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Rites and Passages

Delves into Jewish religion and culture at a time of profound social and political revolution in the wider European culture.

Rites and Passages
The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Culture in France, 1650-1860

Jay R. Berkovitz

2004 | 344 pages | Cloth $55.00 | Paper $24.95
Religion / History
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Table of Contents


1. Communal Authority and Leadership
2. Secularization, Consumption, and Communal Controls
3. Ritual and Religious Culture in Alsace-Lorraine

4. The Ordeal of Citizenship, 1782-1799
5. Religion, State, and Community: The Impact of Napoleonic Reform
6. The "Jewish Question" During the Bourbon Restoration

7. Scholarship and Identity: La Science de Judaïsme
8. Rabbinic Authority and Ritual Reform
9. Patrie et Religion: The Social and Religious Implications of Civic Equality



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


This book delves deeply into the dynamics of Jewish society and culture in an era when, according to most accounts, the most interesting events and developments were taking place outside the Jewish community. Accordingly, the history of European Jewry has focused mainly on the process leading to the attainment of citizenship, on what was expected of Jews in order to gain acceptance in their host countries, on the resistance they frequently encountered, and on the ease or difficulty they experienced in their effort to integrate into the society around them. Selected aspects of this extremely complex social, political and cultural process have been taken to epitomize the modern Jewish experience in toto, insofar as they seem to confirm the durability of anti-Semitism and assimilation, or explain the emergence of Jewish nationalism—to mention several of the more powerful forces affecting Jewish life today. The Jewish fascination with general culture has, likewise, attracted the unending attention and considerable talents of historians, philosophers, and students of literature. Each of the foregoing subjects is as contemporary as it is historical.

Although I do not ignore the importance of representation and symbolic meanings, in the present study I am interested principally in the social significance of culture, that is, how the internal cultural dynamic shapes the social ethos and communal policy. My main interest is the inner life of the Jews and the manifold ways they have struggled to make sense of their unique historical predicament. These concerns fall under the general rubric of "cultural history," an enterprise aiming to clarify the history of meaning and feelings. It seeks to explain how generations have labored to reconcile the heritage of the past with the unprecedented demands of the present and future. In each of these respects, Jewish history exemplifies cultural patterns characteristic of humanity at large; indeed, no less than others, the Jews have wrestled with la condition humaine. At the same time, it is abundantly clear that the Jews' historical experiences over the course of centuries, and the weight of the social and religious teachings of Judaism, have thoroughly informed their perceptions of the world around them and have influenced virtually all of the choices they make as individuals. Historically and in the present day, to be Jewish has meant, inexorably, to live in tension between the universal and the peculiarly "Jewish" aspects of their identity.

An overwhelming emphasis on the status and image of the Jew in general society has been the dominant concern of most historical accounts. Invariably, this has come at the expense of the scholarly attention that Jewish culture deserves. In the pages that follow, I intend to examine aspects of the Jews' social, intellectual, and cultural history by investigating the central role of religion in traditional and modern societies. I have become convinced that patterns of religious thought and behavior represent invaluable indices of the transition to modernity. I am hopeful that this study will illumine the age-old tensions between faith and reason, and will advance our understanding of the erosive impact of secularization, the staying power of traditional values, and the manner in which minorities struggle to preserve their identities against the homogenizing tide of modernization. These are, first and foremost, human struggles and the protagonists must not be studied as faceless members of a corporate group. To gain a clearer understanding of the role that religion has played in modern culture, I decided to make ritual this book's primary focus.

In order to appreciate the shifting role of religion in the modern history of European Jewry, I have employed a broad conceptual and chronological framework of analysis that includes the latter stages of the ancien régime in addition to the era of Jewish emancipation. "Emancipation" in the narrowest sense refers to the attainment of civic equality, which the Jews of France first achieved in 1790 and 1791; more broadly, it is used to signify the extended processes of acculturation and social integration that unfolded over the course of nearly a century. Historians have hardly been able to contain their enthusiasm concerning its effects, seeing that it enabled western and central European Jews to enter the mainstream of modern culture and society. In this book I challenge the conventional view that emancipation was the defining experience in modern Jewish history. Emancipation has served, routinely, as the major organizing principle and analytic model for the study of the Jewish encounter with modernity. However, research on England, France, Italy, and the Hapsburg Empire has more recently exposed the inadequacy of the German-Jewish paradigm of emancipation-assimilation-reform by giving attention to emancipation's wide range of legal, social, and political expressions, and its variegated effects on urban and rural populations, class, and gender. The transformative power of emancipation can hardly be denied, but its standing as the preeminent framework for exploring what modernity meant for the Jews ought to undergo careful reconsideration. Emancipation is widely commended for having reversed the civic and political disabilities of the medieval period, thus enabling Jews to participate fully in the political and cultural life of the modern state. But this view has contributed inexorably to a pervasive failure to take account of dominant social and cultural trends in the ancien régime when considering the course of modern Jewish history.

