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Ancient Jewish History: Assimilation

ASSIMILATION. In general the sociocultural process in which the sense and consciousness of association with one national and cultural group changes to identification with another such group, so that the merged individual or group may partially or totally lose its original national identity. Assimilation can occur and not only on the unconscious level in primitive societies. It has been shown that even these societies have sometimes developed specific mechanisms to facilitate assimilation, e.g., adoption; mobilization, and absorption into the tribal fighting force; exogamic marriage; the client relationship between the tribal protector and members of another tribe. In more developed societies, where a stronger sense of cultural and historical identification has evolved, the mechanisms, as well as the automatic media of assimilation, become more complicated. The reaction of the assimilator group to the penetration of the assimilated increasingly enters the picture.

Various factors may combine to advance or hinder the assimilation process. Those actively contributing include the position of economic strength held by a group; the political advantages to be gained from adhesion or separation; acknowledged cultural superiority; changes in religious outlook and customs; the disintegration of one group living within another more cohesive group; the development of an "open society" by either group. Added to these are external factors, such as changes in the demographic pattern (mainly migration) or those wrought by revolution and revolutionary attitudes. Sociologists have described the man in process of assimilation as "the marginal man," both attracted and repelled by the social and cultural spheres in which he lives in a state of transition.

Antiquity and Middle Ages

Within its environment in antiquity, as far as known, the Jewish national and social group mainly operated as the assimilator, aided by the attraction of monotheism and exerting the power of its social cohesion and state mechanism. During the period of the conquest of Ereẓ Israel, Jewish society gradually absorbed many of the ethnic elements living there. The process continued well into the reigns of David and Solomon. While the prophets of the time deplored the cultural influence exerted by the assimilated group, they did not reject the end results of the process. The isolated yet striking instance of Naaman the Syrian demonstrates the element of partial assimilation into *Judaism . In Judaism the very concept of *proselytism involves readiness on the part of the Jews to accept and assimilate a group or an individual prepared to adopt the religion and become assimilated. The attitude of *Ezra and *Nehemiah , who opposed the assimilation of other ethnic elements, did not prevail. Some of the *Hasmonean rulers, John *Hyrcanus and Alexander *Yannai – adopted a clear-cut policy of forcible proselytization; the assimilation of the Idumeans was so complete that the last dynasty to rule the Jewish commonwealth in the Second Temple period was the Idumean house of *Herod , and some of the most devoted fighters in the war against Rome were Idumeans. Both Jewish and external sources yield plentiful information about groups and individuals living within the Roman Empire that had totally or partially adopted Judaism and assimilated the Jewish way of life. According to some scholars, the large number of Jews in the later period of the Roman Empire was the result of the assimilation of the Phoenician diaspora into the Jewish communities. On the other hand, sources dating from as early as the reign of *Antiochus Epiphanes (175–164 B.C.E.) mention the Hellenizers, a group wishing to accept the mode of life and culture of *Hellenism . *Tiberius Alexander , the nephew of Philo of *Alexandria , exemplifies assimilation by Jewish individuals of Hellenistic-Roman culture, particularly in the *Diaspora . To some degree the path of early Pauline *Christianity is viewed from the Jewish standpoint as a process of assimilation of the early Jewish Christian apostles and groups into the gentile ethnic identity and way of life.

In the course of Jewish history, processes that began as quasi-assimilatory were later transmuted to become hallmarks of continuing Jewish consciousness and identity. This applied to the adoption of the Greek language in the ancient period and of German and Spanish in the Middle Ages. As the alien language gained acceptance, it became not only a vehicle of Jewish cultural and religious creativity, but also gradually became converted into a specifically Jewish idiom and mark of Jewish identity that even formed barriers to later assimilation. *Yiddish became the idiom of East European Jewry amid a Slavic linguistic environment, and hence of Jewish emigrants from this area in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Similarly the Spanish Jews carried their language of Castile with them after the expulsion from Spain, developing it into *Ladino . During the Middle Ages the strength of Jewish cohesiveness was so powerful that only *apostates from Judaism became assimilated into the adopted environment, and not always even then (see *Anusim ; *Marranos ).

