chapter  3
24 Pages

Voltaire’s Jews among the world’s peoples and nations

Voltaire’s inquiries into the history of the Jews of the Old Testament, and his

scattered comments on the Jews of his day, as I have already noted, have now moved beyond the ritualized debates that have cast him either among the ranks

of anti-Semites, or have attempted to rescue him from such an egregious stain.

Yet questions abound. Voltaire turned to consider Judaism in its ancient and

contemporary garb when leaders of the Jewish community in France were

more than ever, as the eighteenth century progressed, chafing under the

chronic feelings of insecurity, a product of the regulations and restrictions

imposed on their occupations and property, and beginning the struggle to have

them revoked, end ghetto life and justify their existence as modern Jews outside it without giving up their ‘‘Jewishness.’’ They tried to do so amidst much

controversy over how the modernizing movement in the eighteenth century,

with the possibility of changes in their corporate and civil existence in a

monarchical state, would affect whatever it was thought made up the

enduring features of Judaism. Changes were indeed occurring. They have

been documented in north-eastern France, particularly in Metz, where after

a century or so, Jewish leadership increasingly underwent a slow process of

secularization that challenged the rabbinate’s powers over every aspect of Jewish life.1 Together with the fact that Jews and gentiles were beginning to

mingle with one another, even before the Enlightenment made its influence

felt, ‘‘the initiatives undertaken in Metz, and later in Alsace, typified a first

stage in the unfolding of modernity,’’ which took place in the last decades of

the ancien re´gime when the state ‘‘level[ed] down [the traditional powers

accorded to] corporations.’’2 Ironically, Bordeaux, as a port city where secu-

larization might have had a larger impact because of Jewish commercial

success, supported rabbinic authority and would continue to do so after the Revolution. The economic importance of Bordeaux in pre-Revolutionary

France may have eased Jewish inclusion in civic and cultural life and made

political emancipation less of an issue than among Ashkenazi Jews.3