Modern Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Intellectual Emancipation
Israel Learns to "Know Himself"

We have seen how vital it was that the emancipation — begun by Mendelssohn — in order to be a boon and not a menace should be followed up by giving to the Jew a truer knowledge of himself and of his heritage.

The early group of post-Mendelssohns sought the solution of their problem outside of Judaism. Many abandoned the Faith, simply because they did not know it. They knew not its grand historic background, its varied literature, its philosophy, not even the treasures hidden in its ritual. They knew only its excrescences, though the removal of these had begun. They regretted their birthright because they had not surveyed it. They hastened to exchange "old lamps for new," not seeing that the only virtue of the new was its glitter, while in the old alone burned the mystic flame.

Leopold Zunz.

The first to unearth the treasure of Israel's literary greatness was Leopold Zunz. "No star sets but another rises," said a Jewish sage. Mendelssohn died in 1786, Zunz was born in the same land in 1794. As delicate in physique as his predecessor and materially as poor, he had the same determination to conquer all realms of learning. A great linguist, as well as a great mathematician, he was not only able to decipher knowledge in many tongues and in musty manuscripts, but his systematic mind and broad grasp enabled him to survey the whole field of Jewish literature, co-ordinate it from its entanglements and trace its origin and development throughout the long past, and finally, assign its place among the literatures of the world. This vast work was styled "The Science of Judaism" and we may call Zunz its founder. Revealing the richness of rabbinic literature, he demanded its recognition by scholars as a university study. We need not be surprised that it had been ignored through ignorance or prejudice by Gentiles, when it was neglected even by its own heirs.

Therefore in order to adapt the Jews to the world of culture, they were now entering, and especially to appeal to young men, Zunz, while still a student and tutor, organized with others the "Verein fuer Cultur der Juden," a society to promote Jewish science and culture, and published a magazine for its dissemination, known as the "Zeitschrift fuer die Wissenschaft des Judenthums." Neither society nor magazine lived long, yet long enough to sow the seed in many waiting souls.

Zunz eked out but a precarious existence, at times as journalist, at times as preacher or teacher. "Art is long" and appreciation, especially of pure learning, is slow. To think that this versatile scholar who could have worthily filled three university chairs, at one time sought occupation even as book-keeper; to think that seeking such, he should have failed! Even as preacher, though gifted with eloquence and diction, Prague did not appreciate him and Darmstadt rejected him!

Undeterred, he went on with his studies, though to prosecute them he had to visit the libraries of many lands. For he was an original scholar who always went to the sources. By critically examining the varied writings of rabbis, poets and preachers, he was able to get at the philosophic foundation of Judaism. His genius enabled him to disclose not only their writings, but their life, and their life through their writings. If, for example, he writes on Rashi, he is able to reconstruct Rashi's times and reveal to us the environment of French and German Jewry of the eleventh century.

History Extracted from Ritual.

His first volume, Chapters on the Divine Service of the Jews, is the most important work of the nineteenth century in the realm of Judaica. Yet it formed but one division of the complex work he planned. Its wide scope will be better understood when it is remembered that since Israel had lost its land, the synagogue was the center of its life; therefore much historic information is compressed in its Prayer Book for those who can find the key. So, to tell the story of the development of the divine service is to tell the story of the Jew; this Zunz really does. The work involved an enormous amount of miscellaneous reading, enabling him to throw sidelights on the divergent rites and customs of different places and times and the historic reasons behind them.

He shows that from the beginning the synagogue had a threefold function. It was the place for prayer, for Bible study and for the sermon. The second developed into the third, for the expounding of the Scripture led up to that homiletic instruction known as Midrash (moral lesson). He discloses to us how this vitally important pulpit education varied with the different needs of different times. In dark days, like those of the Crusades, expulsions and massacres, its function was to instil comfort and to deepen faith. In controversial days, as in the forced public disputations of Spain, it offered weapons for theological defense. At times of laxity it turned to moral exhortation. The Midrashic expounders often demonstrated genius and their drashas (sermons) became a medium of literary activity and of ethical and ritual instruction.

