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Towards a Future of Sincerity and Harmony
Dutch Jews and the Appeal of Reform Judaism
MA Thesis, January 2007
Liesbeth Schimmel
University of Utrecht
Research Master ‘History: Cities, States and Citizenship’
Supervisor: Prof. Dr Ido de Haan, University of Utrecht
Second supervisor: Prof. Dr Shlomo Berger, University of Amsterdam
MA Thesis Towards a Future of Sincerity and Harmony: Dutch Jews and the Appeal of Reform Judaism
Chapter 1 The challenge of modernity
1.1 Emancipation: principles and practice
1.1.1 The background of emancipation
1.1.2 The age of principles
1.2 The challenge of emancipation
1.2.1 The nature of religion
1.2.2 Thinking in terms of the nation
1.3 Reflections and responses
Chapter 2 Outer and inner emancipation: the reformation of Judaism
2.1 German Jewry and the making of Reform
2.1.1 The hopes of emancipation
2.1.2 Intellectual rethinking
2.1.3 A religious necessity
2.2 Improving Judaism
2.2.1 The absence of Reform
2.2.2 Judaism reformed
2.3 Inner emancipation pursued: Liberal Judaism
2.3.1 Judaism and its discontents
2.3.2 A new Jewish consciousness
2.4 Conclusion
Chapter 3 The Dutch-Jewish experience of modernity
3.1 Emancipation, reorganization, privatization
3.1.1 The Batavian Republic and Jewish emancipation
3.1.2 The Jewish responses
3.1.3 Reorganization and privatization
3.2 Religion and national consciousness in Dutch society
3.2.1 National identities in the Netherlands
3.2.2 Jewish love for the Dutch fatherland
3.2.3 Nation, ethnic identity, zuil
3.3 The species hollandia judaica and the absence of Reform
Chapter 4 The appeal of Reform Judaism
4.1 Critical moments and proposals for reform
4.2 Free-thinking Jews: Het Oude Volk
4.2.1 Purposes and challenges
4.2.2 A free-thinking view of Jewish religion
4.2.3 Between liberalism and Jewishness
4.3 Liberal Judaism
4.3.1 A troublesome project
4.3.2 A Dutch Reform programme
4.3.3 Sympathy and rejection
4.4 Dutch reform movements: weaknesses, strength, and acknowledgements
The realization of this final version of my Master Thesis, which I am happy to present hereby, owes a
great deal to the work of my two supervisors. I am very grateful to my first supervisor, Prof. Dr Ido de
Haan, who witnessed, stimulated, and guided the entire process from the beginning, and to Prof. Dr
Shlomo Berger, who took part in the final stages of the process in particular. Their thorough and adequate
comments recurrently stimulated me to rethink, enhance and improve my work. It is difficult to imagine
what my thesis would have looked like without their supervision. More incidentally, the people who
participated in the Colloquium on Jüdische Geschichte und Kultur presided by Prof. Dr Michael Brenner
at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in München have likewise contributed to the process by
confronting me with my own presuppositions and blind spots.
The members of my family have once again proved to be unique for me in their continuous support
and encouragement. Further acknowledgements are reserved for my friends, some of them very near and
special ones who may read their own names here, and to the many interested people I am happy to meet
on my way. To conclude, thanks be to God, who ‘daily loadeth us with benefits’ (Psalm 68).
Liesbeth Schimmel
Woerden, January 2007
‘Die Reform des Judentums ist eine geschichtsnotwendige Entwicklung’, Caesar Seligmann wrote down
in the 1920s.1 This remark is typical of his account of the Geschichte der jüdischen Reformbewegung: von
Mendelssohn bis zur Gegenwart, published in 1922. Seligmann, himself a rabbi of the ‘Israelitische
Gemeinde’ in Frankfurt am Main, was convinced that Reform Judaism was the Judaism of the future.
Who, his work seems to exclaim, is able to resist the process of the ages and the needs of Judaism’s soul?
By the time that he wrote his book, the Reform movement had penetrated into the wide masses of Western
European Jewry, Seligmann told his readers; there was only a tiny group that stuck to the Orthodox
position. Germany, the United States, England, and France were the obvious testimonies to the
breakthrough of Reform. There were, however, apparently also exceptions to the rule. Apathy was still
triumphant in a country like ‘H o l l a n d, [wo] jede Reform mit fanatischer Gewalt unterdrückt wurde’.2
This thesis connects to the question incidentally touched upon by Seligmann: the relation between
Reform Judaism and the Dutch Jewish community. His remark may serve as a first introduction here.
Whether Seligmann was right in taking Orthodoxy’s violent fanaticism as the explanation for the failure of
Reform in the Netherlands, remains to be investigated. But his observation of the spread of Reform
Judaism over Western European countries was not so far beside the truth. Indeed, France did not possess
an official Reform movement until 1907; in Belgium, Reform was only established after the Second
World War. Yet, as the American Reform rabbi David Philipson put it in his 1907 history of the Reform
movement, Reform was obviously ‘in the air’.3 The practice of Judaism underwent significant systematic
reformations, the theory of Judaism was rethought. This could happen outside the official Jewish
congregations, as in England and America; but it could also happen within them, as in Germany, and in a
more gradual and subtle way in France and Belgium.4 In Dutch Judaism, neither a Reform movement nor
systematic reformations found a place. It is also doubtful whether Reform was ‘in the air’: when a Reform
movement was eventually established in 1930, it took considerable pains to gain a stable group of
adherents among Dutch Jews.
From the point of view of Reform, it is indeed remarkable that no Reform movement emerged in the
Netherlands until 1930. Reform has, by the title of Michael Meyer’s book, been described as ‘response to
modernity’. Indeed, the coming of modernity was the momentum of Reform. Generally speaking,
Caesar Seligmann, Geschichte der jüdischen Reformbewegung: von Mendelssohn bis zur Gegenwart (Frankfurt am
Main, 1922) 17.
Ibid, 17, 135-144, see especially 144.
David Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism (London, 1907).
The distinction between Reform from ‘without’ and Reform from ‘within’, brought forward by Jacob Petochowski,
is important for the understanding of Reform movements. See Jacob J. Petochowski, Prayerbook Reform in Europe:
The Liturgy of European Liberal and Reform Judaism (New York, 1968) 31-83.
modernity implied a serious challenge for the Jews, which called them to rethink the place of Judaism in
society, the position of Judaism with regard to other religions, and the identity of the individual Jewish
person. This reorientation was provoked by the emancipation of the Jews, the most visible feature of
modernity. Naturally, as everyone would hasten to admit, modernity and emancipation were not
monolithic processes. The Jews of Eastern Europe, to mention an obvious distinction, saw quite another
process of emancipation and lived in a very different society compared to the Jews of Western Europe.
Eastern European modernity did not so much stimulate a modernization of Jewish religion; the hostile
political climate rather pushed the Jews towards emphasizing the national component of Jewishness.5 Jews
of the Netherlands, however, were surely confronted with that kind of modernity which was elsewhere
answered by Reform. They immediately followed French Jewry in being emancipated, and their
emancipation was in some ways more complete. Thus, like Jews elsewhere in Europe, they entered a new
phase in their history.
In explaining why Dutch Jews, in spite of their confrontation with modernity, did not embrace the
outstanding expression of the encounter between Judaism and modernity – Reform Judaism –, one tends
to be influenced by some common views on Dutch Jewry. It is important to be aware of them. For
example, the question whether Dutch Jews did keep up with modernity tends to be answered in the
negative – something that would not so easily happen if the question concerned German Jews. The
somewhat outworn view of the Netherlands as a country where all important developments always occur
half a century later than elsewhere has also been applied to the Jews of the Netherlands; such half
unconscious views have led to the assumption that Dutch Jews quite naturally chose to stick to tradition
instead of promoting reforms. Such assumptions are, however, immediately belied by the strong
tendencies towards acculturation, integration, and secularization which transformed Dutch Jewry in
modern times. To say that Dutch Jews stopped short of internalizing modernity is to bend the truth. Thus,
the question is rather whether Dutch Jews were likely to create Jewish innovating movements.
At this point, another series of common opinions of Dutch Jewry comes to mind, which agree at one
point. As an Israeli living in the Netherlands put it in the 1990s, Dutch Jews were ‘so terribly Dutch’.
From the same perspective of Israelis in post-war Dutch society, Dutch Jews have been described as
distant to others, primarily practice-oriented, unwelcoming to innovations from elsewhere, and convinced
of the rightness of their own standards.6 In their encounter with Jews from elsewhere, both in the specific
circumstances of the Second World War and in religious and Zionist circles, Dutch Jews repeatedly
See on religious reform in Russia Michael A. Meyer, ‘The German Model of Religious Reform and Russian
Jewry’, in: idem, Judaism within Modernity: Essays on Jewish History and Religion (Detroit, 2001) 278-303; on
response to Reform in Poland see Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in
Judaism (New York/Oxford, 1988) 339-340.
Chris Kooyman, ‘Through the Israeli looking glass: Dutch Jews in the eyes of Israelis living in Holland’, in: Chaya
Brasz and Yosef Kaplan, eds., Dutch Jews as Perceived by Themselves and By Others: Proceedings of the Eighth
International Symposium on the History of the Jews in the Netherlands (Leiden/Boston/Köln, 2001) 235-246, see
especially 242-243.
caught the eye by being so ‘awfully Dutch’, not showing any signs of Yiddishkeit or knowledge of what
happened outside their tiny country. Especially after the war, such views also penetrated in the minds of
Dutch Jews themselves. Looking back on pre-war Dutch Jewish history, the Zionist historian Jaap Meijer
(1912-1993) recalled the Dutch Zionists as ‘een geëmancipeerd, koel-Nederlandse groep zionisten’, and
Dutch Jews in general as ‘een soort joodse calvinisten van geheel aparte allure’.7 From such a point of
view, then, it is not so remarkable that Reform Judaism was for a long time unsuccessful in the
Netherlands. In this view, Dutch Jews were very accustomed to the Dutch circumstances, isolated
themselves from what was going on in the Jewish world, and were generally satisfied with their quiet life.
The confrontation with the non-Jewish environment, which formed a true challenge to Jews elsewhere and
directly instigated Reform, was not experienced by Dutch Jews as something to come to terms with.
Therefore, Reform was something ‘alien’ for Dutch Jews, both because it came from foreign countries and
because it addressed a problem which Dutch Jews hardly recognized.
To recapitulate, there are two perspectives from which the question of Reform Judaism in the
Netherlands can be viewed. The first is the perspective of the Reform movement in Judaism, the second is
the perspective of Dutch Jewish history. Both perspectives will be taken into account here. This thesis
connects to the more general question what factors favoured or disfavoured the coming and breakthrough
of Reform in the Netherlands. However, the purpose of this thesis is not to give the final explanation of
why Reform did not emerge in the Netherlands until 1930. It is doubtful whether this would be so fruitful.
Such a negative question would not leave much space for a positive answer. When the double trap of
taking German Reform as a model and the Dutch situation as a negation of this model is to be avoided, the
Dutch situation must be studied on its own terms.
This task will be entered upon by considering the question of Reform Judaism in the Netherlands
from the inside. The purpose is to show how Dutch Jews – reformists, Reformers, and their opponents –
reflected on Reform Judaism in the framework of Dutch society. The question what points of contact were
sought and found by Dutch reformists stands in the centre. (The Dutch word aanknopingspunten or the
German word Anknüpfungspunkte perhaps better reflect what is meant here.) The chapter focusing on the
Dutch situation is based upon periodicals and other texts published by various Dutch Jewish groups of the
time. These texts are a rich source for one who seeks to understand why people thought Reform necessary
or unnecessary in the Netherlands, what the intentions and programmes of the Reformers were, and how
Jews of other persuasions reacted. The sources tell of their experience of Jewish life in a modern age, their
view of life in Dutch society, their reflection on the Reform movement in Judaism, and their conception of
Jaap Meijer, Hoge hoeden, lage standaarden: de Nederlandse joden tussen 1933 en 1940 (Baarn, 1969) 76, 59. See
for other examples respectively Chaya Brasz, ‘Dutch Jews as Zionists and Israeli citizens’, in: Brasz and Kaplan,
Dutch Jews, 215-234, see 233; Dan Michman, ‘Migration versus “species hollandia judaica”: The role of migration
in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in preserving ties between Dutch and world Jewry’, in: Studia
Rosenthaliana 23 (1989), supplement 2, 54-76, see 72.
Jewish identity. In all cases, only the period of development will be studied. In fact, this has concrete
implication for the official Reform movement only, since the other reformist movements did not survive
their own period of development. Reform Judaism as it emerged in 1930 grew into a serious alternative to
Dutch Orthodoxy in the post-war years in particular, but this period is outside the scope of this thesis.
A study of this topic is relevant within the scope of both Dutch Jewish history and Reform Judaism.
As far as the history of Dutch Jews is concerned, especially the interwar years will be shed light upon,
since the two most sophisticated reformist movements – the latter being official Dutch Reform Judaism –
emerged in 1917 and 1930 respectively. Via their writings and the response to their movements, much can
be learned about the contemporary religious situation and experiences of Dutch Jewry. Secondly, such a
study is of interest for the question why and how Reform Judaism emerged. How was Reform Judaism,
born in Germany, translated in a specific national context? What to think of the idea of a
‘geschichtsnotwendige Entwicklung’? Ultimately, the question how Reform itself should be viewed plays
a part. Was Reform a universal movement, a development inherent in Judaism, or in any case inherent in
the advance of the times? This opinion was and is sometimes held by protagonists of Reform, as it has
often been a weapon in the struggle of other religious innovating movements. Or, to the contrary, should
Reform in the first place be seen as a reaction to specific contextual circumstances of political, social,
cultural, and religious life?
The approach described above makes clear that Reform Judaism is considered as a movement which was
explicitly involved in the outside world. It is important to acknowledge this in advance. This sets Reform
apart from the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment which came up around the middle of the eighteenth
century. Like Reform, the Haskalah was an innovating movement which originated in the encounter with
changing times. Its enlightened thought and openness to the outside world were of crucial importance as
an inspiration source of Reform Judaism. Yet, the Haskalah was essentially directed towards Judaism
itself. It aimed at the improvement and enrichment of Jewish life and religion with the help of the fruits of
secular education and culture. The desire for emancipation of the Jews also played a role among maskilim
(adherents of the Haskalah), but it did not necessarily lead them towards a programme of reformation.
Thus, as Shmuel Feiner has recently emphasized, while the Haskalah was ‘the French Revolution of the
Jewish world’, it should not primarily be put in the relationship of Jews and non-Jews.8
Reform, then, explicitly responded to the new relation between Judaism and the outside world which
was brought about by emancipation. The Reformers’ desire to bring Judaism in tune with modernity made
them specifically concerned with the questions of identity and loyalty which affected all Jews in modern
times. This identity question runs like a ‘red thread’ (rode draad) through the chapters. Chapter 1
Shmuel Feiner in a lecture at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in München, 4 July 2006. See also Shmuel
Feiner and David Sorkin, ‘Introduction’, in: idem, eds., New Perspectives on the Haskalah (London, 2001) 1-7, and
the article by Feiner in the same volume, ‘Towards a Historical Definition of the Haskalah’, 184-219.
introduces the subject of modernity in Jewish history, with a focus on Western Europe and Germany in
particular. It describes the conditions under which Jewish life and religion developed in modern times, in
other words, the situation Reform Judaism responded to. Chapter 2 shifts to the inner perspective of
Reform Judaism as it responded to the changing times and new challenges. It aims to answer the question
which factors favoured or disfavoured the breakthrough of a Reform movement in Germany, England, and
France, and how reformist movements responded to the actual circumstances. This analysis of reformist
movements serves as a framework for the study of the Dutch case in the next two chapters. Chapter 3
discusses the characteristics of the Dutch-Jewish encounter with modernity, applied to the question of the
likelihood of Reform in the Netherlands. In chapter 4, to conclude, Dutch reformist movements will be
considered. The Conclusion brings the various lines together and returns to the question introduced above,
the question of the Anknüpfungspunkte of Reform Judaism in the Dutch Jewish community.
Emancipation in Jewish history marks much more than only the change of the Jews’ position in
surrounding society. The Jews who saw emancipation were confronted with questions that concerned not
only their future way of living and participating in society, but the very fundaments of Judaism and Jewish
identity. This must be explained by the peculiar nature of the encounter between Judaism and modernity in
a broader sense, an issue whose significance and urgency is reflected in a respectable body of scholarly
literature. In the present chapter, the meaning of modernity for the Jews is discussed in order to give a
characterization of the situation Reform Judaism – itself inspired by Jewish and Gentile intellectual,
cultural, and religious tendencies – responded to. Without thereby negating the fundamental intellectual,
cultural, and economic developments which make up the Jewish experience of modernity, the challenge of
modernity will primarily be analyzed in terms of emancipation here.1 What emancipation implied is
characterized by means of the accompanying developments in the concepts of religion and nation, which
created new conditions of Jewish life in society.
Rather than describing the various paths of European Jewish emancipation in detail, this chapter
discusses the subject in a more theoretical way while highlighting some particularly relevant national
cases. In the first part, which deals with the background and actualization of emancipation, special
attention is given to the French treatment of emancipation, which set the tone for the debates on and
developments of emancipation elsewhere. This description will make clear that emancipation was never a
purely neutral concept, but involved a reorientation of the Jews from the beginning. This account is
followed by a more abstract paragraph which discusses the challenge of modernity by means of the
notions of ‘religion’ and ‘nation’. In the course of this second part, the attention quite naturally shifts to
Germany. This is not because the case of Germany is suited to serve as a ‘model’ of modern Jewish
history, as it sometimes seems to do in studies on modernity and the Jews. This would only blur
distinctions between different national cases. A first reason is, rather, the fact that the challenge of
modernity was most expressly experienced in German Jewry, which has everything to do with the highly
ambivalent nature of German Jewish modernity. The intensity of the German Jews’ experience of crisis
and change is reflected in the range of modern Jewish movements which originated in Germany: Reform
‘Emancipation’ is a broad term which, however, originally only encompasses the attainment of political and civil
equality. For a compact account of the intellectual, cultural and economic changes leading up to emancipation and
resulting from it, see David Rudavsky, Emancipation and Adjustment: Contemporary Jewish Religious Movements,
Their History and Thought (New York, 1967), especially the first three chapters.
Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy, Agudath Yisrael, and political Zionism.2 Secondly, the German experience
is important here since it was in Germany that Reform Judaism originated, developed and became forceful
enough to spread to Jewish communities elsewhere. The chapter concludes with a third paragraph which
briefly shows how the Jews’ responses to emancipation took shape.
1.1 Emancipation: principles and practice
1.1.1 The background of emancipation
To understand the fundamental change which the coming of modernity brought about in the conditions of
life of the Jews, one should basically take the character of Jewish life in pre-modern Gentile societies into
account. A first observation is, then, that the character of the Jewish community reflected the high degree
of communal organization which made up the structure of society at large. Indeed, generally speaking, it
was not individuals, but communities that formed the raw material of society. A shared religion, ethnic
identification, or the loyalty of people who lived together under the same socio-economic conditions
formed the basis of a communal feeling and organization. Such a community did not only provide its
members with a social, economic, and ideological framework, but also with a set of values and norms.
Collective identity and loyalty formed the glasses through which one looked into the world.
At the same time, while being a part of the societal structure, the Jewish community showed
important divergent features. First of all, this community possessed transnational as well as local
networks. Compared to earlier periods in post-Exile Jewish history, the pre-modern period even witnessed
the tightening of bonds between Jewish communities all over the world. From the late Middle Ages on,
several European governments forced the Jewish inhabitants to live in ghettos, which strengthened the
community experience. Moreover, this was a time of great flourishing for several Jewish communities,
both in a demographical, an economic and an intellectual sense, notably in Poland, Germany and Holland.
Combining with new communication techniques, this resulted in an intensity of contact among Jewish
See Andreas Gotzmann, Eigenheit und Einheit: Modernisierungsdiskurse des Deutschen Judentums der
Emanzipationszeit (Leiden, 2002) 25: ‘Sicherlich entwickelte das englische und französische Judentum ebenso wie
die Ausprägungen in den Vereinigten Staaten jeweils spezifische Charakteristika; die entscheidenden Anstöße kamen
jedoch meist aus Deutschland’. David Vital, A People Apart: The Jews in Europe, 1789-1939 (Oxford, 1999), speaks
of ‘the German model’, see 248-277. See also W. Gunther Plaut, ‘Emancipation – The Challenge of Living in Two
Worlds’, in: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal, vol. 38 (1989), no. 4, 437-448.
groups which was, according to Jacob Katz, only paralleled during the Roman Empire, when Jewry’s
political organization was still centralized.3
Secondly, inside the firm walls of the local community, being Jewish covered all aspects of one’s
identity. Unlike most other pre-modern communities, which were usually based on the religion that
dominated in the socio-political unit, the Jewish communities formed a national unity as well. Communal
Jewish identity consisted of two inextricably connected elements, religious and national (what would
today probably be called ‘ethnic’) loyalty. Someone moving outside the boundaries of the traditional
Jewish way of thinking and living, as famously the Amsterdam philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (16321677) did, was excluded from the community and ceased to be considered as a Jew. Since such dissidents
thereby also abandoned the social regulations accorded to Jews, they would step into a completely
different world; a kind of ‘social death’ waited outside.4 Indeed, to put it briefly, the Jews of the
community felt and behaved as members of an autonomous nation with their own ‘portable homeland’.5
The relationship between the Jewish community and society in general, which was marked by at
least distance and distrust, was a further factor which favoured the peculiar nature of the Jewish
community. Over a great number of centuries, many restrictions, outright discrimination, or even
persecution successfully isolated the Jews from the rest of society. Paradoxically, this hostility from
outside was an important component of the internal strength of the Jewish communities. In the words of
the Israeli historian David Vital, whose work A People Apart reflects his regret about the overruling of the
Jewish community by non-Jewish society since the beginning of modernity, the Jewish community of premodern times was marked by a spirit that was ‘remarkably free’. The authorities of the country they lived
in surely discriminated and oppressed them, but could not influence their lives as Jews, precisely because
they were not considered to be normal members of society:
Permitted no land, he [the Jew, LS] had no territorial lord. Admitted to no guild, he was free of the authority of
established master-craftsmen. Not being a Christian, he had neither bishop nor priest to direct him. And while
he could be charged and punished for insubordination to state or sovereign, he could not properly be charged
with disloyalty. Betrayal only entered into the life of the Jews in regard to their own community, or, more
broadly, to Jewry as a whole.6
Jacob Katz, Tradition and Crisis: Jewish Society at the End of the Middle Ages (New York, 1961), 3-42, see
especially 7-8.
Esther Benbassa and Jean-Christophe Attias, The Jews and Their Future: A Conversation on Judaism and Jewish
identities (London & New York, 2004) 54.
Walter S. Wurzburger, ‘The Enlightenment, the Emancipation and the Jewish Religion’, in: Judaism: A Quarterly
Journal, vol. 38 (1989), no. 4, 399-407, see 399-400, where the author refers to Heine’s witticism on the function of
traditional Judaism for a Jew in Exile.
Vital, A People Apart, 19. See also Michael A. Meyer, ‘Modernity as a Crisis for the Jews’, in: Modern Judaism,
vol. 9 (1989), no. 2, 151-164, see 152.
To summarize, the Jewish community held the monopoly on its members’ identity and loyalty. To be sure,
this does not mean that Jews never showed any rapprochement, sympathy or commitment towards the
surrounding society. The history of Dutch Jews since the end of the sixteenth century is a clear proof to
the contrary. Sympathetic and engaged they could be, however – and this Dutch case is an exception to the
rule –, the Jews did not identify with Gentile society.7 It was only with the modern emphasis on the nation
state that it became possible, necessary, and also attractive for Jews to look beyond their own community.
The first steps towards emancipation
When one says emancipation, one immediately thinks about the French Revolution that is usually said to
have been the beginning of it. Yet, it is not true to reality to equate Jewish emancipation with the fruits of
the French Revolution. The thought of emancipation of the Jews was not unknown to the prerevolutionary societies, nor did they never undertake any step towards it.8 In some European countries,
notably Great Britain and the Low Countries, the position of the Jews underwent significant changes even
before the second half of the eighteenth century. While in Great Britain decisions leading to improvement
of the socio-economic and political situation of the Jews were usually taken ad hoc, in the Low Countries
matters were settled in a more deliberate way during the seventeenth century.9
What characterized these early steps towards emancipation was that emancipation was not
considered to be a right of the Jews.10 The Jews and the question of emancipation were at their
governments’ mercy. This accounted for much inconsequence from the side of the governments. When, as
early as 1657, the Dutch States General and the States of Holland took the remarkable step to declare the
Jews lawful inhabitants of the country, this de jure recognition was not followed by a de facto removal of
all political and economic obstacles.11 In the Germanies, it was exclusively the wealthy educated segment
of the Jewish population, of which the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) is
Renate Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Onderwijs en nationale identiteit van de joden in Nederland in de tijd van hun
acculturatie’, in: Henk te Velde and Hans Verhage, eds., De eenheid en de delen: zuilvorming, onderwijs en
natievorming in Nederland 1850-1900 (Amsterdam, 1996) 135-155, see 139; O. Vlessing, ‘The Jewish Community
in Transition: from Acceptance to Emancipation’, in: Studia Rosenthaliana vol. 30 (1996), no. 1, 195-211, see 198203.
For early examples of Christian communities and individual thinkers paying attention to the possible entrance of
the Jews into civil and political life, see Jacob Katz, ‘Die Anfänge der Judenemanzipation’, in: idem, Zur
Assimilation und Emanzipation der Juden: ausgewählte Schriften (Darmstadt, 1982) 83-98.
Vital, A People Apart, 37-38.
The United States form a notable exception to this general European rule. See P. Mendes-Flohr, ‘The
Emancipation of European Jewry. Why was it not self-evident?’, in: Studia Rosenthaliana vol. 30 (1996), no. 1, 720, especially 7-10.
R.G. Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Introduction to the Article on Jewish Emancipation by Mordechai van Aaron de… in the
Dutch weekly De Koopman’, in: Studia Rosenthaliana vol. 30 (1996), no. 1, 190-194; Vital, A People Apart, 37-42.
considered to be the representative, which was permitted entrance into German intellectual circles – but
not into politics.12
Mendelssohn, who enjoyed a very good position in German society and was eager for the integration
of Gerrman Jews in German culture, fostered one of the first European debates on the subject of
emancipation. The first important German essay on Jewish emancipation was written by a close
acquaintance, the Prussian civil servant Christian Wilhelm von Dohm. This political treatise, entitled Über
die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden, was published in 1781. Cautiously contrasting ‘useful’ to
‘useless’ Jews, Christian morality to the moral conditions of the Jews, and the nature of Christian religion
to the nature of Judaism, Dohm nonetheless argued for full civil and political rights for the Jews. In his
view, it was precisely this that would create the necessary improvement of the Jews in all respects.13
Dohm’s conception of the matter of Jewish emancipation is representative for late eighteenthcentury emancipation proposals. His discussion of the ‘Jewish question’ fitted in the framework of a
society that desired to overcome the structural diversity inherited from the Middle Ages, and searched for
the proper political and social means to achieve this end.14 The other important emancipation proposal of
the period, the Essai sur la régénération physique, morale, et politique des Juifs, published in 1787 in
France, was also a clear proof of the wider relevance of the ‘Jewish question’. The text was written by
Abbé Henri Grégoire in reaction to an essay contest sponsored by the Royal Academy of Arts and
Sciences in Metz. The question which the respondents were expected to answer was, Are there means of
making the Jews happier and more useful in France? Abbé Grégoire saw conversion to Christianity as the
ultimate destiny for the Jews, but argued that they first needed emancipation since this would make them
likelier to convert.15 Thus, these two proposals for Jewish emancipation reflected the same concern for the
benefit of society at large. Against that background, under the changing conditions in a centralizing and
integrating society, the question of Jewish presence was incomparably more complex than it had ever
been. It was not simply the question ‘what to do with the Jews in our society’ – a question that had been
posed by all governmental authorities since the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora – that called for an
answer. It was the status of the nation within the nation, the hallmark of the pre-modern relation between
the Jewish community and general society, which became subject of debate. The legitimacy of the
See especially Amos Elon, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933 (New York,
Ibid, 59; Vital, A People Apart, 56.
‘Letzlich machten somit weniger die spezifischen Bedürfnisse der jüdischen Minderheit als vielmehr die enormen
Umwälzungen des entstehenden modernen Staates, der sich von den überkommenen korporativen Strukturen
loslõste, den Emanzipationsprozeß unvermeidlich’, Michael Brenner, ‘Einführung’, 9-11, in: Michael Brenner, Stefi
Jersch-Wenzel and Michael A. Meyer, eds., Deutsch-jüdische Geschichte in der Neuzeit Band II: Emanzipation und
Akkulturation 1780-1871 (München, 1996).
Lloyd P. Gartner, History of the Jews in Modern Times (Oxford, 2001) 105; see also Ruth F. Necheles, ‘The Abbé
Grégoire and the Jews’, in: Jewish Social Studies 23 (1971) 122-129.
existence of this separate community, with its own religion, socio-political constellation, and laws was at
Other hopeful rumours came from the Habsburg monarchy, where the emperor Joseph II himself
picked up the subject of emancipation. Combining an attitude of raison d’état with an appreciation of
Enlightenment ideas, which he had inherited from his mother Maria Theresa, he favored the idea of
emancipation. In 1782, Joseph published his Toleranzpatent, which expressly dealt with the Jews. Though
strongly emphasizing the desirability of the Jews’ conversion to Christianity, this document promised the
admission, toleration and subsequent participation in public welfare of all ‘Our subjects without
distinction of nationality and religion’.16
Such firm words bear testimony to Joseph’s dedication to the European Enlightenment. However,
the idealism present in Joseph’s decree was tempered by a generous dose of pragmatism. For instance, the
Viennese Jews were denied a public synagogue and the recognition as a religious community. 17 Moreover,
the practical realization of the document turned out to be rather different from the principal scheme laid
down in it. For example, the planned admission of all Jewish children in the general schools was
eventually not carried out, since it was feared that the close contact between Jewish and Christian children
would severely harm the latter. The consequences of the Toleranzpatent were taken even less seriously in
latter Austria, where the Jews were granted legal equality only as late as the 1860s.18
For Vital, the pragmatic outlook and realization of the Toleranzpatent is reason enough to conclude:
‘But it was not emancipation’.19 A mixture of traditionalism and innovativeness, this kind of emancipation
proposals was of a high ambiguity which left no room for true commitment to the Jewish cause. Yet,
while Vital contrasts this period of pragmatism to the future period of principles, his own account of the
emancipation process shows that pragmatism continued to colour the treatment of the Jewish question
even after the French Revolution. This was true in the first place in the countries where the ideals of the
Revolution did not get adopted. In most of these countries, the Jews were condemned to walk on
unpredictable, meandering and seemingly never ending paths of emancipation.20 To get a clear sight on
Elon, The Pity Of It All, 59-61; Vital, A People Apart, 35.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 146.
Vital, A People Apart, 168-171.
Ibid, 29, 36-37.
As said above, the Jews of Austria acquired legal equality only in the 1860s. The Jews of Poland (later on the
Polish part of Russia) were granted equal rights only under the pressure of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919. The
other Russian Jews reached this status with the Russian Revolution, in 1917. Most countries situated on the northern
or eastern side of the Germanies emancipated their Jews under international pressure. In this way, Denmark fully
emancipated its Jewish inhabitants in 1849, Sweden in 1870, Switzerland in 1874, the Balkan countries in 1878
(Rumania reserving to itself the right to annul this later on), Norway in 1891, and the Baltic countries only after
World War I. Mendes-Flohr, ‘The Emancipation of European Jewry’, see 18-20. See also Pierre Birnbaum, Paths of
Emancipation: Jews, States, and Citizenship (Princeton, 1995), which contains an article by Hans Daalder on the
Netherlands as well, and an article with the same title in The journal of Jewish studies, vol. 48 (1997), no. 1, 182183, by Pierre Birnbaum, Ira Katznelson, and Lionel Kochan.
the age of emancipation in Jewish history, however, one has to be aware of the fact that the underlying
attitude towards the Jews – or, as Vital characterizes it, lack of interest in the cause of the Jews – survived
also in the countries where the ideas of the Revolution gained a firm foothold.
In fact, though the French Revolution can indeed be said to have heralded the age of principles, the
actors on the stage were not devoid of negative attitudes towards Jewry and the Jews. Nor did they
suddenly open their eyes to the individuality and needs of the Jewish community. What changed was not
their view on Jewry, but their view on the principles according to which society should be organized. This
was indeed an extremely significant development: henceforth, all debates and developments would occur
within the framework of the principles of liberté, égalité et fraternité. But this did not mean that the Jews,
in their new position of free and equal brothers, could themselves map out the route that would bring the
greatest benefit to Jewry. They had to surrender to the principles of the French Revolution. These
principles granted them full citizenship, but at the same time demanded a certain uniformity of all its
citizens; these principles welcomed them into all spheres of society as individuals, but not as the Jewish
people they had constituted before. And, as they often turn out to be today, principles of this kind can be
oppressive as well as liberating.
1.1.2 The age of principles
The French example
By the time that the ‘Jewish question’ appeared on the revolutionary political agenda, the principles which
eventually permitted the Jews of France entrance into society were not ready-to-use. It took a long time
and a rather heated debate in the National Assembly before they were crystallized. In the centre of the
debate stood the question whether Jews were members of the French nation. If they were, they could not
be denied equal civil and political rights; and, at the same time, they would be required to abandon their
status as a distinct nation and cease to behave as Jews, except individually. Indeed, the notion of the
French nation, as a substitute for the idea of the ‘King by the grace of God’, implicated a high degree of
uniformity among the citizens, not only in the socio-political but also in a mental and a cultural sense. The
conservative bishop of Nancy, representative in the French National Assembly, voiced the worries of
liberal democracy as well when he wondered whether the Jews, alien tribe as they were, could ever be
admitted into the French family.21
According to the enlightened étatist view, which turned out to be dominant in the debate and was
eventually concretized in the emancipation decree of September 1791, this uniformity was to be ensured
by the abolishment of not only discriminating restrictions, but also all privileges formerly granted to this
Mendes-Flohr, ‘The Emancipation of European Jewry’, 11.
particular group.22 This view sprang from a conception of society that was significantly different from the
conception of society in the United States of America, where the Jews enjoyed the same status of equality
but were never legally emancipated. In the United States, no debate occurred on the question whether
Jews were eligible to enjoy the ‘unalienable rights [to] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ laid down
in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Their citizenship was, in the words of the Israeli historian
Paul Mendes-Flohr, ‘self-evident’. Wondering what brought about this difference between the
emancipation paths in Europe and the United States, Mendes-Flohr points to the different conception of
civil society prevailing in America. The reason was not the absence of anti-Semitism in America – which
was not absent –, but the self-definition of American society as essentially pluralist, which implied that it
would grant each religious conviction the opportunity to construct its own communal life. Conversely,
French society characterized itself by its strict distinction between religion and state, from which a strictly
neutral civil society was to emerge.23 All bodies mediating between the state and the individual, clergy and
aristocracy as well, had to give up their political power. This was exactly the difference between
American and French democracy Alexis de Tocqueville called attention to in his De la démocratie en
Amérique (1835-1840).
A crucial event in the actualization of the final French emancipation decree of 1791 was the
summoning of Jewish delegates to Paris by Napoleon in 1806, who were expected to answer seventy-five
questions posed by Napoleon’s commissioners. The questions, meant to clarify the proper position of the
Jews in the midst of the French nation, dealt among other things with the Jews’ view on intermarriage,
divorce, the nature of rabbinical authority, usury, Jewish nationhood, Frenchmen, and the French nation.
Two progressive Jewish Frenchmen later recalled how the delegates reacted to the question which dealt
with their view on the French fatherland. In his three-volume book titled Paris, Rome, Jérusalem ou la
question religieuse au XIXe siècle, Joseph Salvador described a somewhat comical situation:
[…] la vive émotion de l’assemblée à la sixième question ainsi conçue : « Les juifs nés en France et traités par
la loi comme citoyens français regardent-ils la France comme leur patrie ? ont-ils l’obligation de la
défendre ? » D’après les procès-verbaux et comme sous un coup électrique, tous les membres se levèrent et
crièrent d’une seule voix : « Jusqu’à la mort. »24
Vital, A People Apart, 49-50. See for a comprehensive discussion of the troublesome process which resulted in the
civil equalization of the French Jews Ronald Schechter, Obstinate Hebrews: Representation of Jews in France 17151815 (Berkeley, 2003); a founding study is Elias Tcherikower, ed., The Jews in France (New York, 1942),
especially his articles ‘The French Revolution and the Jews’, in vol. I, 109-152, and ‘The Jewish Struggle for Rights
during the French Revolution, 1789-1791’, vol. III, 7-55.
Mendes-Flohr, ‘The Emancipation of European Jewry’, 7-10.
J. Salvador, Paris, Rome, Jérusalem ou la question religieuse au XIXe siècle I (Paris, 1860) 203.
In 1913, Georges Rivals likewise told that the Jewish delegates listened in a ‘silence joyeux’ all the way
during the lecture of the questions, but, when the secretary read the sixth question, loudly proclaimed their
loyalty ‘d’une voix unanime’.25
Half a year later, in 1807, the group of both rabbis and lay people usually referred to as ‘Sanhedrin’
was called to Paris, with the task of sanctioning the delegates’ recommendations, which it eventually did.26
Of all the responses of the Jewish delegates, those concerning the Jews’ loyalty and patriotic sentiment are
the most famous or, varying with one’s estimation of Jewish emancipation and its implications, infamous.
What the Sanhedrin affirmed, was nothing less than the separation of religious loyalty from political
allegiance, thus exactly meeting the requirements of Napoleon’s government.27 With regard to the relation
between Judaism and politics, the declaration of the Sanhedrin read:
We declare that the divine law […] contains political as well as religious commands, that the religious ones are
by their nature absolute and independent of circumstances and time but that this does not hold true of the
political commandments, that is, those which relate to the government of the people of Israel in Palestine when
it had its own kings, priests, and magistrates, that these are no longer applicable since Israel no longer is a
The other side of this coin was the Sanhedrin’s view on the relation between Jews and French politics:
Men who have adopted a country, who have resided in it these many generations […] cannot but consider
themselves Frenchmen in France; and they consider as equally sacred and honourable the duty of defending
their country […]. Love of country is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful, and so
consonant with their religious opinions, that a French Jew considers himself in England, as among strangers,
although he may be among Jews; and the case is the same with English Jews in France.29
This did not mean that the Sanhedrin ceased to regard the Jews as a community. The majority of the
Jewish leaders gathered in the Sanhedrin stood firm in its rejection of mixed marriage, although Napoleon
wanted them to encourage it. However, the reason they mentioned for this rejection points once more to
the fact that they had come to see the Jewish community as a religious rather than a national entity: they
Georges Rivals, Notes sur le Judaïsme Libéral (de 1750 à 1913) (Paris, 1913) 62-63.
Vital, A People Apart, 53-57. The Jewish congregations of the countries occupied by the French were also invited
to send their delegates.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 164.
Quoted in Eugene B. Borowitz, Liberal Judaism (New York, 1984) 26. The notion that ‘the law of the state is law’
is a traditional halakhic one, but the message of this passage goes further than that, especially in its denial of Israel’s
status as a nation. See Meyer, Response to Modernity, 28.
D. Tama (ed.), Transactions of the Parisian Sanhedrin, English trans. F.D. Kirwan (London, 1807), 149-56
[slightly amended], quoted in Vital, A People Apart, 57.
justified their opinion on mixed marriage by saying that they ‘would be no more inclined to bless the
union of Jews and Christians than would Catholic priests’.30
With the signature of the Sanhedrin delegates, Judaism was transformed in a religion formally the
same as the various denominations of Christianity. Religious conviction was now emphasized rather than
the communal way of life that had characterized Judaism before. Together with the status of the ‘state
within the state’, which encompassed both a Jewish communal law and a collective responsibility
represented by the Jewish leaders, the independency and self-sufficiency of the Jewish community ceased
to exist. The new situation in France was laid down in three decrees concerning the Jews in 1808. The
Jewish community in its religious and educational activity – the two elements of which Jewish
distinctiveness now existed – would henceforth be structured according to a hierarchical model, with the
Supreme Consistory being directly responsible to the French authorities. The second decree propagated
the moral and cultural rehabilitation of the Jews, while the third decree (décret infâme), reverting to the
old way of dealing with the Jews, mentioned restrictions on the Jews’ economic activity which the French
authorities considered to be necessary.31
The emancipation of the Jews in France became a model for Jewish emancipation elsewhere. Surely,
the drastic political innovations accompanying the establishment and construction of the French Republic
were not simply copied by other countries. Only in the Low Countries, and not quite democratically,
society was reorganized according to the French model. Concerning Germany, only the Rhineland was
under direct French rule and consequently saw the introduction of a – mitigated – form of French
emancipation laws.32 However, though the French model did not so much lead to imitation in the rest of
Europe, it could also form a model in a negative way: it initiated other countries to formulate their own
Clashing interests
That emancipation was a matter of reconsidering various beliefs and interests, was still more outspoken
elsewhere in Europe. In countries where civil society was dominated by a specific cultural or ethnic
nationality or some form of Christanity, as it was the case in most countries to the east of Germany,
emancipation was usually a long and troublesome process. In a mitigated way, this can also been
recognized in the case of Great Britain. Though British Jews saw the first emancipation measures much
earlier than their French brothers, their case remained problematic by the prevailing Christian conception
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 28.
