Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century

Course No. 4647
Professor David B. Ruderman, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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Course No. 4647
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Course Overview

God. Torah. Israel. These three concepts—incorporated in personal belief, the meaning of Jewish ritual acts, and the purpose of continued Jewish existence—have been the focus of Jewish thought throughout history.

But the last four centuries have presented Jewish thinkers with difficult challenges:

  • In a world having a history of untold suffering—especially, it seemed, for Jews—was the existence of an all-powerful and comforting God still tenable?
  • What were the purpose and meaning of Jewish practices and customs, given the increasing number of Jews who placed greater value on their own autonomy?
  • Could Jews still justify the notion of a "chosen people" in a society where Jewish integration and full participation with the rest of humanity had become the norm?

These lectures present the varying ways in which a small group of thinkers has attempted to answer these challenges.

These men and, in recent years, women, have reflected deeply on the relevance of Jewish texts and traditions to modern Jews.

Different Routes to a Common Goal

Though their approaches and solutions differed, most shared a common goal: provide a continuing sense of faith, meaning, and identity for their fellow Jews.

Through these lectures, you will observe the time-honored intellectual tradition through which Judaism analyzes, rethinks, and reformulates itself.

This process of preserving its essential character while still trying to accommodate itself to the modern world has kept Judaism a vital and vibrant, rather than static, religion.

This course may serve to introduce you to a new and rich body of thinkers and thinking, for until recently, Jewish intellectual history, though an integral part of Western intellectual history, has been less heralded.

But one of the contributions of the young field of Jewish Studies has been to bring the thinkers featured in this series to a wider audience.

Spinoza's Devastating Challenge

The central figure in the course is well known: the prominent philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza (1632–1677).

Spinoza's impact was so significant, Professor Ruderman notes, that much of the course might be viewed as a series of responses to his thinking.

Spinoza received a traditional rabbinical education, but he broke with Judaism after his father died. He was raised in Amsterdam, a city in which both Jews and Christians lived in an increasingly tolerant and secular atmosphere.

In his Theological–Political Treatise, published anonymously in 1670, Spinoza became the first Jew to break with the medieval Jewish tradition espoused by Moses Maimonides (1132–1204).

Breaking with Four Centuries of Tradition

Spinoza disputed Maimonides's belief that reason and faith could be reconciled. Because biblical texts were believed to have been inspired by God, he asserted, they were supernatural. They could be interpreted through faith or reason, but not both.

If one chose reason, then the Bible was not divinely inspired but a document created by Man.

This argument was devastating to the question of Jewish identity.

Essentially, it negated God, Torah, and Israel, denying any rationale for Jews to think of themselves as the chosen people, observe ceremonial laws, or accept the authority of the rabbis.

Spinoza's critique laid bare the contradiction between Jewish communal values and secular liberal ones. He was the first to pose a fundamental question that remains relevant to this day: Is it possible to be a true liberal and a traditional Jew?

Three Responses: Insiders, Outsiders, and Rejectionists

This course considers modern Jewish thought largely in terms of two issues:

  • The response to Spinoza and his attack on the very viability of Judaism
  • The shift in the standard by which Jews defined themselves and their faith. In the Middle Ages, this defining factor had been God. In the modern age, it became the non-Jewish world.

With the weakening of the Jewish community, the need to provide a rationale for being Jewish in a non-Jewish world became pressing and more problematic.

Given these two issues, Professor Ruderman presents the various thinkers according to three approaches:

  • Insiders want to remain Jews but believe that Judaism has to be tailored to better fit the culture at large. The problem is how to accomplish this and still preserve the belief that Judaism is unique.
  • Outsiders believe there is no longer a place for Judaism, that Judaism should essentially be overcome to create something in which all humans can share. The philosophies of Spinoza, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud might be included in this category.
  • Rejectionists believe Jews should maintain their traditional beliefs and customs and refuse to blend in with the larger Western culture. This approach became very apparent in the wake of the Holocaust.

Reconciling Problems for a Modern World

Most thinkers represented in these lectures are insiders who struggled to create a better fit between Judaism and the contemporary world.