His second great work was Literature and History of Synagogue Poetry, and presents the next stage in his general subject of the Science of Judaism. On superficial survey, this book may seem little more than a catalogue of the piyyutim (liturgical poems) of the mediaeval synagogue. If it were that only it would be of priceless value in resuscitating these literary treasures and unearthing names hitherto unknown. He mentions nine hundred of these poets of the Prayer Book! But he further determines their chronology, their historic association and the life of suffering and rejoicing Israel behind them. Through his translations some of the Synagogue-poems were given to the world. Altogether, he demonstrated the contribution of Jewish culture to civilization.

In this work occur those renowned words quoted by George Eliot in Daniel Deronda, that really summarize his whole plea for Jewish recognition:

"If there are degrees in woe. Israel has reached the highest rung; if endurance of sufferings and patience with which they are borne ennoble, then the Jews take their place side by side with the highest in all lands. If a literature is called rich in the possession of a few classic tragedies, what shall we say to a national tragedy lasting for fifteen hundred years, in which the poets and actors were also the heroes."

Learning and Liberty.

Zunz pleaded not only for literary recognition of the Jew but also, like Mendelssohn, for their political emancipation. We shall see how he co-related them. Recognition came at last to Zunz's years of patient service; he became the recognized intellectual leader of scattered Israel abroad, and was chosen as their local secular representative at home. None better fitted than he to be a communal leader to reorganize the German Jewish community, and he was often its mouthpiece in pleading for removal of their disabilities in the critical period round 1848, to be treated later. He asked of the European powers "not rights and liberties, but right and liberty." He became an Elector both in the Prussian legislature and in the German Diet.

He strikes a new note when he connects disenfranchisement of Jews with their ignorance of their literature and history, for he says:

"The neglect of Jewish science is connected with the civil disabilities of the Jews. By a more comprehensive mental culture, a more profound knowledge of their own affairs, the Jews would have achieved a higher degree of recognition of their rights; many an ill-advised step of the legislature and many a prejudice against Jewish antiquity were the immediate consequences of the abandoned condition in which Jewish literature has been plunged. Although publications against the Talmud and the Jews shot up like mushrooms, there existed no book whence statesmen might have drawn advice. No professor lectured on Judaism and Jewish literature, no academy offered prizes therefor . . . Legislators and authors had to follow the mendacious authorities of Eisenmenger and his ilk. . . . The physical and communal life of Jewish congregations is provided for by hospitals and asylums; but religion and science, civil freedom and intellectual progress require schools and seminaries."

He might well have quoted Hosea, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge."

He personally demonstrated how the knowledge of his traditions can change the political status of the Jew in the instance of the law relating to the Jewish oath. When a Jew was to take an oath in the Court, all sorts of humiliating conditions were imposed to frighten him. Why? Because of a wrong supposition that Jews treated oaths lightly. Zunz, by his great historic research, was able to reveal to the Christian world the sacred and binding character of the oath among Jews. In consequence, perhaps of this disclosure, the degrading customs attending a Jewish oath were abolished in Prussia in 1869 as they had gradually been abolished in other lands since Mendelssohn's first protest and Cremieux's later successful effort. (The French Court declared the oath unconstitutional in 1846).

He demonstrated elsewhere that "thought is strong enough to vanquish arrogance and injustice, without arrogance and injustice." He pleaded not only as Jew for Jew, but like Heine and Boerne, as patriotic German for German unity, but unlike these, without sacrifice of his ancestral faith.

It was comparatively late in life that an appointment came to him as director in a "School for Teachers." This at least removed the anxiety of self-support and gave him more opportunity to prosecute his) diverse studies. One of his later productions was the editing of a Bible translation. For this, none better fitted than he. He was a Bible critic of the modern school. He demonstrated the composite authorship of many of the Bible books, the lateness of some of the Psalms, the higher historic value of Kings than of Chronicles. All Jewry participated in celebrating his ninetieth birthday; and when he died, in 1886, he was mourned throughout the whole Jewish world.

