In 1966, Ephraim Elimelech Urbach and a group of religious intellectual figures established the Movement for Torah’s Judaism, in order to change some elements in the religious life in Israel. The hegemony of religion in Israel belonged at that time to Orthodox Judaism and its political parties, especially the Lithuanian Yeshivot circles. The new movement challenged the “gap between the people and the Torah and the gap between the halacha and the political, economic and social reality”, and called “to revive the halacha through the clear assumption, that the problems of the State are included again in the field of Torah”.
Urbach’s movement was an attempt to establish a Jewish “midstream movement”, and actually to reestablish the Breslau School, in Israel. The movement opposed the domination of Lithuanian orthodoxy in Israel’s religious life, as well as the very way of neo-orthodoxy, which represented the idea of “a technologist with the permission of the Torah”. They were also opposed to Reform Judaism. Although they opposed the secular way, they were obligated to cooperate with the secular majority in all the national-public missions. Their three main motions for the agenda were: the method of ruling halacha; changing problematic prayers; and establishing a modern rabbinical seminary.
After the establishment of the movement, only a few hundred members joined it. The movement did not succeed in influencing large audiences. The movement also failed in establishing the rabbinical seminary. After a decade, the movement ceased its activities.
In 1845, the German Rabbi Zechariah Frankel (1801–1875) quit the second liberal rabbis’ conference in Frankfurt am Main and established a new German-Jewish midstream movement—“the positive-historical Judaism.” Nine years later, he led the first rabbinical seminary in Germany, the Jewish-Theological Seminary of Breslau, and actually was the guide and intellectual-religious authority for new generations of rabbis, who followed his legacy. His ideology was midway between the Jewish Orthodoxy and Jewish Liberal movement.1
Frankel held that the core of the Jewish religion was “positive,” that is, revealed, and, therefore, not subject to rational criticism or change. However, the oral law developed within history, and its authority lay in the collective will of average religious Jews: “There is a revelation too, in the common consciousness of a religious community which, as long as it remains that group’s living common possession, deserves as much recognition as the unmediated divine one.”2 Therefore, in Frankel’s view, no religious reformer had a right, for reasons of rationality, to alter norms the people themselves had not cast aside. However, Frankel claimed that the oral law can still be subject to reinterpretations (but not to reformations).
This attitude was reflected in his Halachic ruling—aligning itself with the collective will of average religious Jews by permitting to carry without an Eiruv and to drink milk and wine of non-Jews3 as well as by changing those traditional prayers containing exaggerated criticism of non-Jews. For example, Frankel made changes in the “Velamalshinim” prayer. At the time, this prayer constituted a pretext for Christians to censure the Jews on the grounds that they were praying for the destruction of Christians. It was for this reason in 1843 that Frankel introduced a revised version of the prayer in his Dresden congregation. In place of the traditional version: “[…] let all evildoers perish swiftly and all your enemies be speedily cut of. Uproot, crush, cast down and humble the arrogant speedily in our days,” Frankel introduced a different version: “[…] let evil perish swiftly, and speedily humble the arrogant so that they might return to You.”4
For comparison, Orthodox scholars, who like Frankel had a problem with this text, refrained from changing the ancient prayer. The Orthodox historian Abraham Berliner, for example, despite his dissatisfaction from this prayer and after dealing with its various versions, draws an Orthodox conclusion: “Nowadays we must of necessity decide on one unified version. Today, too, we regrettably have much reason to pray that there be no hope for heretics, that they do not succeed, that the ‘seed of lies’ will be completely destroyed—in the words of the liturgist—and that all those who commit wickedness will be swiftly destroyed.”5 Further reasons for his not changing the wording are, first, the antiquity of the prayer and, second, that he could not cite the authority of important Halachic arbiters, not even as an alternative suggestion.