Vital, A People Apart, 58-59.
See for a discussion of the impact of French occupation and pressure in the Germanies David Blackbourn, History
of Germany 1780-1918: The Long Nineteenth Century (Malden, 2003) chapter 1, ‘In the Shadow of France’, 37-68;
furthermore, Thomas Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte 1800-1866 (München, 1983).
of the nation which endured the rumours of a secularist reorientation elsewhere. Full eligibility for the
Jews was all but self-evident against this background. It was not until the 1840s that this matter was
finally decided upon. By that time, a rather heated debate emerged concerning the oath that the Members
of Parliament were expected to pronounce at the beginning of their career, which contained the phrase ‘on
the true faith of a Christian’. While the ability or reliability of the Jews was not put under discussion and
they were finally welcomed in the House of Parliaments in 1847, the Christian character of the state
continued to be a public article of faith.33
Such a clash of interests turned out to be much more unfavourable for the Jews in Germany. What
made the German case a peculiar one from the beginning, was the combination of the progressive and
optimistic outlook of influential groups of Jewry on the one side and the highly ambivalent and often
conservative attitude of the German governments on the other side. While the inner development of the
German Jewish elites anticipated emancipation during the seventeenth century,34 the German states they
lived in did the opposite.
Prussia, where most German Jews lived and which dominated the other German states, took the first
step towards a more progressive treatment of the Jews in 1800. In that year, the system of collective
responsibility of the Jewish community was abolished. Pressed by French troops and political influence,
most German cities and states eventually introduced some urgent reforms in the following years. Prussia’s
edict of emancipation was finally approved by King Frederick William III in 1812. Significantly, this edict
still enabled the exclusion of Jews from government positions and teaching posts at public schools and
universities. Moreover, with Napoleon’s defeat, several German states annulled their emancipation edicts
or eliminated the concrete contents. Such a withdrawal was not possible in Prussia, where a
disproportionately great number of Jews had proved their patriotic fervour by serving voluntarily in the
war against France. However, this did not lead Prussia to compel other states to emancipate their Jewish
inhabitants. The result of this policy was that the many distinct territories now falling under Prussian rule
were ruled by an equal number of distinct edicts.35 Moreover, the German emancipation proposals and
measures themselves were usually of a great ambivalence. Even convinced proponents of emancipation
kept making the distinction between useful and useless, truly German and improper Jews. A consistent
treatment of the matter of Jewish emancipation was therefore not to be expected. Under these conditions,
eighty percent of the Jews of Posen – also falling under Prussian rule since 1815 – could simply be denied
For, for instance, the Polish debate concerning the two options see Vital, A People Apart, 79-81, and especially 6974; Mendes-Flohr, ‘The Emancipation of European Jewry’, 18-19, gives a characterization of emancipation
processes in their national contexts; Vital, 178-181, describes the British case.
Meyer, ‘Modernity as a Crisis for the Jews’, 153; Elon, The Pity of It All, 65.
Vital, A People Apart, 64-66; Elon, The Pity of It All, 93-95, 107-109. See for a comprehensive account of Jewish
emancipation in Germany Stefi Jersch-Wenzel, ‘Rechtslage und Emanzipation’, in: Brenner, Deutsch-jüdische
Geschichte, 15-56.
citizenship up to 1846, though in the course of time the most notorious medieval discrimination measures
were abolished. The general picture thus showed a slow, diverse, constantly hitching process.
Crucially, precisely because emancipation evolved in such a troublesome way, German Jews placed
all their hopes on the state, something they would hold on to far into the twentieth century and which
would turn out to be a bitter irony.36 In the course of the emancipation process, it became clear that the
German state was not something to rely upon. Though the emancipation of German Jews was a fruit of the
age of principles that had begun in France, the German states did in fact not build their emancipation
programs on principles. They were busy maneuvering between enlightened ideas and raison d’état on the
one hand and the pressure of the military and noble elites on the other.
Officially, the ambivalent attitude of the German government ceased with Bismarck’s unification
laws of 1869. In this year, after several declarations with a significantly different purport, Bismarck finally
passed a law stating:
All existing limitations of the (…) civic rights which are rooted in the differences of religious faith are hereby
annulled. In particular, the capacity for participation in representation on the community and state level and in
serving in public office shall be independent from religious faith. 37
But the unofficial ambivalence lasted, much more explicitly than in other countries where the Jews had
received political equality. This tendency combined with another peculiar feature of German society in
these decades. At the same time that the German Jews were officially emancipated by politics, they were
more and more attacked from the side of intellectuals. The publication of sharply anti-Semitic texts on the
‘Jewish Question’ was the exponent of this hostile attitude. The most radical formulations were distinctive
in their emphasis on Jews as intrinsically different. Slightly more ‘progressive’ works, such as the German
liberal Bruno Bauer’s Die Judenfrage (1843), denied the possibility of the Jews’ integration into German
society unless they would completely give up their Jewish identity.38
From 1879 on, these anti-Semitic ideas penetrated deeply into German politics and yielded fervent
advocates there. By this time, the harshest German anti-Semitism found its parallel in anti-Semitic ideas in
France – the country where the momentum for emancipation had taken place, where the attainments of the
Revolution continued to be, at least theoretically, adhered to.39 Apparently, even successful emancipation
did not put an end to the difficulty of being Jewish in a non-Jewish society.
Vital, A People Apart, 171-175; Elon, The Pity Of It All, 205-206.
Vital, A People Apart, 176.
Ibid, 190-191, 194; Gotzmann, Eigenheit und Einheit, 176, 214; Michael Brenner, ‘Zwischen Revolution und
rechtlicher Gleichstellung’, in: Brenner, Deutsch-jüdische Geschichte, 287-325, see 287-302 and 315-325.
Ibid, 257, 198. The tendency of the state becoming enemy rather than protector was also visible in Austria and
Hungary in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
1.2 The challenge of emancipation
Looking back on the history of European Jews since the onset of their emancipation, we are able to see
that emancipation was, besides a far from rectilinear process, like a two-edged sword. Emancipation not
only cut the Jews a way into general society, but it also cut them off from the social security and
communal spirit they enjoyed in their ‘nation within a nation’. Besides that, it exposed them to an outside
world in which hostility or at least distrust of the Jews was deeply rooted, which could provoke an ever
more dangerous kind of antipathy from the side of non-Jews. This implied that the Jews had to come to
terms with two constantly recurring notions concerning their relationship with the non-Jewish
environment: first, the need of loyalty to the central state and second, national integration in a social,
cultural and even mental sense. If they desired to meet the demands of general society while at the same
time remaining faithful to the Jewish community and tradition, they found themselves in a state of great
tension, torn between ‘Assimilationsdruck und Selbstbestimmtheit’.40
This situation raised several questions that occupied European Jews the whole nineteenth century
and beyond. What would be the outcome of emancipation? What did true citizenship, true loyalty to the
state, and true patriotic feeling, so often talked about by non-Jews and in their wake by Jews as well,
actually mean? Would it be possible to preserve Jewish identity as traditionally understood, encompassing
both religious and national loyalty? Or was the Judaism of the future a Judaism without national
component, and would it perhaps be possible to experience one’s Jewishness in a new way, voluntarily
and individually?
1.2.1 The nature of religion
The demands of emancipation
The first realm in which these questions proved to be relevant was religion. Indeed, the emancipation
measures aimed to keep Jewish religion intact. Jewish religion was deliberately dissociated from the
framework of the ‘Jewish nation’, which meant that it would exchange its reputation of the religious
aberration of a denigrated people for the status of a dignified religion that could reasonably be accepted by
the rest of society. Yet, this very definition shook the fundaments of Judaism as traditionally understood.
Modernity brought its own concept of religion. In pre-modern times, the notion of ‘religion’
indicated both the outer precepts and inner conviction that belonged to a particular religion. It was only
with the Enlightenment that ‘religion’ became a notion serving to compare the different systems of divine
belief and worship, which were now considered to be different in content but identical in structure. This
Gotzmann, Eigenheit und Einheit, 24.
emphasis on the universality of religion tended to diminish interest in the distinctiveness of religious cults
and rituals and the social element present in them.41 Besides that, it implicated that the cults and rituals of
each religion had to be adapted to the enlightened decencies of a modernized Christian religion, which
served as a model for universalism.
As soon as the Jews were awarded the status of citizens with equal rights, this new awareness of
religion was applied to Judaism as well.42 The precepts of modernity turned out to shake the very
fundament of Jewish religion:
[…] the opportunity to participate in the social, political and economic life of the non-Jewish world beckoned
at a time when a triumphant rationalism branded all forms of revealed religion as benighted relics of the past
and thus undermined the very foundations of Jewish faith, which rests upon the premise that Israel constitutes
God’s “chosen people”. Viewed from the vantage point of the Enlightenment, the belief in the Supernatural
Revelation of a Covenant between God and Israel and imposing a special set of obligations upon a particular
people represented a “scandal of particularity” which was totally incompatible with the universalistic
categories demanded by the ethos of the period.43
Both in theory and in practice, the crucial challenge that confronted all Jews was the demand of
privatization inherent in emancipation. The idea that Judaism should be a private religion was most
directly expressed in the case of education. The Jews had to educate their children according to the rules
of the public education system, if they were not forced to give up private education altogether. Especially
in the most ‘progressive’ countries, Yiddish had to give way to the vernacular in both education and
religious services. Similarly, the use of Hebrew was henceforth prohibited in documents that were deemed
‘non-sacred’ by the authorities.44 These, at least, were the consequences of the removal of cultural and
national distinctiveness from Judaism, agreed upon in France and most strongly demanded in Germany.
This primary formal step towards privatization was verbally expressed by the renaming of the Jews: they
were henceforth called ‘Israelites’ or, rather, ‘Dutchmen of the Israelitic faith’ or ‘Germans of the Mosaic
faith’. The official privatization of Judaism was, especially in Germany, very likely to lead to the new
ethos of being a Jew at home and in the synagogue, while being a German everywhere else.45
Hans-Michael Haußig, Der Religionsbegriff in den Religionen: Studien zum Selbst- und Religionsverständnis in
Hinduismus, Buddhismus, Judentum und Islam (Berlin/Bodenheim, 1999) 1-54, see 32, 47-52.
Gotzmann uses the word Konfessionalisierung; as he puts it, emancipation and the promise of integration
demanded from the Jews ‘daß sie ihr religiöses System konfessionalisierten, damit war gemeint, von separierenden
und den staatlichen Gesetzen und Vorstellungen widersprechenden Regelungen befreiten’. Eigenheit und Einheit,
216; see also 29.
Wurzburger, ‘The Enlightenment, the Emancipation and the Jewish Religion’, 402.
Vital, A People Apart, 107.
Ibid, 274. The often-qouted phrase ‘be a man on the street and a Jew at home’ comes from Jehudah Leib Gordon.
The nature of Judaism
Judged by the nature of religion, privatizing religion always involves a great challenge. After all, every
religion claims to possess the absolute truth. Judaism forms, however, a special case in this respect. On the
one hand, Judaism as traditionally understood emphasizes practice rather than belief, God’s covenant with
people rather than metaphysical speculations in search for absolute reality.46 On the other hand, precisely
this means that Judaism by definition claims the whole of life. While Christianity focuses on belief and
does not necessarily express itself visibly in all aspects of daily life, Judaism is essentially practice. It is
observance that most obviously creates continuity in Judaism and Jewish life, that serves as a detector of
Judaism. ‘An orthodox Jew doesn’t have to worry about whether he believes in God or not. As long as he
observes the law’, the philosopher Gillian Rose once said.47
The second part of Jewish practice’s twofold function is its unifying element. This is directly
derived from its primary function as a way to serve God: by practice, the people of the covenant express
that they belong together in their service of the Holy One. In the context of the historical Jewish people,
Judaism without practice can indeed hardly be conceived. Walter Wurzburger recalls that there does not
exist ‘a classical Hebrew word which really conveys the meaning associated with the term “religion”’.
And attempts to isolate the religious element from Judaism in the modern period, born from ‘the naive
optimism which characterized the Emancipation and Enlightenment’, all proved to be false, especially by
the Holocaust. According to Wurzburger,
[…] the Holocaust has demonstrated that being Jewish is irreducible to belonging to a religious denomination
but involves membership – to borrow Rav Soloveitchik’s terminology – in a Covenantal community of fate
and faith. But while we have extricated ourselves from some of the shallow perceptions of bygone eras, we
still have not mastered the art of combining our Jewish particularity with openness to the values of modernity
This insight was voiced strongly by Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), who, influenced by a post-modern way of
thinking, stated that in Judaism practice does not follow from faith, but faith follows from practice. See for an
analysis of Leibowitz’ conception of Judaism and its influence Avi Sagi, ‘Yeshayahu Leibowitz – A Breakthrough in
Jewish Philosophy: Religion Without Metaphysics’, in: Religious Studies: An International Journal for the
Philosophy of Religion, vol. 33, no. 2 (June 1997), 203-216, and Michael Fagenblatt, ‘Lacking All Interest: Levinas,
Leibowitz, and the Pure Practice of Religion’, in: Harvard Theological Review (1997), no.1, 1-32.
Quoted by Monica Furlonger, ‘Faith, Fun and Seriousness’, in: Times Literary Supplement (1996), no. 4844, 32.
The notion of Judaism as practice was also emphasized by Leibowitz, who gave a normative definition of Jewish
identity in which observance is the bond tying all Jews together. See also Max Wiener’s 1933 book Jüdische
Religion im Zeitalter der Emanzipation, which is dedicated to the relationship between modernity and Jewish
religion. In the introduction to the book, he rejects the idea that Judaism only demands solidarity in the form of
observance, without claiming in matters of personal belief. Wondering ‘wie jenes von Mendelssohn ab so
folgenreich geworderne Mißverständnis sich erklären läßt’, he states that although praxis may dominate in Judaism
and doctrine may not be dogmatically formulated, this praxis is naturally based on a ‘Glaubenslehre’, idem (Berlin
2002 (1933)) 5-27, see 21.
in a manner that minimizes the risk that Jewish identity be corroded by what Walter Lippmann called “the
acids of modernity”’.48
This threat of modernity has also been recognized by people who personally hold great expectations of an
encounter between Judaism and modernity. Michael Meyer, who is himself an adherent of Reform
Judaism and who regards Reform Judaism as an expression of Judaism’s creative power and continuing
viability, calls the waning of community and practice that began with emancipation a serious danger for
Judaism. Describing these developments, he even associates them with apostasy:
Solidarity gave way to a variety of responses, as individual Jews drew conflicting personal consequences from
their new situation. Some continued undeterred in the old ways. But others rejected rabbinic Judaism entirely,
affirming only what they called “the pure faith of Moses.” Still others arbitrarily kept certain traditions – not
necessarily the most important ones historically – while neglecting those that stood in the way of economic or
social advance. […] The observance of Jewish law, no longer recognized as binding by the state, had become a
matter of individual choice. To those for whom Jewish ritual possessed no subjective meaning, conversion to
Christianity became an attractive option. 49
Similarly, in his book Rethinking Modern Judaism Arnold Eisen welcomes the emergence of modern and
post-modern versions of Judaism precisely because they foster observance and community spirit. In his
eyes, this is the only way to ensure the survival of Judaism.50 Eisen describes the crumbling of Jewish
communities since the beginning of modernity as a direct consequence of the restriction of Judaism to the
private sphere. The difference in character between Christianity, especially in its Protestant form, and
Judaism clearly comes into sight here. While it is possible in Christianity to separate the sacred from the
profane, in Judaism this endangers its very nature. For Jews, not only cultic objects or services or words
are holy, while the rest of life is profane; sacredness extends to space and time as well. When all facets of
life which imply sacredness are to be restructured along the dividing line between the sacred and the
profane, the sacred will eventually be lost.51
1.2.2 Thinking in terms of the nation
A changing nation concept
Wurzburger, ‘The Enlightenment, the Emancipation and the Jewish Religion’, see 399.
Meyer, ‘Modernity as a Crisis for the Jews’, 154.
Arnold Eisen, Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community (Chicago, 1998) 262-263.
Ibid, 48-74, see especially 57 and 61.
Modernity not only entailed a reorientation on the subject of religion, but also with regard to the nation.
This development was in several ways different from the transformation of the religion concept. First, the
new conception of religion directly influenced all modernizing countries, while the nation concept
influenced some countries much more than others and national feeling remained diversified. Second, the
transformation in the nation concept occurred approximately half a century later. Third, the new nation
concept was not a fruit of the Enlightenment, but a fierce opposition to it.
It needs to be kept in mind that the Enlightenment itself was by no means pluralistic. It wished to
tolerate opinions and religions insofar as they were reconcilable with the enlightened way of thinking.
This meant that they could not be accepted if they did not fit in the rationalistic, universalistic categories
set by the Enlightenment. This became clear in the case of Jewish religion. Conversion to universalism
was the new commandment; sticking to the old particularism meant transgression. Yet, though the
Enlightenment in this way involved a severe challenge for Judaism, it still aimed at the Jews’ entrance into
modern society. It is here that the crucial difference between the Enlightenment view on society and the
new nationalistic ideology emerging in the nineteenth century comes to the surface. According to the new
conception of a proper society, people could be admitted into society only as members of the nation; and
to be proper members of the nation was surely not given to everyone.
The new nationalism was all but pluralistic (what ‘classical’ American nationalism, for example, at
any rate always presented itself to be). It was profoundly different from the political forms of national
thinking of the eighteenth century, the period of birth of the nation states. This early national thinking
served to accompany the process of building up a centralized state in a society where unity of government,
policy, language, education, and collective identification were totally absent. Adapted to democratic,
revolutionary norms, this politically motivated nationalism also accompanied the French Revolution. In
this way, it survived as the liberal nationalism that continued to dominate the self-image in the United
States, France, Great Britain, and the Low Countries.52 Several representatives of this liberal form of
national thinking expressly emphasized the universal contents of their aspirations. This was notably done
by Wilhelm von Humboldt with his Berliner Bildung programme in the early nineteenth century and by
the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini around mid-century, who believed that the independence of
each nation would bring the best for the entire European continent and ultimately to humanity itself.
While Jews could in principle be included in such a liberal conception of the nation, this changed
when, fostered by the changes in the European political constellation, the first part of the compound
‘nation state’ gained increasing emphasis at the expense of the second part. The revolutionary year 1848
marked a turning point in this respect. The new ideology demanded that everything reminding of the old
Jacob B. Agus, Jewish Identity in an Age of Ideologies (New York, 1978) 130; George L. Mosse, Confronting the
Nation: Jewish and Western Nationalism (Hanover & London, 1993) 1.
social and political order – or rather, in the new liberals’ view, disorder – should be substituted by the
living presence of the nation. The nation would become the new actor in the international sphere, but also
the law-giver in cases of personal and collective ethos, behaviour, and purposes.53 Especially for the
success of the German and Italian unification projects, which both reached their goal in 1871, seeing the
world through nationalistic glasses was of crucial importance. In more general terms, the new emphasis on
the rights of the nation at the expense of the rights of man marked a decisive step away from the ideology
of the French Revolution.
The hostile attitude which this nationalism created in the international sphere was paralleled within
the nation state itself. This nationalism, which George Mosse characterizes as a ‘civic religion’, was not
friendly to minority groups. For the communal feeling that was longed for, a basic unity was needed that
consisted of at least a shared past and language.54 The third unifying element was variable: in Russia it
was religion, in France and Germany increasing attention was paid to race. In France, racial nationalism
regularly found verbal expression, but the liberal kind of nationalism inherited from the French Revolution
continued to dominate here. It was only in Germany that a nationalism explicitly excluding the Jewish
population group penetrated deeply into society. German nationalism is therefore the best example Mosse
is able to give.
The German exponent
That German national thinking began to alter by the first decades of the nineteenth century, was first
reflected in the intellectual development of several important German thinkers. From a liberal version of
nationalism combined with a strong cosmopolitan feeling, they turned to strong adherence to the German
Volk. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who as early as 1808 proclaimed the Volk to be equal to revealed religion,
was one of them.55 Philosophies like Herder’s, who saw the religious soul as the essence of the nation and
all national cultures as a contribution to the ultimate divine truth, slowly gave way to a ‘nihilistic
nationalism, which recognized no other deity than the single-minded thrust of power and greatness’.56
Vital, A People Apart, 248-253; Brenner, ‘Zwischen Revolution und rechtlicher Gleichstellung’, 288-302.
Mosse, Confronting the Nation, 41.
Ibid, 5. Elon, The Pity of It All, 6. Mosse and Elon both point to the similarity between this period of war, defeat,
and disillusion in Germany and the first three decades of the twentieth century in Germany.
Agus, Jewish Identity, 123-124. The shift from ‘universalistic’ thinking in terms of nations towards exclusive
forms of nationalism is clearly visible in the activities of some German intellectuals who discovered Volkskultur
around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Johann Gottfried Herder was one of the first to collect and publish
Volkslieder (two volumes, 1774 and 1778). For Herder, this activity had nothing to do with glorification of his own
nation: his collection included translations from English, French, Danish, Spanish, Latvian and the Eskimos’
languages. Conversely, the famous volumes of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, collected by Achim von Arnim and
Brentano and published between 1806 and 1808, contained only German ballads and were explicitly meant to
encourage the German nation in its struggle with the enemy nation, France. Peter Burke, Volkscultuur in Europa
1500-1800 (Amsterdam, 1990), see especially 21-29.
How the emphasis shifted in German national thinking, can for example be traced in the
development of the two liberal concepts of Bildung and Sittlichkeit, a significant aspect of
Begriffsgeschichte to which especially Mosse has called attention. In the beginning of the nineteenth
century, when Bildung was famously propagated by Humboldt, the term pointed to an open-ended
development of the personality which was seen as necessary for a proper membership of nation and
society. The Bildung concept was completed by the notion of Sittlichkeit, which indicated the necessity of
moral respectability. These liberal notions made up a cultural form of nationalism that was readily
embraced by the Jews, and not without reason: this kind of national thinking promised to create a society
of tolerance, inclusive nationalism, and high culture in which the great heritages of German and Jewish
tradition could be combined.57
In retrospect, it is possible to see how the Jews were outrun by the developments in German society.
It turned out that the liberalism they relied upon took place in ‘the autumn of the German
Enlightenment’.58 Tormented by continuous uncertainty in both politics, economics, and social life,
German society saw a shift from the somewhat abstract idealism of the early nineteenth-century
Enlightenment generation to a new emphasis on political power, national unity, military strength, and
internal control. In this process, the meaning of Sittlichkeit became ever narrower: instead of a universal
moral respectability shared by all humans, an exclusive set of social norms was emphasized. Slowly but
surely, also the Bildung concept was coloured by a nationalistic outlook: losing its emphasis on the
individual, it eventually became ‘an attribute of those who could boast Germanic roots and who alone
could appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful’.59 According to the German Jew Ludwig Marcuse,
writing in his diary at the beginning of the twentieth century, nothing was left of Bildung but the worship
of ‘“Prussian army barracks adorned with Doric columns and Corinthian capitols”’.60
1.3 Reflections and responses
By the time of emancipation’s first stirrings, the Jews were far from welcoming it unanimously with open
arms. With the exception of small numbers of progressive intellectuals, they used to view emancipation
‘as a Trojan horse, which hid in its bowels insidious forces bent on depriving Jewry of its cultural dignity
George L. Mosse, German Jews Beyond Judaism (Bloomington/Cincinnati, 1985) 116, 122, 132, 143.
Ibid, 3.
Mosse, Confronting the Nation, 131-145, see 139. In German Jews Beyond Judaism, 11, Mosse refers to
Nipperdey, Deutsche Geschichte, 40.
Das Tagebuch (26 September 1933): 1526, quoted in Mosse, German Jews Beyond Judaism, 13.
and self-esteem’.61 Fear for the uncertainty of the new from the side of the Jewish communities and fear
for religious adaptation, assimilation or secularization from the side of their leaders was usually the first
reaction to the rumours of emancipation. Some representatives of Hungarian Jewry went so far as to
attempt ‘to turn back the clock of history’62: shortly after its proclamation, they made a formal request to
the governmental authorities to rescind the Hungarian Edict of Emancipation. The leaders of the Jewish
congregations in the Netherlands, whose case will be considered in another chapter, showed similar
German Jewry formed a remarkable exception to this general rule. By the time of the onset of
emancipation, the German Jewish community had been subject to disintegration for a considerably long
time. Besides that, bodies of progressive intellectuals exerted much more influence in this community than
in Jewish communities elsewhere. Berlin protagonists of the Haskalah, to whom Mendelssohn belonged,
anticipated emancipation long before its actualization.63 The maskilim’s Hebrew journal Ha-Meassef and
from 1806 on their German journal Sulamith both witnessed the desire for an improvement of the social,
cultural, economic and political position of the Jews. In the first issue of Sulamith, the editors depicted the
new age of emancipation as ‘beginning to tell of happy events and with every advance it becomes yet
brighter, yet more delightful’. By 1813, they voiced their great expectations with the words ‘O glorious
present! O still more glorious future!’.64 In the enormous German controversy on the suitability of Jews
for emancipation – between 1815 and 1850, the German states saw the publication of some 2500 texts on
the subject, written by both Gentile and Jewish authors –, the Jews showed a profound conviction of the
desirability of emancipation combined with strong ‘Zuversicht’ and ‘Fortschrittoptimismus’.65
Well into the twentieth century, none of the misfortunes which the German Jewish emancipation
project suffered was able to undo this optimism. Rather, German Jews from different backgrounds came to
share the expectation that it would be perfectly compatible to be both German and Jewish. Being German
and being Jewish, they felt, would come together in liberalism. This confidence was the heritage of the
classical Bildung and Sittlichkeit culture.66 While the open concept of culture slowly gave way to the
exclusive concept of the German nation, the Jews kept relying on the promises from the beginning of the
emancipation period; they did not cease to regard Germany as their true home. Observing the ‘love story’
between all those ‘disciples’ of Mendelssohn and their German country, Amos Elon states that
Mendes-Flohr, ‘The Emancipation of European Jewry’, 17.
Wurzburger, ‘The Enlightenment, the Emancipation and the Jewish Religion’, 403.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 12-13.
Michael A. Meyer, ‘Reflections on Jewish Modernization’, in: idem, Judaism Within Modernity, 32-43, see 35.
Jersch-Wenzel, ‘Rechtslage und Emanzipation’, 39-43.
Mosse, Confronting the Nation, 4, 148, 116, 122, 132, 143.
[…] the main thrust of their intellectual and political efforts – and of their reckless magnanimity – was a
desperate but vain attempt to civilize German patriotism: to base citizenship not on blood but on the law, to
separate church and state, and to establish what would today be called an open, multicultural society. 67
In the course of the nineteenth century, the positive attitude of German Jews towards emancipation was
increasingly paralleled in other Jewish communities. The separation of church and state, which coloured
French society much more than the German ones, became the hallmark of the ideology of a growing group
of progressive French Jews. In daily life, the adaptations forced upon Jewish education and public religion
were more and more accepted as necessary improvements of Jewry’s status, a tendency which was also
visible in Dutch society. At the same time, no less than a feeling of satisfaction with emancipation, a
feeling of crisis continued to be a common feature of the Jews’ experience of modern times. This crisis of
identity was characterized by Vital as a combination of ‘fall in moral self-confidence’, the lack of ‘a fixed
status as full and worthy members of the national societies to which they belonged’, and the varying
degrees of acculturation and integration that divided the Jewish population group internally. 68 That the
German Jews’ feeling of ‘living in a twilight of favor and misfortune, forever straining to be (and not to
be) themselves, Germans, Jews, equal, free’69 was not unknown to Jews of other countries, can easily be
distilled from the Jewish newspapers and periodicals of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
In any case, whether in the positive or in the negative, modernity called for an answer from the side
of the Jews. Indeed, the face of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewry was marked by the confrontation
with modernity. The most logical and most common reaction to the demands of the new age was the
privatization of Judaism. In some cases, this attitude developed into a serious ideology which deliberately
wanted to cope with the dangers of modernity, as it was embodied in Modern Orthodoxy in Germany or in
some currents of Conservative Judaism. In other cases, for example in Dutch and French Jewish church
leadership, privatization could lead to something which came very close to secularization, at least in the
personal sphere. Secondly, there were also the more polemical responses. Below the institutional
organization of the Jewish religious congregations, spiritual leaders in particular continued practising the
ideology of traditional authority and communal coherence. Besides privatization and the making of
Orthodoxy – the latter could, otherwise, almost unnoticeably fade into the first –, from the last decades of
the nineteenth century on there was also the truly militant alternative of ‘ethnication’. Both religious forms
of Zionism and the attempts at confessionalization displayed by the diverse Jewish interest groups
springing up in Western Europe (not least in the Dutch context of verzuiling (‘pillarization’)) may be
included in this category. Fourth, then, an ever growing group of Jews saw universalization of Judaism as
Elon, The Pity of It All, 9.
Vital, A People Apart, 334.
Elon, The Pity of It All, 100.
the proper answer to modernity. In the eyes of the Reformers, neither a withdrawn form of traditionalism,
nor privatization, nor attempts at confessionalization could shape the Judaism of the future. Universalism,
not particularism, should become the hallmark of Judaism, both in its practice and in its theory. In this
way, one would be able to be a Jew and at the same time a loyal citizen and patriot; in this way one could
at once keep hold of the resources of the past, enjoy the attainments of the present, and share in the
promises of the future. This movement, so intimately connected to the modern question of Jewish identity,
is the subject of the next chapter.
Instead of emphasizing that the Reform movement was something totally new, its adherents have often
stated that it is ancient and universal. Caesar Seligmann’s history of Reform Judaism begins with the
statement, ‘So alt wie das Judentum selbst ist die Reform des Judentums’. Probably intended as in part an
apologia, in part a reassurance, this remark is paralleled in a little book on Liberal Judaism written by a
French Liberal Jew, who asserted that although the title ‘Judaïsme libéral’ might sound new, ‘la chose est
aussi vieille que la monde’.1 In their eagerness to defend Reform Judaism against those who rejected it as
a break with Jewish tradition, its protagonists sometimes presented an almost cyclical view of Jewish
history, with Moses himself as the first reformer and the Prophets as the spokesmen of another necessary
reform movement in Judaism.2
Yet, at the same time, that particular notion of inherent development also nurtures the idea of
progress, which is another crucial element in the self-understanding of Reform Judaism. The intention to
bring the Jews in tune with modernity and the corresponding awareness of a completely new age are
central to Reform Judaism. That the movement cannot be viewed without its context of time and place, is
further proved by the fact that its character varied greatly from country to country. Moreover, it was all
but a monolithic movement in Judaism: until after 1945, most Jewish communities did without it. This
observation is the background to the present chapter, which connects to the question what factors favoured
or disfavoured the breakthrough of some form of Reform Judaism. The countries under consideration are
Germany, England, and France respectively, the discussion of which forms a prelude to the next chapter
which deals with the Dutch case. 3
Several questions serve as a guide to this chapter. To which crises or developments did the
Reformers connect, and what were their reasons and justifications for promoting Reform? What
Seligmann, Geschichte der jüdischen Reformbewegung, 7; Rivals, Notes sur le Judaïsme Libéral, 9.
See also Michael Leigh, ‘Reform Judaism in Britain (1840-1970)’, in: Dow Marmur, ed., Reform Judaism: Essays
on Reform Judaism in Britain (London, 1973) 3-52, see 3, where the author argues that the principle of Reform has
always existed in Judaism, which was obvious in the lives of Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets, who all looked for
new goals and horizons. This was always a ‘reform ‘internally’ in a purifying sense’. At the same time, the author
speaks of the weakness of the modern Reform movement which results from the fact that it was essentially a protest
movement and thereby lacked clear positive contents and consensus (15).
Naturally, German Reform receives most attention, since it generally served as a model for other Reform
movements. Furthermore, British and French initiatives and successes – though not necessary under the name of
Reform – will be discussed; the Belgian case will be briefly considered in the next chapter, as the counterpart of the
Dutch case. Eastern European movements (in the Habsburg Lands) are largely left aside because they operated under
conditions quite different from those in the Netherlands; the same is true for American Reform. Later movements
like those in Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, and Israel are not considered since they developed after the
Second World War.
opposition did they meet on their way, and how successful was this opposition? In what ways did the
movements differ from each other, and, on the other hand, what bound them together? The first part gives
a characterization of the success of Reform in Germany, where three factors are distinguished: the hopes
which accompanied emancipation, the role of intellectual rethinking, and the inner development of
Judaism and Jewry in relation to modernity. The second part tells about the fortunes and misfortunes of
Reform in England and France and how these cases differed from the German one. In the third part, the
innovation movement which stirred the Jewish communities of both Germany, England, and France by the
end of the nineteenth century will be discussed. As will be shown, this Liberal Jewish movement, from
which future Dutch Liberal Judaism would emerge, reacted to specific actual circumstances. This truly
inner-Jewish movement, which was accompanied by a new Jewish self-awareness, was an actualization of
the tendency which was present in Reform from the beginning: the desire for ‘inner emancipation’.
2.1 German Jewry and the making of Reform
2.1.1 The hopes of emancipation
Anticipating emancipation
Though the steadfastly observant Jew Moses Mendelssohn cannot be said to have been a Reformer – he
would certainly have been unpleased with even the title ‘father of Reform Judaism’, which is often
awarded to him –, his name cannot be omitted from a history of the Reform movement. As a leader of the
German class of maskilim, he began to rethink the role of Jewish religion in general society in a manner
which paved the way for later Reformers. In the first place, he pleaded for the enhancement of Jewish life
and thought by ‘zeitgenössische Bildung’4 and thereby brought the Jews in touch with the attainments of
Christian society and thought. Secondly, he was one of the first and most influential German Jews to call
attention to the desirability of emancipation.
On a philosophical level, Mendelssohn took pains to show that Judaism was perfectly compatible
with modern times. His work Jerusalem especially was a testimony of his conviction that Judaism was,
like Christianity, a natural religion, a religion which could be understood rationally and defended
philosophically. As a moral religion, moreover, Judaism guided the Jews into the moral community of
humankind itself.5 Combining this plea for the religious emancipation of Judaism with the confidence that
cultural, social, and economic integration of the Jews would be possible, Mendelssohn favoured the
See Moritz Levin, Die Reform des Judentums: Festschrift zur Feier des fünfzigjährigen Bestehens der jüdischen
Reform-Gemeinde in Berlin (Berlin, 1895) 14-19.
See among others Meyer, Response to Modernity, 13.
thought of political emancipation. His idea of emancipation was not unconditional; but though he pleaded
for social, cultural, and political adaptation, he strongly held to the belief that Judaism as a religion should
be preserved according to tradition.6 Indeed, he fitted completely in the definition of true maskilim given
by the prominent Galician maskil Joseph Perl (1773-1839):
[…] men whose sole desire was that the Jews should not be a mockery in the eyes of other nations, [who
wished] to learn various languages and disciplines, but without – perish the thought – abandoning the ways of
our ancestors and in accordance with the faith and fear of God.7
In the generation of German maskilim subsequent to Mendelssohn’s, the boundaries so self-evidently set
by Perl were eventually crossed.8 It was here that the Mendelssohnian anticipation of emancipation, which
was widely shared in the upper classes of the steadily disintegrating German Jewish community,9 turned
into a tendency which strongly favoured a reformation of Judaism. David Friedländer (1750-1843) was
one of the first and also the most radical of the German maskilim who, in rethinking and developing
Mendelssohn’s thought, strived to make Jewish religion compatible with modern circumstances.
Friedländer’s dedication to the cause of cultural and political emancipation led him in 1799 to write a
public letter to the liberal Protestant minister Wilhelm Teller with the suggestion to formulate a new
religion, based on pure reason and freed from the burden of ritual and ceremony, which would encompass
the best of Judaism and Christianity.10 Friedländer eventually answered to the counsel of Teller, who,
shocked by these considerations which came so close to conversion to Christianity, advised him to work
for religious reform within his own faith.
Friedländer’s overtures to general religion make him a problematic figure in the eyes of later
Reformers. Writing in the 1890s, the Berlin Reform preacher Moritz Levin dismissed Friedländer’s
compromise proposal as something that could only originate from the Sturm und Drang-period. In
Seligmann’s view, Friedländer’s actions were ‘[einen] traurigen Irrweg’, caused by ‘die unselige
Verquickung der Reform mit der Emanzipation’. These retrospective insights cannot, however, undo the
Moses Mendelssohn, Jerusalem, chapter 2; in Gesammelte Schriften, vol. III (Leipzig, 1843) 358 ff., translated by
and quoted in: W. Gunther Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism: A Sourcebook of its European Origins (New York,
1963) 7-8.
Joseph Perl, Bohen tsadik [Who Tries the Righteous] (Prague, 1838) 47, quoted in: Feiner, ‘Towards a Historcial
Definition’, 184-219.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 16.
The tendency of disintegration was visible from the second half of the eigtheenth century on, in the wake of the
decrease of the rabbinate’s authority and the community’s coherence; see Michael A. Meyer, ‘Jüdische Gemeinden
im Übergang’, in: Brenner, Deutsch-jüdische Geschichte, 96-134.
David Friedländer, Sendschreiben an Seine Hochwürden Herrn Oberconsistorialrath und Probst Teller zu Berlin,
von einigen Hausvätern jüdischer Religion (Berlin, 1799), see Dan Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom in Nederland
1929-1943 (Amsterdam, 1988) 10-11; Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, 10-11.
fact that Friedländer’s actions responded to the same experience which prompted later Reformers: the
feeling that Judaism should undergo a profound improvement in the face of modernity. As Deborah Hertz
recalls, ‘Reform Judaism’s very attraction came [in part] from the failure of attempts like Friedländer’s to
find a third path between traditional Judaism and traditional Christianity’.11
The grant of emancipation
While the desire for emancipation did much to stimulate the conviction that Judaism should be reformed,
the eventual grant of emancipation did more. The course of events in Westphalia, under the enthusiastic
leadership of the wealthy businessman Israel Jacobson (1768-1828), is a clear example of the tight
connection between emancipation and reform. As early as 1807, under French occupation, the kingdom of
Westphalia granted its Jewish inhabitants full civil and political rights. Within the framework of the
consistorial structure imposed by the new French rulers, Jacobson and his fellow consistory members
issued a number of reforms in synagogue and educational life.
This reorientation was a combination of the policy of the French-Westphalian deputies and the
reformist creativity of Jacobson and his fellows. By the time of their very inauguration, the deputies
charged the consistory members with ‘the task of bringing a number of customs, which have crept into
Judaism, more into line with changed circumstances and the spirit of the times, and to take the steps
necessary for this purpose’.12 As a dedication address for the first Reform temple in Seesen shows,
Jacobson agreed with this view on the necessity of a reformation. The address told that Jacobson intended
‘first some rapprochement between you and your Christian neighbors’, and explained:
For your true and progressive enlightenment depends on this rapprochement. On it depends the education of
your spirit for true religiosity and, at the same time also, your greater political welfare. […] On all sides,
enlightenment opens up new areas for development. Why should we alone remain behind?
Let us be honest, my brothers. Our ritual is still weighted down with religious customs which must be
rightfully offensive to reason as well as to our Christian friends. 13
Like in Westphalia, the proclamation of the emancipation edict in Prussia, in 1812, also yielded its fruits.
The same Friedländer who earlier proposed ‘dry baptism’ as a ‘shortcut to political emancipation’, 14 took
Levin, Die Reform des Judentums, 19; Seligmann, Geschichte der jüdischen Reformbewegung, 59; Deborah Hertz,
‘Seductive Conversion in Berlin, 1779-1809’, in: Todd M. Endelman, ed., Jewish Apostasy in the Modern World
(New York/London, 1987) 48-82. For the Berlin circle of maskilim in the period concerned, see Meyer, Response to
Modernity, 16-25.
Quoted in Meyer, Response to Modernity, 33.
Israel Jacobson, in Sulamith, 3rd year (1810), vol. I, 298 ff., translated by and quoted in Plaut, The Rise of Reform
Judaism, 29-31.
