Rabbi Zechariah Frankel

Leader of the Wissenschaft and founder of Conservative Judaism.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Zechariah Frankel was a rabbi, theologian, and historian of the Talmudic period (1801-73). Frankel studied Talmud in his native Prague under Rabbi Bezalel Ronsberg and philosophy, natural science, and philology in Budapest. His combination of traditional and general learning equipped Frankel to become one of the leading lights of the Jüdische Wissenschaft movement in which the tools of modern historical criticism were used to explore the development of the classical sources of Judaism.

Frankel became principal of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau in 1854. In 1871 he founded the learned journal Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft desJudenthum, the foremost organof modern Jewish scholarship. Frankel’s majorworks, in which he employed successfully thenew methodology, are: Darkhey Ha-Mishnah (The Way of the Mishnah) and Mevo HaYerushalmi (Introduction to the Jerusalem Tal mud).He also published important essays on the Septuagint and on the relationship betweenAlexandrian and Talmudic exegesis ofthe Bible. In all these works, Frankel demonstratedthat Judaism had developed in responseto the different conditions of Jewish life invarious civilizations.

The Breslau school, as Frankel and his associates came to be called, played an important role in its insistence that while freedom to investigate the origins of Jewish beliefs and institutions is granted and must be granted, this does not affect the need for strict observance of the precepts, since such observance belongs to the living religion, as accepted in a kind of mystical consensus by the Jewish people, and this is independent of origins. Frankel coined the expression "positive-historical" for his approach to Judaism; historical because it acknowledges that Judaism did not simply drop down from heaven ready-made, so to speak, but has had a history; positive, because, whatever the origins, this is what the religion has come to be under the guidance of God.

The Breslau school did not rule out the possibility of further development and change in Judaism but held that the development must be in accordance with Judaism’s own organic nature. Artificial changes, as introduced by Reform, were not in the true spirit of Judaism, especially when these involved the jettisoning of hallowed traditions. Prayers in languages other than Hebrew, for instance, while permitted according to the law, if introduced on a regular basis in the synagogue, as in Reform, involve a far too radical departure from the Judaism of the past.

Frankel was opposed to Reform radicalism, as he saw it, but was also opposed to the neo-Orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch because of its rejection of the historical-critical method. Revealing is the great debate between Frankel and Hirsch on the meaning of the rabbinic expression "A law from Moses at Sinai," for example when it is said that it is a law from Moses at Sinai that the tefillin have to be black. Hirsch took this literally, that Moses was given at Sinai all the instructions about the tefillin. Frankel held that the term denotes a very ancient rule, the origins of which are lost in time. But true to his philosophy, Frankel wore tefillin and his tefillin were black because, for him, that is how Jews should follow the tradition of how God is to be worshipped.

Frankel is thus rightly seen as the real founder of what later came to be called Conservative Judaism.

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