“They bind our hands and then complain that we do not make use of them.” –Moses Mendelssohn
In 1848, a series of revolutions, called the Spring of Nations, swept across Europe. In the German states, support for and participation in the Revolutions of 1848 stemmed from popular discontent with traditional political and social structures, desire for constitutional rights, and aspirations towards German unification.
These goals attracted German Jewry, as they were deeply tied to the cause of Jewish emancipation; extension of constitutional rights to the general population meant that Jews would be entitled to equal treatment under the law, and German unification would make it easier for Jews to agitate for greater legal equality. Non-Jewish German liberals, for their part, advocated for Jewish emancipation out of the belief that discriminatory laws were anachronistic and morally unjust, and out of the old hope that legal emancipation would hasten Jewish assimilation and conversion to Christianity.
Jewish participation in the Revolutions of 1848 was a result of over half a century of reform and assimilation. As Jewish Enlightenment thinkers such as Mendelssohn urged Jews to embrace secular ideas, and as German thinkers argued for Jewish emancipation as a vehicle for assimilation and conversion, German Jewry responded in ways anticipated perhaps by neither Jewish nor non-Jewish thinkers.
German Jews wanted to be accepted as Germans, but not at the cost of their Jewishness; instead of assimilating via conversion, German Jewry instead refashioned German culture on their own terms.
The 1806 abolition of rabbinic courts and the authority of the Jewish community allowed German Jewry to shape their religious expression as they wished. Reform leaders introduced to the synagogue behavioral standards conforming to middle class—meaning Christian middle class—standards of propriety. They removed the prayer for the return to Zion from the liturgy to demonstrate that German Jewry had ceased to view itself as part of a dispersed nation. They introduced to the synagogue German-language sermons, choirs, clerical robes, confirmation ceremonies for boys and girls, and the use of the organ. By 1860, Reformed Jewish congregations had more in common with the church than with Orthodox synagogues, and by 1870, Reform was dominant type of Judaism practiced in Germany.
With daily life no longer operating under rabbinic authority, Jews were free to determine their own standards of behavior and interaction with both their German and Jewish identities. German Jews used the German tradition of Bildung—which links philosophy and educational attainment with the process of personal and cultural maturation—to shape their integration and assimilation. Bildung appealed to German Jews because they did not have to be born with it, but could acquire it through university attendance and participation in the right social groups and organizations. In Bildung, German Jewry saw their chance to achieve social mobility while maintaining their ethnoreligious identities.
The Revolutions of 1848 did not result in the legal emancipation of the Jews. However, they did strengthen the national identities of German Jewry, and increased Jewish and non-Jewish mixing to higher levels than ever before in German history.
In these calm, post-Revolutionary, mid-century years, every German Jew had access to an elementary level education. They could read and write in German, and were over-represented in secondary schools and universities. Through this educational attainment and social interaction, German Jewry came to understand that social and economic integration were just as important to the cause of Jewish emancipation as legislation.