Each had to deal with problems related to cherished notions of God, Torah, and Israel, including:

  • Jewish law: This has been a central issue in modern Jewish thought. In his book Jerusalem (1783), Moses Mendelssohn drew a distinction between moral and ritual commandments, but insisted both were obligatory for Jews. Subsequent thinkers emphasized the moral over the ritual, claiming the former was eternal, while the latter could change.
  • Comparisons with Christianity:Living in a predominantly Christian society led many thinkers to reflect on the relative merits of both religions. Some constructed rationales arguing for the superiority of Judaism over Christianity. Immanuel Wolf implied a belief in inferiority by asserting that "Judaism must raise itself to the level of a science."
  • Particularity: It remained important to demonstrate that the Jews retained their status as a chosen people. Thinkers developed such philosophies as "the mission of Israel" and "Catholic Israel," and highlighted the moral and rational virtues of Judaism in an effort to preserve its unique place in the world.

This lecture series places historical theories and religious practices in a fresh light. You will encounter thinkers who embodied lifestyles and philosophies difficult to categorize but often original and thought provoking.

A Wait before Considering the Holocaust

The final lectures examine the impact of the Holocaust, as well as newer contributions being made by women thinkers.

Jewish thinkers, in fact, did not write extensively about the Holocaust until 1960.

"The shock was so great that the most appropriate response for a while was silence," Professor Ruderman notes.

Women Jewish intellectuals in the last 40 years have challenged the patriarchal nature of Judaism by arguing for full participation of women in ritual services and creation of gender-sensitive prayer books:

  • Judith Plaskow has raised awareness of ways women have been overlooked in Jewish history and in the scriptures themselves.
  • Rachel Adler argues that Judaism's commitment to justice obligates it to address gender inequity.

Professor Ruderman completes the lectures with an evaluation of current Jewish thought and the argument that has been raised that it may no longer be relevant.

