Traditional Jewish Life, 1700-1914

Preserving customs during a time of upheaval and change.

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The major political and intellectual shifts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries resulted in dramatic upheavals to the traditional patterns of Jewish life in Europe. While some Jews responded to these changes by advocating for reform of Judaism from within, others held fast to tradition. But even the patterns of traditionalism that emerged in this period were not seamlessly continuous with a premodern past. Rather, the practices and beliefs that would come to be termed "Orthodox Judaism" were shaped in the crucible of modern conditions.

Cracks in the Foundation

In Europe prior to the 18th century, Jewish life was defined in every way by belonging to the institutionalized Jewish community, the kehilla. Across Europe and the Ottoman lands, the kehilla functioned as a "state within a state," containing its own system of courts led by rabbis, and providing its own basic social services such as education and support for the sick and elderly. 

rabbi moses sofer, the hatam sofer

Rabbi Moses Sofer, also known
as the "Hatam Sofer

Beginning after the French Revolution, legal Emancipation for Europe's Jews spread gradually across Western and Central Europe. And so, over the course of the nineteenth century, the autonomous Jewish community legally ceased to exist. The collectivity lost its coercive powers and Jews were free to operate as individuals in a larger society. 

At the same time, leaders of the Haskalah introduced Enlightenment ideas into the traditional Jewish community, advocating for a more expansive curriculum which included secular studies and instruction in Hebrew language. Most significantly, Enlightenment thinkers, and leaders of the burgeoning Reform movement, flouted the authority of rabbinic elites, challenging the very foundation of the traditional system.

Initial Responses

Although many Jews saw the appeal of the Reform movement and the allure of secular Jewish life, most clung to their understanding of traditional Judaism as the only authentic form of Jewish life. In the German lands, where the ideological battles over tradition and modernity were most fierce, an overwhelming majority of Jews still followed traditional Judaism in the mid-19th century. By the close of the First World War, however, traditional Jewry's ranks had declined to between 10 and 20 percent of the German-Jewish population.

Traditionally-minded Jews were not always completely at odds with the program of the Enlightenment, as they, too, recognized the material benefits of the new laws, and could not reject them wholesale. On the other hand, the lifting of restriction on movement and settlement posed serious challenges to observance and to communal coherence, and it was not long before traditionalists began to articulate a fuller platform of opposition.

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Joshua Teplitsky is a doctoral candidate at New York University in the departments of History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies. His research focuses on the Jewish experience in early modern Prague, and the culture of Jews in early modern Europe more generally.