The Hamburg Temple Controversy. Continuity and a New Beginning in Dibere Haberith

Philipp Lenhard

Source Description

The present source deals with the Foreword to a collection of expert report entitled Dibere Haberith (Words of the Covenant, DH), that the three executive board members (Dajanim) of the rabbinic judicial court of the Hamburg CongregationBaruch Meyer, Jacob Meyer Jaffe, und Michel Israel Speyer– published in the German language in September 1819, in order to respond to the erection of a new Reform synagogue, the "New Israelite Temple Association." In May / June 1819, the collection appeared first in a Hebrew edition, which soon thereafter was supplemented with a German-language edition printed in Hebrew letters. At the “wish of several readers” (Preface to Dibere Haberith), finally there appeared a German-language edition in Latin letters, from which the following textual excerpt is taken – apparently, a part of the readership could no longer read Hebrew. Unlike the Hebrew version, which first and foremost represented a halakhic compendium, the German version was meant for “general use” (Preface to Dibere Haberith) and therefore dispensed with the cross-references to rabbinic sources. A few opinions – for example, that of the Alsatian Rabbi Katzenellenbogen – are completely missing.
  • Philipp Lenhard

The New Israelite Temple Association – the Establishment of Reform Judaism in Hamburg

As early as 1815, the first plans were presented to build a new kind of synagogue, one that could satisfy the religious needs of acculturated circles. The synagogue was to be called a “Temple,” thereby emphasizing that the motherland of Hamburg Jews was no longer Jerusalem but the Hansa city Hamburg. If the “Temple” now stood in Hamburg, Jews in messianic times would no longer have to return to the Holy Land to rebuild Solomon’s temple, as prescribed by the traditional vision. Simultaneously, the naming of the new synagogue cut the ties to “Zion” and proclaimed patriotic loyalty to the homeland. Eduard Kley, a radical supporter of Reform, who had gained experience giving sermons in Berlin, arrived in Hamburg in 1817 in order to teach in a privately financed Jewish Free School there and to lead the establishment of the New Israelite Temple Association. Thereafter, plans became more concrete: less than a year later, the New Israelite Temple was dedicated on 18 October, the fifth anniversary of the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig, or, as the nationalist mindset would have it, Germans were freed from Napoleon’s yoke. Gotthold Salomon, the rabbi of the temple, spoke retrospectively of “a highly important holiday for all Germans.” Gotthold Salomon, Kurzgefaßte Geschichte des Neuen Israelitischen Tempels in Hamburg während der ersten 25 Jahre seines Bestehens, nebst Anmerkungen und Beilagen, Hamburg 1844, p. 6. Concise History of the New Israelite Temple during the First 25 Years of Its Existence, with Notes and Supplements. In the new temple, sermons were to be delivered in German, an organ was to be introduced, and numerous passages that had messianic echoes of a return to Palestine should be eliminated from the prayer books. Regarding this, see the programmatic book by Eduard Kley and Carl Sigfried Günsburg, Die deutsche Synagoge, Berlin 1817. In 1819 the prayer book in Hamburg was entitled “The Ordering of Public Worship for the Sabbath and Holidays during the Entire Year. According to the Practice of the New Temple Association of Hamburg. Published by S. J. Fränkel and M. J. Bresslau.” In contrast to later Reform prayer books, it was still bilingual, in German and Hebrew.

In addition, Protestant practices were introduced into the liturgy; the Bar Mitzvah now suddenly became the “Confirmation” and Judaism became a “Church” of “the Followers of the Mosaic Religion.” See Gründungs- und Vereinigungsurkunde des Neuen Israelitischen Tempelvereins in Hamburg. 2. Tebeth 5578, 11. Dezember 1817, in: David Leimdörfer, Festschrift zum hundertjährigen Bestehen des Israelitischen Tempels in Hamburg 1818–1918, Hamburg 1918, pp. 11-15, here p. 11.

Schism in the Jewish congregation

All this was a monstrous provocation in the eyes of the Orthodox rabbinate. The Executive Board of the congregation was deeply split: four of the eight board members had endorsed the statutes of the Temple Association Tempel-Verband. The remaining four, however, bitterly opposed to the Reform efforts. Problematically for them was the fact that the Reformers could rely on good will within the congregation for their concerns. Thus, according to the Traditionalists’ view, it was vital to make clear to the congregation members that the strivings of the Reformers amounted to heresy that ought not be tolerated, let alone supported. Initially, they posted a warning on the exterior of the synagogue, but because this seemed to help only a little, and because submissions to the Hamburg Senate also remained without effect, Baruch Meyer, Jacob Meyer Jaffe, Michael Wolff Speyer to the Hamburg Senate, 7. 5. 1819 and to Senators Jacob Hinrich Jencquel and Johann Matthias Hasse, 16. 11. 1818, in: StAHH, Senatsakten, CL. VII Lit. Lb No. 18 Vol. 7b Fasc. 4 Inv. 1, quoted in: Andreas Brämer, Judentum und religiöse Reform. Der Hamburger Israelitische Tempel 1817–1938, Hamburg 2000, footnote 49. the expert opinions of 22 eminent European rabbis were written down, collected, and published as Dibere Haberith.