From the Period of Enlightenment

Assimilation has been a major centrifugal force in Jewish life since the second half of the 18th century. It became an element of increasing magnitude in Jewish thought and society and helped to mold a new image of the Jew in literature and art, in which the problems it posed were reflected. Various factors combined to create this situation. The *Court Jews , their families, and social circle gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, assimilated the mores of the Christian court. The Enlightenment ( *Haskalah ) movement was accompanied by a certain readiness on the part of groups of Christian and Jewish intellectuals to create an "open society." The grant of civic *emancipation apparently premised that Jews could enter the emancipating society as equals if they relinquished their Jewish national cohesion. In rejecting the medieval system of corporation, the attitude of early capitalistic society militated against a continuance of Jewish *autonomy and its institutions. Similarly, the dictates of the modern state, postulating observance of a single legal code and an undifferentiated legal status for its citizens, militated against Jewish judicial autonomy while assisting Jewish emancipation. All these elements hastened the assimilatory process. As members of the upper strata of Jewish society in Central and Western Europe became assimilated, they left their positions of leadership in the autonomous Jewish body, thereby weakening it further. Other Jews in less influential positions followed their example. Jewish intellectuals who accepted the values and criteria of the Enlightenment and Christian culture and society tended to regard the Jewish counterpart as barren and primitive. Their attitude became devastatingly critical. They measured the Jewish past and culture by alien and historically inimical standards.

The first wave of assimilation carried Jews toward the ahistoric society envisioned by the 18th-century Enlightenment, a society that would not insist on national or religious definitions. For some Jews, assimilation served as a shortcut to attaining individual emancipation and advancement, hence there were many nominal apostates like Heinrich *Heine . Later, their admiration for the modern national state, a growing appreciation of the mores and social structure of the dominant nations, and the idea of progress combined to create the conception that the perpetuation of a Jewish national existence was obsolete. Such Jews also felt that they were guilty of intellectual and emotional dishonesty in cherishing Jewish messianic hopes. The evaluations, way of life, writings – both in German and in Hebrew – and influence of intellectuals like Moses *Mendelssohn and David Friedlaender, although formulating no clear-cut theory of assimilation, furthered the tendency. Socialite assimilation in the salons of Berlin and Vienna, fostering freedom in thought and with their romantic attractions, drew both the gifted and the wealthy away from the Jewish fold to a humanistic, cosmopolitan, and Christian allegiance. Rachel *Varnhagen-Levin saw her life vitiated by the blemish of her Jewish descent. Moses Mendelssohn's daughter, Dorothea *Schlegel , not only left her faith but also developed the feeling of self-hatred typical of many modern assimilated Jews. In 1802 she wrote to Friedrich Schleiermacher:

… according to my own feeling, Protestant Christianity [is] much purer and to be preferred to the Catholic one. Catholicism has for me too much similarity to the old Judaism, which I greatly despise. Protestantism, though, seems to me to be the total religion of Jesus and the religion of civilization. In my heart I am completely, as far as I can understand from the Bible, a Protestant.

The ideology of assimilation gained momentum in the first half of the 19th century as it developed an eschatological message. This trend was part of the new direction which assimilation took when projected on the intense nationalistic society and state that prevailed in Europe with the romantic movement. The former nexus between the Jewish people and its religion and law was rejected; attempts were made to purge the Jewish religion of its nationalistic elements in order to relieve individual Jews in dispersion of the sense of being an alien and an exile. Instead of looking to Ereẓ Israel for redemption, the assimilationists stressed their attachment was to the land in which they and their forefathers had lived for generations. Nevertheless Jewish identity would be preserved in a redefinition as "Germans of Mosaic faith" or "Frenchmen of Mosaic faith," and so on.