In his estimation, however, Jewish thinking is not something that only intellectuals do. It is a widespread and necessary part of Jewish life—an effort to find meaning and hope in an uncertain world.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    On Studying Jewish History
    Defining "Jewishness" has been a problem for centuries of Jewish existence. Jews have had to ponder the problem of spatial and temporal discontinuities. Without a common government, language, and land, how do Jews share a common history? x
  • 2
    Defining Modern Jewish History and Thought
    The views of some major historians are considered, including Heinrich Graetz (1817-91), Simon Dubnov (1860-1941), Ben-Zion Dinur (1884-1972), and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982). In the modern era, the problem of providing a rationale for Jewish particularism led to three approaches: the insider, the outsider, and the rejectionist. x
  • 3
    Cultural Transformation in the Italian Ghetto
    Professor Ruderman argues that the ghetto system in late 16th- and early 17th-century Italy ushered in a new era of Jewish-Christian relations and a restructuring of Jewish cultural life. x
  • 4
    Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Messianism
    A primary feature of the Jewish experience in the 17th century was the return to Jewish life of large numbers of Iberian Christians whose ancestors had originally been baptized and left the Jewish community. Their experience sets the stage for understanding the philosophy of Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. x
  • 5
    The Challenge of Baruch Spinoza
    Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was crucial in shaping the evolution of modern Jewish thought. His Theological-Political Treatise first appeared in 1670 and repudiated the assumptions upon which Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) built his rational edifice of Judaism. x
  • 6
    Moses Mendelssohn and His Generation
    In Jerusalem, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) responded partly to Spinoza's conclusions and partly to his intellectual circle in Berlin, who had accepted him despite his Jewish ancestry. Mendelssohn's strategy to rescue Judaism from the assault of Spinoza and the Enlightenment failed. x
  • 7
    The Science of Judaism
    A small group of German Jewish intellectuals founded the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews in 1819. By studying Judaism "scientifically," they hoped to reveal the greater significance of Jewish civilization within the general intellectual and spiritual context of humanity. x
  • 8
    Heinrich Graetz—Jewish Historian
    Heinrich Graetz (1817-91) authored the monumental History of the Jews in 11 volumes. Graetz used history as a battleground to defend the integrity of Judaism against its Christian detractors, especially the renowned German historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896). x
  • 9
    Abraham Geiger—The Shaping of Reform Judaism
    Abraham Geiger (1810-74) utilized his vast knowledge of Jewish sources in the service of his own ideology of Reform Judaism. He challenged the Christian scholarly world, as Graetz was doing, to recognize the significance of rabbinic Judaism in understanding its own religious origins. x
  • 10
    The Neo-Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch
    Samson Raphael Hirsch (1810-88) became the leading proponent of Neo-Orthodox Judaism and a prominent critic of the Reform movement. He represented a different kind of orthodox rabbi from Moses Sofer (1762-1839). Sofer was unyielding in his opposition to university education, linguistic assimilation, or any change. x
  • 11
    Zecharias Frankel and Conservative Judaism
    Zecharias Frankel (1801-75) participated in the deliberations of Reform Jewish leaders but left, fearing that the reformers had instituted changes in Judaism that were too radical. x
  • 12
    Samuel David Luzzatto—Judaism and Atticism
    Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-65) viewed the history of western civilization as an opposition between Judaism and "Atticism." By the latter he meant the Greek love of philosophy, arts and sciences, the development of the intellect, and the love of beauty. Judaism, on the other hand, gave the world religion and morality, which spring from the heart, not the mind. x
  • 13
    Zionism's Answer to the Jewish Problem
    By the second half of the 19th century, the optimism regarding Jewish political and social emancipation had diminished. In Eastern Europe, massive numbers of Jews lived in restricted areas. A political movement calling for the creation of a Jewish state in Israel emerged as a novel response. x
  • 14
    Three Zionist Visions
    Ahad Ha-Am (1856-1927) saw Israel as a spiritual center attracting an elite leadership who would shape a new secular culture for Israel and the Diaspora. Jacob Klatzkin (1882-1948) believed the only meaningful goal of Zionism was to regain the land of Israel and normalize the conditions of Jewish existence. Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) believed that Zionism exemplified the highest ideals of American culture. x
  • 15
    The Jewish Adventure with Socialism
    Socialism and Marxism had an enormous appeal for Jews living in Western and Eastern Europe. Socialism's utopian ideas resonated as a radical means of alleviating their wretched status in European society. Unfortunately, when the socialist revolution lost its initial élan, Jews were left more frustrated than ever. x
  • 16
    Hermann Cohen's Religion of Reason
    Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) represents both a final stage of 19th-century Jewish thought in Germany and the beginning of a new set of responses to the challenges of Jewish identity in the 20th century. For Cohen, the essence of Judaism was ethical monotheism grounded in a prophetic universalism stressing moral commitments to humanity and emphasizing a mission to bring about a utopian future. x
  • 17
    Leo Baeck's Mystery and Commandment
    Leo Baeck (1873-1956) pursued a prominent career as a rabbi in Berlin. Like Cohen, he underscored the central role of ethical monotheism in Judaism, but departed from him in stressing the role of religious consciousness as well. x
  • 18
    Martin Buber's Religious Existentialism
    Martin Buber (1878-1965) is probably the best-known Jewish social and religious philosopher of the 20th century. His works embody his guiding principles of dialogue and meaningful human encounter with the other and with the divine. x
  • 19
    Jewish Law—Martin Buber vs. Franz Rosenzweig
    Buber's closest collaborator was the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929). They disagreed intensely, however, on Jewish ritual observance. In a work addressed to Buber entitled The Builders, Rosenzweig challenged him to adopt the same openness towards Jewish observance that he had demonstrated towards the study of Jewish texts. x
  • 20
    Mordecai Kaplan and American Judaism
    Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) was perhaps the most original of American Jewish thinkers who "reconstructed" Judaism to meet the needs of second-generation American Jews. Anthropology offered Kaplan a rationale for Jewish group cohesiveness in place of the traditional doctrine of chosen-ness. x
  • 21
    Abraham Heschel—Mystic and Social Activist
    Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72), although the product of the Hasidic world of Eastern Europe, wrote for American Jews. He attempted to describe the concept of divine revelation: the process by which God reaches out to human beings. x
  • 22
    Theological Responses to the Nazi Holocaust
    In the first edition of After Auschwitz, published in 1961, Richard Rubenstein (1924- ) claimed that the destruction of European Jewry meant Jews could no longer affirm the myth of an omnipotent God or its corollary, the election of Israel. Emil Fackenheim (1916- ) provided a meaningful response to Rubenstein in his 1970 work God's Presence in History. x
  • 23
    Feminist Jewish Theology
    The emergence of feminist theology within the Jewish community is a relatively recent phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s. Jewish feminism has contributed to a new understanding of Judaism through new readings of classical texts and liturgy, new scholarship in Jewish history, and new theological perspectives that take gender into account. x
  • 24
    Current Trends in Jewish Thought
    It is difficult to summarize and appraise the most recent theological thinking. Arnold Eisen has argued recently that the ruminations of Jewish thinkers are irrelevant to most Jews. Ultimately, are the questions of God, Torah, and Israel only of interest to intellectuals? x

