In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jews

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Port Jews, Atlantic Crossings, and Commercial Connections
  • Commerce
  • Women, Gender, and Sexuality
  • Individual Lives and Emerging Selfhoods
  • Boundary Crossers
  • Messianism and Millenarianism

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Renaissance and Reformation Jews
Joshua Teplitsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0079


The 15th through the 18th centuries involved major changes in Jewish life in Europe. The conflicts, controversies, and crises of the period impacted Jews as much is it did other Europeans, albeit perhaps with different outcomes. In social, economic, and even intellectual life Jews faced challenges similar to those of their Christian neighbors, and often the solutions developed by both to tackle these problems closely resembled each other. Concurrently, Jewish communal autonomy and cultural tradition—distinct in law according to its own corporate administration, distinct in culture according to its own set of texts and traditions—unfolded according to its own intrinsic rhythms, which, in dialogue with external stimuli, produced results that differed from the society around it. The study of Jewish life in this period offers a dual opportunity: on the one hand, it presents a rich source base for comparison that serves as an alternate lens to illuminate the dominant events of the period while, on the other hand, the Jewish experience represents a robust culture in all of its own particular manifestations. Faced with these two perspectives, historians of the Jews are often concerned with examining the ways in which Jews existed in separate and distinct communities yet still maintained contact with their surroundings in daily life, commercial exchanges, and cultural interaction. Further, historians of different regions explore the ways that Jews, as a transnational people, shared ties across political frontiers, in some cases, whereas, in others cases, their circumstances resemble more closely their immediate neighbors than their coreligionists abroad. Given these two axes of experience—incorporation and otherness—the periodization of Jewish history resists a neat typology of Renaissance and Reformation. And yet, common themes—such as the new opportunities afforded by the printing press, new modes of thought including the sciences, philosophy, and mysticism, and the emergence of maritime economic networks— firmly anchor Jewish experiences within the major trends of the period and offer lenses for considering Jews of various regions within a single frame of reference. To build a coherent survey of this period as a whole, this article uses the major demographic upheavals of the 14th and 15th centuries and the subsequent patterns of settlement, as the starting point for mapping this period. These are followed by significant cultural developments, both of Jewish interaction with its non-Jewish contexts, the spaces occupying a more “internal” Jewish character, and of those boundary crossers and bridges of contact that traversed them before turning to the upheavals and innovations of messianic and millenarian movements in Judaism.

General Overviews

The founders of Jewish historiography in the 19th century looked at the 15th through 18th centuries in Jewish life with particular disdain. As the period immediately preceding Jewish emancipation, these years were understood as a dark age in Jewish history. This changed with the publication of Salo Baron’s now classic essay (Baron 1928), which upended a notion of emancipation as unfettered progress and premodernity as unmitigated woe. A fuller treatment of the period had to wait until Katz 2000 (originally published in 1958) treated the period as a discrete object of historical inquiry, even as the author elided the major changes that transpired in its time frame in favor of an image of a static Jewish communal apparatus with his sociological approach of composite, ideal types. Whereas Katz 2000, sociological in its orientation, constructs a descriptive portrait of an ideal type, the synthesis presented in Israel 1998 finally recognized the period in its dynamism and with narrative coherence, rather than a survey of features and institutions, even as it dedicated greater energy to integrating Jewish life into European history than to confronting Jewish society and culture with its own texts and on its own terms. Historians of the Jews are often faced with the question of representing their subjects from either an “internal” or an “external” perspective, decisions that are influenced and have an impact on both sources and method. Katz 2000, which favored the former, tends to emphasize commonalities with other Jewish communities, examines Jewish culture, and considers the structures of community and daily life by using texts produced by, for, and about Jews. Israel 1998 represents more of an “external” perspective trend in highlighting Jewish contributions to the wider polities, economy, and society by exploring texts produced by states and societies beyond the Jewish communities themselves. Students of the Early Modern period thus benefit from reading both Katz 2000 and Israel 1998 in dialogue with each other as they treat different aspects of European Jewish life. Newer contributions have tended to hew toward a vision of shared features across Jewish life from the perspective of Jewish community and culture: Bell 2008 places a greater focus on communal structures whereas Ruderman 2010 characterizes the period in its entirety according to five major themes ranging from mobility to new patterns of knowledge to conflict and consensus within the autonomous Jewish community.

  • Baron, Salo. “Ghetto and Emancipation: Shall We Revise the Traditional View?” Menorah Journal 14.6 (1928): 515–526.

    Perhaps the earliest clarion call for an engaged and objective study of Jewish life before the French Revolution without a teleological or positivist perspective toward Enlightenment thought and emancipation. Argues against the “lachrymose theory of pre-Revolutionary woe” (p. 526) and encourages historians of Jewish life before and after the French Revolution to “attain harmony and balance” in their evaluations of more recent and more distant pasts and their respective merits and demerits.

  • Bell, Dean Phillip. Jews in the Early Modern World. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

    Treats Jewish life during this period from the perspective of community and identity in five chapters, beginning with the medieval context and proceeding to examine demography and communal organization, followed by questions of identity, including religious life and relations with the other. Rather than a single narrative, it surveys diverse Jewish settlements ranging from western Europe and the New World to the Ottoman lands and Far East. Especially useful notes and bibliography for primary source material.

  • Israel, Jonathan I. European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism, 1550–1750. 3d ed. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1998.

    The sole synthetic, coherent, single-volume overview that situates European Jewish life against and within the fabric of European history of the Early Modern period, beginning with the expulsion of Jews from most of western Europe in the 16th century through their reintegration in new forms in the subsequent centuries. Weighted toward economic and political affairs, paying attention to the impact of war, changing financial arrangements, and new state arrangements.

  • Katz, Jacob. Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages. Translated by Bernard Dov Cooperman. Medieval Studies. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

    First published in Hebrew in 1958. One of the first scholarly attempts to delineate and investigate Jewish life in the Early Modern period as a discrete area of inquiry. Despite a largely static view of Jewish life in the 16th through the 18th centuries, imagining a monolithic Ashkenazic Jewish culture, it remains a foundational study for its sociological approach to traditional Jewish texts as historical sources and its examination of the structures of communal life.

  • Ruderman, David B. Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

    Offers five conceptual categories for consideration of Jewish experience during the Early Modern peirod: mobility, communal cohesiveness, knowledge explosion, crisis of rabbinic authority, and mingled identities. A work that makes valuable efforts to examine Jewish life in Europe and beyond (reaching significantly into the Ottoman lands), this study also includes intellectual profiles of significant figures during this period in the sciences, Christian Hebraism, and philosophy.

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