Traditional Jewish Life, 1700-1914

Preserving customs during a time of upheaval and change.

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"That Which is New is Forbidden by the Torah"

The activities of Rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839)--called the "Hatam Sofer" after the most famous of his written works--are particularly important to understanding emergent Orthodoxy in the modern age.

After growing up in Frankfurt, Sofer left Germany and spent the rest of his life serving in communities in Moravia and Hungary, most significantly as rabbi of Pressburg (Bratislava). It was from this Hungarian base that he waged his long-standing campaign against any form of deviation from the traditional modes of Jewish practice, expressed pithily in his slogan hadash assur min ha-Torah--that which is new is biblically prohibited.

Secession Campaigns in Germany

Although the organized Jewish kehilla was rendered obsolete by Jewish Emancipation, some German Jewish institutions were still in place to provide the basic services of communal life (ritual slaughter, rabbinic and cantorial services, ritual baths, cemeteries, etc.). These services were organized under the Jüdische Gemeinde (Jewish Community), the upkeep of which all Jews were obligated, by state law, to pay dues. As control of the Gemeinde fell to Reform activists and leaders, the Orthodox sought means to legally separate themselves from this encompassing collective.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88), a prominent Frankfurt rabbi, argued that paying dues to Reform-led activities lent support to an inauthentic Judaism. Following a long and arduous campaign, in 1876 the Prussian government authorized the power of secession, a law granting permission to the Orthodox to legally split from the Reform-dominated Jewish community.

Religious Hierarchy and the non-Observant Jew

Although some responses to non-observance and the Reform movement took a hard-line approach of complete separation from all activities of the organized Jewish community, a more nuanced stance was also expressed. For example, Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger of Altona, Germany (1798-1871) crafted a vision of Judaism that did not fully exclude those who strayed from observant life. He called for a conceptual scheme based on an internal hierarchy within Judaism, in which all Jews still belonged to a single collective, even as it recognized that Orthodoxy was unique in fulfilling Judaism to its fullest.

Traditionalism in Eastern Europe

Change came somewhat later to Eastern Europe than to Germany and the Austro-Hungarian lands. In the East, Jewish communities were endowed with particular social structures that allowed for the endurance of traditional patterns of Jewish life. The Hasidic movement and its voluntary organization around the court of the tsaddik, the presence of large yeshivot that transcended local communal institutions, and the presence of smaller societies and confraternities within communities all cushioned the blow to the disbanded kehilla. 

Also, in Eastern Europe, Jews often formed an absolute majority in the small towns where they lived, diminishing the impulse for acculturation. And unlike in Germany, the feudal character of the economies of Eastern Europe meant that Jews did not have non-Jewish bourgeois counterparts considered worthy of emulation.

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Joshua Teplitsky is a doctoral candidate at New York University in the departments of History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies. His research focuses on the Jewish experience in early modern Prague, and the culture of Jews in early modern Europe more generally.