The Enlightenment

Crash Course in Jewish History Part 53: The Enlightenment   The Age of Reason gave Jews civil rights, but its emphasis on a Godless society was bound to backfire.

The middle of the 17th century marked the end of the Renaissance. The new ideology that emerged in the post-Renaissance period—as a result of what came to be known as the Enlightenment—is an ideology that still permeates the Western world to a large extent. We have to understand this ideology and the Jewish people’s relationship to it in order to make sense out of what happens next in Jewish history.

The Enlightenment (1650-1850) was a period of time characterized by breakthroughs in thinking which steered the world away from religion and more and more toward secularism, humanism, individualism, rationalism, and nationalism.

Of all of these, it was rationalism that more than any other concept defined the Enlightenment, which was also called the “Age of Reason.”

In earlier installments, we spoke about how the Middle (Dark) Ages were dominated by the Church and were God-focused. Then came the Renaissance, a time that was more focused on humanity with emphasis on the arts and classical knowledge. The Enlightenment expanded the man-focus even further. At this time the human mind, rational thought, and empirical sciences took center stage. It was an age with total focus on the individual.

Because of it, we would eventually see many positive ideas and institutions emerging: liberal democracy, the scientific revolution, industrialization. But this focus on man also led to ideological attacks against some of the fundamental institutions of the Western world, including religion. Religion was viewed by many of the thinkers of the Enlightenment as an intellectual failing which was displaced by the ability of science to explain the unexplainable. Thus, a secular culture began to emerge as a very strong alternative to religion. The idea of a world without God took root in the Western world with big implications for Europe and the Jewish people.

As odd as it may sound, the less religious the Western world became, the better it treated the Jews. Christian fanatics killed Jews for various reasons as we have seen; the secularists, on the other hand, would do no such thing because the fact that a person was of a different religion did not matter to them. (What did matter more in this period was national, rather than religious identity.)

In tandem with secularism, the Enlightenment popularized the concept of individualism - each individual was valued and important, and along with this came an increased emphasis on civil rights.

On the surface, the emphasis on civil rights was good for the Jews. For the first time, the Western world started to look at the Jew as a human being. Edicts of toleration were issued, granting Jews certain basic (even if not equal) rights. One of the first such edict was issued by the French National Assembly in 1791.

The National Assembly, considering that the conditions requisite to be a French Citizen, and to become an active citizen, are fixed by the constitution, and that every man who, being duly qualified, takes the civic oath, and engages to fulfill the duties prescribed by the constitution, has a right to all the advantages it insures; Annuls all adjournments, restrictions, and exceptions, contained in the preceding decrees, affecting individuals of the Jewish persuasion, who shall take the civic oath…1

However, the problems with these ideas would surface and Jews would again be the victims.


The world without a God-given standard gets itself in trouble sooner or later.

Judaism believes that for an ideal world there must be a focus on both God and man. Because without a focus on God, all moral values become relative. Why is this bad? Well, for a while it might be nice to have respect for civil rights, but when it becomes convenient or necessary (for various social or political reasons) to change that focus, then respect for human life becomes just another idea that goes out of style. God-given values are immutable and can never go out of style. That’s a big difference.

This big difference explains how a key figure of the French Enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau - the author of the Social Contract who espoused that human beings are equal - could have been so inhuman to his own children. Rousseau impregnated his young laundress five times and each time forced her to drop the newborn on the doorstep of an orphanage, the Hopital des Enfants-trouves. This was an orphanage he himself had written about, noting that two-thirds of the babies there die within a year, and most of those that survive don’t make it past age 7. His lofty ideas did not prevent him from practicing a modern version of infanticide. (See The Intellectuals by Paul Johnson, pp. 21-22.)

Likewise, all the talk of equality of man did not stop Francoise Voltaire from spewing out in his Dictionnaire Philosophique vicious anti-Semitic diatribes and singling out the Jews as “the most abominable people in the world.” Although he did state that Jews ought not to be killed, he cannot contain his hatred:

“In short we find them only ignorant and barbarous people with long united and most sordid avarice with the most detestable superstition and the most invincible hatred of every people by whom they are tolerated…”

In contrast to France, the situation was very different in England (where the Puritan Revolution had a big influence) and in the New World, where again the Puritans figured prominently. The American Revolution came about as a result of the synthesis of very religious Bible-based ideas brought over by the pilgrims and the humanist ideas (such as “the inalienable rights of man”) advanced by John Locke. We see this clearly in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The French Revolution did not have this synthesis. It was purely a secular movement. And there the problems with the philosophy of the Enlightenment became very apparent.