Hertz, ‘Seductive Conversion’, 71.
the momentum as an occasion to write a pamphlet titled Ueber die durch die neue Organisation der
Judenschulen in den preussischen Staaten nothwendig gewordene Umbildung ihres Gottesdienstes in den
Synagogen.15 Otherwise, with the exception of Westphalia’s authorities in the time of its French
occupation, the Gentile governments were not so eager for reformations in Judaism. Jacobson’s innovating
measures, which grew into a genuine alternative to traditional religious services when he shifted his
activity to Berlin in 1814, met with increasing opposition from the side of the authorities. During eight
years, the home of the Berlin businessman Jacob Herz Beer served as a ‘private temple’ each Saturday,
when large groups of interested persons attended the unorthodox services organized by Jacobson. The
innovations, meant to make the religion of the Jews dignified and edifying, included among other things
the playing of an organ, the choral singing of German hymns, sermons in German, modest prayer book
reforms, and confirmation ceremonies for both boys and girls. Due to fierce resistance from both Jewish
traditionalists and the Prussian government, it was only in Hamburg, by the 1820s, that Jewish public
worship of a reformist character eventually managed to strike roots.16
Notwithstanding the difficulties reformist initiatives met with, the hopes of emancipation grew into a
truly reformist mood among a growing group of German Jews. One of the most influential of them,
Leopold Zunz (1794-1886), who was one of the first to sympathize with Jacobson’s private services in
Berlin,17 expressly voiced his persuasion that the benefit of emancipation called for Reform. As he
exhorted in his Gottesdienstlichen Vorträgen (1832),
Reform ist das Moment der jüngsten Generationen, deren Aufgabe es ist, in der politische Stellung, in der
Wissenschaft und in der durch beide bedingten, religiösen Form das wahrhaft Zeitgemässe zur Herrschaft zu
erheben […].18
In the centre of these Jews’ conviction that Judaism was to undergo a reformation stood the demand of
separation of religious and political loyalty. This central demand of modernity, agreed upon in France,
was internalized by those German Jews who desired for or cheerfully welcomed emancipation.
Significantly, the very first German Reformers took over the change of name from ‘Jews’ to ‘Israelites’
which had come into fashion in France, and added the renaming of ‘synagogues’ into ‘temples’. In the
view of the German reformists, the modern ideology which demanded that Jews henceforth only pay
allegiance to the religious but not to the nation-like communal meaning of Judaism should have concrete
consequences for Judaism itself. Indeed, this would imply that the eternal significance of the ancient
Philipson, The Reform Movement, 32.
The episode of early reforms is extensively described in Meyer, Response to Modernity, 30-61.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 48, describes Zunz’ joy about the religious revival he met with.
Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträgen der Juden (Berlin, 1832) 450, quoted in Seligmann, Geschichte der jüdischen
Reformbewegung, 90.
sacrificial service of Jerusalem, the longing for a personal Messiah as the Redeemer of His people, and the
hope for return to Zion should be removed from one’s mind and one’s prayer book.19
Overviewing the wider history of the Reform movement in the nineteenth century, one gets a clear
picture of the close connection between Reform initiatives and the vicissitudes of Jewish emancipation.
Generally speaking, when the political situation gave occasion for hope and optimism, enthusiasm for
Reform flourished. A state of apathy struck German Jews when the hopes of the 1848 revolutions dashed,
and again when emancipation was finally attained in the 1860s-1870s. Conversely, the fresh hopes raised
in countries that did not see emancipation before, notably the Habsburg lands, repeatedly created a stir for
Reform. In Austria, the attainment of full emancipation in 1868 prompted significant synagogue reforms
in both Vienna and other Austrian communities. In Hungary, the optimistic spirit of the initial stages of
the 1848 revolution led to the founding of a liberal congregation even before that time.20
2.1.2 Intellectual rethinking
Besides the tight connection to emancipation in German Reform Judaism, its close relation to the
intellectual development of the country strikes the eye. Germany, which can reasonably be called a
country of intellectuals, yielded a respectable number of Jewish intellectuals. Indeed, while the history of
French, Dutch or Belgian Judaism and to a lesser extent the British one might be called a history of rabbis
and synagogue officials, the German counterpart can be seen as a history of intellectuals. These
intellectuals, whose thought was embedded in the German intellectual context, played a much greater role
in the Jewish community than their colleagues did elsewhere in Western Europe. Reform Judaism as it
developed in Germany is a reflection of this. From the beginning, it was intellectuals who built future
Reform both in theology, belief and practice. The intellectual character of Reform sometimes created a
serious impasse for those Reformers who strived to reach not only intellectual Jews but also uneducated
people and the youngest generations.
The developments of Reform thought, then, reflect the history of intellectual thought in Germany,
especially in its Protestant form. Friedrich Wilhelm Graf has even spoken of a ‘shared history’ of Reform
Judaism and German liberal Kulturprotestantismus.21 Mendelssohn’s new emphasis on Judaism as a
Sooner or later, most reformed prayer books underwent this change. Initially, the prayer book of Jacobson’s Berlin
congregation maintained the prayers referring to Zion, the sacrificial service, and Israel’s chosenness. In the
Hamburg prayer book, these passages were omitted and messianism and chosenness reinterpreted in a universalist
way. See Meyer, Response to Modernity, 43-61.
Appeal, from the translation in D. Philipson, The Reform Movement, 275, quoted in Plaut, The Rise of Reform
Judaism, 62. For an overview of the period and the fluctuations of politics and Jewish religious interests, see Gartner,
History of the Jews, 129-161.
Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, ‘Was heißt: «Religion modernisieren?»’, in: Michael Brenner and David N. Myers,
Jüdische Geschichtsschreibung heute: Themen, Positionen, Kontroversen (München, 2002), 130-137, see 134.
natural religion which answered universal demands was embedded in the German Aufklärung, which,
unlike the secularist French Enlightenment, was of a religious character. His stress on the morality and
individual autonomy inherent in Judaism was a defense against Immanuel Kant, who held the conviction
that Judaism could not be called a true religion since it made no appeal to the individual’s conscience but
consisted of pure legalism instead. Applied to practice, Kant (like Friedrich Schleiermacher) stressed that
attendance of synagogue services and prayer should not be seen as a means to change God’s will, but to
edify the people. This insight was of great importance for the development of a body of principles in the
period of the first reforms.22
Later developments in the Reform movement can likewise be traced to the energy which the
confrontations between Jewish intellectuals and German society released. Germany’s ongoing debates on
the eligibility of Jews for emancipation repeatedly stimulated Jewish theological discussions on the
relation between religion and nationality in Judaism.23 It was in the wake of such discussions that the
character of the Reform movement crystallized. In this way, what is now termed ‘classical Reform’ was
shaped, with the great ideologue Abraham Geiger (1810-1874) as its most prominent figure. Via his
writings and impassioned participation in theological debates, he started to build a coherent theologicalphilosophical foundation for Judaism. In this way, Judaism was given a place in the changing
philosophical categories of the time: instead of being a vector of Mendelssohn’s eternal truths, which were
losing its force with the demise of the Enlightenment, Judaism was now conceived as a dynamic,
historical religion.24
In Geiger’s conception of Judaism, the principles already formulated by earlier Reformers – the
centrality of the ‘mission of Israel’ which aimed at the religious and moral enlightenment of humanity, the
stress on the purely religious character of Judaism, and the prominence of ideas and morality – received a
new emphasis. Like the emphasis on the idealistic, humanistic, and moral character of Judaism, the
principle of the mission of Israel – which was, otherwise, held by all movements within German Judaism
– also found its parallels in German intellectual thought. Originally in reaction to French dominance, nonJewish German thinkers adhered to the idea that Germany possessed a cultural mission among the
peoples. Inspired by this idea, the Jewish Missionsgedanke was, according to Michael A. Meyer, ‘die
extremste Antwort auf die angebliche Verderbtheit der jüdischen Religion, welche die Gegner der
Emanzipation ins Feld führten’. For the Reformers, this doctrine was an intellectual justification of Jewish
religion in the eyes of the world.25
Agus, Jewish Identity, 37-81; Michael A. Meyer, ‘German Political Pressure and Jewish Religious Response in the
Nineteenth Century’, in: idem, Judaism within Modernity, 144-167, see 227.
Gotzmann, Eigenheit und Einheit, 216.
Meyer, ‘German Political Pressure’, 214.
Michael A. Meyer, ‘Jüdisches Selbstverständnis’, in: Brenner, Deutsch-jüdische Geschichte, 135-176, see 153.
Particularly innovating in the thought of Geiger and several other contemporary Reform ideologues
was the change towards a ‘dynamic, historical religion’,26 by the profound conviction that development
was inherent in and necessary to Judaism.27 Together with the emphasis on individual autonomy, this
belief gave the Reformers’ approach to Jewish religious identity and tradition a present-oriented and
subjective character. As another representative of the more radical wing of Reform Judaism, Samuel
Hirsch (1815-1889), did not hesitate to say in his systematic philosophical work Die Reform im
Judenthum (1844):
The need of the time is the highest law in Judaism; all ceremonies are but means for the fulfilment of this
highest law […]. The demand that everything which hinders us from working for the maintenance and
prosperity of civil society, with all our spiritual and material powers, be removed from our ceremonial practice
is therefore religiously justified. […] It matters not whether any ceremony which is not to be retained for the
above-mentioned reason be prescribed in the Bible or the Talmud. 28
Indeed, as Hirsch’s remark shows, this revolutionary view of Judaism found its exponent in the
intellectual approach to ritual. Though earlier Reformers also occupied themselves with a radical
rethinking of the role of ritual – the very first issues of Sulamith, in 1806, may serve as a proof to this29 –,
those operating around the middle of the nineteenth century viewed the meaning of ritual explicitly in the
context of Jewry’s actual religious and historical collective consciousness. Geiger, who as a rabbi held on
to observance throughout his life, made a sharp distinction between ritual with an edifying function and
ritual which only annoyed or offended people. Privately, he confessed that circumcision was for him a
‘“barbaric, bloody act, which fills the father with fear”’.30 Ritual which could be made meaningful was,
however, indispensable in his view, since it was a means to express the spiritual unity, collective
See above, Meyer, ‘German Political Pressure’.
See Meyer, Response to Modernity, 89-99, for a description of Geiger’s thought, activity, and meaning for Reform
Judaism; S. Bernfeld, Juden und Judentum im neunzehnten Jahrhundert (Berlin, 1898) and Philipson, The Reform
Movement, both revere Geiger for his unique understanding of the essence and needs of Judaism.
Samuel Hirsch, Die Reform im Judenthum (Berlin 1844) 67-69, quoted in Nahum N. Glatzer, The Dynamics of
Emancipation: The Jew in the Modern Age (Boston, 1965) 80-83 (translation by D. Philipson); see further Judith
Frishman, ‘True Mosaic Religion: Samuel Hirsch, Samuel Holdheim and the Reform of Judaism’, in: Judith
Frishman, Willemien Otten and Gerard Rouwhorst, eds., Religious Identity and Historical Formation
(Leiden/Boston, 2004) 195-222, see 215-220.
For example Sulamith, vol. I (1806), 322 ff. called attention to the difference between ceremony and religion.
Though religion alone was essential, ceremony might also be necessary: ‘Indeed, sensual man needs a certain
environment which attracts him with his solemnity and which is capable of bringing him closer to the essence of
religion. Ceremony is, therefore, a means through which the eyes of the large masses – who can see like moles – are
alone capable of glimpsing the glory of the divine in all its purity’. Published in and translated by Plaut, The Rise of
Reform Judaism, 14-15. This view on the use of ritual was shared by the mainstream of Reform Judaism, as it is until
Abraham Geiger, Nachgelassene Schriften, vol. 1 (Berlin, 1875-1878) 34-37, quoted in Meyer, Repsonse to
Modernity, 96.
consciousness and solidarity which united the religious community. In similar manner, the German rabbi
and Reform theologian Solomon Formstecher (1808-1889) called ritual ‘protective armour’, required for
the survival of Judaism’s spirit.31
2.1.3 A religious necessity
The above account of the pressures and inspiration sources for Reform may give the impression that the
Reform movement was completely dependent on external circumstances, and, as some have maintained,
must be seen as essentially a reaction movement without truly positive contents of its own. The idea that
Reform was the price which the German Jews willingly paid for emancipation is then near at hand. Such a
conception of the Reform movement needs correction, however. Indeed, the first reforms often had a
pragmatic or ‘opportunistic’32 character and revolved around ‘die Stellung im bürgerlichen Dasein der
Gesellschaft’, as particularly Max Wiener has stressed.33 Yet, there is another side to Reform, especially
when it began to reach maturity, which is equally important.
For the Reformers, Reform Judaism was also an urgent drive from the inside of Judaism, a religious
necessity. They increasingly realized that not only the times and the circumstances, but the Jews
themselves had changed. The growing influence of general society and culture, sanctified by the very
existence of the Reform movement, was something to come to terms with. Making Judaism in tune with
modernity was considered to be a necessary measure to fight the increasing dissatisfaction and
indifference in religious matters.34 This was already felt in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the
period of the first reforms. ‘Die Synagogen waren leer und verödet’, S. Bernfeld wrote down in 1898, ‘die
Jugend hatte sich von ihnen gewendet. Die alten Formen paßten nicht mehr, man fand sich nicht befriedigt
von den altmodischen Kantoren, die oft irgend einen Gassenhauer als synagogale Melodie zu benutzen
pflegten. Unter solchen Umstanden lag der Gedanke nahe, das Judentum, d. h. den synagogalen
Gottesdienst, wenigstens in Deutschland zeitgemäß umzugestalten’.35 Such observations prompted
Agus, Jewish Identity, 115; this was, for instance, also the insight of the neo-Kantian German-Jewish philosopher
Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), see idem, 71.
Philipson, The Reform Movement, 37.
Wiener, Jüdische Religion, 46-47. According to Wiener, the first Reformers focused on ‘die formale Reputation
des jüdischen Kultus’ and merely desired to take away some ‘Mißstände und Haßlichkeiten’. The debate on themes
like a German-language sermon and the playing of an organ ‘erzeugte viel stärker eine “neue Zeit” gewandelte
Ausdrucksformen, die überdies halachisch gerechtfertigt wurden, als daß man etwas von einem religiösen Impulse
fühlte, die die “Zeit” neu machte’. Furthermore, both Levin and Philipson describe the first reforms as mere
forerunners of the Reform movement, since they were only impelled by pragmatism and carried the character of
concessions instead of a Neugestaltung; Levin, Die Reform des Judentums, 22-23, Philipson, The Reform Movement,
25, 37.
Jacob Katz, ‘The Jewish Response to Modernity in Western Europe’, in: The Jerusalem Quarterly, no. 38 (1986)
5-13, see 12.
Bernfeld, Juden und Judentum, 60.
reformist Jews to strive for not only external goals, but also internal goals, born from the inner-directed
ambition to save Judaism from the dangers of modernity. How precisely these internal goals were dashed
by the steadily growing indifference among the Jewish public, is shown in the case of the ‘Verein für
Cultur und Wissenschaft der Juden’ (Society for Culture and Science of the Jews), founded in Berlin in
1819. To the externally-directed principles formulated by the Society belonged the desire to become true
fellow Germans and the effort to transfer the Jewish youth from the despised trade jobs into new
professions, especially in agriculture.36 The corresponding endeavours to edify and dignify Judaism
internally, particularly by new philosophical categories to grasp Jewish identity and by critical historical
scholarship, were, within a decade, severely dampened by either disinterestedness or obstinacy from the
side of the Jewish audience. The Society’s prominent member Zunz, who later on again picked up the task
of promoting Reform, voiced his bitter disappointment in a private letter of 1824:
Dahin bin ich gekommen, an eine Juden-Reformation nimmermehr zu glauben; der Stein muß auf dieses
Gespenst geworfen und dasselbe verscheucht werden … Die Juden und das Judentum, das wir rekonstruieren
wollten, ist zerrissen und die Beute der Barbaren, Narren, Geldwechsler, Idioten und Parnaßim
(Gemeindevorsteher). Noch manche Sonnewende wird über dieses Geschlecht hinwegrollen, und es finden
wie heute: zerrissen, überfließend in die christliche Notreligion, ohne Halt und Prinzip, zum Teil im alten
Schmutz, von Europa beiseite geschoben, fortvegetierend, mit dem trockenen Augen nach dem Esel des
Messias oder einem anderen Langohr hinschauend […].37
Zunz’ confrontation with religious indifference, precisely among the intellectuals and the youth whose
support was indispensable to give Reform fundaments and future, would be the experience of many
Reformers of his and the next generation. Indifference became a central concern of Reform, and
combating it became a central goal. Ludwig Philippson (1811-1889), who founded and edited the reformminded Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums (since 1837), nicely formulated the two strategies necessary to
grant the Jews a progressive future. The first, ‘external emancipation’, implied that Jews should stand up
for their interests in order to obtain equal civil status and complete civil rights and in this way be able to
amalgamate with the general population. The second strategy was defined by Philippson as ‘inner
emancipation’. According to the author, ‘it is our final grand goal to awaken the spirit of our Jewish
coreligionists and, where it has been awakened, to uplift and ennoble it and to call it back from the
pernicious ways of indifferentism’.38
Vital, A People Apart, 220; Bernfeld, Juden und Judentum, 77.
Letter to Wohlwill (1824), quoted in Bernfeld, Juden und Judentum, 79.
Ludwig Philippson in Die Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums, vol. I, no. 41 (July 27, 1837) 161 ff., quoted in and
translated by Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, 19-21.
This ambition was reflected in a number of Reform appeals in the 1840s and 1850s (which,
otherwise, were paralleled in other countries). The rabbinical assembly held in Frankfurt in 1845 received
an appealing Denkschrift written by the Breslau congregation which observed that a powerful inner urge
drove Judaism in the direction of Reform. According to the Breslau progressives, Reform was the
outstanding weapon in the struggle against indifference, and Judaism without Reform would see the fatal
breakthrough of apostasy.39 Around the same time, the local Berlin and the Jewish press saw the
publication of an appeal which expressly addressed the problem of Zerrissenheit, the inner conflict
generated by the discrepancy between traditional Judaism and modern Bildung und Sitte. The appeal was
written in a compelling tone which reflected the authors’ sense of urgency; it was precisely the holy
content of Jewish religion, they wrote, which forbade them to
preserve it in the bequeathed form, much less bequeath it in this form to our descendants and so, placed
between the graves of our ancestors and the cradles of our children, the cornet-call of the age thrills us […].40
2.2 Improving Judaism
2.2.1 The absence of Reform
By the time that German Judaism was provided with a truly reformist programme and new theological
foundations, such a movement was still absent in England and France. With the above-mentioned factors
that favoured Reform in Germany in mind, this is not completely surprising. The situations in England and
France were very different indeed. The manner in which the Jews were emancipated is the first factor that
strikes the eye. Unlike their German brothers (and those of the Habsburg lands, as has been shown), the
Jews of England and France did not have the time to anticipate emancipation. Emancipation befell them
much earlier and in a much straighter way. Even though the last step of Jewish emancipation in England
did not take place until the 1840s, the Jews of England had been accustomed to a rather smooth gradual
process of emancipation which did not seem to demand much adaptation from their side. In France,
political and civil equality was granted in a rather sudden way. What was important in the French case was
the fact that the Jews, embodied in the Sanhedrin, were actively involved in the negotiations. Moreover,
the Sanhedrin decisions set a clear model for the future position and character of Judaism in French
Denkschrift der Breslauer Gemeinde s. Protokolle u. Aktenstücke der zweiten R. V.-S., 248ff., see Seligmann, 134;
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 132.
This appeal was written by three members of the radical ‘Genossenschaft für Reform im Judentum’; Aufruf,
beginning of April 1845, published in Glatzer, The Dynamics of Emancipation, 83-86 (translation by D. Philipson).
See also Meyer, Response to Modernity, 128-131.
society. As Michael Graetz summarizes and explains the confident attitude of the French-Jewish
leadership elite, looking back on French-Jewish religious history up to 1860:
Sans doute le judaïsme français, jouissant de l’égalité des droits depuis 1791, mieux intégré dans la société
environnante, se sentait-il désormais plus confiant. L’élite juive n’éprouvait plus le besoin de se justifier et de
faire la preuve, matin et soir, que la religion juive était apte à s’accommoder des conditions d’un État moderne.
[…] De plus, l’élite avait réussi à rapprocher la communauté consistoriale d’un système de valeurs bourgeois
sans avoir besoin de renforcer la lutte en faveur des réformes religieuses. 41
A further contrast to Germany is the fact that the Jewish communities of both England and France were
reorganized according to a hierarchical model with a chief rabbi and, respectively, deputies or consistories
at its top. In the case of France, this was done very deliberately by Napoleon in order to make sure that the
Sanhedrin decisions were duly implemented. That the three rabbis making up the Central Consistory were
preferably former members of the Sanhedrin, was part of this purpose.42 In both cases, it was indeed
Orthodoxy that held establishment status.43 In general, the pursuit of the Jews’ social and economic
progress was the principal task the top functionaries had in mind. Forbidding the use of Yiddish could be a
part of this strategy,44 a rethinking of Jewish religious thought and tradition was not.
Furthermore, English and French Judaism were much less influenced by progressive intellectualism.
In the first place, the role of intellectuals in these communities was modest in comparison to Germany,
especially in France where workers, even pauperized masses, formed the majority, proper rabbinical
leadership was lacking, and the community’s lay leaders were often quite indifferent to the contents of
Judaism, not hesitating to be a freethinker or a socialist at the same time.45 Second, even if the British or
French Jews had been eager to take inspiration from the intellectual sources of their countries, it is very
unlikely that something like the German Reform movement would have resulted. The general British
religious climate favoured adherence to tradition and the establishment instead of practical reforms and
liberalized thought; in France, the Jews had to come to terms with a political and civil society which, with
its secular character, did not provide a precedent or inspiration source for a reformation or revival of
Michael Graetz, Les Juifs en France au XIXe siècle : de la révolution française à l’alliance israélite universelle
(Paris, 1989) 89. See also Benbassa, The Jews and their Future, 59-60.
Simon Schwarzfuchs, A Concise History of the Rabbinate (Oxford/Cambridge, 1993) 85.
Georges Levitte, ‘Vers une étude des mutations de la population juive en France et du judaïsme français’, in :
Archives de sociologie des religions, 11e année, no. 22, juillet-décembre 1966, 89-102, see 94. See also Phyllis
Cohen Albert, The Modernization of French Jewry: Consistory and Community in the Nineteenth Century (Hanover,
1977). On the British case see Michael A. Meyer, ‘Jewish Religious Reform in Germany and Britain’, in: idem,
Judaism within Modernity, 304-320, especially 310.
Zosa Szajkowski, ‘Secular versus religious Jewish life in France’, in: Jacob Katz, ed., The Role of Religion in
Modern Jewish History (Cambridge/Massachusetts, 1975) 109-126, see 109. The author refers to another article of
his hand, Z. Szajkowksi, ‘The Struggle Against Yiddish in France’, YIVO Bleter, vol. XIV (1939) 46-77.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 164-171; Szajkowski, ‘Secular versus religious Jewish life’, 110-113.
Jewish religion. Indeed, in the case of France, Jewish intellectual reorientation usually took place in
estrangement from the synagogue, and rather developed into the agnostic ideology from which the
Alliance Israélite Universelle sprang.46
To recapitulate, a brief comparison of the socio-political and religious tendencies in Germany,
England and France shows differences which are likely to have been of great importance with regard to
the emergence of a Reform movement. It is now time to turn to that profound experience which English
and French Jews shared with German Jews. The idea that a thorough improvement of Judaism was a
religious necessity grew into a widely shared conviction in the course of the nineteenth century. How this
stimulated reforms in English and French Judaism and what kind of reforms were brought about, will
briefly be discussed in the following paragraphs.
2.2.2 Judaism reformed
Reform in Britain
Before the 1840s, when the first Reform synagogue was established in London, reformist initiatives were
not unknown among British Jews. During the 1820s, the London congregation saw several attempts to
bring about religious reforms. Separation between obedience to the law as recorded in Scripture on the one
hand and Oral (rabbinical) Law on the other hand was one of the desires, often voiced in the form of
pamphlets.47 Concrete occasion for appeals favouring reforms was the growing dissatisfaction with the
state of affairs during the religious services. Members of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in London
reacted by founding a Committee for Promotion and Improvement of Religious Worship. In disputes in
both Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations, references were made to the lightning examples of the
Hamburg Temple and other German Reform synagogues.
The eventual emergence of a Reform congregation in London was a somewhat odd mixture of
private needs and the desire to revive local Jewish worship. In April 1840, nineteen members of the
Sephardic community and five of the Ashkenazi community issued a declaration which stressed the need
for a synagogue in the Western part of the city, in order to make synagogue attendance more convenient
and attractive for the (wealthy and integrated) group of Jews that lived there. As a whole, the declaration
did ‘not reflect theological debate but lay concern over the growth of religious apathy, increasing apostasy
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 19, 143; Meyer, Judaism within Modernity, 38; Graetz, Les juifs en France, 18-23;
on the thought of Salvador and the encounter between Jewish and French intellectuals, see 232-258.
Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism, 449-450, gives a list of pamphlets. The ‘biblicism’ of British Reform
was intimately connected to the general intellectual background, see Meyer, ‘Jewish Religious Reform’, 306.
and the low standard of behaviour during services, as one commentator on contemporary Anglo-Jewry
wrote, “more suited to the coffee house or stock exchange”’.48
In the whole of the Jewish community in England, the few Reform congregations49 played a peculiar
role. Much unlike the German Reformers, British Reform Jews did not display an ambition to convert all
Jewish co-inhabitants to their reformist view. Membership of the Reform synagogue was expensive
business: seats for males cost between 3 and 7 pounds, gallery seats for females 3 pounds. 50 On the other
side, the services in the West London Synagogue were far more traditional than the average German
Reform service and thus came close to moderate British Orthodoxy. Men and women sat separately (until
after the First World War), men covered their heads, the choir consisted of males only and no organ was
played until 1859. Not only practice, but also belief – no equivalent of systematic German Reform
theology existed among British Reform Jews – differed at crucial points. In the first time of the
movement, no attempts were made to shed a new light on the traditional hope for return to Zion. Phrases
in the liturgy referring to the return to Zion, the coming of the Messiah, and the restoration of the
sacrificial service were left intact. The young British rabbi David Woolf Marks (1811-1909), the spritiual
leader of the movement, said in one of his sermons:
It is much to be deplored, that there should be any body of Israelites so degenerated in Jewish spirit, as to
renounce publicly their belief in the advent of the Messiah, and restoration of the House of Jacob to the land of
the patriarchs… Whatever be the views which others may entertain, let it not be said, my hearers, that we
forget Zion and her destinies.51
The idea of religious evolution was likewise absent from British Reform. To be sure, this is not a reason to
deny the relationship between German and British Reform. As has been emphasized, the conviction that
Reform was a religious necessity united German and British Reformers on a deeper level; moreover,
British Reformers were surely aware of the achievements of the German-Jewish encounter with
modernity, which led them to ask their German colleagues for advice and help.52 Yet, the external
Anne J. Kershen, ‘1840-1990: One Hundred and Fifty Years of British Progressive Judaism’, in: idem, ed., 18401990: One Hundred and Fifty Years of British Progressive Judaism (London, 1990) 5-18, see 5-6. Indifference was a
powerful undermining tendency in British Jewry; though the religious doctrines might still be maintained,
observance fell even during the seventeenth century. Todd Endelman, The Jews of Georgian England 1740-1830
(Philadelphia, 1979) mentions a census taken in 1850 which showed that total Jewish attendance on an average
Saturday morning was no more than 10 percent of English Jewry.
Reform later on spread to Manchester, Hull, and Bradford.
By 1849, when a new synagogue was consecrated with a capacity of 400 members, the London congregation
numbered about 150 families. In 1858, a synagogue was dedicated in Manchester which had 400 male seats and 250
female seats. A new London synagogue, built in 1870, had a capacity of 1000 seats. See Kershen, ‘1840-1990’, 8-10
and Meyer, Response to Modernity, 176-177.
With a reference to Psalm 137, quoted in Meyer, Response to Modernity, 175.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 174.
challenges which German Jews experienced were not so urgently found in the British situation. Indeed, it
seems that the conflict with powerful Orthodox opponents, such as the chief rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler
and the president of the Board of Deputies Moses Montefiore, formed a greater challenge than the
confrontation with non-Jewish society.53
The relationship between Reform and Orthodoxy in England reflects the fact that the first was not so
much a deliberate attempt to reform Judaism as such. With British Orthodoxy likewise favouring
moderate reforms, such as regulations bringing order and solemnity to the service and the introduction of
choirs and English sermons, the practical difference between the two was slight. Yet, the Orthodox were
fierce in their accusation of sectarianism: as they repeatedly emphasized, the Reformers were breaking the
harmony that bound English Judaism to the national Church of England and its religious milieu by
developing away from religious tradition. In reaction, the Reform congregations were often on the
defensive, careful not to shock the Orthodox with radical reforms. In the course of time, relations
eventually neutralized; by the end of the nineteenth century, exchange of pulpits was not uncommon.54
Reformations in France
In nineteenth-century France, where Judaism ‘could be easily relegated to the private sphere, where it
became subject to neglect’,55 reform was eventually built on a broader base than in England. Initially, the
only evidence of a reformist movement in France was the resonance of a few laymen’s voices in the
wilderness. The reform-minded periodical Archives Israélites repeatedly served as a canal for reformist
appeals. In Metz, alternative religious services according to the Frankfurt and Berlin Reform model were
organized as early as 1818. The appeals to the public and the consistories invariably addressed the central
problem of ‘irreligion’.56 The increasing indifference among French Jews was a shame both in the face of
the religious liberty which the French state had granted them, and in the face of their ancestors who paid
for that liberty ‘with precious blood’, as a reformist appeal put it in 1841.57 The various reformist groups
agreed on the point that it was high time to ‘bring our ritual into harmony with the state of our progress,
with our mores, our education’.58 What these reformist initiatives further had in common was the fact that
they failed to gain approval from the side of the consistories and were likely to suffer a slow death.
Meyer, ‘Jewish Religious Reform’, 304-306.
Leigh, ‘Reform Judaism’, 39. See for the relationship between the Orthodox and the Reformers Meyer, Response
to Modernity, 178-180.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 164.
Public Appeal, in Metz, by 31 Jewish Householders, Archives Israélites, vol. II (1841) 469 ff., quoted in and
translated by Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, 45; Meyer, Response to Modernity, 168-169.
Revue Orientale (Brussels, 1841) vol. I, 460ff, quoted in and translated by Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, 104106.
Ibid. See for an early radical reformist programme Olry Terquem’s Lettres Tsarphatiques (1831-1837) and articles
in Archives Israélites, see Meyer, Response to Modernity, 164. The reform conceptions of the early twentieth-century
From the 1840s on, however, the discrepancy between the Jewish religious institutions and ‘l’esprit
d’une régénération et les exigences de l’heure’59 also struck the consistories’ eye. Pressed by the
progressive ideas of a growing group of ‘éclairés’ among synagogue officials and the increasing decline of
religious interest among the Jewish public, the consistorial rabbis started a programme for the
improvement of the religious apparatus. A first step in a series of organizational measures was the
appointment of Salomon Munk and Adolphe Franck, two progressive intellectuals who both sympathized
with the Wissenschaft des Judentums, by the Central Consistory in 1844. Munk and Franck were primarily
charged with the task of improving rabbinical education. Reforms in religious life and worship were
eventually set in motion in the course of the resulting organizational changes, among which the move of
the rabbinical seminary from Metz to Paris stood out.60
In 1846, when a new chief rabbi had to be appointed, several pregnant points appeared on the
questionnaire which the candidates were expected to answer. These included the atmosphere during
ceremonies like marriage, bar mitzvah, and funeral; the omission of piyutim (liturgical poems) and prayer
passages referring to the return to Jerusalem and the end of days; the introduction of an organ in the
synagogue; the role of women in the cult; a proper performance of circumcision; and new, namely
religious criteria for defining Jewish identity. The reformist mood reflected in such developments
eventually led to the approval of a programme of moderate reformations by the consistorial rabbis in
1856.61 Even though the actual introduction of reforms was left to the individual conscience of the rabbis,
the document was important as a testimony to the establishment’s openness to religious reforms. As
especially the contemporary issues of the Archives Israélites and Philippson’s Allgemeine Zeitung des
Judentums show, it also attuned to the changes that had underground been made in both practice and
belief. The periodicals reported how the atmosphere in the consistorial synagogues was made in tune with
modern times and surrounding society; that the confirmation ceremony (for both sexes) was introduced in
many places, for example in Bordeaux and Paris in 1841; and that a number of French synagogues
enjoyed organ music already in the early 1840s, when the matter was still vehemently discussed in the
Dutch group around the journal Het Oude Volk, which will be discussed in the course of the next chapter, show a
remarkable similarity to Terquem’s ideas. For another reform proposal see S. Cahen, Archives Israélites, vol. I
(1840) 234; vol. II, 197ff., quoted in and translated by Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, 160-161; Meyer, Response
to Modernity, 167-168. The readers of the Archives Israélites were regularly confronted with the attainments of
German Reform, not only its concrete reformations but also its theology as expressed in works by Formstecher and
Archives Israélites, vol. I (1840) 177, 234-237, quoted in Graetz, Les juifs en France, 84.
Graetz, Les juifs en France, 84-85.
The programme included matters like the playing of an organ on Sabbaths and holidays by a non-Jew, permission
of the bar mitzvah-ceremony, the reduction of the number of piyutim, and omission of some vengeful passages from
the prayer book; but not the language of prayer, omission of passages referring to the coming of the Messiah or the
return to Zion, the celebration of the Sabbath, or the circumcision ceremony. Graetz, Les juifs en France, 88-89.
Central Consistory.62 Such practical reformism was accompanied by a progressive spirit, which enabled
unorthodox ideas to penetrate even into the public sermons. And on a most basic level, though ‘il n’y avait
ni groupement libéral, ni réformes’, ‘l’indépendance d’esprit se faisait sentir dans l’importance donnée à
la prédication et le ton du prédicateur’.63
2.3 Inner emancipation pursued: Liberal Judaism
2.3.1 Judaism and its discontents
The religion of the fin de siècle
Looking back on the nineteenth century in Western-European Jewish religion in general, one can basically
characterize this age as an age of movements. Besides the Reform movement (and movements less
relevant for the present subject, such as Zionism), Orthodoxy and Neo-Orthodoxy were born. The names
of the movements point to their relation to modern times: they reflect their view on the demands or
challenges of a new age, and the solutions proposed. Yet, the movements cannot be viewed as constant,
complete wholes. Especially by the end of the century, the bare fact that time went by was experienced as
a challenge. Answers to modernity might have been given, and a proper attitude towards its challenges
might have been defined – but could Reform Judaism, or Judaism reformed, or any other strand of
Judaism resist internal corrosion? The ever more visible decline of religious interest, a phenomenon which
affected European societies in general, became the main concern of those who were committed to the
cause of Jewish religion. This was the soil from which various activist Jewish movements sprang, among
which Liberal Judaism was an elaboration of Reform Judaism but in some respects also a critique of it.64
Contemporary Christianity, endangered by scientist, historicist, and materialist tendencies, saw a
rethinking of its values and its future mission in the form of free-thinking movements. Religious
consciousness, their adherents maintained, was irreducible to church buildings and religious ritual and
should be based on philosophical insights and a broad-minded view on man and society. Instead of
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 170; Graetz, Les juifs en France, 87. The early introduction of the organ is not
only remarkable with a view to the official Consistory regulations, but also with a view to the German congregations,
where the organ became the symbol of the struggle between Orthodox and Reformers and was not introduced in
community synagogues until the early 1850s; see Meyer, Response to Modernity, 184.
Rivals, Notes sur le Judaïsme Libéral, 85, with a reference to Georges Benoît, La prédication rabbinique au XIXe
siècle, Montauban, thèse, 1900. Examples of remarkably Reform-like opinions expressed in sermons are given by
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 170.
Seligmann, Geschichte der jüdischen Reformbewegung, 105-107; on the significant shift of name from ‘Reform’
to ‘Liberal’ Judaism see Michael A. Meyer, ‘Caesar Seligmann and the Development of Liberal Judaism in Germany
in the Beginning of the Twentieth Century’, in: Hebrew Union College annual (1969) 529-545, see 534.
orthodoxy in doctrine, ethical value was stressed as the criteria of true religion. During the last years of the
nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, free-thinking religion gained increasing actuality, which
was for instance expressed in the World Congress for Free Christianity held in Berlin in 1910.65 Liberal
Judaism, on its side, emerged around the same time – both in Germany, Britain, and France – and shared
crucial characteristics with the liberal movements in Christianity. Bound together by the collective pursuit
of inner emancipation, the movements proclaimed a new Jewish consciousness with distinct emphases.
The crisis of Judaism
Everywhere in Western Europe, the second half of the nineteenth century saw an outgrowth of the neglect
of Jewish religion.66 Geiger was one of the first of German Reformers to signalize the lack of religious
energy among the ‘modern adherents’ of Judaism. In an 1868 article in the Jüdische Zeitschrift für
Wissenschaft und Leben, he observed in a bitter tone that, since the battle for emancipation was largely
over, Jewishness as such had declined. With external stimuli such as the desire for political and social
equality absent, Jews did apparently no longer feel the need to defend and express their Jewish identity.67
By the end of the nineteenth century, such critique on the inner quality of Judaism led to renewed
appeals for a reform of Judaism. An early appeal, published as a pamphlet in Dresden in 1881, well
summarizes the main concerns and purposes of future Liberal Jews. A certain L.R. Landau was the author
of the pamphlet, which was titled Die Reformation im Judenthum: offenes Sendschreiben an die jüdische
Reformgemeinde in Berlin. The motto of the little text consisted of five meaningful words: ‘Besser spät,
als gar nicht’. Landau tackled his readers about their own conviction that youth could not grow up without
religion. If they were convicted of the necessity of religion, he argued, they should also be honest:
youngsters who were taught commandments that they never saw observed at home were very likely to
disappear from the Jewish community. Then, since it would by this time be very implausible to adapt
praxis to theory, there was no other solution than to make theory in accordance with praxis. Landau
sketched edifying services and appropriate prayers as a means to the ultimate goal: revivifying the feeling
of solidarity (Zusammengehörigkeit) and a sense of Jewishness (Sinn für das Judenthum).68
Such concern for the internal health of Jewish religion was accompanied by sharp critique on Jewish
leaders, both rabbis and laymen. Philipson reports how, by the end of the nineteenth century, the term
Schinkenorthodoxie came into fashion among German Reform Jews to describe the hypocritical Orthodox
Ibid, see 533. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, movements such as Unitarianism gained increasing
force in England and also attracted Jews, see Meyer, ‘Jewish Religious Reform’, 304-320. On contemporary stirrings
of liberalized Christianity in France see Meyer, Response to Modernity, 222.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 182-3, 221.
Ibid, 187.
L.R. Landau, Die Reformation im Judenthum: offenes Sendschreiben an die jüdische Reformgemeinde in Berlin
(Dresden, 1881).
leaders of Europe. The term was, according to a spokesman in the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums of
1898, especially appropriate for ‘Die Berliner Neu-orthodoxie die mit dem Schinkenstullen in der Hand
für den Schulchan Aruk schwärmen’.69 Such insincerity was accompanied by rigidity: another ever
returning reproach of Liberal Jews was that most leaders practised the method of ‘tout ou rein’, Talmudic
orthopraxis or complete free-thinking. This policy, in the view of its opponents, rendered true religion –
which required a harmony of spirit, mind, and daily life – unattainable for the average Jew. In this way,
Rivals wrote with compassion in 1913, the Israelites of France had become ‘perdus dans la masse
catholique, ne sachant de leur religion que le rudiment nécessaire à la cérémonie de la Bar-Mitswa’.70
While German Liberal Jews explicitly sought to come to terms with the dominant heritage of
Reform Judaism, which, in their view, risked coming too close to Freidenkertum, English and French
Liberal Jews tended to place the purposes of Liberal Judaism in the framework of religion and society in
general. Louis-Germain Lévy (1870-1946), the first rabbi of the Liberal Jewish congregation founded in
Paris in 1907, maintained that religion was indispensable in a philosophical sense and exceedingly fruitful
for the individual soul. A world without religion was a world of emptiness and spiritual poverty; science,
actually, was unable to tell anything about the origins and the end, about the reason (la raison) of being on
earth, or about man’s role in the universe.71 Claude G. Montefiore (1858-1938), who grew up within the
West London Synagogue, occupied himself with a study of religion in more general terms – especially the
relationship between Judaism and Christianity – before he became the spiritual leader of English Liberal
Judaism. His later programmatic works on Judaism, such as Liberal Judaism (1903) and Outlines of
Liberal Judaism (1911), likewise took the absolute indispensability of religion (especially for the youth)
as its point of departure.72 And Lily H. Montagu (1873-1963), who brought English Liberal Judaism into
institutional existence, judged Judaism’s actual merits by comparing it to true religiousness an sich. In an
early article on this subject, titled ‘Spiritual possibilities of Judaism to-day’, she observed that the majority
of English Jews, be they Orthodox or Reform, were ‘either devoted to ceremonialism at the expense of
religion, or indifferent both to ceremonialism and to religion’. Montagu described the religion of ‘West
End [Reform] Jews’ as follows:
Having been born Jews and believing it more respectable to be identified with some religion, the members of
the class under consideration generally belong to some synagogue, and perhaps attend the services more or
Philipson, The Reform movement, 518-519.
Rivals, Notes sur le Judaïsme Libéral, 109.
Louis-Germain Lévy, Une religion rationnelle et laïque: la religion du XXe siècle (Dijon, 1904) 7-31, see
especially 12.
