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Devastating Success: How The Enlightenment Spread Darkness

Rabbi Yosef West

The Haskalah movement has the dubious distinction of being the first effort in history to succeed on a large scale in severing Jews from their heritage. How did the Haskalah, more than so many attempts before it, achieve such horrific success? They answer to this question lies in the historical background of the Haskalah movement.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ever since Yetzias Mitzrayim, there have been countless attempts to tear the Jewish people away from the Torah and their faith. The eirev rav, King Yeravam ben Nevat, the prophets of the idol Baal, the Greeks, the Crusaders, the Inquisition, Shabsai Tzvi, and many more of our enemies form an endless list of foiled attempts to eradicate Torah observance from the world. Although each group may have professed a different goal, the common denominator was that they all intended to alter or completely uproot the Torah that was given to us at Sinai.

Surprisingly, almost all attempts to “change” or “update” the Torah in accordance with the prevailing spirit of the era failed. Every movement ultimately met its downfall and lives on only in history books — and not for lack of effort. Through the centuries, Jews were forced to resist formidable temptation to abandon their faith. By adopting a foreign religion, a Jew could save himself from execution, torture, exile, or other forms of unimaginable suffering. But Jews remained firm in their adherence to the Torah despite these awesome challenges.

But the Haskalah movement, which was born in the mid-eighteenth century in Western Europe, differed from all of its predecessors. Where countless other attempts had failed, the Haskalah succeeded in ensnaring an extremely large segment of Klal Yisrael. The situation we face today — a world in which an immense number of Jews have been completely disconnected from their religion — is  a consequence of the spiritual tragedy of the Haskalah.

What, exactly, is the Haskalah movement? Where did it spring up, and how? Who were its founders? How and why did the Haskalah succeed in sowing more seeds of spiritual destruction than any other movement, including Christianity and Islam? Were its strategies more cleverly conceived or more enticing, or were the Jewish people, perhaps, suffering from a deeper spiritual decline than at any other time in history? And why is Germany, more than any other Western European country, identified as the cradle of the Haskalah?


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