This essay focuses upon Rabbi Manuel Joël, stressing for the first time his unusual position between the Positive-Historical and the Liberal movements within German Judaism. His stance produced controversy both with the Liberal Rabbi Abraham Geiger, his predecessor in the Breslau rabbinate, and Heinrich Graetz, his teacher at the Positive-Historical Breslau Theological Seminary. Points of dispute included Joël’s prayer book and his participation in the Liberal Leipzig Synod of 1869. Yet controversy eventually gave way to reconciliation and Joël could ultimately enjoy the respect of both factions.
The Positive-Historical trend in German Judaism located itself between modern Orthodoxy, as symbolized most prominently by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Reform or Liberal Judaism, as represented especially by Rabbi Abraham Geiger. Its central position and unclear boundaries gave it the advantage of drawing adherents from a broad spectrum of religious Jews, but also attracted attacks from both sides. Both in Europe and in America, it emerged as a revolt against the Reform movement in which it had participated up to a point. In Germany, the establishment of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau gave it institutional existence and also the desire to create an identity that set it apart from its rivals in each direction. Especially the Reformers were regarded as a threat and treated with contempt, witness, for example, Heinrich Graetz’s treatment of them in his history and Zacharias Frankel’s purposeful neglect of Abraham Geiger’s scholarship.1
However, at least one rabbi and scholar, Manuel Joël, positioned himself between the two sides, thereby removing the protective cover of a Richtung. Indeed, Joël rejected the idea of Richtungen in Judaism even as others tried to fasten a label upon him. Manuel Joël (1826–1890), almost forgotten for three generations, has received renewed scholarly attention recently, especially on account of his work on the history of Jewish philosophy and his defense of the Jews against attacks upon the post-biblical legal sources of Judaism.2 What have received far less attention are his religious and political positions, which placed him on the edge between the Liberal Judaism of an Abraham Geiger and the Conservative path of a Zacharias Frankel. Following a brief treatment of Joël’s accomplishments in other areas, this study will dwell on Joël, the rabbi seeking a middle path, not between Orthodoxy and Reform but between what he called the Conservativen and the Fortgeschrittenen.3
Joël did not claim to be a philosopher, but rather a “student of philosophy.”4 He was a pioneer in the modern study of Jewish medieval philosophy, especially for his attention to neglected figures such as Hasdai Crescas, his discovery of reciprocal influences between Jewish and Christian medieval philosophers, and his exploration of Jewish textual roots in Spinoza.5 Having studied with Friedrich Adolf Trendelenburg in Berlin,6 he clearly sympathized with his teacher’s attraction to the Aristotelian golden mean as well as to philosophical idealism. With regard to his own philosophical outlook, it became explicitly Kantian, thereby raising a banner that would reappear, among others, for example, in Hermann Cohen and Leo Baeck.7 Despite his felt need to refute Kant’s rejection of Judaism as a spiritless legalism, Joël venerated the sage of Königsberg for leaving him room for religious belief. Since Kant did not deny the existence of noumena, even if they could not be brought to cognition, he left metaphysical space for the existence of God beyond the categories of the human mind. Kant, as Joël saw him, was a mediator between philosophy and religion even as Joël sought to be a mediator between Judaism and European culture.8 Far from being its destroyer, Kant was the savior of religion, justifying belief in God and the afterlife. Surprisingly – and unlike Hermann Cohen – Joel found an acceptable faith even in Spinoza whose deus sive natura he believed to be compatible with orthodox Jewish theism.9
For Joël, who taught Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, a philosophical justification for belief was of utmost importance, especially in view of the rising tide of philosophical materialism that swept Germany after midcentury and which Joël set out to combat.10 Not only was Joël’s interest in philosophy unusual within nineteenth-century Jewish Wissenschaft, so too, within the Positive-Historical circle was his willingness to accept biblical criticism and Darwinism. He readily discounted the miraculous tales regarding the biblical Elijah, Elisha, and Daniel. Separating sharply between Wissenschaft and religion, Joël regarded the former as presenting no threat to religion and he believed that the theory of evolution did not vitiate historical teleology.11 The concept of divine providence, not the historical origin of a text or the evolutionary descent of humanity, was for Joël the undeniable essence of religion.
