“Outside of society, it is impossible to fulfill one’s duties—to one’s self or to God.”
                       —Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem: Religious Power and Judaism, 1782

Portrait of Rabbi Raphael Meldola (1754-1828), engraved by Joshua Lopez, 1806.  Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

Notwithstanding the inroads that some Jews had achieved through their increased economic participation in the world of trade and finance, during most of the eighteenth century, most Jews in the world were still relegated to a lesser social status and subject to capricious discriminatory legislation. Some European cities continued to prohibit Jewish residency, and in those municipalities in which they were permitted to live, they were frequently subject to strict population limits and segregated into overcrowded ghettos.

It was against this background that the question of civil rights for Jews began to occupy a place in the broader public discourse that characterized the Enlightenment period. Throughout the eighteenth century, an ever-sharper distinction emerged between Jews of the old order and those who were self-consciously of a new world. Jewish aspirations for civic equality clashed with adherence to tradition, as national, ethnic, cultural, and other alternatives emerged and a long, circuitous search for identity began.

In England, the eighteenth century brought only minor improvements to the civic standing of British Jewry. The measured campaign for Jewish rights was epitomized by the presentation of a gift of wrought silver, annually presented to The Lord Mayor of London as a sign of the Jewish community’s appreciation for the freedoms they enjoyed relative to their coreligionists elsewhere in Europe, many of whom were confined to ghettos or denied residence altogether. Although certain privileges were granted, a 1753 bill allowing Jews to become naturalized citizens of England caused a public uproar; though it passed Parliament, it was hurriedly repealed a few months later. Full Jewish emancipation in Great Britain would not materialize until the late nineteenth century.

Interior. Family Celebrating Passover with lit hanging Sabbath lamp. Engraving from Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous le Monde. Bernard Picart, Amsterdam, 1723-1737.

In Colonial North America, the small numbers of Jews enjoyed above average levels of social acceptance and economic opportunity when compared with their European coreligionists. Most of the early Jewish immigrants to America were Sephardic Jews, whose presence in North America hearkened back to 1654. Despite the lack of formal equality, colonial Jews were usually accepted as members of the larger society.  Although the United States Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, Jews did not gain full legal equality in every state until 1877, more than 100 years after American independence.

In France, there were two distinct Jewish communities in the eighteenth century: the mostly poor Ashkenazic Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, with their foreign ways and Yiddish dialect, and the relatively well-off Sephardim of Southern France, mostly merchants of Portuguese converso stock, seen by many Frenchmen as acculturated members of the bourgeoisie. Despite the resounding echoes of the French Revolutionary motto, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” these lofty ideals at first seemed not to apply to the Jews of France. Only after the appointment of a special commission to study the issue were the Sephardic Jews granted equality. The inclusion of the Ashkenazic Jews under the umbrella of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was finally approved by the National Assembly, two years later, in its very last session. With the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, the legal equality enjoyed by the Jews in France following the Revolution spread to other parts of Europe in the wake of the conquering French armies.

For Jews in German-speaking Central Europe, the age of Enlightenment was personified in a single individual, the creative and eclectic thinker Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786). His writings on metaphysics and aesthetics, political theory and theology, together with his strict adherence to the tenets of his Jewish faith, placed him at the focal point of his generation, in the eyes of Jews and Germans alike. Mendelssohn encouraged his poorer coreligionists to take part in secular education and German literature. To that end, he produced a German Bible translation in Hebrew characters, a concession to the fact that most German Jews knew no other alphabet. Mendelssohn’s wide renown attracted a circle of like-minded Jewish scholars to Berlin, many of them from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. The movement that originated with them was known as the Haskalah and its supporters were called maskilim.  Derived from the Hebrew word sekhel, meaning "reason" or "intellect," the Haskalah would develop over the next century as the Jewish iteration of the Enlightenment, reaching its zenith in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe.

Portrait of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), drawn by De Marchi and engraved by Colni.  Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary.

The members of the small, wealthy Jewish upper-class in Berlin, which enjoyed protected status in exchange for their financial and economic services to the crown, was also caught up in the spread of Enlightenment ideals. In the homes of a few wealthy and educated Jewish women, the intellectual elite of Berlin gathered to discuss philosophy, literature, and the arts. These gatherings, called salons, provided an unprecedented opportunity for social interaction between Christians and Jews, uniting educated individuals from both faith traditions. The salons were the result of a unique interrelation between the German Enlightenment and Haskalah on the one hand and, on the other, young, educated Jewish women from well-to-do families, who were searching for a new role in life outside the traditional structures of their families.

These changes roiled Jewish society. Many rabbis complained that religious laws were no longer being conscientiously observed, especially among the urban population. Community leaders chastised their followers for taking their disputes to non-Jewish courts. Guardians of morals eyed warily the increasingly casual social interactions taking place between individual Jews and Christians. Many Jews could no longer strike the Mendelssohnian balance between adherence to Jewish religious law and integration into society. Where a hundred years before the majority of European Jews had been religiously observant, over the course of the century more and more Jews would come to define themselves, and be defined by others, according to each one’s place on the spectrum between faith and apostasy, between devotion and indifference. For the next generation, what mattered most was legal and political progress in the struggle for equality, which even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, still seemed a distant prospect.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April. To view objects from the Age of Enlightenment included in the sale go to lots 100-145.

Next essay: The Jews of Eastern Europe