Supra-Regional Significance of the Book

The significance of the Hamburg controversy is demonstrated, not only in that it elicited four written replies and two brochures published by the Reform side, but also by the fact that Orthodox rabbis from the German lands (including Bohemia and Moravia), Hungary, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, and France could be won over to intervene in an apparently local matter. Beyond this, what was remarkable is the form of the argumentation: although the Hamburg rabbis had no formal authority to pronounce a herem (ban), they initially oriented themselves to the early modern period’s diction of excommunication. See the Hamburg Congregation Statutes (Version of 1780), takanah 8, in: Heinz Mosche Graupe, Die Statuten der Gemeinden Altona, Hamburg und Wandsbek, Hamburg 1873. Thus, the declaration of October 27, 1818, signed by Eckiva A. Bresslau, president of the Board of Rabbis of Altona, reads: “Children of God! Unlawful is the path these people have trod. Guard yourself against any sort of collaboration with them.” (DH, p. 16) This manifesto, posted publicly in the synagogue, thus enjoined the congregation, not only to avoid the new synagogue but also to break off any contact with the members of the Temple Association Tempel-Verband. As a model for this formula, cf., takanah 18 of the Statutes of the Congregations Wandsbek and Hamburg of 1708 / 1709, in: Graupe, Die Statuten. It was declared no legitimate part of Judaism, but rather a cult.

The effect in Hamburg

Evidently, this urgent appeal went unheeded; the old coercive measures were no longer available to invigorate it and it was generally disobeyed. Nonetheless, the publishers of the book maintained that the Hebrew original had been “met with undivided approval” (DH, Preface), a claim contradicted by the statement that “for several years now, irreligiosity and freethinking have increased among us” (DH, p. 1). The rabbis asserted that for a long time it had been a matter of “error on the part of individual brothers” (DH, p. 2), but they at the same time conceded that now, all at once, “societal associations” had been established (DH, p. 2), which commanded their intervention all the more urgently. The Orthodox leadership of the congregation was no longer dealing with individual Reformers but rather with groups that were seeking to institutionalize their ideas, thereby calling into question the existing power structure.

A question of the authority to define

Not least at stake for the rabbis was the monopoly over deciding between “correct” and “false,” “Jewish” and “un-Jewish.” In practical terms this crisis over the authority to define expressed itself in the liturgical reform introduced by the Temple Association Tempel-Verband: according to the view of the Traditionalists, it was not just a matter of altering “unessential ceremonies” (DH, p. 3) but rather “an essential part of our Order of Prayer” (DH, p. 3). Remarkably, the rabbis and the Reformers shared the assumption that there were differences between essential and unessential – a premise, in principle, that confirmed the liturgy could be changed. What divided the two parties was the question of what was to be regarded as “essential.” Especially offensive to the publishers of Dibere Haberith was that Reform did not issue from the spirit of Judaism, but rather sought to adapt to the “spirit of the times,” above all “the forms practiced by those of other faiths” (DH, p. 3) – that is, tailoring them to the Christian liturgy.

Although the rabbis announced their readiness to give up “the unessential,” they emphatically denied that the members of the Temple Association had any right to implement such changes. They had “neither the proper authority, nor the required knowledge to carry out such undertakings” (DH, p. 3). “Solely authorized” (DH, p. 4) to implement reforms are trained rabbis, the successors to the “men of the Great Synod” (DH, p. 4) – that is, the ancient Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court that stood in Jerusalem.

The Two-Pronged Strategy of the Orthodox rabbis

To be sure, the authors implored members of the congregation to stay away from the Temple, but they had to acknowledge that in the previous months the Reform liturgy actually had aroused great interest. Therefore, they followed a two-pronged strategy – no matter how dim the prospects may have been: they did not only turn to the members of the congregation, but rather also to the Reformers themselves, offering a return to the bosom of the congregation, if they would set aside their plans. At the close of the text, the tone changed from harsh to conciliatory: “Far be it from us to preach hate and persecution of our straying brothers” (DH, p. 13). The contrast in strategies is particularly apparent in the older edition, written largely in Hebrew, that ends with a printed declaration in which the publishers once again decisively emphasize that they will engage in no discussion with the Reformers and “none [of their] refutations will be responded to.” Bejt din tzedek be-hamburg, eleh divrej ha-brit, Altona 1819, p. 132. They were prepared to receive the ostensible heretics “with open arms in brotherly fashion back into the sacred Covenant” (DH, p. 13).