The French reformers, after executing the king and queen, Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, by guillotine, unleashed the Reign of Terror, during which time 25,000 “counter-revolutionaries” were executed in a similarly bloody manner.

The Reign of Terror for all practical purposes brought to end the Age of Reason. The bloody brutality of the masses shocked much of the world and severely tested the Enlightenment’s belief that man could govern himself. A period of general unrest followed in France, marked by corruption ,runaway inflation and war with neighboring European states. All of it crashed when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power in a coup d’etat of 1804.


Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), a Corsican officer, had himself crowned Emperor of France. During the ten years he held onto power, he embarked on a series of conquests which were unprecedented in modern history in terms of his rapid advance through Europe. A military genius, he took France on the offensive against the Austrian Empire, against the Italians, against the Russians. And he almost beat all of them, becoming the master of the Continent and rearranging the whole map of Europe.

(What brought him down was the Russian winter, and once other European countries saw that he was vulnerable, they joined together and defeated him first at Leipzig in 1813 and finally at Waterloo in 1815. Exiled as a prisoner of war to the island of Saint Helena, he died there either of cancer or by poisoning in 1821.)

As Napoleon marched through Europe, he liberated all the Jews from their ghettos. The idea of liberating the Jews and granting them civil rights had preceded him, but he really pushed it forward.

Napoleon was fascinated with the Jews, although he did not understand them. He wanted them to be accepted by the rest of European society, and he thought that they were not because they were different—if only they could become more like others, people would accept them.

My policy is to govern men as the great majority of them wish to be governed…If I were governing Jews, I should rebuild the temple of Solomon….[I plan] to revive among the Jews…the sentiments of civic morality that unfortunately have been moribund among too large a number of them by a state of abasement in which they have long languished. 2

So, he set about to help the Jews rid themselves of the things that set them apart. He advocated, for example, that one-third of all Jews must intermarry with non-Jews. His actions seemed more motivated by his desire to improve the position of the Jews of France rather than to preserve Judaism. Napoleon is quoted as saying “I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country. It takes weakness to chase them out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them.“3

Twice, in 1806 and in 1807, Napoleon convened gatherings of prominent Jewish leaders to promote his platform for “saving” the Jews. Here are some excerpts from Napoleon’s Instructions to the Assembly of Jewish Notables (July 29, 1806):

The wish of His Majesty is that you should be Frenchmen; it remains with you to accept the proffered title…You will hear the questions submitted to you, your duty is to answer the whole truth on every one of them…Is divorce valid, when not pronounced by courts of justice, and by virtue of laws in contradiction with the French code? Can a Jewess marry a Christian, or a Jew a Christian women?...In the eyes of Jews are Frenchmen considered as brethren or as strangers? Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens consider France as their country…What kind of police-jurisdiction have the Rabbis among the Jews?4

The focus of these questions is obvious. Napoleon was asking the Jews to answer the great question that came out of emancipation: What is your primary identity? Are you first and foremost Jews or Frenchmen?

These religious leaders were astonished by these questions. On the one hand, they wanted to cooperate with Napoleon and make life easier for the Jews of Europe. On the other hand, they could not possibly acquiesce to some of Napoleon’s ideas which would have meant the destruction of Judaism. They answered him as diplomatically as possible, while sticking to `Jewish Law:

The only marriages expressly forbidden by the law, are those with the seven Canaanite nations, with Ammon and Moab, and with Egyptians…The prohibition in general applies only to nations in idolatry The Talmud declares formally that modern nations are not to be considered as such, since they worship, like us, the God of heaven and earth. And, accordingly, there have been, at several periods, intermarriage between Jew and Christians in France, in Spain, and in Germany…but we cannot deny that the opinion of the Rabbis is against these marriages. 5

Although Napoleon lost his wars in the end and ended up in exile, the things he put in motion had a huge ripple effect. By the end of the 19th century the notion of keeping Jews as non-citizens was no longer tenable in the more liberal environment in Europe.6 With time, Jews were granted citizenship in every country in Europe. Interestingly, the last two countries to grant Jews citizenship were Switzerland (1874) and Spain (1918).

This meant that by the late 19th century, Jews - who had been economically and physically marginalized, who had been locked out of any trades and professions - now were allowed (if not exactly welcomed) into all phases of European society.

Does that mean that the Enlightenment put an end to anti-Semitism?


It merely intellectualized it.


