Modern Times

The Advent of Jewish Globalization, With a Vengeance

By Lawrence Grossman

Published July 21, 2010, issue of July 30, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History
By David B. Ruderman
Princeton University Press, 336 pages, $35

When does modern Jewish history begin? The answer used to be simple. If your interests were social and political, the date was either 1782, when Emperor Joseph II’s Edict of Tolerance granted a degree of emancipation to the Jews of the Hapsburg Empire, or 1791, when the French revolutionary government declared Jews equal citizens. If you fancied cultural history, the symbolic date was 1743, when 14-year-old Moses Mendelssohn left the town of Dessau, where he had been educated in the strict talmudic tradition, and traveled to the metropolis of Berlin, where exposure to Enlightenment thought would catapult him into the ranks of the leading intellectuals and make him a role model for innumerable other young Jews. These scenarios all assume that the Jews of Europe were medieval people suddenly forced to confront modernity when the physical and mental walls of the ghetto fell. Christians, in contrast, had already become modern gradually and hence more naturally, during a period designated as “Early Modern” and not shared by Jews: the Renaissance of the 15th century, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th, and the scientific revolution of the 17th.

For years, scholars have raised questions about whether Jews were indeed so hermetically sealed off from Early Modern currents, especially in the economic sphere. Now, historian David Ruderman, in a cogently argued work of synthesis, claims that European Jews experienced an early modernity of their own, and so the alleged “extreme dichotomies” between pre- and post-late-18th-century Jewish history are largely mythical. There was, Ruderman writes, no “clean break between one era and the next.” He makes a good case, but overstates it.

Ruderman identifies several key shifts in European Jewish life between roughly 1500 and the 1780s that presaged modernity. These were not identical to changes that other Europeans experienced at the time, although there were mutual influences.

Most obvious were the large-scale movements of Jewish population, particularly the migration of expelled Iberian Jews and fleeing conversos (Jews forcibly converted to Christianity) to the Ottoman Empire, Holland, the Italian states, North Africa and elsewhere, and the eastward trek from Western and Central Europe that made Poland in the 16th century a major Jewish center and repository of Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Also, Jewish communal organizations were established on a scale unknown in earlier times. The Council of Four Lands that serviced Polish Jewry was the most powerful and justly the most famous, but impressive umbrella bodies of different types and with varying degrees of involvement by the secular rulers characterized virtually all of European Jewry.

Turning to culture, Ruderman pinpoints the revolutionary effect the invention of printing had on Jewish intellectual life. Beginning in the late 15th century and accelerating thereafter, the printed book replaced localized manuscript-based rabbinic learning with an almost pan-Jewish literary world, so that what Jews were thinking in any corner of Europe — and beyond — was available to all. The prime example is the printing of Joseph Caro’s “Shulhan Arukh” (“Prepared Table”), to this day the authoritative law code for Orthodox Jews. It provided, on the same page, an unprecedented distillation of both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions. This was Jewish globalization with a vengeance.

The proliferation of book knowledge, in turn, helped reduce Jewish dependence on rabbis, a process also hastened by what Ruderman calls the great crisis of early modern Jewish history: the career of Shabbetai Tzvi, who declared himself the messiah in 1665–66, only to convert to Islam when threatened with death by the Ottoman sultan. He taught a mysticism that did away with Jewish law, and so the rabbinic establishment naturally fought Sabbateanism and its later echoes well into the 18th century. Ruderman suggests that “Orthodox” Judaism, in the modern sense of an ideological movement militantly defending rabbinic tradition, has its roots in the organized opposition to this messianism.

Finally, there was significant blurring of boundaries between Jew and non-Jew. Many Sabbateans, conversos, Jewish apostates and Christians fascinated by Judaism and Jewish learning dwelled in a spiritual no-man’s land, not quite sure where they belonged, and some moved back and forth across an increasingly permeable Jewish-Christian border. Individual decision rather than the community diktat was beginning to decide personal status, a condition we tend to associate with our own time, but one that was already affecting Early Modern Judaism.

With all these changes having largely modernized Jewish life before Mendelssohn appeared or civic equality was enacted, Ruderman does not shrink from the conclusion that the only novel factor to appear in the late 18th century and beyond was the Jewish confrontation with “the politics of the modern state.”

Two objections arise that suggest the need for Ruderman to fine-tune his interpretation. First, as he acknowledges but does not seriously address, the evidence for the most far-reaching Early Modern changes comes overwhelmingly from Italy and Holland, not Poland and the Ottoman Empire, where the great majority of Jews resided. And second, however much proto-modern values may have influenced Jewish intellectuals and would-be intellectuals in the earlier period, not until the age of Mendelssohn and after would the emergence of a popular press and the invention of the railroad — both of which were arguably as important as political emancipation — make the new ways accessible to the Jewish masses.

Nevertheless, Ruderman’s provocative thesis marks a scholarly watershed. It reopens and complicates the question of when modern Jewish history began, and suggests that far-reaching but underappreciated trends analogous to those traced in this book have already inaugurated a postmodern era of Jewish history.

Lawrence Grossman is the editor of the American Jewish Year Book.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Yeshiva University's lawyer wanted to know why the dozens of former schoolboys now suing over a sexual abuse cover-up didn't sue decades ago. Read the judge's striking response here.
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen.
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.