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The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe, by Shmuel Feiner, translated by Chaya Naor.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.  330 pp.  $65.00.


Shmuel Feiner’s most recent book is the final nail in the coffin of the once-regnant view that the Berlin haskalah marked the start of the modern era in Jewish history. It successfully argues that religious laxity, popular anticlericalism, material hedonism, and sexual libertinism were eroding the world of Jewish tradition at least half a century before the maskilim of Berlin began to undermine its intellectual foundations. It musters a rich and arresting body of evidence that those who still cling to the older view will be hard-pressed to dismiss.

Feiner is not the first historian to argue that Jewish modernity, even in Germany, predated the haskalah. In 1960, Azriel Shohet made a similar claim in Im hilufei tekufot: reishit ha-haskalah be-yahadut germanyah, but leading historians in Israel at the time savaged and then marginalized the book, largely, it would seem, because it challenged their understanding of the origins of Jewish modernity. Feiner’s account is more conceptually sophisticated than that of Shohet, however, whose analytical framework was crude by comparison. Feiner’s account is also more ambitious in its geographical reach. While Shohet confined himself to the German states, Feiner casts his net widely, drawing material from large Jewish communities throughout Western and Central Europe, but especially from Amsterdam, London, Hamburg, Prague, Breslau, and Berlin.

Feiner acknowledges that the concept of secularization is no longer in vogue among social scientists and historians but, resisting the winds of fashion, insists that the shortcomings of “the secularization thesis”—especially its teleological assumption that modernization entails, ultimately, the collapse of religion—do not warrant a blanket rejection of the view that secularization was a key process in the transformation of European society in the modern era. He does not claim that the spread of irreligious and antireligious behavior was inevitable or that it occurred in the same way in Eastern Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East. But he does maintain that this behavior cannot be traced to the inspiration of the haskalah, in part, because it predated the haskalah, and, in part, because it was as common in cities where the influence of the haskalah was weak as it was in cities where it was strong.

Feiner’s explanation of the waning of religious commitments in the eighteenth century is not developed systematically but emerges as the book unfolds. As he describes the spread of secular outlooks and behaviors, he offers multiple explanations that overlap and reinforce each other. The most important would seem to be the following: one, the nihilism of late Sabbateanism, in which Feiner, following the lead of Gershom Scholem, sees a yearning for liberation from the yoke of the mitsvot and Jewish fate; two, the expansion of Jewish wealth (even if not widespread), which stimulated consumption and indulgence in worldly pleasures; three, the settlement of Jews in bustling, urban centers, where traditional social controls were weak or absent, new diversions and temptations were irresistible, and fashion was ubiquitous; fourth, the development of secular public spaces in cities (taverns, theaters, cafes, circuses, parks, and the like), where Jews mixed willy-nilly with Christians; fifth, the legitimization of pleasure in Enlightenment culture more generally; and sixth, the powerful example of the western Sephardim and the Court Jews, whose fashionable behavior and religious laxity were legendary. While the reader will have little difficulty in extracting this analysis from the text, it would have been helpful if Feiner had presented them in a bolder, more explicit way at some point.

Absent from Feiner’s analysis is any sustained speculation about how the intensification of European economic life in the eighteenth century, especially in port cities like London, Amsterdam, and Hamburg, stimulated the pursuit of pleasure and the desire to be free from religious supervision. It is clear from his account that, while secularization was not a monopoly of the wealthy, they were everywhere well represented in the ranks of libertines and scoffers. If so, why? I would have liked Feiner to reflect on the relationship between the pace and structure of trade and the acquisition of material goods, on the one hand, and the decline in observance and the liberation of Eros, on the other. I am not suggesting that an iron law of historical determinism was at work and that we revert to a crude economics-driven model to understand secularization. Still, given the prominence of fashion, luxury, and hedonism in Feiner’s account, as well as the prominence of London and Amsterdam, the two leading economic centers in eighteenth-century Europe, there is clearly more to be said.

In light of his earlier work on the haskalah, it should be no surprise that Feiner’s account is more than a social history of secularization. He is equally concerned with the emergence of attitudes and ideas—this time outside the context of the haskalah—that challenged the world of tradition. To the extent that his sources permit, he brings to life a host of Jewish atheists, neo-Karaites, deists, freethinkers, skeptics, heretics, and Naturalisten, who, while never constituting a school or movement, made little effort to hide their views. He also asks the necessary, but unanswerable, question: Which came first—sin or doubt? That is, were those who repudiated tradition, embracing indifference and hedonism, motivated to do so by “the new atmosphere, in which slogans and ideas critical of religion and the clergy were rampant” (p. 150)? Or did they embrace these slogans and ideas because they lent legitimacy to ways of behaving that were already routine for them? Feiner wisely concludes that we cannot know.

Although loosely rather than tightly argued, Feiner’s contribution to the debate about the origins of Jewish modernity is profound. It is, in my view, the most significant contribution in recent decades to the literature on the decline of tradition prior to the age of political emancipation. Its great achievement is that it enlarges the stage of Jewish history, populating it with a wider cast of characters than has been the rule. It should be obligatory reading for all who wish to understand the forces that transformed European Jewish societies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


Todd M. Endelman

William Haber Professor of Modern Jewish History

University of Michigan