|Photo by Orrling|
Since our session last night, I have been reflecting on why I think the Haskalah is such an important phenomenon in Jewish history for us to study and understand as Reform Jews today. After all, much of the Haskalah project, for better and worse, has long since been achieved (e.g., university-level Jewish studies, assimilation). But the Haskalah and its opponents represent a struggle in Judaism that is very much still with us, a conflict that is shaping the Jewish world.
In the introduction to his history of the Haskalah, Shmuel Feiner writes:
The Enlightenment's values are also threatened by its enemies, the fundamentalist streams. In essence, these are antimodernist and antirationalist streams, and their slogans challenge each and every one of the conceptions of the Enlightenment, beginning with the very perception of man and his autonomous status in the world, and ending with political conceptions relating to rights, freedom, and equality. In certain aspects, these trends also gain a particular expression in Jewish and Israeli life. As we shall see later, the orthodox claim that the Haskalah is an extreme manifestation of apostasy and assimilation originated as soon as the Haskalah movement itself came into being. This criticism has never died out, and is one of the hallmarks of militant ultra-orthodox historiography in the present as well, particularly in the Kulturkampf being waged in the State of Israel. In actual fact, the Haskalah was the opening battle of the Jewish Kulturkampf, whose later stages are still being experienced by Jews in Israel at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The dilemmas that the Haskalah provoked when it first began to grapple with the challenge of modernity have not yet been completely resolved, and some are still very much alive after more than two hundred years.
Shmuel Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p. 13
As an Israeli scholar, Feiner is very sensitive to the intense conflict between the ultra-orthodox and the forces of secularism, rationalism, and religious reform—all heirs of the Haskalah. Just this week we were reminded that what happens in Beit Shemesh touches Montgomery County. And of course the struggle for the rights of liberal Jews in Israel is vitally important to Reform Jews everywhere.
As Feiner suggests, hopefully the history of the Haskalah gives us insight and sensitivity into how our contemporary conflicts evolved out of the Jewish experience of modernity.
(I know I didn't ask a specific question, but I still hope you will share thoughts and reactions in the comments!)
Photo: "Please Do Not Walk Through Our Neighborhood in Immodest Dress." This sign is from Jerusalem, but similar signs (and the issue of public modesty) are part of the ongoing conflict between ultra-orthodox and liberal groups in Beit Shemesh.