Robert Liberies

 

 

 

THE RABBINICAL CONFERENCES OF THE 1850'S AND THE QUEST FOR LITURGICAL UNITY

 

 

The decade and more following the revolution of 1848 are known as a quiet period in the history of Reform Judaism in Germany. Following: the burst of activity from the mid-1830's through the forties, the period of the 1850's and early sixties stands out in strong contrast as a period of frustration. Ludwig Philippson, one of the leading spokesmen of the movement, put it this way in 1852:

 

                  Supplanted by greater movements, the bustling movement for religious reform in the
                      synagogue, which aroused Germany Jewry especially during the years 1844-1847, has
                      rather dried up.1  

 

The cessation of the Rabbinical Conferences symbolized the slow-down in momentum, but there were other demonstrations of the hiatus. Most of the newspapers established in the earlier period now closed down —the major exceptions were Philippson's Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums and Leopold Stein's Israelitische Volkstehrer, which actually commenced publication in 1851. The great communal battles between Reform and Orthodox parties over rabbinical appointments and religious reforms also ceased. Some victories had been won by the Reformers in the earlier period; of these, some as in Mecklenburg and Breslau were reversed during the later period.

       During the 1850's the primary lines of communication between the Reform rabbis such as national conferences and the press diminished in importance, and group efforts decreased. However, in 1854, Leopold Stein, rabbi of the community of Frankfurt am Main, used the pages of his journal, Der Israelitische Volkslehrer, to propose the convocation of regional rabbinical conferences whose primary purpose would be to relieve the isolation of the individual rabbi and to alleviate the chaos in religious life deriving from the innovations introduced in each commu­nity separately.

                        Even like-minded communities led by like-minded rabbis do not concur, and we can be sure that
                       every newly-installed rabbi will introduce a new type of religious forms...... The sight of this motley
                       medley will in no way make the impression on our flocks of a religious life of fructifying and
                       enriched blessing.2

This splintering of Jewry into individual communities greatly hindered the cause of Jewish religious progress.

 

                As in our German lands the Fatherland is only an ideal, so also in the sphere of Judaism
                is the bond only an ideal; in reality, all is shattered, dispersed, scattered. No trace, no thread
                of the ties of a common organization. Particularism prevails; nowhere does unity
.

 

     Building on the example of earlier Rabbiner-Versammlungen of the 1840's, Stein suggested that a merging of efforts could best be achieved through regional conferences. He was convinced that such a conference could be particularly useful for southern Germany, where there could be found a large number of young, aspiring rabbis, most of whom were already acquainted through the Rabbinical Conferences.3

     Although often ignored in discussions of the history of Reform Judaism in Germany, three such conferences of South German rabbis did take place under Stein's leadership: in 1854 in Wiesbaden, 1855 in Giessen, and in 1857 in Frankfurt. Together the conferences were attended by 16 men: 7 attended all three conferences, 3 attended two, and 6 attended one of the conferences. The ten rabbis who attended two or three of the conferences represented the communities of Mainz (2), Offenbach, Birkenfeld, Giessen, Mannheim, Frankfurt, Wiesbaden, Coblenz, and Bingen.4

     The participants in the first of these conferences decided to deal with a variety of theoretical and practical matters. Some of the proposals offered for the conference's attention were: new textbooks; a history of Jewish religious reform in the nineteenth century; an encyclopedia of Jewish theology; a naming ceremony for new-born children; a unified wedding ceremony; a unified liturgy; and formation of societies to aid the poor.5

    While a number of these proposals were discussed at the first and second conferences, liturgical matters dominated the agenda of all three conferences. The significance attached to liturgical concerns derived both from Stein's great interest in this sphere which he had already demonstrated in the earlier conferences of the 1840's, and, as we shall see below, from the growing significance of liturgy for the Reform rabbinate as a whole during this period- At the first conference, Stein announced that he hoped the participants, and especially his neighboring colleagues, would join him in the task of preparing a new prayer book for the syna­gogue in Frankfurt then under construction. The conference concurred with Stein's concerns and decided to make the development of a common liturgy a matter of the highest priority:

 

          As many communities have aspired for an improved arrangement of the ritual through changes and additions in
           manifold ways, and thereby separation and divergence have been introduced even between like-minded communities;
           the Rabbinical Conference declares that it recog­nizes it to be of the highest importance, even necessity, to aspire to the
           greatest possible uniformity in the sphere of ritual.6

 

     Indeed, the subsequent conferences devoted an extensive amount of its time to the Frankfurt prayer book.7

 

     In May 1855, just prior to the second conference, Stein published a lengthy analysis indicating the problems to be faced in the task of com­piling a new prayer book as well as a detailed statement of principles to be employed in the process.8 He began with an historical summary of Reform prayer books that had been issued to date in which he evaluated the special contributions of each book and their potential value for other communities. Stein accredited the Temple of Hamburg with a degree of historical significance for the prayer book it had first issued in 1819, and he designated the Reform Congregation of Berlin as having introduced the most extensive liturgical innovations.

     Stein was quite critical of most of the prayer books he discussed, em­phasizing their lack of synthesis of tradition and reform as well as their inappropriateness for a large, major community."His major criticisms fell on the new prayer book issued by the Breslau Jewish community and edited by Abraham Geiger, the leading Reform spokesman of the time. Stein explained that the Breslau edition was of special interest because both Breslau and Frankfurt were sharply divided by religious conflict. However, the Breslau book had failed to give a proper place to new li­turgical creations in the German language, relying instead on sterile translations of the Hebrew originals. Stein's objective was to produce a work "not for one particular school of thought, nor for one party, but a prayer book for the community." Thus Stein set out to find a way to please the Orthodox, the moderates, and the religiously indifferent An ambitious undertaking! In addition, Stein intended that the Frankfurt prayer book would attain its proper role as a model, and even more be adopted by the other communities in the region. Stein even borrowed the traditional nomenclature of "Frankfurter Minhag" to describe the new liturgy.9 Thus religious unity in the form of a South German Ritus was to be achieved through a central role for the community of Frankfurt.

     Stein's preoccupation with liturgical matters had been evident at least since the mid-1840*s when he introduced his first innovations into the Frankfurt service and when he designated these subjects as the major topic for the 1845 conference over which he presided.10 But the willing­ness of ten rabbis to participate in several three-day conferences devoted primarily to the new prayer book in Frankfurt reflects the importance attached to liturgy and to liturgical unity by the Reformers during this period.

     Indeed these so-called quiet years marked a significant period of liturgical creativity in German Reform. From the chronological listing of Reform prayer books provided by Jakob Petuchowski in his study of Reform liturgy, we can see that of the earlier works, starting with one from Berlin in the second decade of the century and back to Berlin in 1852, almost all derived from independent Reform congregations, specifi­cally those in Hamburg, Berlin, and London.11 The appearance of re­formed prayer books for the use not just of independent congregations, but in community synagogues began in Aachen and Mainz in 1853. In 1854-55, the communities of Breslau, Brauschweig, and Mannheim all followed suit. It was a flourishing period of liturgical creativity, but creativity and unity were, of course, contradictory values. When Stein formally began work on his own project in 1854, it was indeed time to be concerned with the multiplicity of works that were appearing. This ten­sion between creativity and unity came to the fore in an exchange between Stein and Ludwig Philippson that appeared in their respective journals.

     With the appearance in 1855 of a new prayer book edited by Levi Herzfeld, rabbi of Braunschweig, Das Israelilische Cebetbuch nach dent Braunschweiger Ritus, Phillipson called for an end to the multiplicity of local prayer books.12 He mocked the usage of "Ritus" in the title of a prayer book of a single community that could barely gather a minyen for Sabbath morning services. The parade of prayer books was becoming comical, but the basic issue for Philippson was the dangerous splintering of Judaism.

