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Emancipation: the Jewish reformation

The process of a social group changing its identity can be painful, but is not something to be feared, writes Michael Goldfarb. 

Identity crisis. Sometimes it seems like the whole world is having one long identity crisis. There are reasons for this. Mass migration has changed the ethnic and religious character of many settled societies, whether it is the United States absorbing tens of millions of Hispanics, or Europe trying to absorb massive numbers of Muslims from Turkey, North Africa and South Asia.

Nowhere is this era of identity crisis more profound than in the great trio of Mosaic religions. Christian fundamentalist and Wahabbi/Salafi Muslim fundamentalists are trying to turn the faithful back from the temptations of the modern world. Hard-line Zionists use the Bible to argue that the land of Israel — all of it — was given in perpetuity by God to the Jews.

When the Jewish community was liberated from the ghetto during the Napoleonic era integrating religious practice into modern society was its first task. A reformation of the religion and Jewish life as profound as Luther’s reformation of the church quickly got under way:

The Jewish Reformation was inspired not by theology but by a desire to break the hold of the rabbis over the community so that Jews could more easily integrate into the day-to-day life of Germany. The first battles of the reformation were not fought over doctrine but over style: Jewish prayer seemed formless. People worshipped at their own pace, some silently rocking back and forth, others crying out at the top of their voices.

There was no organized call and response praying between minister and congregation as there was in Christian churches. For outsiders this pious chaos reflected badly on their community. Outsiders saw the synagogue not as a “house of God but a madhouse or a saloon,” as an article in Sulamith magazine put it.

Reformers began by changing the service to include call and response prayer. Sermons similar to the ones in churches were instituted. The interior layout of the synagogue was redesigned to mirror that of an ordinary church.

Everything was up for redefinition, including the term by which the community would be known. Like the word "Negro" during the civil rights era in the 1960, the word "Jew" fell out of favor. It was associated with the restrictions of the past. It was a pejorative term used as a curse. “Israelite” became the community’s preferred form of reference throughout Europe, although “Hebrew” and “follower of Moses” were also acceptable.

In 1810, reformers built a new house of worship in Seesen in Germany. It was not called a “synagogue” or “house of prayer.” It was called a “Temple.” This was the single most dramatic innovation the reformers made. The Temple had been in Jerusalem. Its destruction by the Romans heralded 1,800 years of diaspora and wandering.

Tradition said the Temple could only be rebuilt in Jerusalem. What the reformers were saying by calling their building a “Temple” was the wandering is over, Germany is our home now.

Traditionalists fought back. Fidelity to the old ways was how God would recognize his people when the time came for them to return to the Promised Land. These reforms were “perversion of Judaism."

Reformers referred to traditionalists as "orthodox Jews." The traditionalists disliked the name. For them there was only Judaism and the reformers were apostates from it. But the designation “orthodox” stuck.

There was one final aspect of Judaism that needed to be reinvented. The idea of being God’s “chosen” people. Reformers took this idea and turned it into a sense of “mission.” The children of Israel would be, as the prophet Isaiah said, “a light unto the nations.”

One reform rabbi, Mendel Hess, put it this way. “Israel must be exemplary for all peoples, must reach the highest rung on the ladder of moral perfection.”

In the modern world, people who wonder why so many world-changing systems of thought came from Jewish thinkers — Marx, Freud and Einstein — need only look at this critical idea at the core of Jewish identity: being the “chosen” people and how it was changed into a sense of mission by the era of reformation, when Jews were having a collective identity crisis.

The lesson is that the process of a social group changing its identity can be painful, but is not something to be feared.

emancipation1This is an extract from Emancipation: how liberating Europe’s Jews from the ghetto led to revolution and renaissance by Michael Goldfarb (published by Scribe). This extract was first published in Michael Goldfarb will tour Australia in February.

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