Claude G. Montefiore, Liberal Judaism: An Essay (London, 1903) and idem, Outlines of Liberal Judaism
(London, 1911). See for the way in which he recommended Liberal Judaism also a lecture held in The Hague in
1931: Liberaal Jodendom en de oude leer, published by the ‘Genootschap voor de Joodsche Reformbeweging’.
less regularly. But their religion is seldom interesting, never absorbing to them. […] They either sink into
materialism or create a religion of their own, based on a vague belief in the existence of a higher law, and
nourished by an exacting moral sense […] [It is a religion] without an historical past and admitting of no
outward embodiment […].73
2.3.2 A new Jewish consciousness
‘Der Wille zum Judentum’
Seligmann, without whose efforts institutionalized German Liberal Judaism would hardly be thinkable, is
the author of the pregnant term ‘Wille zum Judentum’. Thereby clearly distancing himself from classical
German Reform, he laid a strong emphasis on a fundamental Jewish identity – a religious identity, to be
sure, but with a striking ethnic connotation. In a vocabulary strongly reminding of Nietzsche and
Schopenhauer, he argued that someone is Jewish not by religion, but by ‘der Wille zum Judentum’. This
obscure, instinctive power ‘ist die Triebfeder zu allem, die Erklärung von allem, das Bleibende im
Wechsel, der ewige Geist’.74
What was more, Reform was not born from the will of Reformers in the manner of Luther, but from
the will of the people. This made Reform a ‘geschichtsnotwendige Entwicklung’: ‘Wozu dieser
Volkswille drängt, was seine Lebensinstinkte fordern, das geschieht’.75 For Seligmann, the formulation of
this insight was occasion to speak of the necessity of the actual Liberal movement. Jews of today, he
argued, are with great desire (Sehnsucht) integrating into surrounding society, and this development has a
profound influence on their religious conviction and mood. To meet this, they should shake off the burden
of the past: ‘Wir leiden, schon von der Zeit der Talmudlehrer an, an unserer zu grossen Vergangenheit.
[…] Selbst erworben haben, nicht nur ererbt haben sollen wir unsere Religion’.76
The development of Liberal Jewish institutions in Germany, which followed the first initiatives of
rabbi Heinemann Vogelstein in 1898, reflected the Liberals’ desire to provide for positive Judaism.
Rituals and ceremonies were individually tested on their validity and meaningfulness, and the Liberal
rabbis were eager to formulate the precise commandments and commitments synagogue members would
be required to observe. The result of this work was the publication of the Richtlinien zu einem Programm
für das liberale Judentum in 1912. According to the practical part of the Richtlinien, the Liberal Jew was
Lily H. Montagu, ‘Spiritual possibilities of Judaism to-day’, in: The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. XI (1899) 216231, quotations from 216-218.
Seligmann, Geschichte der jüdischen Reformbewegung, 22; the phrase ‘Wille zum Judentum’ was coined in 1902,
see Meyer, ‘Caesar Seligmann’, 532.
Idem, 8, 17, and 14 respectively.
Idem, 28, 30. Seligmann’s treatment of the burden of the past sounds like a direct reference to Friedrich Nietzsche,
Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben: zweite unzeitgemässe Betrachtung (Stuttgart, 1960 (1874)).
expected to celebrate Sabbaths and holidays both at home and in the synagogue, suspending all workday
activity; to pray daily in his home; to circumcise and confirm his children; to recite Kaddish for the dead;
and to get married (and if necessary divorced) according to (modified) religious rites. Matters like the
observance of kashrut were left to the individual’s decision.77
The writings of German Liberal Jews reflected the same move away from the trends of antitraditionalism and anti-rationalism, towards a new emphasis on Jewish solidarity and practical religion
which later on even sympathized with Zionism. A collection of essays on Jewish ethics, under the
editorship of rabbi Leo Baeck (1873-1956), combined the continuant adherence to universalism with the
proclamation of Judaism as a unique ‘Religion der Tat’. Ismar Elbogen’s contribution clearly contrasted
Judaism to Christianity in this respect:
Die Lehre des Judentums ist keine theoretische Erörterung ethischer Lehrsätze, sondern eine Religion der Tat;
seine sittlichen Forderungen wollen im Leben erfüllt werden. […] Der ‚Glaube’ ist kein zentrales Problem der
jüdischen Religion. Das hebräische Wort Emuna bedeutet „Vertrauen“, Luthers Bibelübersetzung hat
„Glauben“ dafür gesetzt.78
Baeck’s main work, Das Wesen des Judentums, radiated a still more explicit Jewish religious selfawareness. In the revised edition of 1922, Baeck even called the absence of dogmas the essence of
Judaism. Instead of Geheimnis, Judaism hallowed Gebot, and it was the practice of the latter which
granted the Jewish people continuity and internal coherence. If this was the essence of Judaism, Baeck
argued in another context, Judaism could neither be called a pure religion nor simply a nation: its
particularity lay in its historical existence, which was based on religion but had to be preserved by
solidarity.79 Contrasting the Jewish Gemeinde to the Christian Kirche, Baeck did not hesitate to reckon
love for the Jewish fatherland and the accompanying prayer for Zion as a religious duty.80
‘A religious home’
Meyer, ‘Caesar Seligmann’, 535-543.
Ismar Elbogen, ‘Grundlegende Sittlichkeitsanschauungen’, in: Leo Baeck, ed., Die Grundlagen der jüdischen
Ethik (Berlin, 1922) 37-68, see 37. A systematic work on actual Jewish ethics had been delivered earlier by Moritz
Lazarus, Die Ethik des Judentums (1898 and 1911).
Leo Baeck, “Lebensgrund und Lebensgehalt”, in: Der Jude 2 (1917-1918) 78-86, see Meyer, Response to
Modernity, 207-208.
Leo Baeck, Das Wesen des Judentums (Frankfurt am Main, 1922) 305-308. How Prophetic Judaism overlaps with
Zionism is visible in the thought of Martin Buber, see for example his work On Judaism (1967), and an analysis of
Gregory Baum, ‘Welk nationalisme? Onderscheid naar ethiek’, in: Religie en nationalisme: het verband tussen
verschillende religieuze tradities en de natie als bron van socio-culturele identiteit (Baarn, 1995-1996) 94-103, see
Montefiore, conversely, held an uncompromisingly universalist view of Judaism. In clear contrast to
German Liberal Jews, with whom he indeed felt only a slight affinity, Montefiore stated repeatedly that
belief was the only connection between Jews. When an English Liberal Jew speaks of ‘my people’ or ‘my
country’, he wrote in his Outlines, he refers to the English people and the English fatherland.81 Moreover,
he expressly said that Liberal Judaism was a philosophical instead of a traditional and ceremonial religion,
which made it truly different from Orthodox Judaism. Combined with his favorable attitude towards
Christian biblical teaching, this lack of positive practical contents in Montefiore’s Judaism made him a
much distrusted figure among British Jews.82 In answering the recurring question why he still called his
religion ‘Jewish’, he explained that its doctrines had over a long period of time been formulated,
preserved, and developed by Jews. Judaism was, in this way, a ‘religious home’ for universalism.83
The religious services organized by the Jewish Religious Union (JRU), established under the
auspices of Lily Montagu in 1901, reflected the radically liberal character of Montefiore’s thought. Men
and women sat together (most men with uncovered head), a mixed choir and an organ graced the
ceremony, there was no Torah roll from which to read, and the liturgy was with a few exceptions in
English. When the movement was more or less stabilized, further measures such as the omission of
phrases referring to the return to Zion, the reading aloud of prayers, preaching by women, and services on
Sundays were introduced. The first service was attended by 300 to 400 persons and lasted a little over an
hour.84 After the arrival of the American Reform rabbi Israel Mattuck (1883-1954) in 1912, the services
were deliberately built according to the radical American model of Reform. Mattuck’s view on the
relationship of Judaism and Christianity likewise fitted in the context of Anglo-Saxon radicalism rather
than in contemporary German Liberal Judaism. What bound Judaism and Christianity together, he told the
readers of his handbook for Liberal Judaism, was certainly the centrality of religious and ethical ideals.
What distanced them from one another was the theological differences, such as the absence of the notion
of Incarnation in Judaism, not so much religious practice.85
Yet, this universalist thought did by no means prevent the British Liberal Jews from devoting their
attention to the religious benefits of the worldwide Jewish community. It was under British leadership that
the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) was founded in 1926. The notion of Jewish solidarity in
its widest sense was the basis of the Union’s very existence. Gradually, the reappraisal of solidarity and of
Claude G. Montefiore, Het Liberale Jodendom: grondstellingen en ontwikkeling (first published in London in
1911; Baarn, 1934) 302-303; see also 2, 5, 16, 285.
Daniel R. Langton, ‘Claude Montefiore and Christianity: Did the Founder of Anglo-Liberal Judaism Lean Too
Far?’, in: Journal of Jewish Studies, vol. L (1999) no. 1, 98-119, see 104.
Jewish Addresses Delivered at the Services of the Jewish Religious Union during the First Session 1902-3
(London and Edinburgh, 1904), 63-75, see Meyer, Response to Modernity, 216.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 20; Meyer, Response to Modernity, 220.
Israel M. Mattuck, The Essentials of Liberal Judaism (London, [1947]) 149-150. The exemplar I read was first
published in 1947, but the book was obviously written before the Second World War.
unifying religious practice became an integral part of British Liberal Judaism as well. Indeed, in the same
handbook, Mattuck defined a ‘good Jew’ as someone who would have faith in God, pursue righteousness,
give time to prayer and study, would feel the ‘solidarity of Israel’, which encompassed both responsibility
for the welfare of other Jews and responsibility for the mission of Israel, and, finally, conceive life,
personality, and conduct in terms of holiness, with the possible help of observance.86
‘Une religion rationnelle et laïque’
Compared to German and British Liberal Judaism, French Liberal Jews showed special attention to the
public side of Judaism. The works of Joseph Salvador and James Darmesteter (1849-1894), who are
usually seen as the intellectual forefathers of French Liberal Judaism, displayed their ambition to
emancipate Judaism with regard to both Catholicism and modern scientist thinking. Darmesteter, who as a
Jew lived estranged from the synagogue, worked on a religious philosophy drawing on biblical and
Hebraic sources. His main work Les Prophètes d’Israel (1892) proclaimed the religion of the future as a
blend of scientific truth and the prophetic ethics of the Hebrew Bible.87
The endeavour to come to terms with surrounding religious or philosophical convictions was the
thread running through the development of French Liberal Judaism. The ‘Union libérale Israélite’, which
by 1900 started to organize services resembling those of Liberal Judaism in England, indeed picked up the
practical task of providing for edifying religious life. Its initiatives were directly instigated by commotion
following the public proposal of chief rabbi Zadoc Kahn (1839-1905), in 1896, to organize services on
Sunday mornings.88 Yet, the framework in which the movement placed itself showed that French Liberal
Judaism went far beyond a reformation of religious practice. Lévy deliberately sought to convince
Catholics, Protestants, and atheists alike that Judaism was perfectly compatible with what he termed ‘la
conscience moderne’. In his book Une religion rationnelle et laïque: la religion du XXe siècle (1904), one
of the very few works published by French Liberal Judaism of the period, he argued that Judaism
harboured pure religious and moral ideas from ancient times on. In its present developed form, Judaism
was precisely what modern times needed: ‘une pratique morale de la vie, un effort pour conduire
l’individu et la collectivité humaine’ to a higher degree of civilization.89 Built on ‘la plus saine raison et la
plus haute conscience’ like modern spirit itself, Judaism called special attention to the importance of
deeds. It thus confirmed the priorities of ‘la conscience moderne’ – solidarity, social action, righteousness,
progress, and fraternity – and added the notion of ‘holiness’, springing from the uniquely Jewish
Ibid, 169.
See Rivals, Notes sur le Judaïsme libéral, 85-96 ; Glatzer, The Dynamics of Emancipation, 31-34.
Rivals, Notes sur le Judaïsme libéral, 96-99. Membership of the movement did not exceed some 400 members in
the mid-twenties, see Meyer, Response to Modernity, 222-224.
Lévy, Une religion rationnelle, 33-64, see 46.
conviction that God’s Kingdom is already on earth. It was therefore not inconceivable, Lévy concluded,
that under the auspices of Judaism a universal lay religion would gradually be created; a religion neither
Protestant nor Catholic, but crystallized from Jewish ideas.90
What Lévy’s Judaism precisely offered the Jews who attended his services, was perhaps not fully
clear. The book’s only reference to the practice of Judaism was the statement that Judaism, as an infinitely
perfectible religion, was always open to a rejection of tradition and a search for new adequate forms. In a
footnote at the end of the book, the author added that there was no way of doing away with praxis
altogether, since people would never be pure ghosts and imagination and emotion played a significant
role. Ceremonies could, however, only be valued by their edifying value, and as soon as they lost this
value, good sense and love for religion required that they should be abandoned.91
Georges Rivals’ Liberal Jewish handbook of 1913, otherwise extensively and sympathetically
describing German Reform and Liberal Judaism, also tended to stress the necessity of an external religious
emancipation of French Judaism. The book’s motto was taken from Numbers 23: ‘Et Balaam dit: « Le roi
de Moab m’a fait descendre des montagnes de l’Orient: Viens, maudis-moi, Jacob! viens, sois irrité contre
Israël ! – Comment maudirai-je celui que Dieu n’a point maudit ?... »’. Rivals’ preface explained that this
motto was directed to the Christians, hoping that they would henceforth accept the Jews and thus
cooperate towards the fraternity of all religions.92 Later on in the book, the author showed the way to this
desired fraternity by, remarkably, quoting Jesus’ words as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. Believers of
all confessions, he confidently stated, would undoubtedly recognize their deepest ideals in the moral
commandment, ‘Soyez parfaits comme votre Père céleste est parfait’.93
2.4 Conclusion
Why and through which canals did the Reform movement find a place in Judaism? Viewed as a whole,
David Philipson observed at the beginning of the twentieth century, religious reform followed from the
acquisition of secular education, which stimulated new intellectual movements within Judaism and
entailed linguistic emancipation, and civil emancipation.94 This is indeed, in a few words, how the hopeful
future-directed attitude of the first Jews who worked to come to terms with modernity developed into
Reform Judaism. These factors are primarily taken from the German situation, however. The success of
Ibid, 63, 60, and 70 respectively. In his idea of a universal lay religion Lévy refers to an interview in the Temps of
1900 with Léon Marillier, who wondered whether such a religion was likely to emerge in the future.
Ibid, 64, 68.
Rivals, Notes sur le judaïsme libéral, 8.
Ibid, 111. See Matthew 5:48.
Philipson, The Reform Movement, 6, 9.
Reform in the United States but also in England, France, Austria, Hungary, and in many other countries
later on can never be a reason to forget its German origins. The paragraphs above have called attention to
those peculiar features of Jewish life in Germany – the time and way in which emancipation befell the
Jews, the role of Jewish intellectuals and of Gentile intellectual thought, the local organization of the
Jewish community which provided space for reformist initiatives – which contributed to the development
of a serious Reform movement. The counterforces were much the same as in other countries: Gentile
governments and Jewish Orthodoxy combined to resist Reform.
What has furthermore been shown in this chapter is that the emergence of the Reform movement
cannot be reduced to external factors. The idea that a reformation was simply necessary in the face of the
decline of Jewish religiousness was an important drive for the further development of Reform. In the
course of time, ‘inner emancipation’ was more and more emphasized as the raison d’être of Reform,
especially when ‘external emancipation’, as Geiger observed by the end of the 1860s, required less
attention. This was, then, also the most important factor that favoured the breakthrough of reformations or
Reform in other countries later on; this was the experience which British and French reformists shared
with German Reformers. This was, in a still more encompassing way, the very character of the Liberal
Jewish movements – with the French Liberal Jews, remarkably, stressing external emancipation as a way
towards the elevation of Judaism internally.
Throughout the chapter, the emphasis has gradually shifted from factors that favoured or
disfavoured Reform towards questions of Jewish identity in Reform. It thereby reflects the shifting
concerns of the Reform movement. The growing emphasis on inner emancipation, that ambition to grant
the viability of Judaism and the continuance of Jewishness, naturally entailed a reorientation on the
question of the true contents of Jewish religious identity. This insight is important as a background for the
investigation of the appeal of Reform Judaism in a not so reformist country like the Netherlands, which
will be undertaken in the next two chapters.
What is usually included in the convenient term ‘modernity’, is in reality a motley collection of
modernities with as much deviations and Ungleichzeitigkeiten as similarities. Indeed, when the
modernities of Jewish history are concerned, emancipation is a common denominator, together with
tendencies towards disintegration of the Jewish community. But, as the preceding chapters have shown,
modernity took a specific face in each national context. For German Jews, modernity entailed much
uncertainty and a profound reorientation on the merits of Jewish religion, Jewish tradition, and Jewish
identity. For British Jews, the coming of modernity was rather like a further step in the gradual
emancipation process that brought them ever closer in touch with general society, and the impact of
modernity was particularly felt in the long term. The Jews of France rather suddenly stepped into
modernity and experienced a new world in which (seemingly) rather moderate challenges replaced the
restrictions and discrimination of old days. How did the Jews of Holland, on their turn, enter modernity
and under which conditions did Jewish life develop in Holland? By means of these questions, the
likelihood of a Jewish Reform movement in the Netherlands is investigated in this chapter.
The structure is largely similar to the preceding account on German, British, and French Jewry. The
first part of the chapter tells what emancipation entailed in the Netherlands: how emancipation came
about, how the Jews initially responded to the changes, and how the Jewish community was restructured
in its wake. The questions of religious and national identity, which have been described in more general
terms in the first chapter, are the subject of the second part. The chapter concludes with a brief account of
possible explanations for the absence of a Reform movement in the Netherlands.
3.1 Emancipation, reorganization, privatization
3.1.1 The Batavian Republic and Jewish emancipation
The emancipation process in the Netherlands developed globally as its French example did. As in France,
the process started with a debate on principles in the National Assembly and ended with the establishment
of a consistory system. Though the circumstances of Jewish life in the Low Countries thus altered
significantly with the introduction of French legislation, the rupture was not so great as in France since an
attitude of tolerance towards Jewish matters had taken a firm foothold in the Netherlands long before. The
before-mentioned decision to acknowledge Jews as lawful inhabitants in 1657 was an important step in
this respect.1 The relatively good relations between the Dutch authorities and the Dutch Jews coloured the
debate in the Assembly and also, as we shall see in the course of this chapter, the Dutch Jews’ reflection
on emancipation.
Shortly after the entry of the French in the Netherlands and the establishment of the Batavian
Republic in 1795, the ‘Rechten van de Mens en de Burger’ were proclaimed. The various minority
denominations of Dutch Christianity – Catholics, Lutherans, Mennonites, and Remonstrants – were
included in this proclamation and subsequently given full political rights. At the first meeting of the
Batavian National Assembly, delegates from all these minority groups were present; only the Jews were
missing. For the Dutch patriots who worked to restructure Dutch society according to the French model,
the Jews formed a problematic case. Besides some persistent prejudices about the Jews and the problem of
economic concurrence, a political conflict of recent Dutch history bothered them. In the violent conflict
between patriots and Orangists, the great majority of Dutch Jews always pledged allegiance to the House
of Orange. Not surprisingly, this did not make the Jews very popular in the eyes of the patriots. The
patriots made no secret of their resentment: shortly before the entry of the French troops in 1795, they
published a pamphlet entitled De Nederlandsche Patriotten aan hunne Joodsche Medeburgers, in which
they accused the Jews of ingratitude to the Dutch nation that had always been so hospitable and careful to
Yet, their allegiance to the French revolutionaries eventually made the patriots’ discrimination of the
Jews untenable. The patriots came to realize that it would be completely unreasonable to exclude the Jews
from rights that were accorded to all inhabitants of the Low Countries. When in 1796 a small group of
Amsterdam maskilim called ‘Felix Libertate’ (‘fortunate thanks to freedom’) submitted a request to the
National Assembly demanding the full legal emancipation of Dutch Jews, the debate could no longer be
delayed. With the French ambassador pressing secretly and discretely to follow the French example, the
delegates in the Batavian National Assembly debated the questions they thought relevant in the Dutch
These questions concerned the danger of increasing economic concurrence, the eligibility of the
Jews to become proper citizens, and the meaning of the Jews’ hope for the Messiah and subsequent return
to Eretz Israel. At significant points, the debate clearly differed from its French equivalent a few years
earlier. Not only was what Vital calls ‘that nastiness of tone’3 practically absent; what is more, the Dutch
R.G. Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Verlichting en emancipatie omstreeks 1750-1814’, in: J.C.H. Blom, R.G. Fuks-Mansfeld and
I. Schöffer, eds., Geschiedenis van de joden in Nederland ([Amsterdam], 2004) 177-203, see 180; Fuks-Mansfeld,
‘Introduction to the Article on Jewish Emancipation’, 190-194.
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Onderwijs en nationale identiteit’, 135-156, see especially 143-145.
Vital, A People Apart, 61.
delegates seemed really concerned about Judaism itself. They wondered whether the Jews could be proper
Dutch citizens while longing for the Messiah, but the question was also posed the other way around:
would the grant of full political rights be compatible with the Jews’ longing for the Messiah and thus with
Jewish life itself?
The outcome of the debate was proclaimed on 2 September 1796:
Geen Jood zal worden uitgestooten van eenige rechten of voordeelen, die aan het Bataafsch Burgerrecht
verknocht zijn, en die hun begeeren mocht te genieten, mits hij bezitte alle die vereischten, en voldoe aan alle
die voorwaarde, welken bij de algemene Constitutie van iederen activen burger in Nederland, gevorderd zullen
It did not take a long time before the Jews could begin to reap the first benefits of emancipation. In the
second democratically elected National Assembly, which came into existence in 1797, two Jewish
delegates from Amsterdam held a seat. A year later, in 1798, the first Jewish member of the Amsterdam
city government took office.5
3.1.2 The Jewish responses
For the Netherlands as for most other countries in the late eighteenth century, it is a general rule that the
Jews did not eagerly await emancipation. There is a remarkable exception to this rule, however. As early
as 1770, a Dutch Jew calling himself ‘Mordechai van Aaron de…’ published a radical emancipation
proposal in the enlightened Dutch journal De Koopman. With its radically reformist message, which will
be discussed in more detail in the fourth chapter, it met with nothing than disapproval from the side of the
Jewish community.6 The same was true for the before-mentioned Felix Libertate society. After the
proclamation of equal rights in September 1796, the members of this society started a confrontation with
the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish congregations in Amsterdam. Their agenda included the entry of the
Jews into the local and national militia, democratization of the appointment procedures of the mahamad
(Sephardic synagogue officials) and parnassim, the introduction of some moderate alterations in the
religious services and the reduction of Yiddish in Jewish education and religious services. The
unfavourable reactions of the Jewish establishment led them in 1797 to found their own religious
congregation, Adath Jeschurun (‘New congregation’). In spite of its moderate programme, the actions of
Ibid; Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Verlichting en emancipatie’, 192.
Ibid, 193; J.P. Kruijt, ‘Het Jodendom in de Nederlandse samenleving’, in: H.J. Pos, ed., Anti-Semitisme en
Jodendom: een bundel studies over een actueel vraagstuk (Arnhem, 1939) 190-227, see 196-197.
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Introduction to the Article on Jewish Emancipation’, 190-194.
Adath Jeschurun aroused such conflict with the Jewish community (especially the Ashkenazi one) that the
first rabbi of the congregation needed an armed militia on his way to his first religious service.7
This extremely negative attitude likewise appeared in the reaction to the Parisian Sanhedrin
assembly. Four Dutch-Jewish congregations received an invitation from Paris to attend this meeting: the
new progressive congregation Adath Jeschurun, the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities of Amsterdam,
and the Ashkenazi community of The Hague. All congregations except Adath Jeschurun refused to send
delegates.8 They probably felt what the Dutch-Jewish historian Jac. Zwarts wrote about it in 1925: that
neither the Batavian Republic, nor the Jewish masses were ripe for emancipation and that the latter did not
desire it either, and, moreover, ‘dat het Parijsche college slechts Napoleon’s marionettenspel was’.9
The friction between these groups was a concretization of their differing views on the merits of
emancipation. For the great majority of Dutch Jewry – not only the leadership elite, but also the people, as
the ‘armed militia’ incident shows –, participation in or accommodation to the demands of the new
situation was completely not done. The members of Adath Jeschurun, whose thought has received
considerable attention of scholars, reacted in the opposite way. In their view, the offers and demands of
emancipation could well be combined with true Judaism. The American scholar D. Ellenson points to the
fact that in Meliz Yosher, the slightly modernized collection of liturgical procedures adopted by Adath
Jeschurun in 1808-1809, modern Dutch-oriented elements were mixed with traditional Jewish elements in
a very unproblematic way.
Ellenson’s observance is a reason to add a fourth type to the three types of Jewish intellectual
responses to emancipation distinguished by Paul Mendes-Flohr. Mendes-Flohr mentions first the type of
‘cognitive insiders’. These were the Jews who were largely acculturated to the majority culture and thus
insiders in a cognitive way, but who remained outsiders in what he calls an ‘axionormative’ sense:
‘persons alien to and distant from the “axiological system” of “religious, moral, political, or economic
ideals” which directed the societies in which they lived.10 Secondly, there were Jews who simply accepted
their status as a social outsider and did not aspire to adaptation. A third group of Jews chose baptism as a
means to achieve respectable social status. To this classification Ellenson adds the type of Meliz Yosher:
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Verlichting en emancipatie’, 193. For the Haskalah in the Low Countries and a comparison to the
German Haskalah see Fréderique P. Hiegentlich, ‘Reflections on the Relationship between the Dutch Haskalah and
the German Haskalah, in: Jozeph Michman, ed., Dutch Jewish History: Proceedings of the Sympium on the History
of the Jews in the Netherlands, November 28-December 3, 1982 (Jerusalem, 1984) 207-218.
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Verlichting en emancipatie’, 194-195.
‘That the Parisian delegates were just Napoleon’s puppets’, Jac. Zwarts, Hoofdstukkken uit de Geschiedenis der
Joden in Nederland (Zutphen, 1929) 261-262.
D. Ellenson, ‘Emancipation and the Directions of Modern Judaism: the Lessions of Meliz Yosher’, in: Studia
Rosenthaliana vol. 30 (1996), no. 1, 118-136, see 134-135.
These Jews contend that fidelity to Jewish tradition, religion, and identity in a suitable Western form need not
demand either total assimilation or profound alienation. Nor will these Jews ‘live with’ and accept the notion
that their Jewishness condemns them to being ‘social outsiders’. For these Jews, a complete compatibility
between Jewish and Western values and aesthetics is perceived as attainable. 11
The members of Adath Jeschurun stood, however, alone in this view on emancipation. If their opponents
did not feel that emancipation was something dangerous, they did not see its desirability either. What
distinguished the majority of Dutch Jews from their co-religionists in other countries was not so much the
fact that they were so persuaded in their rejection of emancipation, but rather the fact that they could
permit themselves to do so.12 Compared to Jews elsewhere, Dutch Jews enjoyed a relatively good position
already before their emancipation. Writing about the decades preceding emancipation, the Israeli-Dutch
historian Joseph Michman stated that ‘admittedly, life in the Republic was no bed of roses’, but that the
political and cultural freedom and the esteem from the side of the Dutch authorities made the Dutch Jews
a rather confident and as far as social and political conditions were concerned a contented people.13
3.1.3 Reorganization and privatization
A succession of reorganizations
It took some more years before the Jewish community was confronted with the structural implications of
emancipation. Like in France, the project of centralization and unification was the work of the Napoleons.
In the Low Countries, the explicitly negative attitude of most Jewish leaders towards emancipation made a
strong policy necessary. Napoleon’s brother Louis Napoleon, who arrived in the Netherlands in 1806,
picked up this task. Even without a national supervisor, however, the implications of emancipation had
already been felt. The Amsterdam authorities took the grant of emancipation as a reason to proclaim a
couple of measures which betrayed the view that an emancipated minority should only practise its religion
in a private way. Shortly after the proclamation of equal rights, they prohibited the celebration of small
synagogue services, the erection of Sukkoth huts, and the celebration of the new moon in public streets.14
The great changes started promptly in 1806, when the administrative autonomy which all Jewish
congregations enjoyed came to an end. The Supreme Consistory, which henceforth governed all Jewish
Ibid, 135.
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Verlichting en emancipatie’, 201-203. Otherwise, Adath Jeschurun’s moderate liturgical
innovations were in the end adopted by the other congregations, since in 1808 the Ashkenazi congregations were
reunited by decree of Louis Napoleon.
J. Michman, ‘Waiting for the Messiah – But How?’, in: Studia Rosenthaliana vol. 30 (1996) no. 1, 179-189, see
Hans Daalder, ‘Joden in een verzuilend Nederland’, in: Idem, Politiek en historie: Opstellen over Nederlandse
politiek en vergelijkende politieke wetenschap (Amsterdam, 1990) 96-112, see 100.
congregations directly except the small Portuguese communities of Amsterdam and The Hague, was
established in 1808. Since this Consistory was obliged to follow the path of the Parisian Sanhedrin, its
establishment accounted for the introduction of drastic changes in the fields of education and religion.
Although these plans were not concretized until the House of Orange returned to the throne, the
suppression of Yiddish took priority from the beginning, together with the improvement of Jewish
education. Except from Hebrew and lessons in Jewish religion, Jewish children would henceforth receive
exactly the same education as other Dutch children. Another high-priority question was the establishment
of a special Jewish army force, about which the Dutch authorities made remarkable fuss. They even
planned a special Saturday, 5 August 1809, on which all Dutch rabbis were required to hold a sermon to
encourage Jewish young men to take service – a command which was obeyed without protest, though
taking service would possibly imply working on Sabbaths and eating non-kosher food. Otherwise, the
Jewish army force was dissolved within a year after its establishment.15
After the departure of the French, in 1814, a new system was founded which consisted of twelve
chief synagogues led by a central ‘Hoofdcommissie tot de Zaken der Israëlieten’ (Chief Committee for
Israelite Affairs). Although this model was less centralized than the original French one, the Dutch
government and the Chief Committee continued to exert great power. Under the leadership of this
Committee, which derived its power directly from the Dutch authorities and operated in close contact with
the Dutch Ministry of Protestant and Other Public Worship, the policy aiming at centralization,
acculturation, and integration was carried on.16
The strict separation of church and state, proclaimed in the Constitution of 1848, entailed another
reorganization of the Jewish community: the Chief Committee was formally freed from the supervision of
the Dutch government. It was not until 1870, however, that a new system came into being. Under renewed
pressure of the government, two Jewish denominations were established; the Portuguese Israelite Church
(PIK, consisting of two congregations in The Hague and Amsterdam) and the (Ashkenazi) Dutch Israelite
Church (NIK). Although the chief synagogue of Amsterdam continued to exert special influence in the
NIK, great local autonomy marked the situation from then on.17
The question of education
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Verlichting en emancipatie’, 195-197.
Ibid, 197; Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Onderwijs en nationale identiteit’, 135; N.L. Dodde (assisted by M.M.P. Stultjens),
‘Jewish Education in Schools in the Netherlands from 1815 to 1940’, in: Studia Rosenthaliana vol. 30 (1996), no. 1,
67-87, see 69.
R. Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Moeizame aanpassing (1814-1870)’, in: Blom, Geschiedenis van de joden in Nederland, 205243, see 212, 216-218; J.C.H. Blom and J.J. Cahen, ‘Joodse Nederlanders, Nederlandse joden en joden in Nederland’
(1870-1940)’, in: Blom, Geschiedenis van de joden, 245-310, see 266-268.
In the meantime, between 1848 and 1870, there was by no means a standstill. The policy which aimed at
the privatization of Judaism received a new impetus by the discussions on the realization of the separation
between church and state. The organization of education, an important question on the political agenda
after 1848, is a good example.
Due to, as the Thorbeckians explained, ‘de geest van subordinatie’ which reigned among the political
opposition, no Education Act was reached until 1857.18 The Onderwijswet which was eventually agreed
upon implied a serious challenge for the Jews. All primary education, the Law declared, would henceforth
be in the hands of the State; private education would not be subsidized. There was one part in the
formulation of the Law, which had been borrowed from the Education Act of 1806, which provoked much
debate: the phrase that education should serve ‘de ontwikkeling van de verstandelijke vermogens der
kinderen en (…) hunne opleiding tot alle Christelijke en maatschappelijke deugden’. This conception of
the nature of public education was fiercely protested against by the anti-revolutionaries. Such a phrase,
they judged, was too vague to give parents (they meant the orthodox Protestant) the guarantee that their
children would be educated in tune with their religious conviction. Remarkably, they repeatedly involved
the Jews in their argument in favour of the freedom of education. The case of the Jews was taken as an
example for the urgency of education in accordance with religious conviction and tradition.
Surprisingly, as in the case of the army question forty years before, the Jews themselves did not
protest at all. According to Karin Hofmeester, not only Jewish lay leaders, politicians, journalists, and
education experts welcomed the new educational system, but also the Jewish parents; in any case, they
sent their children to the public schools without making problems. No protest was heard from rabbinic
circles either. Apparently, neither the ‘opleiding tot alle Christelijke (…) deugden’ nor the absence of
Jewish education and the obligation to attend school on Sabbaths could provoke resistance.19 Hofmeester
explains the attitude of the parents by their preoccupation with the economic, social and cultural
advantages of public education for their children, and the rabbis’ resignation from the fact that the internal
problems of the community and its organization took first priority. Moreover, in contrast to the earliest
reactions to emancipation, Dutch Jews were more and more convinced of the benefits of integration and
acculturation, as the first issues of the now arising Jewish press showed.20
Ido de Haan, Het beginsel van leven en wasdom: De constitutie van de Nederlandse politiek in de negentiende
eeuw (Amsterdam, 2003) 81.
Karin Hofmeester, ‘“Een teeder en belangrijk punt”: Opinies over openbaar onderwijs in joodse kring, 18571898’, in: Te Velde, De eenheid en de delen, 157-176.
Ibid, see for example 158-162, 167. The Weekblad voor Israëlieten, which to a certain extent favoured reforming
measures, reprehended the peculiar dialect and some unpleasant customs of Dutch Jews and their isolation from nonJews. With regard to the first fifty years of emancipation, Fuks-Mansfeld stresses that Dutch Jews, had they wanted
to make protest against integration and assimilation measures, possessed very limited possibilities to do so: in the
first decades of the nineteenth century they did not master the Dutch language sufficiently, and by the time they were
The structure of the community
In the wake of the reorganizations in the nineteenth century, emancipation turned out to influence the
structure of the Jewish community in still another way. Together with, first, the political relationship
between the community and Dutch society and, second, Judaism’s range of influence, the balance of
power within the community altered. More exactly, emancipation reinforced a particular set of tendencies
which marked the structure of the Dutch Jewish community before. To put it in a few words, this
concerned the power relations between the parnassim and the rabbis, against the background of a
community that consisted for the greatest part of extremely poor and socially and culturally backward
By way of their relationship with the Dutch authorities, the parnassim of the Dutch Jewish
community traditionally held the greatest power in the community, at least in political or organizational
affairs. This was only enforced when the grant of equal rights for all Jews further weakened the position of
the rabbis. With the establishment of the Chief Consistory in 1808, the rabbis were placed under direct
control of the parnassim and forbidden to say or undertake anything that would be ‘in conflict with the
interests of the State and with the fulfilment of all civil duties which were imposed on the Jews as on all
other citizens’.21 Indeed, this makes the passive attitude of the rabbis in such matters as the command to
take service and the proclamation of the Education Act more explicable.
The problematic position of the rabbis must also be related to the internal situation of the rabbinate.
In contrast to the Dutch Sephardic community, whose seminary Ets Haim offered high-quality education
for both rabbis and religious teachers, the Ashkenazi seminary lacked the qualities to provide for a proper
education of rabbis. The seminary was probably called into being by a royal decree of 1826, which
formulated the aim of ‘[training] the future rabbis, inhabitants of Holland endowed with a great science
[i.e. secular education, LS] and an irreproachable conduct, expert in the use of the national language, and
way of life’. The use of the vernacular was explicitly mentioned to prevent the appointment of rabbis from
outside the country.22 Reality was different, however. For lack of appropriate talents, the bulk of Dutch
nineteenth-century chief rabbis was raised outside the Netherlands and educated at German seminaries or
universities.23 While this foreign input often brought progressive ideas and programmes to the
congregations concerned, it was a clear proof of the spiritual shortcomings of the Dutch rabbinate. Indeed,
it was with the appointment of the Krakau-born Dr Joseph Hirsch Dünner (1833-1911) as rector of the
able to set up Dutch-language journals to voice their opinion, their Yiddish and other crucial components of Jewish
tradition already waned. See Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Moeizame aanpassing’, 208.
J. Michman, ‘De stichting van het Opperconsistorie (1808): Een keerpunt in de geschiedenis van de Nederlandse
joden’, Studia Rosenthaliana 18 (1984), see 19, translation LS.
Schwarzfuchs, A Concise History, 94.
In the whole of the Dutch Jewish community the influence of the Sephardim severely diminished during the
nineteenth century; Amsterdam and The Hague together numbered only 3525 Portuguese Jews in 1869. See FuksMansfeld, ‘Moeizame aanpassing’, 238-239.
Dutch Israelite Seminary, in 1862, that the seminary began to meet the demands of the times. Under
Dünner’s leadership, the curriculum came to include Dutch literature, history, Latin, Greek, German,
cosmography, mathematics, and natural sciences.24
Under these circumstances, neither militant religious self-awareness with regard to general society –
which might be termed ‘confessionalism’ – nor spiritual innovativeness was likely to break through in the
Dutch Jewish community. Generally speaking, the parnassim cooperated with the Gentile authorities
towards the privatization of Judaism, while the rabbinate lacked the power and spiritual expertise to
stimulate opposite trends. As for the other members of the Jewish community, the great majority was not
likely to break new grounds either. Besides a class of educated and steadily integrating Jews – it was from
their ranks that the considerable number of Jewish politicians was recruited – the Jewish community in the
Netherlands included an overwhelming majority of people for whom extreme poverty was daily bread.
Eighty percent of the Amsterdam Askenazim and fifty percent of the Separdim received alms in 1799; the
figures show respectively fifty-three percent and sixty-two percent for 1859.25 For these people, holding
fast to tradition probably possessed more attraction than religious modernism.
3.2 Religion and national consciousness in Dutch society
3.2.1 National identities in the Netherlands
Speaking about the nineteenth century in Dutch history, one would not so readily characterize it as an age
of nationalism. The Netherlands are scarcely mentioned in the literature on modern European nationalism,
partly because of its small size and limited influence on European- or worldwide affairs, partly also
because Dutch national feeling was much less spectacular than the infamous German, French or Russian
forms. With a view to the early modern history of the Low Countries, this is not so surprising: Dutch
society was accustomed to a religious pluriformity that was not possible in other countries at the time.
Such a past would of course be no obstacle for fervent nationalists, who would readily have invented some
useful tradition. This happened only to a very limited extent in nineteenth-century Holland, however.
Indeed, the remembrance of the Gouden Eeuw (Golden Age) could warm Dutch people to the idea of a
Dutch nation with a glorious past. But this kind of glorification of the past on behalf of the nation was not
necessarily dangerous for the Jews, who had otherwise contributed obviously to the prosperity of Dutch
economic and cultural life in the seventeenth century.
Schwarzfuchs, A Concise History, 94.
Daalder, ‘Joden in een verzuilend Nederland’, 101-102.
In general, what strikes the eye in the development of national feeling in the Netherlands is that it
never reached the extent of powerful exclusivism which characterized national consciousness in other
nineteenth-century countries. In the very beginning of the period, deeply Protestant Republican national
consciousness on the one side and the proclamation of political national unity in the Batavian Republic on
the other side were each other’s rivals. By the turn of the century, as Joost Kloek and Wijnand Mijnhardt’s
book 1800: Blauwdrukken voor een samenleving extensively discusses, the bourgeios part of the nation
participated in a genuine programme for the national future, built on noble ideals of true Dutch
citizenship. This kind of national feeling was, however, not likely to endanger the Jews because it referred
to universal, cosmopolitan ideas rather than to exclusive national categories.26 Moreover, by this time, the
eligibility of the Jews for Dutch citizenship was no longer a serious matter of debate. The question was
rather how the Jews could be made fit for their citizenship: their extremely low standard of living was the
primary source of concern, and this economic feature of the Dutch Jewish community was always the
main accusation in Dutch anti-Jewish expressions in modern times.27
When, in the wake of the revision of the Constitution in 1848, the character of the Dutch nation
explicitly became a matter of debate, national feeling in the Netherlands turned out to be of a diversified
nature. Such national feeling was not quite marked by a universalist or cosmopolitan outlook; the fact was
rather that it always met rivals on its way. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Dutch society was
the scene of several disputes on the religious heritage of the Dutch nation, of which the debate on the
above-mentioned Education Act stood out. Protestants, mainly Calvinists, quarrelled with the steadily
advancing Catholics about the question whether the Dutch past belonged to the Protestants or the
Catholics. Such conflicts did not directly affect the position of the Jewish population group; instead, the
reciprocal aversion between Protestants and Catholics tended to be greater than the dislike of the Jewish
population group.28 Ironically, the Jews themselves protested against this quarrelling, and that in the name
of the united fatherland. A correspondent of the Weekblad voor Israelïeten (WvI) wrote in 1858, referring
to the commotion concerning the Education Act, that the Israelites did not want to set foot on this
Joost Kloek and Wijnand Mijnhardt, 1800: Blauwdrukken voor een samenleving (Den Haag, 2001).
