Jewish Emancipation and Enlightenment

In many nations,

Print this page Print this page

"Emancipation" was a social contract that granted equal rights to Jews who, in turn, pledged to reshape themselves and their religion in ways that would make them “worthy” of citizenship, acculturating themselves to the society in which they lived. The following article details the Enlightenment ideals that created the potential for Jewish citizenship and the integrationist ideology that affected Jews the world over as they followed a variety of routes to emancipation. It is reprinted with permission from A History of the Jewish People, edited by H.H. Ben-Sasson and published by Dvir Publishing House

The spread of the ideals of the Enlightenment in the countries of Western and Central Europe throughout the eighteenth century brought about a profound change in the attitude of the educated class of Europeans toward the Jews. But this new approach was not lacking in ambivalence. Though ready to recognize the equal value of each individual as a “human being,” whatever his origin or religious affiliation, it was totally unwilling to accept the existence of historical groups that sought, for whatever reason, to preserve their separate identity within the state. Furthermore, the demand of certain Jews to be accepted into European society while belonging to the “separate” Jewish group was regarded as hypocritical.

napoleon

Napoleon and the Jews

As a young man, the well-known German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrote a play entitled The Jews (1749) with the sole purpose of proving that even among the Jews there were decent and honest people worthy of esteem. In Nathan the Wise (1779), he depicted the Jew as a proponent of natural religion, opposed to positive religions both in theory and practice. To the accusation leveled against the Jews that they had introduced the religious split between human beings and were the first to regard themselves as the “chosen people,” Nathan replies, “I did not choose my people nor you your people…I am a man first and a Jew second and you are a man first and a Christian second.”

The philosopher Herder, on the other hand, after defining the Jews as “a parasitic plant, clinging to almost all the European nations and sucking their marrow to a lesser or greater extent,” envisaged the day “when it will no longer be asked in Europe who is a Jew and who is a Christian, since the Jew will also live according to European laws and will contribute his share to the good of the state.”

A substantial section of the educated class in the eighteenth century nevertheless believed that it was possible to find ways of improving the Jews so that they could be absorbed and integrated into European society, even without altering their religion and beliefs. The Jews, it was argued, had many flaws and were infinitely inferior to the Christians. Yet it was the duty of Europeans to help reform them, ­as the laws of mediaeval Christian rulers and the persecutions by the church were what led to the Jews' isolation and their preoccupation with trade and money-lending, which were the causes of their moral corruption.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Historian Shmuel Ettinger was the head of the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History at Hebrew University until his death in 1998.