Wednesday, August 17, 2011

From the Hirschian Community in Frankfurt a. M. to American Reform

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch led what was probably the most successful Orthodox Jewish community during the nineteenth century in Frankfurt am Main. In a sense Hirsch's decision to lead a breakaway community in Frankfurt, rejecting the Reform establishment, has come to be the definition of Orthodox Judaism. (From an academic perspective, there was no such thing as "Orthodoxy" before the nineteenth century; you had traditional rabbinic Jews and those who were not. Orthodox Judaism like Reform and Conservative Judaism is a specific reaction to and therefore a product of the Enlightenment, emancipation and the subsequent breakdown of traditional Jewish life without the protection of the traditional kehillah structure.) This is not to say that everyone who came out of this Hirschian community (or Hirsch's own family for that matter) remained Orthodox. I recently came across two leading figures of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American Reform Judaism, Prof. Kaufmann Kohler and Jacob H. Schiff, with connections to Hirsch. The funny thing about both of them is that they both saw the Hirschian Orthodoxy of their youth in very positive terms. 

Dr. Kaufmann Kohler (1843-1926) studied not just with Hirsch, but also R. Simon Bamberger, Dr. Marcus Lehmann, R. Jacob Ettlinger before coming under the influence of R. Abraham Geiger as a university student. He came to the United States in 1869 where he assumed an active leadership in the Reform movement, playing a major role in the Pittsburgh platform of 1885 and helping to found the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He succeeded R. Dr. Isaac M. Wise as President of Hebrew Union College in 1903.   

Speaking about R. Samson Raphael Hirsch before the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1908 in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Hirsch's birth, Kohler stated:

It may sound paradoxical, and yet it is true, that without knowing it, Samson Raphael Hirsch liberated me from the thraldom of blind authority worship and led me imperceptibly away from the old mode of thinking, or rather of not thinking, into the realms of free reason and research. His method of harmonizing modern culture, with ancient thought, however fanciful, fascinated me. His lofty idealism impressed me. He made me the Yeshibah Bachur from Mayence and Altona, a modern man. The spirit of his teachings electrified me and became a life long influence to me. Samson Raphael Hirsch was imbued with the spirit of cultured humanity. In all his sermons and writings he deplored the narrowness of the Ghetto view, which estranged Jews from the world in which and for which they should live and work. His teachings were a bold attempt at a revival of Orthodoxy. He tried to galvanize its dry bones by the power of his fertile, resourceful and vigorous mind. (Studies in Jewish Literature Issued in Honor of Professor Kaufmann Kohler, PH.D. on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday pg. 3)

Jacob H. Schiff (1847-1920) also emigrated from Germany to the United States and became a leading  financier and philanthropist. Schiff's work ranged from arranging a major loan to the Japanese government during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 to being a major supporter of the funding of Jewish education in the United States, donating money to Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University. Cyrus Adler, in his biography of Schiff, notes:

[Schiff] had been reared in the rigid school of Frankfort Orthodoxy, of which Sampson Raphael Hirsch was the leader. Upon his arrival in America, he became a member of the Reform Synagogue, and so remained during all his life. ... There were, however, curious lapses in Mr. Schiff's adherence to the Reform Synaogue, and he frequently said that no Jew could be a good Reform Jew unless he had once been an Orthodox Jew. ... He strictly abstained from all secular occupation on the Sabbaths and festivals, and always visited the synagogue on Saturday mornings. On Friday evening, before dinner, he read the services to his family, and that evening was his family evening. The Seder services at passover were always a great occasion, never to be forgotten no matter what the circumstances. (Cyrus Adler, Jacob H. Schiff pg. 26-27.)

Apparently Schiff even held a Seder while he was in Japan with matzah brought over from San Francisco.

No comments: