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Dogma and Dissent in Nineteenth century German Judaism

Mon, December 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Federal 2 Complex

Abstract

In his 1783 JERUSALEM, Moses Mendelssohn argues that Judaism has no revealed religion. Mendelssohn’s claim prompted a heated, but almost entirely unknown nineteenth century German Jewish debate over whether or not Judaism has dogmas. I will demonstrate that this debate was closely tied to the problem of Jewish communal unity.
In 1869, the Orthodox faction in Karlsruhe successfully seceded from the Reform controlled official Jewish community. In response, the communal board published a blistering attack on the Karlsruhe Orthodox arguing that it was unconscionable for the Orthodox to tear apart the Jewish community since Orthodoxy and Reform shared the same dogmatic religious principles and the differences between Orthodoxy and Reform were minor centering on minor questions of synagogue liturgy. The Orthodox faction in Karlsruhe then appealed to Samson Raphael Hirsch who wrote an essay arguing that the doctrinal differences between Orthodoxy and Reform were far greater than those between Protestantism and Catholicism since Reform denied the binding divine character of Torah law while the Orthodox affirmed it. As such, liberty of conscience demanded that Orthodox Jews not be forced to remain in community with those they regarded as heretics.
Jewish leaders in other parts of Germany grew concerned that events in Karlsruhe along with Orthodox agitation for secession in Hungary would spread to other communities. In 1869, the Chief Rabbi of Breslau Manuel Joel wrote a pamphlet titled “On the Question of Religious Worship” in which he claimed that Judaism possessed two dogma namely monotheism and prophecy/revelation. Abraham Geiger responded by attacking Joel claiming that Joel’s assertions concerning Jewish dogma did not reflect the historical record and that Judaism, in fact, had no dogma. For Geiger, Jewish ideas were constantly in a process of changing and being refined. What made an idea Jewish was that its exponent identified with Jewry (JUDENHEIT) and sought to advance the true spirit of Judaism. History was the ultimate arbiter whether or not an idea became part of Judaism. While Geiger valued Jewish unity, he asserted that the freedom to experiment with new ideas was what had historically preserved Judaism and was a higher value.

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