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The Maskilim Launch the Haskalah: The Jewish Enlightenment

“The Haskalah movement had no less a historical impact on the Jews than did the French Revolution on Europe.” —Shmuel Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment
A sustained intellectual and cultural revolution gained momentum in Europe throughout the eighteenth century under the banner of “enlightenment”—though only later actually labeled the “Age of Enlightenment.” Thus, it is very difficult to imagine how the highly intellectual (but provincial and insular) community of Jewish scholars could remain unaffected.
In fact, they did not remain unaffected, although the label “Haskalah” (a Hebrew term for “reason” or “knowing”), like the label “Enlightenment,” came later. Jewish men (mostly young) who first embraced “enlightenment” ideas were called the “maskilim.”
Historians trying (sometimes too hard) to trace “precursors” of the Haskalah have identified individuals in the early 1700s and before, often the only Jewish student at a German university or the occasional rabbi who secretly collected books on science and philosophy. All deviation from orthodox Jewish studies of the Talmud and the Torah and medieval commentaries on these and other scholarly sources of “Jewish law” was at least suspect, often condemned outright, as a threat to the unified Jewish community—of one mind, one faith—that had withstood centuries of isolation and persecution. 
Still earlier, rare Jewish dissenters such as the great Dutch rationalist philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677), whose work impacted the entire Enlightenment, were simply expelled from the Jewish community. Spinoza was anathematized and excommunicated as a “pantheist” (believer that God and Nature are one) and an “atheist.” In Germany, to be called a “Spinozist” was to be called a Jewish apostate.
Significant for the Haskalah, and vital in seeing how fundamental philosophical ideas achieve lasting impact, is the great pioneer of Jewish Enlightenment, Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon), who lived six centuries earlier (1138–1204). At the height of the Scholastic movement, a Christian-Aristotelian synthesis by Catholic philosophers such as St. Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides won fame as the Jewish scholar of Aristotle—and thus was considered the foremost advocate of reason as applied to Judaism. Early and late, the maskilim pointed to Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed to argue (sometimes plead) that the ideas of reason, science, and critical thought were within the Jewish intellectual tradition—and not a peril to Jewish scholarship. (The Guide was the first, most impactful introduction to philosophy for the rising leader of the Haskalah, Moses Mendelssohn, and fellow philosopher Shlomo Maimon.)
Virtually all early or “pre-Haskalah” activity took place in Germany (and later migrated to Lithuania, Poland, and Russia)—and for good reason. Estimates are that Jews in Europe ranged from about 700,000 in the early eighteenth century to 1.5 million at its end. This was out of only 2 million Jews worldwide. Almost all European Jews were in Eastern Europe, centered in Prussia and other German states.
The potential Jewish “public” for ideas of the Haskalah were Ashkenazi Jews. Jews of the Sephardic diaspora (Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492) had assimilated far more successfully, in countries such as Holland, to European customs and ideas.
Early maskils expressed a characteristic sense of intellectual inferiority to scientists and intellectuals in the wider community. The Jewish community had no “library” of works apart from Latin, some Hewbrew, and a few Yiddish versions of Jewish theology. As Shmeul Feiner, Professor of Modern Jewish History at Bar Ilan University and Chairman of the Historical Society of Israel, points out, some young Jews and even rabbis longed to participate in such knowledge—to the extent that they sometimes even used erotic images and terms in describing the books they craved.
The Rabbi Judah Margolioth, visiting a devout friend, was amazed to see a “prohibited” book, the author already deemed of weak faith, and that the book was a torn, dusty wreck. He soon wrote to his friend to express astonishment at seeing not only that particular book but also “on a bench nude and unbound.” 
“Brother,” responded the friend, “know that what happened to me in taking [that book] was akin to lust for a beautiful maiden; I desired it and was seduced into buying it. . . . [My] heart told me to treat this book according to the commandment of the Torah . . . as a man of Israel ought to conduct himself with a comely maiden.”
But arriving home overcome with guilt, he said, he had torn the cover off the book and tossed it on a bench to gather dust, his hope that in this state it no longer would seduce him (as he put it), like a captive woman who loses her sexual attractiveness. The exchange went on, the rabbi exhorting his friend to throw out the book, to banish temptation. The book, of course, was a work of the new philosophy, but the only righteous course was study of the Torah day and night. 
Not surprisingly, much early maskilim activity was book collecting, early attempts at book printing, and studies in (relatively “safe”) neutral fields such as medicine and science. Maskilim affinity was with the intellectual world of Europe; they wanted to be part of it and advocated that the Jewish community—through language, education, professions, customs, and dress—also become part of it.
Unorganized, with no “public,” no “troops” behind them, the maskilim aimed at no less than a shift in sovereignty, confronting the rabbinical scholarly elite. No revolutionary new Jewish culture of the modern era would have been forthcoming, comments Professor Feiner, without these first efforts. The internal Jewish debate had taken its first steps out of the Torah classroom, synagogue, and community hall into new periodicals, literary clubs, private homes, and what was called throughout Europe, at that time, “the republic of letters.”
Individual Jewish scholars, often just students, like Isaac Wetzlar (1680–1750), were translating books on science and sometimes philosophy into Hebrew, occasionally Yiddish, and later German. Some remained in their own libraries to be published much later or discovered as still manuscripts decades hence.
Among individuals (few in total for a “movement”) of this period, Raphael Levi (1685–1779) typifies emerging attitudes. He is perhaps the first autonomous Jewish philosopher and man of science, born in Hanover, formally educated only in early yeshivah studies. As a young man, he ended up living with and under the protection of the great Wilhelm Leibniz. Levi’s talent as a teacher of mathematics and astronomy (acquired entirely on his own) for families of wealthy Jewish merchants and non-Jewish intellectuals won him friends and admirers who made possible his financial independence.
During the 1750s and 1760s, he published books of astronomical calculations and many timetables and drawings. He introduced his work declaring that he sought to enable Jews “to understand the Creator and master of the heavens.” Elsewhere, he wrote that anyone who did not believe in the Messiah was a heretic. such a combination of the religious and the scientific was typical of the period. Levi was a man of the European Enlightenment, his world the new worlds of science and philosophy. His passion was knowledge and dedication to the sciences, which he declared to be sorely neglected by the Jewish community:
“We have,” he wrote, “almost entirely lost our ancient sagacity. . . . [N]o one is inclined to study and probe these profound matters. . . . Now, instead of being superior to all gentiles in our fame and glory we have become objects of shame, mocked by all the nations.”
He himself had grown, he wrote, “zealous, anxious to remove the taint of shame from our faces.” His books, he said, were “filled with all human wisdom,” science and philosophy as well as the divine, and “all based on rational proofs.”
The near obsession with the new learning, the lamentations at exclusion from it of Jews, and the assertion that reason guided his every step were repeated, with increasing vehemence, as the Haskalah matured. What is now called the “Haskalah” or the “late Haskalah” or even the “revolutionary Haskalah” dates from 1780 in Germany and, subsequently moving further east, lasted into the 1880s.
But historical accounts of the Haskalah revolved around the Berlin German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), who became known throughout Europe as the “Jewish Socrates.”