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Over onsFaculteit Godgeleerdheid en GodsdienstwetenschapOrganisatieWetenschappelijke stafPhD ResearchComparative Study of Religion

Tsila Rädecker

Modernization and the formation of the Jewish identity 1793-1848
Rabbijn Izaak Graanboom (1738-1807)
Rabbijn Izaak Graanboom (1738-1807)

With the new migrant communities in the Netherlands questions of identity, citizenship and religion are as vibrant as ever. The Netherlands have a long history of immigration and one of the first and largest migrant communities struggling with these questions were the Ashkenazi Jews of Amsterdam. During the seventeenth century the first Ashkenazi migrants arrived from middle and Eastern Europe as a result of the pogroms there. They differed from Dutch (Christian) society and the already present Sephardic Jews in culture, language and wealth; consequently they were pushed to establish their own autonomous community. During the eighteenth century however, this ‘status aparte’ of Dutch Jewry came under increasing pressure from forces in- and outside the community. My research focuses on the transition of Dutch Jewry from foreigners with a separate religious state in the Netherlands to a religious minority in Dutch society and how this transition influenced the Dutch Jewish identity.

In the Dutch Ashkenazi community, religious and political control went hand in hand. The lay leaders appointed a chief rabbi who represented religious authority, as such he was the gatekeeper of the Jewish identity; he determined the kosher foods status, was responsible for education and the rites de passage. The religious and lay leaders held a monopoly on the sale of kosher food and enforced it strictly: if a Jew violated the dietary laws, he was excommunicated. Transgressions were punished severely because it threatened the unity of the Jewish community and evoked the Lord’s wrath. Religious social control was used as tool to demarcate and protect the boundaries of Jewish identity and the Ashkenazi leaders judged and convicted any transgressors. [1]

Enlightened Jews challenged this situation. Enlightenment ideals divided the community into those who advocated and those who rejected reform. The idea of reason as the sole source of knowledge and legitimacy of authority threatened the Jewish establishment. Lay and religious leadership was questioned and disputed by new elites, who wanted to abolish the ‘status aparte’ and self-government of the Ashkenazi community. They strived for equal rights and participation of Jewish communities in Dutch society. Granting of citizenship, integration and emancipation challenged the old order and forced rabbis to reformulate the Jewish position. This clash of cultures between conservative and progressive forces caused a temporary split of the Ashkenazi community into the Naye Kille (new community) and the Alte Kille (old community) and cumulated in the publication of the satirical periodical the Diskursen in which both communities discredited each other. [2] The responses to the Enlightenment developed eventually into the reform movement, who accepted it, and the orthodoxy who rejected it.

Orthodoxy was the traditionalist reaction to modernity; it opposed non-Jewish influences and change. The reformation of the Jewish educational system in particular was strongly resisted and the introduction of ‘worldly knowledge’ such as philosophy received stiff opposition because rabbis feared it would be at the expense of the Jewish curriculum. Furthermore, they believed that recognizing the non-Jewish world would lead eventually to the demolition of the Jewry.[3] Any change in the curriculum promoted assimilation and its feared consequence: conversion to Christianity. The proponents of the Enlightenment considered the rabbis who tried to halt the educational system’s reformation backwards and a hindrance to modernity.

Citizenship and the granting of equal rights at the end of the eighteenth century forced the Ashkenazim to redefine and reshape their identity. The Ashkenazi identity lost its legal component or ‘status aparte’ when the Jewish Nation was abolished. They were naturalized, their self-government was ended and they became citizens of the Netherlands, which was at the time under French rule. A key aspect of the emancipation decree was the disentanglement of religious and political authority the Ashkenazi leaders wielded, and the state absorbed the political powers of the Jewish leaders. Ashkenazim were like other Dutchmen, which forced the community to reconsider its self-image.

After the emancipation decree, different committees were appointed by the state to govern the Jewish community (including its religious appointments) in an attempt to nationalize the Jewry. By exercising control over the Ashkenazi religious leadership, the Dutch state attempted to modernize this migrant community. Furthermore, the Dutch Jewish seminary was founded where all the rabbis received an education before they could hold office and the Yiddish language was outlawed in education and sermons. The rabbis and their orthodox following resisted this Dutch infringement on the Jewish self-government and the state’s attempts to reduce the aspects of identity that showed Jewish foreignness. In short, in my research I will investigate the interaction between religion, modernization and the nation-state and how this influenced the formation of the Jewish identity.

  1. Tsila Rädecker, ‘En op dezelfde manier dat ze me zullen vergeven hier voor de aardse rechtbank zo zullen ze me vergeven voor de hemelse rechtbank’. Kerktucht bij de Hoogduitse Joodse Gemeente 1737-1764 (MA thesis Social History, University of Amsterdam 2008) passim.
  2. Jozeph Michman and Marion Aptroot, Storm in the community. Yiddish Polemical Pamphlets of Amsterdam Jewry 1797-1798 (Cincinnati 2002) and for a pan-European Kulturkamf see: Shmuel Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment (Philadelphia 2004).
  3. Shmuel Feiner, The Jewish Enlightenment (Philadelphia 2004) 145.

Last modified:30 March 2017 2.57 p.m.