Introduction: The Jewish-Theological Seminary of Breslau, the ‘Science of Judaism’ and the Development of a Middle-of-the-Road Current in Religious Judaism

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The following section, divided into two parts to appear both in this and the following issue of Transversal, emerged out of an international conference that took place in Oxford in July 2013. The symposium, organized in the memory of the late Francesca Yardenit Albertini (1974–2011), was convened by Frederek Musall (Hochschule für Jüdische Studien, Heidelberg) and Andreas Brämer (Institut für die Geschichte der deutschen Juden, Hamburg) in cooperation with the European Association for Jewish Studies.1

The idea to gather scholars from Europe, Israel, and the United States in order to discuss the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar Fränckelscher Stiftung in Breslau in the context of Wissenschaft des Judentums and the new religious pluralism of the nineteenth century builds on a number of observations. Around the year 1840, the religious spectrum of German Jewry comprised, on the one hand, various orthodox orientations—from an anti-modern “Traditional Orthodoxy” to Neo-Orthodoxy, which combined its strict adherence to Jewish Law with an affirmative stance towards European culture and the German nation. On the other hand, there existed radical and moderate variants of Reform Jewry, which subjected Jewish tradition to historical critique and assessed Jewish belief and practice according to the cultural and social parameters of the contemporary non-Jewish environment.

Research on the religious history of modern German Jewry has dealt extensively with the processes of secularization, religious modernization and pluralization. Particularly, the Reform movement and (Neo-)Orthodoxy, as well as their key figures, have been at the centre of scholarly interest during the past decades.2 Less attention, however, has been paid to the representatives of a third religious movement that began distancing themselves from both Reform and Orthodoxy by publicly articulating their position. This “middle movement” situated itself between the two opposing poles by combining the belief in a Sinaitic revelation with a historical perspective on the tradition, whose authority and binding nature it acknowledged.3 Around midcentury, that so-called “positive-historical Judaism” began to constitute itself as a distinctive religious movement by firmly rooting its ideas of “moderate progress” through self-organization in networks of persons, institutions, and associations. However, modern historiography—especially when dealing with later periods since the national unification of Germany in 1870/1871—does not always seem to perceive this religious “golden mean” as a religious denomination in its own right.4 The conference sought to critically fill in some of these historiographical lacunae by bringing the “middle movement” to the center of scientific attention.

The most prominent and articulate representative of moderate reform was Zacharias Frankel (1801–1875), a Prague born rabbi and scholar.5 Under his supervision and leadership, two significant institutions came into being: The Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums (MGWJ), which Frankel edited from 1851 onwards and which, until its prohibition in 1939, was the most important German-speaking journal in the field of Jewish Studies6; and the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, where Frankel served as inaugural director from 1854 until his death in 1875, and whose foundation was emblematic for a new era of academically informed rabbinical studies. By 1939, when the School was eventually closed and destroyed by the Nazis, 700 students and auditors had enrolled, of whom 249 were ordained as rabbis.7

An important source of inspiration for the “middle movement” was the “Science of Judaism” (Wissenschaft des Judentums), which found its home both in the periodical MGWJ and in the seminary. Far from advocating a science free from basic metaphysical tenets, Frankel explicitly espoused a “science of faith,” a Glaubenswissenschaft, which, despite its reservations about the constraints of dogma, could not completely get along without them. Piety, which looked both inwardly and to the outside, was for him simultaneously the prerequisite, the signpost, and the goal of scientific inquiry.8 Active as the head of the Breslau JTS, Frankel directed the very first modern institution for rabbinical training set up on German soil. During their studies at the seminary, the candidates had ample opportunity to become acquainted with Frankel’s ethos of scholarship, to which the other teachers also had to swear their allegiance. When the contemporary Jewish press used the term “Breslau school,” the referent was not just a current within religious Judaism but also the principles of a religiously infused scholarship that were valid at the Seminary.

