The Schmooze

Who Was Modern Earliest, Ashkenazim or Sephardim?

Behind the ever-abiding divisions between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews is the widely-held belief that Ashkenazim, as leaders of the Haskalah, or Enlightenment movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, were pioneers of modernity. Now David Ruderman, a Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania, hurls a well-researched grenade into such presuppositions.

Ruderman, author of 2007’s highly readable and informed “Connecting the Covenants: Judaism and the Search for Christian Identity in Eighteenth-Century England” (University of Pennsylvania Press) and 2001’s “Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry’s Construction of Modern Jewish Thought” (Princeton University Press), has a new book out from the latter publisher, “Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History.”

Following up on an intuition expressed in a footnote by the historian Salo Baron, Ruderman notes that such famed 18th century Enlightenment figures as Moses Mendelssohn and Solomon Maimon pale in originality and force beside Sephardic writers of 150 years earlier, like Azariah dei Rossi, Joseph Delmedigo and Simone Luzzatto. Comparing the cultural climate of 17th century Amsterdam to Italy, Ruderman concludes: “It is clear that the Italian is less conservative, more innovative, and more daring in its formulation of Jewish thought and in its dialogue with the non-Jewish world.”

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Who Was Modern Earliest, Ashkenazim or Sephardim?

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