          Judaism stands for us far above any party or direction. We must streng­then and not weaken the common denominator in Judaism.
           We must tighten new bonds of unity, but not demolish those still existing. For us, the thought of a living community was always the
           highest, the most important, before which every other consideration, every other need must be silent.13

Stein attacked Philippson's position, perhaps surprisingly objecting to Philippson's primary emphasis on unity. Stein argued bluntly that if religious reforms must await unanimous approval—they would simply never appear. However, as we have seen, Stein's position was more complicated. While working on his own edition of the prayer book, Stein himself also sought a more unified path. That was the very raison d'Stre of the rabbinical conferences, and Stein remarked in his response to Philippson, that the need for common unity was already making itself felt in southern Germany among many rabbis and communities.14

          The rabbinical conferences of the fifties indicated that Stein was accurate in claiming a sense of unity among the Reform rabbis in the region, but the parameters of that unity were as limited for the other rabbis as they were for Stein. The cooperation demonstrated in the con­ferences resulted in signs of mutual influence, but not in unified liturgy. In 1855, Stein's friend M. Praeger, rabbi of Mannheim and a member of the conference's liturgical commission, issued his own prayer book. In 1861, Kirchenrat Joseph Maier, rabbi of Stuttgart did so as well.15

          In the prefaces to their prayer books, all three spoke of influences and the need for greater unity. Praeger's comments were lucid. Uni­formity was, of course, desirable.

          There should be unity in the new Israel just as in the old. There should not be one service in Frankfurt
           and another in Mainz, another in Coblera and still another in Aachen. ...

But reform meant the creation of a new liturgy and this required time.

 

          Just as the old cult did not suddenly become what it now is, so the new cult cannot
           appear immediately as universal and completed.

 

The present work should be seen as only a provisional prayer book until a consensus can be achieved among the different communities and a unified service can be introduced.

     Praeger indicated his borrowings from the previous reform prayer-books, and especially acknowledged his indebtedness to Stein both per­sonally and for usage of some of his writings. Stein, in turn, indicated in the preface to his own edition, issued in 1860, that he had been greatly influenced by the Mannheim book. Stein also expressed his hopes that the communities of Frankfurt and Mannheim would continue on the path to liturgical uniformity.
      It was already clear that broader unity was unlikely, for Maier of Stuttgart had expressed his misgivings toward Stein's directions during the third conference, held in 1857. Maier affirmed his own commitment and that of his community toward the liturgical unity that was the objective of these conferences, and he agreed that a consensus existed on the German and musical portions of the service, but not concerning the Hebrew prayers. He himself would introduce only minor changes in the Hebrew texts and he opposed the proposed changes in the prayers for a return to Palestine and for resumption of the sacrifices.

     The other participants passed resolutions expressing their satisfaction with what unity had been achieved and their hopes that greater uniformity with the Stuttgart community would be attained. However, they declared that the agreements reached regarding the musical and German portions of the service were insufficient for this purpose. They reaf­firmed their previous decision to publish the German translations and newly composed prayers and hymns in a separate volume, a decision also opposed by Maier.16

Maier abstained from the subsequent discussion on changes in the Hebrew liturgy. In the preface to his own edition, published in 1861, Maier seemed almost apologetic over his moderation, explaining that his community would not accept radical departures.

 

          The local community does not wish to separate itself in its worship from the other communities of the land
           or from the synagogue in general. What it desires is simplicity and dignity. Therefore, dogmatic changes
           were ruled out from the outset.17

 

Stein's edition of the prayer book appeared in 1860 in conjunction with the dedication of the new synagogue building in Frankfurt Petu-chowski has recorded several examples of Stein's influence on subsequent editions.18 However, this did not indicate the direct form of unity based on the Frankfurt prayer book that Stein had sought Individual commu­nities in Germany continued to produce prayer books for more than half-a-century. Only in 1929, did German Reformers succeed in issuing the so-called Einheitsgebetbuch. When the American Reformers adopted the title Union Prayer book and the Germans followed suit with the Einheiis-gebetbuch, these titles indicated the historical accomplishment that had been achieved.19 Religious reform had found an expression of unity.