The desire for emancipation blended with the will for religious reform and with revolutionary fervor for change at first in the liberal, and later in the socialist sense. The "messiah" envisaged by Leopold *Zunz was civic and political revolution in Germany and Europe, bearing on its wings freedom for mankind and equality for Jews. Derision of the former Jewish messianic hopes was intrinsic to burning faith in the new assimilationist form of existence. Thus in 1848, the year of the "Spring of Nations," Jews of the ancient community of Worms formulated the following program for religious reform, motivated by the ideal of assimilation:

…We have to aspire to truth and dignity in Divine worship, coordination between faith and life, to put away empty concepts and shape new institutions for the spirit of Judaism. We must no longer utter prayers for the return to Palestine while we are wholeheartedly attached to the German fatherland whose fate is indissolubly our fate; all that is beloved and dear to us is contained in this fatherland. We must not mourn in sackcloth and ashes the destruction of the Temple when we long ago came into the possession of a fatherland that has become so dear to us. We may commemorate yearly the destruction of the Temple, but why be in heavy mourning, which no longer comes from feelings of the heart, and sing songs of mourning about an historical fact, for which we praise the loving hand of God? We should not try to enlighten our children in the religious schools with facts that the living Jewish spirit looks upon as dead ballast, to be thrown overboard; no longer teach them to pray in a language that is dead, while the word and sound of our German mother tongue is understandable and dear to us and therefore is the only one fit to be raised in praise to our Creator. It is time to put a stop to this conflict, this sin of dishonesty in our midst.

Attachment to German soil, language, culture, and statehood was the compelling reason for effecting the change in prayer and its language, and for eradicating the hope for redemption in Ereẓ Israel. This attitude continued to persist in some circles; it led the British Liberal rabbi Israel Mattuck in 1939 to the conclusion that "the position which the Jews should seek and the world should give is one which combines separatism in religion with assimilation in all the other elements of national life, political, social, and cultural" (What are the Jews? (1939) 239).

The Late 19th and the 20th Century

Assimilation through the 19th and 20th centuries was not a unified process and was beset with a host of problems and complications. The position taken by assimilationists oscillated between the cosmopolitan and nationalist aspects of assimilation. Their theories clashed with the national spirit of exclusiveness of the assimilator group: Germans, Frenchmen, and others, resented the pollution of their race and culture by alien elements. Jews wishing to assimilate became involved in the array of conflicting assimilating nationalities and cultures within the same territorial arena. With the national awakening of the Czechs, the Jews of Prague, for instance, were confronted simultaneously by German and Czech demands for assimilation into one or the other national camp. The same conflict occurred between the demands of the Magyar and German cultures in Hungary; the Polish, German, and Russian cultures in Polish lands; the German, Polish, and Ukrainian cultures in East Galicia. In many countries the process of assimilation was deliberately assisted by social and educational measures. In Russia, *Nicholas I tried to promote assimilation of the Jewish youth through the mechanism of army mobilization (see *Cantonists ). On the other hand the complications of the assimilation process itself necessarily acted to spur Jewish nationalism, and offered it a springboard. At the same time a school of historical thought that viewed each epoch and culture as a distinct phenomenon to be judged by its own system of values was gaining ascendancy. Thus, appreciation of the Jewish culture and history, achievements, values, and criteria strengthened, while the arrogance and ridicule on which the assimilationists based their arguments lost ground.

Assimilation into modern nationalities was described by Solomon *Schechter in 1901 upon viewing the disappointment that was felt when the concept of assimilation intrinsic to the hopes for a humanist, non-nationalistic society was definitively superseded by assimilation into different militarist, nationalist states. Schechter saw "… the ancient chosen people of God going about begging for a nationality – clamoring everywhere 'We are you!'… Using the last crumbs of the sacred language, in which God-Shalom addressed His children, to invoke His blessing upon the 'Mitrailleuse,' the 'Krupp gun,' 'dum-dum' and 'Long Tom,' and other anti-messianic contrivances" ("Epistles to the Jews of England," in Jewish Chronicle, 1901). The disappointment at these developments in European society and the reaction that Jewish assimilation had provoked did not deter assimilationists from their beliefs. Even after World War II and the experience of the *Holocaust , and after his disillusionment with the Communist revolution, Boris *Pasternak clung to the Christian Orthodox faith and his Russian cultural identity. He dared to call upon Jews to assimilate as salvation from the fate which their nationality imposes. In the wake of the martyred Jews, he denied that there could be any sense in retaining a separate Jewish identity: "In whose interests is this voluntary martyrdom?… Dismiss this army which is forever fighting and being massacred, nobody knows for what?… Say to them: 'That's enough. Stop now. Don't hold on to your identity. Don't all get together in a crowd. Disperse. Be with all the rest.'" (Dr. Zhivago (1958) 117–8).

