Recently, I stumbled on an article written by Professor Mordechai Breuer in an old issue of Hamaayan (Tammuz, 1999, 39:4) about Orthodoxy in the 19th century. Much of what we “know,” in retrospect, turns out to be false, including the very term Orthodox. Conventional wisdom teaches that the term was applied to religious Jews by our ideological foes, and was meant pejoratively. In fact, Professor 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 the 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, although, in fact, not in major areas of Halacha. For example, no less an authority than Rav Yaakov Etlinger (the Aruch Laner) 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.
Chacham Isaac Bernays (a rebbe of Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch) specifically chose the title “Chacham” to imply that he was a different type of spiritual leader, and permitted “modern” (it was 1835, after all) brides who objected to circling their grooms under the chupah simply to stand put. Confirmed Orthodox rabbis – like Rav Hirsch – wore ceremonial robes and preached in German, certainly to the horror of Eastern European rabbis. All of the above were staunch opponents of Reform Judaism.
One reason for the openness was because all rabbis (except the Chatam Sofer) supported the Emancipation and knew that 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 even less observant but nominally “Orthodox” Jews in the fold as well as those leaning towards Reform. Unfortunately, these outreach efforts to Reform ultimately failed and all efforts were abandoned after the Reform held a conference at Braunschweig in 1844 in which they renounced fundamental principles of Judaism and gave up any pretense of adherence to tradition.
Nonetheless, the innovations in Orthodoxy in the 1800’s – its sheer vitality and ability to adapt to the times – puts paid to the notion that the Torah world is frozen, frigid, unresponsive and archaic, all criticisms that 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 Orthdoxy in the 19th century, and most of them are still influential today.
1) Chasidut, which although 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 in Jews who would otherwise stray.
2) The Yeshiva movement, started by Rav Chaim Volozhin in Volozhin in 1804, revolutionized the study of Torah. It was originally a counter force to Chasidut, but made Talmud Torah into a national project and desideratum (rather than just a local matter) and inspired many imitators across Europe.
3) The Musar movement of Rav Yisrael Salanter endeavored to permeate Jewish life with ethical sensitivity in a systemized, rather than informal, way. The study of ethics because a routine feature in many yeshivot, even as others resisted the encroachment on general Torah study.
4) 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 still be part of the modern world – all of which was his response to the opportunities of Emancipation.
5) Formal rabbinical training was unknown before the 19th century. The spiritual leader simply learned Torah and was sent to lead a community. 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.
6) Scientific study of Jewish subjects, a matter fraught with danger, also attracted its share of religious proponents, and due to the emancipation, Jews for the first time in large numbers attended university. Additionally, professions like law, medicine, engineering,etc., historically limited to Jews, now provided avenues out of the poverty in which most Jews were forced to live.
7) 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 Aliya in the early 1800’s, and Rav Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer already in 1840 exhorted Jews to return to Israel and reclaim our homeland. Zionism was perceived as a positive venture until the movement was taken over by opponents of Torah and the new yishuv advocated outright disobedience to Torah norms.
8) Women’s Torah education began in the 19th century in Germany, and then approximately 1920 in Poland with the Beis Yaakov movement. While there was little formal elementary education for boys in the 1800’s, there was almost none for girls. The advent of mandatory education for all 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 an era of immense vibrancy and growth. Jews in the 20th and now the 21st centuries have essentially built on the accomplishments of those giants. And lest one think that Orthodoxythen was lively but has become dormant in the last century, perish the thought: what are some of the great successes of the Torah world in the last 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 by the Jewish state of the ethos of Torah – including the development of the Orthodox soldier (the scholar-warrior), something not widely seen in Jewish life for almost two millennia, and others as well.
It is uncanny – certainly G-d’s hand – that the Torah has been rejuvenated, and the Am Hashem is again dynamic. Our obligation then is to anticipate the challenges of the future and craft the appropriate response, to glorify the Creator, His Torah and His people.