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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Sixteen

By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update February 25, 2015)

Recorded Live on Facebook
Video 3:
Parts 14 - 19

Das Aufklärung and Haskalah

Das Aufklärung

For over a thousand years the Church had been viewed as the bastion of intellectual thought and authority in the West. Through its priesthood the Church hierarchy had always produced the most well educated people and leaders. It was often illegal for non-clergy people to be literate without specific Church permission however, and so being the most educated in such a society was not quite as impressive as it sounds! The Church sought to maintain complete intellectual as well as physical control over the masses during these many years. There was enough debate within the hierarchy already! Why teach the commoners? (note 17)

Due in large part to the frequent religious conflicts, turmoil and controversies of the seventeenth century, the previously assumed authoritative position of the priesthood among European Christians and non-Christians alike was forfeited during the eighteenth century in what came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment or Das Aufklärung. This period is dated from the 1650s to the 1780s. Immediately following this primarily Gentile Enlightenment came the Jewish Enlightenment known as Haskalah.

Once freed from Papal shackles the newly educated Europeans began questioning everything! As a result they began rejecting the Church's claims of theocratic jurisdiction as well as its endless restrictive mandates concerning morality and most other issues. The Papacy's mystical pretenses were first elided and then ridiculed by much of the public. If the Anglicans and Protestants could find freedom then so could everyone else who wanted it!

It was not only the Protestants and Anglicans challenging the Vatican now! Rumors of secret societies began to be whispered and previously heretical philosophies began coming into the light of day. In Germany, Das Aufklärung (the Enlightenment) reflected this growing dissatisfaction with the self-proclaimed authority and teachings of the Church. This revolutionary spirit of personal freedom inspired those who emigrating to the New World and had profound impacts on America's development. The American dedication to individuality arose directly from Das Aufklärung.

The Enlightenment had among its lofty ideals the goal of religious toleration. People should be allowed to believe whatever they wished but prevented from forcing their views onto others. This led to religious and cultural relativism and the new belief that ultimate truth, if it exists, is relative to personal experience. This view was admirably expressed in Lessing's Nathan der Weise and manifested in the political policies of Frederick the Great. While the Enlightenment demanded religious toleration and plurality, it also insisted than any religious system wishing to be taken seriously had to make reason the basis of its religious (and all other) rulings. This became a guiding principle for the citizens of the New World as we will discuss as we continue. It also foreshadowed the faith destroying skepticism we see today.


For Jews there was no Papacy to challenge, no Vatican from which to rebel. Traditional Judaism is hierarchical however there is no supreme Jewish Pontiff to answer to. Traditional Jewish religion is based on the Talmud and is filled with the contradictory opinions of the Rabbis and sages. Hence the saying, "Ask 8 Rabbis a question you get 10 different answers!" Despite this, traditional Judaism has the Thirteen Principles determined by Rambam, the generally accepted list of 613 Mitzvot (Commands), and Jews were for most part united. Then came Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment.

Because of Das Aufklärung European Jews were now tasting a freedom they had not known for over 2000 years, and they liked it! The idea that Jews could now be accepted as normal members of European society was exciting! To this end many began to assimilate into the greater European culture. They cut off their payot/payos (biblically mandated forelocks), they hid or abandoned their tzitzit (biblically mandated fringes), they intermarried with the Gentiles, and appeared and acted just like other Europeans. Like many Christians, their Judaism became something one "did" once a week. It was no longer who they were. For these upwardly mobile Jews life in the shtetl and everything that went with it was history!

Haskalah was an intellectual movement in Europe that lasted from approximately the 1770s to the 1880s. The Haskalah was inspired by the European Enlightenment but had a distinctive Jewish character.

As a result of Haskalah Reform Judaism gradually developed. As with most reform movements, originally there was no thought of creating a separate form of Judaism. German Jews such as Israel Jacobson, Abraham Geiger, Samuel Holdheim and Leopold Zunz, sought to fundamentally reform Jewish belief and practice and assumed that all Jews would welcome their reforms. These 'modern' Jews could not understand why so many of their fellow Jews did not join them in their new found freedom. Why did so many of their peers cling to shtetl life and 'outdated' halacha (Jewish law) when the Gentiles had finally opened the doors to equality?

Many Jews rejected the liberalizing reforms but so many accepted them that by 1873 there were many Reform "temples" throughout the world, including America. The Union for Reform Judaism was founded in 1873 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

In response to the rise of Reform Judaism traditional Judaism organized itself as the Orthodox Jewish Movement. Orthodox or traditional Judaism is the form of the religion that arose following the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 CE. Its essential beliefs and structure date to shortly after Masada (71-73 CE). The Orthodox Jewish Union (OU) was founded in 1898 by Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes. It serves about 1,000 synagogues and congregations of varying sizes today. It and the other Orthodox Jewish agencies seek to preserve and advance traditional Judaism as that is now conceived.

The Reform Movement hoped to modernized Judaism and to provide a home for Jews living within contemporary societies throughout the Diaspora. The founders of the Reform Movement did not completely agree with the advocates of Haskalah, however they did reject the strictly defined Judaism of traditional Halacha (i.e. Jewish law). They sought to establish a Judaism that embraced das Aufklärung ideals of personal freedom in a way that would be meaningful for modern Jews, yet that was consistent with what they considered the traditional spirit of Jewish ethics and morality, while rejecting what they regarded as the superstitions of past ages (such as the divine authorship of Torah, the objective reality of the Covenant, the idea of Jews as the uniquely chosen people, cultural practices like wearing kippot, beards, and tzitzit, and so on).

Today the Reform Movement offers a mixture of traditional and modern ideas while leaning towards the modern in all cases (female rabbis, open to LGBT rights etc). The findings of the Lenn Report in 1972 presents a rabbinate in transition. At that time a significant percentage of Reform rabbis were questioning the existence of God as historically conceived and other standard Jewish beliefs. At that point many Reform rabbis viewed God in ways that were very similar to many current Reconstructionist rabbis (under the influence of Mordecai Menahem Kaplan: June 11, 1881 - November 8, 1983). Over the years however the Reform Movement has become somewhat more traditional in some of its views, and today:

Reform Judaism believes in God. This belief has been demonstrated from the earliest days of the movement; specifically, the Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, which said, "We hold that Judaism presents the highest concept of the God-idea as taught in our holy Scriptures." It was reaffirmed in 1937 in the Columbus Platform: "The heart of Judaism and its chief contribution to religion is the doctrine of the One, living God, who rules the world through law and love." It was reaffirmed yet again in 1976: "The affirmation of God has always been essential to our people's will to survive" (Source of quote).
Other Jewish movement and sects as well. For more information on this topic see my study Who is a Jew?

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