Samuel Holdheim

Reform leader saw halakhah no longer as binding according to Judaism itself.

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

Samuel Holdheim was a German Reform leader (1806-60). Holdheim received a thorough traditional Jewish education in his native Poland where he was looked upon as an infant as a Talmudic prodigy; he later supplemented his early knowledge by his reading of general literature and his studies in the University of Prague.

Together with Abraham Geiger, Holdheim provided much of the intellectual vigor for the Reform movement, although Geiger, for all his radicalism, did not see eye to eye with some of Holdheim’s excesses. For Holdheim, the Jewish religion contained in the past two elements: the universalistic–ethical monotheism and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and the nationalistic–the rituals such as the sacrificial system in Temple times and institutions such as the dietary laws.

Holdheim was fond of quoting the verse: "One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same for ever" (Ecclesiastes I: 4), which he interpreted to mean that the universalistic element in Judaism is the "earth," permanent and unchanging, while each "generation" has to supply its own understanding of how this element is to be realized. Far from denigrating the zeitgeist, Holdheim saw this as essential for the interpretation of Judaism in a new light. Holdheim claimed, with scant historical justification, that his theories were supported by the Talmudic dictum: dina de-malkhuta dina, "the law of the [Gentile] government is law."

In the context, this applies only to civil law; the Jew is under an obligation to obey the laws of the country in which he resides. But Holdheim extended the principle to cover religious laws, to suggest that the "nationalistic" elements of Judaism, that is, many of the rules of the halakhah, are no longer binding according to Judaism itself. If this were so, the historian Graetz protested, it would mean that Judaism provides itself with a silken halter with which to commit suicide. Undeterred, Holdheim roundly proclaimed: "The Talmud was right in its day and I am right in mine."

From 1847 Holdheim was the Rabbi of the Berlin Reform Temple, in which the most extreme reforms were introduced. Hebrew was largely eliminated from the prayers, Sunday services were eventually substituted for the Sabbath services, on the grounds that in Western society many Jews had to earn their living by working on the Sabbath, and intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was not discouraged. Holdheim’s extremism was not viewed with favor in Germany, apart from in his own congregation, but found an echo in the USA version of radical Reform towards the end of the 19th century.

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