     What prevented the rabbis we have been discussing from attaining the unity they all seemed to be seeking? Regional differences prove an insufficient answer in the light of our material, for we have not been discussing a conference of rabbis representing northern and southern Germany, but of a group from the same area. However, the rabbis were restricted by the conservatism of their own communities. Praeger stated in his introduction: "[The new cult ] lacks authority. It must first of all win adherents.... Only when different experiments will have been madein different places, can mutual consent be successful and salutary." Joseph Maier wrote in a similar vein that his community would not tolerate the religious isolation that would follow extensive reforms. Leopold Stein himself was restrained in the extent of reforms he could introduce by pressure from his Board—this despite the earlier pressures in the 1840's to quicken the pace of innovation. Stein's very initiative in convoking the conferences of the 1850's derived from the rather difficult circumstances of his relationship with the leaders of the Frankfurt Jewish community. Stein turned to his colleagues in the hope that a group consensus among the rabbinate would strengthen his hand in disagreements with the local Board over the prayer book.20

     It was part of the dynamics of Reform Judaism in Germany that conferences such as those of the 1850's, like those of the forties, were intended to support the rabbis in their pursuit of more liberal innova­tion.21 The rabbis expressed their principles, sought each other's support, and then returned to their communities to reach a compromise agreement.

     Once again the communities had revealed themselves as the potent force in Jewish religious life in Germany. While scholars discuss the growth of religious movements in nineteenth century Germany, we too often ignore the limited attraction these movements actually carried. The primary Jewish commitment of the layman was to his local commu­nity. Not until 1869 was there any significant attempt by laymen to convoke a conference dealing with religious issues. The conflict over reform was carried out and re-enacted in community after community, but only the rabbinate conceived of a broader forum than the local community. Even while historical forces encouraged the process of reform, Germany's particularism hindered the growth of a Reform Move­ment anything like that which later emerged in America. Not regional variation, and not local customs, but the conservative autonomy of the communal powers caused the multiplicity of prayer books that we have described.

     For their part the southern rabbis, by participating in these con­ferences, demonstrated their individual commitment to the pursuit of uniformity. That Stein succeeded at all in convoking the conferences was a significant accomplishment for these "quiet years" of German reform.

     Obviously, Reform rabbis felt the need for collegial communication and for collective action no less in the fifties than in the forties, but the nationalist atmosphere that had temporarily displaced Germany's frag­mentation had again disappeared. There could no longer be any thought of a national rabbinical conference of the type held in the previous decade. The idea of the regional conference was both politically and economically more feasible, and both Stein the Philippson suggested that such conferences be conducted. Philippson's subsequent failure where Stein had succeeded illuminates something of the nature of the period.

     As the intense excitement and the political expectations of the 1840's faded into memory, Stein and Philippson both complained bitterly of the lack of progress in the cause of religious reform. In a lead article written in 1852 and entitled Das Schweigen, Philippson actually prescribed quiet, inner development as the proper course for Reform to take at that time:

 

          Now is not the time for discussions . .. Our task for this time is to work inwardly.
           Here to strengthen the religious elements, there to awaken the spirit.. .
22

 

     Philippson also suggested regional rabbinical conferences as a useful medium. He mentioned the idea in passing in 1852, and in 1853 called for a conference of Prussian rabbis in order to strengthen the position of the rabbinate. Philippson later announced that twenty-one rabbis had registered for such a conference, but that thirteen claimed that they lacked the independent means to attend, and he dropped the project.23

     Why did Stein succeed and Philippson fail? The reason was not just financial as the southern rabbis had even refused an offer of assistance from the Frankfurt community. Philippson's proposal may have failed because a Prussian conference would have entailed greater distances or because the same consensus achieved in the south could not be reached in the north. But he no doubt also failed because he did not follow his own prescription. Both men had said that this was not the time just to talk, but while Philippson placed on the agenda the weakened stature of the rabbinate, Stein and his colleagues went to work on a number of specific projects and primarily on the problem of Reform liturgy.