When this call for assimilation was pronounced, several years had elapsed since the suicide of a man who wrote at the beginning of Nazi rule and the end of the liberal German society of the early 20th century:

I thought of my terrible joy when I realized that nobody would recognize me for a Jew; of the first day of the war and my passionate longing to prove that I was a real German by offering my life to my country; of my writing from the front to the authorities to say that they could strike my name from the list of the Jewish community. Had it all been for nothing? Had it all been wrong? Didn't I love Germany with all my heart? Had I not stood in the rich beauty of the Mediterranean landscape and longed for the austere pine woods, for the beauty of the still, secret lakes of north Germany? And wasn't the German language my language, the language in which I felt and thought and spoke, a part of my very being? But wasn't I also a Jew? A member of that great race that for centuries had been persecuted, harried, martyred and slain; whose prophets had called the world to righteousness, had exalted the wretched and the oppressed, then and for all time. A race who had never bowed their heads to their persecutors, who had preferred death to dishonor. I had denied my own mother, and I was ashamed. It is an indictment of society at large that a child should have thus been driven to deception. How much of me was German, how much Jewish? Must I then join the ranks of the bigoted and glorify my Jewish blood now, not my German? Pride and love are not the same thing, and if I were asked where I belonged I should answer that a Jewish mother had borne me, that Germany nourished me, that Europe had formed me, that my home was the earth and the world my fatherland (Ernst Toller, I Was a German, London, 1934, 280–2).

This anguished cry powerfully expresses the dynamics and problems that persisted after the doctrine of assimilation had been tested for over a century and a half. The assimilationist remained torn between his ideals and rejection by the assimilator society, between the allegiance he was seeking and the pride awakened by Jewish nationalism; he oscillated between the choice of assimilation into one nation and internationalist assimilation.

More recently the ideals of assimilation have assumed a different form. This has been determined by the combined impact of the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel and its struggle for survival, and the emergence of a monistic nationalism in Eastern and Central Europe. But if the advocates of assimilation have sometimes changed their formula, the substance of their arguments remains. This viewpoint clearly emerges in the evaluation of Jewish assimilation made by a philosopher of history hostile to Jewish nationalism, Arnold Toynbee. Toynbee regards assimilation and *intermarriage as beneficial and a natural process. By assimilating, a Jew is "deserting the Diaspora individually in order to lose himself in the ranks of a modern, Western, gentile, urban bourgeoisie. The liberal Jew [is]… assimilating himself to a gentile social milieu that had previously gone far, on its side, to assimilate itself socially and psychologically to the Jewish Disapora" (Study of History, 8 (1954), 310). Nevertheless, in volume 12 of the same study, published in 1961, Toynbee describes the solution he proposed for the Jews in 1954 as the fate of the Ten Tribes, who "lost their national identity through being assimilated. The Ten Tribes' way is passive, involuntary, and inglorious, and it is natural that the Jews should be on their guard against meeting the fate of their lost kinsmen." What he proposed in 1961 was that the Jews become "denationalized" without becoming totally assimilated. As an alternative to emigration to Israel he proposes that they "incorporate Gentiles in a Jewish religious community by converting them to the religion of Deutero-Isaiah" (p. 517). Thus, ideationally, the process has turned full circle. An opponent of *Zionism and the creation of the State of Israel, Toynbee proposed to the Jews of the Diaspora in 1961 that they undertake the conversion of the peoples in their environment to a non-national Jewish religion. For all practical purposes, however, the goal is the same: the abolition of Jewish national identity.


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Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.