Although Joël’s sermons were judged to be richer in content than was common among most of his colleagues,12 he was well aware of the need to consider the emotional element in religion. His inspiration on this point was Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose subjective conception of truth offered the necessary complement to the objective truth offered by philosophy. For cultured Jews, as for their Christian counterparts, it was important not only to speak out of philosophical and scientific awareness but also, while avoiding a stilted Kanzelton, to address the heart as well as the mind.13 Nevertheless, Joël is reputed to have avoided romanticism and, like his colleagues, kept far from Jewish mysticism.14 As a teacher of homiletics at the Seminary and its weekly preacher, and later as the rabbi at the community synagogue in Breslau, Joël gained a reputation as one of the finest Jewish preachers of his time – even if, as it was claimed, he lacked the fire of an Abraham Geiger.15
Joël’s professional career began when Zacharias Frankel appointed him to the first faculty of the Breslau seminary in 1854. Like Abraham Geiger, he once claimed that he preferred the tranquil life of the scholar to that of the active rabbi. In addition, he doubted that he had the capacity to discharge the duties of the practical rabbinate, which, he noted, involved both uprooting and planting.16 It is, therefore, surprising that during his tenure at the seminary, he considered an offer to become the rabbi of the Jewish community in Stettin in 1859, only agreeing to remain after the seminary generously raised his salary; four years later he vied unsuccessfully against Adolf Jellinek for the Liberal pulpit in Vienna.17 Perhaps his relations with his colleagues, who like himself and his family lived in the seminary building, were not always comfortable (we know, for example, that he regarded Frankel as unapproachably distant, and there is good reason to believe that his relationship with Heinrich Graetz may not always have been ideal).18 No doubt, also, the financial circumstances for a rabbi serving a community of 12,000 souls were better than those for a teacher in a struggling seminary. It is, therefore, not so surprising that he became one of the three candidates for the Breslau Liberal pulpit when Abraham Geiger decided to move to Frankfurt am Main in 1863.19 The community’s leaders hoped that Joël would be able to unite “the Geiger and the Frankel parties.”20 It was anticipated that Joël, who was well known and respected in the community, would easily win the election. That was the more certain as the majority of the community’s Representative Assembly belonged to the “so-called Middle- or Seminary-Party,” and some to the Orthodox. It was noted that Joël’s integrity lent support to his promise that he would retain the worship in the Liberal synagogue in its accustomed manner. His election would lead to a reconciliation between the two dominant factions in Breslau, the Conservatives and the Liberals.21
Before Joël was finally chosen for the Breslau pulpit, the leadership of the community required him to present his views for their approval. In his prepared statement, he declared that with regard to the public worship, he found himself in complete agreement with the religious direction that the community had taken under the leadership of Abraham Geiger. However, he also noted that although 20 years ago, at the time of the reforming rabbinical conferences, it had been necessary to negate, German Jewry had now entered a new age that no longer required the same measure of rejection. The time was ripe for an emphasis on the positive, which for him meant, in particular, presenting essential Jewish teachings in relation to philosophy, contemporary culture, and critical historical study. The husks had been shucked; the present task was to replant the kernel. Joël called his program “moderate reform and thoughtful progress.” Following Frankel, he promised that he would be guided by the collective will of the community, taking care not to offend deeply held religious feelings. However, in response to a question, Joël replied that he would teach only the messianic idea of Judaism, not belief in a personal messiah (but without explicitly negating it either), and that the national and political restoration of the Jews to the land of Israel would not be taught at all in the religious school of the community.22
Conflict arose only after some years when the Breslau leadership decided to build a community synagogue that, it was hoped, would serve Jews committed to the broadest range of religious views and practices, leaving out only the most orthodox. Although, as in the privately maintained Storch Synagoge where Geiger had preached, an organ would accompany the services, it was thought that a new, more traditional prayer book would be appropriate, especially as the one Geiger had authored in 1854 was no longer available. Not surprisingly, Geiger was eager that the new synagogue retain the substance of his earlier liturgy, perhaps with a change or two that he himself would institute. Under no circumstances should it regress in the direction of the Orthodox prayer book. However, by this time, Joël had established himself as the rabbi of the community and it seemed appropriate to entrust him with the task of compiling a prayer book that, while continuous with that of his predecessor, would be more appealing to traditional elements in the community and more in line with his own theology.23 Geiger soon realized that the survival of his prayer book in Breslau was in jeopardy; his successor would replace it with his own, thereby diminishing Geiger’s ongoing influence in the community.24
Geiger had been considering a new edition of his prayer book for Frankfurt.25 If not the original Geiger prayer book, he must have thought, perhaps Breslau would adopt his new one. So in 1868, Geiger took the initiative and published an exposition of his views on liturgy that had served as the basis for his 1854 Breslau prayer book and which there and elsewhere, he claimed, had won many hearts. Although he insisted that it was not his intent to stir controversy, his pamphlet, in fact, laid down the gauntlet to Joël, who had no choice but to reply.26 Thus began a controversy that focused on the liturgical borderline between Zacharias Frankel’s Positive-Historical stance and Geiger’s Liberal Judaism, with Manuel Joël trying to maneuver between them.
