World History Units


Resources for Teaching

Resources for Parents

The Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah)

The period of the Enlightenment in Europe fostered major change. Up sprung new challenges to figures of authority such as the monarchy and the church. Previous accepted ideas and institutions were now subject to questions and doubts. One of the main concepts that drove the Enlightenment was the application of the scientific method of investigation to the study of human behavior. What stemmed from this effort was a new way of looking at politics, government, religion, education and God.

These developments had reverberations within the Jewish community. In fact, certain figures within the Jewish world had significant impact upon the development of these new ideas. One, speaking out against established religious authority of the Rabbis suffered greatly; another found himself on the fringes of society as a result of his defiance of the status quo; and a third attempted to bridge the gap between traditional observance and the increasingly secular, modern society.

Unit Understandings

1) Students will understand the reasoning behind speaking out against traditional, religious Jewish authority.

2) Students will understand the results of speaking out against traditional, religious Jewish authority.

3) Students will see that the underpinnings of the European Enlightenment have commonalities with those of the Haskalah. (Namely, the struggles the Jewish community has parallel those of the Christian community.)

Essential Questions

1) How does one speak out against authority? Does time and place matter?

2) What impact does Jewish enlightenment have on the Jewish community as a whole?

3) How does where and when one lives affect the way they view religious authority?

4) Why would one speak out against traditional (religious) authority?

5) What impact will/does speaking out have on a) themselves and b) their community?

6) Do you think Mendelssohn would have taking the path he did had not Spinoza and Acosta come before him?

Key Terms/People/Events
  • The Enlightenment
  • Uriel Acosta
  • Crypto-Jews
  • Kehilla
  • Herem
  • Excommunication
  • Baruch Spinoza
  • Moses Mendelssohn
  • Haskalah
  • Maskilim
  • Deism
Lesson Plan

Part I: Background
Introduce Jewish community in background prior to Haskalah: Inquisition/Expulsion, movement to Amsterdam; Jews in Germany.

Core Concept: Jews in Amsterdam find themselves free to practice Judaism openly, but are very wary of dissent; Jews in Germany are very much outsiders, looking for a way in.

Part II: Pre-Haskalah Jewish thought
Acosta: selections from An Account of His Own Life (1640), which show his internal, existential struggle.

Spinoza: selections from Theological-Political Treatise (1670) which show his challenge  to the divinity of the Bible, criticism of community’s use of and Rabbi’s enforcement of Rabbinic law along with his support of natural law.

Core Concept;  Acosta and Spinoza rebel, but can’t conceive of compromise; they both live outside any community because of their ideas.

Part III: Mendelssohn and Haskalah
Mendelssohn: selections from Jerusalem, (1783),“On Ceremonial Law” which shows his desire to reconcile the idea of the divinely revealed nature of Judaism with human reason (a basic tenet of the European Enlightenment); and “The Right to be Different” which is a call for religious tolerance and shows the compatibility of Judaism and the Enlightenment.

Core Concept: Mendelssohn expands on Acosta and Spinoza; he attempts to live WITHIN modern society while maintaining his traditional Judaism. He’s able to do this because he’s living in a period of time in which the Enlightenment is in full swing.

Part IV: Haskalah in Action
Wessely: sections from Words and Peace and Truth (1782) calling for the study of both Torah and secular subjects.

DbN of Lissa: In the “Sermon contra Wessely” (1782) establishing the Rabbinical position against the haskalah.

Core Concept: A rift develops between the establishment and those resisting it within the Jewish community, just as had happened in the European Enlightenment.

Part V: Effects of Haskalah
Entry into Western Civ thought and society
Exchange of ideas w/non-Jews outside of economics
Other jobs – crafts, agricultures

Education - chemistry, German Lit., philosophy – taught in Jewish schools
Graduates – began to attend secular universities
Language – Revival of Hebrew and adoption of European languages
Use language of local population for business

Literature – novels, essays, poetry modeled after styles of the time – in Hebrew
Famous Haskalah writers include Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz

Assimilation –
Exile no longer seen as divine but as result of historical factors
Nationalism – loyalty to country
Reform Judaism