Frankel also had a new halachic opinion on the issue of postmortem surgery. Autopsy, a procedure that, according to Jewish law, amounted to the desecration of a dead body, was frequently the subject of halachic disputes, under pressure of regulations and the systematic use of anatomy for medical research. He based his opinion that religious law should permit dissection on the argument that earlier responses had been unaware of dissection for medical purposes. The orthodox rabbis did not find this acceptable. Only in very specific cases, where the anatomical examination of a dead body might possibly help a seriously ill patient, dissection was permitted, providing that the next of kin agreed to it.6
The new discipline of Wissenschaft des Judentums was a central part of the rabbis’ training process and of their learning and ruling methods. The seminary’s curriculum was able to provide the knowledge and tools required for Frankel’s new model of rabbi. In addition to Talmud study, it included Jewish history and philosophy, as well as homiletics.7
The positive-historical Judaism was not a comprehensive religious movement like liberal Judaism or Orthodox Judaism in Germany, or even Conservative Judaism in the United States. It was an intellectual movement with an important and influential rabbinical seminary that provided rabbis for many communities, trained scholars of Jewish studies, and had its own popular newspaper and journal, but it had no union of communities or organization of rabbis.
On November 10, 1938, immediately after Kristallnacht, the Nazis closed the seminary. The end of the positive-historical Judaism in Germany arrived. The movement did not have a direct successor in another country, although Conservative Judaism in the United States shares common values and goals with it. Several teachers, rabbis, and graduates of the Breslau school have already made Aliyah to the land of Israel, but they did not act as a group and did not try to reestablish their movement.
One of them was Ephraim Elimelech Urbach. He was born in 1912 in Białystok, Poland, to a Hasidic family and received a traditional Jewish education, as practiced in his native country. In the early 1930s, he studied at the Universities of Breslau and Rome and at the rabbinical seminary of Breslau, where he received his rabbinic ordination. In this period, in order to support himself, he worked as a private teacher for Talmud in Jewish- German families. In the last years of the seminary, Urbach was one of its teachers, while he was only 25 years old. He made Aliyah to the land of Israel late in 1938. He served as a rabbi with the British army during World War II. He also took part in Israel’s War of Independence and thereafter worked for several educational institutions before joining the Hebrew University faculty in 1953. In 1955, Urbach was awarded the Israel Prize for Jewish studies.8
In the early 1950s, Urbach was one of the participants in the Religious and State Forum, whose goal was to discuss matters of present legislative authority under the halacha. Along with Zeev Falk and Isaiah Leibowitz, they wrote their suggestion on how halacha should deal with the challenge of sovereignty and submitted it to the forum. Urbach wrote the introduction, Leibowitz the chapter on Shabbat, and Falk the chapter on the role of women in the society.9 Urbach claimed that the new Israeli Sovereignty presents a challenge to religious leaders to reinterpret the halacha according to the politic and moral reality. He said that the new challenge forced the religious leaders to be the “constructors” of the Torah instead of its “sons.” He added that they should submit their new halachic rules to the Knesset (the Israeli Legislature), even if they know that they will be rejected by the majority of the members, because “it is important that the words of the few among the words of the majority be mentioned, since the words of today’s minority may become the majority words of tomorrow.”10 The forum did not yield any results, and Urbach waited 15 years to return to these discussions seriously and publicly. In 1966, Urbach and a group of religious intellectual figures established the Movement for Torah’s Judaism, in order to change some elements in the religious life in Israel. The hegemony of religion in Israel belonged at that time to Orthodox Judaism and its political parties, especially the Lithuanian Yeshivot circles. The new movement challenged the “gap between the people and the Torah and the gap between the halacha and the political, economic and social reality” and called “to revive the halacha through the clear assumption, that the problems of the State are included again in the field of Torah.” The six goals and principles of the movement were
The Torah is the legacy of the whole people.
The commandments relating to interaction between man and man are integral part of the halacha.
The urgency of reviving the halacha and the religious institutions.
Objection to religious coercion.
Religious tolerance towards other religions.