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Moeizame aanpassing’, see 240-241.
This is also very obvious in the reaction of the Dutch press (newspapers, journals, brochures) in the interwar
period to the ‘Jewish question’. The Jews were usually seen as a people on their own, with their own tradition and
loyalties, and often even reproached for their departure from Jewish religion. Not the position of the Jews in Dutch
society worried the press (be it Catholic, Protestant, or socialist) but the wrong opinions and false steps of the
opponents. See especially Frank van Vree, De Nederlandse pers en Duitsland 1930-1939: Een studie over de
vorming van de publieke opinie (Groningen, 1989), and a paper written by the present author, ‘Tot oordeelen in
staat’: Over het karakter van het jodenvraagstuk in Nederland (not published, February 2005).
‘worstelperk’; he reproached his fellow-Dutchmen for fostering ‘partijzucht en godsdiensthaat’ and thus
spoiling ‘de beste krachten van het vaderland’.29
This correspondent’s response to conflicts on Dutch national identity was not unusual for Dutch
Jews. As time went by, Dutch Jews became more and more pleased with emancipation, and subsequently
blessed the liberal politics that made it possible.30 Not unlike the German Jews, then, in a political respect
they chose the liberal side. Unlike them, however, they lived in a society where right-wing political ideas
were not likely to gain serious influence, as they did in Germany or to a lesser extent in France. What
characterized Dutch politics in the nineteenth century instead was precisely the inability of each political
group to get hold of a powerful political position. The instability of the political relationships, resulting
from shifting alliances and hostilities between liberals, Catholics, Protestants calling themselves ‘antirevolutionaries’, moderate Protestants, and conservatives repeatedly came to the surface; in the process
leading up to the revision of the Constitution in 1848, the unrest around the Aprilbeweging in 1853, and in
the debate on private education in 1857. The making of political parties from the 1870s on created a new
balance between the different political groups, and thus granted Dutch politics a certain stability until far
into the twentieth century.31
3.2.2 Jewish love for the Dutch fatherland
In his rejection of exclusivism in Dutch politics, the correspondent of the WvI was a worthy representative
of the Dutch Jewish community. Dutch Jews were not pleased with narrow conceptions of the Dutch
nation; but they did love the fatherland. Love for the Dutch fatherland was a matter of honour as it was for
French Jews after their emancipation. What was more, it was a matter of tradition. Compared to Jewish
communities elsewhere in the pre-emancipation period, the Dutch Jewish community was on very friendly
terms with Dutch society. In the course of the seventeenth century, the Sephardic and the Ashkenazi Jews
came to be seen as one of the various religious groups that were tolerated by the Reformed authorities.
The Amsterdam authorities used to express their sympathy to the Jewish communities by attending the
dedication services of the synagogues; the leaders of the Jewish communities, at their turn, accepted the
invitation to pray and praise together with the Christian denominations on the official days of prayer,
thanksgiving and fasting.32 Examples of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century odes to the Dutch fatherland,
‘Field of struggle’, ‘polarization and religious intolerance’, ‘the best powers of the fatherland’, Weekblad voor
Israeliëten, 23 September 1857, quoted in: Hofmeester, ‘“Een teeder en belangrijk punt”’, see 164.
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Onderwijs en nationale identiteit’, 151; Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Moeizame aanpassing’, see 216-217,
De Haan, Het beginsel van leven en wasdom, see for the events and developments of the 1840s-1860s chapter 2,
‘Grondwet’, 51-87.
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Onderwijs en nationale identiteit’, see 139; Vital, A People Apart, 34.
which had given hospitality and freedom to the Jews and whose regents and monarchs ought to be praised
for their deep religiousness, are abundant.
For the latter half of the nineteenth century and later, the Jewish press is a rich source of opinions on
the Dutch fatherland, Jewish identity, and the relation between the two. Debates on the question whether
one should speak of Dutch Jews or Jewish Dutchmen emerged as early as 1849, as the second issue of the
Nederlands-Israëlietisch Nieuws- en Advertentieblad shows. Again and again, the question appeared in
the Jewish press, and it continued to bother Dutch Jews well into the twentieth century. An important
aspect of this discussion was the question which nation or political unity deserved the loyalty of the Jews:
the Jewish community or the Dutch nation state.33 The internal Jewish debates arising around these
questions time and again divided the Jewish community.
Still, there was a main point in these discussions in which all opinions converged. Jewish ethnic
consciousness was always blended with loyalty to the fatherland, even among the Zionists. By the first
decade of the twentieth century, the question of the relation between Jewish consciousness and loyalty to
the Dutch state filled many columns in the Jewish press. Most authors fiercely protested against the very
idea of a national consciousness in Dutch Jewry. The Zionists were automatically suspect in this sense: the
ever recurring reproach was that they, by overtly defending private Jewish interests (which, moreover,
literally extended to the world outside the Netherlands), provoked mistrust and even anti-Semitism. A
letter to the editors of De Joodsche Wachter, the official organ of the Dutch Zionists’ Association (NZB),
read that Zionists and Jewish socialists dishonoured not only Jewish religion, but also the Dutch
fatherland. Jewish religion and the Dutch monarchy were, after all, intimately connected; ‘bidden wij in
onze synagogen niet voor het Koninklijk huisgezin?’, the author asked rhetorically.34
In their answer to such reproaches, the Zionists – who naturally spoke of ‘Dutch Jews’ – usually
tried to bring the matter into balance again. An article under the telling title ‘Nog eens Jodendom en
Vaderlandsliefde’ (‘Judaism and Love for the Fatherland Again’) told that a collision between Dutch and
Jewish interests could well be prevented. A good Jew, who would aim at harmony between these interests,
would take the only possible way: he would help to build a reservoir of Jewish power in a country of the
Jews (i.e. Palestine). ‘Wie medewerkt om dat reservoir op te bouwen is tegelijkertijd de beste Jood en de
beste patriot’, the author concluded.35 The same emphasis on the need of loyalty to the Netherlands was
found in the ranks of the Mizrachie, the religious department of the NZB. The first issue of the journal
J. Frishman, ‘“Gij, Vromen, zijt Nederlanders! Gij, Onverschilligen, zijt Israëlieten!”: Religious Reform and Its
Opponents in the Mid-Nineteenth Century in the Netherlands’, in: Studia Rosenthaliana: tijdschrift voor joodse
wetenschap en geschiedenis in Nederland, vol. 30 (1996), no.1, 137-150, see 139. Frishman found that many
columns of nineteenth-century Jewish weeklies were filled with the question of Jewish identity.
‘Don’t we pray for the royal family in our synagogues?’, De Joodsche Wachter: Veertiendaagsch Orgaan van den
Nederlandschen Zionistenbond, 1 augustus 1913.
Ibid, 29 augustus 1913.
Mizrachie boldly declared: ‘Wij zijn Mizrachisten en Nederlanders. Vader en Moeder hebben aanspraak
op onze verering, op onze liefde’.36
3.2.3 Nation, ethnic identity, zuil
In the midst of the positive attitude towards the Dutch fatherland and the steady integration into Dutch
society, it is hard to discover a truly nationalistic movement in Dutch Jewry. Even a movement like
Zionism got quite another face in the Netherlands. It must be kept in mind that the Dutch circumstances of
Jewish life were not very likely to provoke such self-conscious Jewish national feeling. Anti-Semitism
(though not hostility towards Jews) was largely absent from the Dutch scene, at least in a concrete sense.
These conditions set Dutch Jewry apart from the Zionist centres in Eastern Europe, where the national
conception of Judaism was so central that Polish intellectuals, interested in Progressive Judaism though
they were, rejected it since it confessed an essentially religious Jewish identity.37
The mixture of loyalties which characterized Dutch Jewry – a characterization that extends to
German and other European Jewish communities as well – did not necessarily prevent the Jews from
confessing a kind of ethnic identity, however. Precisely in the Dutch case, it was very well possible to feel
and behave as an ethnic group in the framework of society at large. After all, Protestant and Catholic
groups largely did the same. In the common view, looking after private group interests was well
compatible with good Dutch citizenship and patriotism. Against this background, historians have often
wondered whether it was possible and attractive for Dutch Jews to take their own place in this system, in
other words, to form another zuil in this country of verzuiling. Most of them agree in their negative answer
to this question.38
Yet, whether they formed a zuil or failed to do so, Dutch Jews certainly incorporated the
segmentation tendencies of contemporary Dutch society. From the last decade of the nineteenth century
on, a considerable number of institutions for Jewish interests emerged. Alongside older organizations for
financial help to the Jews in the Holy Land, a range of institutions for Jewish social help came into being.
The NZB was founded in 1899. The first decades of the twentieth century saw a great flourishment of
Jewish newspapers, periodicals, and magazines, with special attention to the merits of Jewish cultural
‘We are Mizrachists and Dutchmen. Father and Mother deserve our adoration, our love’, Mizrachie: Maandblad
van “Mizrachie”, afdeling van den Nederlanschen Zionistenbond, vol. 1 (1916), no.1, Nisan 5676/April 1916, 4.
In the interwar years, the WUPJ sent rabbi Meir Lasker to Poland to promote Progressive Judaism, see Meyer,
Response to Modernity, 340, see also page 466 footnote 16.
Viewing the Jewish minority in the framework of the political structure of Dutch society, the political scientist
Hans Daalder explains the absence of a Jewish zuil by the profound disunity in the Jewish community, the superficial
character of Jewish religious organizations, the constant hesitation to assert specifically Jewish claims, individual
indifference, the attraction of political movements like liberalism and socialism, numerical smallness, and the high
concentration of Jews in Amsterdam. Daalder, ‘Joden in een verzuilend Nederland’, 109-110.
expressions. Shortly before the turn of the century, chief rabbi Dünner pleaded for the reintroduction of
private Jewish education, later on assisted by rabbi Meijer de Hond (1882-1943). Even the proverbial
‘society for Christian goat breeding’ was paralleled in the Jewish population group: as short news reports
in the free-thinking Jewish journal Het Oude Volk show, not only private Jewish secondary schools but
also Jewish sport clubs and Jewish Scouting clubs sprang up one after another.39 Otherwise, such manifest
expressions of Jewish identity were by no means unanimously welcomed by Dutch Jews. In their critique
on the actions of Dünner and De Hond and on private initiatives on a smaller scale, they did not only plead
for the defense of Jewish interests in a more moderate way. In the case of the many free-thinking Jews
who were present in all spheres of the Jewish community, the critique often joined the critique of
Marxists, socialists, and liberal thinkers on verzuiling as such.
3.3 The species hollandia judaica and the absence of Reform
It is time to address the question how these elements of Dutch Jewish history can be connected to the
failure of Reform in the Netherlands. A basic observation is, then, that reformist thought was not unknown
in the Netherlands. By the time of their emancipation, Dutch Jewry could boast – or, rather, regret – the
presence of an influential group of maskilim in their ranks. The ambition to improve Dutch Judaism was
not alien to their thought, as the programmes of the Felix Libertate society and Adath Jeschurun show.
Moreover, the ideas of the newly arising Reform movement certainly also penetrated in the Netherlands.
Contacts existed between members of the Dutch Jewish community and reform-minded groups in other
countries, whether Haskalah, German ‘classical’ Reform, or French and English reforms.40 The fact that
the great majority of nineteenth-century Ashkenazi rabbis came from elsewhere, notably from modernized
study centres in Central and Eastern Europe, must have increased the familiarity with Reform. Some of
these foreign rabbis indeed introduced the reforms they were familiar with in the Dutch congregations.
Why, then, did Reform not have the chance to break through in the Netherlands? By way of conclusion,
this paragraph briefly recapitulates the above-mentioned characteristics of modern Dutch Jewish history,
concentrating on the question of Reform.
Integration and moderate reforms
Het Oude Volk, voorheen en thans: halfmaandelijksch tijdschrift voor vrijzinnige Joden, vol. 1, no. 2, Woensdag
27 Juni 1917, 13; vol. 1, no. 3, Woensdag 11 Juli 1917, 13-14; vol. 1, no. 5, Woensdag 5 Augustus 1917, 28-29; vol.
1, no. 14, Woensdag 26 December 1917, 83-84.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 30.
It appears that, by the nature of the Dutch Jews’ encounter with modernity, Reform was generally not seen
as a logical option, let alone a necessity in the Dutch situation. Historians have emphasized that
emancipation and integration were rather smooth processes in Dutch Jewish history. Like the Jews of
France, Dutch Jews were emancipated on the assumption that they would naturally become good citizens
in the future; the interference of the Dutch government concerned administrative rather than religious
matters, and so did the programme of the Jewish authorities. Dutch Jews could even, unlike French Jews,
rely on a tradition of relative harmony between the Jewish community and the Dutch authorities. Against
this background, integration into Dutch society and culture on the one side and traditionalism in matters of
Jewish religious doctrine and practice on the other side was seen as the most desired form of
Thus, while Dutch Jews initially viewed emancipation and integration as ‘a Trojan horse’, their
attitude changed towards positive valuation and confident acceptance. In fact, the unproblematic view on
emancipation and integration which Ellenson discovered in Meliz Yosher was gradually taken over in
other groups of Dutch Jewry. In doing so, they were scarcely hindered by Dutch claims on religious or
national identity. In spite of private claims on the true identity of the Dutch people, religious and national
identity was so diversified in Dutch society that no exclusive nationalism managed to dominate the Dutch
political and cultural sphere. To the Jewish side, this meant that love for the Dutch fatherland and the
desire for wholesome integration was rather unproblematically combined with loyalty to Jewish tradition.
This was reflected in a certain flexibility of synagogue officials and spiritual leaders in matters of public
and private religion, which J.C.H. Blom and J.J. Cahen have compared to Samson Raphael Hirsch’s
Modern Orthodoxy.42
Several historians have related the Dutch leaders’ decision to strike a happy medium between
rigorous traditionalism and revolutionary reformism to the absence of Reform. In Lloyd Gartner’s words,
both in France, Great Britain and the Netherlands ‘the official religion (…) of moderate and decorous
orthodoxy (…) took most of the wind out of Reform sails’.43 Calling attention to the fact that most Dutch
rabbis held sermons in Dutch by the second half of the nineteenth century, that the need of decorum in the
services was increasingly stressed, and that slight omissions from the prayer book were made, often under
the influence of chief rabbis, Dan Michman views this factor as an important reason for the absence of
Reform in the Netherlands.44 Among such modernizations, there were also truly drastic changes which
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Verlichting en emancipatie’, 180, 199-201. For a similar understanding of the experience of
Dutch Jewry in modern times see also Michman, ‘Waiting for the Messiah’, and M.H. Gans, ‘The Jews in the
Netherlands’, in: Jozeph Michman, ed., Dutch Jewish History: Proceedings of the Fourth Symposium on the History
of the Jews in the Netherlands, volume II (Jerusalem, 1989) 387-402.
Blom and Cahen, ‘Joodse Nederlanders’, 270-271.
Gartner, History of the Jews, 142.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 33.
came close to reformism on an individual scale. Renate Fuks-Mansfeld and the authors of the handbook
Pinkas record remarkable developments in several congregations. A good example is the – remarkably
early and not uncontested – introduction of a number of worship innovations in the chief synagogues of
Drenthe and Overijssel by the chief rabbi, the Prussian-born Hartog Jozua Hertzveld (1781-1846). A
similar case is the early innovations in the Groningen chief synagogue, which became occasion for
vehement conflict when the responsible chief rabbi, Salomo Joseph Rosenbach, died in 1848. The choir
that had been introduced under his auspices severely annoyed the interim chief rabbi. A long-lasting
dispute broke out in which the pro-choir party, which was led by the parnassim, was supported by the
municipal administration of Groningen, the national Chief Committee for Israelite affairs, and even the
Hague minister. The harmony was not restored until 1881, when the chief congregation and the rapidly
seceded anti-choir congregation were finally reunited.45
Structural and personal unwillingness
Reforms were not likely to exceed this individual level; after all, it was the consistories which sanctified
or obstructed reforms in Jewish public worship. Again, the circumstances are comparable to those in
France and England. The Jewish authorities, in close cooperation with the Dutch government, contributed
to the reduction of Judaism to the private sphere, not to a revival of Judaism in tune with modern times.
This is a structural factor to which part of the responsibility for the absence of Reform in the Netherlands
must be attributed. Basically, for the greatest part of the nineteenth century, the structure of the Jewish
community could easily hinder the breakthrough of reformations and Reform. This includes the power of
the parnassim represented in Dutch Jewry’s governing bodies, the related weakness of the rabbis’ position
– Jozeph Michman has called them ‘their [of the parnassim, LS] public servants’46 – and the fact that the
great majority of Dutch Jews occupied an extremely low position in an economic, social, and intellectual
Yet, these obviously unfavourable structural circumstances should not take our attention away from
the evident personal aversion to Reform which must have inspired the rejection of it. Simply put, a highly
centralized system could have favoured Reform as well as a locally organized one, had its top
functionaries be inclined to do so. This possibility is shown by the French case where, under comparable
conditions, lay and rabbinical consistory members alike increasingly acknowledged the need of
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Moeizame aanpassing’, 217-218, see also J. Michman, H. Beem, and D. Michman, Pinkas:
Geschiedenis van de joodse gemeenschap in Nederland (Ede/Antwerpen-Amsterdam, 1992) 464, 581-582.
J. Michman, ‘Historiography of the Jews in the Netherlands’, in: Jozeph Michman, ed., Dutch Jewish History:
Proceedings of the Symposium on the History of the Jews in the Netherlands (Tel Aviv/Jerusalem, 1984) 7-29, see
Frishman, ‘“Gij, Vromen, zijt Nederlanders!”’, 150. The same factors are mentioned by Fuks-Mansfeld,
‘Moeizame aanpassing’, especially 235, and Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 32-34.
reformations. The development of Belgian Judaism, comprehensively described by Jean-Philippe
Schreiber, is still more fascinating compared to the Dutch situation. Shortly after the Belgian separation
from the Netherlands, in 1832, the Belgian consistory system was established, remodelled according to the
original centralized French model. From the beginning, most consistory members were dedicated to the
cause of the Haskalah and some of them, notably the future consistory president Sigmund Benda,
deliberately sought to introduce the Reform model of Hamburg and Frankfurt. The Consistory’s very first
body of regulations spoke of the indifference expressed in the low frequency of synagogue attendance and
ascribed this to the long duration of the services. In the following decades no Reform movement emerged,
but reformations did not fail to come. Sermons in the vernacular were introduced in 1832. The Brussels
congregation saw adaptations in several civil ceremonies and the introduction of a mixed choir, an
orchestra, and last but not least, in 1851, an organ. In the 1860s and 1870s, the ideological side of a liberal
view on Judaism was manifested by chief rabbi Elie Aristide Astruc. Meeting with resistance but for the
most part with approval from the side of the communities, Astruc publicly maintained that Judaism, as a
developing religion, was in accordance with la nouvelle conscience and should live up to its own
ideological essence.48
In brief, the development of Belgian Judaism shows how the dominance of a reformist inclination
among influential individuals could make a significant difference. This observation leads to the question
of the social, religious, and intellectual points of view of Jewish leaders in nineteenth-century countries
like Holland and Belgium, which is, however, beyond the scope of the present work. What is important
here is the insight that there was apparently real aversion to Reform in the Netherlands, which extended to
both the Jewish ‘masses’ and their leaders. A rather emotional form of this aversion was expressed by
Jewish masses in 1797 and again half a century later, in 1860.49 While poor and backwardly living Jews
increasingly desired to reap the social and economic fruits of emancipation, religious modernism was far
from them. The same was, albeit in a different manner, true for the dominant majority of parnassim and
rabbis. While they were sometimes actively involved in the introduction of reformations on an individual
scale, as the examples of Drenthe/Overijssel and Groningen show, they never placed such questions on the
public agenda. For Dan Michman, the absence of a public discussion on the essence of Judaism as it took
place in Germany over a number of decades – and, otherwise, in a more practical way among French lay
and rabbinical leaders – is another crucial reason for the absence of Reform.50
Jean-Philippe Schreiber, Politique et religion: le Consistoire central israélite de Belgique au XIXe siècle
(Bruxelles, 1995) 63, 129-140. Astruc voiced his defence of Judaism in the framework of a confrontation between
rationalism and religion in his Histoire abrégée des Juifs et de leur croyances.
See page 61 above and page 81 below.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 32.
Indifference and provincialism
Since the Second World War, particular features of modern Dutch Jewish history have received special
attention. Among these themes, the ‘dark’ side of integration is an important one. Integration, as historians
and laymen have emphasized, did not only bring Dutch Jews close to modern times and Dutch society. It
also entailed a serious diminution of personal Jewish religion and commitment to Judaism in a wider
Indifference in religious matters is a factor that can hardly be caught in secularization figures, the
more so when Jewish religion is concerned. Official non-religiousness among Jews remained much
smaller than among non-Jews; the vast majority maintained the religious ceremonies of marriage,
circumcision, and burial far into the twentieth century. But synagogue attendance fell drastically, and so
did observance of the Sabbath and dietary laws.51 Moreover, besides practice inner religious conviction
waned. Social commitment was probably the main content of Jewishness for the many indifferent, liberals,
and freethinkers in the congregations and consistories. As in France, this was true in the case of synagogue
officials especially. Their attitude, consisting of a mixture of loyalties to the Jewish community, Dutch
society and culture, and modern religious trends, is usually illustrated by the person of A.C. Wertheim,
from 1865 on chairman of the Amsterdam chief synagogue. Wertheim, non-believing, non-practising, and
freemason, personalized his own conviction that Jews should be ‘[medeburgers] in den vollen,
onverdeelden, onsplitsbaren zin van het woord’ outside the synagogue; but at the same time he demanded
that Judaism should be Orthodox or not be.52
Such personal indifference towards matters of Jewish religion, which was present in all spheres of
the Jewish community, was very likely to be a serious barrier for Reform. Historians have often
mentioned this factor as the decisive counterforce against Reform, with a special emphasis on the role of
Jewish leaders. According to Fuks-Mansfeld, an attitude such as Wertheim’s – which paradoxically
stimulated the maintenance of Orthodoxy in an institutional sense – made Jewish leaders unlikely to
sympathize with the ‘pietism’ of German Reform. The authors of Pinkas maintain that it was not
opposition from the side of Orthodoxy but disinterest in religious matters from the side of the leadership
elite that thwarted Reform.53
Others went further than that. On basis of this observance, some have maintained that there was
something very peculiar in Dutch Jewry which held them back from Reform and, for that matter, Zionism.
Kruijt, ‘Het Jodendom’, 199, 222; Michman, Pinkas, 128, 130.
‘Co-citizens in the full, undifferentiated sense of the word’, Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Moeizame aanpassing’, 226; Blom
and Cahen, ‘Joodse Nederlanders’, 23; Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 31.
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Moeizame aanpassing’, 226; Michman, Pinkas, 97.
The term species hollandia judaica usually serves to describe Dutch Jewry in this way.54 The Liberal Jew
Abraham van Son, a journalist who returned from the United States in 1931, was probably the first
disciple of Reform to explain the absence of Reform in the Netherlands by the nature of the species
hollandia judaica. He did so in a very straightforward way. The contrast between the living religiosity of
American Liberal Jews and the lethargic attitude of Dutch Jews was poignant, he wrote in the June issue
of the Dutch Liberal periodical Nieuw Joodsch Leven. He described a member of the species hollandia
judaica as someone who had ceased to live according to Jewish tradition. Only the fact that such a person
occupied a nice job somewhere in the Jewish denominational structure indicated that he somehow
belonged to the Jewish community. The main element of his Jewishness was that he still cherished his
beautiful memories of past Seder evenings, which made him continue to love Orthodox Judaism. His
commitment to Judaism was thus irrational, inconsistent, and minimal at the same time:
[…] hij voelt zich nu eenmaal behaaglijk te zien of te weten, dat de rabbijn van zijn Kerkgenootschap plus een
klein groepje anderen ge-hoogehoed en ge-wittedast op bepaalde tijden ter Synagoge gaan en zich verder strikt
aan den Joodschen traditioneelen ritus houden. Juist zooals zijn vader of grootvader dat deed. […] Met andere
woorden, de “species hollandia judaica” wenst, in religieus opzicht, alles of niets. 55
Jaap Meijer, whose explicitly teleological description of Dutch Jewish history recurrently provoked debate
in historiographic circles, likewise connected the absence of Reform to the inner-directed attitude of Dutch
Jewry. In his view, German Reform could not gain foothold in the Netherlands since it was German. In its
own specifically Dutch way – that is, with a maximum of adaptation to Dutch circumstances but
cautiously within the outer limits of the halakhic possibilities – Dutch Judaism certainly underwent a
reformation during the nineteenth century, especially under Dünner’s chief rabbinate.56 This home-made
Reform fitted perfectly in the Dutch context. How Meijer – who studied at the Amsterdam rabbinical
The term, coined in 1923 by the Dutch Zionist historian Sigmund Seeligmann, was originally used in a positive
way. Seeligmann sympathetically described the species hollandia judaica as a group of Jews who managed to bring
Dutch and Jewish culture into a synthesis, and thereby enjoyed an independent position with regard to Jewish
communities elsewhere in the world. But the term soon got a predominantly negative connotation. Jewish ideologists
who longed for a revival of Jewish identity, whether in a national sense in the case of the Zionists or in a traditional
religious sense in the case of the Orthodox, denounced what they saw as a lack of authenticity and reliability in
Dutch Jewry. See Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Verlichting en emancipatie’, 179; and Blom and Cahen, ‘Joodse Nederlanders’,
309. See for a positive view on the integrating, synthesizing attitude of Dutch Jews for example Kruijt, ‘Het
Jodendom in de Nederlandse samenleving’, 226.
‘He just feels comfortable to see or to know that the rabbi of his church together with a small group of others, with
top hat and white tie, visit the Synagogue regularly and observe the Jewish traditional rite strictly. Exactly as his
father and grandfather did. […] In other words, in a religious respect, the ‘species hollandia judaica’ desires all or
nothing’, Nieuw Joodsch Leven: Mededeelingen van het Verbond van Liberaal Religieuze Joden in Nederland, Juni
1932, 9-10.
Jaap Meijer, Balans der Ballingschap: Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis der joden in Nederland, VII: Mazzeltov in
Mineur: Bij het jubileum der NIHS 1635-1985 (Heemstede 1985) 15, see Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 31.
seminary, lived through several concentration camps, and became a radically Zionist historian and poet
after the war – viewed Dutch Jewish history prior to 1940 can be summarized in one of his bold
statements: ‘Het was joods gezien hier afgelopen vóórdat de moffen kwamen’.57 In Meijer’s view, the
majority of Dutch Jews was ignorant and indifferent in religious matters, calculating in political and
administrative matters, and completely blind for the necessity of national Jewishness. What was left was
something that vaguely reminded of original Judaism: ‘een soort gezelligheid, laat overblijfsel uit het
Regardless of Meijer’s uncompromising view on Dutch Jewish history as a fatal development
towards disintegration and ruination, his emphasis on the expressly Dutch character of Jewish life in the
Netherlands has found agreement. That Dutch Jewry was Dutch rather than committed to the
developments of Jewish communities elsewhere has indeed been connected to the absence of Reform in
the Netherlands. Viewing the Jewish community in the whole of Dutch politics, the political scientist Hans
Daalder has described Dutch Jews as ‘provincialistic’. In part, Dutch Jews thus reflected ‘het
provincialistische karakter van het zo vermeend internationale Nederland an sich’. They lived in
estrangement from both the great Talmudic centres of Eastern Europe and the new centres of Jewish
religious life in the American world, mainly by the disappearance of Yiddish among the Dutch
Ashkenazim and the ‘obvious self-satisfaction’ of Dutch Jewry as a whole. In this way, both Zionism and
Reform did not get a chance in the Netherlands.59 From another point of departure, Dan Michman’s study
of the role of migration in modern Dutch Jewish history reinforces this impression. Michman shows that
Jewish immigration in the Netherlands, beginning in the 1880s and at its peak in the 1930s, thwarted the
‘pretension to be a special breed, a “Species Hollandia Judaica”’.60 The final breakthrough of a Reform
movement in the 1930s, then, is hardly conceivable without this Jewish immigration.
The relation between Dutch and foreign Jewish influence on Dutch reformism is one of the factors
which find a place in the next chapter. The pages above gave an account of the factors which did not make
the success of Reform in the Netherlands very likely. Modernity in Dutch Jewish history was just not like
modernity in German Jewish history. To put it in very basic and general words, the Jews of the
Netherlands did not feel a need for Reform, did not like Reform, did not allow Reform, did not enable
Reform. The purpose of the next chapter is to investigate how Dutch reformists of various periods tried to
find points of contact in this situation.
‘In a Jewish respect, it was finished here by the time that the Germans came’, Meijer, Hoge hoeden/lage
standaarden, 35.
‘The spiritual concentration around the sources of Judaism’; ‘a kind of sociability, a relic of the ghetto’, ibid, see
for example 22-24, 59-64, 112; quotations from 76 and 19 respectively.
‘The provincialistic character of the supposedly international Netherlands an sich’, Daalder, ‘Joden in een
verzuilend Nederland’, see 107-8. This conclusion has otherwise been objected by Jozeph Michman, ‘Ideological
Historiography’, in: Brasz, Dutch Jews as Perceived by Themselves and by Others, 205-214.
Michman, ‘Migration versus “species hollandia judaica”’, 74.
To see Dutch Reform Judaism from the inside is the purpose of this final chapter. As indicated before, the
question of the appeal of Reform Judaism stands in the centre. In the light of the preceding chapters, it is
important to uncover the inspiration sources and purposes of Dutch reformists and, secondly, both the
approval and counterforces they met on their way. Why did they propose a reformation of Judaism, (how)
did they respond to the actualities, and did their appeal find acknowledgement? The emphasis on the
reformists’ response to actual questions, in particular their opinion on questions of Dutch and Jewish
identity, follows directly from the previous chapter.
Besides the official Reform movement which came up in the 1930s, earlier attempts to introduce a
form of Reform Judaism in the Netherlands are (chronologically) discussed. These attempts, which range
from the early reform proposal in De Koopman to the free-thinking journal Het Oude Volk (1917-1920),
are easily seen as just the prehistory of Dutch Reform Judaism. Yet, such stirrings are not simply the
curious deviations of the dominant trend towards integration, acculturation, and secularization on the one
side or rigid Orthodoxy on the other side. The proposals and the responses to them reveal much of the
contemporary views of Dutch Judaism and its needs. In order to give a balanced view on the appeal of
Reform Judaism in the particular context of time and place, precisely the historical development of
reformism deserves to be studied.
That said, some reformist movements receive more attention than others. Basically, this follows
directly from the fact that the exact course of small reformist movements is often unknown. This is
especially true in the case of the short-lived and often hardly noticed ones of the nineteenth century, which
are described in the first paragraph. Moreover, there is also a positive reason to put particular emphasis on
two reformist movements of the twentieth century. Journals and other public texts are the best material for
a study of the question what points of contact Dutch reformists sought and found in Dutch Jewish life.
While such texts were largely absent from the nineteenth-century movements, the two twentieth-century
movements produced a respectable body of texts on Dutch Jews and Reform Judaism, in their own
journals and brochures but also indirectly by provoking response from other Dutch Jews. The society of
free-thinking Jews gathered around the journal Het Oude Volk was the first liberal Jewish movement to
establish a fully fledged organization with its own periodical, discussion evenings, Jewish education, and
plans for religious services.61
In fact, this movement did not desire to establish a form of Reform Judaism. In its preoccupation with the social
position of the Jews, its scepticism towards all forms of organized Jewish religion, and its overtures to freethinkers of
As a result, the emphasis is on the appeal of Reform Judaism in the first decades of the twentieth
century. The paragraphs on Het Oude Volk and Liberal Judaism respectively make up the greatest part of
the chapter. As far as relevant personal data about the initiators could be found, these are also mentioned
in order to increase our understanding of the social basis of these movements. In the conclusion to this
chapter, a comparison of the purposes and vicissitudes of these two movements takes an important place,
in particular since they both occurred in the interwar years and must be seen against this background. In
the course of the paragraphs, it will be shown that these movements addressed actual crises of identity in a
very different way; and, at the same time, that they shared a deep, almost existential concern about the
future of Dutch Judaism.
4.1 Critical moments and proposals for reform
An account of Dutch proposals for reform should certainly start with the in many ways most remarkable
of them, the before-mentioned article published in De Koopman in 1770. It is remarkable because it was
so early – it preceded the two important emancipation proposals by Christian Wilhelm von Dohm in
Germany and abbé Grégoire in France by more than a decade – , because it was deliberately written as a
design for future emancipation (and that by a Jew), and because its design was exceptionally radical.
About the author nothing is known than his pseudonym, ‘Mordechai van Aaron de…’, and his confession
that he was a member of the Dutch Jewish community. Mordechai van Aaron de… pleaded for a de facto
removal of the political and economic obstacles that still hindered the Jews in the Republic, which would
finally give sense to the de jure recognition of the Jews in 1657. Interestingly, the author explicitly spoke
of a ‘price’ that would have to be paid for this emancipation from the side of the Jews. To complete the
program of emancipation, the Jewish education system should be modernized and its teaching methods
adapted to Christian standards, Jewish religious customs should be adapted to achieve a better relationship
with Christians, and the author finally went so far as to propose the shift of the Sabbath to Sunday and the
abolishment of many ‘superfluous’ Jewish holidays and the dietary laws.62
Like this anonymous proposal, the ideas and activities of the Felix Libertate society and the Adath
Jeschurun congregation did initially not find much resonance in the Dutch Jewish community.
Nevertheless, Meyer views the creation and development of the Adath Jeschurun congregation as ‘the
other confessions, the movement can even hardly be subsumed under the umbrella of Jewish reformist movements.
Still, it joined such movements in seeking for new ways to express Jewish religiousness, and thereby turned its eyes
to the Liberal Jewish movement of Montefiore. Moreover, the stubborn conviction of its critics that it wanted to
establish a Dutch branch of Reform Judaism placed its encounter with other Dutch Jews automatically in the
framework of the Reform discussion.
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Introduction to the Article on Jewish Emancipation’, 190-194.
momentum of religious reform in Holland’.63 Not that the adaptations brought about by the congregation
went beyond the limits of the halakhah or Jewish tradition; Meyer detects only one change that ‘seems to
have been ideologically motivated: the omission of the av harahamim (God of mercy) prayer that
originated during the Crusader persecutions and called upon God to “avenge the spilled blood of His
servants”’.64 Important is the fact that the moderate synagogue reforms introduced by rabbi Izak
Graanboom reflected an increased concern for aesthetic value and sincere devotion, inspired by a new
openness towards Gentile culture. When, in 1808, Louis Napoleon forced the Ashkenazi communities to
reunite, Adath Jeschurun’s moderate reformations were eventually introduced in the official
congregations.65 However, according to Meyer, the momentum of reform was ‘lost’ by this time.66
In 1839 and 1841 respectively, two otherwise unknown men published pamphlets with a reformist
tenor, which mainly promoted the actual abolishment of Yiddish, improvement of the sermons, and
solemnization of customs and holiday services.67 An explicitly reformist opinion was voiced by A.S. van
Nierop in a series of articles in the Arnhemsche Courant in 1846. According to Van Nierop, the deplorable
situation of Dutch Jewry – especially the polarization between orthodox and liberal Jews – cried for a
reform, if necessary even in separation from the existing community. Besides reforms in education –
members of the Chief Committee should be better educated, the chief rabbi should have a doctorate and
preach in Dutch, a professor in theology should be appointed – Van Nierop did not formulate a detailed
proposal. However, he did not hide his sympathy for the Reform movement in Germany, whose measures
he took as a shining example.68
The activities of Van Nierop and a small group of supporters in The Hague did, like the two
proposals a few years earlier, not meet with much response. Thirteen years later, a new opportunity in the
person of the German Reform rabbi J. Chronik came to the Netherlands. Chronik became the spiritual
leader of the association Shohrei De’ah (‘those eager for knowledge’), founded by Van Nierop in 1860. In
the lectures organized by the society, Chronik made clear that he did not want to reform the kernel of
Judaism: he aimed to convince both orthodox and liberal Jews of the fact that Judaism did not solely
consist of ceremony, ‘but of one idea, one great idea’.69 For the continuity of this essential Judaism, some
outer forms should be abolished or altered. The reform program of the Shohrei De’ah society, published in
1860, mentioned largely the same measures as the earlier Dutch reform programs. The society wanted to
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 27.
Ibid, 26.
Fuks-Mansfeld, ‘Verlichting en emancipatie’, 194.
Meyer, Response to Modernity, 27.
In 1839 the booklet Het Amsterdamse Opperrabbinaat, attributed to the German-Jewish philologist and historian
Derenburg, was published; in 1841, an ‘Hartelijk Woord aan alle mijne mede-Israëlieten’, written by an anonymous
person, appeared. Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 27.
Frishman, ‘“Gij, Vromen, zijt Nederlanders!”’, 137-144; Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 27-28.
Frishman, ‘“Gij, Vromen, zijt Nederlanders!”’, 146-147.
achieve its purpose by preaching and lecturing, involvement in the organization and membership of the
synagogue leadership, a reformation of the rabbinical seminary, and discourse with the existing
institutions and the Dutch government. If all these measures would fail, it would be necessary to found a
new ecclesiastical institution.70 But Chronik’s efforts were thwarted by the traditionalism of not only the
Jewish spiritual leaders, but the Jewish masses themselves: in the summer of 1860, shortly after a public
rejection of his ideas by two orthodox rabbis, Chronik could hardly escape violent attacks from Jewish
masses demonstrating in the street. The story ended with his departure to Chicago, where he became rabbi
of a Reform congregation, and the dissolution of Shohrei De’ah. Van Nierop continued his efforts to alter
the existing ecclesiastical organization for ten more years, but from 1870 on, he occupied two important
functions in the organization of the NIK, the institution he had criticized so much.71
Shortly after the time that Van Nierop’s first articles appeared, an equally serious attempt to
introduce reform was undertaken in The Hague by someone who was probably a member of Van Nierop’s
reformist group.72 Moses Salvador (1813-1884), esquire and proud holder of a military rank, formulated a
kind of reform manifest which he presented at a meeting of reform-minded persons on 3 January 1847.
Two years later, the proposal was published under the title Eenige opmerkingen betreffende eene
toekomstige Hervorming van de Israëlitische eeredienst in Nederland. Salvador, like Van Nierop active in
the company of the ‘Maatschappij tot Nut der Israëlieten in Nederland’ (Society for the Advance of the
Israelites in the Netherlands), first wanted to direct an address to the Dutch government, ‘met uiteenzetting
der hoofdgrieven, en waarbij vooral zal moeten aangedrongen worden op een verbeterde opleiding van
onze Godgeleerden en Rabbijnen’. A footnote explained that a ‘zuivere klassieke opvoeding gelijk aan die
der Protestantsche theologanten’ was required. In the future, Salvador furthermore designed, the reform
movement would probably publish its own periodical in order to bring about ‘wrijving en eindelijk (…)
gedeeltelijke ineensmelting van gevoelens’ and finally discover ‘wat men eigenlijk wil’.73
Improving rabbinical education was, in Salvador’s eyes, indispensable for the cause of true
reformations. Though he did not specify which reformations were necessary, he was convinced that Dutch
Judaism as it was found itself in a ‘hoogst gebrekkigen en ondoelmatigen toestand’.74 Too many Dutch
Jews were indifferent with regard to the most precious interests of mankind: the moral relation to the
Ibid, 147-149.
Ibid, 149-150; Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 28-29.
According to I. Maarsen, De Joodsche Reformbeweging (Amsterdam, 1931) 15-18.
‘With exposition of the main grievances, while especially improved education for our theologians and rabbis needs
to be emphasized’; ‘purely classical upbringing similar to that of the Protestant theologians’; ‘exchange and
eventually partial amalgamation of feelings’; ‘what we actually want’, Jhr. M. Salvador, Eenige opmerkingen
betreffende eene toekomstige Hervorming van de Israëlitische eeredienst in Nederland (Haarlem, 1849) 10-11.
Salvador’s publications are not mentioned in accounts of reformist movements in the Netherlands, such as Frishman,
‘“Gij, Vromen, zijt Nederlanders!”’, Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, Michman, Pinkas, and the articles of FuksMansfeld in Blom, Geschiedenis van de joden.
‘A most imperfect and inefficient situation’, Salvador, Eenige opmerkingen, 9.
world and to the Supreme Being. Jewish Dutchmen, as Salvador called them, needed moral edification,
which would bring benefit to Jews and Christians alike.75 The problem of indifference among Dutch Jews
was so urgent that the author thought ‘dat men dáár [in de Amsterdamse joodse gemeente, LS] misschien
een fiksche afscheiding behoorde daartestellen’. Such a public controversy would in any case stir up
feelings and probably win the sympathy of the indifferent. In the midst of these hopes and fears, as he said
by way of conclusion, Salvador’s eyes were upon the hopeful developments of Judaism in other countries.
