Modern Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Religious Reform
The Post-Mendelssohn Era.

Although Wessely, Mendelssohn's poet disciple, took up the thread of his master's work in furthering the study of the Bible and the pursuit of general culture and modern tongues, he met much opposition from the elders, who had not yet outgrown the prejudice that secular learning was in a sense sinful. But the young followed him, though at first stealthily.

The reforms of the Mendelssohn school involved a revival of pure Hebrew as well as the cultivation of German and French. So while establishing academies and publishing secular books for Jewish use, societies for Hebrew culture were launched and Hebrew magazines were issued to reawaken a literary sense. The new school produced some enthusiastic disciples. The times, if not the school, produced Marcus Herz, physician, philosopher and scientist, and Fanny Itzig, who established a literary salon in Vienna.

Culture and its Perils.

Mental emancipation was not without its dangers. Once the gates were opened, some, lured by the dazzle of the great world, wandered too far and never returned. "Liberal" views degenerated into sceptical views; and when bigoted state laws excluded Jews, unless baptized, from public posts and professions, involving social exclusion also — some in this sceptical frame of mind — crossed that "Rubicon." David Friedlander, who sought a sophistical compromise of Jewish monotheism with Church conformity, was a typical instance.

Naturally it was the intellectuals who were most exposed to this temptation, for they most felt the Ghetto fetters and most chafed against Ghetto exclusion. There was such a chasm between their cultural and their legal standing! Some even turned against their? own untutored brethren, and judging only by the crude externals, came to regard them with something of the same prejudice that was exhibited by Gentiles. Some went so far as to despise all Jewish traditions.

This was the backwash of emancipation. It was too sudden to be healthy. Every good may have its drawbacks. But the only cure for liberty's abuse is further liberty. Israel un-Ghettoed, could be saved to itself only by a triple process: First, by a religious reform or simplification that would bring the synagogue more in accord with their newer spiritual need; second, by political emancipation that would bring their secular status in harmony with their intellectual outlook; and thirdly, by a truer knowledge of themselves and their heritage, that would give a deeper appreciation of their dignity and their mission. All of these were to come.

In the meantime emancipation brought havoc in its extreme reaction and, strange to say, the children of Mendelssohn were the first victims. Dorothea in an ecstacy of romanticism, drifted into the Catholic Church; the cultured Henrietta followed her footsteps later; Abraham advised his son Felix, the famous musician, to accept Christianity as an expediency, and to adopt the name of Bartholdy. The Berlin salon of Henrietta, wife of Marcus Herz, and that of the equally gifted Rachel Levin, brought Jewish youth into close social contact with the Gentiles before they were ready for it, and many estrangements from Jews and Judaism followed. The whole atmosphere of these salons, brilliant though they were, was unhealthy, for they reflected the religious scepticism and the moral decline of Germany in general. It was a trifling age that played with religion and with life.

Prussia witnessed many apostasies from Judaism. But some of the converts experienced a change of heart later in life. Rachel Levin, who entered the Church and became the wife of Varnhagen von Ense, confessed on her death bed that her Jewish birthright, once despised as a misfortune, she would not now willingly lose.

Heinrich Heine.

Among those who drifted from the fold was Heinrich Heine. He reluctantly submitted to baptism with his family's approval for it was the only condition on which he could practice the profession of law. He was perhaps Germany's greatest lyric poet. He also won literary fame through his essays in French, for his checkered career was passed in two countries. He lived a sad and not a very long life, marked by adversity and suffering. He concealed a nature gentle and considerate, under a scoffing exterior. For he carefully spared his mother all knowledge of his wasting illness and had a separate copy of his later poems printed for her from which all allusion to his malady had been carefully expunged. His poems have been translated by Emma Lazarus. Here is one, a sonnet to his mother:

"I have been wont to bear my forehead high —

My stubborn temper yields with no good grace,

The king himself might look me in the face,

And yet I would not downward cast mine eye.

But I confess, dear mother, openly,

However proud my haughty spirit swell,

When I within thy blessed presence dwell,

Oft am I smit with shy humility.

Is it thy soul, with secret influence,

Thy lofty soul piercing all shows of sense,

Which soareth, heaven-born, to heaven again?