Relevance also to the Diaspora Jews.11
The most important section of the new movement was the halacha committee. Urbach felt that he lived in a period of rabbinical conservatism and even retreat. Orthodox Jewry is intent on jealously guarding what it has inherited rather than developing its heritage in the face of great new challenges, and in particular the challenge of the new Jewish State. The result is stagnation in halachic development—almost total absence of creativity in a field that should be potentially vast: Jewish laws of the Jewish State.12
Urbach, like Frankel before him, believed in the total authority of halacha and in its divine origin. He also believed that “halacha was not clear-cut and does not have to be clear-cut.”13 According to him, the codification of halacha is not final and the sages have permission or even an obligation to reinterpret halacha according to the changing reality. The authority of halacha lay in the acceptance of the people. He used to quote Maimonides’ introduction to Mishneh Torah: “But whatever is already mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud is binding on all Israel. And every city and country is bound to observe all the customs observed by the sages of the Gemara, promulgate their decrees, and uphold their institutions, on the ground that all these customs, decrees and institutions mentioned in the Talmud received the assent of all of Israel…”14 This principle should rule if we are accepting the new interpretation or rejecting it. Like Frankel, he cited the Jerusalem Talmud’s principle (tractate Shabbat): “every edict which the rabbinic court ordered the public and most of the public did not accept it, is cancelled.” He also pointed on previous precedents similar to the Pruzbul of Hillel the Elder, such as religious rulings of the Gaonim on issues of civil law and Rabeinu Tam’s ruling that when a non-Jew liaisons in a business transaction, there is no Usury. Urbach criticized Orthodoxy on the adoption Moses Sofer’s slogan “Hadash Assur min HaTorah” as a total religious principle, ignoring the internal mechanism of halacha.15
Urbach and his colleagues had an agenda that called for two main changes. First, revive the halacha according to the modern Jewish political reality. Then, change some irrelevant texts in the prayer book.
The most specific halacha they wanted to implement was the permission to perform post-mortem surgery when even a remote option of saving a life existed, because the principle of Pikuach nefesh takes precedence over the prohibition of desecrating the deceased. In 1966, a minister from the Mapam party replaced a minister from the Mafdal Party in the Ministry of Health. He instituted a liberal policy regarding autopsies and ruled that autopsies are to be carried out in 100% of the cases, even when there is a surplus of bodies from outside of Israel for research. Public controversy flared on this blatant issue. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel rushed to publish a halachic response prohibiting autopsies, except in cases of immediate life-threatening situations, and only with the consent of rabbinic authority. This publication ignored the importance of autopsies in saving lives in the long term, like the saving people with similar diseases who are hospitalized in other places, the prevention of similar future disease or the discovery of new life-saving medicines. The movement’s members saw the total objection of rabbis to post-mortem surgery as a war waged on modern medicine and limited the halacha of nivul hamet to standard cases only. Behind this presentation laid the deep respect of the movement’s members to modern medicine.16
Another halachic subject they wanted to clarify was Judaism’s attitude toward the non-Jews. In his book Exclusiveness and Tolerance, Jacob Katz expounds on the halachic-societal attitude of German rabbis towards Christians from the 11th century to the beginning of the 19th century, when Napoleon convened the “Sanhedrin.” He points out that initially, the rabbis viewed Christians as idolaters, as ordained in the Talmud, with all that implies regarding the moral double standard toward Jews and toward Christians. At the same time, for practical reasons, this attitude was tempered in certain cases, so that Jews could profit from trading with their Christian neighbors.– 17 Katz also cites the unusual and relatively unknown stand taken by Rabbi Menachem Me’iri, who lived and worked in Provence in the second half of the 13th century. According to him, Christians and Muslims were “nations fenced in by religion” rather than idolaters and, therefore, they should not to be discriminated against in the Talmud as regards the strictures between man and his fellow man. They are “like Israel in all these things… with no prejudice whatsoever.”– 18
At the end of his book, Katz mentions two aspects of the change that came about in the halachic-social attitude toward Christians during the enlightened era of the 18th century. The first was elucidated in the teachings of Moses Mendelssohn and his followers, who extolled the virtue of enlightened religious tolerance and the principle of common humanity, based on the fact that we are all rational human beings with natural rights.– 19 The second was expounded on in the writings of German rabbis such as Yair Bachrach and Jacob Emden, followers of Rabbi Moshe Ravkash (1591–1671), who wrote his religiously tolerant Be’er Hagolah, an exegesis on the Shulhan Arukh, in Amsterdam in the 1660s. Like Me’iri, he claimed that contemporary Christians were not the idolaters of the Talmud but rather, in common with Jews, they had a religious tradition as regards “their interpretation of the world, the Exodus from Egypt, and various religious principles.”– 20 These rabbis maintained this open-minded attitude as much for reasons connected to the more spiritual nature of Protestant Christianity and the more tolerant winds beginning to blow through Central and Western Europe as for reasons of apologetics. Nevertheless, they never sought to break down the barriers between Jews and Christians or to legitimize Christianity, because to them the supremacy of Judaism over Christianity was patently obvious. This trend was perpetuated among Orthodox rabbis in Germany and Bohemia all through the 19th century.– 21Frankel and his school accepted the philosophic approach of Mendelssohn as well as the halachic approach of the German Rabbis, and even beyond that, though they did not accepted the attitude of the radical reformers, who sought to abolish the most profound barrier of all: the prohibition against intermarriage. In Eastern Europe, the old “negative” approach remains widespread,22 while in Israel of the mid-20th century these two approaches were intermingled.