The Breslau version of Wissenschaft des Judentums was supposed to create and offer German Jewry a sense of identity, while at the same time pointing toward possibilities for cautious religious renewal. “Positive-historical Judaism”—a term coined by Frankel to describe his religious and scholarly standpoint—actually assumed that in the course of the historical process, a continuous self-renewal of Judaism would eventually take place. Therefore, the historical continuity with the past as well as the “organic” cohesion of Judaism while undergoing this process had to be preserved. In Frankel’s opinion, the scholarly research on the religious law and on rabbinical hermeneutics served this very purpose. In accordance with the German Historical School of Jurisprudence (Historische Rechtsschule), representatives of the “middle movement” drew upon key notions like “collective national consciousness” (Volksbewusstsein) and “collective will” (Gesamtwillen). Klal Yisrael, the national-religious unity and uniqueness of the Jewish community, served as the central criterion in weighing the pros and cons of concrete possible changes.9

While Orthodoxy rejected the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau mostly for dogmatic reasons, Reform Judaism, for its part, was critically concerned that the seminary could never actually realize its promised renewal of rabbinical studies. By the 1870s, two other rabbinical institutions eventually started teaching, an outgrowth of that dissatisfaction with the endeavors of the “middle movement.” Hence, the liberal Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums (1872) and rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer’s Orthodox Rabbinical Seminary (1873) were the result of this enuring pluralization within German Jewry.10 Yet the foundation of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau was a milestone for the history of the German rabbinate: The year 1854 thus not only marks the beginning of a new era but also the completion of the preceding modernization process.

The conference convened at the Wolfson College in 2013 sought to focus on the scholarly research and educational training practiced at the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary. It pursued the question of if and how this institution actually grew into a kind of “think tank” of and for the “middle movement,” and accordingly followed the development of the positive-historical movement in Germany up to the 1930s. While the geographical focus at first lied on the territory of the German Kaiserreich, the perspective on the JTS and its development subsequently needed to be broadened by taking on a comparative perspective, looking at other European countries, Israel, and across the Atlantic. The seven essays that are being presented in Transversal, three of them following this introduction and another four to be published in the following issue, pick up different threads connected to the Breslau seminary, its scholarship, and the efforts to create a moderate version of progressive Judaism. While Irene Kajon (Rome) is looking at Breslau from a comparative standpoint, juxtaposing the JTS and the Collegio Rabbinico in Padua, both Yaakov George Kohler (Ramat Gan) and Nils Roemer (Dallas) are focusing on important aspects of the religious philosophical studies conducted at the Seminar (and in Roemer’s case, also beyond it). The next issue of Transversal will present four more essays. Michael A. Meyer (Cincinnati), Carsten Wilke (Budapest), and Asaf Yedidya turn our attention to three interesting personalities, who have—each in his own specific geographical and historical context—endeavored to foster the notion of a religious midstream. Last but not least, Chanan Gafni (Jerusalem) is investigating the oral tradition as an object of critical scholarship in the nineteenth century. We hope that the articles in this two-part section will encourage scholars to further explore the history of the Breslau seminary properly and, more generally, the relationship of religion and critical scholarship as a fascinating facet of the modern Jewish experience.