France offers an instructive case study of what modernity meant to the generations preceding and following the Revolution of 1789. Though small in comparison to communities elsewhere in central and eastern Europe, Jewish community in France offers an excellent opportunity to examine the mentalités of this transitional era, including adjustments in outlook and behavior inspired by the onset of modernity and the attainment of citizenship. As its title suggests, this book examines the modernization of the Jews through the lens of ritual and in light of the various passages they experienced in the century preceding and following the French Revolution. Focusing on the transitions accompanying European Jewry's "passage to modernity," this book calls attention to the changing function of ritual, its differentiation in the private and public realms, its relationship to class and gender, and its role in generational tensions. It will also highlight the passages of Jews to and from other countries, the cultural interplay of eastern and western European traditions, and the efforts of rabbinic and lay elites to remake the Jewish tradition in light of social and political changes. These transitions—whether within the context of individual lives, or as a measure of geographical shifts or intellectual vivacity—promise to illumine the dynamics of cultural change and stability in an era of wide-ranging political and social transformation.

Impassivity toward the prerevolutionary era has, historically, rested on the assumption that the cultural and religious traditions of the ancien régime were rendered obsolete by the powerful forces unleashed in 1789. This dominant thread in the narrative of modern Jewish history has not only limited the kinds of questions raised with respect to the ancien régime. No less importantly, it has compromised the study of the nineteenth century. In the case of France, especially, historical studies have routinely focused on the arduous struggle for civic equality and on the structural and political effects of the revolutionary upheaval. However, very little is known of the religious rites and liturgical traditions that predominated in early modern and postrevolutionary France. The voluminous rabbinic scholarship of the region, including manuscript and published works, has been largely ignored; even less is known of the reinterpretation, rejection, or reassertion of Jewish religious and cultural traditions on French soil. Regrettably, the powerful impact of the Revolution has tended to blind the modern historian to the more opaque, though potentially most revealing, aspects of French Jewish history, including popular and rabbinic culture.

In its appraisal of prerevolutionary Jewish culture, Franco-Jewish historiography has, to a remarkable degree, mirrored the dominant perspective of emancipated French Jewry. For those Jews who first bore the title citoyens, and for the generations that followed, interest in the rich communal history of the ancien régime faded precipitously amid the exuberance and future-oriented mentality of the revolutionary era. Their growing detachment from the cultural universe of previous centuries went hand in hand with the belief that to remain committed to the social mores and rituals of Alsace-Lorraine was to be antimodern, even anti-French. History, wrote François Furet, began with the French Revolution, or more precisely for the Jews, on 27 September 1791, when the National Assembly voted to admit their ancestors to citizenship. Generations would recall this momentous event as a turning point of uncommon magnitude, and would view themselves as conclusive evidence of its transformative power. Memories of the Revolution were draped in the triumphant imagery of the Sinaitic revelation and were reconceived in messianic-redemptive terms, while the numerous setbacks suffered by the generation of 1789 received inordinately short shrift. These recollections were rooted in an abiding sense of optimism—if not a certain naïvité—that credited the Revolution with having put an end to centuries of degradation, discrimination, and social exclusion. For later generations, the surrender of the special privileges of communal autonomy and rabbinic jurisdiction in civil affairs appeared to have been a small price to pay for the many blessings that citizenship bestowed. Against this view, this study asserts the significance of the lives of Jews who lived in a world still defined by the terms of religious tradition.

Scholarly investigation into the history of eighteenth-century French Jewry has been further complicated by a host of technical difficulties and conceptual challenges. Due to the unfortunate dispersal of archival documents and the destruction of numerous community records during the ravages of World War II, and some before, historical documentation is often woefully incomplete. Many of the surviving records of Jewish communal life are widely scattered in archives in France, Israel and the United States, yielding, at best, a deficient picture of Jewish life in the ancien régime. Moreover, with several notable exceptions, such as the work of Simon Schwarzfuchs and Arthur Hertzberg, and the project headed by the late Bernhard Blumenkranz, research on the prerevolutionary period has concentrated mainly on individual communities. Inspired by sentiments of local pride, the writing of communal history became popular in early twentieth century Europe. After World War II the trend continued, prompted by a renewed concern for Jewish survival and continuity, and expressed in the dual effort to preserve what had remained and to memorialize what was lost. One may also note the appearance of a moderate number of monographs that have systematically researched the full range of social, economic, and political forces at work in individual communities. Precisely because knowledge of communal life in the ancien régime is so highly fragmented, scholars have refrained from drawing general conclusions about the Jewish communities dispersed in hundreds of localities of France. All in all, the Revolution of 1789 has remained the firm dividing line in most historical accounts.

