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27 Nisan, 5782 - April 28, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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`To Divert Them From The Laws Of Your Will': Bitter Chapters in the Early History Of The Reform Movement

By Tzvi Munk

HaRav Yaakov Ettlinger, author of the Oruch LaNer

Introduction: The Past As A Guide To The Present

Many people are unaware of the beginnings of the Reform movement and the extent to which their edifice is built upon rotten foundations. Christianity served as their model for a refurbished Judaism, and often their Jewish scholarship was quite superficial. Early reformers were driven by the desire to assimilate and to disown all the spiritual glory of their own nation's past, goals that they share to some extent with secular Jews.

The cornerstone of their ideology was the ambition to tear down the barriers that separated Jews and gentiles and to stop being `a nation that dwells alone.' The following survey of the destructive work of the pioneers of the Reform Movement—as well as of the retrenchment work conducted by some of their Orthodox opponents—outlines the real extent of the Reform Movement's break from true Judaism and introduces the reader to the fatal danger which this movement poses.

In the first part, we saw Moses Mendelsson, and learned of his attempts to blur the boundary between Jews and the rest of the world by arguing for social and political rights from the secular rulers while attempting to introduce secular learning in the Jewish community by founding schools or by translating the Torah into German, thereby enabling Jews to learn German.

Many rabbonim stood against the new movement, and one of the most famous was Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch. Throughout his career he ably resisted the new trends and managed to resurrect the dwindling Torah community in Frankfurt am Main.

Early reformers were happy to observe ceremonies that were mandated by the gentile authorities, such as confirmation, and were embarrassed by Tisha B'Av and other references to early forms of observance. They did not suffer their embarrassment in silence, but casually changed things to suit their whims.

The first organized meeting in the spirit of Reform took place at Braunschweig that opened on the twelfth of June, 1844 and lasted for eight days. As we will see in this part, it resulted in openly heretical resolutions.

A fair in Braunschweig in 1840

From The Theatrical To The Catastrophic

At the time of the Braunschweig Conference however, such a grim forecast lacked any rational basis whatsoever. It was a time when German Jewry was just beginning to blend into the surrounding German culture, taking an active part in German literature and all the rest of the intellectual and artistic pastimes of the age.

The Braunschweig Conference, whose debating sessions were open to the public, attracted the interest of both Jews and gentiles. Representatives of the German press sat in the visitor's gallery. In their eyes, the Conference was worthy of proper coverage. To us, it was no less than a gathering of simpletons, who assumed the authority to conduct major surgery on the heart of the Jewish nation.

At the outset of the deliberations, the conference's twenty-five participants adopted a resolution whereby a classical parliamentary procedure would be followed. In voting, the opinion of the majority would be followed, amendments would be adopted, members would be chosen to fill certain positions and official records of the proceedings would be kept. It was clear from the beginning that the Conference would not confine itself to dry theological discussions but would seek to arrive at definite operational conclusions.

In short, the Conference declared itself to be a lawmaking body, whose authority to issue rulings and directives for German Jewry was entirely self-assumed. In the event of a non-unanimous vote, it was unclear whether the Conference's resolutions would actually be binding upon the participants themselves, who were all quite independent and who usually preferred to give a mere gentleman's undertaking in deference to the position adopted by the majority of their colleagues, rather than to concede defeat.

The participants took advantage of the opportunity which the conference afforded them to speak at length on their general ideas for religious reform. The fact that the proceedings were open to the public encouraged the delivery of long, wordy speeches that were directed towards the visitors and the press, as much as towards the other conference members. Most of the proposals that were placed before the plenum were referred for further discussion to special committees that had been selected by the delegates.

One resolution that was passed formally did away with the recitation of Kol Nidrei on leil Yom Kippur. This declaration, which annuls all vows and oaths prior to the onset of the Day of Atonement, had always been a source of embarrassment to more assimilated Jews on account of its citation by antisemitic elements as proof of Jewish dishonesty. Explanations about the impossibility of annulling vows or undertakings made to others, or that were subject to another party's knowledge, were not received in a very understanding manner.

Not only did the gathering agree to abolish saying Kol Nidrei, they even applied pressure on the delegates to have the resolution implemented in time for the very next Yom Kippur.

In return for doing away with Kol Nidrei, the Conference decided to call upon the government to abolish the humiliating version of the oath that had to be taken by Jewish witnesses in the courts of several of the German states. The delegates sought the replacement of the old text and ritual, known as More Judaico, which had remained in force since the Middle Ages, with a simple oath in the Name of G-d. The decision to amend the offending oath in Braunschweig itself was probably in reciprocation for the Conference's other resolutions.

The abolition of Kol Nidrei pales into insignificance beside other, far more serious resolutions which followed it. The most serious—and the most controversial—resolution concerned mixed marriages.

Ludwig Philippson, a preacher from Magdeburg and editor of the Algemeine Zeitung des Judentums, suggested that the Braunschweig plenum ratify the twelve answers which had been tendered to Emperor Napoleon by the members of his Paris Sanhedrin thirty-seven years previously. Philippson intended such a move to serve as an affirmation of the Jewish people's loyalty to the State. He thus hoped to avoid any governmental intervention in the religious affairs of German Jewry.

