Early Modern Jewish History

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There is no agreed upon date or place for the beginning of modern Jewish history. Modernity came to the Jews at different times in different places. Recently, historians in their periodization of Jewish history have come to refer to this gradual process as the "early modern" period.

Most scholars agree that modern times are signaled by the appearance of certain new characteristics of individual and communal Jewish life. However, they have long debated which factors specifically--emancipation and liberalism? Zionism? Mass migration? Science? Capitalism? Population increase? Improved inter-group relations?--were determinative.

Scholar Gershom Scholem offers the earliest date for the beginning of modern Jewish history: 1492. Scholem argues that the expulsion of the Jews from Spain led to an increased interest in kabbalistic redemption, an interest that provoked deviations from halacha (traditional Jewish law and practice), including Sabbateanism, that signaled the collapse of rabbinic authority.

According to Scholem, Hasidism emerged in the 18th century as a movement which aimed to make this mysticism accessible to the masses, thus providing an alternative community with alternative authority, the Rebbe. The Rebbe--so called to distinguish him from the traditional community rabbi, the Rav--was the local hasidic religious leader, believed to have supernatural powers including a direct link to the divine world. 

Historian Jacob Katz agrees with Scholem's assessment of Hasidism, but adds another ingredient he feels was crucial to the process of modernization: the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment. The Haskalah offered a vision of the future that included educational, social and economic change, and a neutral society in which people of all faiths and backgrounds could freely mix.

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