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SIDIC Periodical III - 1970/3
The Question of Jewish Identity (Pages 05 - 10)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Religious Judaism Today - Its Principle Movements
K. Hruby


The Situation at the Outset

It has been justly said that, for Judaism, the Middle Ages lasted up to 1789, when a new era opened up with the French Revolution. For the first time in the history of a so-called Christian country, equality of rights was accorded to the Jews. It was the beginning of emancipation, which slowly, but irrevocably, made its way into all the Jewish communities of central and western Europe. On the other hand, eastern Europe (an absolute human reservoir of Judaism), remained mainly outside this movement; the Tsarist government, after some empty gestures, energetically opposing all true emancipation for the Jews.

However, Judaism of this period must not be considered a homogeneous, quasi-monolithic block. Within Judaism there have always been diverse trends and different spiritual movements, and this diversity, which never affected its unity, has been, incontestibly, one of its principle riches and a source of vitality. From the time of the early sects right up to the awakening of hassidic mysticism in Poland during the eighteenth century, there has always been great diversity in Judaism, but without real divisions, despite struggles and combats which often arose between the different trends. It was equally diverse in observance. Ashkenazi Judaism (of Germanic origin) was clearly distinct in its way of life and concept of Judaism from the Sephardi of Mediterranean countries (of Spanish origin), both expressing the wide variety of their cultural milieux.

Throughout the ages, Judaism has kept this unity in diversity of expression, but not on account of a fundamentally a-dogmatic character; Judaism wants to be a way of life, a path to be followed. This path is traced out by the Torah, the Law of God, which demands more fidelity to the precepts of the Torah, than adhesion to beliefsformulated in the manner of Christian dogmas. This sums up the Jewish way of life. For the Jew, the Torah, with the interpretation added by tradition in the course of the centuries is the authentic expression of the will of a God who made an alliance with his people, and who, in return, demands unconditional fidelity. "She is a tree of life for those who hold her fast, those who cling to her live happy lives", says Rabbinic tradition about the Torah, thus applying a verse from the Bible (Pr 3:18). For centuries, this sentence constituted Judaism's supreme norm. Unified at all levels by this attachment to the Torah, there was nothing to fear from the different currents of thought with which it was always to be confronted and which were to be assimilated to the extent that they were compatible with the spirit of Torah.

No current of thought, either ancient or medieval, ever became dominant in the structures of society, and this is both the interior cohesion of Judaism and its identity. The Kelal Israel, the "community of Israel", in its broadest sense constituted an unfailing unity by the identification of its members in one mission and destiny, as well as in the mutual feeling of solidarity. Rabbinic tradition says, "all Israelites are responsible for one another", because they are irrevocably united and interdependent in a single spiritual way of life.

Undoubtedly, social and economic pressure exercised by the general environmental hostility helped to maintain and to strengthen Judaism's internal cohesion. This hostility towards the Jews was, moreover, a universal phenomenon, from which few countries escaped. The resulting ghetto situation, in great measure, cut off the Jewish community from the life, and consequently, the development of its surroundings, and, at the same time, helped towards maintaining a culture of its own, centred essentially on Jewish values.

This was, by and large, the general situation of European Judaism on the eve of the emancipation. In Eastern countries, as we have said, it was to endure, with few exceptions, throughout the nineteenth century. In Moslem countries the situation was different, but equally oppressive. Here again, there was to be no development without the penetration of modern ideas, and the disruption of structures.

Radical Change of Situation

The situation was to change radically as a result of emancipation which, at the time of the 1848 revolution, was virtually a fait accompli. The Jews, who, up to the time of the emancipation, had lived on the fringe of non-Jewish society with their own cultural traditions, were thus, within some fifty years, to catch up on a delay of several centuries. This integration, as social as it was economic and cultural, was to take place rapidly, but, at the same time, it marked the end of the old order. The traditional Jewish community was to disappear, and to give place to an entirely new situation which would give rise to many problems.

