Thirteenth EAJS Summer Colloquium
The Jewish-Theological Seminary of Breslau, the »Science of Judaism« and
the Development of a Conservative Movement in Germany, Europe, and the United States (1854—1933)
Wolfson College Oxford, July 22—25, 2013
Convenors: Andreas Brämer (Institute for the History of German Jews, Hamburg) and Frederek Musall (Hochschule für Jüdische Studien, Heidelberg)
Research on modern Jewish history has been flourishing over the past several decades. Based on diverse methods and approaches, this research has explored the wide range of Jewish responses to modernity, the process of political emancipation and social mobilization as well as cultural and religious transformation. The 13th Summer Colloquium of the European Association for Jewish Studies (EAJS) highlighted one aspect of this larger process of transformation, the emergence and history of the “positive historical” current, i.e. Conservative Judaism. The conveners, Andreas Brämer (Institute for the History of German Jews, Hamburg) and Frederek Musall (Hochschule für Jüdische Studien, Heidelberg) intended to emphasize the relevance of the “golden mean” for modern Jewish history, a phenomenon that often has been overlooked, since inquiry has tended to focus on the controversies between Liberal Judaism and Neo-Orthodoxy.
Two outstanding scholars in the field opened the Summer Colloquium: Ismar Schorsch, Chancellor emeritus and Distinguished Research Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and Michael A. Meyer, Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History emeritus at the Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati. Their opening lectures focused on Bernhard Beer and Manuel Joël, two scholars from the “second wave”, who can be best described as mediators who frequently crossed the borders of politics, religion and scholarship.
Ismar Schorsch shed light on the life and work of Bernhard Beer, a leading member of the Jewish community in Dresden (Saxony), who advocated political emancipation, moderate religious reform, and critical scholarship. Beer was an autodidact and well connected with leading Jewish scholars of his time, such as Zacharias Frankel, Leopold Zunz and Moritz Steinschneider. According to Schorsch, Beer’s concept of critical scholarship was paradigmatic for Conservative Judaism. It was in his eyes no contradiction to traditional Judaism—Wissen and Glaube were compatible. Schorsch stressed that not only for Beer, but also Conservative Judaism in general, the Talmud continued to be a crucial point of reference. “Conservative Judaism was not at war with the Talmud”, but demanded its deeper understanding through critical scholarship.
Whereas Beer is almost forgotten today, Manuel Joël is known as a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary and rabbi of Breslau as well as for his historical and philosophical writings. Michael A. Meyer described Joël as a mediator between Conservative and Liberal Judaism and emphasized his self-perception as a “Jew without any Richtung”. In particular with regard to his position as the rabbi of Breslau—and successor to Abraham Geiger—Joël sought to avoid further controversies. In contrast with Geiger, who understood dispute as the expression of a Jewish Freigeist, a free spirit in thought that would strengthen Judaism, Joël appreciated compromise as an intrinsic value. Joël’s efforts led him to undertake a new edition of the Breslau prayer book and this sparked a public controversy with Geiger that, as Meyer demonstrated, highlighted the difference between these two. Nevertheless, Joël was much appreciated beyond Conservative circles. He attended rabbinical assemblies such as the synod of Leipzig and was appointed to a committee to prepare the foundation of the Hochschule für die Wisenschaft des Judentums—irrespective of his personal and professional connections with the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau.
The following presentations dealt with a variety of questions within the history of Conservative Judaism and focused in particular on the role of Breslau as its birthplace and the Jewish Theological Seminary (Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar Fraenckel’sche Stiftung) as the “mother institution” of rabbinical education. Almost all presentations would refer to players or projects related to Breslau, in one way or another, including its importance for modern Jewish scholarship.
Margit Schad and co-convener Andreas Brämer (both Hamburg) provided a socio-historical perspective and focused on the role of Silesia as the birthplace of Conservative Judaism. Margit Schad presented “positive-historical” or ”middle-of-the road” Judaism not only as a religious movement but also as political one that can be described by its specific social, political, and geographical parameters. With regard to their origin, Schad showed that an astonishing number of protagonists of Conservative Judaism came from Silesia and Posen, Moravia and Bohemia. Andreas Brämer’s talk elaborated in detail Silesia as a center of Conservative Judaism and the interrelationship between the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Jewish communities in the mid-19th century. A majority of Silesian rabbis advocated moderate reform, which drew them closer to Zacharias Frankel already before the foundation of the Breslau Seminary.