As far as we know, when he had been the community rabbi in Dresden, Frankel had not compiled a revised prayer book. He did institute a few liturgical reforms, but they were either of a cosmetic nature or designed to remove or revise only those passages that were offensive to Gentiles.27 In contrast, Geiger’s 1854 prayer book, intended for the Liberal segment of the Breslau community, went considerably further. Not only had he removed the phrase that set the people of Israel apart “from all the nations,”28 he had also instituted additional significant revisions of the Hebrew text including minimization of reference to sacrifices in the Hebrew and their complete omission in the German translation as well as modification of the highly particularistic text of the alenu prayer. In the Hebrew text, he did retain the passage: “Let a new light shine upon Zion and may we speedily merit its light.” But he accompanied it with a radically universalized version in the German.29 For Geiger, Zion and Jerusalem in liturgy were spiritual concepts, but not physical locations.
Given the prospect of Joël’s revised prayer book, Geiger felt the need to provide a rationale for his earlier liturgical work. Although, unlike the more radical Rabbi Samuel Holdheim, Geiger recognized the importance of retaining a strong connection with the “entire historical past” and that the religious service must represent the fullest expression of the community’s shared consciousness, he was convinced that reform of the liturgy should move in a single direction: from the traditional prayer book to one that accurately reflected the beliefs of contemporary worshipers. As a self-designated “free-thinking” (freisinnig) theologian, Geiger regarded compromise as necessary in order to preserve unity but did not think it had intrinsic value. Never should reform move backwards, away from the present toward the past; never should it make a principle of sacrificing intellectual honesty for the sake of “a false love of peace.” His most radical suggestion was to eliminate any reference to the binding of Isaac from the High Holiday liturgy. The patriarch Abraham’s greatness, according to Geiger, lay not in his willingness to obey a pagan-like command to sacrifice his son, in the manner of Moloch worship, but in his not carrying it out.30 Of course, succumbing to what Geiger regarded as a sick romanticism, one could retain intellectually or morally offensive texts simply because they bore the sanctity of the past, but that, he believed, was to indulge an illness, not to provide a cure.
In view of the fact that he was now himself about to engage in compiling a prayer book for Breslau, Joël could not leave Geiger’s challenge unanswered. But before that could happen, the two men would personally encounter each other at a rabbinical conference in Cassel, which took place in August 1868, only a few months after the publication of Geiger’s pamphlet. Joël’s attendance at that conference marked his first clear break with the Conservative faction. Moreover, although he was the only rabbi present who had any association with the seminary, Joël was not an outsider at the gathering. When the commissions for a planned synod were selected, it was Joël, and not Geiger, who joined Lazarus Adler and Ludwig Philippson in serving on the one devoted to liturgy. It must have seemed strange that Manuel Joël, a former teacher at Frankel’s seminary and known to lean toward the Conservative camp, should join Liberal rabbis, some of whom had attended the 1845 Frankfurt rabbinical conference from which Zacharias Frankel had so demonstratively exited once he was convinced that he did not belong there.31 Nor did the increasingly acrimonious polemics with Geiger dissuade Joël from playing a significant role in the synod, initiated by Geiger and Philippson, that was held at Leipzig the following year. On the contrary, his Cassel experience spurred Joël to publish his own position on liturgy, not only as an answer to Geiger but because the upcoming synod was to consider a common prayer book for all non-Orthodox German Jewish communities. If, however, there would not be a liturgy acceptable to all, his essay would provide the philosophical foundation for the prayer book he would then compile for Breslau – and which might be more broadly accepted as well.32
In marked contrast to Moses Mendelssohn’s assertion that Judaism lacks dogmas, Joël’s essay expresses the opinion that it does have three articles of belief – God, prophecy, and revelation – and, therefore, the liturgy may not violate them. As all religious Jews accept these fundamental tenets, there is no theological basis for division into opposing religious movements; Jewish religious differences are limited to inessentials. Playing the role of mediator, Joël argues for stressing this common ground and giving less attention to points of separation in ritual and liturgy. The existing differences should be bridged by compromises that would be acceptable to the broadest spectrum of the community. There could be no reasonable objection to abbreviating the liturgy, dividing the weekly Torah reading among the four services at which the Torah is read during the week, and, while mentioning Jerusalem, removing prayers for return to the land of Israel. On only one significant point, Joël here explicitly disagreed with Geiger: whereas, on the basis of their condemnation by the Prophets, Geiger wanted to remove all reference to the ancient sacrificial service, Joël preferred to retain mention of the animal sacrifices as representing a moment in Jewish history, even as he was opposed to praying for their restoration. Taking a position that would bridge the Conservative orientation with the Liberal one, Joël thus laid out a liturgical middle path that would make the new community synagogue, even with its organ, whose installation he explicitly favored, attractive to the largest number of Breslau Jews. Jews who had previously prayed separately, Joël hoped, would now be able to pray together.
