The year is 1812. Napoleon leads the seemingly invincible armies of the French Empire deep into the heart of Russia. Nothing really stops the French as they march across the Europe all the way to Moscow. They already control most of continent as a result of earlier conquests. Wherever they control they bring the reforms of the French revolution – emancipation of all peoples, equality, enlightenment culture, a legal system, even the use of surnames. Europe, as a result of these changes, will never really be the same. Despite Napoleon’s defeat, the genie of change has been let out of the bottle and nothing can fully restore the old system.
The Jews are not immune to these changes. In Western countries such as France, Germany, and the Papal States, the changes are welcomed with open arms. The long-awaited freedom from the ghetto has finally arrived. Napoleon organizes a Jewish Sanhedrin (high court) to facilitate the assimilation of the Jews into the national culture. Napoleon is viewed as almost a messianic figure. Jews name their children after him. In the German and French communities, the ghetto and tradition are the past; assimilation and reform are the future.
But in the Jewish population centers of Eastern Europe the winds of change had not yet been felt. It was only with Napoleon’s march into Russia that reality hit home. So, in the summer of 1812 a great debate captured the attention of the Jews of Eastern Europe. The army of Napoleon was poised to capture the territory where they lived, and with it, bring what the Jews had craved for almost 2000 years - freedom and equality with their Gentile peers. They would be free of the evil Czars who had persecuted them for centuries. Great rabbis and leaders welcomed this process. They foresaw the advancement of the Jewish way of life through the emancipation that Napoleon would bring.
But unanimity wasn’t to be on this issue because unexpectedly, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Hasidut, remained loyal to the evil Czars who brutally ruled Russia at that time. In addition to remaining loyal to the Czar, he spoke out about his great fears of the future of the Jewish people under the rule of Napoleon. Surprisingly he felt that Jewish continuity would somehow survive under the Czars, but was sure to fail under the freedoms of Napoleon. In the end, Napoleon was defeated, but his ideas slowly made their way into society. However, the fear of those ideas caused Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s position to become the mainstream rabbinic reaction to modernity.
Looking back 200 years later, we can see that the events in that summer of 1812 set Judaism on a course that was almost ordained by fate. The next two centuries of Jewish history revolved, to a great degree, around the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Whether all that happened would have happened regardless of Napoleon and his military campaign is a matter of historical speculation. That he was at least a catalyst is definite.
Historically, we can see no less than five different pathways that were forged in the European Jewish world. The first of these was certainly in place long before 1812. This was the path that Rabbi Shneur Zalman advocated, the path of Orthodox insularity. Prior to Napoleon this path was enforced on the Jews from outside, while being exactly what most Jews desired. They were almost exclusively Orthodox and had little need or want to integrate with their goyish neighbors. The gentiles looked on the Jews with a combination of scorn and envy, always restricting Jewish prosperity and occasionally fomenting pogroms. The Jews, despite their poverty and precarious position, survived, and to a limited degree, thrived. These were the European Jews - mostly Ashkenazi, almost 100% religious, many ignorant and devout, a small percentage incredibly learned and brilliant.
The 19th century products of this group have been seen in three of our sections: Mussar, Hasidut, and the Yeshiva. Each of these three subcultures sprang mainly from Eastern Europe out of 18th century roots that grew rapidly during the 19th century. All three advocated insular Judaism, though the way they pushed it differed considerably. Mussar, to some degree, used enlightenment thinking to create a Jewish approach to internal spiritual growth that foreshadowed secular psychology. The Yeshiva system, though basically an expansion of earlier local systems of teaching Talmud, paralleled the secular university system. Hasidut, perhaps, was the only one of the three that can really be called purely Jewish. It was the simple Jew celebrating his faith through the guidance of a revered master.
By the end of the 20th century, these three groups, though frequently at odds with each other over doctrinal fine points, combined both politically and socially to form large and rapidly growing communities in Israel and in the Diaspora. Beginning in the 1980’s they, along with their Sefaradic peers, have become known as the Haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jews. They openly advocate an insular lifestyle, whenever possible avoiding social contact with anyone, Jewish or not, who they deem an outsider. To the Haredim, the threat was Napoleon’s tempting emancipation that had materialized all over the world, and the only defense against it was, and is, staying away. They reject as much as they can of the secular world. They live in the modern world and use many of its technological advances, but breathe the air of the Eastern European shtetl.
