The eastern European Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) first appeared in the late 18th century. At this time, only a small group of local Jews had adopted the worldview and the ideology of the European Enlightenment, some of them through their ties with the Jewish enlightenment circles in German-speaking areas and others via a close acquaintance with the philosophy and literature of the European Enlightenment at-large. However, unlike what is known as the “Berlin Haskalah,” which emerged as part of the spirit of the German enlightenment (Aufklärung) and that dominated the world of local intellectual circles, eastern European Haskalah emerged, in most cases, as an isolated ideological and social phenomenon, detached from the Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, or Ukrainian cultural and intellectual circles. The same is true concerning social settings within the local Jewish society. While German Jewish society welcomed, in general, the idea of adopting the values of the European Enlightenment, eastern European Maskilim were considered by most local Jews, at least until the last quarter of the 19th century, as those individuals whose ultimate target was to undermine the cultural and religious foundations of traditional Jewish society. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 19th century this phenomenon began to spread in the local Jewish communities, primarily through the Maskilic schools for boys and girls, founded in Galicia, Congress Poland, and the Jewish Lithuanian cultural area. Simultaneously, local Jewish intellectuals, such as Nachman Krochmal, Mendel Lefin, Shlomo Yehudah Rapoport, and Isaac Ber Levinsohn, contributed to its unique cohesive ideological and conceptual expression. In the coming decades, following the impressive spread of the Maskilic educational system, the increase in the Maskilic literary and poetic oeuvre, as well as the establishment of Maskilic synagogues, this ideology acquired a social expression in the form of local Maskilic circles that were characterized by ideological cohesion and social strength. Thus, the “republic of letters,” considered by some historians of the Berlin Haskalah as the very essence of the phenomenon, was in this region concentrated within a small segment of a much wider phenomenon, which encompassed large group of Jews who internalized the ideology and the values of the Enlightenment and that found expression, accordingly, within their religious, cultural, and economic life. One of the main characteristics of this Haskalah was its conservative nature, based on its tendency to combine a traditional religious worldview with adoption of the values of the European Enlightenment, such as rationalism, humanism, and universalism. Another remarkable characters of this Haskalah is the way it served as a platform for new cultural, social, and political phenomena, such as the emerging modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, as well as the influence it exerted among Russian Jewish intelligentsia and, to a certain extent, eastern European Jews in the late-19th-century Jewish and non-Jewish political movements. Despite the traditional tendency to identify every phenomenon that took place in eastern Europe within the overall framework of the “eastern European Haskalah,” different Haskalot (enlightenments) could be found in various regions, such as the Galician Haskalah, the Polish Haskalah, and the Lithuanian Haskalah. Each one of these “branches” of the eastern European Haskalah had its own character, which developed in accordance with local and unique religious, social, and political circumstances. By the last third of the 19th century, with the spread of new ideologies, such as socialism and nationalism, as well as with the rise of secularism and the onset of mass immigration, the eastern European Haskalah, as an ideology and as a way of life, lost its relevancy and disappeared from local Jewish society.
Research interest in the eastern European Haskalah has grown since the early 1980s, and various attempts have been made to present a comprehensive picture of this phenomenon. These attempts treat different aspects. While Stanislawski 1983 analyzes the Haskalah as part of the author’s research of 19th-century Russian Jewry, Feiner 2004, Feiner and Sorkin 2001, and Etkes 1993 discuss this phenomenon as a unique issue that deserves detailed consideration. Likewise, some researchers, in works such as Bartal 2011, concentrate on the relationships of the local Maskilim with other local religious groups, or on the state of Haskalah research as a reflection of changing ideological worldviews, as found in Zalkin 2005 and Zalkin 2009.
Bartal, Israel. “Eastern European Haskalah and the Karaites: Christian Hebraism and Imperial Politics.” In Kara’ei mizrakh Eiropa ba-dorot ha-akharonim. Edited by Dan Y. Shapira and Daniel J. Lasker, 57–67. Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute, 2011.
An investigation into the roots and the nature of the contacts between Maskilim and Karaites. The author points to several reasons for the Maskilic interest in the Karaites, and discusses the Maskilic positive image of the Karaite as “reformed” Jews, as it is represented in contemporary Maskilic writings.
Etkes, Immanuel, ed. Ha-Dat ve-ha-Hayim: Tenuat ha-Haskalah ha-Yehudit be-Mizrakh Eiropa. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar, 1993.
A collection of articles discusses various aspects of the Jewish enlightenment in eastern Europe, including its roots, its developments during the 19th century, and its relations with the Hasidic movement. The collection also includes a selection of annotated bibliography of the research of the Haskalah.
Feiner, Shmuel. Haskalah and History: The Emergence of Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2002.
In this book, the author discusses the attitude of the Maskilim toward history as a key to understanding their worldview. The book reviews the development of “Maskilic history” from late-18th-century Germany to 19th-century Galicia and the Russian empire, as well as the ways used by the Maskilim to disseminate it among the Jewish masses.
Feiner, Shmuel. The Jewish Enlightenment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
This book reconstructs the roots of the Haskalah in the 18th century. According to the author’s view, the Haskalah, which he defines as a “Republic of Letters,” provided an avenue for secularization of Jewish society and culture during this period, sowing the seeds of Jewish liberalism and modern ideology.
Feiner, Shmuel. Milkhemet Tarbut: Tenuat ha-Haskalah ha-Yehudit ba-Me’ah ha-19. Jerusalem: Carmel, 2010.
The author claims that the main goal of the Haskalah was to conduct a cultural war against traditional Jewish society. This perception is based on an analysis of the foundations of this movement, the formative experiences of its members, its self-consciousness and formative values, as well as the ongoing struggles against its opponents.
Feiner, Shmuel, and David Sorkin, eds. New Perspectives on the Haskalah. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001.
A collection of essays reflects the state of the research of the Jewish enlightenment at the end of the 20th century. The second part of the volume is dedicated to some well-known figures of the eastern European Haskalah, as well as to literary and social aspects of this phenomenon.
Stanislawski, Michael. Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825–1855. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983.
Two chapters in this book deal with the Haskalah. The chapter on the beginnings of the Russian Haskalah points to the common interests of the Russian minister of education and some early Maskilim. The chapter on the enlightenment of the Jews focuses on the official educational system for the Jews.
Zalkin, Mordechai. “Mekhkar Ha-Haskalah be-Mizrakh Eiropa: Hasha’rah be-hasha’rah ve-dimion be-dimion?” In Ha-Haskalah li-Gevaneha. Edited by Shmuel Feiner and Israel Bartal, 165–182. Jerusalem: Magnes, 2005.
The author points to a number of fundamental problems that characterize the contemporary study of the Haskalah: an excess focus on the conceptual and ideological aspects at the expense of the social, economic, local, and regional ones; rare use of archival sources; and little use of research findings of contemporary eastern European scholars. Translated as: “The study of eastern European Haskalah.”
Zalkin, Mordechai. “Bein ’ba’alei ha-enoshiyut’ le-’ba’alei ha-leumiyut’: gilgulei mehkar ha-neorut ha-yehudit be-medinat Israel.” Zion 74 (2009): 177–192.
Until the 1980s, the Jewish enlightenment was regarded as a marginal phenomenon in historical research conducted in Israeli academia. This fact can be attributed to the self-perception of those among Israeli academia as an institution aimed at promoting nationalist worldview and goals, which were regarded as contrary to the universalistic character of the enlightenment. Translated as: “Between the humanities and the nationalist developments: On the study of the Jewish enlightenment in the State of Israel.”
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