The Duty to Know: Nineteenth-Century Jewish Catechisms and Manuals and the Making of Jewish Religious Knowledge

A contribution to the blog series “Learning by the book” at the GHI’s History of Knowledge Blog and in anticipation of a presentation at the conference “Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge” at Princeton University, June 6-10, 2018:

In 1878 Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800–1882), probably the most famous nineteenth-century German-Jewish painter, created a work entitled The Heder, or Jewish Elementary School, which re-imagined his first school in Hanau near Frankfurt am Main in the early 1800s.

The Heder (1878) by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, courtesy of the Jewish Museum, New York

In his memoirs, written only a few years later, he described this school as a

longish chamber with a low ceiling next to a small courtyard . . . Alongside the wall was a small bench not much higher than a pair of shoes; boys and girls, the children of the Jewish quarter, sitting there until called upon, one by one, to the teacher sitting in an old chair. On the desk in front of the teacher was a table with the Hebrew alphabet, which the children could only see if they climbed on a brick.[1]

This rather informal school setting was not unusual for early modern education. Similar one-room schools for younger children were as well common in the Christian society, especially for the children of the poor or in rural areas. What makes Oppenheim’s painting so fascinating is that by the time he had recreated his childhood memory, the organizational framework of Jewish education in Germany had changed entirely.

The heder (literally “chamber”), a private institution run by the teacher in his own home and employed by the children’s parents, had been replaced by Jewish elementary schools or supplementary religious schools run by the community. These last had gained relevance since the 1830s, as more and more Jewish children attended local public schools, which in the German lands remained Christian in character and included—down to this day—Christian religious instruction. Jewish children were exempted from these classes and either gained knowledge on Judaism at home or attended community-run religious schools on Wednesday afternoons and Sundays. Although some public schools opened their doors to local Jewish teachers or rabbis, Jewish religious instruction remained mainly outside the public school system.

This kind of setting for Jewish education could be found in most nineteenth-century Central and West European states as well as in the Unites States. In the German-Jewish case, my focus here, three forces shaped this new educational setting: the Haskalah or Jewish enlightenment and its educational program; the process of emancipation and the significance that education and schooling assumed within it; and changing societal attitudes toward education in general and what children and young adults should learn and know.

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