Jewish Intellectual History: 16th to 20th Century

Observe the time-honored intellectual tradition through which Judaism analyzes, rethinks, and reformulates itself.


God. Torah. Israel. These three concepts have been the focus of Jewish thought throughout history. The last four centuries have presented Jewish thinkers with increasingly difficult challenges. Through these lectures you will observe the time-honored intellectual tradition through which Judaism analyzes, rethinks, and reformulates itself.


David B. Ruderman
David B. Ruderman

Jewish history, though interwoven with the history of world civilization, is unique in one particular respect: It is unique in its landlessness.


University of Pennsylvania

Dr. David B. Ruderman is Joseph Meyerhoff Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the Ella Darivoff Director of the university's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.   He was educated at the City College of New York, the Teacher's Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Columbia University. He earned his rabbinical degree from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and his Ph.D. in Jewish History from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.   Prior to taking his position at Pennsylvania, he held teaching positions at Yale University and the University of Maryland. At Maryland, he won the Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award.  Professor Ruderman is the author of numerous books, articles, and reviews. His works include Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe and Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key: Anglo-Jewry's Construction of Modern Jewish Thought, for which he received the Koret Book Award. His book, The World of a Renaissance Jew: The Life and Thought of Abraham B. Mordecai Farissol, was honored with the JWB National Book Award in Jewish History.  Professor Ruderman is president of the American Academy for Jewish Research and is the recipient of a lifetime achievement award for his work in Jewish history from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. 

By This Professor

On Studying Jewish History

01: On Studying Jewish History

Defining "Jewishness" has been a problem for centuries of Jewish existence. Jews have had to ponder the problem of spatial and temporal discontinuities. Without a common government, language, and land, how do Jews share a common history?

33 min
Defining Modern Jewish History and Thought

02: Defining Modern Jewish History and Thought

The views of some major historians are considered, including Heinrich Graetz (1817-91), Simon Dubnov (1860-1941), Ben-Zion Dinur (1884-1972), and Gershom Scholem (1897-1982). In the modern era, the problem of providing a rationale for Jewish particularism led to three approaches: the insider, the outsider, and the rejectionist.

31 min
Cultural Transformation in the Italian Ghetto

03: Cultural Transformation in the Italian Ghetto

Professor Ruderman argues that the ghetto system in late 16th- and early 17th-century Italy ushered in a new era of Jewish-Christian relations and a restructuring of Jewish cultural life.

31 min
Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Messianism

04: Seventeenth-Century Marranism and Messianism

A primary feature of the Jewish experience in the 17th century was the return to Jewish life of large numbers of Iberian Christians whose ancestors had originally been baptized and left the Jewish community. Their experience sets the stage for understanding the philosophy of Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza.

31 min
The Challenge of Baruch Spinoza

05: The Challenge of Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was crucial in shaping the evolution of modern Jewish thought. His Theological-Political Treatise first appeared in 1670 and repudiated the assumptions upon which Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) built his rational edifice of Judaism.

31 min
Moses Mendelssohn and His Generation

06: Moses Mendelssohn and His Generation

In Jerusalem, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) responded partly to Spinoza's conclusions and partly to his intellectual circle in Berlin, who had accepted him despite his Jewish ancestry. Mendelssohn's strategy to rescue Judaism from the assault of Spinoza and the Enlightenment failed.

31 min
The Science of Judaism

07: The Science of Judaism

A small group of German Jewish intellectuals founded the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews in 1819. By studying Judaism "scientifically," they hoped to reveal the greater significance of Jewish civilization within the general intellectual and spiritual context of humanity.

31 min
Heinrich Graetz—Jewish Historian

08: Heinrich Graetz—Jewish Historian

Heinrich Graetz (1817-91) authored the monumental History of the Jews in 11 volumes. Graetz used history as a battleground to defend the integrity of Judaism against its Christian detractors, especially the renowned German historian Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1896).

31 min
Abraham Geiger—The Shaping of Reform Judaism

09: Abraham Geiger—The Shaping of Reform Judaism

Abraham Geiger (1810-74) utilized his vast knowledge of Jewish sources in the service of his own ideology of Reform Judaism. He challenged the Christian scholarly world, as Graetz was doing, to recognize the significance of rabbinic Judaism in understanding its own religious origins.

31 min
The Neo-Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch

10: The Neo-Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1810-88) became the leading proponent of Neo-Orthodox Judaism and a prominent critic of the Reform movement. He represented a different kind of orthodox rabbi from Moses Sofer (1762-1839). Sofer was unyielding in his opposition to university education, linguistic assimilation, or any change.

31 min
Zecharias Frankel and Conservative Judaism

11: Zecharias Frankel and Conservative Judaism

Zecharias Frankel (1801-75) participated in the deliberations of Reform Jewish leaders but left, fearing that the reformers had instituted changes in Judaism that were too radical.