     Philippson's strength lay in his vision, especially in his vision of a unified German Jewry. When the times were appropriate, he gave German Jewry its most influential newspaper and brought the Rabbinical Conferences into being. When at the time of unification and emancipa­tion, both the synod of 1869 and the formation of the Gemeindebund were in the planning, Philippson emerged once again in the forefront. How­ever, the 1850's were not years of vision. They formed a period when the most the Reformers could do was to engage in quiet spadework, and that was the endeavor of the rabbinical conferences organized in southern Germany during that period.

 

BEN GURION UNIVERSITY

NOTES

  1. Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenlhums (hereafter AZJ), XVI (1852), 241-242.
  2. Israelitische VolksUhrer (hereafter Isr. Volks.), IV (1854), 115-8.
  3. Ibid, p. 118.
  4. These conferences have at times been overlooked by scholars when writing
    that no Reform conferences occurred between that in Breslau in 1846 and the
    1868 conference in Cassel. They are mentioned briefly by Caesar Seligmann,
    Geschichte der Juedischen Reformbewegung (Frankfurt, 1922), p. 144 and at greater
    length in Jakob Petuchowski,
    Prayer book Reform in Europe (New York, 1968),
    pp. 245-6, 249, and in quoted sources on pp. 156-7, 207. Summaries of the proceed-
    ings of the conference including lists of participants can be found in the
    Iir. Volts.
    as follows: IV (1854), 291-301; V (1855), 205-216 and further VI (1856), 131-139;
    VII (1857), 341 and VIII (1858), 91-100
    .
  5. Isr. Volks., IV (1854), 294-6.
  6. Ibid, p. 297
  7. Ibid, V (1855), 216; VII (1857), 211, 290-1. The first conference named J. Aub from Mainz and M. Praeger from Mannheim to a liturgical commission. Thus the three largest communities of the region were represented. The second conference expanded the commission to include Adler (Alzey), Formstecher (Of­fenbach), Levi (Giessen), and Suesskind (Wiesbaden).
  8. Isr. Volks., V (1855), 165-195. The report was compiled for the liturgical commission and issued in December 1854.
  9. Ibid, p. 178.
  10. Stein's early innovations included a German prayer for the government, a German hymn replacing lecha dodi, the triennial cycle of Torah reading, and changes in the Musaph prayer. On Stein's leadership role in the Rabbinical Con­ferences of the 1840's and on his stormy rabbinical career in Frankfurt, see Robert Liberies, "Leopold Stein and the Paradox of Reform Clericalism," LBI Year Book XXVII (1982), 261-279
  11. Petuchowski, Prayer book Reform, pp. 2-7.
  12. AZJ, XX (1856), 29-31.
  13. Ibid., p. 30.
  14. Isr. Volks., VI (1856), 31-38.
  15. The three prayer books are: Israelitisches Gcbclbuch, edited by M. Praeger (Mannheim, 1855). Gebetbuch fuer fsraelitische Gemeinden, edited by Leopold Stein (Frankfurt, 1860). Israelitische Gebelordnung, edited by Joseph Maier (Stuttgart, 1861).
  16. Isr. Volks., VII (1857), 341; VIII (1858), 92.
  17. Gebetordnung, p. v.
  18. Petuchowski, Prayer book Reform, pp. 153, 178,249-250,338. Several of these references are to Stein's later edition of 1882. Yet, Stein's influence did not compare with that of Geiger, p. 235.
  19. Ibid, pp. 35, 206-213.
  20. Stein, Mein Dienst- Verhaeltniss zum Israelitischen Gcmeinde-Vorztandzu Frank­furt a. M. (Frankfurt, 1861), pp. 43-47.
  21. Steven M. Lowenstein, "The 1840's and the Creation of the German-Jewish Religious Reform Movement," in Revolution and Evolution 1848 in German-Jewish History, edited by Werner E. Morse, et al. (Tuebingen, 1981), p. 264.
  22. AZJ, XVI (1852), 121-122.
  23. Ibid, XXII (1858), 142-43, 226-28, 366.