David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

Orthodox approaches to ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity’

The Israeli Cabinet’s recent cancellation of the previous Government’s conversion reform highlighted again one of the major schisms in the Orthodox Jewish community. Some refer to this as the tension between the values of  ‘Unity’ and ‘Uniformity’.

This reform was about decentralizing Orthodox conversions to the municipal level. Of course, the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties opposed this. They want to keep the reins of Israel’s public religious life in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, and prioritize ideological purity over inclusivity.

Rabbi Avi Weiss recently wrote of inclusivity in Orthodoxy:

The dividing line within Orthodoxy today revolves around inclusivity. Is Orthodoxy inclusive of women…? are… children [of homosexual parents] welcomed into day schools? Do we… reach out to converts with love and understanding? Should Orthodox rabbinic authority… include the wide range of local rabbis who are… aware of how the law should apply to their particular communal… conditions? Are we prepared to… learn from Jews of other denominations, and, for that matter, people of all faiths?

Ideas matter more to me than labels, and while I don’t identify with Rabbi Weiss’ Open Orthodox movement, per se,do deeply identify with his concern for inclusivity. That said, I believe it incorrect to assert that this ‘dividing line’ is a particularly modern phenomenon.

Case Study in Jewish ‘unity’ v. ‘uniformity’:
Frankfurt, Germany, July 1876

Disagreements such as this hearken back to post-Emancipation times, when disparate streams and schools of thought within Orthodoxy were developing. Different approaches existed even within Neo-Orthodoxy, let alone the broader Orthodox spectrum. Such was the case in Frankfurt.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888)

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch is perhaps best known as the intellectual founder of neo-Orthodoxy, popularly thought to be the precursor to today’s Modern Orthodoxy. While strictly adhering to halakha, Rabbi Hirsch embraced secular Western culture and education. He was also one of the foremost outspoken opponents of Reform Judaism, even as it became the dominant form of Judaism in Germany.

In 1851, Rabbi Hirsch accepted an invitation to become the spiritual leader of Frankfurt’s Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft (the Israelite Religious Society), an Orthodox separatist group, which was unhappy with the Reform leanings of Frankfurt’s Jewish gemeinde (community). All Jews were members of their local gemeinden by law, unless they converted to Christianity or declared themselves konfessionslos (religiously unaffiliated); and their kirchensteuer (church tax) monies were automatically distributed to their gemeinden.

Theologically, Rabbi Hirsch asserted that belonging to the gemeinde was forbidden, for it constituted an endorsement of an anti-halakhic ideology, and he publicly campaigned against the German law as early as 1863. Eventually, the Prussian Parliament passed the Austrittsgesetz (law of secession) for Christians in 1873, liberating denominations (such as Catholics) to form their own gemeinden; and Hirsch finally saw an opportunity to effect a similar political change for the Jewish community. He entreated his rabbinic colleagues to sign a petition to the Parliament, and enlisted the help of well known Jewish politician Edward Lasker. The law of austritt (secession) for Jews was passed on July 28, 1876.

Rabbi Márkus Horovitz (1844-1910)

Notably, less than 25% of the members of Rabbi Hirsch’s Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft seceded from the gemeinde following the passage of the 1876 Jewish austrittsgesetz. Those who left were primarily the officers and staff of Hirsch’s school and synagogue, as well as those members who had no roots in Frankfurt, having moved there only to join Rabbi Hirsch’s young, new community. The reason for this was twofold: first, disassociating from the gemeinde of their grandparents and great-grandparents was unthinkable for most Jews of Frankfurt. Their families, for example, still had burial plots in the gemeinde cemetery.

Secondly, following the passage of the austritt law, the Frankfurt gemeinde hired Rabbi Márkus Horovitz, as the gemeinderabbiner (community rabbi) for the Frankfurt Orthodox community. Rabbi Horovitz had been among the Orthodox rabbis who had declined to sign Rabbi Hirsch’s petition; and his approach towards the Reform community was conciliatory, while deliberately maintaining a firm distance from the liberal synagogue. He believed that differing religious convictions could exist together in one community, and that Orthodoxy could thrive in an einheitsgemeinde (unified community).

In addition to hiring an Orthodox rabbi, Frankfurt’s gemeinde also constructed a new mikveh (ritual bath) and synagogue for the Orthodox community. The executive board even conceded to Rabbi Horovitz that it would not publicly violate Shabbat. Above all, the gemeinde’s official recognition of Orthodoxy was re-established.

Rabbi Hildesheimer (1820-1899) and Rabbi Bamberger (1807-1878)

Many Orthodox rabbis who signed Rabbi Hirsch’s petition for austritt were not unequivocal supporters of secession. In the minds of rabbis like Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (considered one of the founders of Modern Orthodox thought) and Rabbi Seligman Baer Bamberger (a leader of Orthodox Judaism in Germany), passage of the 1876 Jewish austrittsgesetz was primarily to serve as a means of bargaining with the Reform dominated gemeinden.

Rabbi Hirsch actually turned to Rabbi Bamberger to convince the reluctant members of his Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft to secede. However, when Bamberger learned that the gemeinde had yielded to the demands of Frankfurt’s Orthodox community, he ruled that one could remain true to halakha while maintaining gemeinde membership. This resulted in a harsh, public dispute which lasted for years until Rabbi Bamberger’s death. So too, Rabbi Hildesheimer, convinced by his student Rabbi Márkus Horovitz’s success as the gemeinderabbiner, also delivered a halakhic lecture supporting the Orthodox community’s membership in the Frankfurt gemeinde.

For most Orthodox rabbis, the issue boiled down to whether the Orthodox would be granted total religious autonomy to conduct the affairs of their own synagogues and religious organizations. In fact, Rabbi Bamberger ruled that secession was mandatory when the Orthodox demands for religious freedom were not granted. In Berlin, Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Breslau, the gemeindeorthodoxie (communal Orthodoxy) initiative succeeded, likely because of the threat of ausritt. Elsewhere, the Orthodox seceded from their local gemeinden.

Jewish ‘unity’ v. ‘uniformity’ today:
Israel, July 2015

Rabbi Hirsch asserted that the right of austritt was based upon the principle of freedom of religious conscience, which includes freedom from supporting the advancement of theologies contrary to a person’s convictions. Further, if it were not for Hirsch’s championing of austrittsgesetz, the gemeindeorthodoxie-inclined rabbis would likely have not been able to wrest concessions from the Reform dominated gemeinden. Activism is critical for the protection of civil liberties.

Rabbi Hirsch’s political advocacy and conviction of religious freedom resonate deeply with me. It is not the place of a secular government to define its citizens’ religious affiliations, nor to favor certain religious groups over others with funding or privileges. That said, Hirsch’s insistence on Orthodox ideological uniformity at the expense of Jewish communal unity troubles me – I am much more inclined to favor Rabbi Horovitz’s conciliatory, inclusivist understanding of Jewish peoplehood.

So how do these lessons of the past apply to us today? In Israel, this tension between ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity’ endlessly rears its head, over and over and over again. I am disgusted but not surprised that the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Minister of Religious Services David Azoulai has no compunction about publicly pillorying the Jewish Reform Movement. In recent weeks, he has proclaimed that “Reform Jews are a disaster for the Jewish people,” and that for him, “a Reform Jew, from the moment he stops following Jewish law, is not a Jew.”

Minister Azoulai doesn’t represent Judaism, let alone the majority of the Orthodox community. Shouldn’t Israelis also have the legally protected freedom to abstain from supporting the advancement of his hateful, extremist religious ideology?

I wish I did.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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