1See the conference report by Kerstin von der Krone:
2Important studies: Mordechai Breuer, Modernity Within Tradition: The Social History of Orthodox Jewry in Imperial Germany, New York 1992; Matthias Morgenstern, Von Frankfurt nach Jerusalem. Isaac Breuer und die Geschichte des „Austrittsstreits” in der deutsch-jüdischen Orthodoxie, Tübingen 1995; Jacob Katz, A House Divided. Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry, Hanover, NH, 1998; Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity. A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, New York / Oxford 1988; David Ellenson, After Emancipation. Jewish Religious Responses to Modernity, Cincinnati 2004; Adam Ferziger, Exclusion and Hierarchy. Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity, Philadelphia 2005; Ken Koltun-Fromm, Abraham Geiger’s Liberal Judaism. Personal Meaning and Religious Authority, Bloomington 2006; Christian Wiese (ed.), Redefining Judaism in an Age of Emancipation: Comparative Perspectives on Samuel Holdheim (1806-1860), Leiden 2007; idem/ Walter Homolka / Thomas Brechenmacher (eds.), Jüdische Existenz in der Moderne: Abraham Geiger und die Wissenschaft des Judentums, Berlin 2013.
3Cf. M.A. Meyer, “Recent Historiography on the Jewish Religion in Modern Germany”, in: Leo Baeck Institute Year Book (LBIYB) 35 (1990), pp. 3-16; there are, however, a few more recent contributions dealing with representatives of the religious juste milieu: Andreas Brämer, Rabbiner Zacharias Frankel. Wissenschaft des Judentums und konservative Reform im 19. Jahrhhundert, Hildesheim/ Zurich/ New York. 2000; Margit Schad, Rabbiner Michael Sachs. Judentum als höhere Lebensanschauung, Hildesheim/ Zurich/ New York 2007; Marcus Pyka, Jüdische Identität bei Heinrich Graetz, Göttingen 2009; Schad is also presently working on a monograph dedicated to the history of the positive historical trend in German Jewry.
4See, for example, Steven Lowenstein’s remarks on the religious landscape in German Jewry, in: Michael A. Meyer (ed.), German-Jewish History in Modern Times. Volume 3: Integration in Dispute 1871-1918, New York 1997, pp. 103-108.
5Brämer, Rabbiner Zacharias Frankel; Ismar Schorsch, “Zacharias Frankel and the European Origins of Conservative Judaism”, in: Judaism 30 (1981), pp. 344-354.
6Marcus Brann, “Zur Geschichte der ‚Monatsschrift’”, in: MGWJ 51 (1907), S. 1-16; Kurt Wilhelm, “Die Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums. Ein geistesgeschichtlicher Versuch”, in: Guido Kisch (ed.), Das Breslauer Seminar. Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar (Fraenckelscher Stiftung) in Breslau 1854-1938. Gedächtnisschrift, Tübingen 1963, pp. 327-349; A. Brämer, “Die Anfangsjahre der ‚Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums’ (1851-1868). Kritische Forschung und jüdische Tradition im Zeitalter der Emanzipation”, in: Michael Nagel (ed.), Zwischen Selbstbehauptung und Verfolgung. Deutsch-jüdische Zeitungen und Zeitschriften von der Aufklärung bis zum Nationalsozialismus, Hildesheim/ Zurich/ New York 2002, pp. 139-159.
7A monograph on the Breslau Seminary is still a desideratum; cf. Guy Miron (ed.), From Breslau to Jerusalem: Rabbinical Seminaries Past, Present and Future (Hebr.), Jerusalem 2009: especially the essays by Guy Miron, “The Breslau Rabbinical Seminary. The Last Generation”, pp. 86-99; and A. Brämer, “The Early Years of the Breslau Rabbinical Seminary: The Change in the Rabbinical Profession in Germany in the Nineteenth Century”, pp. 27-50; see also Francesca Y. Albertini, “Das Judentum und die Wissenschaft: Zum 150. Gründungsjahr des Jüdisch-theologischen Seminars in Breslau”, in: Judaica 60 (2004), pp. 141-158.
8Zacharias Frankel, “Über palästinische und alexandrinische Schriftforschung”, in: Programm zur Eröffnung des jüdisch-theologischen Seminars zu Breslau am 10. August 1854, Breslau 1854, p. 42; concerning Frankel’s ideas on Wissenschaft cf. A. Brämer, “Jüdische ‚Glaubenswissenschaft’ – Zacharias Frankels rechtshistorische Forschung als Herausforderung der Orthodoxie”, in: Thomas Meyer/ Andreas Kilcher (eds.), Die »Wissenschaft des Judentums«. Eine Bestandsaufnahme, Paderborn 2015, pp. 79-94.
9§ 18, Statut für das jüdisch-theologische Seminar Fraenckel’sche Stiftung zu Breslau, Breslau 1854, p. 13, cf. A. Brämer, “The Dilemmas of Moderate Reform. Some Reflections on the Development of Conservative Judaism in Germany 1840-1880”, in: Jewish Studies Quarterly 10 (2003), pp. 73-87.
10Irene Kaufmann, Die Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (1872-1942), Berlin 2006; Heinz-Hermann Völker, “Die Gründung und Entwicklung der Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums 1869-1900”, in: Trumah 2 (1990), pp. 24-46; Mordechai Eliav, Das Berliner Rabbinerseminar 1873-1938. Seine Gründungsgeschichte, seine Studenten, Berlin 2008; David Ellenson, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy, Tuscaloosa / London 1990.

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