Abraham Ascher (New York) examined the relationship between the Seminary and the local Jewish community of Breslau, while Irene Kajon (Rome) compared the Breslau Seminary and the Rabbinical College of Padua. The latter was founded already in 1829, followed a more traditional approach towards rabbinical education and was influenced by the Galician Haskalah. In addition to describing the similarities and highlighting the differences between these two institutions, Kajon focused on the life and work of Sabato Morais, the founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York. She presented Morais as a bridge builder, between Breslau and Padua, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Judaism.
Historical research was from its beginnings a central pillar of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and greatly appreciated within Conservative Judaism. Heinrich Graetz was not only the most important 19th-century Jewish historian but also a representative of the Conservative approach and a teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Marcus Pyka (Lugano) took the “loud silence” of German Neo-Orthodoxy after Graetz’s death as his point of departure. For Liberals and Conservatives, he became at that point “their Graetz”. Pyka sees the reason for the refusal of Orthodox leaders to follow this path of glorification in the Orthodox reception of Graetz’s work, and in particular in Samson Raphael Hirsch’s response to the History of the Jews. Pyka elaborated Hirsch’s substantial critique based on classical historical argumentation and the subsequent public, in tone highly polemical controversy with Raphael Kirchheim. Nils Roemer (Dallas) introduced a broader perspective on historiography by focusing on the approaches of Jewish historians towards revelation and reason, the sacred and the secular. Roemer sought to challenge the “linear narrative” of secularization within historiography on the Wissenschaft des Judentums, highlighting the different contexts in which Jewish historiography emerged and developed over the 19th and early 20th century. The experiences of emancipation and the influence of romanticism were followed by the challenges of anti-Semitism, and in particular the Berliner Antisemitismus-streit that became a defining moment of the Wissenschaft des Judentums. At the end of the 19th century, Roemer argued, Wissenschaft had become a sacred space, inheriting a religious dimension that would later become the battleground for the young radical intellectuals in the 20th century.
Chanan Gafni (Jerusalem) explored the debates on the history of Jewish tradition, namely the Oral Law, which gained a particular significance for Jewish historiography in the 19th century. The idea that the Oral Law provided Judaism with a certain flexibility and changeability was already promoted in the 18th century, for example by Moses Mendelssohn, who emphasized this particular value in contrast to the negative perception of Jewish law in the Christian environment. In the 19th century, Conservative and Liberal scholars stressed a later conception that underlined the idea of flexibility and changeability inherent to Judaism and legitimized the historical approach towards Judaism as well as the efforts for reform. By contrast, Orthodoxy preferred the concept of the Law as unchangeable law. Regardless of the significant differences between these approaches, Gafni refrained from classifying them as movements.
The presentations by Myriam Bienenstock (Tours/Paris) and George Y. Kohler (Ramat Gan) focused on philosophy and its place at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Bienenstock proposed that Manuel Joël’s work on Spinoza can serve to illuminate why Hermann Cohen changed his perception of Spinoza between an early positive discussion in ”Heinrich Heine und das Judentum” (1867) and his famous and harsh condemnation in 1915 in “Spinoza über Staat und Religion, Judentum und Christentum”. How evident this influence was is uncertain, given the short time Cohen spent in Breslau and the fact that Joël was neither his teacher nor did Cohen quote him in his later work on Spinoza. George Kohler provided further insight into the work of Manuel Joël and focused on the interest of the ”Breslau school of thought” in medieval Jewish philosophy and its influence on Christian scholasticism. Joël and Jacob Guttmann were the most important representatives of this field of research, which was at least partly based on the political and scholarly efforts of the Wissenschaft des Judentums to present Judaism in its own right and to highlight its role in world history.
The Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, founded by Zacharias Frankel in 1851, was one of the most important projects of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and linked, not only though Frankel, to the Jewish Theological Seminary and Conservative Judaism. Kerstin von der Krone (Berlin) examined the late history of the Monatsschrift from the First World War to its final issue in 1939. Whereas the editors of the journal decided to react to the First World War by publishing essays on the war, letters and reports by soldiers and field rabbis that were meant to support the German cause and reflected as well on its (negative) implications for German Jewry, the dramatic changes since 1933 were almost invisible in the journal’s pages. The situation of German Jewry was only indirectly discussed, for example through the re-evaluation of the history of emancipation. In 1939, and after almost all German-Jewish periodicals had been banned by the Nazis, Leo Baeck became editor of the Monatsschrift and was able to engage leading Jewish scholars as contributors to its 83rd and final volume.