Or springs it from sad memories that tell

How many a time I caused thy dear heart pain,

Thy gentle heart, that loveth me so well I"

It is interesting to note that he confesses a sincere contrition for having relinquished his Jewish birthright for worldly advance. He writes:

"I do not make a secret of my Jewish allegiance, to which I have not returned, because I have never abjured it. I was no apostate from aversion to Judaism. Even symbolically I do not consider baptism of any importance, and I shall only dedicate myself more entirely to upholding the rights of my unhappy brethren. But, nevertheless, I find it beneath my dignity and a taint upon my honor, to allow myself to be baptized in order to hold office in Prussia. I understand very well the Psalmist's words: 'Good God. give me my daily bread, that I may not blaspheme thy name!'"

Elsewhere he says: —

"Now I perceive that the Greeks were only handsome youths, but the Jews have always been powerful men. I am proud of the fact that I am a descendant of those martyrs, who have given a God of morality to the world, and who have thought and suffered on all the battlefields of thought. They are the 'Swiss Guard' of deism.

"Jews may console themselves for the loss of Jerusalem and the Ark of the Covenant; these are trifling when compared to the Bible; that indescribable treasure they have saved from the wreck of the Roman Empire. I owe the reawakening of my religion to that holy book."

But these later reflections belong rather to the second, the synthetic stage of the post-Mendelssohn era. For we must consider now in detail the three different means above referred to by which the Jews were to be saved from the dangers of emancipation. In this chapter we will only consider the first, religious reform.

Religious Reform.

The early steps towards religious regeneration had to be negative. First, by exclusion; this implied the severing of certain foreign growths, not intrinsically Jewish but which had come to adhere to Judaism in its different lands of sojourn, like barnacles to a ship; such were folk-customs, that had become ceremonials, ancient superstitions and Kabalistic phantasies. The next progressive achievement was simplification. This was attained by lessening the unwieldly ceremonial that threatened to smother the spiritual essentials of Judaism; and, by somewhat abbreviating the ritual that had grown too bulky by including some material not appropriate for a prayer book. The third step, elucidation, making clear what was obscure, was partly attained by recital of some prayers in the vernacular (language of the country). There went with these modifications certain external improvements that might be styled the aesthetic — more decorum in the Synagogue and more dignified recital of its service and the reforming of mourning customs. Reform in doctrine was to come in the second stage, and will therefore be later considered.

Who was responsible for this new departure? Although Mendelssohn did not found, yet we may say he was the father of this posthumous child. Enlightenment prepared the way. Therefore, it began in Germany, his field of activity. The first person actually to introduce a reform service was Israel Jacobson. This included the use of the vernacular, a choir, and the rite of confirmation of girls and boys on Pentecost, the Festival of the Giving of the Decalogue, supplementing the older (though not very old) Bar-Mitzvah, i.e., calling boys to the Law. In 1818 the first Reform "Temple" was opened in Hamburg. This congregation held its own in spite of the opposition of Isaac Bernays, at this time the one notable Jew of the "orthodox." This term was now used to differentiate the conservatives from the progressives.

Like Karaism of the eighth century, Reform had the good effect of stimulating the Orthodox to sanction and encourage secular studies.

So far, the first branch of the Jew's triple need — the religious. Second, the intellectual, and third, the political, will be treated in the next two chapters.


Converts:—Die Juedischen Franen: Kayserling, from p. 197, describes in detail the story of the brilliant Jewish women whose salons were the intellectual centers of Germany and most of whom abjured the Faith of their fathers.

Die Familie Mendelssohn: This work consists of family letters and diaries compiled by Hensel, which give us an insight into the religious uncertainty that followed the emancipation. — Berlin, 1879.

Romanticism:—The function of Romanticism at its best was to reinfuse poetry and mystery into life. Its votaries supposed that this would be attained by a revival of mediaevalism which explains in part why some Jewesses succumbed to Catholicism, the mediaeval Faith. Fichte, in the philosophic, and Goethe in the literary world, are the virtual fathers of this movement in another aspect of it, in that they both reached a new importance of the individual even as against law and convention. Its pernicious extreme was reached by Schlegel, who taught that "the poet's caprice is the supreme aesthetic law." Ultimately the Romanticists became the enemies both of spiritual and political freedom.

Themes for Discussion:— (a) Give some examples of Reform by exclusion and by simplification. (b) Was the opening of the "Ghetto" gate a loss to the Jew or gain?