The Enlightenment and The Holocaust

The Enlightenment and New Religious Movements

In the late 18th century CE, Europe was swept by a group of intellectual, social and political movements known as the Enlightenment . The Enlightenment led to reductions in the European laws that prohibited Jews to interact with the wider secular world, thus allowing Jews access to secular education and experience. A parallel Jewish movement, Haskalah or the ” Jewish Enlightenment ” began, especially in Central Europe and Western Europe, in response to both the Enlightenment and these new freedoms. It placed an emphasis on integration with secular society and a pursuit of non-religious knowledge through reason. With the promise of political emancipation many Jews saw no reason to continue to observe Jewish law and increasing numbers of Jews assimilated into Christian Europe. Modern religious movements of Judaism all formed in reaction to this trend.

In Central Europe, followed by Great Britain and the United States, Reform Judaism and Liberal Judaism developed, relaxing legal obligations (especially those that limited Jewish relations with non-Jews), emulating Protestant decorum in prayer, and emphasizing the ethical values of Judaism’s Prophetic tradition.

Modern Orthodox Judaism developed in reaction to Reform Judaism, by leaders who argued that Jews could participate in public life as citizens equal to Christians, while maintaining the observance of Jewish law. Meanwhile, in the United States, wealthy Reform Jews helped European scholars, who were Orthodox in practice but critical (and skeptical) in their study of the Bible and Talmud, to establish a seminary to train rabbis for immigrants from Eastern Europe. These progressive Orthodox rabbis were joined by Reform rabbis— who felt that Jewish law should not be entirely abandoned, to form the Conservative movement. Orthodox Jews who opposed the Haskalah formed Haredi Orthodox Judaism. (35)

The Holocaust

Black and white photo of captured Jewish women with hands raised in Budapest, Hungary, October 1944.
Figure 6-2 Budapest, Hungary — Captured Jewish women, 20–22 October 1944 by Faupel is licensed underCC-BY-SA 3.0 Germany .

Unfortunately, economic crisis and racist nationalism made Jews the target of anti-Semitic hatred again in the twentieth century. This culminated in the horrific period known as the Holocaust. The Holocaust (from the Greek meaning “whole” and “burnt”) also known as the Shoah (the Hebrew word for “catastrophe” and Yiddish word for “destruction”) was the mass murder or genocide of approximately six million Jews during World War II. It was a program of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, throughout German-occupied territory.

Of the nine million Jews who had resided in Europe before the Holocaust, approximately two-thirds were killed. Over one million Jewish children were killed in the Holocaust, as were approximately two million Jewish women and three million Jewish men. A network of over 40,000 facilities in Germany and German-occupied territory were used to concentrate, hold, and kill Jews and other victims.

Some scholars argue that the mass murder of the Romani and people with disabilities should be included in the definition, and some use the common noun “holocaust” to describe other Nazi mass murders, including those of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, and homosexuals.

Recent estimates based on figures obtained since the fall of the Soviet Union indicates some ten to eleven million civilians and prisoners of war were intentionally murdered by the Nazi regime.

The persecution and genocide were carried out in stages. Various laws to remove the Jews from civil society, most prominently the Nuremberg Laws , were enacted in Germany years before the outbreak of World War II. Concentration camps were established in which inmates were subjected to slave labor until they died of exhaustion or disease. Where Germany conquered new territory in Eastern Europe, specialized units called Einsatzgruppen murdered Jews and political opponents in mass shootings.

The occupiers required Jews and Romani to be confined in overcrowded ghettos before being transported by freight train to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, most were systematically killed in gas chambers. Every arm of Germany’s bureaucracy was involved in the logistics that led to the genocides, turning the Third Reich into what one Holocaust scholar has called “a genocidal state”. (36)