This issue was on the agenda because of a false media report, from spring 1966, about an orthodox Jew, who refused to save a non-Jew’s life in Shabbat, because of halachic reasons. The chief Rabbi of Israel —Isser Yehuda Unterman—published his halachic opinion that it is allowed to save a non-Jews life in Shabbat, because of the argument of “Darkei Shalom” [avoiding conflicts between Jews and non-Jews].24 Secular Jews criticized the ruling of Rabbi Unterman, claiming the argument he had brought is selfish and preserves the unequal attitude toward non-Jews. Urbach and his fellows asked to set the positive approach as the maim halachic approach and wrote for this cause several programmatic articles. Rabbi Eliezer Samson Rosenthal praised the ruling of Rabbi Unterman in the founding conference of the movement, which was held that same week, though he noted that the political argument is not to his liking, and he prefers an ethical argument.25 In an unpublished article from that time, he offered a humanistic and egalitarian basis to the halachic attitude toward non-Jews, according to the phrase “This is the book of the Chronicle of Adam …” (Gen. 5, 1).26
The movement sees the need to base human relationship, from all religions, on the idea that the “In God’s image (tselem) He created man.” It’s time to break free of certain opinions in this area, which are the result of historical circumstances. Along with this, the movement will fight, in legal ways, against missionary activities in our country.23
Four years later, Zeev Falk brought in his essay “A Gentile and a Ger Toshav in the Hebrew Law” several positive and negative traditional attitudes toward non-Jews and explained the negative one in two ways. (1) The attempts to save the Jewish uniqueness in a foreign society. (2) A primitive reaction to the Jewish suffering in exile caused by non-Jews, in a helpless situation. He claimed that today, we have to save the Jewish uniqueness by using a positive attitude toward Judaism rather than a negative attitude toward non-Jews. And in Israel, we can defend ourselves; therefore, there is no necessity to use a negative halachic reaction.27 He called to bridge the gap between the moral feeling and the halacha in this issue.28
Like Frankel, Urbach also encouraged changing “problematic” prayers. After the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, the movement published the Tisha B’Av letter, which called to amend the text of the day’s prayers.29 They claimed that we can no longer refer to Jerusalem as a “destroyed city” and that saying so is ungrateful to God. The main problematic text was Nachem, an addition to the blessing Boneh Yerushalayim in the Amidah prayer. The original text describes Jerusalem as a “city that is in sorrow, laid waste, scorned and desolate,” which “sits with its head covered like a barren woman who never gave birth,” destroyed and conquered by foreign armies and idolaters. Urbach said that today one cannot identify with this text and that continuing to say it is ungrateful. The movement adopted the changes Urbach suggested, altering the text to a plea for compassion (Rachem), instead of consolation (Nachem), for Jerusalem “which is being rebuilt upon its ruins, restored upon its ravage, and resettled upon its desolation.”30 It also included a reference to those who died in the Holocaust and in Israel’s wars. Urbach relied in part on the Jerusalem Talmud’s version (Brachot, 4, 3) and in part on his own intuition. He ignored Orthodox rulings against changes in the original text and referred to them as being indifferent to the meaning of the prayer. As opposed to Berliner, Urbach was not afraid to change ancient texts when he thought them no longer relevant. Similarly, the movement’s members have offered to change a number of expressions in various prayers and blessings that speak of Jerusalem as a destroyed city, like at end of the third blessing of Birkat Hamazon (the grace after meals). Instead of “May God rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, speedily in our lifetime,” they suggested to say “May God rebuild Jerusalem, the holy city, a complete building, speedily in our lifetime.”31
To support this, he published an article in the movement’s journal Mahalachim written by the prayer researcher Joseph Heineman.32 In his article, Heineman concluded that the sages did not formulate the prayers and there was, therefore, no monolithic version of the Amidah prayer. He claimed that the Sages simply ruled the number of the blessings, their main point, and their order. His practical conclusion was that we must “find a path to express in our prayers our time’s events: the holocaust, the rebirth of Israel and the miracles which we have seen.”33 Otherwise we decry the prayer or even lie on its purpose.
