Religious Patterns of Social Practice

Discourses on "Civil Improvement," Translations of Middle-Class Culture, and the Invocation of Jewish Traditions in Jewish Textbooks and Sermons of the Early 19th Century 

Simone Lässig

(part of the German-Israeli Research Project "Innovation through Tradition? Approaching cultural transformation through educational media“)

Pre-modern collective Jewish worship had no place for sermons in local languages addressing men and women, younger and older Jews alike, seeking to teach, preach, spiritually fortify, “refine” and enlighten their congregations. It was not until the early nineteenth century that this new form of religious communication began to emerge, primarily in the environment of Jewish reformist schools, bringing both standard German and thoughts on “profane” issues into synagogues.

This practice spread quickly within German-speaking Judaism and was eventually “discovered” by Jews adherent to the Law as a potentially influential medium for religious education; many of the sermons were circulated in printed form. The little academic research conducted on these sermons thus far has tended to focus on aspects of the history of religion and theology or look for adaptations of elements of Protestantism in the texts. This project is the first to analyse the sermons in terms of the discourses around values and mentalities they transport, which may reflect social change during the Sattelzeit. We explore how Jewish preachers, who generally saw themselves as charged with a mission to teach and enlighten their congregations, interpreted the advance of the modern age and responded to the disempowerment of tradition; further, we investigate the strategies they employed in the face of the ubiquitous experience of societal rupture and an increasing pace of life and change, and the extent to which they used religious semantic systems familiar to their hearers or called upon or “invented” specifically Jewish traditions in order to legitimise new ways of being and social practices. Further, the project asks whether the sermons translated wider, non-Jewish discourses of the time around “refinement” and “civil improvement” into authentically Jewish fields of discourse and religious practice. The project’s findings will cast light on overarching issues of the establishment of new normative patterns of order and cultural codes in a time of transformation which left virtually no area of everyday Jewish life unaffected.

In this context, sermons, with the universality of their audience within the religious congregation, acted as a communicative space for key processes of negotiation and translation between knowledge “old” and “new” and between conventional and innovative constructions of the modern Jewish subject, putting ideas of individual self-determination and collective identity into a specifically Jewish context. The findings thus far indicate that the religious space thus constructed served as an arena for the development of patterns for living and being in the society outside this space. In this manner, new ways of approaching the world and profound cultural transformations appear to emerge and come into their own societally not only through the delegitimisation of the culturally familiar, but also, perhaps primarily, through the reconfiguration of elements of established tradition; research to confirm these findings is ongoing.