David B. Ruderman
Alexander McCaul (1799-1863) was one of the most prominent figures in The London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst Jews during the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1837, he published a formidable attack against the Talmud entitled The Old Paths, engendering considerable consternation and alarm among Jews when the work appeared in Hebrew translation two years later. Having spent ten years as a missionary in Warsaw, McCaul knew Jewish texts and Jewish life intimately. His work engendered a series of long responses from Jewish intellectuals attempting to defend traditional Judaism from his stinging criticisms. Among the most significant of these responses were several written by Eastern European Maskilim [proponents of the Jewish enlightenment] who had previously condemned the rabbis and their restrictive Talmudic laws in calling for radical religious and educational reform. The irony of these same critics of Rabbinic Judaism feeling obliged to defend their hallowed traditions is at the heart of my study of McCaul's critique and the Jewish response. Their treatises constitute invaluable Jewish self-reflections on the meaning of their newly constructed identities in the nineteenth century.