Historians and Seminaries.

Among those who aided or followed Zunz in vindicating the dignity of Israel's past were his co-worker Jost, who produced a "History of the Jews"; Nachman Krochmal, who made the Talmud yield him a post-exilic history; Solomon Rapaport, who told Israel's story in biography; Samuel David Luzzatto, poet and philologist, who! illumined the Spanish period; and Salomon Munk of France, who, by opening up the Arabic sources, threw further light on Jewish medical activity.

So the good work went on and Israel came to know itself and to respect itself, though there were some renegades still. A natural outcome of this Jewish renaissance was the establishment of a Seminary in Breslau in 1854 for the training of rabbis. Its teachers were all men famous as leaders of conservative Judaism — Graetz, author of The History of the Jezvs, Zacharias Frankl, the leader of what we might call progressive orthodoxy, Jacob Bernays, philologist and professor at the university of Bonn, the son of Isaac Bernays, chief rabbi of Hamburg, and Manuel Joel, a pioneer in Jewish religious philosophy, who showed the great influence of Jewish philosophy on Christian scholastics. Other seminaries followed.

So a new literary era among the Jews was launched, not philosophic like the Alexandrian, nor legalistic like the Babylonian, nor poetic like the Spanish; but critical, the aroma of modernism. It unearths and sifts the old treasures rather than adding new.

Reform's Second Stage.

The Reform movement also took on a new lease of life. In its first stage it had been superficial and external. In this, its second stage, it was based on a more philosophic foundation; and included a distinct attitude towards life. Mendelssohn had given the impulse to the first stage without being of it, by instituting Bible study in the vernacular and by encouraging secular education and decorum in worship. Zunz fathered the second stage likewise without being of it, by treating Scripture as literature in a modern critical spirit; and by demonstrating that Judaism was a gradual development, that its law was an evolution, not a product of one moment crystallized and finished (as its presentation in the Pentateuch might lead one to suppose), but rather that it is a continuous tradition. Let us consider some of these reforms in beliefs, duties and rites:


The most decided respect in which Reform differs from Orthodoxy, lies in its explanation of religion on rationalistic lines. It explains inspiration and prophecy as normal experiences of the spirit. It interprets Revelation as a gradual disclosure of God and His will without the need of the supernatural. Thus the miracles of the Bible are given natural explanations and the Bible itself regarded as a human production. According to Reform interpretation then, the early history of Israel contained in the Bible begins, as all histories, in oral tradition, growing more authentic as it advances in time. The theories of some of the Bible writers on natural science show the limitations of a far off age. But the Reform school reminds us, that this does not affect the validity of its moral truths. Its spiritual message to man persists through all; and is independent of later discovery of natural law.

The man who best voiced these views and was the actual leader of this second stage of Reform was Abraham Geiger, 1810-1874. For its furtherance he established both a journal and a school. He demonstrated that the aim of Reform Judaism was to establish harmony between law and life.

The Messiah and the National Restoration.

An important doctrinal change made by the Reform leaders clusters around Israel's future outlook. Orthodox Judaism regards the suppression of the Jewish nation and Israel's dispersion as punishment and tragedy to be righted only by a restoration to the Holy Land under the leadership of its Messiah-King, there to revive the old national life with Temple, priesthood and sacrifice; this to be followed by the world's acceptance of monotheism and humanity's regeneration. The Reformer treats the dispersion not as a temporary exile, but as part of the divine plan, whereby Israel, God's witness, might carry His message to the people of the earth. Not by a national restoration, through a personal Messiah, not by miracle at one grand moment, but gradually and normally, and in the world's midst can Israel, if loyal to its Sinaitic call, bring about the fulfilment of the prophetic hopes of a purified society "knowing God". This ultimate day it calls "the Messianic time". The Reform ritual therefore eliminates all prayers for restoration of nation, sacrifice or priesthood. It lays new emphasis on Israel's relation to mankind, and its responsibility for their spiritual welfare.


