For Jews, paths to and away from secularism led to the same place

German Jews embraced non-religious education before those to the east, but this divergence mattered little in the Holocaust, writes David Aberbach

March 04, 2021 18:01

The recent media attention on the strictly Orthodox reminds us that insularity once characterised the Jewish people as a whole.

Some striking differences between Jewish communities today go back to the 18th century when European Jewish emancipation began, and secular education emerged as an alternative to the traditional religious education universal in all Jewish communities.

In the land of Israel and the Jewish diaspora, in theocratic Christian Europe and in the Muslim world, Jews kept their traditions, with the same sacred texts, until the French Enlightenment and the Revolution of 1789.

Revolutionary France, the first secular European state, and the first to emancipate its Jewish population, led the way. But most Jews prior to the Holocaust lived in Eastern Europe, where change was slower to come than in the West.

In our age, it is easy to forget that until relatively recently anyone who wanted a secular education and to lead a secular life had to fight for it.

Jewish resistance to secular learning has ancient roots. After 70CE, when the Romans destroyed the Jewish state, rabbinic Judaism was increasingly opposed to learning associated with the Greek culture of the hated Roman Empire.

Jews tended to avoid classical studies until the 19th century.

In the Age of Enlightenment, European secular education began to spread in Western and Central Europe. Jewish society, too, began to change.

In Western Europe, Jews led by Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin, formed a small minority aiming to reform the traditional Jewish curriculum to include sciences and the humanities.

Rabbinic reform followed in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe. From the time of its birth in the early-19th century, Reform Judaism required its rabbis to have a thorough secular education. However, the East European rabbinic leadership continued to oppose all schools except the traditional cheder, bet midrash and yeshiva; and the rise of Chasidism in the 18th and 19th century created new barriers to secular education.

In his autobiography, the philosopher, Solomon Maimon (1754-1800) writes that the Jews of his time were almost totally ignorant of secular learning.

Maimon describes from experience the Chasidic rebbes who, despite their ignorance and superstition, were widely revered as faith-healers; science-based medicine and medically trained doctors were practically a heresy.

By the early 1800s about half the European Jews were Chasidim, with almost no Jews in secular schools and universities.

Even so, maskilim recognised that in a largely illiterate continent, Jews with their ancient tradition of religious education from childhood, had the advantage of a high level of literacy. They were reluctant, however, to use this advantage to gain secular learning.

In response to the Russian Education Act of 1804, requiring Jews to give their children a secular education, Nachman of Breslov (grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement), declared that no secular learning was more efficacious than the power of faith.

As late as the mid-19th century in Tsarist Russia, with the largest Jewish population in the world, no more than a few dozen Jews were enrolled in secular schools and universities. There were almost no medically trained Jews.

Yet religious barriers alone did not account for the reluctance of Jewish parents to send their children to secular schools. There was fear that in Christian schools their children would be indoctrinated in Christian faith and become alienated from Judaism.

These Jews were shocked by Mendelssohn’s enlightened circle in Germany: by the early 19th century the German Jews were the most educationally advanced Jewish community in the world, with many obtaining higher education in a variety of fields, but a significant number (including most of Mendelssohn’s children) abandoned not just their religious practices but Judaism itself.

The Haskalah promoted Hebrew as a language of modern education, but those who adopted it as a didactic tool tended to abandon it for the language of the country.

Insofar as secular education led to the betrayal of Jewish tradition and communal life, observant Jews felt their rabbis were right to insist it had no place in their lives.

In any case, secular studies were normally incompatible with traditional Judaism. Training in medicine was impossible without breaking Jewish law, especially the dietary laws, the Sabbath and festivals.

Yet, the pressure of modernisation proved irresistible. By the late-19th century, Jewish parents increasingly sent their children, girls as well as boys, to secular schools and universities; and the number of professionally trained Jews in Russia shot up, out of proportion to their numbers.

Slowly in Eastern Europe, the Western pattern of Jewish assimilation was repeated. To Western European Jews this process was too slow: they feared that their East European brethren would trigger antisemitism directed against them.

Rabbinic warnings, which had seemed benighted to maskilim, were not without justification. For assimilated Jews – including Jewish students seeking secular learning in schools and universities - became targets of antisemitic attacks.

The hopes of East European Haskalah ended in 1881, when a wave of pogroms broke out in southern Russia. In the so-called ‘May Laws’ of May 1882, the Jews were officially blamed for provoking the pogroms.

Educational quotas were added to the hundreds of antisemitic laws by which Jews were persecuted.

Late-19th and early 20th century Jewish literature, particularly in Hebrew and Yiddish, reflected a sea change toward Orthodoxy and Hasidism in particular.

A major genre of 19th century Haskalah literature was satire, directed chiefly against Hasidism; but post-1881 Jewish literature was increasingly sympathetic to Chasidism.

In the writings of Feierberg, Peretz, Ansky, Sholom Aleichem, Bialik, Agnon, and many others, Chasidism was no longer seen as a morass of superstition but, rather, a repository of profound wisdom. The traditional Jewish school, denounced by the Haskalah, was extolled as ‘the creative workshop for the soul of the nation’ (Bialik).

Secular Jewish nationalists such as Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism, began to see the Orthodox East European Jews as an essential part of the Nation, even as bearers of a great tradition, with the power to inspire and to be renewed in the modern world.

The Orthodox Jews were mostly opposed to the idea of a modern Jewish state but they were loyal to fellow Jews in need, to the observance of Judaism and the study of its sacred texts, the memory of Zion, and to Hebrew as leshon ha-kodesh (the Holy Tongue). The rabbinic tradition, however outmoded it appeared to be, had after all enabled the Jews to survive two millennia of exile and persecution. Secularised young German-speaking Jews with university degrees, such as Franz Kafka and Gershom Scholem, began to view Chasidim with new interest, for they seemed to have a richness of spiritual culture their Western brethren had lost.

Their discovery of modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature, of Jewish history and theology, as well as Hasidic lore and mysticism, inspired them.

In his German novel, Job (1930), Joseph Roth gives a moving depiction of a woman in a late-19th century shtetl who, cursed with a deformed child, takes him to her wonder rebbe, who gives her hope: “Pain will make him wise, ugliness kind, bitterness gentle, and illness strong.” A later operation in a modern hospital which cures the child does not change the image of the rebbe as miracle-worker and faith-healer.

And indeed, the sense of unity of highly diverse communities scattered in the Jewish world was given a final stamp by their collective fate, for they were hunted and murdered as one people; and the State of Israel, established three years after the Holocaust, accepted its role as a place where all Jews might live, free of the nightmare of the past.


David Aberbach is author of Nationalism, War and Jewish Education. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.



March 04, 2021 18:01

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