The case of France especially should be a shining example to Dutch Jews, since ‘men ook daar, nog onder
anderen van een goede vorming en opleiding van geestelijken verstoken is; omdat de Israëlieten aldaar
ook het voordeel der emancipatie genieten, enz.’.76
What resulted from Salvador’s efforts for the cause of Reform is unknown. Salvador himself was
arrested and sentenced in a military trial in the beginning of the 1850s, and the sympathizing reformminded persons he spoke of in the 1840s apparently did not take over his activist programme. 77 After
Salvador’s ‘momentum for reform’, nothing was heard of reform anymore until the second decade of the
twentieth century – except in a negative sense. Interestingly, however, in June 1917, when the first issue
of Het Oude Volk reached the Dutch public, the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant (NRC) referred to recent
rumours about a ‘Vrijzinnige Joodsche Gemeente in Nederland’ (Free-thinking Jewish Congregation in
the Netherlands).78 In September 1915, the NRC recalled, plans existed for the founding of a true Reform
congregation bearing this name. The new congregation had quickly made known that it would celebrate
Yom Kippur in its own synagogue and Sukkoth in its own huts. The NRC’s commentary in 1915 read that
the central question was what would be left of the specific character of Jewish religion in such a
community. It stated that, if these Jews really wanted a universal religion, there was no need to shut
themselves in their own synagogue.79
Some research in the Jewish press around September 1915 does not confirm the existence of this
organized free-thinking community, however. Both the Nieuw-Israëlietisch Weekblad (NIW) and the
Weekblad voor Israëlietische Huisgezinnen (WvIH) detected only contradictions in the series of articles
published on the subject in the NRC and, observing that none of the plans of the supposed free-thinking
society was carried out, concluded that there was evidently a story-teller around who took pleasure in
Salvador, Een Brief aan Mijne Vrienden (Haarlem, 1848) 11.
‘That we should bring about a firm separation in the Amsterdam congregation’; ‘since the French Jews are
likewise deprived of an adequate upbringing and education for spiritual leaders, since they also enjoy the advantage
of emancipation, etcetera’, Salvador, Eenige opmerkingen, 12-13.
See among other titles M. Salvador, Stukken betreffende een aanhanging proces tegen een ‘dragonder’ (Haarlem,
1850); Stukken betreffende eene regterlijke vervolging tegen Jonkheer Moses Salvador en Simon Fongers; I. II:
Mede inhoudende de geïncrimineerde vijf klagten en courantenberigten. III: Mede inhoudende de voorlopige
informatiën en de verdere geregtelijke instructie tegen Jonkheer L.J. Quarles van Ufford en H.J. Gerlings
(Amsterdam, 1854-1855); H.G. Stahl, Jonkheer Salvador en zijne misdaden (’s Gravenhage, 1856).
Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant (NRC), 15 Juni 1917, evening edition, 1.
Ibid, 24 September 1915, evening edition, 1.
‘zulke dolle berichten de wereld in te zenden, en de N. R. C. daarvoor als voertuig te misbruiken’.80
Nevertheless, the rumours did not fail to provoke a discussion of the difference between ‘rabbinic’ and
‘prophetic’ Judaism in the WvIH and some firm judgments on the character of liberal Dutch Jews from the
side of the NIW’s general editor. The latter, convinced that the NRC was completely false in expecting that
many Dutch Jewish liberals would be longing for true Reform, concluded rather bitterly:
De schrijver [van de artikelen, LS] kent ook de liberale joden in Nederland niet. Er zijn er onder, die zich niet
schamen, een zetel in te nemen in de vertegenwoordiging van ons Kerkgenootschap. Die denken niet aan een
afgescheiden gemeente. Het over-overgroot gedeelte is onverschillig, heeft geen behoefte aan een Synagoge,
komt met het Jodendom nooit in aanraking, tenzij bij huwelijk of overlijden, soms ook dan niet, en die blijft
ook ijskoud voor een hervorm-gemeente of Zondagsdienst, zij gevoelt geen behoefte aan godsdienst, en zij
betreedt evenmin de Synagoge als den tempel met orgel. 81
4.2 Free-thinking Jews: Het Oude Volk
4.2.1 Purposes and challenges
Facing the crisis
On Wednesday 13 June 1917, the first issue of the journal Het Oude Volk, voorheen en thans:
halfmaandelijksch tijdschrift voor vrijzinnige Joden appeared. The editorial board consisted of Minnie
Denekamp, I. Th. Cohen Van Straaten and D.I. Cardozo. They do not seem to have been well-known
people in the world of Dutch Jewry. The reactions of their criticasters reveal that they did not know them
except for their work for Het Oude Volk. Later publications of the Dutch Reform movement, from 1929
on, do not even refer to their names or actions.
‘Distribute such silly reports, and misuse the NRC for this purpose’, Nieuw Israëlietisch Weekblad (NIW), vol. 51,
no. 10, Vrijdag 10 Augustus 1915, first sheet. Furthermore, Weekblad voor Israëlietische Huisgezinnen (WvIH), vol.
46, no. 40, Woensdag 29 September 1915, second sheet; NIW, vol. 51, no. 8, Vrijdag 23 Juli 1915, first sheet; ibid,
no. 9, Vrijdag 30 Juli 1915, third sheet; ibid, no. 19, 8 October 1915, first sheet.
‘The author of the articles does not know the liberal Jews in the Netherlands. There are people among them who
do not hesitate to hold a seat among the representatives of our Church. They do not think of a separate congregation.
The vast majority is indifferent, feels no need of a Synagogue, never gets into touch with Judaism, save with
marriage or decease, sometimes not even then, and remains as cold as ice for a reform-congegration or a Sunday
service, does not feel any need of religion, and neither enters the Synagogue nor the temple with organ’, NIW, no. 8;
WvIH, no. 40.
Two of the editors, Cardozo and Cohen Van Straaten, lived in Amsterdam. Cardozo came from a
large Amsterdam family of diamond workers and dealers.82 Cohen Van Straaten, who gradually took on
the task of chief editor of Het Oude Volk, likewise belonged to a typically Jewish urban niche. Born in
Assen in 1868, he entered Amsterdam in 1911 as the manager of a commercial enterprise. He left
Amsterdam for Heemstede in 1926, together with his wife and the youngest of his three daughters. The
story of Minnie Denekamp (born in 1878) is of particular interest at some points. In 1916, after having
lived in Amsterdam and Haarlem respectively, she arrived in Bosch en Duin. Like Cardozo and Cohen
Van Straaten, she gave the NIK as her religious denomination (without, otherwise, mentioning a
profession). Half a year after Het Oude Volk faded away, in January 1921, Miss Denekamp left Bosch en
Duin for England. What is fascinating is the fact that, with her departure, the statement ‘NIK’ was
changed into ‘None’.
The editors opened the first issue by making known that the journal would serve to promote ‘general
Jewish interests in a liberal way’. The central goal was described as follows:
De verheffing van den proletarischen jood te propageren; het vrijzinnig, religieuse gemoedsleven, dat helaas
bij den modernen Hollandschen jood nog te eenzaam, te bescheiden en te verborgen bloeit, tot een rijker,
grootscher bestaan te brengen.83
The background of this aspiration was a deep awareness that Dutch Jewry found itself in a very
problematic situation. The first issue opened with the general observation that, in the course of the last
decades, great numbers of Dutch Jews had renounced the faith of their ancestors. According to Orthodox
and conservatively inclined Jews, this secularization was due to indifference or unbelief. For the editors of
the journal, however, it was obvious that the reason had to be sought somewhere else: in the fact that
forms prevailed over essence in present Judaism.84 A statement of Utrecht’s chief rabbi Justus Tal was
quoted with appreciation: ‘“Had het Nederlandsche Jodendom vóór 100 jaar voor het vraagstuk der
emancipatie geplaatst, niet angstvallig de moderne beschaving buitengesloten, wellicht zoude het thans
minder afvalligen in zijn gelederen tellen’.85 But the editors went further. Their analysis depicted Dutch
Among the many people named David Cardozo, someone with the initials D.I. was not found. The exact personal
data of D.I. Cardozo could therefore not be determined.
‘To propagate the elevation of the proletarian Jew; to make the free-thinking religious inner life, which exists
unfortunately still too isolated, moderately and hidden among modern Dutch Jews, richer and more glorious’, Het
Oude Volk, vol. 1 (1917) no. 1, Woensdag 13 Juni, 1.
Ibid, 1-2.
‘Had Dutch Jewry not so anxiously excluded modern civilization when it was confronted with the question of
emancipation some 100 years ago, it would possibly at present find less apostates in its ranks’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 3,
Woensdag 11 Juli 1917, 14.
Jewry as tormented by disunity, insincerity, weakness, and economic misery resulting from the fact that
they refused assimilation.
Still, from the beginning the editors were divided in their approach to the question. Cardozo
emphasized the backwardness of traditional Judaism in its belief in a personal, physical God who gave His
eternal laws to His chosen people, and pleaded for a reorientation and reawakening in a religious sense.
Cohen Van Straaten stressed a much more material interest, focusing on the social and economic problems
resulting from the attitude of Dutch Jews towards religion and society.86 The persistent gap between these
two directions accounted for uncertainty in the ‘Vereeniging van Vrijzinnige Joden in Nederland’ (Society
of Free-thinking Jews in the Netherlands) which was founded in 1918; from the beginning, the members
were divided into a group aiming at religious elevation and a group focusing on the social and economic
future of the Jews.87
Cohen Van Straaten filled most editorial articles with his conception of what he called the ‘Jewish
question’. In his view, the Jewish question in the Netherlands consisted in the backward position of the
poor Jews and in general the status of apartheid of Dutch Jews.88 Concerning the poor Jews, he stated that
their backwardness was due to the fact that they stuck to the traditional forms of Judaism. Their refusal to
work on Sabbath and Jewish holidays, which enormously sharpened their struggle for life, their eternal
occupation with street trading and similar unpopular jobs, and their typically Jewish dialect and somewhat
boisterous gestures prevented their integration into Dutch society.89 All this inevitably provoked hostility
from the side of non-Jews.90
The problem of apartheid went, however, beyond the poor traditionalist section of Dutch Jewry.
Orthodox leaders, notoriously rabbi Meijer de Hond with his plead for private Jewish education,
stimulated the sectarianism of the Jewish community. With similar proposals for private Jewish primary
and secondary education, sport clubs, and Scouting clubs the Orthodox Jews found themselves in ‘heerlijk
gezelschap’, namely of the Catholic sectarians.91 According to Het Oude Volk, this attitude was absolutely
unnecessary in the Netherlands, which was dominated by a democratic spirit which did not make
distinctions in the field of religious and political convictions. In Denekamp’s words, by positioning
Denekamp, who was the secretary of the journal and later on the Vereeniging, occupied herself mainly with
attempts to concretize the social programs which Cohen Van Straaten had in mind. See for example ibid, vol. 1, no.
2, Woensdag 27 Juni 1917, 8-9.
The topic was for example discussed on the second meeting, see ibid, vol. 1, no. 13, Woensdag 12 December
1917, 73.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 7, Woensdag 12 September 1917, 37-38.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 1, Woensdag 13 Juni 1917, 1-2.
Ibid, vol. 3, no. 2, Woensdag 20 Augustus 1919, 9-10.
‘Nice company’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 14, Woensdag 26 December 1917, 84; similar discussions are spread everywhere
in the issues, especially in the press overviews.
themselves as a community within a community, the Jews offended the Dutch people to which they
actually belonged ‘in zijn diepste wezen, zijn karakter’.92
Somewhat paradoxically, Dutch society was also regularly depicted as ‘dit fijne land van dogmatiek
en sektarisme’, where sectarianism ruled everywhere. In the eyes of the freethinkers, precisely the Jewish
community should be the first to break away from this unwholesome pattern. After all, in the case of the
Jews not only their imago was at stake, but also the inner quality of the Jewish community. In order to
solve both external and internal problems, then, the call for sincerity was the central message of the
freethinkers to their fellow Dutch Jews. In their eyes, truly Orthodox Jews were the most commendable in
this respect: their idea of a community within a community followed indeed naturally from their
particularistic conception of Judaism. The many liberals, to the contrary – Het Oude Volk estimated their
number to be 75 to 90 percent of the Dutch-Jewish community –, notoriously those occupying seats in
spiritual, administrative, and welfare committees, suffered from a lack of authenticity and honesty. So did
the Zionists, ‘voor het meerendeel [en zeker hun aanvoerders] vrijzinnigen, die voor zich en de hunnen
niets liever wenschen, dan in Nederland te blijven en toch den exodus prediken’.93
Searching for new ways
The solution to this existential problem of the Dutch-Jewish community was not directly at hand.
Therefore, Het Oude Volk confined itself to the annunciation that the first priority would be the exchange
of thoughts and opinions (‘wrijving van gedachten’), which would eventually lead to the formulation of
more concrete aims and strategies. This took place by means of editorial discussions of relevant questions,
reportages on social work, articles on art and literature, serials, book reviews, extensive press overviews,
and in the appendix stories from the Bible. The issues were enriched by mottos derived from Dutch
writers and poets (Frederik van Eeden turning up regularly), people like Thomas à Kempis, and very
rarely from the Talmud. A second task of the group was the search for opportunities to start social work
for the benefit of poor Jews, which would for example be concretized in the purchase of land to provide
accommodation for poor families from the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam.94 Third, from the end of 1918
‘In its deepest being, its character’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 5, Woensdag 8 Augustus 1917, 26, 28-29. See for an ode to
Dutch hospitality and freedom also vol. 1, no. 8, Dinsdag 25 September 1917, 49. Remarkably, the combination of
these two sets of ideas, about social and religious enlightenment, strongly reminds of the ideas voiced by the radical
French protagonist of radical Reform Olry Terquem, see for his thought Meyer, Response to Modernity, 163-165.
‘This nice country of dogmatics and sectarianism’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 2, Woensdag 27 Juni 1917, 7-8; ‘of whom the
majority, and especially the leaders, are free-thinkers who desire nothing more than to stay in the Netherlands and
nonetheless preach the exodus’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 6, Woensdag 22 Augustus 1917, 33-34. In the last-mentioned article,
Cohen Van Straaten confessed: ‘Ook wij hebben lang in tweestrijd geleefd, hebben zeker dertig jaar lang de
argumenten van vóór- en tegenstanders van het behoud gewikt en gewogen, deze argumenten beschouwd met
onbevangen blik, hebben ons afgevraagd of niet lauwheid en onverschilligheid de oorzaak waren van onzen twijfel
eerst, onze overtuiging later’.
Ibid, 8-9.
on Minnie Denekamp started giving lessons in ‘free-thinking religious education’ for the youth between
10 and 16. She taught Bible, Jewish and general religion, ancient Jewish customs and prescriptions, and if
desired Hebrew.95
The first meeting of ‘een beperkt aantal personen, die te kennen hadden gegeven, in meerdere of
mindere mate met ons streven te sympathiseeren’ took place in Utrecht in October 1917, under the
chairmanship of Cohen Van Straaten.96 Due to disunity concerning the central goal of the group, it took
some more meetings before on 17 March 1918 the Society of Free-thinking Jews in the Netherlands,
guided by a provisional committee, was founded.97 The fact that adherents were found in province towns
rather than in the three big Jewish centra – The Hague, Amsterdam, and Rotterdam – was ascribed to the
fact that in those cities liberals would often occupy council seats together with Orthodox Jews and
probably did not like to bother them.98 In August 1918, Miss Denekamp, who worked as the secretary of
the Society, reported again that the goal of the Society would only be reached gradually. Still too much
prominent persons were connected to institutions and societies under rabbinic supervision, ‘zoodat zij niet
geacht kunnen worden in hun doen en laten geheel vrij te zijn’.99 First of all, in September and October
1918 ‘praatavonden’ (discussion evenings) were organized, which were considered to be the most
important means to come to the desired exchange of thoughts. Cohen Van Straaten, who was the speaker
on both meetings in Rotterdam and The Hague, was time and again confronted with the reproach that the
goal of the Society remained unclear. Nonetheless, in October the Society managed to formulate Statutes
and Regulations. The Statutes said that the Society aimed at the promotion ‘in vrijzinnige richting van de
religieuze en stoffelijke belangen van de Joden in Nederland’.100
From 1919 on, the Society was occupied with a new challenge. In February, a society called
‘Federatie van Vrij-Religieuse groepen en corporaties’ (Federation of Free-Religious Groups and
Corporations) was founded in Amsterdam. The Federation aimed at the cooperation between and
centralization of ‘ondogmatisch-religieuse groepen en organisaties, om daardoor de beteekenis van het
vrij-religieuse gemeenschapsleven en de verdieping en verruiming van het religieus besef te
NRC, 12 December 1918, evening edition, 2.
‘A limited number of persons who made known that they sympathized to a certain extent with our aspirations’,
ibid, vol. 1, no. 9, Woensdag 10 October 1917, 49.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 20, Woensdag 27 Maart 1918, 115-117. The committee existed of D.I. Cardozo, Amsterdam;
Martin Hertz, Sittard; I.Th. Cohen Van Straaten, Amsterdam; Miss M. Denekamp, Bosch en Duin; I.I. Kolthoff,
Groningen; D.E. Lissauer, Amsterdam; J.M. Menko, Enschede; and S.M. Mijerson, Borne.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 14, Woensdag 26 December 1917, ‘“Verslag van der Vergadering op 9 December 1917 gehouden
te Amsterdam in Hotel Krasnapolsky”’, 79-80.
‘Which means that they cannot be considered to be completely free in their doings’, Ibid, vol. 2 (1918), no. 6,
Woensdag 28 Augustus 1918, 32.
‘To promote the religious and material interests of the Jews in the Netherlands in a free-thinking way’, ibid, vol.
2, no. 9, Woensdag 9 October 1918, 50-51; on the discussion evenings see vol. 2, no. 10, Woensdag 23 October
1918, 55-57.
bevorderen’.101 G.H. van Wijngaarden, pastor of the Free Congregation in Amsterdam, invited the Society
to the first meeting. The Jewish press, which had anxiously followed the development of Het Oude Volk
and the Society from the beginning, reacted furiously when it took note of the fact that the members of the
Society indeed attended the meeting of the Federation. Under the heading ‘Het masker afgeworpen’, the
NIW wrote:
Onder dat illustere, bij uitstek Christelijke gezelschap van Oud-Katholieken, Hervormden, Lutherschen,
Doopsgezinden, Remonstranten enz., bevonden zich ook... de heeren D.I. Cardozo en I.Th. Cohen van
Straaten, de geïmproviseerde rabbijnen van de Vereeniging van vrijzinnige Joden in Nederland […]. De heer
van Straaten […] wil het eerstgeboorterecht van Israël verkopen voor een schotel linzenmoes; de profetische
voorzegging, dat Israël eens zal staan aan de spits der natiën en alle volkeren tot Israël zullen stroomen, wil hij
te niet doen en Israël tot de volkeren doen stroomen, waaronder het dan als een kleine minderheid zal
Cohen Van Straaten and the other members of the Society also had their worries themselves. They feared
that the Federation would contribute to a fusion of Christian freethinking groups. Still, in their eyes the
Federation was a place where fruitful ideas could originate. Cohen Van Straaten told his readers that
Cardozo and he, though they never visited any church themselves, wanted to support the Federation’s
efforts to provide for a location where spiritually and socially enriching meetings could be organized.103
On a general meeting of the Society held on June 22th, it was decided ‘met nagenoeg algemene stemmen’
to join the Federation.104 The journal reported in November that Cohen Van Straaten was elected into the
‘Non-dogmatic religious groups and organizations, to the end of fostering the meaning of free-religious
community life and the deepening and broadening of religious consciousness’, ibid, vol. 2, no. 17, Woensdag 12
Februari 1919; vol. 2, no. 18, Woensdag 26 Februari 1919, 106-107.
‘In this illustrious, pre-eminently Christian company of Old Catholics, members of the Dutch Reformed Church,
Lutherans, Baptists, Remonstrants etcetera we also find… the two gentlemen D.I. Cardozo and I.Th. Cohen Van
Straaten, the improvised rabbis of the Vereeniging van vrijzinnige Joden in Nederland. Mr. Van Straaten wants to
sell Israel’s birthright for a dish of crushed lentils; he wants to undo the prophecy that Israel will once be the first and
all nations will come unto Israel; instead, he wants Israel to come unto the nations, among which it will be
swallowed up as a small minority’, ibid, no. 18, 106-17.
The plans for this location and the use of it were outstanding in vagueness, like the way in which Cohen Van
Straaten writes about it: ‘Nu achten wij het onverschillig of men de plaats, waar velen samenkomen, om eens te zijn
in een andere sfeer (…), waar men komt hooren naar sprekers, die van de studie van geschriften uit oude en nieuwe
tijden hun levenstaak hebben gemaakt, betitelt met de naam Kerk, Synagoge, Moskee, Vereenigingslokaal, Tent der
Samenkomst of hoe dan ook, zeker is dat velen daaraan behoefte gevoelen, zoodat in de eerste vergadering (…)
reeds vage plannen werden geopperd tot het oprichten van een grootsch gebouw met vele vleugels, waarin sprekers
van iedere richting konden optreden en met een centrale ruimte, waarin sprekers van diverse pluimage konden
optreden, ten einde tot onderlinge waardeering te geraken, ten einde van elkaar over te nemen, wat in elke richting
voor goeds werd geconstateerd en uit te schakelen, wat verdeeldheid en onverdraagzaamheid kan bevorderen’, ibid,
vol. 2, no. 20, Woensdag 26 Maart 1919, 117-118.
‘By almost general consent’, ibid, vol. 3, no. 1, Woensdag 16 Juli 1919, 2.
general committee of the Federation, together with theosophists, Remonstrants, religious socialists,
freemasons, Protestants, and Catholics.105
From the second half of 1919 on, the organization around Het Oude Volk began to show signs of
decay. In May, Miss Denekamp laid down her work for the journal for reasons of health. From the end of
May on, the journal appeared only once a month; the editors explained that ‘het normale zakenleven’,
beginning to recover after the war period, would henceforth demand more of their time and energy.106 Half
a year later, in the beginning of 1920, Cohen Van Straaten was left alone, supported only by some
permanent contributors, since Cardozo could not continue his work ‘vanwege particuliere
omstandigheden’.107 Probably due to the resulting lack of manpower and inspiration, more and more
articles from other journals, speeches held by prominent persons, and even feuilletons filled the journal.
Finally, in May 1920, the last issue appeared. After that, nothing was heard from the journal and its
Society anymore. The Jewish newspapers and journals, even the ones who had devoted considerable
energy to criticise Het Oude Volk, seemingly did not notice its disappearance.
4.2.2 A free-thinking view of Jewish religion
The first critiques on the journal concerned its title, which was indeed slightly remarkable for a journal of
freethinkers. In the founding issue, the title was explained solely by the remark that ‘de oorsprong der
huidige beschaving voor een groot deel is terug te vinden in de geschriften van “het Oude Volk”’.108
Several critics reacted by asking whether the title meant that the editors saw the Jews as a people.109 In the
fifth issue, a letter by a certain Mr. E.L. van Embden, a member of the NIK in The Hague, was published
which stated that the Jews did not form a political nor a racial unity. Therefore, in Van Embden’s words,
‘Het oude volk bestaat niet, en Uw zoo sympathiek blad kieze een andere naam’. The editors’ response
read, ‘ook de title De Telegraaf neemt niemand letterlijk’.110 The WvIH commented that the title promised
a lot, but meant only a little; the opinions of Het Oude Volk had nothing to do with traditional Jewry and
would better suit a paper of a free-thinking Sunday School.111 De Joodsche Wachter wrote, referring to the
commotion around Het Oude Volk:
Ibid, vol. 3, no. 5, Woensdag 19 November 1919, 39-40.
‘Normal business life’, ibid, vol. 2, no. 24, Woensdag 28 Mei 1919, 141.
‘Due to private circumstances’, ibid, vol. 3, no. 7, Woensdag 21 Januari 1920, 49.
‘The origins of our civilization can be found to a large extent in the texts of “Het Oude Volk”’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 1,
Woensdag 13 Juni 1918, 1-2.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 2, 7-8.
‘This ancient people does not exist, and I wished this highly appreciable journal would choose a different title’;
‘nor does anybody take the title De Telegraaf literally’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 5, Woensdag 8 Augustus 1917, 27-28.
WvIH, vol. 48 (1917), no. 25, Vrijdag 22 Juni, second page.
Wij zullen ons er niet in mengen, maar moralizeeren alleen maar wat naar beide kanten.
Tot de orthodoxie zeggen we: Ziet hier uw Bondgenoot in het anti-Zionisme, voorheen negatief liberaal, thans
positief vrijzinnig. Bedenkt, dit is de enige vorm waarin in Nederland de Reform mogelijk is! […] Overweegt
ook wel, dat dit tijdschrift inderdaad het gemiddelde gevoelen weergeeft van het Hollandsche niet-Zionistischliberale Jodendom. (…) Gij zijt mede schuldig aan deze afdwaling van de jeugd.
En anderzijds richten wij ons tot u, vrijzinnigen. […] Gaat door met formuleeren en definieeren, misschien
brengt het u door zelf-analyse nog eens tot het Oude Volk terug. […] In welke overdrachtelijke beteekenis
verstaat gij Volk?112
The Zionists’ quick categorization of Het Oude Volk as a branch of Reform Judaism was as quickly denied
by the journal itself. Referring to a highly critical article in the journal of the Alliance Israélite
Universelle, Cohen Van Straaten wrote in June 1918: ‘“Voor de kansen eener reform-beweging in
Nederland geef ik geen dubbeltje”, roept de schrijver uit. Nu, in dat opzicht zijn wij het volkomen met
hem eens’.113 What especially disturbed the people of Het Oude Volk was the particularistic outlook
inherent in all existing forms of organized Judaism, Reform Judaism included. D.E. Lissauer, an
accountant from Amsterdam, voiced the opinion of the editors as well when he expressed his appreciation
of inspiring religious meetings, but added immediately: ‘Maar dan moet zulk een vrijzinnige
Godsdienstoefening ook waarlijk vrijzinnig zijn, dus niet een moderniseering van een Joodsche
Godsdienst-oefening, een soort reform-dienst, maar een waarlijk universeel-vrijzinnige dienst’.114
For this reason, the editors preferred to speak of religie instead of godsdienst. Cardozo, who
represented the more religiously inclined group within the Society, explained that the word godsdienst
seemed to point to the service of and subjection to a God who somehow or other dictated His laws to the
people. He commented:
‘We shall not take part in this debate, but just moralize a little to both sides. To Orthodoxy we say: Behold, your
partner in anti-Zionism, formerly liberal in a negative sense, presently free-thinking in a positive sense. Realize that
this is the only form in which Reform Judaism is possible in the Netherlands! Furthermore, consider that this journal
indeed reflects the average opinion of Dutch non-Zionist liberal Jewry. You are also to blame for this aberration of
the young. On the other side, we address ourselves to you, free-thinkers. Please continue formulating and defining, it
might by self-analysis bring you back to the Ancient People. In which metaphorical sense do you speak of People?’,
De Joodsche Wachter, vol. 13 (1917), no. 21, Vrijdag 5 October 1917, 190.
‘“I don’t see the slightest possibility for a Reform movement in the Netherlands”, the author exclaims. Well, in
this respect we fully agree with him’, ibid, vol. 2, no. 2, Woensdag 26 Juni 1918, 9. The journal of the AIU was
published between 1906 and 1920 and in the early 1930s by a local department of the AIU in the Hague (established
in 1864), see Michman, Pinkas, 380.
‘But such a liberal religious service should indeed be truly liberal, that is, not a modernization of a Jewish
religious service, a kind of Reform service, but a truly universal-liberal service’. Ibid, vol. 1, no. 8, Dinsdag 25
September 1917, 44-45.
Het spreekt vanzelve, dat wij zoo’n God niet erkennen, want dan zouden wij moeten gelooven aan Zijn
openbaring op den Sinaï, dan zouden alle wetten daar gegeven, tot in hun uiterste consequentie voor ons
bindend zijn.
Wij streven daarom niet naar de stichting van een reform-Jodendom […].
Wij wenschen geen nieuwen godsdienst te stichten, wij wenschen geen moderniseering van vormen, doch
wenschen ons slechts te vereenigen in den dienst van het ware en het goede.
Bij ons zal dus plaats zijn, zoowel voor den ideëele-pantheïst, als voor den supra-nationalistischen theïst, voor
den religieusen socialist en voor zoovele anderen, die zich door het vrije denken aan de kerkelijke dogmatiek
ontworsteld hebben.
Wij stellen geen nieuwe geloofsbelijdenis op en laten ieder vrij ten opzichte van God en Wereld, datgene te
denken, wat hem innerlijk het meest bevredigt. 115
Reform Judaism as such was apparently unimportant for the people around Het Oude Volk. It was never
mentioned except to make clear what the Society did not aim at. Similarly, when the name of Moses
Mendelssohn was mentioned, he was not – as he usually was – introduced as the father of Reform
Judaism, but as the advocate of emancipation and, crucially, the necessity of assimilation in a linguistic
and cultural sense.116 Interestingly, in one of the last issues Cohen Van Straaten stated that those members
of the Society who desired a kind of religious service did in any case not feel the slightest sympathy for
the German version of Reform.117 Still more fascinating is another remark in January 1920, following the
annunciation that Cardozo had been forced to lay down his work. Besides some despair created by the
difficult situation, the editor’s words conveyed a new hope:
Bij de vraag, wat er allereerst te doen valt, werd onze aandacht vooral getrokken door een bericht in de
dagbladen, dat de bekende leider van de libirale [sic] Joden in Engeland, de Heer Claude Montefiore […], te
kennen gaf, dat de tegenstellingen tusschen het liberale en het orthodoxe Jodendom van zoo groote beteekenis
zijn, dat hij het niet langer met zijn geweten in overeenstemming kon brengen, godsdienstige of
wetenschappelijkeinstellingen [sic], die naar de beginselen van de orthodoxie worden beheerd, financieel of op
andere wijze te steunen.
‘It is self-evident that we do not acknowledge such a God; if we did, we should believe in his revelation on Sinai,
and all his laws given there would be binding for us up to their ultimate conclusions. Therefore, we do not aspire to
establish Reform Judaism. We do not desire to found a new religion, nor a modernization of outer forms, but we only
desire to unite ourselves in the service of the true and the good. Thus, in our midst both the idealistic pantheist, the
supra-nationalistic theist, the religious socialist and so many others who have struggled themselves out of
ecclesiastical dogmatics by free thinking, shall find a place. We do not formulate new articles of faith and leave
freedom to everyone to view God and the World in a way that most satisfies him’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 18, Woensdag 27
Februari 1918, 103-104.
Ibid, 103-104; ibid, vol. 1, no. 19, Woensdag 13 Maart 1918, 109-110.
Ibid, vol. 3, no. 9, Woensdag 17 Maart 1920, 66-68.
Waar deze uiting zoo volkomen staat naast die van onze beweging, meenen wij, dat er allereerst moet worden
getracht voeling te verkrijgen, niet alleen met deze gelijke stroming in Engeland doch ook met dergelijke in
andere landen bestaande stromingen.118
Unfortunately, the Society did not survive to put these dreams into practice, which would probably have
implied a clarification of its own principles. What religion appears to have meant for the Society, came
indeed very close to the religion concepts of the other movements represented in the Federation.
According to Cardozo, the Orthodox Jew believed what the Bible told him, but the free-thinking Jew
believed on basis of his free thoughts, logical reason, deeper knowledge, and scientific insights.119
Religion was conceived as the awareness of being one with ‘het Al’, which created the experience of
belonging to all other living creatures and the joyful faith that one was part of a great meaningful whole.120
The divine was the vital energy that flowed through everything. Instead of believing in a special God of
Israel, one should therefore speak of ‘een allen en alles liefhebbende macht’.121 Since love bound the
universe together, everyone who practised love to his neighbour might call himself religious.122
This, according to the editors of the journal, made the free-thinking concept of religion appropriate
for intellectuals and proletarians alike. Viewed from this standpoint, there existed for example no
opposition between religion and socialism, but rather a deep connection. Religion was socialism in the
purest sense of the word, since socialism was nothing else than camaraderie with all mankind. 123 When all
Jews who experienced this universal alliance with other people would unite, a new Judaism would arise on
the ruins of the old. Here, Cardozo’s depiction of the Judaism of the future reminds of the way in which
Reform Jews described their religion. Like them, he took biblical images, ideas and perspectives out of
their ‘particularistic context’ and gave them a new universal content. Thus, Cardozo spoke of ‘een
Jodendom dat zich in de allereerste plaats tot taak zal stellen, de leer der algemeene broederschap in
‘Concerning the question what needs to be done first, we took especially notice of a message in the newspapers,
which said that the well-known leader of the liberal Jews in England, Mr. Claude Montefiore, has made known that
due to the great contrasts between Liberal and Orthodox Judaism he would act against his conscience if he would
continue supporting religious or scientific institutions which fall under Orthodox rule financially or in another way.
Since this statement is so fully similar to the opinion of our movement, we feel we first ought to get tuned in to not
only this similar movement in England but also with similar movements in other countries’, ibid, vol. 3, no. 7,
Woensdag 21 Januari 1920, 49-50. Indeed, the character of British Liberal Judaism shows some interesting
similarities to the programme of Het Oude Volk; compared to German Liberal Judaism, British Liberal Judaism laid
much more emphasis on social justice and practised a more friendly and cooperative attitude towards Christianity.
See Michael Meyer, ‘Jewish Religious Reform’, 315.
Het Oude Volk, vol. 1, no. 21, Woensdag 10 April 1918, 124-125.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 1, Woensdag 13 Juni 1917, 2-3.
‘A Power loving everything and everyone’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 3, Woensdag 11 Juli 1917, 14.
Ibid, vol. 2, no. 19, Woensdag 12 Maart 1919, 111-112.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 4, Woensdag 25 Juli 1917, 20-21.
praktijk te brengen’ and exclaimed: ‘Dat zal onze derde tempel zijn!’.124 Similarly, when he urged his
readers to support the Society to realize its ideals, he referred to the idea of the Messianic era –
surprisingly, since this notion was otherwise totally absent in the journal – with the words: ‘opdat wij
gezamenlijk een stap verder zullen kunnen doen op den weg, die zal leiden tot de stichting van het derde
rijk, het M e s s i a a n s c h e r i j k, het rijk des vredes!’.125 Another set of notions which strongly
reminds of the self-characterization of Reform Judaism appeared in an article that was originally written
by rabbi J. Lewkowitz for the German journal Ost und West. In this article, published without further
comments in Het Oude Volk, Lewkowitz explained terms that never turned up in Het Oude Volk, but were
nonetheless apparently viewed as relevant. Lewkowitz characterized enlightened Judaism as ‘prophetic
Judaism’, which taught the ethical universalism of the prophets. From their persuasion that every human
possessed the same psychic condition and ethics, the prophets preached the mission of Israel: ‘het licht der
volkeren’, which called all nations to morality.126
As indicated above, especially the treatment of the question of religious practice set the journal and
the Society apart from Reform Judaism. Since the external form of religion was viewed either as
inappropriate in a religious sense or as harmful for social and economic integration, religious practice
played no role in this conception of Judaism. The organization took pride in its consequent liberalism: it
took pains to assure that it would never hinder Orthodox Jews in their observance and added that it left its
staff the freedom to abstain from work on Saturdays and Jewish holidays. 127 Still, after making the
distinction between autonomous prescription (based on individual conscience) and heteronomous
prescriptions and regulations, Cardozo stated that those heteronomous perceptions were necessary for ‘den
lager ontwikkelden mensch’, until he had developed himself to an individual with moral sense. 128
Similarly, in spite of his persuasion that the celebration of the Sabbath on Saturdays created considerable
social problems, Cohen Van Straaten could write:
[ook wij vrijzinnigen] hebben in onze jeugd deze bekoring [van den zoo vaak bezongen Vrijdagavond]
doorvoeld in moeilijke dagen; inderdaad is het begrijpelijk, dat velen ook onder de vrijzinnigen, het bijna
heiligschennis achten, deze poëtische stemming te verstoren. 129
‘A Judaism which considers the appliance of the doctrine of universal brotherhood as its first priority’; ‘This shall
be our third temple!’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 11, Woensdag 14 November 1917, 63.
‘In order to progress collectively on the road which will lead to the founding of the third empire, the Messianic
empire, the empire of peace!’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 22, Woensdag 24 April 1918, 127-128.
‘The light of the nations’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 18, Woensdag 27 Februari 1918, 105-106.
Ibid, vol. 3, no. 4, Woensdag 15 October 1919, 26-27.
‘A less cultivated human’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 1, Woensdag 13 Junbi 1917, 2-3.
‘In our youth we, freethinkers, have also experienced the charm of this highly praised Friday evening in days of
trouble; it is understandable indeed that many, also among the freethinkers, consider the disturbance of this poetic
mood as something coming close to sacrilege’, ibid, vol. 2, no. 1, Woensdag 12 Juni 1918, 1-3.
Otherwise, except for some articles on prayer by Cardozo, no editorial discussions on concrete forms or
expressions of Judaism appeared in the journal. That the contributors of the journal seemingly did not hold
any opinion on religious practice was a recurring theme in the letters sent to the editors. Repeatedly,
readers investigated whether the editors thought it possible to distinguish between useless and useful
rituals, in order to preserve the useful parts of Jewish tradition. Exemplary for the editorial treatment of
such questions was the response to the letter of ‘een trouw lezer’ who wondered what the editors thought
about circumcision: ‘De aangelegenheid der besnijdenis ligt buiten ons terrein; in dit verband handele
ieder naar eigen inzichten’.130 Another letter which stated that circumcision, unlike other prescriptions,
marked the very boundary between being Jewish and not being Jewish, got the answer that religious
prescriptions would simply lose their religious value for people who did not regard them as divine, what
did, however, not mean that some prescriptions might not be considered valuable in an ethical, social or
hygienic respect.131 Thus, in their eagerness to display a consequent free-thinking attitude, the editors and
their fellow-correspondents failed to come to terms with the role and meaning of religious practice, unlike
the various branches of organized Reform Judaism.
4.2.3 Between liberalism and Jewishness
Evaluating the course and the merits of the free-thinking movement of Het Oude Volk, one observes that it
was marked by a fundamental ambiguity which it could not overcome. In June 1917, the NRC welcomed
Het Oude Volk with the words that it expected this journal to take its own place between Orthodox
Judaism and free-thinking Judaism.132 What the NRC considered to be positive turned out, however, to be
the fatal weakness of Het Oude Volk and the Society. The free-thinking Jews’ search for points of contact
in the Dutch-Jewish community came to nothing; they fell between the two stools of people who held a
self-conscious conception of Judaism in a religious or national sense on the one hand and people who did
not attach much value to Jewish identity on the other hand.
For the representatives of the first group, there was no way of approaching the free-thinking Jews of
Het Oude Volk. On a meeting organized by the NIK in March 1919, the group was depicted as ‘het zwarte
spook, de reform’ whose influence should be thwarted at all costs.133 Both the NIW and the WvIH
‘A faithful reader’; ‘the matter of circumcision is outside our scope; everyone should follow his own insights in
this respect’, ibid, vol. 2, no. 12, Woensdag 27 November 1918, 72; see on the subject of circumcision for example
also vol. 2, no. 16, Woensdag 22 Januari 1919, 96.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 17, Woensdag 12 Februari 1919, 101-102.
NRC, 15 Juni 1917, evening edition, 1. The last-mentioned form of Judaism was characterized as nothing more
than ‘godsdienstloos rasbesef’.
‘The black spectre, Reform’, Het Oude Volk, vol. 2, no. 21, Woensdag 9 April 1919, 128-129, derived from a
report of the meeting in the NIW of March 29.
supposed that Het Oude Volk aspired at a gradual transformation away from Judaism.134 In the Zionist
press too, the word ‘assimilation’ – described in Mizrachie as ‘die rampzalige drang, die ons sedert de
emancipatie als een nachtmerrie vervolgt’135 – made up the central reproach. Correspondents of both De
Joodsche Wachter and Mizrachie wondered how someone could call himself Jewish if he wanted to be
Jewish neither in a national, nor in a religious sense.136
The same question also worried liberally inclined Jews, even many of the people who sympathized
with Het Oude Volk. The meaning of Jewishness was a recurring theme on the meetings of the Society and
in the letters sent to the editors. A. van Son, possibly the Abraham van Son who contributed to Nieuw
Joodsch Leven some twelve years later, was one of them. He presented himself as a free-thinking Jew who
had been subscribed to Het Oude Volk from the beginning and read all issues conscientiously. After
having read seven issues, he still wondered what the journal aimed at. The question he confronted the
editors with is exemplary for the critique on the journal:
Aan de Joodsche godsdienst acht U zich niet gebonden en het Joodsche Volk, als een volkseenheid, erkent
evenmin. […] in deze dubbele verklaring, die van geheel negatieven aard is, valt toch moeilijk een grond voor
de oprichting van Uw blad te ontdekken!
Daarom wensch ik U te vragen:
1º. welke is de idee, wàt is het positieve beginsel waardoor Uw blad geleid wordt?
2º. w à t b e p a a l t v o o r U - z e l f (ik bedoel dus : behalve het feit dat Uw ouders Joden zijn of waren, of
zich, uit welken grond dan ook, zo noemden) U w J o o d - z i j n?
Van Son can hardly have been satisfied with the answer he got from the editors.137 The articles and reports
from the Society which referred to similar discussions show that the people of Het Oude Volk could not
find the ultimate answer to this question. Trying to formulate an opinion, Cohen Van Straaten more than
once contradicted himself. Referring to a lecture on the Alliance Israélite Universelle by chief rabbi A.S.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 3, Woensdag 11 Juli 1917, 13-14.