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Your professor

David B. Ruderman

About Your Professor

David B. Ruderman, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. David B. Ruderman is Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the Ella Darivoff Director of the university's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. He was educated at the City College of New York, the Teacher's Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Columbia University. He earned his rabbinical degree from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish...
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Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 50.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Broad deep insights Gives insight into the development of Jewish thought during difficult and changing times
Date published: 2020-01-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fully absorbing Professor Ruderman does a fine job of tying the many thinkers he presents into a coherent whole. I would have liked to see a more in depth treatment of Hasidism, but the twenty-four lecture format may not have allowed adequate scope for that purpose.
Date published: 2019-12-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very enjoyable My husband and I enjoy the pace and approachable content, and no papers or exams!
Date published: 2019-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course on Jewish thinking and philosophy thr I purchased this online course as an adjunct to the adult education courses and lectures I am taking at my synagogue. The professor is excellent and speaks clearly about complex topics. He is obviously very knowledgeable in his field. The videos are interesting to watch; and the quality of the videos is very good. I am really enjoying this course and I am learning a lot.
Date published: 2019-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Judaism in transition. Intellectually superior. Well organized and delivered. Offered comprehensible understanding evolving Judaism during those missing years from Medieval to current era.
Date published: 2019-11-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Jewish 16th to 20th centuries Very pleased and very well presented the information was sometimes taken away from the bottom line of the point to get it across.
Date published: 2019-06-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Timely, concentration demanding Upon receiving the course, it appeared its content was going to be substantially different than what had been expected. After seriously considered returning it, found the error was mine and the description of the course was accurate. Hard to say how it had become so distorted in my mind. But now a new sense of intrigue had taken over and the foray into a hitherto a largely unknown area of knowledge became necessary. Professor Ruderman was easy to listen to. He displayed a great range of knowledge on the topic. His presentation was smooth and generally well arranged. The movement from period to period, philosopher to philosopher, were well done and the flow of the course was clear. However, one had to stay very focused to keep track of exactly where the lecture was, or get quickly lost. From time to time the effort was almost too much, but it ultimately was worth the concentration. Ruderman had an easy familiarity with the philosophers and their theories, for a neophyte this sometimes took a great deal of effort to keep straight – causing one to lose the current line of the lecture due to mentally reviewing a theory from a prior lecture. It was imperative for me to be mentally alert and rested to not drift away, and found it required a reversal of the lecture and need to relisten to parts to catch back up with the lectures flow. The course is somewhat dated, recorded in 2002. It could use some revisions, and improvements in the recording itself. Well worth the effort.
Date published: 2019-04-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good—But Not Broad Enough I have also taken the other course given by Dr. Ruderman. This course follows the same professor's “Between Cross and Crescent”, which I quite enjoyed. This course takes up where the other leaves off (pretty much with Spinoza) and continues to the present day. The lecture format is mostly chronological, each lecture mostly centering on one or two leading intellectuals of the time, although occasionally there will be one that considers a single area such as number seven (science of Judaism) or the one on Zionism and a big plus for lecture 15 on Socialism. Along the way Professor Ruderman gives us insight into the ways that Judaism changes and adapts to the changing times (and also when a change looks back to the Jewish heritage). Mostly this is done quite well, although for me, the delivery of each lecture seems a bit dry, although I suppose that any considered discussion of philosophy could be considered a bit dry. Still there are plenty of highlights in the course. I was especially impressed with the courses' flow of one thought leader to another. Each building upon (or tearing down) what came before. For example, lectures 16-19 as we are taken on a journey beginning with Hermann Cohen through Leo Baeck and Martin Buber, culminating with an absolutely fascinating discussion of the disagreement between Buber and Rosenburg. So what is missing? There is one (very fine) lecture on Feminist Theology, but unfortunately that highlights that there should be more. And with all the discussion of Zionism (at least two lectures are devoted to the topic and more is sprinkled throughout the course), no consideration is given to the effects of the movement on the non-Jews of the Middle East. Professor Ruderman does give about a minute to explaining its absence, by pointing out that was how things were in the 19th and early 20th centuries, in Western society as a whole, but surely with all the intellectual power given to this issue then and now, there must have been more discussion than is presented. That aside, both courses are well worth taking, assuming interest in the subject.
Date published: 2019-01-09
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