Reform – father of, Israel Jacobson

During his conquest of Europe, Napoleon sliced off a huge chunk of vanquished Prussia to create the vassal Kingdom of Westphalia where his younger brother, Jerome, kept shop from 1807 to 1813. On the positive side, Westphalia was the first German state to grant Jews equal rights and became a model for emancipation in other German states. Less happily, Jerome appointed the militant religious reformer, Israel Jacobson (1768-1828), to head the kingdom’s Jewish affairs. During the kingdom’s short existence, Jacobson imposed his reform ideology on the state’s 15,000 Jews by sheer brute force and for this and subsequent activities, some historians label him with the unflattering title of Father of the Reform.

The Consistory

Not particularly learned, Jacobson rose to prominence through wealth and influence. After his father-in-law, Hertz Samson, died in 1795, Jacobson inherited two important positions – District Rabbi for the Weser region and position as Administrative Agent for Duke Charles Ferdinand of Brunswick. After Jerome became King of Westphalia in 1807, Jacobson switched allegiance to the new ruler and became head of a Central Consistory (religious council) whose job was to bring order and consistency to the state’s Jewish affairs. This was certainly up Jacobson’s street. Only a year earlier, he had written to Napoleon proposing the establishment of a “Supreme Council” based in France to govern religious matters for Jews all over western and central Europe. Now, Jacobson would fulfill his dream on a smaller scale.

Although the main purpose of the Consistory was to run government affairs such as census taking and paying community debts, Jacobson utilized its powers to impose unprecedented religious reforms on its entire Jewish populace. In an early report to the government, the compliant rabbis and layman of Jacobson’s Consistory wrote of the “the task of bringing a number of customs which had crept into Judaism more into line with changed circumstances and the spirit of the times and to take the steps necessary for this purpose.”

At the Consistory’s opening, Jacobson announced that unlike Christian consistories, the task of this one was not to merely sustain what exists, but to make “improvements.” At last, he said, there were people “to separate the wheat from the chaff and to modify inessential customs and practices to the extent that reason presents them as useless or injurious.” Jacobson’s goal was to bring Judaism “up to date.”

An 1809 Consistory circular titled “Duties of the Rabbis” said little of scrupulousness in religious observance but paid great emphasis on the state’s rabbis setting an example of moral conduct for their communities. Sermons were to be “if possible in the German language,” and weddings must be conducted in a chandelier lit synagogue and under no circumstances out of doors where their solemnity might be spoiled by boisterous undignified behavior. Rabbis were to read brief wedding certificates (Trauungs-Briefs) in German instead of the traditional Kesubah, and disruptive minhagim such as breaking a glass or throwing wheat on a couple, a symbol of fertility, were outlawed.

The purpose of this was to transform Judaism into a showroom religion and show the world that Jews were worthy of incorporation as equals in non-Jewish society.

Even worse, the “Duties of the Rabbis” manipulated halachah, stipulating that if brothers of a chosson were serving in the Westphalia army and unavailable to give chalitzah in the event of his death without children, his wife could remarry without the ceremony.

Rabbis were also instructed to adopt the Christian ceremony of confirmation for boys and girls. This involved guiding them to a level of parrot-proficiency in a series of questions and answers at which stage they would be confirmed as members of the adult community. Most Westphalia rabbis dragged their feet concerning this issue; boys were confirmed in only three of four Westphalia towns and there is no evidence that girls were confirmed at all. The Consistory also opened schools and a rabbinical seminary in line with its ideals.

In September 1810, the Consistory issued a set of synagogue regulations (Synagogenordnugh) that became standard for Reform synagogues throughout 19th century. In general, the rule’s purpose was “to take definite measures to avoid all disorder during the service, to create the necessary solemnity, and to separate the essential elements from the inappropriate ones.” The document’s 44 paragraphs aimed at transforming living Jewish prayer into a ceremonious affair more in keeping with the Christian environment.