‘This disastrous urge which since emancipation chases after us as a nightmare’, Mizrachie, vol. 3, no. 3, Siwan
5678/Juni 1918, 22-23. Other articles on Het Oude Volk appeared in vol. 2, no. 6, Elloel 5677/September 1917 and
vol. 3, no. 4, Tammoez 5678/Juli 1918.
For the critique of De Joodsche Wachter see ibid, vol. 1, no. 12, Woensdag 28 November 1917, 67-68; Mizrachie,
vol. 2, no. 6, Elloel 5677/September 1917, 66-67; see also NIW, no. 4, Vrijdag 22 Juni 1917, second sheet.
‘You do not consider yourself to be attached to Jewish religion nor do you acknowledge the Jewish people as a
unity. This double statement, which is of a completely negative character, can hardly be a reason for the founding of
your journal! Therefore, I desire to ask you: 1, what is the central idea, the positive principle guiding your journal? 2,
what determines for yourself (by which I mean: besides the fact that your parents are or were Jews or called
themselves Jews for whatever reason) your Jewishness?’. The response of the editors read: ‘Het spijt ons, dat de heer
Van Son nog niet begrijpt, wat blijkens het groeiend aantal onzer lezers wel algemeen begint door te dringen, n. l. dat
wij trachten door het gelegenheid geven tot wrijving van gedachten, te komen tot een goede formulering van hetgeen
behoort te geschieden om te komen tot een voor velen gewenschte weg, om het Jodendom op te voeren tot hooger
peil van beschaving en welvaart’. Het Oude Volk, vol. 1, no. 9, Woensdag 10 October 1917, 53-54.
Onderwijzer, he observed: ‘Weliswaar meende spreker dat er een “zeker nationaal verband” [tussen de
Joden, LS] bestaat, doch blijkbaar acht hij met ons die zekere band de religie, die ons allen samenbindt’.
Cohen Van Straaten took this as a reason to declare himself and his partners to be sympathizers of the
Alliance.138 Five months later, on the first discussion evening, he claimed that the Society held the opinion
that Jewishness did not exist in a shared religion, but in the membership of a great community based on
common descent.139 In another issue of the journal, he left both the religious and the national conception
of Jewishness aside and converted himself to a third, socially determined approach to Jewishness:
‘Wanneer wij het betreuren, dat het Jodendom zoovelen ziet heengaan, dan is het vooral, omdat de groep
als geheel zoozeer de steun, de medewerking van allen behoeft’.140
With this last remark, Cohen Van Straaten came close to the criticasters on the other end of the
spectrum. These felt irritated by the bare fact that the group provided a periodical and a society which
focused on Jewish religion. Some unbelieving brothers experienced the appeal of Het Oude Volk as the
imposition of a religious faith they did not sympathize with at all. Especially socialist workers thought a
combination of socialism and religion inconceivable.141 But this reproach was also voiced among the
members of the Society itself. For example, M. Cohen Tervaert-Israels, who otherwise agreed completely
with the Society, told the editors of her uneasiness when she heard of the plans to exert influence on the
church councils. In her eyes, the Society should avoid each involvement in religious affairs in order to
prevent itself from becoming ‘een reform-Jodendom in knop’. The last words of her letter ran: ‘als ik U de
richting zie nemen naar de Synagoge, die nooit ergens anders kan staan dan in het Ghetto, dan aarzel
ik’.142 Similar critique was also voiced in a rather destructive way on the Society’s first discussion
evening: several speakers stated that the Society was unnecessary, since there existed freethinking
Christianity on the one hand and socialism or Zionism to care for the poor on the other hand. Apparently,
they could not conceive of anything else that free-thinking Judaism could possibly offer.143
To put it briefly, in its response to the actual situation of Dutch Jewry, the Society was always trying to
avoid extremes and never arrived at its end. Self-conscious Jewishness and radical liberalism alike turned
out to be its foes. According to the one group the programme was too liberal and left nothing of
‘The speaker indeed thinks that there exists a ‘certain national connection’ between the Jews, but he apparently
considers this connection to be the religion which connects all of us’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 18, Woensdag 27 Februari
1918, 103-104.
Ibid, vol. 2, no. 2, Woensdag 26 Juni 1918, 7-9.
‘When we regret that so many depart from Judaism, this is especially because the group as a whole needs the
support and cooperation of all’, ibid, vol. 1, no. 24, Woensdag 22 Mei 1918, 138-139.
Ibid, vol. 1, no. 4, Woensdag 25 Juli 1917, 20-21.
‘When I see you making your way to the Synagogue, which is at home only in the Ghetto, I hesitate [to join
you]’, ibid, vol. 2, no. 15, Woensdag 8 Januari 1919, 89-90.
Ibid, vol. 2, no. 2, Woensdag 26 Juni 1918, 7-9.
Jewishness in this way; in the view of the other group it unnecessarily maintained an inappropriate Jewish
group awareness. The editors of the journal and the members of the Society failed to find their way in this
dilemma. Indeed, as De Joodsche Wachter analyzed, Het Oude Volk suffered from a persistent vagueness
in its programme. The question that remains is, however, whether De Joodsche Wachter was also right in
its confidence that this form of liberal Judaism was ‘de enige vorm waarin in Nederland de Reform
mogelijk is’.144
4.3 Liberal Judaism
4.3.1 A troublesome project
Leadership and membership
In 1930, nearly a decade after Het Oude Volk disappeared from the scene, Reform Judaism came into
being in the Netherlands. That the movement managed to work itself up to an official Dutch Jewish
denomination and exists in this form until today, was all but self-evident at the time. This is the
impression the reader gets from the only work that has been written on Dutch Liberal Judaism, Dan
Michman’s Het liberale jodendom in Nederland 1929-1943. Michman’s comprehensive description of the
movement’s pre-war institutional history forms the raw material of the present introduction to Dutch
Liberal Judaism.
To characterize the first ten years of the movement as a sequence of troubles, worries, and obstacles
is no exaggeration. The first initiative to activate Dutch Jews for the sake of Liberal Judaism, which did,
significantly, not come from the Dutch-Jewish community itself but from the WUPJ, came to nothing. A
certain Van den Bergh, who was requested by Lily Montagu to look for ways to introduce Liberal Judaism
in the Netherlands, soon withdrew from the job because of the complete lack of interest he met with
among the Dutch Jews he approached. When, with the support of two Dutch contacts who showed more
optimism than Van den Bergh, Miss Montagu eventually visited The Hague and Amsterdam in January
1930 to give lectures on Liberal Judaism, she observed that while in The Hague the audience seemed to
show a certain favour, in Amsterdam ‘the interest in religion had almost entirely waned’.145 It was only in
The Hague that the main contact of Miss Montagu, Levi Levisson, managed to gather a small group of
active supporters.146 The group consisted of three married couples of whom the wives were also active in
the inner circles of the Jewish community, such as the ‘Joodsche Vrouwenraad’ (Jewish Women’s
See quotation and footnote on page 91 above.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 35-39, see 39.
Ibid, 40-41.
Council). The men tended to occupy leading functions in industrial circles; Levisson was the manager of a
printer company, Marius Julius Simons, who occupied a prominent place in the NIK, ran the paper trade
enterprise Esveha in The Hague. The seventh person, Ernst Polak, came from a Rotterdam family which
was active at all levels of the textile industry.
Besides the small number of adherents and interested persons – the lectures and services usually
attracted some fifty to seventy persons in the first years – the lack of adequate and enduring leadership
constituted a structural problem up to the Second World War. The first rabbi of the Hague congregation,
the young American rabbi Meir L. Lasker, returned to the United States in April 1931 after a stay of
hardly six months. In a letter to Miss Montagu, Lasker wrote that the language barrier proved to be
insurmountable and that only little progress had been shown in the congregation. That the movement
survived this misfortune and the many similar disappointments that followed, must be ascribed to the
efforts of the WUPJ and especially the leader of the German Liberal Jews, rabbi Leo Baeck. The gap
between April and September 1931, when the German rabbi J. Norden came to the Netherlands, was filled
by the WUPJ by inviting prominent Liberal Jews to give lectures in the Netherlands. In this way, Claude
Montefiore, who took the trouble to speak in German, and Caesar Seligmann came to The Hague.147
Initially, rabbi Norden’s stay in the Netherlands seemed to make the direct supervision of the WUPJ
less necessary; under his spiritual leadership, it was possible to establish a department in Amsterdam, in
January 1932.148 However, by the time of his untimely return to Germany in April 1933 Norden found
himself in the midst of dissension concerning internal problems in the Amsterdam department, conflicts
arising between The Hague and the new department, and divided opinions on the question of founding a
separate Liberal denomination.149 After Norden’s departure, the congregations were confronted with new
failures in the field of spiritual leadership until May 1934, when the Berlin rabbi Ludwig Mehler was
appointed. Mehler managed to overcome the governmental difficulties and became a very active and
beloved spiritual leader, but only in Amsterdam. After a painstaking search for their own rabbi, the Hague
congregation finally found him, in 1938, in the person of the German rabbi Hans Andorn.150
A more fundamental problem was the disharmony between the Hague and Amsterdam
congregations. The immigration of German Jews after 1933 reinforced especially the hitherto small
Amsterdam congregation, which by 1937 numbered only 20 Dutch families out of a total number of 175
Ibid, 44-48.
Ibid, 84-85.
Ibid, 103-104. See on Norden’s influence Dan Michman, ‘Dutch and German Jews in the Liberal Jewish
Movement’, in: Jozeph Michman, ed., Dutch Jewish History: Proceedings of the Fourth Symposium on the History
of the Jews in the Netherlands, volume II (Jerusalem, 1989) 247-257, see 249-250. In this article, Michman also
gives an explanation for the fact that German influence increased and came to dominate in the Dutch Liberal Jewish
movement after a period of mainly British influence.
Ibid, 117-122.
families.151 A two-sided conflict between the two congregations arose. On a basic level, the numerical
dominance of Amsterdam over The Hague suddenly changed the relationship between the congregations.
Moreover, the friction between ‘native’ Dutch and ‘foreign’ German Jews which arose in all spheres of
the Dutch Jewish community in the interwar years152 created a split along the dividing line of the two
Liberal Jewish congregations, since The Hague prided itself on its Dutch character while the Amsterdam
group was increasingly dominated by German Jews. Second, the German Jews came from a religious
milieu which was rather traditional compared to the British version of Liberal Judaism which prevailed in
The Hague. Already in 1933, two spokesmen of the Hague congregation wrote to Miss Montagu that some
of its members did not approve the ‘orthodoxy’ they detected in the services in Amsterdam. A report to
England concerning High Holidays services held in Amsterdam by F. Heilbut-Kalker, who was the
secretary of the Amsterdam group and kept close contacts with Miss Montagu, makes clear that the
conflict had risen rather high. Contrary to the Amsterdam regulations for the services, Levisson and Loeb
of the Hague group entered the Kol Nidrei service with uncovered head. Mrs. Heilbut reported:
[…] when two gentlemen of our Amsterdam Committee politely asked them not to disturb our regulations,
they became rude and said: “Who is the Boss here, I our you? I am a member of the Head Board [which
consisted of the movement’s initiators, LS], and you have no right to say anything here!” […] They
remained with uncovered heads during the service, which aroused much anger amongst the visitors. 153
A few months later, Mrs. Heilbut wrote a letter to the chairman of the Liberal Jewish Society in Germany,
Heinrich Stern, in which she complained about new evidence of bad manners from the side of the Hague
group and concluded: ‘Bis jetzt hat man in Amsterdam ja keine einzige Chance gehabt; wir wurden immer
und immer wieder vom Haag sabotiert und torpediert (…). Sie müssen (…) verstehen wie unmöglich es ist
mit Haag zusammen zu arbeiten und sind wir dazu auch nicht mehr gewillt’.154 Faced with such a serious
conflict in its Dutch ranks, the Governing Body of the WUPJ discussed the matter and eventually
prohibited the Amsterdam group to break away from the movement. Though small groups of ‘native
Dutch’ Jews from both Amsterdam and The Hague left to establish separate congregations in 1935 and
again in 1938, the unity of the movement remained officially intact.155
Apart from the fact that the great influence of German Jews accounted for conflicts, their dominance
in the movement pointed to the sad truth that too few Dutch Jews participated in it. A report to Miss
Montagu in August 1932, before the immigration wave from Germany, told that a total of 136 persons
Ibid, 105-106.
See Dan Michman, ‘Migration versus “species hollandia judaica”’, 54-76.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 112-113.
Ibid, 114-115.
Ibid, 115-117, 132; see also Michman, ‘Dutch and German Jews’, 254-255.
were registered as members, of whom 71 in The Hague, 50 in Amsterdam and 14 elsewhere. The lack of
resonance in the Dutch Jewish community could not be compensated by the enthusiasm of German
refugees; even with their enforcement, the movement’s total membership numbered usually between 200
to 300 people in the 1930s. At its peak in the beginning of 1940, the number was estimated at 900 people,
which amounted to 0,6% of the total Jewish population in the Netherlands. Michman comments that the
movement thus found itself in a vicious circle: since the organization remained so small, it could not
afford to set up its own facilities for circumcision, marriage and burial, which made the step to leave an
Orthodox congregation for a Liberal one even less attractive.156
The character of the movement
Not surprisingly, the fact that so few Dutch Jews could be reached was grist to the mill of the movement’s
numerous opponents. Nonetheless, judged by the trouble they took to combat the movement through the
spoken and the written word, they took it very seriously from the beginning. As the orthodox WvIH
cynically wrote at the first rumours of the new movement: ‘Dat de zaak zal verloopen in een zoveelste
poging zonder eenig resultaat staat voor ons evenwel niet vast, en wel omdat de beide factoren voor een
zoodanige beweging noodzakelijk, nl. de lust om het buitenland na te doen en het geld daartoe, beide
aanwezig zijn’.157 In the many brochures and articles on the subject which appeared in the next ten years,
the accusation that the Liberal Jewish organization was something ‘foreign’ and therefore either ‘unJewish’ or ‘un-Dutch’ or a combination of both played a significant role. The title of a brochure written by
rabbi Justus Tal in 1931, Import-Onjodendom, is obvious enough. The chief rabbi of The Hague I.
Maarsen, who took great pains to combat the movement, simply took the ideas of Mattuck and Montefiore
as representative for the Dutch movement.158 When the Liberals defended themselves against his criticism
by stating that they did not simply follow the footsteps of Mattuck, Montefiore, or German Reform, he
reacted by asking: ‘Maar, zo vraag ik, wat is de Reformbeweging in Nederland dan wel?’159 According to
the Central Committee of the NIK which assembled to discuss the relationship with the Liberal Jewish
movement in 1939, Dutch Reform
is voornamelijk tot enige bloei gekomen – als men tenminste van bloei kan spreken – door velen van de Duitse
vluchtelingen, die, in hun ‘Vaterland’ gewoon aan de reform, ook hier in ons land daar niet meer buiten
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 92, 142.
‘That this affair will turn out to be one of the many attempts without any result is not sure, since the two factors
necessary for such a movement, namely the desire to imitate foreign countries and the money required to do so, are
both present’, WvIH, 31 januari 1930, quoted in Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 38.
I. Maarsen, Een kort woord in verband met de Joodsche Reformbeweging (Den Haag, 1930).
‘But, I’d like to ask, in that case, what’s what they call the Reform movement in the Netherlands?’, Maarsen, De
Joodsche Reformbeweging, 12.
schijnen te kunnen. Daaromheen hebben zich een handjevol Nederlandse Joden geschaard, onder leiding van
den heer L. Levisson. […] Wij verwachten dat eens de tijd zal komen – moge de omstandigheden zich spoedig
voor hen ten goede keren – dat de hier vertoevende Duitse Joden voor het grootste deel weer van hier zullen
vertrekken en dan is het met de reform ook afgelopen. 160
However, history took another course, and rabbi Maarsen himself is reported to have confessed to the
future chief rabbi Aron Schuster during their stay in Westerbork: ‘“Je zult zien, na de oorlog… als je na de
oorlog terugkomt, zijn er twee grote richtingen in het [Nederlandse] jodendom: de Reform en het
zionisme”’.161 In the first decade after the Second World War, this prophecy was not likely to come true:
what was left of the two Liberal congregations was a tiny group of Jews of whom eighty percent was of
German origin, with no rabbi and no synagogue. But from 1954 on, when Jacob Soetendorp was
appointed as rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam, the movement resumed its activities
and could boast considerable growth, also outside Amsterdam and The Hague. Crucial for its appeal was
the fact that the so long desired ‘Hollandization’ finally took shape.162
Yet, a wide gap continued to exist between the Orthodox and Liberal Jewish communities. The
extremely distant attitude of the Orthodox congregations came for example to the surface in 1966, when
the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam opened a new synagogue complex. The rabbinates of both
the Sephardic and Ashkenazi denominations forbade the synagogue officials to attend the dedication
service. The relationship between the various Dutch Jewish religious congregations remained cold, which
also prevented them to establish a national roof organization together, in spite of several attempts to
follow the early German or the American, French or British examples in this respect.163
‘[…] has flourished – if ‘flourish’ is the right word – mainly because of the fact that many of the German
refugees, who, accustomed to Reform in their ‘Vaterland’, seemingly cannot do without it here in our country. They
are supported by a handful of Dutch Jews led by Mr. L. Levisson. We expect that once – hopefully the circumstances
will soon alter in a way favourable to them – the majority of the German Jews who stay here will depart from here
and then reform will come to an end as well’, Centraalblad voor Israëlieten (CvI), 29 juni 1939, included as an
appendix in Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 175-177, see 176-177. The fact that Dutch Reform was grafted onto
movements in other countries, often used German as its official language and failed to find a Dutch Jew who wanted
to serve as its spiritual leader was emphasized also in an advice sent to the Amsterdam authorities by the Permanent
Committee of the NIK in November 1938, which was meant as a protest against the elevation of the Association of
Liberal-Religious Jews in the Netherlands to the status of a Dutch denomination pleaded for by the Liberal Jews; as
appendix in Michman, idem, 169-174.
‘You’ll see, after the war… if you’ll return after the war, there will be two great trends within [Dutch] Jewry:
Reform and Zionism’, C. Brasz, ‘Oud-opperrabbijn Aron Schuster 85 jaar: Ik verzet me tegen verandering van de
Nederlandse minhagiem’, NIW, 14 augustus 1992, quoted in: F.C. Brasz, ‘Na de tweede wereldoorlog: van
kerkgenootschap naar culturele minderheid’, in: Blom, Geschiedenis van de joden, 351-403, see 362. Rabbi Maarsen
(1892-1943) was killed in Sobibor on July 23rd, 1943.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 140; Brasz, ‘Na de tweede wereldoorlog’, 382-3; Michman, ‘Dutch and
German Jews’, 257.
Brasz, ‘Na de tweede wereldoorlog’, 383-384.
Much of the troubles which determined the first ten years of Liberal Judaism in the Netherlands must,
according to Michman, be ascribed to the fact that it came up relatively late in modern Dutch Jewish
history. With the attraction and growth of the German, American and British Reform movements in mind,
the Dutch Orthodox Jews showed a much greater alertness and sharpness to fight Reform. In addition, the
Orthodox leaders were perfectly aware of the liberalism and often indifference which prevailed among
Dutch Jews by the beginning of the twentieth century, and the danger this implied for Orthodoxy and
tradition. Furthermore, Dutch Jews in general had their reasons to stay away from the movement:
indifference towards religious matters made many of them immune for the appeal of Reform; for others
the movement was, especially in its early years, too radical; and the ‘German’ character of the movement
did not help to make it attractive either.164
As evidence from the earliest phase of the movement’s institutional history shows, it was primarily
foreign initiative and perseverance which made its emergence and survival possible. This dependency was
also clearly reflected in its character. An elitist movement like Reform elsewhere, it also showed the new
openness towards religious tradition and Zionism which became a remarkable feature of Reform Judaism
in general from the first decades of the twentieth century on. No attention was paid to the circumstances of
Jewish life in the Netherlands, not even to the poignant poverty of a great number of Dutch Jews or actual
expressions of anti-Jewish hostility. This leads Michman to see the movement’s early history as
‘voornamelijk een hoofdstuk van de moderne, algemeen Joodse geschiedenis’.165
These observations, together with the fact that earlier attempts to found some form of Reform
Judaism in the Netherlands failed, raise a number of questions concerning the place and role of this
Liberal movement in the Netherlands. A comparison to the movement of Het Oude Volk is significant
here. As has been shown above, this was a truly home-grown movement. It distanced itself from
international Reform and gave the outlines of a specific Dutch-oriented programme. Attention was paid to
the deplorable economic and social situation of so many Dutch Jews and alliance with wider circles of
Dutch freethinkers was sought. Questions of Dutch nationality in its relation to Jewish religious or ethnic
identity played a significant role. While precisely this independent nature appears to have hindered its
success among Jews, Dutch Liberal Judaism was likely to suffer from the opposite problem: a strong
dependency on the international Reform movement. Indeed, the truth that the Netherlands was far behind
compared to other countries in its lack of a Reform movement, as was more than once emphasized, 166
could hardly be the only reason to make Liberal Judaism in the Netherlands necessary.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 143.
‘First and foremost a chapter of modern general Jewish history’, ibid, 144-145.
For example by Mrs. B. Loeb-Levenbach in Ha’ischa, the journal of the Joodsche Vrouwenraad, februari
1931/Sjewat 5691, 3-7.
The question of interest is, therefore, what the motivations and aspirations of the initiators and
contributors were. More specifically, what was the – international or specifically Dutch – situation they
reacted to? Did they experience a certain crisis within (Dutch) Jewry which made the revival or spread of
Reform Judaism desirable? How did they relate the needs and possibilities of the wider Jewish community
to the Dutch Jewish situation? What were the points of contact they sought and found in the Dutch Jewish
community? Furthermore, what was the answer to the Dutch Jewish situation Liberal Judaism provided
for? As in the case of Het Oude Volk, the question of the motivations, aspirations, and challenges of the
movement will be dealt with by means of an analysis of its official journal, Nieuw Joodsch Leven, which
appeared from April 1932 to September 1933, and the brochures of protagonists and antagonists published
in the period.
4.3.2 A Dutch Reform programme
The necessity of Reform
The first brochure published by the Liberal Jewish movement in the Netherlands, written in 1930 by Rabbi
Lasker to inform the Dutch Jews about Reform, gave a straightforward analysis of the situation of
contemporary Jewry. Orthodoxy had failed to come to terms with the new social, economic, and cultural
needs of the present, Lasker wrote, and had thus deprived itself of its vitality. If the Jews nonetheless
wanted to preserve the religious element and listen to their inner religious desires, they would have to
choose a new way: the way of the Jewish Reform movement.167 In addition, in his brochure De tijd van
overweging, published in the autumn of 1931, Rabbi Norden raised the matter of the uncompromising
attitude of Orthodox leaders. By refusing to meet the demands of modernity, they forced the Jews to
choose between complete traditional Jewishness according to the codex or complete heathendom. Liberal
Judaism recognized the danger inherent in this attitude and aimed to keep Jews within Judaism or bring
them back to it.168
The other important foreign adviser of the movement, Montefiore, entered into more detail in his
rejection of Orthodoxy. In a lecture held in The Hague in May 1931, Montefiore first emphasized the
universal meaning of religion by arguing that it was desirable for nearly all people to belong to a particular
religion, which would mean ‘dat zij van die Religie de beginselen gelooven, den ritus in acht nemen en
aan haar georganiseerden openbaren Eeredienst deelnemen’. This was, according to Montefiore,
[Lasker], Een korte uiteenzetting omtrent de Joodsche Reformbeweging ([Den Haag], [1930]).
J. Norden, De tijd van overweging (Amsterdam, [ca. 1931]) 4-6. This problem was also recognized by Orthodox
Jews, see for example a remarkable brochure by the Mizrachist S. Pinkhof, Vooruitzichten (Hoe ontwikkelt zich de
traditie?) (Den Helder, 1926), especially 13.
especially true for young people ‘in onze tegenwoordige maatschappij’.169 That said, why did the Jewish
people precisely need Liberal Judaism? Modern Jews needed Liberal Judaism because Orthodox Judaism
became more and more implausible, Montefiore answered. First, Orthodox Judaism stuck to a mass of
external forms which had nothing to do with its principles but which made it very unattractive. To
mention the most outstanding issues, the religious services were often disagreeable from an aesthetic point
of view, but to grace them a little by using instrumental music was strictly forbidden; the fact that they
were held on Saturday mornings proved to be an insurmountable problem for many Jews, but it was
deemed absolutely impossible to switch them to a more suitable time. Equally incompatible with life in
modern society were the Jewish dietary laws. But still more important than those external difficulties was
Judaism’s doctrine itself. At this point, Montefiore urged his listeners to search themselves honestly:
Laten wij, mijne vrienden, volkomen eerlijk jegens elkander en jegens onszelven zijn: Indien U werkelijk zoudt
gelooven, dat de God des Heelals, de Geest, die Wonderen verricht, de Macht, die de sterren beweegt in den
letterlijken zin des woords den Joden verboden had hazen, konijnen en oesters te eten, zoudt gij dan niet
volgaarne zijn Gebod nakomen? […] Maar wie van ons gelooft dat nog? […]
Indien het Orthodoxe Jodendom het eenige mogelijke ware, zou het Jodendom volgens mij tot den ondergang
gedoemd zijn.170
These views were also voiced by Dutch members of the movement. Levi Levisson pointed to the danger
of holding on to rituals which had lost their meaning for the person concerned; this would finally lead to
estrangement from Judaism.171 In an appeal to all liberal Jews in the Netherlands to join the movement,
Nieuw Joodsch Leven reminded the Jews of the oppressive atmosphere in the Orthodox congregations:
‘De Nederlandse Jood leeft in een gezegend land van vrijheid. De Jood leeft in Nederland vrij.
Behalve…… in zijn eigen kerkgenootschappen’.172 Now, the annoyance about this situation was to be
recognized, but should never lead to indifference towards Jewish religion itself. Liberal Judaism was the
true way out of this dilemma, as the Rotterdam Jew D. Trijbis passionately avowed:
‘[…] that they believe the principles of this Religion, observe the rite, and participate in its organized public
Worship’; ‘in our present society’, Claude G. Montefiore, Liberaal Jodendom en de Oude Leer ([’s Gravenhage],
1931) 4 and 6 respectively.
‘Let us be fully honest to ourselves and to one another, my friends: if you would really believe that the God of the
Universe, the Spirit who works miracles, the Power who moves stars in the most literal sense of the word, prohibited
the Jews to eat hare, rabbit, and oyster, would you not most willingly obey? But who does still believe this? If
Orthodox Judaism would be the only possibility, Judaism would be doomed to ruin in my view’, ibid, 6-9.
Nieuw Joodsch Leven, no. 1, april 1932, 4-5. Referring to this estrangement, Rabbi Norden spoke of religious
Jewish life in the Netherlands as ‘een hopeloze, troosteloze toestand’, ibid, September 1932, 3-4.
‘The Dutch Jew lives in a blessed country of freedom. The Jew lives free in the Netherlands. Except…… in his
own Church’, ibid, 16.
Terug naar de orthodoxie, wij kunnen het niet meer. Onze opvoeding, ons modern-georienteerd gedachteleven,
verzetten zich ertegen.
En zullen wij daarom niet zoeken om het verlorene te ontvangen? En als wij zoeken, waarom dan niet in de
overrijke “mother of religions”, het Jodendom?
Maar dan een hernieuwd, sterk Jodendom, dat wij noodig hebben en dat ons noodig heeft, “met geheel ons hart,
met geheel onze ziel en geheel ons vermogen”. Om in onze beste oogenblikken, “als de ziele luistert” aanraking
te hebben met het Oneindige, waarnaar het heimwee in onze harten trilt als de klaagtoon van een viool.
O, het komt, het zal komen, het moet komen. De Tijd immers roept erom!
Het liberaal-religieus Jodendom is “en marche, et rien ne l’arrêtera”.173
Like the people of Het Oude Volk, the adherents of Liberal Judaism viewed the inconsistent mentality of
Dutch Jews as the crucial problem, which called for a liberal form of Judaism but at the same time
hindered its breakthrough.174 The opening article in the first issue of Nieuw Joodsch Leven characterized
Jewish religious life in the Netherlands as follows: ‘Men leeft feitelijk godsdienstloos, maar… wil Joodsch
begraven worden’.175 Montefiore spoke of ‘het gemakzuchtig Jodendom’, Norden denounced the liberals’
contentment with their jobs in the synagogue organization.176 It was especially in view of the youth that
indifference and insincerity was disastrous. Those Dutch parents who did not celebrate Seder evenings out
of disinterest really treated their children unjustly, rabbi Norden judged.177 Mrs. Heilbut-Kalker confessed
that it was for the sake of her children that she supported Liberal Judaism; she thought it to be of utmost
importance to give them ‘een wezenlijk joodse opvoeding’.178
Indeed, the focus on the youth which was also a remarkable feature of Montefiore’s Outlines of
Liberal Judaism, translated into Dutch as Het Liberale Jodendom: grondstellingen en ontwikkeling, took
priority in the Liberal movement. This was clearly reflected in its programme. In March 1933, Nieuw
Joodsch Leven summed up five ‘Practical wishes’ of which the first was religious education for the youth.
‘Back to Orthodoxy, it is impossible for us. Our upbringing, our modern-oriented thought, resists this. And shall
we not seek to find what is lost? And when we seek, why not in this most fertile ‘mother of religions’: Judaism? But
then a renewed, strong Judaism, which we need and which needs us, ‘with all our heart, with all our soul, and with
all our mind’. This will lead us, in our best moments, ‘when the soul listens’, to come in touch with the Infinite,
where our hearts are yearning for, a longing that vibrates in us like the sorrowful tones of a violin. Oh, it comes, it
shall come, it has to come. The Time is calling for it! Liberal religious Judaism is ‘en marche, et rien ne l’arrêtera’’,
ibid, Augustus 1932, 11.
Thus, the question ‘Waarom Liberaal-Religieus Jodendom?’ which regularly filled a column in Nieuw Joodsch
Leven was answered by D.S. Nerden by the statement that ‘we’ do not want a sham religion anymore, ibid,
September 1932, 10.
‘One lives without religion, in fact, but… wants to have a Jewish burial’, ibid, no. 1, april 1932, 1.
‘Lazy Judaism’, respectively Montefiore, Liberaal Jodendom en de Oude Leer, 10, and Norden, De tijd van
overweging, 7.
Nieuw Joodsch Leven, no. 1, april 1932, 1-2.
‘A truly Jewish upbringing’, ibid, Juni 1932. See also no. 1, 13-14, where M.J. Simons pleaded for a reappraisal
of Jewish religious education and the Jewish home as a sacred sphere.
Apart from several lectures on the subject, from the summer of 1932 on courses began to be organized.
Like Miss Denekamp for Het Oude Volk, Miss Tirtsah E. Rothbart taught Jewish history, Hebrew and the
basic principles of Judaism to small groups of young children. A kind of Sunday school which was
attended by a rapidly growing number of children was set up in Amsterdam in 1935, headed by rabbi
Mehler.179 Such programmes were a logical outcome of the conviction that the need for adequate Jewish
education was the main canal through which Liberal Judaism should reach the homes and hearts of Dutch
Jews. As the first Dutch initiator of the movement reported to Miss Montagu in November 1929, during
the last couple of years especially many intellectual people ‘have been awakened and feel the miss of
something in life for themselves but much more for their children’.180
Reform in practice
What Liberal Judaism actually offered Dutch Jews and their children to fill the void they experienced was,
judged by the somewhat differing answers to the question, not so easy to define. Though all initiators and
contributors of the movement agreed that Jewish tradition should play a crucial role in a true Jewish life,
some showed a more liberal attitude towards those matters than others. Norden, for instance, considered
the recommendation of religious practice a principal task of Dutch Liberal Judaism. In the first issue of
Nieuw Joodsch Leven, he exclaimed: ‘Is het verouderd, is het uit den tijd, is het religieus onbelangrijk op
het Pesachfeest, op den verjaardag van den Joodschen volksaard terug te blikken naar de zoo belangrijke
geschiedenis van het Joodsche volk (…), hoe het Joodsche volk zijn weg is gegaan, geleid door de sterke
Hand en de uitgestrekten Arm der goddelijke Voorzienigheid!’181 In his view, the celebration of the
Sabbath and religious holidays was the principal means to elevate the religious spirit in the family.
However, Norden admitted in another place, we cannot shut our eyes to the socio-economic reality which
hinders some people to celebrate Sabbath on Saturdays. Therefore, to save the religious elevation of the
family and home, Friday evening should receive the family’s first attention. The same was to be true for
other religious holidays, especially Seder evenings.182
Norden’s opinion on the subject appears to have been generally agreed upon. From the beginning,
the organization of services on religious holidays, especially Seder evenings, had the movement’s full
attention; as soon as membership reached a certain stability, the arrangement of ceremonial services held
an important place on the agenda. In January 1933, Nieuw Joodsch Leven cheerfully reported the first
Nieuw Joodsch Leven, juni 1932, 1; Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 90-91, 124-125.
Minutes of the meeting of the Governing Body of the WUPJ in London, March 1, 1929, 12-13, quoted in
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 36.
‘Is it out of date, is it old-fashioned, is it unimportant in a religious sense to look back on this most important
history of the Jewish people, [to see how] the Jewish people went its way, led by the strong Hand and the
outstretched Arm of divine Providence, on Pesach, the birthday of the Jewish national character!’, Nieuw Joodsch
Leven, no. 1, april 1932, 1-2.
Ibid, De tijd van overweging, 17.
circumcision ceremony under the auspices of the movement.183 The movement’s members did not much
occupy themselves with theological or philosophical foundations of their view on religious practice,
however. An exception to this rule was R.J. Spitz, whose place in the Dutch Jewish community was
somewhat controversial since he was a Zionist, a member of the Liberal Jewish movement and married to
a non-Jewish woman at once.184 Interestingly, in his response to the Orthodox reproach ‘dat wij heele
bladzijden uit de Thora scheuren’, he suggested that Liberal Jews should make the distinction between
autonomous and heteronomous religiosity, thereby concurring with D.I. Cardozo’s reflection on religion.
Spitz explicitly took non-Jewish freethinkers as a lighting example in this respect. Autonomous religiosity
was, in Spitz’ words,
een relatie tusschen den mensch en God, die, Gods Zijn als gegeven erkennend, ontleend wordt aan het
gedachten- en gevoelsleven van den mensch zelf; godsdienstigheid, die resulteert uit ’s menschen bewuste
begeerte naar aanbidding en belijdenis van den Allerhoogste, maar waarbij de mensch in intellect en
consciëntie omzichtig en eerlijk tegenover zichzelf keurt en afweegt, wat aan leerstelling, ethiek en rituaal,
strookt met zijn – natuurlijk beperkte en subjectief-menschelijke – voorstelling van den Allerhoogste, met de
overwegingen van zijn critische rede en de behoeften van zijn gemoed.
For the Jew who believed in an autonomous manner, this implied that he believed in God
in een theologisch ideeëncomplex en een ritueelen stijl, welke congruent is met zijn Joodsche psyche:
reflexive van een sterk-individueele volkspsyche, resultante van ongetelde eeuwen eener zeer bijzondere en
praegnante historie en cultuur. 185
The concrete outcome of this view on religion brought the Liberal Jew very close to his Orthodox
brothers, Spitz showed. Renouncing the Sabbath as day of consecration implied not just abandoning a
beloved tradition, but the very doctrine of spiritual man. Each Jew had to be aware that the present
Sabbath was an image of the eternal Sabbath, the prophetic World Sabbath, where true rest and holiness
reigned in a world of an in mutual love reunited, purely spiritual, God-knowing humankind. In view of
Ibid, January 1933, vol. 1, no. 7, 4.
De Joodsche Wachter, vol. 13, no. 27, Vrijdag 6 Tebeth 5678/21 December 1917, 248-249; Nieuw Joodsch
Leven, no. 1, april 1932, 14-15.
‘That we tear entire pages from the Torah’; ‘A relation between man and God, which, acknowledging the
existence of God, is derived from the human sphere of thought and feelings itself; religiousness which results from
man’s conscious longing for adoration and confession of the Most High, but in which man with the help of his
intelligence and conscience cautiously and honestly considers what dogmatics, ethics and ritual corresponds with his
– naturally limited and subjectively-human – image of the Most High, with the reflections of his critical reason and
the needs of his mind’; ‘within a complex of theological ideas and a style of rituals which corresponds with his
Jewish psyche: the reflection of a strongly indidivual national psyche, the outcome of untold ages of a very
exceptional and pregnant history and culture’, Nieuw Joodsch Leven, no. 1, april 1932, 7-9.
this deep spiritual meaning, the Sabbath was to be maintained at all costs, though a certain flexibility
could possibly be adequate in specific circumstances.186
Though the preference to follow the tradition in those matters was not much contested in Dutch
Liberal circles, there were surely people who accentuated the other side of the matter. Montefiore clearly
represented a more ‘classical’ Reform view.187 This can be detected in his The Hague lecture in 1931, in
which he explained, using Jesus’ words as recorded in Marcus 2: ‘Zij [de Liberale Joden, LS] gevoelen
voor den Sabbath, maar zij erkennen de eischen van het moderne maatschappelijke leven, waarvoor zij
hunne oogen niet wenschen te sluiten, overtuigd, dat de Sabbath ingesteld is voor den Mensch en niet de
Mensch voor den Sabbath’.188 Levi Levisson, whose refusal to obey the traditional prescriptions of the
Amsterdam congregation may be recalled here, similarly voiced a more or less pragmatic view on
religious practice. Rituals could surely be useful for someone who could draw strength from them; in this
way, rituals could help him to fulfil the commandments. But, according to Levisson, these rituals should
not be confused with the Deeds demanded by Judaism. Instead, each branch of Judaism which devoted
itself to the fulfilment of the basic principle – acknowledgement of the one, eternal, omnipresent God and
acceptance of the Jewish conception of the God-man relationship – deserved to be called ‘Jodendom van
de Daad’.189
What especially created a gap between Liberal Jews and their Orthodox opponents was the fact that
the former explicitly placed Judaism in the context of religion in general. An article on the subject written
by Levisson directly reminds of the way in which Het Oude Volk spoke of religion. Under the title
‘Richtlijnen’ (Guidelines), Levisson argued that the acknowledgement that a one, eternal, omnipresent
divine Power governs the universe is the basis of a religious life. From this belief strength and consolation
can be derived by which man is elevated to a higher spiritual and moral level. Moreover, whoever comes
to the conviction that the divine not only lives everywhere in nature but also in himself, and will not get
lost when he passes away, can be transformed in a harmonious being.190 Remarkable is also an article by
Spitz on the occasion of Frederik van Eeden’s death. Like Het Oude Volk, Nieuw Joodsch Leven held Van
Eeden in high esteem. Van Eeden, Spitz wrote, deserved to be praised as one of the country’s great
preachers of a ‘levende, bewuste, naar-binnen-gekeerde religiositeit’. Listening to his innermost being, he
Ibid, Augustus 1932, 8-9. Spitz referred to the socio-economic situation of some families which forced them to
seek some religious consecration on Sundays instead of Saturdays and to the removal of some unnecessary and
frustrating prescriptions.
‘Classical’ Reform as Meyer uses the term in Response to Modernity.
‘They [the Liberal Jews] feel sympathy for the Sabbath, but acknowledge the demands of modern social life, to
which they do not wish to shut their eyes, since they are convinced that the Sabbath has been made for man, and not
man for the Sabbath’, Montefiore, Liberaal Jodendom en de Oude Leer, 11. Marcus 2:27 reads: ‘And he [Jesus] said
unto them, The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath […]’.
Nieuw Joodsch Leven, no. 1, april 1932, 4-5; see also page 1, ‘Eenige woorden ter inleiding’, where the same
view is voiced, possibly also by Levisson.