If the historical portrait of French Jewry is in some measure deficient, the reason is only partly related to the fragmentary documentation and the general failure to take notice of rabbinic sources. I intend to make a broader claim: No serious treatment of modernity, certainly not Jewish emancipation, can afford to ignore the cultural history of the ancien régime, especially as reflected in religious rites and communal ethos. It hardly needs to be stated that any discussion of ruptures, modifications, and continuities in the cultural history of emancipated Jewry depends on a clear understanding of where things stood before the onset of the emancipation process. Moreover, by taking the long view, one is alerted to several important paradigms that emerged in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and left a lasting imprint on the process of modernization as it unfolded in the century following 1789. These included the formation of a lay leadership, the creation of divergent social contexts for religious and cultural change, tensions between popular and elite religion, and the sociocultural interaction between Jews and non-Jews.

The study of ritual offers entrée into intricacies of meaning that are frequently overlooked or are considered too elusive to be of much use to historians. Pioneering studies in the field of cultural anthropology, starting with the research of Arnold van Gennep and other students of popular culture, have illustrated how traditional communities devised systems to explain the world based on rites of passage and collective mentalities. It is the signs and symbols of rituals that reveal underlying structures of thought. Serving as a crucial repository of memories and values that were specific to a community or region, religious customs (minhagim) were a matter of communal pride and identity. They also represented a mode of continuity with past generations, which was of particular importance at a time of rampant social, cultural, and political transformation. For these reasons, minhagim demanded vigorous efforts to ensure precision. Debates about the authenticity of such rituals also revolved, increasingly, around the question of the centrality of textual traditions.

Those rituals practiced by French Jews during the ancien régime reflected modes of thinking about their historical origins, their relationship to the surrounding culture and society, and their identification with certain Jewish cultural traditions. In Alsace-Lorraine, Jews commonly shared with their non-Jewish neighbors a perception of the world as a dangerous place where demons wreaked havoc. Rituals lent order to their lives while also shielding them from the ruinous effects of evil spirits. They were designed to meet a variety of needs relating to life passages: the need of the individual for public acknowledgment; the need for the community to join in marking the passages of each member; the need to forge bonds among individuals; and the need to reenact the great stories and messages of the tradition. Rituals provide security in times of transition and/or loss.

Following the Revolution, the Jewish self-image was powerfully transformed by the promise of full civic equality and the concomitant demand of régénération. Nineteenth-century ritual reflected changes in the identity of emancipated Jewry, especially in its new relationship to the state, French society and culture (in chs. 4-8). Prerevolutionary rituals explained, however imperfectly, the meaning of life; they were formative elements of people's worldviews. From the beginning of the revolutionary era and throughout the nineteenth century, ritual assumed more of a performative function that was designed to dramatize, in a concrete manner, the epoch-making changes of the day. Though undeniably expressive of how Jews defined their identity, especially in the public space of the French city, the newer rituals were mainly reflections of the life that was shaped so completely by the powerful forces of revolution. The changing function of ritual will be of far greater importance for explaining the development of Jewish culture in France than the focus on whether traditional mores, learning, and piety were deteriorating with emancipation and the advance of modernity. Although these are important concerns, they must not dominate the discourse of Jewish history.

* * * * * * *

The modern history of French Jewry begins in the mid-sixteenth century when converso émigrés from the Iberian Peninsula were invited to settle in Bourdeaux and Bayonne as nouveaux Chrétiens. In the roughly the same years, the foundations of the Metz kehillah, and later, numerous communities in Alsace and Lorraine, were established. The coincidence of these two processes, though independent of one another, invites a comparison of the systems of self-government that prevailed in the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities. With our lens focused upon the changing structures of communal life, three main areas will be treated: the scope of communal authority and jurisdiction; the composition of leadership; and the enactment of legislation to regulate religious, social, and moral behavior. My intent is to discover where and how modernity made itself felt in the last stages of the ancien régime, and to assess communal responses to the new challenges.

