(Israel Twitter)Jewish assimilation refers to the cultural assimilation and social integration of Jews in their surrounding culture. Assimilation became legally possible in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment.
In ancient times it was customary for conquered people to recognize the gods of their conquerors as more powerful than their own gods, and to at least add them to the gods they worshiped. Judaism forbids the worship of other gods. In addition to maintaining their monotheistic religion, Jews faced the challenge of having no Jewish homeland since their expulsion from the Land of Israel, and struggling to preserve their language and customs as a tiny minority in a predominantly Christian or Muslim world.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah stems from the Maccabees' revolt against the Seleucid Empire. Many Jews of the era had adopted the Hellenistic language and culture of that empire, which the Maccabee group considered an abomination. Jewish Hellenism is an early example of what is now called Jewish assimilation.
Jewish assimilation began anew among Ashkenazi Jews on an extensive scale towards the end of the 18th century in Western Europe, especially Germany, as the Haskalah emerged as a culture. Reasons cited for its initial success included hope for better opportunities accompanying assimilation into the non-Jewish European communities, especially among the upper classes.
Although some laws were changed and had allowed assimilation to flourish, the history of European antisemitism, which often had resulted from church and state actions, was not as easily forgotten. Both the Christian and Jewish communities were divided concerning answers to what was known as "the Jewish question.” The question, coming during the rise of nationalism in Europe, included the extent to which each nation could integrate its Jewish citizens, and if not integrated, how should they be treated and the question solved.
As an alternative to a more liberal practice of Judaism, assimilation also took the form of conversion to Christianity. None of the descendants of Moses Mendelssohn retained their Jewish religion. However, anti-Semites often imagined even converts from the Jewish religion and their descendants to still possess inherited Jewish traits that the anti-Semites considered "undesirable," and inferior to "native" citizens. Assimilated Jews often did not achieve the acceptance that they were hoping assimilation would provide.
This antisemitism led Jews to philosophical questions of Jewish identity and Who is a Jew?. The propriety of assimilation, and various paths toward it were among the earliest internal debates of the emancipation era, including whether and to what extent Jews should relinquish their right to uniqueness in return for civic equality. These debates initially took place within the diaspora, a population with a revered historical Biblical homeland, but without a state of their own for nearly two thousand years.
The issue of Jewish assimilation has agitated Jewish polemicists and intrigued Jewish historians for a considerable time. Since some Jews first abandoned the traditional Jewish community to embrace modern secular culture, other Jews have chastised them for deserting the Jewish people. “Religious Jews regarded those who assimilated with horror, and Zionists campaigned against assimilation as an act of treason.”As a result, the term assimilation, once used proudly by those who sought integration into European society, became a term of contempt, a symbol of subservience to gentile culture, a sign of rejection of all links to the common history and destiny of the Jewish people, and a betrayal of their ancestors who suffered pogroms and torture to keep Judaism alive. Such Jews consider assimilation a loss of Jewish identity of an individual either by marriage to a spouse who is not Jewish, or by abandonment of the Jewish religion to adopt another religion. In reality, the act of the assimilation comprises a number of elements and stages.
In Assimilation in American Life, Milton Gordon defined assimilation as a continuum, with the first stage acculturation, that is, the adoption of such outward cultural forms of the larger society as language, dress, recreational tastes, and political views. Total assimilation is only possible if the host society is receptive and extensive intermarriage takes place. Most European and American Jews acculturated, but they rarely lost their sense of Jewish identity. They most often abstained from what Gordon called "structural assimilation," the creation of friendships and other contacts primarily with members of the host society.
The question of Jewish assimilation is a topic of concern for both Jewish and Christian religious leaders. A number of Progressive Christian denominations have publicly declared that they will no longer proselytize Jews. They have made use of dual-covenant theology.
The Roman Catholic Church has attracted some Jews, such as Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Marcel Proust, Edith Stein, Israel Zolli, Erich von Stroheim, and Jean-Marie Lustiger. In Spain, after the 15th century, there was controversy over the sincerity of Spanish Judeo-Catholics who converted under pain of being expelled from Spain.