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Modern Judaism - Dynamics Of Westernization

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In North Africa and the Middle East, for example, where vast populations of Jews had lived for centuries in premodernity as dhimmis, one of several protected minorities, modernity witnessed the dismemberment and balkanization of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, establishment of European colonies, Westernization of the local cultures, subsequent wars of liberation, and eventual establishment of newly formed, autonomous states. The process was well under way in the 1820s when Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel lectured on the philosophy of history. His words reek with Eurocentric propaganda. Hegel declared that Islam had surpassed Judaism's ethnic particularism by embracing universalistic ideals. He then acknowledged medieval European debts to Islamic "science and knowledge, especially that of philosophy." He also noted Europe's contemporary appreciation of Islamic "noble poetry and free imagination." Capping the argument, Hegel reversed directions. Performing feats of imperious Orientalism, he lambasted the "East" and triumphantly erased Islam from the later stages of history: "But the East itself.… sank into the grossest vice. The most hideous passions became dominant … At present, driven back into its Asiatic and African quarters … Islam has long vanished from the stage of history at large, and has retreated into Oriental ease and repose" (Hegel, p. 360).

As with Islam, so too with Judaism. Hegel's remarks expose the underlying pressures that have shaped and reconfigured Judaism for the past three hundred years. Dangling numerous incentives, the West circulated an interlocking set of guidelines: To reap the benefits of unprecedented prosperity after earning and being granted legal emancipation, the Jews would have to eliminate the "Oriental" habits that Westerners find odious. The Jews must modernize, accommodate, secularize, adapt, acculturate, integrate, and assimilate. Convert to Christianity, if they will. Remain Jewish, if they must, but let them heed the counsel offered in 1866 by Judah Leib Gordon, the Russian Hebrew poet, who wrote: "Be a man abroad and a Jew [in the privacy of] your tent, A brother to your [European] countryman and a servant to your [European] king" (Mendes-Flohr, p. 384). Be universalistic in outlook and education. Let the Jews preserve and continue to nurture only those elements of their premodern, rabbinic culture that conform to European tastes in science, philosophy, and the arts of "noble poetry and free imagination." Jews must dismantle traditional communal structures that privilege aristocratic leadership. Jews must retrench or eliminate the direct influence of the rabbinate on public governance. If it pleases, let them reenter "history at large" by wholeheartedly joining the contemporary nation-states of the West. Failing that, either for lack of interest in capitalism and global hegemony or because of virulent anti-Semitic backlash, let them re-enter "history at large" by creating an autonomous Jewish nation-state based on Western models.

Like all the other premodern societies that have encountered the hegemonic West in recent times, the Jews adhered to these guidelines, with varying degrees of resistance and success. Like all these others and the West itself, Judaism became a perpetual site of cultural demolition, construction, and renovation. Like them all, like memory itself, Judaism became a tangled work in progress where nostalgia for the past and hope for the future jostled for attention.

The pace, extent, and contour of modernization differed from one geographical location to another. Jews living in the heartland of the West—in France, North America, England, and Germany—were the first to be legally emancipated, culturally integrated, and professionally diversified. Pioneers, they underwent the crisis of transformation and adjustment long before their kin living in East Europe. In turn, the Jews of Europe became the beneficiaries of modernity earlier than their kin living in the peripheries of modernity situated in colonial North Africa and the Middle East. Alas, between 1933 and 1945, the Jews of Europe also suffered the worst of modernity's evils. The Jews fell victim to the dialectical waste products of liberal attempts to reform society: xenophobia and racism leading to bureaucratically managed and technologically enabled mass murder, genocide, the Holocaust.

Wherever they resided, the Jews were buffeted by an array of centrifugal and centripetal forces compelling them to formulate a livable equation that balanced loyalty to the past with openness to the present. The proportion of continuity and discontinuity with premodern Judaism differed in each of the equations. No single equation enjoyed universal consent. As the juxtaposition of contradictory voices cited above suggests, the equations provoked controversy. Among the Jews who preferred life in the Diaspora and identified Judaism primarily with religion, the spectrum of opinion and practice included Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, and Hasidic varieties. Among the Jews who identified Judaism primarily with nationalism, the spectrum of opinion and practice included political, cultural, Socialist, Marxist, utopian, and religious Zionists of every stripe imaginable. Among the Jews, like Freud, who identified Judaism primarily with a cultural heritage or a set of ethical ideals, the spectrum of opinions and practices defies description.

In the traumatic midst of adjusting to Westernization, the Jews availed themselves of every tool available to make sense of their predicament and to stabilize their fluctuating fortunes. In the realms of philosophy and theology, the Jews flocked to rationality and romanticism, pragmatic naturalism and religious existentialism, sober positivism and exuberant mysticism, taking freely and modifying extensively what they needed from the resources of premodern Jewish tradition as well as from Immanuel Kant, Friedrich W. Schelling, Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Dewey, Jacques Derrida, and the entire host of speculative virtuosi. In the realms of literature, music, and art, they participated fully in both the avant-garde and in the popular rear. In their ranks stand Heinrich Heine, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, Sholem Aleichem, Franz Kafka, Marc Chagall, and Arnold Schoenberg. Composing in every language, they uncovered the depths of humanity and mapped the enigmas of Jewish selfhood. In the realms of scholarship, other Jewish intellectuals invented the strictly academic, scientific study of Judaism. In all these realms, as in the realms of innovative political organization and religious experimentation, the unsettling and creative traces of modernity are unmistakable.



Hegel, Georg W. F. The Philosophy of History. Translated by J. Sibree. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Hertzberg, Arthur, ed. The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis and Reader. New York: Atheneum, 1984.

Mendes-Flohr, Paul, and Jehuda Reinharz, eds. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Alter, Robert. After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing. New York: Dutton, 1969.

Ezrahi, Sidra Dekoven. Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Guttman, Julius. Philosophies of Judaism: A History of Jewish Philosophy from Biblical Times to Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by David W. Silverman. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times. Vol. 3 of The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

Mendelsohn, Ezra. On Modern Jewish Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Meyer, Michael. The Origins of the Modern Jew: Jewish Identity and European Culture, 1749–1824. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1967.

Peskowitz, Miriam, and Laura Levitt, eds. Judaism since Gender. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Kalman P. Bland

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