Urbach also published in the movement’s journal, the new thesis of Moses Samet, on the Jewish Orthodoxy. According to him, Orthodoxy is not an old medieval movement as it is presented. It is a modern movement, precisely as the Reform and Conservative movements. Its theological slogan “Hadash Assur Min Hatorah” is a modern innovation and a reaction against the halachic reforms of the liberals.34 Of course, such a thesis served Urbach’s agenda, which challenged the Orthodoxy’s ultra-conservative policy.
The movements’ major project was the attempt to establish a rabbinical seminary in Jerusalem. Urbach and his colleagues were not satisfied with the functioning of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the cultural level of the rabbis. They saw a cultural gap between the intelligent public and the rabbis, which resulted from the objection the Yeshivot world had to science, progress, and enlightenment. They wished to design a new model of rabbi. The model of the seminary was similar to the model of the Breslau seminary, although they were aware of the difference between the candidates and the audiences and did not want to copy it per se.
Owing to the program of the seminary, the candidates had to prove a basic and appropriate knowledge of the Talmud and Poskim but to possess worldly knowledge as well. The curriculum included the methodic study of historical and Talmudic research; learning the Responsa literature and training in new/unprecedented halachic questions; Studying General Education—rhetoric, homiletic, philosophy, and modern Judaism.35 The curriculum in the first year should include, according to Urbach,
The philological-historical method
Introduction to the Tanaic literature, the Mishna and Tossefta’s version, and Halacha and Agadah Midrashim.
The history of the sidur and its version.
Medieval Jewish Philosophy.
In the second year,
Introduction to the Tanaic and Amoraic literature
Introduction to the mystic literature
Modern Jewish History
In the third year,
History of the rabbinical literature
Introduction to Law, Sociology, and Psychology.
Modern Jewish Philosophy.36
After the establishment of the movement, only a few hundred members joined it. The movement did not succeed in influencing large audiences. The secular did not want to get themselves involved in an external obligation. The ultraorthodox did not want to hear about such a Zionist movement. And the religious-Zionists were not a small minority as were the Jews in the United States in the beginning of the 20th century and, therefore, did not feel a need to challenge their tradition for their Israelization. The movement also failed in establishing the rabbinical seminary—the heart and soul of such a movement, which could promise its vitality and continuity. After a decade, the movement ceased its activities.
Like the Breslau school, they placed halacha at the center as a positive factor, wishing to revive halacha based on the modern political, humanistic, and scientific reality. They ascribed importance to Wissenschaft des Judentums as a religious method of learning. Indeed, it was a movement for intellectual academics, especially Jewish studies’ researchers, and although the movement exists no more, its legacy still exists among many religious intellectual academics in Israel.
On him, see: Ismar Schorsch, From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism (Brandeis University 1994) pp. 255–265; Michael Meyer, Response to Modernity (New York 1988), pp. 84-89, 105-107; Andreas Brämer, Rabbiner Zacharias Frankel: Wissenschaft des Judentums und Konservative Reform im 19 Jahrundert, Hildesheim 2000.
Zacharias Frankel, “Anzeige und Prospectus”, Zeitschrift für die religiösen Interessen des Judentums, Vol. 2 (1845), p. 15.
Mordechai Breuer, Modernity within Tradition: The Social History of Orthodox Jewry in Imperial Germany, New York 1992, p. 14; Asaf Yedidya,“Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer and the Breslau School – An Unique Orthodox Model,” Zion, 75 (2010), pp.54–57.