The synagogue rules limited almost all religious functions to official cantors – even barmitzvah boys were barred from reading their barmitzvah parshiyos. They reduced the aliyos and hakofos of Simchas Torah and outlawed the undignified administration of malkos on erev Yom Kipppur and the boisterous klapping of Haman on Purim.Men were called up to the Torah by their official surnames and Av Harachamim and other piyutim that speak of Jewish suffering of exile were removed. After all, what place did they have in Napoleon’s benevolent empire?

Angry and unhappy, many Westphalia Jews founded small illegal minyonim that persisted despite Jacobson threat of stiff penalties.

The Banning of Issur Kitniyos

In January 1810, the Consistory brought down international Jewish wrath on its head when it issued a letter declaring that “in accordance with Jewish law, every Israelite is allowed, and may therefore with good conscience be permitted, to consume on Passover such legumes as peas, beans and lentils, as well as rice and millet.” The Consistory claimed that this was an enhancement to halacha, for did not the baking of huge amounts of matzos make it more difficult to guarantee that none became chometz? How could the poor afford to live on costly matzos for a whole week?

In response to the fierce opposition, the Consistory’s junior rabbi, Menachem Mendel Steinhardt, published the widely condemned Divrei Iggeres, the first “responsa” book of the Reform movement. Half the book was devoted to permitting kitniyos on Pesach and the rest discussed the Consistory’s various synagogue reforms.

Regarding the Consistory’s abolition of the ancient minhag of hakofos on Sukkos, Steinhardt explained that he had personally seen people poking each other with their lulavim during the circling, or arguing who should take precedence in the procession. This was evidence, he claimed, that “instead of the memory of Jerusalem our holy city and our Temple being called to mind, no one is concerned for Tziyon, etc.”

He justified the omission of various piyutim for the sake of greater kavonoh, and the elimination of others due to their reference to kabala or inappropriate reference to earlier times when Jews suffered persecution. Steinhardt also tried to excuse the Consistory’s elimination of the chalitzah ceremony for soldiers in Jerome’s army and the holding of weddings inside shuls.

Synagogue with Bells

Back in 1801, Jacobson had established a trade and agricultural school for poor Jewish boys in the tiny town of Seesen near the Harz Mountains. Two years later, he admitted a few Christians youngsters to the place, a huge innovation at the time. Attached to the school was a prayer-room for the school and Seesen’s half dozen Jewish families. From 1805 to 1810, Jacobson built one of Germany’s first reform temples to replace the prayer room. It had typical reform innovations. The bimah was set up front in emulation of church altars and an organ was installed – the second synagogue organ in Europe. The first has been installed in a Prague synagogue during the 19th century. Worst of all, to the disgust of both Jews and non-Jews, Jacobson topped his structure with a small bell tower.

Jacobson coined his place of worship a “temple,” a term commonly used in France to designate any house of prayer and emphasizing Jacobson’s philosophy that Judaism was merely one religion among many.

Notable Jews and non-Jews attended the synagogue’s inauguration that was accompanied by pealing bells. Inside the building, musicians and singers entertained the guests with a concert of Hebrew and German songs and hymns. Jacobson spoke to the crowd of his cosmopolitan ideas, urging Jews to purge elements of ritual that were “rightfully offensive to reason and to our Christian friends,” and asking Christians to reciprocate by accepting Jews into their midst without prejudice.

In Jacobson’s temple, all reference to the moshiach was abolished. So was Shabbos observance, separation between men and women, head coverings for men, and worship on a daily basis. Even King Jerome complained that the radical place of worship threatened to split the Jews of his kingdom into two camps.

Eventually, the Westphalia’s Jews tired of paying taxes to the Consistory’s rabbis and institutions and the organization collapsed with the termination of Napoleon’s Kingdom of Westphalia in September 1813.

Jacobson did not despair. In 1815, he moved to Berlin and opened a radical house of worship where sermons were delivered by key reformers. But here he met his match. Not enamored with the French loving rabbi, the Prussian government heeded the complaints of Orthodox rabbonim and made him close shop. Although Jacobson continued reformist activities until his death in 1828, his main claim to notoriety is his one-man Reform movement factory that oppressed the Jews of Westphalia during the its six short years.

(Source: Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1988)




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