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This article incorporates text from the public domain 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. Please feel free to update like any other article.

Haskalah (from the Hebrew word sekhel, meaning intellect) was the movement among European Jews in the late 18th century that advocated adopting enlightenment values, pressing for better integration into European society, and increasing secular knowledge, Hebrew language, and Jewish history in the traditional religious course of study. Adherents of the haskalah movement were called maskilim.

In a more restricted sense haskalah denotes the study of Biblical Hebrew and of the poetical, scientific, and critical parts of Hebrew literature. The term is sometimes used to describe modern critical study of Jewish religious books, such as the Mishnah and Talmud, when used to differentiate these modern modes of study from the older methods used by Orthodox Jews. All these approaches deviate from the more traditional Torah study that had been practiced before the advent of the haskalah.

As long as the Jews lived in segregated communities, and as long as all avenues of social intercourse with their gentile neighbors were closed to them, the rabbi was the most influential member of the Jewish community. In addition to being a religious scholar and clergy, a rabbi also acted as a civil judge in all cases in which both parties were Jews. Rabbis sometimes had other important administrative powers, together with the community elders. The rabbinate was the highest aim of many Jewish youth, and the study of the Talmud was the means of obtaining that coveted position, or one of many other important communal distinctions.

The example of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), a Prussian Jew, served to lead this movement. Mendelssohn's extraordinary success as a popular philosopher and man of letters revealed hitherto unsuspected possibilities of integration and acceptance of Jews among non-Jews. Mendelssohn also provided methods for Jews to enter the general society of Germany. A good knowledge of the German language was necessary to secure entrance into cultured German circles, and an excellent means of acquiring it was provided by Mendelssohn in his German translation of the Torah. This work became a bridge over which ambitious young Jews could pass to the great world of secular knowledge. The Biur, or grammatical commentary, prepared under Mendelssohn's supervision, was designed to counteract the influence of traditional rabbinical methods of exegesis. Together with the translation, it became, as it were, the primer of haskalah. Haskalah did not stay restricted to Germany, however, and the movement quickly spread throughout Europe.

Language played a key role in the haskalah movement, as Mendelssohn and others called for a revival in Hebrew and a reduction in the use of Yiddish. The result was an outpouring of new, secular literature, as well as critical studies of religious texts. Jews also began to study and communicate in the languages of the countries in which they settled, providing another gateway for integration.

Even as it eased integration, haskalah also resulted in a revival of Jewish secular identity, with an emphasis on Jewish history and Jewish identity. It would pave the way for the development of Zionism in the face of the persecutions of the late 1800s.

Haskalah resulted in a increased rate of assimilation, as Jews became estranged from their traditional religious beliefs. As a result, the Reform movement was started to make Judasim seem more compelling to the more integrated Jewish community. A relaxing of some strictures, along with an emphasis on the ethical teachings of Judaism, were hallmarks of this movement. The Orthodox community, meanwhile, responded with the Mussar Movement.


  • Jewish Virtual Library on Haskalah

Last updated: 02-07-2005 05:52:51
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55