Notes for Religious Studies 369:
Introduction to Judaism
Basic Concepts from
L. Trepp, A History of the Jewish Experience
Notes compiled primarily by N. Gibbard
Reason, Enlightenment, and the Jews
- In the 17th and 18th century, reason became the ultimate judge of human thought and action, and philosophers sought to make freedom of thought, speech, and religion mandatory human rights based on reason -- in theory.
- The Jewish Enlightenment is also referred to as the Haskalah, and its proponents were called maskillim.
Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza
- Spinoza was a trailblazer of the Age of Reason (i.e. the Enlightenment), developing radical concepts about God and religion.
- For Spinoza, there was no need for religion, the truth of philosophy alone led to virtue.
Religion was for the unenlightened, who needed the consolation of faith, piety, and the Holy Scriptures.
- Spinoza affirmed one God, but not the personal, transcendental God of Judaism.Rather, Spinoza conceived of God as deus sive natura, "God who equals nature.
- Approaching the Bible as any other text of antiquity, Spinoza became one of the founders of modern biblical criticism.
- Sometimes described today as being a "God-intoxicated Jew", he was branded a heretic by the rabbis of Amsterdam in his day and excommunicated.
He is still seen by many Jews as the arch-atheist.
The "Enlightened" Society and the Jews
- According to Enlightenment ideals, there was an idea of a universal humanity that transcended religion, nationality, or class.
- It was questioned whether Jews, conceived of as a special people or a nation, could ever truly belong to the larger society in which they lived.
- Some Jews, especially the wealthy elite, sought to show that they were part of the larger European society, and therefore part of a universal humanity.
- Squeezed between a European culture that sought to integrate them into 'civil' society, and a traditional Jewish culture that was subject to legal disabilities, many Jews of the Enlightenment age were no longer sure of their place in society.
- Mendelssohn was a very important philosopher and spiritual leader of German Jewry, who sought to guide the Jewish people though the dangers of the Enlightenment to its benefits.
- Mendelssohn was seen as a new kind of German Jew - a philosopher of the Enlightenment and a liberal thinker, while at the same time being a pious and observant Jew.
- In general, Mendelssohn's life and work can be divided in two: before 1769 he was mainly interested in philosophy and rationalism; after 1769 his attention grew increasingly to justifying Judaism and helping his fellow Jews.
- His encounter with Lavater, where he was forced to publicly defend his Judaism, profoundly shook and impacted Mendelssohn's life.
Jerusalem; Or, On Religious Power and Judaism
- Published in 1783, it is arguably the most important book of the Jewish Enlightenment.
- There were two, general parts to Jerusalem: the first part explained Mendelssohn's political theory, while the second dealt more directly with Judaism.
Mendelssohn's Political Theory
- Mendelssohn was the first person to argue for a clear separation of church and state.
- Both the church and the state's primary purpose was to foster happiness though in separate spheres.
The state, through the social contract, could employ the instruments of coercion.
While religion, whose primary function was to promote ethical conduct, was only allowed to use persuasion.
- Mendelssohn's ideas impacted Judaism's relation to the state by pushing for the learning and use of the German language over Yiddish, a Jewish education that emphasized general subjects over Jewish studies, and occupational re-training.
Mendelssohn's View of Judaism
- Mendelssohn, as an Enlightenment thinker, rejects the idea that revelation can be a source of truth.
Reason alone is the ground of truth.
- For Mendelssohn, Judaism is not a 'revealed religion', but rather is a 'revealed law', spoken by God at Mount Sinai.
- A 'revealed law', however, in no way prevents Jews from fulfilling their duties as citizens.
Jews do not belong to the ancient nation of Israel, but to the European states that they live in.
- Problem: If religion is a 'mental conviction' or a choice, then can there be a Jewish people?
Can someone be born a Jew, if Judaism is a religion based on an inner conviction?