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Unwitting moderns

By Shlomo Berger Ha'aretz July 28, 2003

Were the Sephardi Jews of Amsterdam or the Jews of the German Enlightenment
the first sign of the phenomenon of Jewish modernization?

The members of the Portuguese
(i.e., Sephardi) nation in
Amsterdam claimed that they
lived – or at least aspired to
live – according to the
principal they called “bom
judesmo” (“good and beautiful
Judaism”). The Jew and his
community were supposed to live

according to a code of behavior that would
demonstrate and prove the superiority and
beauty of Judaism. Everything that needed to
be done should be done in a “cultured” way:
Prayers, for example, should be said without
shouting, and preferably accompanied by
suitable music, well-executed. The observance
of these values, which we would call bourgeois,
expressed the mode of thinking of the members
of the community and the way in which their
Jewish lives were organized and run, and the
difference between them and the Ashkenazim
(Jews of non-Iberian European origin). The
Sephardi Jews of Amsterdam saw themselves as
the elite among the Jewish communities and
understood their Judaism in the light of the
concept of honor, which was a major axis of
their lives.

The Sephardim of Amsterdam are “the new Jews,”
as they are called in the title of this book by
Yosef Kaplan, and indeed represent something
different in the history of the Jewish
communities of Europe. The innovation can be
found in two characteristics: the return to
Judaism of people who had been born, raised and
educated as Christians, the majority of whom
had never known another Jew in their previous
lives, and the period of their return to
Judaism. As they had not been familiar with
Judaism before their return to the tradition of
the fathers, these new Jews (whose origins were
in the Iberian Peninsula) had to rely in part
on Christian literature about Judaism as a
basis for their renewed Judaism.

Of course this significantly influenced the way
they understood Judaism. Moreover, although
they had chosen to return to the bosom of
rabbinical Judaism and devoted considerable
resources to this, these Jews developed
nostalgia for the Iberian culture they had left
behind. They did not want to be Christians, but
every item of Iberian culture they could
isolate from the religion they had abandoned
(sometimes not entirely successfully) became a
part of their new Jewish culture. In this way
they created for themselves forms of Judaism
that are unknown in the Ashkenazi world.

Their return to Judaism and the formation of
their particular Judaism occurred in an era of
cultural changes in European culture. The 17th
century was the century of the scientific
revolution, the beginning of the age of
secularization, the rise of the centralized
state and of a change in the economic
structures of Europe – all processes that would
eventually lead in the next century to the
appearance of the Enlightenment movement among
the gentiles and the Jews. The articles in this
book by a Jerusalemite scholar of the Sephardi
diaspora in the early modern period deal with
the ways the Sephardi community and its
activities were formed, the changes that
occurred in European society and their
influence on the Sephardim in Amsterdam.

Christian pictures

Ten chapters of the book discuss a wide and
interesting range of issues that have to do
with the life of the Sephardi community in
Amsterdam, Kaplan’s main field of research. Two
further chapters deal with the Sephardim in
London and Hamburg, and expand our knowledge of
the Sephardi diaspora in Western Europe. The
various articles cover a broad spectrum of
areas in the history of ideas and social
history, such as excommunication and its role
(in Amsterdam and Hamburg), adultery, its
social significance and the ways of dealing
with the phenomenon, and the attitudes toward
the followers of Shabtai Zvi and toward
heretics and heresy at the beginning of the
18th century.

Other articles further expand our knowledge
about the Sephardi community: reflections of
the Sephardi Jews in Dutch art and a discussion
of the painting of the Sephardi synagogue by
Emanuel de Witte, the medical studies pursued
by Sephardi students at the University of
Leiden in the 17th century, the Sephardi
attitude toward Ashkenazi immigrants from
Eastern Europe and the Sephardi’s self-image
and its influence on the community’s modes of
action.

The opening article (“Tradition and Change: The
Path to Modernism of Western Sephardi
Judaism”), which is in my opinion one of the
most important Kaplan has written, deals with a
key question that occupies all the scholars of
Judaism in the early modern period: To what
extent were the Sephardim of Amsterdam modern,
and were they (like other Sephardim and the
Jews of Italy) the ones who signified the rise
of the phenomenon of Jewish modernization, and
not the Enlightenment movement that emerged in
Germany in the second half of the 18th century?
Indeed, the main argument of the article and
the book is that a number of focal points of
modernization must be identified in Jewish
history and the German enlightenment is only
one of them.

The uniqueness of the Dutch case lays in the
conscious attempt by the new Jews to return to
the bosom of rabbinical Judaism and, at the
same time, their inability to free themselves
from the influences of the Christian culture
from which they had emerged and the European
culture to which they wanted to belong, and
which in one form or another left their marks
on the modes of Jewish life they developed for
themselves. As noted, these Jews had no
knowledge at all of the rabbinical literature,
and even when they did acquire this knowledge
of literature and skills for studying and using
it, they tended to interpret it according to
Christian pictures of the world that had been
engraved on their consciousness, and were were
not at all rabbinical. Their openness to the
Iberian and Dutch cultural world, and their
desire to be an integral part of the European
cultural elite, was unlike the tendency toward
separatism in the Ashkenazi communities at that
time.

Thus they created for themselves a tradition
with a special coloration (“an invented
tradition,” in Kaplan’s definition), which of
course did not resemble the one that was
familiar and accepted in the 17th century. This
“strange” and interesting combination
demonstrates, as Kaplan argues, “how simplistic
it would be to see traditional and modern
societies as dichotomous.”

The Judaism of the Sephardim in Amsterdam was
not rebellious and revolutionary, but rather
reflected the problematics that were at the
basis of the establishment of the local
community (“from new Christians to new Jews”),
and the way the members of the community dealt
with the challenges of the times – like the
changes in the European society to which they
wanted to belong. They were unwittingly modern,
and with no clear intention to be so.

Reading this book is especially interesting
because Kaplan is skilled in a broad spectrum
of areas of historical research: from dealing
with the isolated historical incident and
exhibiting a profound familiarity with archival
material, to dealing with theoretical issues.
His knowledge in the area of the Jewish history
and European history of the 17th and 18th
centuries and the field of modern research on
these periods is impressive, and therefore he
can draw a picture of Jewish life in Amsterdam
and base it on incidents combined with the
appropriate intellectual analysis. The book is
superbly edited, and the many illustrations
that accompany the texts contribute to the
understanding of the written material. In
short, this is required reading for every
reader who is interested in the history of the
Sephardi communities in Western Europe and of
course Dutch Jewry, and is worthy of being in
the library of every educated reader.

Shlomo Berger is a lecturer in the Department
of Hebrew, Aramaic and Jewish Studies at the
International School for Humanities and Social
Sciences in Amsterdam.

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