Meyer, ibid, p. 107.
Berliner, Randbemerkungen zum täglichen Gebetbuche (Siddur), p. 50.
Breuer, ibid, p. 57.
Hermann Cohen, “Ein Gruss der Pietät an das Breslauer Seminar,” in: Hermann Cohens Jüdische Schriften, II, Berlin 1924, pp. 418–424; Andreas Brämer, “Die Anfangsjahre des Jüdisch-Theologischen Seminars: zun Wandel des Rabbinerberufs im 19. Jahrhundert,” Manfred Hettling, Andreas Reinke and Nobert Conrads (eds.), In Breslau zu Hause? Juden in einer mitteleuropäischen Metropole der Neuzeit, Hamburg 2003, pp.99-112.
Jacob Zussman, “The Scientific Project of Ephraim Elimelech Urbach,” Jewish Studies, addendum/ special volume 1 (1993), pp. 7–116,
On Leibowitz’s claim, see: Shneur Zalman Abramov, Perpetual dilemma: Jewish Religion in the Jewish State, Fairleigh Dickinson, 1976, pp. 208–210; Falk actually, made a historicist review of the role of women in Judaism, for formulating a modern egalitarian relevant position.
“On New Social Problems in the Halacha,” Iyar 1951, NLI Archives, Urbach Collection, Arc 4° 1873.
“The Movement’s Program,” Ha-Chadash Yitkadesh, 1 (1966), pp. 24–27.
Urbach, “Life with the Tora,” The Jerusalem Post (June 5, 1973), pp. 3–4.
Urbach, “Samchut Hahalachah Beyameinu” (The authority of Halachah Today), Mahalachim, IV (1970), p. 4.
Ibid, p. 3.
Ibid. p. 7.
“The Movement for Torah’s Judaism’s Manifesto on post-mortem surgery,” Ha-Chadash Yitkadesh, 1 (1966), pp. 38–39.
Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Studies in Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times, Oxford 1961, pp. 24–36.
Ibid, 115–118. See also Novak and Halbertal, who followed in the footsteps of Katz David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism, Portland 2011, pp. 195–199 ; Moshe Halbertal, “‘Ones Possessed of Religion’ : Religious Tolerance in the Teachings of the Me’iri,” Edah, 1, 1 (2000).
Katz, ibid, pp. 169–181. See also Novak, who explained this change philosophically: ibid, pp. 206–212.
Katz, ibid, pp. 164–168.
Ibid, pp. 193–194.
Yosef Salmon, “Christians and Christianity in the Responsa Literature from the late 18th century to the second half of the 19th century,” Uri Ehrlich and others (eds.), By the Well (in Hebrew), Be’er Sheva 2008, pp. 635–651.
“The Movement’s Programs,” Ha-Chadash Yitkadesh, 1 (1966), pp. 26–27.
Isser Yehuda Unterman, Haaretz, April 4,1966.
Eliezer Samson Rosenthal, “Closing Remarks at the End of the Founding Conference,” Ha-Chadash Yitkadesh, 1 (1966), p 19.
Bnjamin Lau, “Rabinate and Academy in the writings of Rabbi Eliezer Samson Rosenthal on Saving the life of a non-Jew on Shabbat,” Akdamot, 13 (2003), p. 21.
Zeev Falk, “A Gentile and a Ger Toshav in Hebrew Law,” Mahalachim, III (1970), p. 14.
Ibid, p. 15.
“The Tisha B’Av letter,” Ha-Chadash Yitkadesh, 2 (1968), pp. 58–60.
Ibid, p. 59.
Ibid, pp. 61–63.
Yosef Heineman, “Changes in the wording and order of worship in the Synagogue,” Mahalachim, I (1969), pp. 23–27.
Ibid, p. 24.
Moses Samet, “Hayahadut Hacharedit Bazman Hachadash (The Orthodoxy in the modern Period),” Mahalachim, I (1969), pp. 29–40; ibid, III (1970), pp. 15–27.
“The Program to Establish a Rabbinical Seminary,” Mahalachim, IV (1970), pp. 5–7.
Ibid, pp. 9–10.
Ibid, p. 13.