Recently I stumbled on an article written by Professor Mordechai Breuer in an old issue of Hamaayan (Tammuz 1999) about Orthodoxy in the 19th century. Much of what we “know,” in retrospect, turns out to be false, including the provenance of the term Orthodox.
Conventional wisdom teaches that the term was applied to religious Jews by our ideological foes and was meant pejoratively. In fact, Prof. Breuer demonstrates, the term was first used by the German theologian Johann David Michaelis as a friendly reference to Moses Mendelsohn, who then began using the term in his writings about Jewish life. The expression, meaning “correct belief,” has defined Torah Jewry for at least 150 years.
What was especially fascinating about Prof. Breuer’s article was the description of the efforts made by rabbis in the early 19th century to accommodate the nascent Reform movement so as to avert a schism in the Jewish people. Innovations were made and deviations were accepted, all for the greater good, though in fact not in major areas of halacha.
For example, no less an authority than Rav Yaakov Etlinger conducted bat mitzvot in his shul, and Rav Natan Adler of Hanover (later chief rabbi of the British Empire) told anxious questioners to obey a new German edict that prohibited Jews from burying their dead until 48 hours after death. Confirmed Orthodox rabbis – like Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch – wore ceremonial robes and preached in German, certainly to the horror of Eastern European rabbis.
One reason for the openness was that all rabbis (except the Chatam Sofer) supported the Emancipation and knew the fall of the ghetto walls would offer both risks and opportunities. They tried to present a more modern face to Torah and thereby keep less observant but nominally “Orthodox” Jews in the fold as well as those leaning toward Reform. Unfortunately, these efforts were abandoned after Reform leaders held a conference at Braunschweig in 1844 and renounced fundamental principles of Judaism, giving up any pretense of adherence to tradition.
Nonetheless, the innovations in Orthodoxy in the 1800s puts paid to the notion that the Torah world is frozen, frigid, unresponsive and archaic, all criticisms one still hears today from people who find fault with the Torah and desire to conform its laws to the times. Prof. Breuer counts at least eight innovations or movements that transformed Orthodoxy in the 19th century, and most of them are still influential today.
Chassidut, which technically arose in the 18th century, was perfectly placed to retain the allegiance of Jews who were not drawn to the study of Torah and provided a powerful emotional hook to lure Jews who would otherwise stray.
The yeshiva movement, started by Rav Chaim Volozhin in 1804, revolutionized the study of Torah. It was originally a counterforce to chassidut but made Talmud Torah into a national project and desideratum (rather than just a local matter) and inspired many imitators across Europe.
The Mussar movement of Rav Yisrael Salanter endeavored to permeate Jewish life with ethical sensitivity in a systemized way. The study of ethics became a routine feature in many yeshivot.
Torah and Derech Eretz of Rav Hirsch was designed to make the modern world less frightening to the Jew. He taught and inspired generations that one can be a faithful Jew and part of the modern world.
Formal rabbinical training was unknown before the 19th century. Spiritual leaders simply learned Torah and were sent to communities. The German rabbinate – credit here Rav Azriel Hildesheimer – pioneered the rabbinical seminary in which students would learn Torah and general knowledge, and acquire the skills necessary for leadership.
Scientific study of Jewish subjects, a matter fraught with danger, also attracted its share of religious proponents, as Jews for the first time began attending university in large numbers. Additionally, professions historically limited to Jews like law, medicine, and engineering now provided avenues out of the poverty in which most Jews were forced to live.
The land of Israel was reborn to Jews in the 19th century and at first was primarily a religious movement. Disciples of the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov made aliyah in the early 1800s, and Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer already in 1840 exhorted Jews to return to Israel.
Women’s Torah education began in the 19th century in Germany, not, as is widely assumed, with the Beis Yaakov movement in 1917 Krakow. The advent of mandatory education for both boys and girls necessitated this change, which revolutionized Jewish life as well.
It turns out that the 19th century was hardly a time of stagnation for Jews but rather an era of immense vibrancy and growth.
And if one thinks Orthodoxy has become dormant since, consider some of the great successes of the Torah world in the past 100 years. Certainly a more educated laity is at the top of the list, followed by the prominence of Orthodox Jews in every profession and endeavor, and the gradual permeation of the ethos of Torah in Israel, including the development of the Orthodox soldier (the scholar-warrior), something not widely seen in Jewish life for almost two millennia.
It is certainly through God’s Hand that the Torah has been rejuvenated and the Am Hashem is again dynamic. Our obligation as always is to anticipate the challenges of the future, craft appropriate responses, and glorify the Creator, His Torah and His people.Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is a pulpit rabbi in Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author of “Tzadka Mimeni: The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility” (Gefen Publishing).
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