Reform gives larger place to woman in religious life. She is counted in the Minyan (quorum) for divine worship and is given the privilege of reciting the Kaddish for the departed. Therefore, she does not sit aloof in a gallery at the divine service. Girls share equally with boys the rite of Confirmation on the Feast of Pentecost.

It further diverges from Orthodox Judaism in denial of the resurrection of the body; but unites with it in affirming the immortality of the soul.


Reform does not make the sharp distinction between biblical and talmudic law drawn by the Karaites, but it distinguishes in both codes between laws that are political and local, fitting the civilization of a particular age, and on the other hand, such as are universal and moral. Among the former it classes agricultural, sacrificial, dietary, Schechita and divorce laws. Injunctions as to tephillin (phylacteries), worship with covered head, the separation of the sexes and customs of the Orient generally, — such it does not deem binding. The latter, the universal and moral, would include such institutions as the Sabbath, the sacred days, the moral codes and the humanitarian and ethical precepts in biblical and rabbinic law. The tendency of Reform generally has been to simplify and lessen ceremonial and treat it as subordinate to the ethical; as a symbol that feeds the emotional and the religious side of life. So its divine services are briefer, its ritual less complex; its prayers partly in Hebrew and partly in the vernacular.

These reforms did not come about at once, nor without bitter controversy with the conservative wing. They were evolved gradually by the fathers of the movement and were given sanction by a series of Conferences, at Brunswick in 1844, at Frankfort in 1845 and at Breslau in 1846.

It will be seen that Germany was its home. But it was transplanted to America with the German immigration. Its fathers here were David Einhorn, Samuel Hirsch and Isaac M. Wise. Rabbinic Conferences were continued in America. One was held in Philadelphia in 1869, another in Pittsburgh in 1885. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, later inaugurated, will be more fully described in a later chapter.

Some of the chief decisions of the several Conferences in addition to those already specified were the following: Introduction of English prayers; reading the Law in a triennial cycle or in an abridged form; the use of the organ at the regular divine service of the Synagogue; abolition of the "second day" of the Holy Days and Festivals; lessening the severity of mourning customs and the complexity of marriage customs; making less stringent the conditions of admitting proselytes — and thus encouraging proselytism; abandonment of Chalitza (permit from a brother-in-law to widow to remarry); non-recognition of a rabbinic divorce {get); introduction of Sunday services.

James Darmesteter.

Among those who revealed to Israel their own spiritual treasures was James Darmesteter. Though he drifted from Judaism, like Heine, he returned to it in spirit in his deep and deepening appreciation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Born in France in 1849 of humble parentage, he already showed in boyhood that remarkable linguistic gift that ultimately won for him the Prix d'Honneur. He devoted the best of his life to the literature of the East. He translated the Zend Avesta into French and English and added a commentary. He was made Professor of Persian in the College of France and Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes. In the midst of voluminous technical productions, this versatile scholar found time to write exquisite poetry. After Renan's death "he was regarded as the most distinguished scholar of France. " He had an intense appreciation of the Hebrew Prophets. Here are some quotations from his Prophets of Israel:

"The prophet is the man possessed of God, and through whom the will of God is revealed to men. . . . W hat is unique in Jewish prophecy is that it became the all-powerful weapon, not of charlatans and of fools, but of those inspired, in whom the mind and the conscience of modern humanity found their first successful and lasting expression. The work of these prophets survives in a hundred pages of the Bible and — in three religions."

"The century following after Elijah gave birth to a new phenomenon; a god became the instrument of morality."

"The Eighth b.c.e. century, that culminated in this movement, is one of the great epochs in the history of the human soul. ,,

"These ancient words, fierce and violent have more vitality at the present time, and answer better to the needs of modern souls, than all the classic masterpieces of antiquity."