Social and religious controls evince two additional dimensions of the transition to modernity that are shared, in varying degrees, by Jewish communities elsewhere. First, they contain evidence of the unique challenges facing a minority seeking to maintain its cultural distinctiveness while continuing to be part of the larger social and economic matrix. For the Jews of central and western Europe, these tensions reveal a greater degree of contact and involvement with the surrounding Christian society than may be commonly assumed. In varying degrees, the Ashkenazic Jews of France adopted elements of non-Jewish culture, often incorporating them into the ritual system of Judaism. Often unconscious, this strategy made it possible to participate in a culture that would normally be viewed as a serious threat to Jewish survival. Second, efforts of lay communal leaders to regulate public and private behavior, especially in the realm of consumption, call attention to the process by which central elements of a religious tradition undergo secularization. Although virtually every one of the criticisms directed against Jewish religious and social behavior had been heard in previous centuries, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries their moral underpinnings were subordinated to a new, overarching concern about the ordering of society.

The cultural history of the Jews of Alsace-Lorraine prior to the Revolution is informed by a struggle between two competing claims, namely, that the region belonged to the larger cultural universe of Ashkenaz versus the view that there was an indigenous Alsatian Jewish culture that was native to the region. By investigating trends in Talmud study, rabbinic appointments, halakhic rulings, religious customs, and liturgy, we will show when and where the cultural identity of the Jews either reflected an affinity to western Ashkenaz or evinced a regional consciousness that was already emerging several decades before the Revolution. The tension between the two would continue to manifest itself well into the nineteenth century, and may be observed in the discourse on the role of religion in communal life.

Throughout this volume I use the term "emancipation" to signify the extended processes of acculturation and social integration that unfolded over the course of nearly a century, rather than to refer to a single event in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Emancipation varied significantly from state to state, even from community to community within the same region. Recent studies have debunked the older view that emancipation led inexorably to rampant assimilation and the rupture of tradition. In the case of the Jews of rural Alsace and Lorraine, occupational patterns, family life, and religious observance were resistant to change because social and economic conditions in the region remained relatively stable for much of the nineteenth century. The conservatism of the rural population is evident in the persistence of folk customs, the use of Yiddish, fertility patterns, opposition to religious reform, use of Jewish names, sentiments of ethnic solidarity, and in the slow pace of assimilation to bourgeois standards of behavior. Urban centers, by contrast, facilitated economic transformation, acculturation to bourgeois lifestyle, and accommodation to the norms of non-Jewish society; in larger cities such as Paris, Berlin, Prague, and Vienna traditional loyalties and affiliations waned more rapidly. Economic and intellectual urban elites active in communal institutions typically labored to "regenerate" the lower classes in accordance with ideals expounded by the Haskalah, and their efforts found expression both in the creation of philanthropic schools for the Jewish urban poor and in broader activities directed at the transformation of Jews in rural areas.

The pronounced rural-urban split calls attention to clear links between social and religious history in modern Judaism. Patterns of emigration of Jews within Europe in the nineteenth century added to the complex mix. Numerous Russian and Polish Jews moved west, interacting with more assimilated coreligionists in places like Berlin, and even internal migration, as from Alsace to Paris, affected religious outlook and relations with the wider society. Divergences based on social class also emerged within the Jewish community. Many Jews took advantage of opportunities in higher education, and their religious perspective therefore tended to diverge from that of other social groups within the Jewish community.

Barriers to social integration were in the forefront of internal Jewish discussions concerning adaptation to modern society. Concerns about the compatibility of Jewish ritual with the demands of social integration and patriotic loyalty were aggravated by the growing awareness that emancipation had shattered the traditional theological underpinnings of Exile, the return to the Land of Israel, and the ethos of social separation from non-Jews. The full realization of citizenship—or its elusive character in the case of Germany—was frequently invoked as an argument for the removal of ostensibly problematic elements of the Jewish religion. Proponents of modernization, including a sizable number of the delegates to the Napoleonic Sanhedrin, repudiated the social and political dimensions of traditional Judaism. Other factors, including growing indifference to religious observance and the assimilation of bourgeois values, led some to conclude that moderate ritual reform was absolutely necessary if Judaism was to survive the difficult challenges posed by modernity. Typically, efforts to enhance the aesthetic appeal of the synagogue included recitation of prayers in the vernacular, the regularization of the modern sermon, the use of the organ, and the insistence on greater decorum. In Germany, disappointment with the slow progress of legal emancipation, the decline in Jewish observance, the increasing wave of conversion to Christianity, and rising anti-Semitism appears to have induced more radical efforts. In France, as in England and Italy, proponents of ritual reform refused to consider seriously the removal of references to the Land of Israel and the Messiah from the prayer book, and rejected the eradication of the dietary laws, traditional Sabbath observance, the prohibition of intermarriage, and circumcision.

