Intellectually, the liberation took at this time the form of the Haskalah—a word which meant wisdom, but which came in this context to signify the Jewish Enlightenment, the revolt of a rising number of Jews against rabbinical and Talmudic domination, and their resolve to enter actively into the stream of modern thought. These rebels learned German, and some of them, especially in the families of merchants or financiers, learned French; they read German freethinkers like Lessing, Kant, Wieland, Herder, Schiller, and Goethe, and many of them delved into Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Helvétius, and d’Holbach. A division arose between liberal Jews, eager for modernity, and conservative Jews who felt that devotion to the Talmud and the synagogue was the only way to preserve the religious, ethnical, and ethical integrity of the Jewish people.
The Haskalah movement spread from Germany southward into Galicia and Austria, eastward into Bohemia, Poland, and Russia. In Austria it was accelerated by Joseph II’s Toleranzpatent, which invited the Jews to enter non-Jewish schools. When conservative rabbis opposed this, Naphtali Wessely, a Jewish poet of Hamburg, pleaded with them, in an eloquent Hebrew manifesto, to sanction the participation of Jews in secular education; he urged the younger generation to replace Yiddish with Hebrew and German, and to study science and philosophy as well as the Bible and the Talmud. His views were rejected by the rabbis of Austria; they were accepted by Jewish leaders in Trieste, Venice, Ferrara, and Prague. From that time to ours the Jews have contributed to science, philosophy, literature, music, and law far beyond their proportion in the population.
Intellectual and economic developments promoted Jewish emancipation. Catholic scholars like Richard Simon made rabbinical learning known to Christian students of the Bible, and the Protestant theologian Jacques Basnage wrote a friendly History of the Religion of the Jews (1707). The growth of commerce and finance brought Christians and Jews into contacts that sometimes stimulated, but often reduced, racial hostility. Jewish financiers played helpful and patriotic roles in several governments.
Christian voices now rose to propose an end to religious persecution. In 1781 Christian Wilhelm Dohm, a friend of Mendelssohn, published at his suggestion the epochal tract Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden in Deutschland (On the Civil Betterment of the Jews in Germany). The occasion for it was a plea sent to Mendelssohn by Alsatian Jews, asking him to formulate a protest against their disabilities. Dohm undertook the task, and enlarged it into a general appeal for Jewish liberation. He described in impressive detail the handicaps suffered by the Hebrews in Europe, and pointed out what a loss it was to Western civilization that it made so little use of the intellectual gifts of the Jews. “These principles of exclusion, equally opposed to humanity and politics, bear the stamp of the Dark Ages, and are unworthy of the enlightenment of our times.”56 Dohm proposed that the Jews be admitted to full freedom of worship, to educational institutions, to all occupations, and to all civil rights except, for the present, eligibility to office, for which they were not yet prepared.
His treatise aroused comment in many countries. Some opponents charged him with having sold his pen to the Jews, but several Protestant clergymen came to his defense. Johannes von Müller, the Swiss historian, supported him, and asked that the works of Maimonides be translated into German or French. The Toleration Patent of 1782 in Austria and the political emancipation of the Jews in the United States (1783) gave impetus to the liberation movement. The French government responded meagerly by removing (1784) personal taxes that had burdened the Jews. The Marquis de Mirabeau shared with Malesherbes in securing this relief; and his son, the Comte de Mirabeau, helped with his essay On Mendelssohn and the Political Reform of the Jews (1787). The Abbé Henri Grégoire advanced the matter with a prize-winning essay, Sur la régénération physique, morale, et politique des Juifs (1789).
Final political emancipation came only with the Revolution. The Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaimed by the National Assembly (August 27, 1789) implied it, and on September 27, 1791, the Constituent Assembly voted full civil rights to all the Jews of France. The armies of the Revolution or of Napoleon brought freedom to the Jews of Holland in 1796, of Venice in 1797, of Mainz in 1798, of Rome in 1810, of Frankfurt in 1811. For the Jews the Middle Ages had at last come to an end.