As long as the Jews lived in segregated communities, and as long as all social intercourse with their Gentile neighbors was 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 among 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.

Berlin is the city of origin for the movement. This capital city of Germany has become known as a secular, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic center, a fertile environment for conversations and radical movements. This move by the Maskilim away from religious study, into much more critical and worldly studies was made possible by this German city of modern and progressive thought. It was a city in which the rising middle class Jews and intellectual elites not only lived among, but were exposed to previous age of enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau.[4] The movement is often referred to the Berlin Haskalah. Reference to Berlin in relation to the Haskalah movement is necessary because it provides context for this episode of Jewish history. Subsequently having left Germany and spreading across Eastern Europe, the Berlin Haskalah influenced multiple Jewish communities who were hungry for non-religious scholarly texts and insight to worlds beyond their Jewish enclaves.

Spread of Haskalah in Eastern Europe[edit]

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."[5]

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 among 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.[6][7]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Brinker, Menahem (2008), The Unique Case of Jewish Secularism (audio archive giving history of ideas of the Haskalah movement and its later secular offshoot movements), London Jewish Book Week .
  2. ^ Yovel, Yirmiyahu (2008), Spinoza and Secular Jewish Culture (audio talk describing the connections and differences between Spinoza and later forms of Jewish secularism), London Jewish Book Week .
  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. ^ Brown, Lucille W., and Stephen M. Berk. "Fathers and Sons: Hasidim, Orthodoxy, and Haskalah: A View from Eastern Europe." Oxford University Press/Oral History Association 5 (1977): 17–32. JSTOR. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3674885>
  5. ^ "Jews", William Bridgwater, ed. The Columbia-Viking Desk Encyclopedia; second ed., New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1964; p. 906.
  6. ^ Matthew Hoffman From Rebel to Rabbi: reclaiming Jesus and the making of modern Jewish culture, Stanford University Press, 2007 ISBN 0-8047-5371-7
  7. ^ Matthew Baigell and Milly Heyd, eds. Complex Identities: Jewish consciousness and modern art. Rutgers University Press, 2001 ISBN 0-8135-2868-2 Master narratives/minority artists / Norman L. Kleeblatt – "With wisdom and knowledge of workmanship": Jewish art without a question mark / Elisheva Revel-Neher – Graven images on video? The second commandment and Jewish identity / Margaret Olin – Origins of the Jewish Jesus / Ziva Amishai-Maisels – Jewish naivete? Soutine's shudder / Donald Kuspit – Soutine's Jewish bride fantasy / Avigdor W.G. Posèq – Man Ray/Emanuel Radnitsky: who is behind The enigma of Isidore Ducasse / Milly Heyd – From International socialism to Jewish nationalism: the John Reed club gift to Birobidzhan / Andrew Weinstein – Ben Shahn, the four freedoms, and the SS St. Louis / Diana L. Linden – Jewish-American artists: identity and Messianism / Matthew Baigell – Sacred signs and symbols in Morris Louis: the charred journal series, 1951 / Mira Goldfarb Berkowitz – Perpetual tension: considering Richard Serra's Jewish identity / Hariet F. Senie – R.B. Kitaj's "good bad" diasporism and the body in American Jewish postmodern art / Sander L. Gilman – The Jewish Venus / Gannit Andori – Secular culture and traditional Judaism in the art of Michal Na'aman / Haya Fridberg


  • 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
  • Dauber, Jeremy (2004). Antonio's Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 
  • Litvak, Olga (2012). Haskalah. The Romantic Movement in Judaism. New Brunswick, New Jersey, London: Rutgers University Press. 
  • Rasplus, Valéry "Les judaïsmes à l'épreuve des Lumières. Les stratégies critiques de la Haskalah", in: ContreTemps, n° 17, septembre 2006 (French)
  • Ruderman, David B. (2000). Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry's Construction of Modern Jewish Thought. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  • Schumacher-Brunhes, Marie (2012). Enlightenment Jewish Style: The Haskalah Movement in Europe. Mainz: Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG). 
  • Wodzinski, Marcin (2009). Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland: a History of Conflict. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. ISBN 1-904113-08-7.  (translated from Oświecenie żydowskie w Królestwie Polskim wobec chasydyzmu)
  • Brinker, Menahem (2008), The Unique Case of Jewish Secularism (audio archive giving history of ideas of the Haskalah movement and its later secular offshoot movements), London Jewish Book Week.

External links[edit]

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