The characteristic of the 18th and 19th centuries is the endeavour, connected with the name of Moses Mendelssohn, to bring Judaism more into relation with external learning, and in using the Hebrew language to purify and develop it in accordance with the biblical standard.
The result, while linguistically more uniform and pleasing, often lacks the spontaneity of medieval literature. It was Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Pentateuch (1780–1793) which marked the new spirit, while the views of his opponents belong to a bygone age. In fact the controversy of which he was the centre may fitly be compared with the earlier battles between the Maimonists and anti-Maimonists.
One of the most remarkable writers of the new Hebrew was Mendelssohn’s friend N. H. Wessely, of Hamburg (d. 1805), author of Shīrē Tiphe’reth, a long poem on the Exodus, Dibhrē Shalōm, a plea for liberalism, Sepher ha-middōth, on ethics, besides philological works and commentaries.
A curious combination of new and old was Ḥayyīm Azulai (d. 1807), a kabbalist, but also the author of Shem ha-gedhōlīm, a valuable contribution to literary history.
In the 19th century the modernizing tendency continued to grow, though always side by side with a strong conservative opposition, and the most prominent names on both sides are those of scholars rather than literary men. Among them may be mentioned, Akiba (ʽAqībhā) Eger (d. 1837), Talmudist of the orthodox, conservative school; W. Heidenheim (d. 1832), a liberal, and editor of the Pentateuch and Maḥzor; N. Krochmal, of Galicia (d. 1840), author of Mōreh Nebhūkhē ha-zeman, on Jewish history and literature; his son Abraham (d. 1895), conservative commentator and philosopher.
One consequence of the Mendelssohn movement was that many writers used their vernacular language besides or instead of Hebrew, or translated from one to the other. Thus Isaac Samuel Reggio (d. 1855), a strong liberal, wrote both in Hebrew and Italian; Joseph Almanzi, of Padua (d. 1860), a poet, translated Italian poems into Hebrew; S. D. Luzzatto, of Padua (d. 1865), a distinguished scholar and opponent of the philosophy of Maimonides, wrote much in Italian; M. H. Letteris, of Vienna (d. 1871), translated German poems into Hebrew; S. Bacher, of Hungary (d. 1891), was a poet and moderate liberal; L. Gordon (d. 1892), poet and prose-writer in Hebrew and Russian, of liberal views; A. Jellinek, of Vienna (d. 1893), preacher and scholar; Jacob Reifmann (d. 1895), scholar, wrote only in Hebrew.
The endeavour to bring Judaism into relation with the modern world and to change the current impressions about Jews by making their teaching accessible to the rest of the world, is connected chiefly with the names of Z. Frankel (d. 1875), the first Jewish scholar to study the Septuagint; Abraham Geiger (d. 1874), critic of the first rank; L. Zunz (d. 1884) and L. Dukes (d. 1891), both scholarly investigators of Jewish literary history. Their most important works are in German.
The question of the use of the vernacular or of Hebrew is bound up with the differences between the orthodox and the liberal or reform parties, complicated by the many problems involved. Patriotic efforts are made to encourage the use of Hebrew both for writing and speaking, but the continued existence of it as a literary language depends on the direction in which the future history of the Jews will develop.
Hebrew Literature by Arthur Ernest Cowley