Shimon Peres spoke, this week, at a gala dinner to celebrate the 35 anniversary of the Masorti Movement in Israel. And it gives me an opportunity to share an answer to an oft asked question. When did this type of Judaism start?
The real answer is, there is no date. As Masorti Jews we would claim that what we are doing is what Jews have always done. There was never a single rigid orthodoxy, only ever a process of transmission which as evolved with its feet always turned rooted on Sinai, its heart always turned towards Jerusalem and its responses to the various societies in which Jews have found themselves always marked by the historical, sociological and scientific realities of those various times and places. But let me share three key dates. The 1850s in Germany, 1883 in the United States and the 1960s in London.
Zechariah Frankel, one of the most significant scholars of Judaism of his time, wanted to set up a Rabbinical training Seminary in Breslau. Jews had not long been able to study in German Universities but Frankel believed that this was the time for Judaism to leave the Shtetl and, particularly, the time for those engaged with the study of Judaism to show that this study was of serious academic value. Among the admission criteria to what became the Jüdisch-Theologisches Seminar would be a doctorate. Raphael Shimshon Hirsch, leader of Berlin’s Modern Orthodox community, baulked at the emphasis placed on what was called the Historical method, or Wissenschaft. For Hirsch academic enquiry was all fine and good, but orthodox meant accepting the literal content of revelation and the absolute binding nature of Halachah and that had to supersede the value of critical study. The two leaders fell out and Hirsch supported the foundation of a rival seminary which while certainly modern in its orthodoxy placed no great importance on academic scientific investigation.
Not long after the first American Rabbinical training seminary opened in the ‘New World,’ the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Two kinds of teachers began teaching there. There were the hardline early leaders of American Reform, for whom the New World was a perfect chance to practice the reformed Judaism they believed in, freed from what they saw as out-dated, irrelevant ancient Jewish practices such as Kashrut. And there were practioners of the Historical school of Jewish study, men (only men at that time) of deep commitment to traditional practices, but more open minded in their approach to Jewish scholarship. In 1883 the first class of Rabbis were ordained at Hebrew Union College and, to celebrate, the College threw a banquet – it has gone down in history as the Treifa Banquet. On the menu were clams, shrimp, frogs legs and more. The traditional members of faculty were outraged, and left. They went on to found the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (where I studied).
The final date is, of course, the early 1960s - ‘The Jacobs Affair.’ Rabbi Louis Jacobs, by common consent a shoo-in to become Chief Rabbi, had published ‘We Have Reason to Believe.’ In the book he argued that it was possible to be an open-minded, intellectually and academically grounded Jew and still be deeply engaged in observance of Mitzvot and deeply committed to the holiness of the Jewish Tradition. But he went too far for the United Synagogue of his time. His ‘Certificate of Competence’ was revoked and he was unable to return to his one-time pulpit at the New West End Synagogue. Some 400 of his supporters founded the New London Synagogue in his honour.
It’s a story worth telling in part because I want our members to feel as proud as I am of the epochal nature of our founding narrative, but also because, to return to Shimon Peres and the Israeli Masorti Movement, Israel in particular is desperately in need of finding what Rambam called the ‘Golden path’ that Masorti Judaism represents; a path of intellectual openness and commitment. On Shabbat I will be addressing some of these issues in the context of the appalling behaviour of, admittedly, a small number of ultra-orthodox Jews in Bet Shemesh and, more to the point, the way in which ultra-orthodoxy is exerting its power over public life in Israel.