The Haskalah Movement

In the 18th century, despite Europe’s embrace of Enlightenment values, Jews still faced widespread prejudice. One man, renowned philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, set out to integrate the Jewish people into mainstream society and liberate them, once and for all, from the oppression of antisemitism.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. Which idealistic principles were reflective of the Enlightenment movement?
    • Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
    • Reason, liberty, and tolerance
    • Democracy and equal representation
    • Life, equality, and fraternity
  2. What did Voltaire believe about the Jewish people?
    • They would always remain outside of mainstream culture because they are inherently corrupt.
    • They could successfully assimilate into society if they learned European behaviors.
    • They needed to reconcile the ideas of traditional Judaism with European ideas.
    • He never commented on the Jewish people.
  3. What was Moses Mendelssohns’ main takeaway from his studies at the Torah academy he attended as a teeanger?
    • He was inspired by his teachers who were committed to both Torah and Enlightenment ideals.
    • He learned how to refute Christian thought and prepared for his future debates.
    • He met with national leaders in the institution and was inspired to politically advocate for Jews.
    • He was dismayed by the rampant antisemitism and committed to stopping its spread.
  4. What was Moses Mendelssohn’s Hebrew periodical called?
    • Haskalah
    • The German Socrates
    • Maskilim
    • Kohelet Musar
  5. How did Moses Mendelssohn respond to Johann Kaspar Lavater’s challenge to publicly refute Christian theology?
    • He engaged in a series of public debates with Lavater.
    • He published a book with these ideas.
    • He refused to participate.
    • He agreed to participate only if multiple religions were represented.
  1. Moses Mendelssohn witnessed significant evidence of antisemitism throughout his life, both personally and internationally. He was barred from being inducted into the Prussian Academy of Sciences by King Friedrich the Great because he was Jewish. He also petitioned against multiple expulsions of Jewish communities. Despite his experiences, he believed that Jews could be accepted into society if they learned how to integrate into mainstream culture. Is it possible for Jews to ever be fully accepted into society, or will antisemitism always continue to exist and threaten Jews’ ability to integrate?
  2. When Johann Kasper Lavater challenged Moses Mendelssohn to debate him about Christianity, Moses Mendelssohn determined he was in a Catch-22 situation. Obviously, if he lost the debate, there would be damage to the Jewish community and its support. But, even if he won the debate, it would lead to Christian attacks against Jews and possibly even expulsions. He therefore refused to engage with Lavater. Did Moses Mendelssohn make the correct choice because he avoided the escalation of antisemitic attacks against the Jewish community, or did his refusal to debate give the message that he was not capable of making logical arguments which refute Christian theology?
  3. One of Moses Mendelssohn’s efforts was to discourage the speaking of Yiddish. He claimed it hindered intellectualism, as it was a grammatically-weak language. Yiddish remained a popular spoken language among Jews until 1945, when many Yiddish speakers were murdered during the Holocaust. Some ultra-Orthodox communities continued to speak the language, but many feared that the language was dying. Over the past decade, there has been an unexpected but strong commitment to Yiddish revival among people in their twenties and thirties. Which side of the argument are you on: should there be efforts to revive Yiddish, or are these unnecessary efforts to bring back a language from the past?
  4. Principles of reason, liberty, and tolerance inspired European society during the Enlightenment. One of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers was French philosopher, Voltaire. Yet, he was also one of the most antisemitic thinkers in the 18th century and believed, as the video mentions, that Jews were inherently corrupt. He also wrote that Jews deserved to be punished; it was their destiny. Similarly, Americans have long struggled with figures like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that the country would be built on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while also owning hundreds of slaves. Should people like Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson be lauded for their ideas which laid the foundation for progress, or should they be dismissed and criticized as hypocrites who ignored the ideals which they preached?
  5. Moses Mendelssohn remained committed to traditional aspects of Judaism, despite opposition from many Maskilim. He also wrote a book, Jerusalem, defending the Torah’s principles. Despite his own beliefs and personal commitment to Jewish ideas, four of his six children decided to convert to Christianity. Do his children’s choices suggest that Moses Mendelssohn failed to successfully find a balance between Enlightenment ideas and Judaism, or are his children’s choices reflective of their independent thoughts and not their father’s influence?
  1. Use our ready-made lesson plan about the Haskalah Movement HERE.
  2. Learners should be divided into pairs and engage in an Optimistic/Pessimist discussion. They should brainstorm why the Haskalah’s impact was positive for the Jewish community and then brainstorm why the Haskalah’s impact was negative for the Jewish community. This learning activity allows students to consider positive and negative interpretations of the same historical event.
  3. Divide this article on the Haskalah into four different reading segments and assign learners to groups of four. Use the Jigsaw technique to expose learners to all the main ideas in the text. Then, learners should write a summary of how they would explain the Haskalah.
  4. Learners should create a Portrait of a Thinker of Moses Mendelssohn. In this activity, students decorate a frame around the thinker’s picture. The decorations must include descriptions of the thinker’s ideas and display some of their biographical details. This allows students to analyze Moses Mendelosshn’s contributions and background, while also engaging their creative sides.
  5. Play our Kahoot about the Haskalah Movement!
  1. Moses Mendelssohn refused to debate Johann Kasper Lavater on Judaism versus Christianity. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote an article in which he argued that a community’s faith is an intimate and often incommunicable affair. He then prohibited interfaith dialogue for this reason. If someone asked you to pit your religion against another religion, would you feel comfortable engaging in conversation or would you prefer to change the topic?
  2. Moses Mendelssohn was Jewish, German, and an Enlightenment thinker. While he tried to balance and make sense of all of these identities, they sometimes came into conflict with one another. As the video states, he won a contest on his essay, “On Evidence in Metaphysical Sciences,” but King Friedrich the Great blocked his induction into the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Do you have multiple identities? For example, you may be Jewish and American. Do these identities go hand-in-hand or do you sometimes feel these identities compete or conflict with each other?
  3. There is a meme on Pinterest that reads, “Don’t change yourself just to make someone happy, unless that someone is you.” One of the most quoted ideas in today’s society is that people should not change themselves for the sake of others and should remain authentic. However, this idea of not changing yourself to be accepted seems to contradict Moses Mendelssohn’s advice that Jews should learn to integrate into German culture, and then they would be accepted. Imagine you were just hired for a new job: would you try to remain authentic, or would you try to fit in and integrate with the people at your new workplace? This balance is something explored in this article published in The Harvard Business Review which advised, “Be Yourself, But Carefully.” Are there other times when you have struggled to remain true to yourself while also trying to be accepted or fit into a group?
  4. The video ends by showing several Jews who were successful in European society during this time, including opera singer, Lovisa Augusti, and playwright, Bendikt Arnstein. Despite Jewish contributions, antisemitism continued to threaten Jews’ safety, and many feared they would only be accepted if they abandoned their Jewish identities. Unfortunately, antisemitism is not only still around but continues to increasingly threaten Jewish communities around the world. Have you ever experienced antisemitism? What can we do today to combat it?

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