Shuls – the organ controversy

During the waning years of the 19th century, a German rov penned an urgent letter to his mentor, Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, head of the Bais Medrash for Rabbonim in Berlin. Rav Hoffman (Shu”t Melamed Leho’il 16) describes the problem in the following terms:

“In a certain town, the communal leaders decided to install an organ in their shul. Despite his utmost efforts, the local rov could not reverse this decision. Therefore, he wants to choose the less of two evils and allow them to play it on weekdays, such as at weddings and royal birthdays, so that they at least do not desecrate Shabbos and Yom Tov. He is also concerned that if he leaves his position due to the organ, a substitute rabbi might not only permit the organ, but also be the cause of other great evils. This rov wants to know whether he can remain and allow the organ to be used on weekdays.”

The Hamburg Organ
During previous decades, the organ had become symbolic of the Reform movement’s encroachment into Jewish public life. The battle started a century earlier in 5561/1801, when Israel Jacobson, regarded by some as the “Father” of the Reform movement, established a school in Germany with forty Jewish and twenty Christian pupils as part of a grand plan to create a friendly coexistence between the two faiths.

In 5570/1810 he constructed a school synagogue where the first Reform services were conducted in a Hebrew-German hybrid, replete with organ music, a choir, and clerical robes, in close imitation of typical German Protestant church service of the time. Taking place in the privacy of Jacobson’s school, these earthshaking innovations aroused relatively little uproar.

Five years later, Jacobson moved to Berlin and introduced an organ into his newly-opened house of worship for Shavuos of 5575/1815, sparking an inferno.

The Berlin community appealed to Emperor Frederick William III, complaining that the organ contravened the principles of Jewish custom, and the government closed down Jacobson’s place so swiftly that the episode generated little halachic reaction.

Two years later, Reformers founded the New Israelite Temple Association in Hamburg under the principles that: “The worship service shall be conducted on Sabbath and holy days….Specifi cally, there shall be introduced at such services a German sermon, and choral singing to the accompaniment of a organ….it shall apply to all those religious customs… which are sanctified by the church.”

In those days, the Reformers maintained a veneer of mitzvah observance— the shul’s organ was played by a non-Jew. The reasoning was that since playing a musical instrument on Shabbos is a rabbinic prohibition and having a non-Jew work on Shabbos is also a rabbinic prohibition, shvus dishvus (two rabbinic prohibitions on top of one another) should be permitted in the mitzvah situation of glorifying the Shabbos and festival prayers.

Leading rabbonim, including Rav Mordechai Banet of Nikolsburg, the Chasam Sofer, and Rav Akiva Eiger, rallied in protest. There were three main arguments for prohibiting organs in shuls: playing music is forbidden on Shabbos; music, especially in shuls, is forbidden except at weddings due to aveilus over the Bais Hamikdosh; and playing organ music in shuls in imitation of churches contravenes the prohibition of bechukoseihem, to not imitate the ways of non- Jews.

In response, the reformer Eliezer Liebermann rounded up a roster of lomdisher rationales to justify organs in shul. He was the same Liebermann who objected to shuckeling, writing in a call for reform in 5578/1818, “Why should we not draw a lesson from the people among whom we live? Look at the Gentiles and see how they stand in awe and reverence and with good manners in their houses of prayer. No one utters a word, no one moves a limb…”

Among other things, he argued that bechukoseihem could not possibly apply to the organ since hadn’t the Levi’im used one as part of their service in the Bais Hamikdosh? After all, the Gemara (Arachin 10b) states, “There was a magreifa in the Bais Hamikdosh that had ten holes, each of which produced ten types of music. Thus, in total, it produced a hundred types of music.”

This was no solid argument. It is by no means clear that the Gemara is referring to an organ. Furthermore, the Gemara (Arachin ibid.) says, “There was no adarbelas in the Mikdash because it would spoil the melody,” and some associate the adarbelas with the hydraulus, a Greek term for the organs of ancient times. The Hamburg shul organ was only the fi rst of many others.

The Charleston Split
Similar battles were raging across the sea in the United States. The first major Reform victory against traditional Orthodoxy involved a fight over shul organs.

The story began in 5584/1824 when the “Society of Reformed Israelites” organized in Charleston, South Carolina. When the reformer’s leader, Isaac Harby, left for New York in 5588/1828, his movement ran out of steam. After struggling on for eleven or twelve years, its members rejoined the old Beth Elokim Kehilla whose old shul was being rebuilt after having recently burned down in a great fi re.

