Ear­li­er this week, Rab­bi Bar­ry Schwartz wrote about need­ing more Jew­ish debate and the first Jew­ish debate. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

The mid-19th cen­tu­ry in Ger­many is, to my mind, the most unap­pre­ci­at­ed peri­od in Jew­ish his­to­ry. The rea­son is sim­ple: mod­ern Judaism as we know it was born then and there. Do I exag­ger­ate? I think not. Spin­ozas rev­o­lu­tion­ary thought in the mid-17th cen­tu­ry cer­tain­ly paved the way for new think­ing (see Chap­ter VIII of my book). Mendelssohns attempts in the late 18th cen­tu­ry to rec­on­cile faith and rea­son lay the ground­work with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. The ear­ly reforms of Israel Jacob­son, along with the respons­es of the Parisian San­hedrin to Napoleon in the first decade of the 19th cen­tu­ry mark the irre­versible first steps of putting the­o­ry into practice. 

But moder­ni­ty hits its stride in Judaism in the sec­ond decade of the 19th cen­tu­ry. In 1817 the Ham­burg Tem­ple embraces reform of Judaism as its rai­son-de-entre. In 1819 Leopold Zunz estab­lish­es the pio­neer­ing Soci­ety for the Cul­ture and Sci­ence of Judaism, which advo­cates for the aca­d­e­m­ic study of our sacred texts and reli­gious her­itage. The same year a lead­ing tra­di­tion­al­ist rab­bi, Moses Sofer, cas­ti­gates this approach in his broad­side Eleh Divrei Habrit. The grounds for the great debate have been set.

The debate tru­ly unfolds over a ten year peri­od (18361846) between three giants of mod­ern Judaism who were con­tem­po­raries, and actu­al­ly knew and liked each oth­er (until their dis­agree­ments drove them apart). Rab­bi Abra­ham Geiger began argu­ing that Judaism has always evolved and should con­tin­ue to change with the times. He called for rad­i­cal shifts to meet the demands of moder­ni­ty, includ­ing the crit­i­cal study of Torah, the elim­i­na­tion of out­dat­ed prayers and cus­toms, and the equal treat­ment of men and women. Rab­bi Sam­son Raphael Hirsch, while acknowl­edg­ing the need to engage in sec­u­lar learn­ing in the new age, con­tend­ed that Judaism’s truths and law was eter­nal and not sub­ject to evo­lu­tion. Rab­bi Zecharias Frankel, an advo­cate of mod­er­ate reform” famous­ly stormed out of an 1845 con­fer­ence in Frank­fort over the elim­i­na­tion of Hebrew from some of the liturgy.

Rab­bis Geiger, Hirsch, and Frankel became known, respect­ful­ly, as the fathers” of Reform, Ortho­dox, and Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism. The spec­trum of mod­ern denom­i­na­tion­al Judaism was born in that time and place. Chap­ter IX of my book chron­i­cles this remark­able debate. While the cen­tral locale of the debate would soon shift to Amer­i­ca it was these three Ger­man Jew­ish lead­ers, through their ser­mons, books, and orga­ni­za­tion­al activ­i­ties who set the stage. Though hard­ly house­hold names in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty today we owe a debt of grat­i­tude to their great debate. I once taught a course about them called The Three Tenors of Mod­ern Judaism.” Their mag­nif­i­cent voic­es cre­at­ed the opera we sing today.

Rab­bi Bar­ry Schwartz is direc­tor of The Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety in Philadel­phia and rab­bi of Con­gre­ga­tion Adas Emu­no in Leo­nia, NJ. He is the author of Judaism’s Great Debates (Behrman House, March 2012 stu­dent edi­tion; Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety, May, 2012 adult edi­tion).