Geiger, who was never one to leave a challenge answered, now felt that he, in turn, was compelled to answer Joël. He did so at length, thereupon driving the latter to write a counterresponse. At this point, the dispute between them became exceedingly acrimonious – remarkably so as the differences with regard to specifics were, in fact, not that great.33 It is here, in this second round, that two fundamental differences of religious orientation between the two men emerge. Geiger understands reform as a process that must continue to move forward as quickly as the community will allow, whereas Joël’s aim is less to urge progress toward the future than to maintain satisfaction in the present, even if that means reaching back into the past. In addition, Geiger is unwilling to accept any restrictions in the theoretical realm, even with regard to Joël’s stipulated dogmas. For Geiger, what provides continuity in Jewish history is not any set of beliefs but solely the ever forward moving inner Geistestrieb of the Jewish people. As an uncompromising truth seeker, Geiger is determined, where necessary, to emphasize differences; as a mediator, Joël’s thrust is to minimize them. For Geiger, dispute – even caustic dispute – toughens Judaism; for Joël, it weakens it.34
Reiterating the need for theological boundaries that consolidate the Jewish community within them, Joël points to the shared dangers posed to the entire community by contemporary proponents of materialist and atheist thought, such as Feuerbach and Moleschott. But the tension separating the two men is by now too intense to be relieved by common ground. Claiming shock at Geiger’s allegedly Inquisition-like accusations, Joël’s response bristles with its own sarcasm and irony. Descending to the personal, he now accuses Geiger of undermining his position in Breslau by attacking his views on liturgy. Geiger, Joël concludes, has the arrogance of intimating that “le temps c’est moi.”35
Given the acidity of this second exchange, it is remarkable that it did not deter Joël from participating actively, once again together with Geiger, in the synod taking place that very year.36 With the exception of Frankel’s successor in Dresden, Rabbi Wolf Landau, Joël was again the lone rabbinical representative of the Positive-Historical School at a Liberal gathering.37 Although there may have been some conflict behind the scenes,38 yet, on the whole, a remarkable harmony reigned between Joël and the other members. At the synod, he placed himself within the consensus when he explicitly affirmed his belief in religious progress, qualifying it only by the condition that “the majority of the gibildete Judenheit go along.”39 With regard to all matters relating to return to Palestine, sacrificial service and a political interpretation of messianism, Jöel claimed shortly after the synod, he personally stood on the same ground as “the decisions of the synod on which I worked, along with Dr. Geiger.”40 Joël’s principal concern seems to have been that the Jewish public not perceive the synod as divisive. But what for our subject is perhaps most remarkable about what transpired at the synod is that Joël, not simply in spite of but because of his previous connection with the Breslau Theological Seminary, was appointed, along with Geiger, to a five-man commission whose task was to further the establishment of a Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, which would clearly rival the Breslau institution. In appointing him, the president of the synod, Moritz Lazarus, specifically noted Joël’s appropriateness for the task because he had gained relevant experience from his close contact with the rabbinical seminary.41
Whereas Joël willingly and actively participated in the synod, the circle around Zacharias Frankel was determined to combat it both by polemic and by the establishment of a counter-organization. Writing in the Monatsschrift, and with Frankel’s explicit approval, seminary professor Heinrich Graetz attacked the synod before it even began, characterizing it as a gathering of Reform rabbis abetted by ignorant laymen that was dangerous for the future of Judaism. One certainly couldn’t trust the lay participants – an assertion that Joël explicitly did not share.42 As in the period following Frankel’s departure from the rabbinical conference in Frankfurt in 1845,43 this time too his faction sought to create a rival organization of the like-minded. On the very days that the synod took place in Leipzig, a group of Frankel’s disciples and colleagues met at the seminary in Breslau.44 Convened by Frankel and Graetz, they called themselves the Jewish-Theological Society, echoing the name of the seminary, and, seeking to avoid publicity, met partly in closed sessions. In line with Frankel’s thinking, their program called for a more “positive” but also an historical approach to Judaism. In