The greatest danger, in this new situation, was the rapid disappearance of the traditional Jewish teaching system, so that the spiritual patrimony, which had been transmitted so faithfully throughout the centuries, appeared to be threatened in its very substance. Above all, there were the effects of the impact of life itself. How could people live according to an entirely different pattern from that of surrounding society, while, at the same time, seeking to became as completely integrated as possible into that very society? All these upheavals, and the need for a valid solution to the problems of the hour, made it evident that the whole of Judaism and its secular forms of expression needed to be submitted to analysis. It became increasingly apparent that Judaism needed to be stripped of very many elements thathad encroached on it during the course of the centuries, and, above all, the need to distinguish between the essential and the marginal. It was noted, with increasing embarrassment, that, in its religious expression, Judaism was totally different from its non-Jewish environment; that the Jew, through his religion, always stood apart, even within the very society into which he aspired to be wholly integrated. It became necessary to adapt the religion responsible for this state of isolation within an increasingly pluralistic society, to the demands of modern life. Reform of worship appeared particularly urgent, Jewish ritual having become set in medieval forms incompatible with the prevalent conceptions of dignity and aesthetics.

Up to the time of emancipation, Jewish identity had never been questioned, and the Jews had always considered themselves as a people apart. Now, as a result of the evolution in progress (which was taking place), the Jew tended to become French, German, English, etc., of Israelite confession, only distinguishable from his non-Jewish environment by his religion. The Jewish conscience was being faced with too many problems at once, so that the need for solutions became ever more urgent; an increasing number of Jews were accepting baptism by way of escape, and in the words of H. Heine, as a "passport to non-Jewish society".

The Ineffectiveness of Religious Leaders

Even during this troubled period, there were, of course, spiritual leaders in Judaism; men very learned in talmudic matters and of irreproachable piety R. Akiba Eger of Posen, R. Moses Sofer of Pressburg, R. Mordecai Benet of Nikolsburg, to name only those most in the public eye. But they had been too influenced by their early training to understand the needs of the hour. In their eyes everything was reduceable simply and solely to juridical questions; therefore, they tried to resolve all problems only by reference to Halakhah rabbinic legislation.

Thus it was, that they adopted a largely negative attitude towards what they considered "pernicious innovations". The only weapon with which they wanted to fight an unchangeable situation was that of coercion, without ever realising that the Jewish society of their youth in which such a measure would have had a degree of efficacy, no longer existed. Their "orthodoxy" was certainly irreproachable, but it was, nevertheless, a living anachronism.

The Reformers

In opposition to the strictly traditional religious leaders were men who had been completely won over to the new ideas, but who, at the same time, were anxious to safeguard whatever was valid in Judaism's spiritual patrimony by using language and forms better suited to the nineteenth century mentality. Where was this work of adaptation to begin? As the synagogue was practically the only remaining Jewish institution after the breakdown of the ancient order of things, they began with it. The model in this respect, was the "Temple" of Hamburg, founded in 1818. Its new ritual had been "expurgated" of all that seemed incompatible with the new situation for example, prayers for the return to Palestine and the re-establishment of sacrifices in Jerusalem "dignity", prayers in German, hymns in the Protestant manner, all of which called forth the thunder of the "old style" religious leaders. Nevertheless, the movement was not to be arrested. Some reforms were introduced into most communities, although often enough not as far-reaching as those of Hamburg.

However, the synagogue is not the whole of Jewish life, and reforms in other domains demanded attention even more imperiously. Their protagonist was to be Abraham Geiger (18101874), who was the first to convoke rabbinic assemblies with the aim of systematically studying all the problems calling for a solution. However, these conferences were not to yield the desired result, opinions were too divided. Most of therabbis, even the most modern in their ideas, willingly agreed to very secondary reforms, but hestitated at going any further, or at submitting the whole of rabbinic legislation to critical examination.

In the meantime, some groups, especially in Berlin and Frankfurt-on-Main, resolutely committed themselves to radical reforms, and rejected nearly all the traditional forms of Jewish life. However, they were not to be followed by the majority; the force of tradition weighed too heavily in the communities, many of which had been in existence for centuries, and the members were anxious to maintain continuity.

It was this 'historic" current which, finally, was to dominate in a large measure. It was given spiritual structures by Zacharias Frankel (18011875), founder at Breslau in 1854 of the first modern rabbinic seminary of a conservative trend. This seminary was to serve as model to a great many similar institutions in other countries.

It was only in Hungary that a real rupture between "reformers" and "traditionalists" came about, where, from 1873 two separate Jewish communities were recognized by the State, one "orthodox" and the other "neologist".

