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Heritage Civilization and the Jews
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Search for Deliverance When the dreadful news [of the decree expelling Jews from Spain] reached the people, they [...] wept bitterly. [...] However, they bravely encouraged each other: "Let us cling unflinchingly to our faith [...] If they let us live, we will live; if they kill us, we will perish. But we will not break our Divine Covenant nor shall we turn back. We will go forth in the name of the Lord our God."

In this spirit the people, old and young, women and children [...] went forth on one day, unarmed and afoot. I was among them. They went whithersoever the wind carried them. Some fled to the kingdom of Portugal, others to the kingdom of Navarre. Many chose the way of the sea and were lost, drowned, burnt to death, and sold into slavery.


Don Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1509), Memoir, from Leo W. Schwarz, Memoirs of My People Through a Thousand Years (Farrar and Rinehart, 1943)



The expulsion of the Jews from Spain, on one hand, and the French Revolution, on the other, bracketed three centuries of major political, cultural, and social upheavals. To survey the changes in this era, both for Jewry and civilization as a whole, is to present a catalogue of advances, transformations, and reversals.

The Renaissance, which started in Italy, was based on a revival of classical art, literature, and learning. Its humanist philosophy emphasized reason and inquiry over faith and authority and valued everyday, human experience. In the German city of Mainz in around 1450, Gutenberg invented movable type. This technological advance enabled the mass production of books, making knowledge more accessible than ever before. In the 16th century, Copernicus discovered that the earth revolved around the sun—and modern science was born. Scientific achievements reduced the hazards of ocean travel, allowing Europeans to explore distant parts of the globe. Motivated by the desire for increased international trade, Portugal, Spain, Holland, France, and England established colonial empires in the Americas and Asia.

In Germany in 1517, Martin Luther initiated the Reformation, which challenged the authority of the Pope, questioned the ritual of the Church, and ultimately, split Christendom into Protestant and Catholic sectors. In the next generation, Catholic leaders such as Ignatius Loyola, launched the Counter-Reformation to reaffirm the supremacy of the Papacy and the authority of the Church.

For Jews, the end of the 15th century was marked by tragedy. In 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand expelled the entire Jewish population of Spain in an attempt to isolate conversos (Christian converts) from contact with non-Christians. Eventually, many of the exiles found new homes in North Africa, Italy, the Netherlands, the Americas, and the Ottoman Empire (which at that time included Palestine). In the 14th and 15th centuries, large numbers of Ashkenazic Jews from Northern Europe migrated to Poland and Lithuania.

Rabbinical scholarship achieved new heights in Salonika, Cairo, Constantinople, and Safed, which was the home of a spiritual revival centered on kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. In Renaissance Italy, Jewish and Christian philosophers traded ideas. Jewish philosophy began to reflect a humanist influence. Christian philosophers learned about Judaism and developed a new appreciation for the role of Hebrew culture in the formation of Western civilization.

Religious and social schism, as well as continuing persecution, rocked Jewish society. In the 17th century, in the course of a bloody uprising, thousands of Jews in Poland and Ukraine were murdered by Bogdan Chmielnicki’s Cossacks. In Amsterdam, Baruch Spinoza argued for the supremacy of rationalism over religious doctrine. His controversial views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community. During the same century, thousands of Jews around the world became followers of Shabbetai Zevi, a charismatic, but erratic messianic pretender. In the mid-18th century, Hasidism, a dynamic religious movement that emphasized joyous prayer over asceticism and scholarship, arose in Poland to challenge the Jewish communal establishment. Hasidim was particularly popular among poor Jews and quickly spread to other Eastern European regions.

In the 18th century, French philosophers, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, led an intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment, which questioned traditional royal and Church authority by suggesting that human institutions should conform to new canons of logic and reason. The "enlightened" also argued for the equality of man and universal liberty. These ideas spread throughout Europe and even to the American colonies. In Berlin in the 1770s, a small group of Jews gathered around Moses Mendelssohn, a Jewish philosopher of the German Enlightenment, who sought to apply the ideals of the Enlightenment to Judaism. Adherents of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) aimed for the integration of Jews into European society and for a synthesis of Jewish tradition and Western culture. With the approach of the 19th century, the ideas of the Haskalah gained currency with a new generation of Jews, who were faced with new challenges and opportunities not encountered by their parents and grandparents.


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