Conservative Judaism gained influence likewise beyond Germany through dissemination of ideas, the migration of protagonists and the adoption of concepts and institutional models. In Hungary, the establishment of the Budapest rabbinical seminary, which resembled the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, played a significant role in strengthening a Conservative approach. Carsten Wilke (Budapest) shed light on an earlier but failed attempt by Wolf Meisel, chief rabbi of Pest (1859—1867), to establish a moderate reform Judaism in Hungary. Meisel was confronted with attacks by Neologs, in particular by Leopold Löw, Pressburg Orthodoxy and Hungarian nationalists and, as Wilke showed, was unable to moderate the conflict-ridden situation, which contributed to his failure. In her paper, Mirjam Thulin (Mainz, Frankfurt am Main) discussed the eminent role of rabbinical seminaries as the institutional framework of Conservative Judaism and its transnational networks. Thulin presented an outline for further study on a number of seminaries in Europe and North America which largely followed the educational and organizational program of the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary. She emphasized that the question as to whether this resemblance allows us to subsume these diverse institutions of rabbinical training under Conservative Judaism needs further exploration.
Guy Miron (Jerusalem) dealt with the historiography on the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York beginning in the mid-20th century and questioned the tendency there to overestimate the role of Breslau and Germany as the wellspring of American Conservative Judaism, a tendency which in Miron’s view was related to the Jewish experience in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s. At a time when Breslau had vanished as a center of Jewish life, it became a positive point of reference for American Conservative Judaism. The discussion on Guy Miron’s talk brought up the question whether the concepts of ”positive-historical” Judaism as used in the German context and Conservative Judaism as used in the American context are congruent, or rather reflect the different historical and political contexts in which they emerged. Zacharias Frankel was influenced by the German intellectual and legal discourse, whereas Solomon Schechter adopted ”conservative” as a term from the political landscape of the day in England, which he used to implement his concept of moderate Judaism in a fast growing (migrant) community in North America. The debate showed that further research is necessary not only regarding theses concepts but on how they were implemented in their respective contexts.
Originally the Colloquium was planned to focus on the history of Conservative Judaism from the mid-19th century until 1933. But the final presentations chose to move beyond that fateful year. The last two speakers dealt with post-war developments in Israel and the recent efforts to re-establish Jewish Studies in today’s Wrocław (Poland). Asaf Yedidya (Jerusalem) describes the attempts of Ephraim Elimelech Urbach, one of the last teachers of the Jewish Theological Seminary Breslau, to continue its legacy in Israel though the formation of the Movement for Torah in the 1960s and ’70s. In opposition to the Israeli Orthodox establishment, Urbach saw the need to revive the Halachah according to the challenges of the time and planned to found an educational institution that resembled the Breslau model. The implementation of these plans proved abortive due to a lack of necessary vision for the future of this movement within Israeli society. Michał Bojanowski (Heidelberg, Wrocław) shed light on the recent efforts to re-establish Jewish cultural life in Wrocław, including a Jewish Studies Program that was developed in cooperation with Wrocław University and is meant to lay the foundation for a future international center for Jewish studies. The restoration of the White Storch Synagogue was an important step towards this goal. It was re-opened on May 6, 2010 as a community and educational site, a synagogue and place of historical memory. A first educational program attracted members of the Jewish community and the Breslau population alike, creating a new space for interaction between Jews and non-Jews.