The second of the five paths also existed long before Napoleon though it was hardly recognizable among the Jews. This was the secular path. It saw in the enlightenment and Napoleon’s campaigns as nothing but opportunity. Secular knowledge became openly available to these Jews and they took to it like a thirsty man in the desert takes to water. Whereas only a minute percentage of Jews had access to the arts and the sciences before 1800, by the late 19th century vast numbers had acclimated in these fields. During the early 20th century, despite their considerably smaller numbers, Jews were dominating many areas of science. It was obvious that artistic and scientific talents had been lying dormant for centuries in the Jewish mind, emerging immediately upon being given an opportunity. The Jewish pursuit of the secular invariably led to abandoning of religion. But it didn’t necessarily lead to abandoning of God. Those two avenues, maintaining some belief and giving it up altogether, are represented by the parallel streams of pantheism and atheism.
The list of Jews who made major contributions in secular fields is enormous. Among the most prominent are Marx, Einstein, and Freud, arguably the three most influential individuals in intellectual fields of the modern era. What made Jews so adept in advancing secular knowledge? There is, of course, no definitive answer to this question. However, it is possible to speculate. In a sense, Jews had gained a collective ability from all their centuries of Talmud study to pursue a subject intensely. They also had a long tradition of advancing their own religious studies in new directions. Philosophy and mysticism are examples of this. When the opportunity opened up for them to break out of religious restrictions, they simply turned these abilities to others areas of knowledge. The results are everywhere.
The third path was to remain within the religious fold but to gradually drop all elements that didn’t fit in with the modern view of the world. This was the path of Reform. It was already in the works before Napoleon, but only in theory. It began in earnest with the Jews of Germany receiving their long-awaited emancipation. Within a few years, the first Reform temple was functioning. Of the paths that emerged from the upheavals of the early 19th century, Reform was the most immediate direct outcome.
Though Reform was radically different from the long tradition of Orthodox that it competed with, its goal was never to abandon Judaism. In this regard, Reform can be seen as a compromise between Orthodox and secular. The secularists, both atheist and pantheist, never claimed to be the spiritual heirs of Judaism. They knew they were dropping Judaism lock, stock, and barrel. Reform, on the other hand, maintained that their version of Judaism was the logical extension of tradition as it met the modern world. The results were evident over the next 150 years – well over 90% of Jews had nothing to do with Orthodox by the 1960’s. There was a corollary to this result, however. By the 1980’s the majority of those Jews were no longer Reform either. They were thoroughly assimilated secular Jews with no religious affiliation.
The fourth path would appear to be the predicted outcome of the clash between tradition and modernity. This is the co-called Modern Orthodox movement. Like Reform, it was a direct outcome of the influence of enlightenment. Modern Orthodox was really a response to Reform, which was spreading rapidly in the first few decades of the 19th century. Primarily the creation of one man, Samson Raphael Hirsch, it is the bold, and, some would say, hopeless attempt to synthesize authentic Jewish tradition and secular knowledge.
Modern Orthodoxy invariably requires a compromise in interpretation of tradition. The easiest step in this process involved the jettisoning of the superstitious and mystical elements of Judaism. A more difficult step was to reinterpret the Bible to fit into the current standards of science and history. This was always fraught was danger. The problem is obvious: once one idea or assumption is dropped, what is to prevent dropping everything? No satisfactory answers have ever been given for this question, but that hasn’t stopped Modern Orthodox scholars from continuing their chosen path. Modern Orthodox is really the latest manifestation of Judaism’s search for meaningful life in a changing world.
The final path sprang not from the Napoleonic Wars, but from their aftermath. Though it had been gestating for centuries, the birth of Zionism was the practical result of Jewish tradition attempting to keep stride with contemporary political trends. In its early stage (1860-1880), it was largely restricted to the minds of a few religious and secular idealists. It only became palpable with the adventures of a small number of dedicated secularists backed by wealthy Jewish financiers. During the last two decades of the 19th century it transformed from a pie-in-the-sky movement with little chance of success to a worldwide project that required all the ingenuity and determination that had built up over 2000 years of exile and persecution.
The Religious Zionists, led by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook, saw the rebirth of Israel, of the Hebrew language, of a Jewish army, and the gathering of the exiles, as nothing less than messianic fulfillment. Inevitably, this belief created clashes with both the secularists and with the traditionalists. The clash with the secularists was over what direction the new nation would take – would it be a modern secular state or would it have religious underpinnings and overtones? With the traditionalists, the clash was over doctrine. Was it permitted for man to push what God had promised to bring in due time? Neither of these clashes is anywhere near being resolved. If anything, they are both deeper than ever and dictate the very fabric of Israeli society.
Where will all this lead? Nobody really knows, and we no longer have prophets to clue us in on the future. Will the secularists win out in the end and the religious be relegated to the dustbin of history? Or will Haredi and Modern Orthodox somehow create some amalgamation that satisfies the religious needs of the 21st century Jew? Zionism will certainly play a major role in whatever direction Judaism takes, though it will likely alienate as many Jews as it activates. Napoleon probably thought the Jews would disappear within a few generations. Little could he imagine the impact and new life he would breathe into this eternally stubborn and remarkably flexible people.
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