The moderate character of ritual reform in France, as I have suggested elsewhere, is clearly related to the successful achievement of civic equality and to the religious pluralism typical of communal institutions under the aegis of the Consistoire. However, the crucial—but heretofore underrated—issue of timing offers an important perspective on the pace of cultural transformation. Developments over the course of the nineteenth century suggest that while Jewish life was dramatically transformed in the social and political realms, the Revolution appears, ironically, to have hindered the modernization process. Although changes in the nature of community leadership and rabbinic culture were already evident before the Revolution, the general patterns of social, economic, and religious life tended to be more unyielding. Compared to developments in neighboring Germany where cultural transformation was relatively swift, modernization in France lagged behind. This may also be explained by the devastation of Jewish communal institutions caused by the Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Without an essential communal framework for administering and implementing regenerative programs, many communities in France, especially in Alsace and Lorraine, failed to advance along the modernization path. We should nonetheless be careful not to draw the wrong conclusion. The effects of the delay in the modernization process were nothing short of imposing and ought to be understood as belonging indisputably to the Revolution's legacy as well. Perhaps most crucially, the majority of France's Jews first encountered the trauma of emancipation several decades after the bestowal of civil equality—a fact whose significance was not lost on at least some Jewish proponents of regeneration. In their view, the timing of emancipation relative to the state of socioeconomic and cultural modernization was a critical factor; in the case of the Jews of rural Alsace-Lorraine, the early bestowal of citizenship may have inhibited the progress of cultural and religious regeneration.

Where the impact of the Revolution is most visible is in the construction of a Franco-Jewish identity and in the development of strategies designed to meet the demands of the new civic status. My objective is to alert the reader to the distinctiveness of French Jewry's efforts to meet the challenges of modernity, without losing sight of those aspects of the struggle that it shared with other Jewish communities. This will entail examining the impact of the Revolution over a period of several generations, with special attention to the evolution of French Jewry's "ideology of emancipation" through its principal stages, including transformations in Jewish self-understanding in the areas of rabbinic and modern scholarship, and religious innovation. Comparisons with Jewish communities beyond the borders of France will assist in distinguishing between the changes produced by the general transformation of European society beginning in the late eighteenth century, and those that can be traced specifically to the attainment of civic equality.

In order to gauge the cultural impact of the revolutionary upheaval, I will call attention to the transformation of religious values within the Ashkenazic population in Alsace-Lorraine and Paris. This will involve, principally, an analysis of the efforts of rabbis and Jewish intellectuals who reexamined the texts and reassessed the knowledge formerly restricted to traditionalist interpretation. Rabbinic and nonrabbinic writings of numerous genres, drawn from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, offer abundant evidence of new thinking about the nature of Jewish tradition in the period from the ancien régime until the Second Republic. In the case of Rabbi Aaron Worms of Metz, a major figure whose life spanned the ancien régime and the revolutionary era, his rigorous criticism of trends in halakhic decision-making in the two centuries preceding the Revolution served as a bridge between normative-traditional perspectives and reformist views.

However, my objective is not simply to assess shifts in behavior and thought that reflected dissatisfaction with, or conversely, a reaffirmation of the traditional religious worldview. Rather, it is to determine how they served as the basis for a new consciousness, a reconstructed identity. In charting the evolution of the new Franco-Jewish self-image, the point of reference to which we shall return periodically in the second half of this volume is the role of the Revolution as an idea—a legacy—that lent itself to an ongoing hermeneutic. Its themes—cultural and social integration, etc.—remain issues still to be resolved, but they are approached differently with the passage of time. Precisely how did Franco-Jewish leaders understand the meaning of the changes that had begun to be felt in their communities, and how did they integrate the significance of the Revolution with their conception of Jewish culture and tradition? Moreover, what role did traditional Jewish religious culture play in the construction of modern Jewish identity?

The overarching goal of this book is to examine the vitality and resilience of religious traditions during periods of social and political turbulence. Related to this is a concern with the struggles of religious minorities to maintain their cultural distinctiveness and identity while remaining part of the larger social and economic matrix. Finally, and no less important, I have sought to clarify the changing role of ritual and authority in the nineteenth century, and ultimately, how the religious and social implications of civic equality came to be viewed by various sectors of the French-Jewish community. With its lens focused on the evolution of a new Franco-Jewish self-image, this book offers what I hope is a fresh perspective on the dynamic relationship between tradition and modernity.

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