The Arty Semite

Who Was Modern Earliest, Ashkenazim or Sephardim?

By Benjamin Ivry

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Behind the ever-abiding divisions between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews is the widely-held belief that Ashkenazim, as leaders of the Haskalah, or Enlightenment movement of the 18th and 19th centuries, were pioneers of modernity. Now David Ruderman, a Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania, hurls a well-researched grenade into such presuppositions.

Ruderman, author of 2007’s highly readable and informed “Connecting the Covenants: Judaism and the Search for Christian Identity in Eighteenth-Century England” (University of Pennsylvania Press) and 2001’s “Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry’s Construction of Modern Jewish Thought” (Princeton University Press), has a new book out from the latter publisher, “Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History.”

Following up on an intuition expressed in a footnote by the historian Salo Baron, Ruderman notes that such famed 18th century Enlightenment figures as Moses Mendelssohn and Solomon Maimon pale in originality and force beside Sephardic writers of 150 years earlier, like Azariah dei Rossi, Joseph Delmedigo and Simone Luzzatto. Comparing the cultural climate of 17th century Amsterdam to Italy, Ruderman concludes: “It is clear that the Italian is less conservative, more innovative, and more daring in its formulation of Jewish thought and in its dialogue with the non-Jewish world.”

Relocating the start of “early modernity” for Jews before the “close of the fifteenth century,” Ruderman observes that the eminent 17th century scholar Leon Modena appears to have been a “dissimulator, simultaneously defending the Talmud and the rabbis while criticizing and holding them accountable for the miseries they had allegedly inflicted on the Jewish community.”

Even Simone Luzzatto will disappoint readers expecting orthodoxy or single-minded belief, since his works reflect a “skeptical bent,” says Ruderman, citing his 1651 “Socrates, or Concerning Human Knowledge.” Returning to the area which Ruderman first mined in 1992’s excellent “Preachers of the Italian Ghetto” (University of California Press), he asks pointedly: “What could have motivated this allegedly prominent spokesman of Judaism to compose a text in which his faith appears to be totally absent?”

This apparent lack of coherence may baffle some today, although Ruderman cites Leo Strauss’s lucid “Persecution and the Art of Writing” (University of Chicago Press) to the effect that persecuted so-called “dissimulators” like Luzzatto and others might be merely “speaking publicly in one voice while masking their true private opinions.” Ruderman has given readers fascinated by Jewish history much material upon which to ponder.


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