Reform of Tradition, Tradition of Reform

By Moshe Sokolow
Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The lion’s share of Bruce L. Ruben’s excellent biography Max Lilienthal: The Making of the American Rabbinate is devoted to his American experience.  As a result, Lilienthal’s life provides a lens through which we watch American Judaism, Reform Judaism in particular, struggle with the consequences of its own idiosyncratic condition.  Unlike their German and Russian coreligionists, who were prepared to sacrifice some of the benefits of Enlightenment and Emancipation to preserve their traditional Jewish identities, American Jews—who were, by and large, less educated in both Judaic and secular terms—compromised religious principle as the price of admission to unrestricted social acceptance.     

To understand this distinction, we must begin with its 18th-century roots.

Naftali Herz Weisel was a close colleague of Moses Mendelssohn, known as the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah.  In 1782 Weisel published Divrei Shalom Ve’Emet, or “Words of Peace and Truth,” a clarion call for the modernization of Jewish education.  He advocated dividing education into two realms: Torat Ha’Adam, or “Laws of Mankind”—the humanistic tradition—and Torat Hashem, or “Laws of God,” religious belief and ritual.  Though Weisel upheld the preeminence of religion over secular humanism, he was pilloried mercilessly by conservative religious critics.  He finally withdrew from educational reform altogether and devoted himself to literature. 

At the same time, Joseph II, who ascended to the Hapsburg throne in Germany in 1780, was offering the Jews of his empire their first opportunity to acquire legal rights comparable to those of non-Jews.  His 1781 “Edict of Tolerance” provided the Jews with limited religious freedom.  The process became known as Emancipation.   

The two phenomena, Enlightenment and Emancipation, were organically connected: the former was a prerequisite to the latter.  Indeed, Weisel’s book was dedicated to Emperor Joseph, in gratitude for the Edict of Tolerance. 

In Western and Central Europe, the combination of Enlightenment and Emancipation fostered a renewed Jewish social and intellectual ferment during the first half of the 19th century.  By contrast, in Eastern Europe, where authoritarian Tsarist rule remained unencumbered and Jews were restricted to the Pale of Settlement, the effect of these movements was delayed until the revolutions of the early 20th century.  In America—yet another contrast—equality under law had already been enshrined in the Declaration of Independence by the early 19th century; the American challenge was to prevent the erosion of Jewish tradition by prevailing Protestant norms and beliefs. 

This was the tripartite background of Max Lilienthal’s career.  He was born in Munich in 1818.  At the age of 26, with both rabbinic ordination and a doctorate, he accepted a job in Riga—then part of Tsarist Russia, but culturally and linguistically dominated by Baltic Germans—as principal of a progressive Jewish school.  He eventually became the Ministry of Education's "Learned Jew" and its point man on Jewish education; he secured enactment of a law that established “enlightened Jewish schools,” teaching secular as well as religious subjects, throughout the Pale of Settlement.  He managed to form a coalition of traditional and liberal leaders to support his work, including Rabbi Yitzhak, dean of the great Yeshiva of Volozhin; but most Russian Jews resented him, suspecting him as a Tsarist agent intent on their conversion. 

After five years, though emotionally spent, Lilienthal remained undaunted. In 1845, now married, he left for the predominantly German section of lower Manhattan—Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.”  He became the rabbi of Ansche Chesed, a traditional German congregation, and oversaw the construction of its landmark building on Norfolk Street.  By 1846, in the synagogue Talmud Torah he supervised, he had established the first Jewish confirmation class in America.  Post-bar mitzvah boys and girls met with him two hours a week for six months, studying Bible, theology, and ethics.  On the first day of Shavuot, they stood for public examination; on the second day, the boys were called to the Torah. 

Lilienthal then served briefly as chief rabbi of a coalition of three German-Jewish synagogues but grew frustrated by the synagogues’ bylaws, which subordinated the rabbi to the lay leadership, and became determined to succeed as an educator.  When the three-synagogue union disbanded, he was dismissed as rabbi.  In 1849 he opened “Dr. Lilienthal’s Hebrew and Classical Boarding School” in his home on Eldridge Street.  In Riga he had supervised the modern education of students who had strong Judaic home schooling, but for his New York students he had to supply both secular and Judaic education. 

By this time, Lilienthal’s colleague Leo Merzbacher had broken from Ansche Chesed and established Temple Emanuel; Lilienthal opposed Merzbacher’s radical Reform, supporting only moderate liturgical changes.  But after Lilienthal moved to Cincinnati in 1855 as rabbi of Bene Israel, the oldest congregation west of the Alleghenies, he joined another colleague, Isaac M. Wise, in establishing the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1872 and Hebrew Union College in 1875.  These became the communal and academic bastions of the American Reform movement.  

Lilienthal made several attempts to coordinate with Orthodox leaders on public policy issues; but his initiatives generally met with failure, exacerbating his break with traditionalism.  And herein lies a cautionary tale. 

Samson Raphael Hirsch, born in Hamburg in 1808, was another German Jew who struggled with the consequences of the Haskalah in general and Weisel’s educational reform in particular.  Hirsch’s family background was very similar to Lilienthal’s: financially secure, liberal, and socially prominent, with deep roots in the community.  Both men received ordination, pursuing secular education along with the rabbinate.  Both started schools featuring combined traditional religious and modern secular studies—an approach that, however progressive it may have been for its age, has come to characterize contemporary day school education throughout the United States across all denominations.

Yet Hirsch and Lilienthal came to personify sharply contrasting Jewish movements.  Hirsch, enrolled as a child in a German grammar school, became the father of Neo-Orthodoxy in Germany; Lilienthal, entirely educated in yeshivot, co-founded Reform Judaism in America.  If Lilienthal had remained in Germany and Hirsch had immigrated to America, would they have ended up as they did?  Would their positions have been reversed?  Or might they have combined forces, modernizing the Orthodox and traditionalizing the Reform? 

From their respective biographies, it appears each man was influenced as much by the events in which he participated and the people with whom he interacted as by the principles in which he was indoctrinated and to which he was committed.  The role of contingency in their lives provides a lesson for contemporary interdenominational relations: Mutual respect, regardless of doctrinal or political differences, would go a long ways towards minimizing the type of gratuitous internecine hostility that plagues the Jewish Diaspora. 

Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).

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