Reverend Isaac Leeser’s Occident Newspaper (vol. I:4, 5603/1843) describes the story in detail:

“The greater portion of our readers are doubtless aware that about three years ago a sudden light dawned upon a portion of the Israelites of Charleston, whilst the synagogue was in progress of erection, after having been destroyed by fire two years before. They thought to have discovered that instrumental music was absolutely requisite to add solemnity to the public worship of the Minhag Sephardim; and having received the sanction of the Rev. Hazan of the congregation, Mr. G. Poznanski, it was carried by a majority of 46 to 40 to erect an organ in the synagogue, to be played on during service on Sabbaths and festivals. “A portion of the congregation objected (and we joined them in the objection) that instrumental music on the Sabbath is contrary to our laws… The majority, whilst giving their vote, were reminded by the then president of the congregation, the late Nathan Hart, that their proceedings were unconstitutional, inasmuch as, irrespective of the illegality on Jewish grounds of playing on the Sabbath, the introduction of instrumental music was clearly an infringement of the usual custom of the Portuguese Jews, to which the congregation of Charleston professes itself, and that consequently no alteration in the constitutional form of worship could on any account be permitted without a vote of three-fourths, (we believe;) which is requisite for any alteration in the constitution of the Kahal Beth Elokim of Charleston…”

This resulted in a large minority leaving the shul and establishing a new kehilla named Kahal Shearith Israel. The funds, burial-ground, and shul property were left uncontested in the hands of the reformers.

Some time later, Poznanski shocked the more traditional Jews of Beth Elokim by stating in a drosha that, in his opinion, Yom Tov Sheni should be discontinued, and in the resulting furor, a resolution “that the established service of this congregation embraces all the Mosaic and rabbinical laws,” was rejected by a vote of 24 yeas to 27 nays.

This led the more traditional Jews of Beth Elokim and the seceding members to join forces to try to overpower the heretics in their midst. In 5604/1844, they took the Beth Elokim shul to civil court by claiming that the introduction of the organ had violated the shul’s charter of following the Portuguese custom, which certainly never included musical accompaniments to the services. The frum Jews lost the judgment.

Two years later, the case reached the Court of Errors and Appeals, where Judge A.P. Butler upheld the previous ruling with confused logic. He began by admitting, “It is almost impossible to reduce matters growing out of a difference of opinion to such a definite form as to subject them to judicial cognizance… Speculative disputes must be left, in some measure, to the arbitrament of opinion.”

Nonetheless, he supported the reformers, with a specious argument: “The Minhag Sephardim was a ritual of Spanish origin, and, although it still exists in different countries, yet how differently is it observed,” he wrote. “If two Jewish congregations, one from Poland and the other from Spain, were to be brought together, whilst professing to be governed by the same rituals, they would probably find themselves unable to understand each other in their observance of them.”

From this premise, the learned adjudicator extrapolated that introducing an organ into a shul is essentially no different than the variances between kehillos in Spain or Poland. Through this judge’s ignorance of Jewish halachah and practice, the reformers achieved their fi rst major victory in the United States.

Rav Hoffman’s Warning
Meanwhile, what did Rav Hoffman decide? After discussing the halachic opinions at the time of the Hamburg crisis, Rav Hoffman innovated that besides the gedolim’s original rationales for forbidding organs in shul, there is nowadays the additional rationale that introducing an organ into shul contravenes what he described as chok ha’apikorsim, a prohibition of doing things that seem inspired by the practices of heretics. Also, he warned, identifying with reform practices is likely to lead to an avalanche of ruinous alterations in halachah and minhag.

In fact, Rav Hoffman was so adamantly opposed to shul organs that he appended every heter hora’ah with the written condition that the talmid was not to serve in a shul that had an organ.

“Nonetheless,” he concluded in his teshuvah, “if a rov relies be’dochek on the lenient opinions to allow an organ for weddings or royal birthdays, relying on the few meikilim who only forbid it on Shabbos… for this sin I will not nullify the heter hora’ah I gave to a talmid….”

Despite his opposition to organs, Rav Hoffman felt this rov must remain at his post in order to save his kehilla from far worse. Even in the battle for Torah survival, one must not make the error of not seeing the wood for the trees.

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