Just as it had done in Paris however, the third question on Napoleon's list unleashed a storm of protest when it was thrown open for discussion in Germany. This question concerned marriages between Jews and gentiles.

Most of the delegates found themselves caught in an uncomfortable dilemma by the very mention of the question. One of the more radical delegates, Mendel Hess, supported a resolution in favor of intermarriage—something along the lines of the French version at least, which most of his colleagues were certainly against.

Ultimately, the following resolution of unprecedented gravity was passed: `Marriages between Jews and Christians, or members of other monotheistic religions, are not prohibited, on the condition that the State's laws also permit parents to raise the offspring of such marriages as Jews.'

The insertion of this condition neutralized any practical danger that the resolution may have posed. Not one of the German States permitted the children of mixed marriages to be raised as Jews. Even in a relatively liberal country like Denmark, where intermarriage was more common, the law of the hand explicitly required the children to be raised as Christians.

Faithful Jewry Responds

The Braunschweig Conference called forth a storm of protest from the segment of German Jewry that still trembled over Hashem's word. HaRav Yaakov Ettlinger, author of the Oruch Laner, wrote a letter of protest in which he described the turbulent emotions which overcame both himself and others as they were forced to witness the profanation of all that was holy.

"Over twenty men have come forward and gathered together in the city of Braunschweig, calling themselves as `an assembly of Rabbis,' despite the fact that many of them are not rabbis at all and can in no way be referred to as such. Even those who are rabbis, are openly associated with the Reform Movement. Anyone taking a closer look must be utterly amazed at how a mere handful of men have arisen and audaciously assumed the title: `The Rabbinical Assembly of Germany.' Many of them do not engage at all in a thorough study of the writings of our Rabbis and they defame the Talmud in the very publicity that is afforded their conference.

"Despite the fact that these men have been publicizing their opinions for a long time already, we, the undersigned, would have continued to remain silent, keeping our feelings of bitter regret to ourselves and praying on behalf of our errant brethren. If only this conference would have humbly conceded that its members' acquaintance with our religion is paltry indeed, we would have remained silent. Now that the conference's resolutions have been publicized as though their absolute veracity renders them binding... With unchecked pride, the key foundations of Judaism have been put on trial without any serious study or research into the sources, and have been declared as being completely invalid. The most ancient traditions command not the slightest respect. Neither do the two thousand year old rulings of `The Men Of The Great Assembly,' who numbered among their ranks the last of the prophets."

Seventy-seven rabbonim from Germany, France, Hungary and Switzerland were the first to sign the letter. "We are certain that an even greater number of rabbonim would have signed this declaration, had they been given the opportunity to do so," wrote HaRav Ettlinger. "We hope that their signatures will be forthcoming in the future and we are sure that they too, are faithful to our Torah and to their responsibility as shepherds to their flocks, just as we are, and that they will be ready to faithfully defend our ancient religion and to shield the truth from the onslaught of cunning and trickery, so that the ambitions of the reformers and the destruction they wreak will not gain victory over our holy Torah."

The number of signatories subsequently rose to one hundred and sixteen. Amongst the better known names are those of the geonim, HaRav Yitzchok Halevi Bamberger, the Wurtzburger Rav, HaRav Yisroel Lifschitz, rav of Danzig, HaRav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, who was then rav of Emden, HaRav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, rav of Koenigsburg and the author of the commentary on the Torah Haksav Vehakabboloh, HaRav Yehuda Assad, who was then rav of Semnitz and later rav of Sardhely, and HaRav Moshe Schick, rav of Yergen and later, of Chust. The letter also bears the signature of HaRav Shmuel Wolf Schreiber, the author of the Ksav Sofer, the rav of Pressburg, who signed together with the members of his beis din.

In his letter to HaRav Ettlinger, the Ksav Sofer mentioned that he was against publishing the protest since it was written in German and signed by rabbonim. "Although the times do require such a measure [i.e. writing in German] it is not correct that rabbonim who sit in judgment, who fear Hashem and honor His Name, whose job it is to stand guard over bnei Yisroel and strengthen our religion...should issue a notice which most of them have signed, which is written in German. It appears as though they shun using loshon hakodesh, as if agreeing that there is no need for it at a time like this—that all that matters is to speak the language of the nations in whose lands we dwell."

As an alternative, the Ksav Sofer suggested that the notice be formulated in both Hebrew and German. This would give the impression that the German version was merely a translation of the Hebrew original, made for the benefit of the population at large. A second edition of the notice incorporated this suggestion.

In Holland, thirty-seven letters written by European gedolim against Reform were collected (to which five letters that had arrived from Eretz Yisroel were added), by Rav Tzvi Hirsch Lehren and Rav Avrohom Prins. Rav Lehren was a distinguished member of the Amsterdam community. He was revered by the gedolim of his time as well as by the gentile powers due to his being a talmid chochom, a man of means, an outstanding baal chesed and a devoted worker on behalf of Klal Yisroel. He was well known for his zeal and courage in preserving the authentic tradition of Torah and yiras Shomayim, for which he would fight fearlessly when the need arose. He was the first to be counted for any holy endeavor and he used his sharpened senses to keep watch for any new winds blowing across the skies of Jewry, bringing all his strength to bear in preventing breaches in the wall of traditional Judaism.

End of Part 3


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