"Amos and Hosea dream only of moral salvation for Israel and the chosen people. . . . What Isaiah sees, is Israel saved, and saving the world. In the midst of nations given over to brutal games,, he dreams for Israel the ascendancy of noble example and of the ideal. He sees a day coming, at the end of time when . . . throngs of people shall come saying: 'Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of Jehovah, to the house of the God of Israel, that he may teach us of his ways, and that we may walk in his paths. For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and from Jerusalem the word of the Eternal.' The decisive word is launched, a universal religion is founded."

"If Jeremiah had allowed himself to perish at the time of the destruction (of the Temple) . . . humanity would have missed the sound of words which can still save her, and which have consoled her for twentysix centuries. The Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount could never have emanated from Babylon, nor from Athens or Rome. Jeremiah displayed the unparalleled heroism of fighting against his country false to herself, for the benefit of a future country which was not yet born, and which as yet existed only in his heart and in that of some disciples. "

"The sufferings of Israel transformed by triumphant ^prophecy, are no longer, as at the time of Jeremiah and of militant prophecy, the expiation of her faults . . . they are the price of salvation of the human soul. Jehovah had placed his spirit in Israel, through her to acquaint the nations with justice. It is therefore not in vain that Israel suffered, that she was despised and rejected of men, a people of sorrows, acquainted with suffering. Sent by the Lord to preach his word, she was not rebellious, and recoiled not from the stain of sorrow. She gave her back to those that struck her, her cheek to those that insulted her, and hid not her face although reviled and spat upon. As the lamb that is led to slaughter, as the sheep is dumb before the shearer, she opened not her mouth, and therefore she shall not die. Men believed her stricken of God, whereas it is to reclaim them from their sins that she was afflicted; it was for their salvation that she was chastised. And she neither grows weary nor discouraged, that justice may be established upon the earth; and the far-off islands await her instruction. Jehovah makes Israel the legislator of nations; the nations that know her not shall hasten to her. She shall lead the stranger to her holy mountain; for the house of Jehovah shall be called a house of prayer for all people."

"The prophets were the first to utter this cry (of human conscience projected heavenward) and they did so for all time."

"Eight centuries before Lucretius, the God of the shepherd, Amos, exclaims: 'From your offerings of fat beasts I turn away my eyes. . . . But let righteousness gush forth as water, and justice as a never-failing stream."

"The religion of the twentieth century . . . will arise out of the fusion of prophecy with science."


Jewish Historians:—Krochmal was born in Galicia in 1785. Like his earlier contemporary Mendelssohn, he too lived in an environment that treated secular study as sin. His "Guide to the Perplexities of the Time" treats Jewish, History philosophically. See Schechter's Studies in Judaism. J.P.S.A.

Weiss wrote a History of Jewish Tradition in Hebrew.

Steinschneider's historic sketch of Jewish History is a work as monumental in its way as Zunz's magnum opus.

Solomon Rapaport, 1790-1867, an Austrian rabbi, was Krochmal's more famous pupil. He was renowned for Hebrew lore and Western culture.

Jost's History of the Jews has been eclipsed by that of Graetz. The latter is, so far, the classic historian of the Jews. English readers are referred to an English condensation of his work in five volumes issued by the Jewish Publication Society of America. The index volume contains a memoir of the author.

Jewish Seminaries:—See "History of the Jews in Modern Times" by Max Raisin, p. 11, for more detailed biographies of their founders.

Reform Judaism:—A Reform movement was launched in England in 1840, but on Karaite lines, i.e., rejection of rabbinic law. This has been recently followed by a more progressive undertaking known as "The Jewish Religious Union of Liberal Judaism," instituted by Claude G. Montefiore, author of Liberal Judaism and Hellenism, Macmillan, 1903.

Jewish Encyclopedia, articles "Reform Judaism," "Piyyutim," and "Rabbinic Conferences."

Reform Movement in Judaism, D. Philipson, Macmillan.

