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Orthodoxy Through the 19th Century

[RG #70] Orthodoxy Through the 19th Century

September 1997 - February 1998 


Yosef Salmon (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)

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During the nineteenth century, Ashkenazi Jewish society in Europe underwent a radical transformation. Until this point, the Jews had constituted a religious-national minority, divided into local communities with more or less homogenous social and religious institutions. Now, large sectors of the Jewish public reorganized themselves into new social frameworks and divided into religious streams. The beginnings of this process can be seen already in the second half of the eighteenth century with the rise of Hasidism, but it was only during the next hundred years that the trend became more institutionalized and variegated. The main currents that crystallized included Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. Each current encompassed sub-groups which resulted from the various social and historical contexts in which these streams developed. The process included internal splits and competition as well as independent developments within each movement. Beginning in Germany at the start of the nineteenth century, the phenomenon spread to Bohemia, Hungary, England and the United States, reaching Eastern Europe toward the end of the century.

Whereas the Reform and Conservative movements have basked in the historiographical limelight for decades, Orthodoxy has received serious attention as a subject worthy of historical research only during the last twenty years. The late Prof. Jacob Katz defined the phenomenon and encouraged his students to investigate it. In his opinion, Jewish Orthodoxy emerged at the end of the eighteenth century as a response to the challenges of modernity in general, and to the other Jewish religious currents in particular. The strengthening of Orthodoxy in recent years has stimulated research into its historical roots.

Over the years, Orthodoxy itself evolved and became more diversified in its responses to the challenges presented by other Jewish religious trends (Reform and Positive-Historical Judaism in Germany, Neologism in Hungary) and Jewish social movements, especially in Eastern Europe (Zionism and Jewish Socialism). Zionism added a new aspect to the problem of modernity: the question of how to relate to Zionist activity in the Land of Israel and specifically whether to cooperate with “errant” Jews in this regard. In addition, Zionism invested messianic aspirations with new meaning. At the same time, Orthodoxy was essentially a reaction to the secularization of Jewish society, a subject which has not yet been sufficiently analysed and evaluated in historical research.


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The Interaction of Nomadic Conquerors with Sedentary Peoples: Turco-Mongolian Nomads in China and the Middle East

[RG #80] The Interaction of Nomadic Conquerors with Sedentary Peoples: Turco-Mongolian Nomads in China and the Middle East

February - August 2000


Reuven Amitai (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Michal Biran (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

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The encounter between "barbarian" conquerors with sedentary peoples possessing sophisticated cultural and political traditions is one of profound historical importance. The interaction has resulted in great cultural, religious, political, linguistic and demographic changes, in which inter alia whole previously distinct groups can disappear, not so much through physical destruction, but rather through assimilation and absorption. One such meeting of enormous dimensions was that of the Roman world with the various Germanic invaders. Another would be that of the Byzantine and Persian territories overrun by the Arab Muslim armies of the 7th century. While there is still much debate among historians about the exact nature of these encounters, there is no doubt that the resulting influence was not in one direction, but both sides were greatly affected by this experience. It is also clear that these meetings left an indelible impact on the further development of these two regions.

A different set of encounters is that of the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppe with their sedentary neighbours in the later Middle Ages, i.e. the Turkish and Mongol invasions of the Middle East in the 11th-14th centuries and the Khitan, Jurchen and Mongol invasions of China in the late 10th to mid-14th centuries. In the aftermath of all these instances, nomadic elites established long-term control over large swathes of the territory of sedentary society. Our research group seeks to examine the effects of this encounter in a comparative way, diachronically in the same territory and synchronically between the Islamic Middle East and China.


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Jan Saxl

University of Cambridge
Jan is a professor in the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics at the University of Cambridge.