German Neo-Orthodoxy

The re-grouping of "enlightened" traditionalists in Germany was to be the work of Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), whose motto was Torah 'im derekh eretz, integral fidelity to tradition together with great openness to modern culture. The large communities, and specifically that of Frankfurt, where S.R. Hirsch was to apply his formula, no longer offered a satisfactory framework to the orthodox. He was to preach the necessity of founding separate communities ("Austrittsorthodoxie"). However, he was not to be followed by all the orthodox leaders. A seminary founded in Berlin in 1873 by Israel Hildesheimer was to assure the training of modern orthodox rabbis.

The Evolution in Other European Countries

The majority of other communities of central and western Europe chose a via media by adopting a ,conservative formula, thus avoiding too ruthless a rupture with the past. Radical reforms were to be the exception, and it was not until 1926 that the World Union for Progressive Judaism was founded. Eastern Europe in general was to remain outside this evolution, keeping to an orthodox Judaism in accordance with traditional norms. It was in 1912 that orthodoxy was to have an organization under the form of the Agudat Israel.

The Evolution in America

The real division of modern Judaism into different trends was to take place in the United States, a "new land" also for the Jews who had settled there.

Some "reform" tendencies were apparent quite early on, but a real reform movement only took place with the coming of the different waves of German Jewish immigrants towards the middle of last century. The real organizer of reform Judaism in America was to be Rabbi Isaac Meir Wise (1819-1900) who immigrated there in 1846. The theologian of the movement was to be K. Kohler (1843-1926), who drew up a dogmatic system of Judaism under the title Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered. It was in the Pittsburgh Platform that the American reform movement was to provide itself with a plan. A purely legal value was attributed to mosaic legislation, which was also declared to be subject to the laws of evolution, and, for the first time, clear principles were laid down; an issue which had always been avoided in Europe. This applied even more to rabbinic tradition; everything incompatible with modern ideas and civilization was rejected.

This definitely "anti-traditionalist" declaration put an end to all hope of finding a new formula to suit the whole Jewish community of the United States. From this time on, reform Judaism organized itself as a Corpus separatum with its own istitutions, and, by means of a common ritual The Union Prayer Book, assured a degree of unity of worship among communities affiliated to The Union of American Hebrew Congregations (founded in 1873). The Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati was to train the rabbis of this movement.

Reform Judaism in the United States achieved a considerable result in maintaining Jewish consciousness among its followers. It created "the American way of life" for Judaism, equiping its "Temples" with community centres, and not the least of its achievements was pioneer work in the domain of social life.

In time, and by force of circumstances, reform Judaism was, however, to be committed to a more traditional course, abandoning some of the exces ses of its early days. It also largely modified its anti-Zionist orientation. These changes in attitude found their expression in the Guiding Principles of American Rabbis adopted in 1937 by the rabbinic conference of Columbus (Ohio), which stressed, among other things, the duty of every conscientious Jew to contribute to the reconstruction of Palestine. This return to a more traditional vision also facilitated the symbiosis between reform tendencies and communities of more conservative leanings.

The Conservative Movement

The conservative form of American Judaism came into being with the Pittsburgh Platform as the reaction of traditionalists faced with the need for reforms, but incapable of accepting them. A first re-grouping of the conservatives took place among the followers of Dr. Sabato Morais, who, in 1886, founded the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, with the aim of "bringing together all the Jews who adhered to the mosaic law and ancestral traditions, and to preserve in America the knowledge and practice of historic Judaism". A sociological phenomenon confirmed the need for such movement from 1880 several waves of immigrant Jews fleeing the persecutions of the Tsarist regime, flowed into America. The need then arose of creating for the more advanced Jews who would not join the orthodox ranks, a system which would allow them to safeguard their religious traditions and not become closed in by an anachronistic existence.

The moving spirit behind conservative Judaism, who, at the same time was to imprint profound directives on it, was to be Solomon Schechter (1850-1915). He was one of the greatest Jewish scholars of his time, who also reorganized the Jewish Theological Seminary. He it was who made a synthesis between unshakeable fidelity to the broad principles of Judaism and openness to modern life. Being persuaded that conservative Judaism was not so much one religious movement among others, as the authentic expression of the Judaism of his time, Schechter hesitated for a long time before giving it separate structures, but finally resigned himself to this in 1913 when he founded the United Synagogue of America.

