October 20, 2018

How Emancipation Shaped the Jews

I am the kind of Jew I am today because of something that happened long before I was born, and the same is true for every Jewish man or woman who happens to be reading these words.

Jewish history, of course, is full of tipping points that redefined the identity and destiny of the Jewish people — the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C.E., the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.  One crucial element is mostly overlooked, however, and that’s the one that Michael Goldfarb examines in “Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance” (Simon & Schuster, $30.00).

The starting point of “Emancipation” is the French Revolution and the reign of Napoleon. Until then, with a few exceptions across Europe, Jews had been largely confined to the ghetto, denied citizenship in the countries where they lived and worked, and excluded from land ownership, government service, and admission to the universities and the professions.  By a stroke of the pen, Jews were set free from the shackles of medieval law and tradition.

Goldfarb, the longtime London correspondent for National Public Radio and author of an account of the war in Iraq titled “Ahmad’s War, Ahmad’s Peace,” traces the Jewish emancipation back to its early stirrings in the writings of the Enlightenment and the first halting efforts of the crowned heads of Europe.  He points out, for example, that an essay contest in 1787 sought an answer to the question of how “to render the Jews more useful and happy in France,” and the winner — a colonial official in far-off Haiti — proposed a simple idea: “Make them French.”

As Goldfarb shows us in abundant but also fascinating detail, the simple idea of granting full citizenship to Jews was powerful enough to send ripples through the currents of history for the next two centuries. The members of the National Assembly during the early days of the French Revolution, for example, embraced the idea that the Declaration of the Rights of Man applied to “every person in the world,” including such official non-persons as actors, public executioners and Jews.

“We must refuse the Jews everything as a nation,” one revolutionary leader declared, “and grant them everything as individuals.” 

The armies of revolutionary France, under the command of Napoleon, carried the same message across Europe. The Jews of Italy, for example, hailed their liberator as “Chelek Tov,” a literal translation of Bonaparte (“good part”) into Hebrew.  But Napoleon was concerned that Jews remained a “nation within a nation,” and he sought to find out why by convening a group of Jewish notables that he dubbed “the Great Sanhedrin” after the judicial body that had gone out of existence with the Temple itself.  “In the eyes of the Jews, are Frenchmen their brothers or strangers?” he asked. And he issued a series of decrees that were meant to encourage the assimilation of Jews, including one that prohibited the use of Hebrew patronymics and required the adoption of a family name that could not be selected from the Bible.

The defeat of Napoleon failed to reverse the process of emancipation.  “It was unstoppable,” explains Goldfarb, “because Jews, particularly in Germany, were emancipating themselves.”  And, he insists, the phenomenon of self-liberation allowed the pent-up energy and enterprise of the Jewish people to move in entirely new directions.  Some Jews sought to rid their religion of what they called “Harmful Abuses, Rude Improprieties, and Absurd Ceremonies,” a process that “was changing forever what it mean to be Jewish.”  Others — including Marx, Herzl, Freud, and Einstein — worked their own revolutions in politics, medicine and science, “reshaping Western man’s understanding of himself, his society and his place in the universe,” as Goldfarb puts it.  Some, like Heinrich Heine (and Marx, too), were carried all the way out of Judaism.

But the whole point of Goldfarb’s challenging book is that Judaism itself was now something quite different than what it had been before emancipation.  What started with essay contests in France in the 18th century, and flowered extravagantly in Germany in the 19th century, later shaped the world in which we live today, and not just the Jewish world.  Indeed, it is impossible to fully understand the Holocaust, for example, or the encounter between Islam and the West in our own times, without first understanding the revolution that Goldfarb describes in “Emancipation.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author of 13 books, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal and blogs at