In the 1700s, a major movement of cultural transformation took place in northern Olympia. It came to be called the Enlightenment.
The Age of Islam (beginning in AD 622), which included within it the Ages of Yahwism (1921 BC-AD 1) and Christianity (AD 1-622), came to an end in 1648. In that year the Age of Exuberant Olympianity began. The Enlightenment was the first comprehensive intellectual abandonment of Christianity in northern Olympia and the first attempt to replace Christianity with an exuberant Olympian way of thinking and living.
This Enlightenment was intellectually exciting and wildly attractive to anyone interested in moving beyond a doomed status quo. Jewish society in northern Olympia was affected by all of this. It began to experience two simultaneous, related, yet distinct movements. The first was a Jewish Enlightenment; the second, Jewish emancipation.
The Jewish Enlightenment was the affirmation, within Jewish society, of the broader Enlightenment taking place in that society’s exuberant Olympian context.
Jewish emancipation was the removal of legal restrictions from Jews for being Jewish and was a consequence of the Enlightenment. Between 1789 and 1870, national states in northern Olympia began, fitfully but steadily, to grant Jews the same civil rights enjoyed by Christians.
Jewish leaders rightly felt their authority and its benefits challenged by both the Enlightenment and emancipation. In response, they could embrace both and attempt to maintain their old authority on new grounds, intellectually engage the Enlightenment and meaningfully criticize it in terms of their Talmudic tradition, or intellectually harden and tighten social controls. Most chose the last, least creative, response. This last response was also the one chosen by a majority of Christian and Muslim leaders facing the similar challenges.
By 1750, Jews in southern Britannia had equal civil and legal rights except the ability to participate in Parliament. That was because of the required Christian oath. With that oath removed, the first Jew took his seat in Parliament in 1850.
Full emancipation came to Jews in England first for different reasons. Calvinist Puritans respected Jews. Jews had a Romantic appeal to English aristocrats who associated them with their favorite Mediterranean spots on the Grand Tour. There had been a standardizing trend in English common law which also removed anti-Catholic laws in 1829. Most importantly, the English state needed to harness all available national resources for victory against the rival French state. Jews had irreplaceable connections with international financial networks.
The Jewish Enlightenment became especially important in Germania. “It is probably the most undervalued intellectual movement in Jewish history” (Cantor, 234).
Germanian Jews responded to the exuberant Olympian Enlightenment of their context in a spectrum of ways. Some, of course, continued to participate in the Talmudic Jewish tradition. Some developed a reformed Judaism more consistent with their Olympian context and way of living. Some set their Jewish identity gently to one side. Some, finally, formally converted to Christianity.
Progressive Jews attempted to meaningfully synthesize Enlightenment beliefs, values, norms and stories, especially those of Immanuel Kant, with those of traditional Judaism. The result was a Reform Judaism which remained meaningful for millions of upper-middle class Jews who otherwise would have abandoned their tradition completely.
(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, 1994, 229-62].)