"Jewish Theology" K. Kohler, Macmillan.

Ludwig Phillipson issued a periodical "Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums," which carried far the Reform message. Geiger and Holdheim:

Geiger may be better understood by contrasting him with that other great reformer, Samuel Holdheim. The latter was an iconoclast and like all radicals, swept aside some precious institutions in his vigorous crusade against the obsolete and the outworn. He would have abandoned Hebrew altogether from the ritual. Geiger's reform was more synthetic. Like Zunz, he viewed religion not as something isolated, but as one of the forces of civilization, and, like them, never a finished product, but perpetually progressing in harmony with the laws of the universe. Reforms must therefore be natural and organic — no violent breaks with the historic past.

Jewish Humanists:—The Renaissance and Humanism are mentioned in the opening chapter of this work. A French savant, Nahoum Slouschz, in telling the story of the literary movements of modern Jewry, speaks of a "Jewish Renaissance" and a "Jewish Humanism." The Renaissance of Hebrew Literature, translated from the French by Miss Henrietta Szold.

He uses the term "humanism" (Haskalah) to indicate that modern Hebrew is made the vehicle of every phase of human thought. This new school of Maskilim (intellectuals) are the logical successors of the German Meassefim. In chap, iii, he says:

"The rabbinical students themselves were the first representatives of humanism in Lithuania. They became as ambitious in cultivating the Hebrew language and studying the secular sciences presented in it, as in ' searching out and examining the Talmud. Sprung from the people, living its life and sharing in its miseries, separated from Christian society by a barrier of prescriptions that seemed inseparable to them,, the earliest of the Lithuanian litterateurs vitalized their young love for science and Hebrew letters with the disinterested devotion that characterizes the idealists of the Ghetto in general."

It must be added that the tone of these Russian writers is very pessimistic.

Among notable men of this Hebrew Renaissance school was Asher Ginzberg. His nom-de-plume was Achad Ha'am (one of the people). A magazine edited by him is the focus of Jewish Hebrew literature of many lands. We may include Bialik, the Hebrew poet, and Perez, the writer of Stories of the Ghetto, translation J.P.S.A.

Yiddish:—Juedisch Deutsch, as the name implies, was mediaeval German, intermixed with some Hebrew words in daily usage. It later grew into a distinct language and includes words culled from many tongues. It is the mother tongue of most Jews of Eastern Europe. Its earliest literature consisted of Bible translations, stories from the Midrash, Talmud and Kabala, as well as fables, folk tales and songs. A Yiddish translation of the Pentateuch appeared as early as 1540. Since Mendelssohn's day it has become the medium for all forms of literature, philosophy, poetry, fiction and drama and a vehicle for Jewish journalism in Eastern Europe and in the Ghettoes of the Western world.

Elijah Gaon:—Born in Vilna in 1720, he was the ablest Jew that Poland produced. The title "Gaon" which we might translate "his Excellency" implied that he was regarded as a great authority on Jewish law. He, in Russia, did work corresponding to that which Mendelssohn and Zunz did in Germany, transforming the old Talmudic educational method. (See Studies in Judaism, first series, chap, iii, Schechter, J.P.S.A.)

Haskalah Movement — Jacob Raisin, J.P.S.A.

Leon Gordon, by A. B. Rhine, J.P.S.A.

Jewish Oath — Israel Among the Nations, p. 28, Leroy Beaulieu, Putnams.

Leopold Zunz:—Karpeles, Jewish Literature, J.P.S.A. N. Krochmal:

Schechter, Studies in Judaism.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a leading Conservative:

Drachman, Nineteen Letters of Uziel, Funk & Wagnails Co.

Heller, Year Book Cent. Conf. of Am. Rabbis, vol. xviii, p. 179. Cincinnati. (Each "Year Book" consists of the proceedings of an annual convention).

Theme for Discussion:—Zunz belonged to the rational school of Bible critics, why, then, was he not a Reform Jew?