The concluding discussion, opened by the impressions of co-convener Frederek Musall (Heidelberg), picked up several issues raised during the Colloquium. A number of presentations pointed out the different levels of invention of tradition prevalent in the history of Conservative Judaism, which according to Andreas Brämer can be explained by a dual challenge its protagonists had to respond to: the demand to define precisely what Conservatism is and the need for openness with respect to the broader idea of a moderate ”middle of the road” movement. The further discussion also commented on Chanan Gafni’s thesis that there were no movements as such, which is contradicted by the self-perception of Liberals, Conservatives or Orthodox Jews, who used terms like ”Bewegung” (movement) and ”Partei” to distinguish themselves from each other. George Kohler questioned the perception of Conservative Judaism as a clearly defined religious movement from a different angle. In his view, the acceptance of the Halachah is the decisive factor of differentiation. This perspective follows the Orthodox viewpoint, subsuming Conservation Judaism under the Reform movements. Whether the Conservative approach should be understood just as another version of Reform or constituted an independent movement, it is clearly based on particular concepts. For Conservative Judaism, the idea of a revealed Torah remained unquestioned and only the Oral Law was historicized. As Ismar Schorsch had already pointed out in his opening lecture, this led to different attitudes towards the Talmud. In contrast with Liberal Judaism, the Talmud was not fought against but rather was studied critically with the aim to deepen its understanding as a source of Judaism. However, the Colloquium showed that deeper inquiry into the history of Conservative Judaism, its protagonists and institutions, reveals a more complex picture of modern Jewish history. It provided comprehensive insights into the history of Conservative Judaism and offered new impetus for further research that hopefully will contribute to a better understanding of Conservative Judaism and its place in modern Jewish history.
Kerstin von der Krone (Berlin)
Andreas Brämer (Hamburg)
Frederek Musall (Heidelberg)
Andreas Brämer (Hamburg)
Ismar Schorsch (New York): Bernhard Beer—Between Religious Reform and Positive-Historical Judaism
Michael A. Meyer (Cincinnati): The Career of a Mediator: Manuel Joël, Conservative Liberal
Panel I: Positive-Historical Judaism in Germany
Chair: Frederek Musall (Heidelberg)
Margit Schad (Hamburg): The Positive-Historical or Middle-of-the Road Judaism in Germany as a Movement (1844—1930)
Andreas Brämer (Hamburg): Positive-Historical Judaism in Silesia—A Success Story?
Panel II: The Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau (in Comparative Perspective)
Chair: Nils Roemer (Dallas)
Abraham Ascher (New York) The Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau: The Pride of a Small Community
Irene Kajon (Rome) The Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau and the Rabbinical College of Padua: A Comparison
Panel III: Historical Research at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Beyond
Chair: Margit Schad
Marcus Pyka (Lugano): Greatz, Hirsch, and the Dimension of Personality in the Emergence of Conservative Judaism. A Plea for More Than One Context
Nils Roemer (Dallas): Secularism and Its Discontent: Jewish Historians between Revelation and Reason
Chanan Gafni (Jerusalem): The Debate on Oral Law in the 19th Century
Panel IV: Breslau Versions of the Wissenschaft des Judentums
Chair: Carsten Wilke (Budapest)
Myriam Bienenstock (Tours): Between Biblical Hermeneutics and Biblical Criticism: Manuel Joel on Spinoza
George Kohler (Ramat Gan): »Scholasticism is a Daughter of Judaism«—Breslau and the Discovery of Jewish Influence on Medieval Christian Thought
Panel V: The Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums
Chair: Marcus Pyka (Lugano)
Christian Wiese (Frankfurt): Markus Brann (1849-1920) and the Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums [cancelled on short notice]
Kerstin von der Krone (Berlin): Crisis, New Beginnings and a »Dignified End«: The Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums in the First World War and the Interwar Period
Panel VI: The Conservative Trend in Judaism – Beyond Germany
Chair: George Y. Kohler (Ramat Gan)
Carsten Wilke (Budapest): Rabbi Wolf Meisel’s Attempt to Establish a Midstream Judaism in Hungary, 1859-1867
Mirjam Thulin (Mainz): From Breslau to New York: The Establishment of Rabbinical Training in Conservative Judaism
Guy Miron (Jerusalem): In Search of a Usable Past: On the German Roots of Conservative Judaism
Panel VI: Contemporary Issues
Chair: Guy Miron (Jerusalem)
Asaf Yedidya (Jerusalem): Ephraim Elimelech Urbach and the Movement for Torah’s Judaism 1966-1975—An Attempt to Re-Establish the Breslau School in Israel
Michal Bojanowski ( Wrocław): History Reclaimed: Jewish Studies in Wrocław after World War II
Concluding Remarks and Final Discussion
Chair: Frederek Musall (Heidelberg)
 On the occasion of the establishment of the Neue Synagoge that was inaugurated by Joël and the Orthodox rabbi Gedalja Tiktin in 1872.
 Unfortunately, Christian Wiese (Frankfurt am Main) was obliged to cancel his talk on Markus Brann and the Monatsschrift on short notice.