Ibid, juni 1932, 3-5.
eventually found his own way to realize his relationship with God, exactly as a Jew desires to do so in
tune with the Jewish nature of his individuality. Furthermore, since Van Eeden also acknowledged
religiosity to be ‘een band tusschen menschen in gemeenzaam opgaan tot hun aller Vader’, it can be said
that the ‘idealen van het Joodsche profetisme’ lived in him.191
4.3.3 Sympathy and rejection
The reproach of assimilation
The attention to the universal meaning of religion was not favourably received by the audience of Dutch
Liberal Judaism. As in the case of Het Oude Volk, ‘assimilation’ was the central reproach of the
adversaries. The possible connection to like-minded people of other religions confirmed the expectation
that these Liberal ideas would finally put an end to Judaism. When Levisson contributed to a radio
broadcast of the Vrijzinnig-Protestantsche Radio Omroep (VPRO) in 1932, the Centraalblad van
Israëlieten went so far as to compare the Liberal Jewish movement to the Dutch association ‘Zending
onder Israël’ (Mission among the People of Israel). Levisson’s action made clear that he and his fellowfree-thinking Jews qualified themselves as ‘free-thinking’ rather than as ‘Jews’, the newspaper
commented.192 Similar judgements can be found in the brochure Wij blijven trouw aan ons oude
Jodendom, published on behalf of the NIK. Carolina Eitje, a history teacher in Amsterdam and very active
in Orthodox circles, simply labelled Liberal Judaism as ‘onjoods’ (un-Jewish). Professor D. Cohen argued
that the Reformers’ search for a third way between real Judaism – which consisted of the religious and the
national element together – and assimilation would inevitably lead to the latter. S.W. Loopuit concluded
that ‘een godsdienst groeit, maar laat zich niet in elkaar timmeren. Reform is negatie van al, wat den
oprechten Jood heilig moet zijn, is assimilatie, werkt destructief, leidt tot ontbinding en afval’. Another
contributor could do with a few sentences: what he wanted to tell the Liberal Jew could be summarized in
a verse by De Genestet, ‘Wees U zelf, zei ik tot iemand; / maar hij kon niet, hij was niemand’.193
Similarly, chief rabbi Maarsen argued in his brochures that Liberal Judaism led unconsciously, but
systematically to ‘de voltrekking van het assimilatie-proces’.194 If Liberal Judaism desired to be a
universal religion, i.e. for Mohammedans, Buddhists, and Christians as well, it did not deserve the title
‘Jewish’ anymore. The fact that many Reform Jews – interestingly, Maarsen took Moses Salvador as an
‘A living, conscious, inner-directed religiosity’, ‘an intimate connection between people in their collective
elevation to the Father of them all’, ‘the ideals of Jewish prophetism’, ibid, Augustus 1932, 6-7.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 100.
‘A religion grows, but cannot be knocked together. Reform is a negation of all what should be holy to the sincere
Jew, is assimilation, leads to destruction, to dissolution and desertion’; ‘Be yourself, I told someone; / but he could
not, he was no one’, Mr. J. Hamburger A.Dzn in Wij blijven trouw aan ons oude Jodendom, ([Rotterdam], [1930]),
see also Maarsen’s brochures.
‘The actualization of the process of assimilation’, Maarsen, Een kort woord.
example – eventually converted to Christianity served as a proof of this statement. Of course, Maarsen
was well aware of the fact that assimilation also penetrated deeply into the Orthodox Jewish
denominations. However, in his view, there remained a crucial difference between a non-observant Jew
who still lived within the Orthodox Jewish community and a Reform Jew:
Bij een liberaal levende Jood, die traditioneel denkt, blijft de mogelijkheid open om tot inkeer te komen. Wat is
immers variabeler dan een mensch […]. Indien hij bijv. het wezen van den Sabbath erkent, leeft het in zijn
denken voort. […] Wordt diezelfde liberaal levende Jood aanhanger der Reformbeweging, dan wordt hem
gezegd: de Sabbath behoeft niet gevierd te worden als in het historische Jodendom, de spijswetten zijn ongeldig,
de Thora heeft haar goddelijke waarde verloren. […] D a n l e e f t h e t w e z e n v a n h e t h i s t o r i s c h e
J o d e n d o m i n z i j n d e n k e n n i e t m e e r v o o r t. 195
Dutch Jews, Maarsen continued in another brochure, have never felt the need to propagate ‘een Jodendom
(...) dat geen Jodendom meer is’. At this point, he used the ties binding the Jews to Dutch society as a link
in his argument. He confronted the Liberal Jews with the insight that the Dutch Jew represented a
particular species within world Jewry: the species hollandia Judaica. The ‘soliede, nuchtere aard van den
Hollander’ little by little became the nature of the Dutch Jew; as a result, the Dutch Jew preferred solidity
and firm foundations, which would vainly be sought in Reform Judaism. Therefore, according to
Maarsen’s conviction, Reform Judaism would never be able to conquer the Dutch Jewish community.196
The need for authenticity
There were others who showed a better understanding of the motives and aspirations of Liberal Judaism.
Several opponents recognized that the declining authority and vitality of Orthodoxy had left a void in the
life of many sincere Dutch Jews.197 Soon after the first rumours about a Dutch Liberal movement,
Professor Cohen wrote in the De Groene Amsterdammer that Dutch Reform, though hopefully not very
influential, should certainly be seen as a symptom within the spiritual development of Judaism. 198 This
‘For a Jew who lives liberally but thinks traditionally, the possibility of repentance remains. Nothing is, after all,
more changeable than man. If he, for instance, acknowledges the essence of the Sabbath, it lives on in his thought.
When the same liberal Jew becomes a disciple of the Reform movement, he is told that the Sabbath needs not be
celebrated as it is in historical Judaism, that the dietary laws are invalid, that the Torah has lost its divine value.
Then, the essence of historical Judaism will no longer live on in his thought’, Maarsen, De Joodsche
Reformbeweging, 15-18. The same opinion was voiced by Carolina Eitje in Ha’ischa, vol. 3, no. 3, Maart 1931 –
Nisan 5691, 52-55.
‘A Judaism that is no longer Judaism’, ‘the solid, sensible character of the Dutchman’, Maarsen, Een kort woord,
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 50, 58-9, 68.
De Groene Amsterdammer: weekblad voor Nederland, 1 februari 1930, quoted in Ha’ischa, vol. 2, no. 2, Februari
1930 – Sjewat 5690, 40-41.
opinion was repeatedly echoed in Ha’ischa, the organ of the Jewish Women’s Council. In an article titled
‘J’accuse’, C. Asscher-Pinkhof wrote:
[…] ik beschuldig onszelf van het ontstaan van deze Reformbeweging. […] We stonden zoo grif klaar, om de
niet-godsdienstigen te beschuldigen van gemakzucht, van gebrek aan offervaardigheid. Maar we sloten onze
ooren voor den roep van de velen, die hongerden naar vroomheid, – vroomheid in den diepen, eerlijken,
zuiveren zin van het woord. Als ze klaagden, dat ze de vormen, die voor hèn leeg waren, zóó niet konden
aanvaarden, – waarom hebben we ze dan niet meegegeven van den rijken inhoud, die de vormen voor òns
hadden? […] wáár moesten ze het zuivere beeld van het Jodendom vandaan halen, als hun vraag naar inzicht
werd beantwoord met minachting, hun verlangen naar vroomheid werd doodgedreund met onbegrepen
klanken? […] Daaruit is de Reform-beweging ontstaan. En het is onze schuld. 199
A series of articles by the same Carolina Eitje also showed a certain understanding. She warned against
the prejudice that the members of the Reform group were motivated by pure laziness; she believed that
many of the movement’s adherents were driven by a ‘heilige, innige overtuiging’ when they rejected
Judaism in its traditional forms. This sincerity was to be respected, especially in view of the hypocrisy of
so many supposedly Orthodox Jews. In response to a pro-Reform article by Mrs. Loeb-Levenbach, Eitje
stated that Mrs. Loeb’s plea was more than a voice from the small circle of Hague Reformers; instead,
such a protest could have arisen from all segments of Dutch Jewish society, and should therefore be seen
as symptomatic of the spiritual desperation of Dutch Jewry. According to Eitje, the majority of the Jewish
people was desperately in search for the right way to choose: the Jewish world or the European world. In
their desire to solve this unbearable inner conflict, the Hague Reformers eventually chose adaptation to the
European world.
Eitje’s last article in the series concluded with a sympathetic word with regard to the Reformers’
attention to Jewish education. She fully agreed with the Reformers when they claimed that the Jewish
education system was totally outdated. Since the ‘Judaism of the deed’ was no longer practised in the
home and family, Jewish religious education was rendered empty.
Alles zweeft hier in de lucht, wordt dadelijk weer vergeten, daar het geen enkel aanknopingspunt heeft met het
dagelijksche leven. Niet alleen de reformpartij, maar allen, die wat voelen voor het voortbestaan van onze
‘I blame ourselves for the emergence of this Reform movement. We were always ready to accuse the nonreligious of laziness, of lack of willingness to make sacrifices. But we shut our eyes to the call of the many who
yearned for piety – piety in the profound, sincere, pure sense of the word. When they complained that they could not
accept the outer forms, which were empty to them, in this way – why did we fail to give them of the rich contents
which these forms harboured for us? Where should they find the pure conception of Judaism if their demand for
insight was answered by disdain, if their longing for piety was squeezed to death by uncomprehended notes? From
this the Reform movement emerged. And we are to blame’, Ha’ischa, Maart 1931, 51-52.
religie, moeten hun stem verheffen tegen een dergelijke uitsluitend cerebrale vorming, waarvan de
beschamende resultaten bewijzen, dat men op deze wijze geen Joden kan vormen. 200
Another issue of Ha’ischa told cheerfully that the first Jewish children’s Bible in the Netherlands was to
be published soon. The article reported that this children’s Bible, written by Miss S. Gazan on authority of
the Jewish Women’s Council, was born from a ‘besef van crisis’.201 That Jewish education was considered
a matter of special concern is confirmed by other sources. The religious Zionist Sally de Beer, who
showed himself a fierce antagonist of the Liberal movement, involved the matter of education in his
answer to the question how Reform Judaism had managed to come up in the Netherlands. A recent change
in the attitude of Jewish parents towards these matters could be detected, he wrote. Fifteen years ago,
secularized Jews did not bother at all about the fact that their children were brought up without any Jewish
consciousness. But at present, many of them felt the need to give their children some form of a positive
Jewish education. Yet, to bring their children up according to Orthodox Judaism would be rather
problematic: ‘zij [de ouders, LS] kunnen als regel (…) van zichzelve niet verkrijgen, dat zij zich bij hun
opvoeding op een (godsdienstige) basis stellen, die zij in hun eigen leven, want strijdig met hun
overtuiging, niet kunnen verwezenlijken, – omdat zij dit als onoprechtheid aanvoelen’. For this reason, De
Beer admitted that Reform Judaism met the needs of many sincere Dutch Jews.202
The need for positive Judaism
Notwithstanding the mutual understanding which was shown by several Reformers and their opponents,
the dividing point between them was fully clear. What disturbed Orthodox, Zionists, and others was the
lack of positive Judaism in the Reform movement. As the issues of Nieuw Joodsch Leven and the proReform brochures show, the Reformers felt repeatedly forced to defend their movement against the claim
that it harboured only inner emptiness.
The Reformers’ separation between the ‘essential’ and the ‘variable’ in Judaism was, according to
A. Schwimmer-Vigeveno in Ha’ischa, completely arbitrary. And it was bound to be, since Reform
Judaism built on the notions of ‘individualism’ and ‘evolution’ which a century of emancipation and
assimilation brought it.203 Similarly, in spite of her agreement at some points, Carolina Eitje remained
‘A holy, inner conviction’, ‘Everything just wavers in the air, is immediately forgotten, since it lacks a point of
contact in daily life. Not only the Reform party, but all who feel for the continuance of our religion should raise their
voice for against such a purely cerebral education, whose shameful outcomes prove that one cannot mould Jews in
this way’, ibid, 52-55.
‘An awareness of crisis’, Ha’ischa, vol. 3, no. 10, October 1931 – Cheswan 5692, 191-192.
‘In general, the parents cannot get themselves to construct their education on a (religious) basis which they cannot
put into practice in their own life, since it contrasts to their conviction – because this would feel like insincerity’,
Mizrachie, maart 1930/Adar 5690, 79-80, quoted in Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 51-52.
Ha’ischa, vol. 2, no. 2, Februari 1930 – Sjewat 5690, 40-41.
convinced that Reform Judaism could only lead to assimilation. She thought it unthinkable that such a
religion, built on individual insight and born from powerlessness and doubt, could ever revive the Jewish
faith. The very first actions of the Dutch movement, she wrote in January 1931, sufficed to conclude that
‘afbreken gemakkelijker is dan opbouwen, dat uit een innerlijke leegte geen sterke getuigenis geboren kan
worden’.204 In a series of articles in Agoedath-Jisraeel, rabbi Justus Tal also expressed some
understanding for the fact that so many Dutch Jews experienced a sense of emptiness; but, as he wrote in a
passionate tone, Reform Judaism
zal nooit de leegte vullen. Dat zal nooit de levens uwer kinderen bezielen. Met frazen wordt zielehonger niet
gestild! Kom er uit, uit die [reform]ouderwetschheid […] Kom tot een bewust, goed, door-en-door gekend
Jodendom. En ondervind en beleef!205
4.4 Dutch reform movements: weaknesses, strength, and acknowledgements
For all their variety, the movements described above had one thing in common. They shared a primary
concern about religious indifference. They saw the inner health of the Jewish community endangered by,
if not secularization, a growing discrepancy between official Judaism and personal belief in the lives of
many Jews. The reformation they suggested should lead to renewed sincerity and harmony.
Thus, as for second-generation German Reformers and English and French reformists, inner
emancipation was their central purpose. Yet, at this point a notable difference between Dutch Liberal Jews
and their predecessors must be mentioned. The primary practical dissatisfaction of Van Nierop, Salvador,
and the people of Het Oude Volk did not so much concern the fact that Jewish religion as such was
outdated or inadequate. In their case, inner emancipation was rather focused on the internal health of the
religious organization. They were especially annoyed by the fact that the liberals’ voices were not heard in
the Dutch Jewish community. In fact, they displayed a more or less politically motivated ambition. They
appealed to a certain self-consciousness among liberal Jews, a sense of having the right to confess and
display one’s liberalism in the community. This implied that they acted in a rather polemical way; from
the beginning, much unlike reformists elsewhere and future Dutch Reformers, they took a very sceptical
position with regard to the official Jewish denomination. Both Van Nierop, Salvador and Het Oude Volk
‘Pulling down is easier than building up, no strong testimony can be born from inner emptiness’, ibid, vol. 3, no.
1, Januari 1931 – Sjewat 5691, 3-7, see 6.
‘[…] will never fill the void. This will never inspire the lives of your children. The hunger of the soul will not be
satisfied by hollow phrases! Come out of that reform-outdatedness. Come to a conscious, true, profoundly known
Judaism. And experience and taste it!’, J. Tal, Import-Onjodendom: De Joodsche Reformbeweging in Den Haag
(Rotterdam, Nissan 5691 [maart 1931]), 46-4, quoted in Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 59.
wanted the liberals to exert influence on the church councils, though in the case of the latter it was not
quite clear what this aimed at. Van Nierop and Salvador did not hesitate to speak of the possibility of, as
Salvador put it, ‘een fiksche afscheiding’. In contrast, the Liberal Jews of the 1930s showed the classical
Reformers’ desire to convert all Dutch Jews to their religious insights. Their eagerness to do so was
heightened by their awareness that Dutch Judaism desperately needed a total revival lest it should die out.
These differences in purposes and approach must be seen as the outcomes of a more fundamental
difference. What sets earlier Dutch reformists apart from Dutch Liberal Jews, is their emphasis on the
specifically Dutch circumstances of actual Jewish life. Their attention to the internal politics of the Jewish
community was part of this explicitly Dutch orientation. While they took the activity of German Reform,
French progressives, or English Liberal Judaism as a shining example when they thought about possible
solutions, they chose not to take over ready-made foreign Reform models – as future Dutch Liberal
Judaism actually did. This was, otherwise, certainly an important factor in the failure of these movements.
Except for the Shohrei De’a society, led by Chronik’s German Reform ideas, none of the reformists
provided a clear outline of what was next. The goal of ‘discourse’ – with the Jewish leadership, with the
Dutch government, and with kindred spirits – was central to their plans, whence the repeated emphasis on
the need of a periodical. Instead of a programme, they liked to speak of future crystallization of ideas and
future clarification.
Since the nineteenth-century movements left no periodicals or something of its kind, it is hard to
define the exact points at which their programme collided with the views and beliefs of their Jewish
audience. This makes the case of Het Oude Volk of particular interest. Besides its lack of a clear
programme, the very tenor of its ideas and inclinations accounted for their failure to find points of contact
in the Jewish community. Indeed, these freethinkers tied in with specifically Dutch problems. In view of
the grinding poverty and social deprivation of a great number of Dutch Jews, their attention to the
difficulties of the Jewish poor was highly adequate. Yet, their call to the Jewish community was readily
answered by a reference to the well-organized denominational poor relief. A similar fate befell the
freethinkers’ concern for the ‘sectarianism’ displayed by Dutch Jews, which collided with the common
confidence that being a loyal Dutchman and a loyal Jew at once was perfectly compatible. So did the
freethinkers’ worries about Dutch anti-Semitism.
The real gap between the people of Het Oude Volk and fellow Dutch Jews was, however, created by
the former’s openness to interconfessional relations. This was a concretization of the belief that
unnecessary walls should be pulled down, lest society should crumble away by disunity. This belief
reflected a wider concern, prominent among Dutchmen of all persuasions: could Dutch society as it was,
divided into well-isolated segments, yield the inner power and vigour necessary to face the problems of
the times? Interconfessional federations in the social field – the trade union Unitas in Twente (founded in
1894) is the most famous one – and in the religious field, such as the Federation described above, must be
seen against this background.206 Het Oude Volk felt deeply engaged with these questions. Especially the
Dutch verzuiling and the highly problematic international relationships – the terror of the Great War
repeatedly turned up in the analyses of the times in Het Oude Volk – stimulated the desire to bring
cooperation and harmony into society. With such ambitions, however, the movement placed itself in a
very problematic position with regard to the Dutch Jewish community. The openness to kindred spirits of
other religious backgrounds made them exceedingly suspicious in the eyes of fellow Dutch Jews, who
were always on the alert to signalize assimilation. This suspicion was not beside the point, otherwise.
While the initiators of Het Oude Volk were part of the Jewish community in a social sense – they were not
intellectuals in the margins of the community, but integrated laymen who worked in traditionally Jewish
professions –, they moved far away from the religious centre of the community. Cohen Van Straaten and
Cardozo never visited any church. In the case of Miss Denekamp, the antagonists’ claim that this freethinking Judaism would lead to complete apostasy came true.
Turning to the response to the Liberal Jewish movement in the Netherlands, one is able to see the
opposite side of this coin. Like Het Oude Volk, the Liberal movement was accused of doing away with the
essence of Judaism. According to its antagonists, the movement was un-Jewish, essentially irreligious,
disloyal, and up to assimilation. Yet, strikingly, there was another argument which was no less important
for the opponents. The movement was described as ‘un-Dutch’. Dutch Liberal Judaism was dismissed as
just an imitation of foreign movements; moreover, it was explicitly said to be in conflict with the character
of the species hollandia judaica, which desired a firm ideological basis instead of a halfway house. Such
judgements were part of the general conviction that the Dutch fatherland deserved Dutch Jewry’s loyalty
as well as the Jewish community or the Jewish faith, a conviction which could be found among Zionists
and Mizrachists as well. Not surprisingly from this point of view, a movement which showed no reflection
on Dutch circumstances at all and relied upon foreign initiative, foreign interference, and foreign rabbis
was suspicious as such.
The fact that the Liberal movement was at best very loosely connected to Dutch circumstances did,
however, not just imply that it was weak, especially if the vicissitudes of earlier Dutch reformist
movements are taken into account. Paradoxically, the dependency on foreign ideas gave the movement
something to hold on to. Certainly, the friction between German and British ideas and influence created a
long-lasting instability, which was increased by the internal division on other organizational questions.
See on interconfessional initiatives of the time, especially in the social field, Siep Stuurman, Verzuiling,
kapitalisme en patriarchaat: aspecten van de ontwikkeling van de moderne staat in Nederland (Nijmegen, 1983),
172-175 and 287-296; Arno Bornebroek and George Harinck, ‘De protestants-christelijke sociale beweging, een
impressie’, in: idem, eds., Het kromme recht buigen: Mensen en hun motieven in de geschiedenis van de protestantschristelijke sociale beweging (Amsterdam, 2003) 1-14; Paul E. Werkman, ‘Herman Amelink (1881-1957): Pionier
van bedrijfsorganisatie en medezeggenschap’, idem, 97-132.
What the movement wanted was, however, rather clear. It aimed at the establishment of a Dutch branch of
Liberal Judaism, based on German and British models. Its opponents were well aware of that; they did not
accuse the Reformers of lack of clarity, but of the conscious propagation of a negative kind of Judaism.
That Dutch Liberal Judaism could gain a more or less stable group of adherents, in spite of the strong
resistance, was probably due to the fact that it offered a serious alternative to Orthodoxy.
The fact that Liberal Jews failed to answer the question why Dutch Jews needed Reform, did not
make them less convinced of the legitimacy of their cause. They apparently conceived the question of
Reform Judaism as a part of Jewish religious affairs worldwide. If they mentioned the notion of
‘modernity’ as an explanation for the emergence of Reform, they spoke of it in a very general sense. That
the times had changed and that (Dutch) Judaism should not stay behind, needed no further explanation.
Indeed, the way in which adherents of Liberal Judaism promoted their movement often displayed a
remarkable self-awareness and self-confidence. D. Trijbis’ contribution to Nieuw Joodsch Leven,
concluding with the revolutionary statement that Liberal Judaism was ‘“en marche, et rien ne l’arrêtera”’,
is a clear example. Such expressions also reflect an essentially future-directed attitude, which prevailed
over a rethinking of Judaism’s needs in its particular context. This preoccupation with the future of
Judaism in a practical sense found its most prominent expression in the great value attached to a
reformation of Jewish education, which was for some prominent adherents even the basic reason to
support the movement.
To recapitulate, the Anknüpfungspunkte of Reform Judaism in the Netherlands were various. Some
reformists paid special attention to the problematics of internal Jewish politics, to the bad quality of
rabbinical education, or to the backward socio-economic position of observant Jews in traditionally Jewish
professions. Others emphasized that Dutch Jews could no longer afford to believe in a personal, almost
physical God, or to stay behind compared to Jews of other progressive countries. But there was one crucial
weakness in Dutch Jewry which connected the appeal of reformers to the needs and concerns of their
Jewish audience: the problem of inner secularization. As the paragraphs above have shown, Dutch Jews
were deeply aware of this problem by the beginning of the twentieth century. The responses of Dutch
Jews to the reformist programmes confirm the reformists’ claim that Dutch Judaism was in danger. The
unrest created by the rumours about a free-thinking Jewish congregation in 1915 is a good example.
Regardless of whether this congregation may have been only a phantom, it provoked a reaction which
corresponded with the reaction to Het Oude Volk: the claim that religious indifference reigned among
Dutch Jews was not refuted by its opponents. To the contrary, by the first decades of the twentieth
century, Orthodox Jews and freethinkers alike in fact agreed with Meijer’s future description of Dutch
Jewry as marked by unbelief, insincerity, and minimal practising of one’s Jewishness.
Against this background, notwithstanding its foreignness, Liberal Judaism likewise had its mission
in the Netherlands. In its stress on the fact that Dutch Judaism no less than Judaism elsewhere was
endangered by inner erosion and needed revival, the Liberal message came very close to the actualities in
the Dutch Jewish community. The understanding from the side of its opponents shows that the insights of
Liberal Jews were not alien to the ears of fellow Dutch Jews. The issue of the inner quality of Dutch
Judaism was certainly an actual one. In the ranks of the Mizrachie, to give a clear example, the quality of
Jewish religion was repeatedly discussed in the interwar years. From their somewhat sceptical position
towards the official institutions of the Jewish community, they did not hesitate to start a public discussion
on the merits of the Reform movement. Indeed, the feeling that Jewish religion needed a thorough
reformation was not uncommon among them.207 Two brochures by the Mizrachist S. Pinkhof, published in
1926 and 1928 respectively, exemplified this. The texts are very interesting in their far-going critique of
official Dutch Judaism, the call for a radical rethinking, and the proposal of some concrete reformations.208
This implies that Dutch Liberal Judaism deserves to be seen as an integral part of the Dutch Jewish
experience of the interwar years, which, as in other countries, witnessed an intensification of Jewish group
awareness.209 The fact that Dutch Liberal Jews were generally not people in the margins of the community
– like their free-thinking predecessors, they used to be active in traditionally Jewish professions and
additional functions – reinforces this impression. Moreover, the Dutch Liberal Jews’ call for a revival can
even be placed in a perspective which goes beyond Jewish interests, the perspective of religious, cultural,
and political revival in general. In their idealistic and convinced phrasing, a longing for a new élan vital
was reflected which Dutch Liberal Jews shared with contemporary idealists of all persuasions; socialists,
free-thinking Christians, conservative philosophers like G.J.P.J. Bolland, and
at a greater distance
humanistic culture critics like Huizinga. Remarkable is, indeed, the repeated attention which Liberal Jews
paid to the notion of a ‘Judaism of the Deeds’. Such an expression, probably in the first place a reference
to the innovating ideas of Leo Baeck and others, may well have been an overture to a more general
occupation with true religion. The sympathetic reference to Frederik van Eeden, who practised what might
be called a ‘free-thinking religion of the Deeds’, is telling in this context.
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 96-98.
Pinkhof, Vooruitzichten; ibid, Gereed? (Positie van den Joodschen Godsdienst) (Amsterdam, 1928).
See for example Michael Brenner, The Renaissance of Jewish culture in Weimar Germany (New Haven, 1996).
Michman, Het Liberale Jodendom, 24-26; Michman, Pinkas, 150.
The broad concept of ‘identity’ has once again proved its value. Born in the age of (post-)modernity, it is
based on the insight that the underlying sphere from which people’s actions, ideas, and feelings spring
cannot be reduced to the hard material of life, circumstances, and verifiable knowledge. It calls attention
to the way in which people experience things, how they react to it, and how they subsequently make their
way. In the chapters above, the experience of modernity took a central place. The actions, opinions, ideas,
and feelings that have been described were part of the desire to come to terms with modernity, that strange
brew of possibilities and demands, uncertainties and ideologies. The first chapter showed that the
principles and process of emancipation, the channel through which modernity reached the Jews of
Western Europe, had a notably ambivalent character. The crisis of identity which the changing situation
created was most outspoken among German Jews; especially the peculiar nature of German nationalism
makes a universal account of the Western European Jews’ experience of modernity implausible. At the
same time, however, questions of identity were certainly not irrelevant to Jews in countries outside
Germany. The recurring attention to the theme of Dutch and Jewish identities in the Jewish press in the
Netherlands, both in the nineteenth and the twentieth century, is a clear testimony. In the concrete, the
fading away of Yiddish and Jewish education in countries like France and the Netherlands were crucial
implications of emancipation.
In the course of the chapters, the attention has shifted from the factors which favoured or
disfavoured Reform to the question of identity in Reform Judaism. This emphasis on identity questions is
a direct outcome of the peculiar nature of the encounter between Judaism and modernity, which is clearly
reflected in the Reform movement. As Steven M. Lowenstein put it in a lecture held at Schloß Elmau in
July 2000:
Für das Judentum ist die Herausforderung durch die Moderne nicht nur, ja nicht einmal primär eine
Herausforderung an die Theologie (die ihrerseits für Juden ein eher moderner Begriff ist). Vielmehr gibt es in
dieser Herausforderung ein kulturelles und ethnisches Element, das mindestens genauso wichtig ist. Hier
scheint mir der Begriff der Identität […] von zentraler Bedeutung zu sein. […] Die Anziehungskraft der
europäischen Kultur und der Wunsch nach politischer Emanzipation und sozialer Integration ließen für die
Juden die Frage entstehen, wie eine Anpassung möglich sei, ohne das Wesen dessen aufzugeben, was sie zu
Juden machte. Viele westeuropäische und amerikanische Konflikte im Zusammenhang mit der religiösen
Reform hatten mehr mit diesen Problemen der ethnischen Identität und Eigenart zu tun als mit rein
theologischen Fragen.1
It is important to reemphasize in conclusion that Reform Judaism varied greatly in the various contexts.
German Reform theology was not a self-evident result of a progressive reorientation, but must be
conceived in its German intellectual context. Jacob Katz stressed that the Reformers’ emphasis on ethical
and doctrinal teachings was not just a subtle shift in Judaism: ‘Whatever the historical merit of this
contention, phenomenologically the resultant metamorphosis of Judaism represents an altogether new
religion’.2 It was far from self-evident, therefore, that Jews from other countries and other periods would
take over the Reform programme. Indeed, the English and French reformists of the nineteenth century,
though sympathetic to the German Reform movement and also dependent of it, distanced themselves from
the theological features of Reform. That Reform Judaism varied along national and temporal dividing
lines was reflected in the Liberal Jewish movement as well. Seligmann (thereby abandoning the far-going
universalism of some of his former Reform colleagues) spoke of a Wille zum Judentum, Montefiore and
Montagu showed a remarkable interest in religion in general, French Liberal Judaism challenged la
nouvelle conscience of general society.
Notwithstanding this variety, however, Reform Judaism as a whole set a model for the Jews of
modernity. This makes a study of its appeal to Jews of various countries valuable. In the eyes of
contemporaries, Reform Judaism typified the encounter between Judaism and modernity. In this way, it
was a challenge for Jews of other countries; it appealed to them by giving them the hope that the crises
they experienced could be averted. Such a reformed Judaism, they felt, was a way to pursue the ‘inner
emancipation’ of Judaism. Both the image and the internal quality of Judaism were involved in this desire
for inner emancipation. As especially Liberal Jews stressed, Judaism should be strong, sincere, and in
harmony with the times: instead of a poor substitute for the Judaism of the past, it should be true a religion
which would inspire and revitalize people. This ambition was accompanied by an increasing Jewish selfconsciousness, by which the Jewish people was presented as an historical entity again. Throughout the
further development of Reform Judaism, one is able to observe the outgrowth of this tendency. By the
time of the interwar years, the traditionally hostile attitude of Reformers towards Zionism slowly altered;
in the post-war Jewish world, often in a post-modern manner, the value of ‘particularistic’ tradition and
ritual was increasingly acknowledged.3 In short, Reform as a whole made an appeal to Jews to rethink
their position in a specific society, the needs of Judaism, and their personal Jewish identity. What is
The lecture was presented in English but published in German in Steven M. Lowenstein, ‘Jüdische Religion
zwischen Tradition und Transformation’, in: Brenner, Jüdische Geschichtsschreibung heute, 123-129, see 128-129.
Katz, ‘The Jewish Response’, 13.
See for example Peter S. Knobel, ‘Reform Judaism and Kashrut’, in: Judaism, vol. 39 (1990), no. 4, 488-493;
Eisen, Rethinking Modern Judaism.
important here, is to see whether this Reform Judaism could also find points of contact in the Jewish
community of the Netherlands.
A basic observation is that Reform was not unknown in the Netherlands, but not admired either.
Indeed, reformist proposals of the nineteenth century took Reform Judaism as an inspiration source. They
wanted to improve Dutch Judaism from within, to save it from what they saw as rigidity and degeneration.
However, they aimed to achieve this along political rather than religious lines: the focus was on a
reorganization of the political sphere of Dutch Judaism. Why these programmes failed to get a positive
response from the side of the Dutch Jewish community, is hard to define. The third chapter described the
tendencies which did not make the breakthrough of a Reform movement in the Netherlands very likely.
Yet, it also showed that these structural factors never provide for a complete answer to the question why
Reform was absent in the Netherlands. The influence of personal preferences, illustrated by the Belgian
case, cannot be omitted from explanations. In any case, it is safe to say that Seligmann’s assertion that the
Jewish masses collectively followed the Wille zum Judentum and the ‘geschichtsnotwendige Entwicklung’
was belied in the case of the Dutch Jewish masses. It was precisely the rebellion of the Jewish masses that
chased the German Reformer Chronik away from the Netherlands. Apparently, Reform was commonly
viewed as something every right-minded Dutch Jew would reject. What role Orthodox leaders, laymen
and rabbis, played in this respect is still obscure. Whether they suppressed reformist initiatives ‘mit
fanatischer Gewalt’, whether they were inclined to do so, whether they would be powerful enough to do so
– there is much to speculate and much to assume, but few to be said for sure. A Dutch equivalent of Ismar
Schorsch’s study on German Jewish leadership in the nineteenth century would indeed be highly
The wave of reformism in interwar Dutch society has its own history. Neither the movement of Het
Oude Volk, nor Dutch Liberal Judaism developed according to the ‘historically necessary model’
described by Seligmann. These movements, emerging rather late in Dutch Jewish history, addressed the
specific crisis of their times. They were not born from a universal Wille zum Judentum; quite the contrary,
the growing problem of secularization, that steadily advancing process which increasingly worried
Reformers, was their ‘point of contact’ in the Dutch Jewish community. Since this problem was widely
acknowledged, the movements’ appeal was broad in a social sense; the movements did not rely on
intellectuals, or on rabbinical leaders, or on synagogue officials, but were called into life by average
Shmuel Feiner, ‘Eine traumatische Begegnung: Das jüdische Volk in der europäische Moderne’, in: Brenner and
Myers, ibid, 105-122, see 113; Feiner refers to Ismar Schorsch, ‘Emancipation and the Crisis of Religious Authority:
The Emergence of the Modern Rabbinate’, in: From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism
(Hanover and London 1994) 9-50.
A comparison between Het Oude Volk and Liberal Judaism shows that the two movements saw and
treated the question very differently. For the people of Het Oude Volk, the main problem of Dutch Jews
was not so much their lack of Judaism, but their adherence to an inappropriate form of Judaism. These
freethinkers were themselves highly secularized people for whom public Jewish religion, Jewish practice,
and rabbinical education were of little or no interest. What worried them reminds of the concerns of earlier
representatives of radical Reform – and, indeed, also of the reproaches voiced by contemporary antiSemitics: Dutch Jews formed a separate population group in Dutch society, adhered to an outdated
religion, and had a bad reputation. The freethinkers did not hesitate to present further assimilation as the
solution to this problem. Thus, in their view, the identity crisis of Jews in the Netherlands was especially
urgent on the Dutch side. Jewishness also deserved attention, but this was confined to the social and
economic reality of being Jewish – which was, otherwise, an actual problem indeed, as for instance the
brochures of S. Pinkhof show.
In general, the activities of Het Oude Volk show a striking commitment to the actualities of Dutch
society. The fact that the movement started in 1917, during the First World War, cannot be overlooked.
Their aversion to the war, Dutch verzuiling, and Jewish sectarianism can best be understood as parts of a
general longing for harmony which they shared with other freethinkers of the time. The wider desire to
bridge the gaps between countries, nationalities, population groups, and religions was probably the
background for that remarkable group of freethinkers united in the Federation as well. This widened the
gap that separated these Jews from other Dutch Jews, but also from Reform Judaism. Yet, in spite of all
the freethinking premises and vagueness of their thought, their aspirations also reflect that same concern
for the internal quality of Judaism. Even though they lost the bonds with organized Jewish religion, they
did not lose their attachment to the cause of true, inspiring Judaism. Indeed, an alliance with Montefiore’s
Liberal Judaism could well have yielded its fruits. This, however, belongs to the open fields of history.
In Dutch Liberal Judaism, to the contrary, Jewish religious identity stood in the centre, even at the
expense of the Dutch side of Jewish life. In contrast to the previous reformist movements in the
Netherlands, notably Het Oude Volk, it was not a home-grown movement. The Dutch circumstances did
not play a leading role in its programme. The viability of the movement must be ascribed to two factors:
first, the expansionism of the WUPJ; second, urgent problems tormenting Dutch Jewry at the time,
especially the need for appropriate Jewish education. While the movement is hardly thinkable without the
foreign interference, this was precisely what disturbed the opponents of the movement. Their aversion to
the ‘foreignness’ of the Liberal Jewish programme is notable. Combined with their recurrent reproach that
Het Oude Volk and Nieuw Joodsch Leven showed a dangerous lack of Jewishness, this reveals that Dutch
Jews living in the first decades of the twentieth century generally liked to strike the happy medium
between Dutch and Jewish loyalty. By trying to preserve Dutch-grown Jewish tradition, they wanted to
preserve the Jewish community in its Dutch character. In doing so, they displayed an ethnic definition of
Jewishness, which crossed the borders of the purely religious community. It was the coherence of the
Jewish community that they fought for, a coherence in which ‘insincere liberals’ were to be included – as
long as these did not begin to proclaim dissident religious ideas and programmes. Judged by their
responses to Dutch Liberal Judaism, then, the image of Dutch Jews as inner-directed, suspicious towards
Jewish developments elsewhere, and unwilling to alter the Dutch Jewish situation is not totally untrue to
reality. Rabbi Maarsen seems to have acknowledged this with his before-mentioned prediction that
Reform and Zionism would turn out to be triumphant after the war. Indeed, the experiences of the Second
World War enlarged the world of Dutch Jews, and completely altered the identity questions. The growth
of post-war Dutch Liberal Judaism, which covered some 25 to 30 percent of the organized Jewish
community in 1994, may also be understood in this framework.5
Concerning the second factor in the viability of the movement, evidence shows that Dutch Jewry’s
problem of Jewish education, which – rather remarkably – found a prominent place in the movement of
Het Oude Volk as well, was the primary Anknüpfungspunkt of Dutch Liberal Judaism. The emphasis on
Jewish education continued to be a central thrust of the Dutch Liberal movement, also after the war. This
was shown, for instance, with the establishment of the Liberal Jewish Congregation in Rotterdam in 1968.
During the first phase of its founding, when it was still questionable whether the sympathizers really
desired separate religious services, Liberal Jewish education took first priority. Fred Friedberg, the first
chairman of the congregation, explained his decision to join the congregation by his desire to give his
children proper Jewish education. ‘Maar joodse les op orthodoxe grondslag bij de N.I.G. [NIK, LS] leek
ons […] niet aantrekkelijk. Toch achtten wij joodse les voor onze kinderen noodzakelijk, overtuigd als wij
waren dat voortzetting van het jodendom uisluitend op basis van sentiment niet mogelijk is’, Friedberg
later recalled.6
The future-directed attitude of Dutch Liberal Jews, exemplified in the emphasis on education and
marked by the confidence that Liberal Judaism in the Netherlands was ‘“en marche, et rien ne l’arrêtera”’,
points to an important aspect of it. It shows that the movement was not only a part of Reform Judaism, but
also of the ‘Jewish renaissance’ which stirred several Jewish communities in the interwar years. The
Dutch Jewish community was not left undisturbed by this upsurge of vitality. Many worries, but also
hopes of Dutch Liberal Jews were shared by their fellow Jewish countrymen. The debates between
protagonists and antagonists of Liberal Judaism reveal a striking similarity of purpose: Liberals and
Orthodox alike yearned for a true, authentic, inspiring Judaism, a ‘Judaism of the deeds’ which would be
Brasz, ‘Na de tweede wereldoorlog’, see 382-383.
Fred Friedberg, ed., 30 jaar Liberaal Joodse Gemeente Rotterdam: 1968-1998 (Rotterdam, 1998) 16, 32.
in harmony with the needs of actuality. As such, to conclude, Dutch Liberal Judaism was not only a part
of international Liberal Judaism but also of the Dutch Jewish experience of the interwar years.
What remains to be said, however, is that this mutual understanding eventually left the gap between
Orthodox and Liberal Judaism in the Netherlands unabridged – as it does until today. No matter how far
Orthodox Jews could agree with the aspirations of Liberal Judaism, there was a fundamental point where
the opinions departed. As one of the correspondents of Ha’ischa, Mrs. A. Schwimmer-Vigeveno, put it:
‘Zij [de Reformjoden, LS] maken een scheiding tussen datgene wat zij als het wezenlijke van den
Joodschen godsdienst beschouwen en dat andere, wat zij aan tijd gebonden – en dus aan veroudering
onderhevig – achten. Deze scheiding is een willekeurige en ligt bij de verschillende nuances, die in
liberaal en reform Jodendom gevonden worden, zeer ver uiteen. Doch gemeen is allen, dat zij de
grondidee der orthodoxie: de heiligheid van heel de Joodsche wetgeving ontrouw geworden zijn’.7 This
points to another side of the theme that has been discussed. It must be acknowledged that, in the last
resort, it was (in the words of Carolina Eitje) holy, profound convictions that collided. Neither Reform
Judaism, nor Orthodox Judaism can be reduced to identity questions. There is always more to say about
Ha’ischa, vol. 2, no. 2, Februari 1930 – Sjewat 5690, 40-41.
Contemporary sources: books and pamphlets
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Berlin (Dresden, 1881)
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Pinkhof, S., Gereed? (Positie van den Joodschen Godsdienst) (Amsterdam, 1928)
Pinkhof, S., Vooruitzichten (Hoe ontwikkelt zich de traditie?) (Den Helder, 1926)
Plaut, W. Gunther, The Rise of Reform Judaism: A Sourcebook of its European Origins (New York, 1963)
Rivals, Georges, Notes sur le Judaïsme Libéral (de 1750 à 1913) (Paris, 1913)
Salvador, J., Paris, Rome, Jérusalem ou la question religieuse au XIXe siècle I (Paris, 1860)
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Stahl, H.G., Jonkheer Salvador en zijne misdaden (’s Gravenhage, 1856)
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Centraalblad voor Israëlieten (CvI)
De Joodsche Wachter: Veertiendaagsch Orgaan van den Nederlandschen Zionistenbond
De Groene Amsterdammer: weekblad voor Nederland
Het Oude Volk, voorheen en thans: halfmaandelijksch tijdschrift voor vrijzinnige Joden
Mizrachie: Maandblad van “Mizrachie”, afdeling van den Nederlandschen Zionistenbond
Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant (NRC)
Nieuw Israëlietisch Weekblad (NIW)
Nieuw Joodsch Leven: Mededeelingen van het Verbond van Liberaal Religieuze Joden in Nederland
Weekblad voor Israeliëten
Weekblad voor Israëlietische Huisgezinnen (WvIH)
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