The United Synagogue accomplished many things. Among others it composed a prayer ritual, where, next to the traditional Hebrew prayers are passages in English. Above all, it was very active in the domain of education, founded many schools and edited a large number of manuals and text books. It formed a committee which was permanently responsible for interpreting the law in accordance with the concrete circumstances of daily life, and which had to intervene in all domains where this law was applicable. Its rabbinic body, trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary met in the 'Rabbinic Assembly.

The conservative current because it is much more a current than a real movement is incontestably the one which, for several decades, has done most to preserve Jewish life in the United States, and this same current is permanently developing. In a spirit of absolute fidelity to the great Judaic principles it avoided too great a uniformity and too hard and fast a position.

Orthodox Judaism

In this presentation, orthodox Judaism looks like the poor relation, but this is certainly not our intention. It is just that its general principles are well known, they have never been abandoned, and orthodoxy has remained integrally faithful to its deepest inspiration, and this certainly has had an important part to play in preserving Jewish values.

We have limited ourselves, above all, to describing an evolution, a diversity which has come into Judaism. Quite often this has led us to present orthodoxy as the eternal opposition party to all evolution, to all adaptation. This was true at one time, but we have always taken care to stress the purity of intention of its leaders, and the motives which have led them to adopt positions.

Orthodoxy itself has not remained stationary. In the United States it has finally opted also in favour of a degree of "americanization". In 1898 the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations was founded. Its rabbinic body meets in the Agudat ha-Rabbanim, and rabbis are trained in an institution of high repute, the Rabbi Elchanan Theological Seminary and Yeshiva College in New York, which also has a section for training women teachers in religious schools the Orthodox Girls' Teachers' Training School.

At the beginning of this article we stressed how risky it was to try to label the different religious trends in Judaism. Orthodox structures remain very strong, particularly in the United States where there are still a great many orthodox synagogues. But here again, there are many shades of orthodoxy. Side by side with "modern" orthodoxy there are the hassidic communities from eastern Europe, which are re-organizing themselves in the United States; for instance, those directed by Rabbis of Lubavitch, Szatm'ar, Bobov, etc. They remain integrally faithful, not only to their original conceptions, but also to their traditional way of life, and they have no desire to be confused with other communities also known as "orthodox". Basic fidelity is always the same, but the form of expression changes, even within a group.

We have also refrained from giving statistics. Certainly, with the help of official information, it could easily be stated that there are so many orthodox, conservative or reform synagogues or communities, but this would indicate nothing of the personal attitude of those who frequent them, or who are officially affiliated to them. It is easy on the occasion of great feasts, to attend an orthodox synagogue as a matter of habit, or because of a tradition to which one is accustomed, and, for the rest of the year to lead a life with nothing particularly orthodox about it. So everything remains somewhat hazy and indefinite, and things must not be unduly complicated by comparison with what happens in other confessions.

By Way of Conclusion

We have wanted, above, all, to show that the different religious tendencies in modern Judaism, no matter how divergent they may be, nevertheless, do not constitute so many "confessions" as is the case of Christian denominations. All are anxious, perhaps even more today than in the last century and beginning of this, to remain united according to their own convictions to Kelal Israel, the universal Israel, and to avoidattitudes which might compromise this solidarity. The general evolution in the Jewish world is certainly responsible for much of this. The genocide, and the suffering common to all Jews because they were Jews, have stamped the collective conscience very deeply, or have awakened it where is was drowsy or asleep. All this has built up a feeling of solidarity which is far stronger than any ideological deviations or choices in favour of this or that mode of expression. The creation of the State of Israel, as we have said also, has reinforced this feeling even more, together with faith in the vitality of Judaism, which has been so sorely tried. It is not necessary to be a Zionist in the modern sense of the word to feel this way. After a period of relative diversity, Judaism, thanks to the existence of a Jewish State, is once more finding a common denominator in an essentially spiritual sense. This is, moreover, the deep significance of Israeli experience for the universal Jewish conscience.

We have to be aware of all these very different elements when we look at Judaism, without taking any stand, without prejudice and without pre-conceived ideas, but with sympathy before a living, spiritual reality. This is, moreover, what was asked of us by the conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, the fifth anniversary of which is being commemorated these days.


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