contrast to Joël, its participants rejected the synod, implying that the differences between their school and that of the more radical reformers were too great to be bridged. The society’s goal was to “defeat in battle” what one of its advocates called the fanaticism of both the Reformers and the Orthodox.45 Although Frankel’s high hopes for the society did not materialize and it failed to meet again,46 there was one significant outcome. Only a few months after the synod, Rabbi Abraham Treuenfels, who, like Frankel, had been present at the Frankfurt rabbinical conference of 1845, founded the first periodical to represent Positive-Historical Judaism, the Israelitische Wochen-Schrift, which existed from 1870 to 1894. This new platform, he noted in his introductory statement, would represent “the proper knowledge of Judaism.”47 As for the positions of Geiger and Joël, Treuenfels believed that these two theoretically oriented individuals were both wrong in disputing over dogmas when what really mattered in Judaism was practice.48 With regard to the synod itself, Treuenfels held that the men attending it belonged collectively to the Reform party in Judaism. Thus, in his view, it was a divisive not a bridging endeavor.49
Although for reasons that are not evident in the extant sources Joël did not attend the second synod, held in Augsburg in 1871, he continued to straddle the divide between the factions, seeking common ground among non-Orthodox German Jews and opposing schismatic tendencies such as Neo-Orthodox separatism.50 Apart from theology and religious practice, he was able to stress commonality in political orientation. His well-regarded sermons frequently gave voice to a high regard for the monarchy that was broadly shared by his listeners. He denounced Ludwig Börne as a “monomaniac of freedom”51 and as a political conservative who raised patriotism to the level of religion. He even expressed the view that a militant Prussia was the instrument of divine providence.52 Germany was “hallowed ground” and the Prussian monarch “the anointed of God”53; Jewish identity was entirely limited to religious conviction alone.54 Although he vigorously defended Judaism against its ancient and contemporary assailants, Joël made it clear that Judaism had progressed since ancient times and continued to do so in the modern period.55 His generation of Jews used the Talmud only selectively; they were not Talmudjuden. “We gladly use its moral aphorisms,” he wrote, “but with the freest critique!”56 And just as Joël could not associate himself fully with the Talmud, neither could he entirely identify himself with Heinrich Graetz when his former colleague was attacked by Heinrich von Treitschke for allegedly exaggerating antisemitism and measuring great Germans by their attitude to Jews. “We are not identical with Graetz,” Joël wrote in his widely circulated pamphlet; in the passages cited by Treitschke, Graetz “has decidedly not spoken from our Jewish souls.”57
In sum, unlike Rabbi Abraham Geiger or the Berlin rabbi Michael Sachs,58 Joël belongs fully to neither the Liberal nor the Positive-Historical Richtung. Though at various times, in word and in deed, disagreeing with both sides, he managed to keep a foot in each camp and seems never to have lost the respect of either faction. Nor did he himself have anything other than high regard for their leading representatives. It is, therefore, not surprising that when, in 1884, a broadly based German rabbinical association was formed in defense of Judaism against its enemies, he should have been chosen unanimously to be its chair, even as the equally representative Rabbi Leo Baeck would head its successor organization years later.59 But there is perhaps no better indication of his stance than when he was asked to give memorial orations for both Abraham Geiger, his sometime bitter opponent on the religious left, and Zacharias Frankel, who was considerably more conservative than he.60 In a eulogy that went beyond the perfunctory, Joël spoke of Geiger’s courage and success in ennobling Jewish liturgy, praised him for his daring scholarship, and declared him a man who had lived a significant life. With regard to Frankel, he now claimed that the head of the seminary could not be tucked into any Richtung. For Joël, who frequently described himself as without Richtung, that was sincere praise, even if it was not quite accurate. When Joël himself died in 1890, Rabbi Benjamin Rippner, a member of the Frankel school, eulogized Geiger in conjunction with Joël. Geiger, like a prophet, had been loved, honored, and celebrated, but also detested by some for being willing to destroy in order to liberate and redeem. It was fortunate for Breslau, thought Rippner, that Geiger had been succeeded by Joël, whose outlook and personality suited him for the mediation that subsequently had become a necessity.61