31 min
Samuel David Luzzatto—Judaism and Atticism

12: Samuel David Luzzatto—Judaism and Atticism

Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-65) viewed the history of western civilization as an opposition between Judaism and "Atticism." By the latter he meant the Greek love of philosophy, arts and sciences, the development of the intellect, and the love of beauty. Judaism, on the other hand, gave the world religion and morality, which spring from the heart, not the mind.

31 min
Zionism's Answer to the Jewish Problem

13: Zionism's Answer to the Jewish Problem

By the second half of the 19th century, the optimism regarding Jewish political and social emancipation had diminished. In Eastern Europe, massive numbers of Jews lived in restricted areas. A political movement calling for the creation of a Jewish state in Israel emerged as a novel response.

31 min
Three Zionist Visions

14: Three Zionist Visions

Ahad Ha-Am (1856-1927) saw Israel as a spiritual center attracting an elite leadership who would shape a new secular culture for Israel and the Diaspora. Jacob Klatzkin (1882-1948) believed the only meaningful goal of Zionism was to regain the land of Israel and normalize the conditions of Jewish existence. Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) believed that Zionism exemplified the highest ideals of American culture.

31 min
The Jewish Adventure with Socialism

15: The Jewish Adventure with Socialism

Socialism and Marxism had an enormous appeal for Jews living in Western and Eastern Europe. Socialism's utopian ideas resonated as a radical means of alleviating their wretched status in European society. Unfortunately, when the socialist revolution lost its initial élan, Jews were left more frustrated than ever.

31 min
Hermann Cohen's Religion of Reason

16: Hermann Cohen's Religion of Reason

Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) represents both a final stage of 19th-century Jewish thought in Germany and the beginning of a new set of responses to the challenges of Jewish identity in the 20th century. For Cohen, the essence of Judaism was ethical monotheism grounded in a prophetic universalism stressing moral commitments to humanity and emphasizing a mission to bring about a utopian future.

31 min
Leo Baeck's Mystery and Commandment

17: Leo Baeck's Mystery and Commandment

Leo Baeck (1873-1956) pursued a prominent career as a rabbi in Berlin. Like Cohen, he underscored the central role of ethical monotheism in Judaism, but departed from him in stressing the role of religious consciousness as well.

31 min
Martin Buber's Religious Existentialism

18: Martin Buber's Religious Existentialism

Martin Buber (1878-1965) is probably the best-known Jewish social and religious philosopher of the 20th century. His works embody his guiding principles of dialogue and meaningful human encounter with the other and with the divine.

31 min
Jewish Law—Martin Buber vs. Franz Rosenzweig

19: Jewish Law—Martin Buber vs. Franz Rosenzweig

Buber's closest collaborator was the Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929). They disagreed intensely, however, on Jewish ritual observance. In a work addressed to Buber entitled The Builders, Rosenzweig challenged him to adopt the same openness towards Jewish observance that he had demonstrated towards the study of Jewish texts.

31 min
Mordecai Kaplan and American Judaism

20: Mordecai Kaplan and American Judaism

Mordecai Kaplan (1881-1983) was perhaps the most original of American Jewish thinkers who "reconstructed" Judaism to meet the needs of second-generation American Jews. Anthropology offered Kaplan a rationale for Jewish group cohesiveness in place of the traditional doctrine of chosen-ness.

31 min
Abraham Heschel—Mystic and Social Activist

21: Abraham Heschel—Mystic and Social Activist

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72), although the product of the Hasidic world of Eastern Europe, wrote for American Jews. He attempted to describe the concept of divine revelation: the process by which God reaches out to human beings.

31 min
Theological Responses to the Nazi Holocaust

22: Theological Responses to the Nazi Holocaust

In the first edition of After Auschwitz, published in 1961, Richard Rubenstein (1924- ) claimed that the destruction of European Jewry meant Jews could no longer affirm the myth of an omnipotent God or its corollary, the election of Israel. Emil Fackenheim (1916- ) provided a meaningful response to Rubenstein in his 1970 work God's Presence in History.

31 min
Feminist Jewish Theology

23: Feminist Jewish Theology

The emergence of feminist theology within the Jewish community is a relatively recent phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s. Jewish feminism has contributed to a new understanding of Judaism through new readings of classical texts and liturgy, new scholarship in Jewish history, and new theological perspectives that take gender into account.

31 min
Current Trends in Jewish Thought

24: Current Trends in Jewish Thought

It is difficult to summarize and appraise the most recent theological thinking. Arnold Eisen has argued recently that the ruminations of Jewish thinkers are irrelevant to most Jews. Ultimately, are the questions of God, Torah, and Israel only of interest to intellectuals?

31 min