Once the gates of the ghettos were thrown open, the Jews rose to the top quickly, gaining prominence and wealth. This doesn’t mean that, despite their achievement, they were accepted into general society. The times had changed, but not that much.

It is true that in Western Europe in the 19th century, there were no pogroms against the Jews. The post-Enlightenment society did not do things like that. Not in Western Europe anyway. (We will talk about Eastern Europe and particularly Russia in a future installment.)

But just because there were no pogroms doesn’t mean that the non-Jews suddenly began to love the Jews.

The new anti-Semitism of this time can be called “intellectual anti-Semitism.”

What that means is that people like Baron Lionel Rothschild - one of the most prominent and richest Jews in England - could not take a seat in the British Parliament after his election in 1847 because he refused to take an oath on the Christian Bible. It took eleven years and the passing of the “Jewish Disabilities Act” for him to have that right. (He became the first Jewish member of the British Parliament in 1858.)

In theory Jews had equal rights but in practice the story was very different. Many Jews saw conversion as the best way to advancement in enlightened Europe. A classic example was Benjamin Disraeli, who was twice the Prime Minister of England during the reign of Queen Victoria, and was only able to achieve that position because his family converted to the Church of England.

This attitude toward conversion could be best summed up by the German Jewish writer Heinrich (whose original name was Chayim) Heine, who was baptized as a Lutheran in 1825. “From the nature of my thinking you can deduce that baptism is a matter of indifference to me, that I do not regard it as important even symbolically…The Baptism certificate is the ticket of admission to European culture…“7

So yes, Jews were accepted into society as long as they were not too Jewish. If a Jew was willing to twist himself into taking an oath on the Christian Bible, or better yet, eschewing his religion, he was tolerated. If he insisted on being true to the Torah and the Hebrew, he was told to stay out.

(In the next installment, we will examine one attempt of the Jews of Germany to get around this problem when we look at the beginnings of the Reform Movement within Judaism.)

It is interesting to note that in this time of unprecedented toleration the term “anti-Semitism” was first coined. It was the product of one of German’s biggest thinkers of the 19th century—Wilhelm Marr - who wanted to distinguish hatred of the Jews as members of a religion (anti-Judaism) from hatred of the Jews as members of a race/nation (anti-Semitism). In 1879, he wrote a book called The Victory of Judaism over Germandom, which went into twelve printings in six years - it was a runaway best-seller.

Another important thinker was Karl Eugen Duehring who in 1881 wrote The Question of the Jew is a Question of Race, summed up what anti-Semitism

“The Jewish question would still exist even if every Jew were to turn his back on his religion and join one of our major churches. Yes, I maintain that in that case the struggle between us and the Jews would make itself felt even more urgent. It is precisely the baptized Jew who infiltrates furthermost, unhindered in all sectors of society and political life. I return, therefore, to the hypothesis that the Jews are to be defined solely on the basis of race and not on the basis of religion.”

Jews who were dropping their religion and rising to power, wealth and prominence did not pay enough attention to these ideas. If they did, they would have realized that their joy-ride was going to be a short one. Because even if Jews escaped anti-Judaism by becoming Christian, or secular, or even if they refashioned themselves to blend in, “anti-Semitism”—which didn’t care what they believed or how they behaved as long as they were Jews—would get them in the end.

1 Paul Mendes -Flohr & Yehuda Reinharz ed., The Jew in the Modern World,  (Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 118.
2 Allan Gould ed., What Did They Think of the Jews, (Jason Aronson Inc.,1997), p.103.
3 As quoted from the article by Ben Weider entitled Napoleon and the Jews. a href=“” target=“_blank”> or at 
4 The Jew in the Modern World by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, pp. 125-126
5 The Jew in the Modern World by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, p. 129.
6 For more on this subject see The Jew in the Modern World by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, pp. 112-132, and Triumph of Survival by Berel Wein, pp. 69-77. It’s interesting to note that many of the Rabbis of Eastern Europe, such as Shneur Zalman of Liada, thought it better to back the antisemtic Czar than Napoleon when he invaded Russia.  While this might seem strange, clearly the logic was “better the devil you know than the one you don’t know.”  In hindsight this proved to be largely correct as the mass assimilation brought on by emancipation proved to be far more devastating than the unceasing hostility of the antisemites. This illustrates one of the great truisms of Jewish history:  The most difficult situation to stay Jewish in is not in poverty and persecution but rather in wealth and freedom.
7 The Jew in the Modern World by Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz

#53 of 70 in the Jewish History Series
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by  Ken Spiro
Posted in: Jewish History