But the rabbi could also serve as the connection between a Jewish ghetto and the surrounding Christian community. This dual raised status of rabbis made their role the most enviable in the community. But the shifts in French society that occurred in the decades just preceding and following the French Revolution created cracks in the isolation of European Jews.
The French Revolution is generally seen as an overthrow of the monarchy, and of course this is in part what happened. But the revolution was intended not simply to overthrow the Second Estate -- the nobility and royalty -- but also the First Estate -- the church and the clergy. The revolution unseated the Catholic Church from its position of power perhaps even more surely than had the Reformation, and it helped to free the country from Protestant as well as Catholic influence. But even more broadly, the revolution allowed people to understand that governments did not need the backing of God or of any church to have legitimacy and power.
Of course, the French Revolution did not materialize out of nowhere. It was in key ways the child not only of general Enlightenment values but also of the American Revolution. And it is true that the American Revolution had opened the door to the idea of a modern republic based on secular ideas. But because it was in the New World, the American Revolution had less of an impact on Europeans than did the French Revolution. Moreover, the American Revolution could in many ways be seen as at least in large measure prompted by economic forces. The language of the American Revolution was anti-monarchical, but it was not regicidal. American revolutionaries rejected the right of George III to rule over them without focusing on the fact that they were therefore rejecting the authority and idea of monarchy based on divine authority. The French revolutionaries were much more direct in their rejection of a government sanctioned by God.
While Martin Luther might have begun the Reformation by arguing for a different relation between the common person and the Christian God, Robespierre and his compatriots would argue that the primary relationship that existed for each person was with himself or herself and other citizens. The French Revolution, along with the more general ideas of the Enlightenment, helped to create a world that was fundamentally less hierarchical, a world in which each person could be the highest authority on her or his own life.
The French Revolution also compounded the message of the American Revolution. Europeans might have been able to dismiss the American experimentation with democracy as simply that -- an experiment, a single shot at an essentially aberrant form of governance. But the French Revolution -- dedicated to the same ideas of democratic representation and the sanctity of liberty (a sanctity that the French could lay even greater claim to since French citizens did not keep slaves) -- underscored the fact that the modern world would be a democratic and representative one. The American Revolution was not a singularity but rather a prototype. The world was changing.
As a result, the implications of the French Revolution were much more profound in terms of unleashing society from the strictures of Christianity. The ideas of Voltaire and his fellow philosophes not only reduced the power of Christianity but more generally reduced the power of religion in society. This reduced the prejudice against Jews while also allowing for (in some measure) a secularization of Jewish culture and society.
I shall examine this point in greater detail below -- how the revolution and the general changes in the cultural environment helped to create a secular Jewish culture -- but want to note here the importance of one particular change that occurred in French eighteenth society. Education became a function of civil society and not of the church. Secular schools allowed Jews to attend, which gave Jews access to religion outside of Talmudic teachings given by rabbis. For the first time since the Classical world, Jews had the chance to become intellectuals rather than religious scholars. (I am not arguing here that religious scholarship is not an intellectual activity but rather that it was during the Enlightenment that it became possible for Jews to become secular intellectuals, that Jews could be seen as intellectuals by other Jews independent of any knowledge that they had about traditionally important religious questions.)
To step away from the ideas fomenting and fermenting around the revolution itself (as well as during the decades leading up to it), it is important to note the contributions of Napoleon Bonaparte, for he helped spread the Enlightenment values of the French Revolution (and in particular its greater tolerance towards Jews) across Europe. While Napoleon was not (rather obviously!) a perfect ruler, his imperialist hunger had important beneficial effects. The legal codes and forms of governance that he developed for France were generally humane and rational. Not only did Napoleon help create the system of public education that gave children of all classes and religions access to a balanced, sophisticated education, he also pushed through land reforms that had been initiated (in a less systematic and rational fashion) by revolutionaries.
Napoleon consolidated -- for Jews as well as for other French citizens, and indeed broadly to all the people of Europe -- the idea of governmental power backed by the authority of the people themselves, not by either God or inherited status and wealth. As Napoleon pushed his armies across Europe, they took with them their ideas of democracy. As old regimes fell before him (and the Pope suffering the indignity of being arrested by Napoleon), the French emperor hammered home his ideas about the dignity of the individual -- even if that individual were a Jew.
Schechter (2003) has created a fascinating analysis of the reasons why Jews were so important to the French revolutionaries as well as Napoleon. In the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth, Jews constituted less than 1% of the French population yet took up a great deal of political and cultural space. (The same might actually be said today of the United States.) Schechter argues that this is in no way coincidental but rather than for French intellectuals and political leaders during the Revolution and the First Empire Jews served the position of the "Other."
If the newly liberated and newly empowered France could find a place for Jews in its newly defined civil society then the French could see themselves as truly evolved -- as having taken the lead in Europe as the most civilized of peoples. (Something that the French have often wanted to believe of themselves...) Schechter's argument makes good sense: If the Jews had not had an important cultural significance to other French citizens it is very hard (I would even argue impossible) to understand why their position in society was of such importance in French society. The improvement in standing of Jews during and just after the Revolution cannot be understood as the result of the disappearance of anti-Semitism from French society, as the vicious treatment of Alfred Dreyfus at the end of the century.
France during the Revolution and its aftermath was not free of anti-Semitism. This mattered to the lives of Jews who still had to struggle against the bias of individuals whom they met in the course of their daily lives. But while gentile French citizens might not personally like the Jews that they met, they had a philosophical and political use for Jews in the abstract. And this created a space for the development of Haskalah as well as the development of an intellectual, secular Jewish culture that has echoes in today's Jewish milieux.
Moses Mendelssohn and the Importance of Language
While much of the groundwork for a Jewish enlightenment was done in France, there were key developments in Germany as well. Prussia was home to Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), a prototype of the Jewish intellectual. He himself -- as both philosopher and writer -- was far more integrated into larger (gentile) society than most Jews and his own life proved to be both example and inspiration for other Jews seeking a larger life. He was one of the leaders of the movement who understood that language would play in terms both of integrating Jews into the larger society as well as in terms of helping to create an intellectual culture that was tied to Jewish history and philosophy rather then religion.
Mendelssohn translated the Torah into German and this translation was an essential text for Haskalah. This might seem contradictory: Why turn to the Torah as part of an attempt to create a more secular identity? The simple answer was that Mendelssohn's translation served as a sort of Rosetta stone: Jews knew the text of the Torah in Hebrew, so the translation of the text created a bridge between the two languages and…