Dibere Haberith – Pivot point between tradition and modernization

The text reflects in concentrated form how an Orthodoxy, whose former power base was already eroding and therefore had to reorder itself, reacted to the challenge of the Reformers. In 1799, Raphael Cohen, chief rabbi of the old Triple Congregation Dreigemeinde of Hamburg, Altona, and Wandsbek, had his power to issue the ban withdrawn by the government, whereupon he resigned. The publishers of Dibere Haberith had taken upon themselves the task of carrying traditional Judaism forward, but they lacked the social and political basis for doing so — a congregation’s autonomy. In view of the continuing process of social transformation, and without the traditional disciplinary and coercive measures at their disposal, they were no longer in a position to maintain their absolute authority against the reformist and lay elements of the congregation. The Hamburg Temple controversy therefore constituted a pivotal point in the confrontation between the so-called Traditionalists and Reformers. Viewed superficially, the Dibere Haberith collection represents a form of Judaism that de facto could no longer exist, given the dissolution of the congregation’s autonomy. Considered more carefully, the present document already clearly indicates the modernization process that led in the following years to a self-described “Modern Orthodoxy” or “Neo-Orthodoxy.” Thus, it seems appropriate to read Dibere Haberith, not only as a document of a waning era, but also as the prelude to the forming of a modern Orthodoxy.

New developments within Orthodoxy

For a long time, research on Orthodox rabbis at the turn of the 19th century has portrayed them as mired in the past; that view derives from the way Reformers saw them. Thus, Gotthold Salomon characterized – the publisher of Dibere Haberith as one of the “hyper-Orthodox,” men who “with their opinions and manner of thinking belonged in an earlier century.” Salomon, Kurzgefaßte Geschichte, p. 9. They were men whom the times had “passed over without a trace.” ibid. Even Abraham Geiger held firmly to the idea that the rabbis were still “wandering up blind alleys with an inherited, confused casuistry.” Abraham Geiger: Der Hamburger Tempelstreit, eine Zeitfrage. Breslau 1842, p. 2.

The sharp contrast between an enlightened modernity and an allegedly medieval Orthodoxy played to religious political interests; but it obscured the transformational processes within Orthodoxy itself. In this regard, the Foreword  to Dibere Haberith does not simply reflect a clinging to conservative positions that would like everything to stay the same as it was; it is also marked by decisive innovations. These begin with the use of the German language; up to this time, no rabbinic rulings appeared in German. The rendering into German implied an adaptation to central concepts of the Reformer camp, above all in the use of the word “Israelite” instead of “Jew.” The word choice certainly referred to the Hebrew biblical designation “b’nej jisrael" (Sons of Israel), but it was taken by the public as a retreat from the idea of the existence of a specific “Jewish nation.” The separation of the religious dimension of Judaism from the ethnic is not what the rabbis, in contrast to the Reformers, had in mind, as is borne out by the continued usage of conceptions, such as “People,” “Nation,” “Progenitors,” and “Forefathers.”

Developments after Dibere Haberith

In this respect, the text ought to be understood as a connecting link between the old and the new Orthodoxy. This can also be traced chronologically: in 1821, just two years after the publication of Dibere Haberith, Isaac Bernays became the rabbi of the Hamburg congregation. The secularly educated Bernays adopted several symbols from Reform Judaism, such as the winged necktie and the cassock. He gave sermons in German, championed the Reform pedagogy in Jewish schools, and called himself “Chacham” (the Wise One), a designation for a rabbi in the tradition of Sephardic Judaism and that was thought of as particularly enlightened in his day. However, at the same time he demanded a rigidly halakhic observance and held a clear position against the Reformers. Bernay’s friend of many years, Jakob Etlinger, who succeeded Eckiva A. Bresslau as the chief rabbi of Altona, founded together with Samuel Enoch, the director of the Jewish secondary school in Altona, the periodical, “Der treue Zionswächter” [“The Loyal Guardian of Zion”]. It appeared weekly (later, bi-weekly) in German and disseminated the positions of Orthodoxy, representing both outwardly and stylistically a modern media instrument within the pluralist bourgeois public sphere. Certainly, the origins of modern Orthodoxy cannot be traced back in linear fashion to the Hamburg Temple controversy. However, lines of that development can be discerned, suggesting that the Foreword to Dibere Haberith ought not be read simply as a document of continuity, but also, and in the same measure, as a new beginning.

Select Bibliography

Andreas Brämer, Judentum und religiöse Reform. Der Hamburger Israelitische Tempel 1817–1938, Hamburg 2000.
Philipp Lenhard, Volk oder Religion? Die Entstehung moderner jüdischer Ethnizität in Frankreich und Deutschland 1782–1848, Göttingen 2014.

Selected English Titles

David Ellenson, Tradition in Transition. Orthodoxy, Halakha, and the Boundaries of Modern Jewish Identity, Lanham 1989.
Jacob Katz, The Controversy over the Temple in Hamburg and the Rabbinic Assembly in Braunschweig. Milestones in the Development of Orthodoxy, in: ibid. (ed.), Divine Law in Human Hands. Case Studies in Halachic Flexibility, Jerusalem 1998, pp. 216–254.
Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, New York, 1988.
Alan Mittleman, Between Kant and Kabbalah: An Introduction to Isaac Breuer's Philosophy of Judaism: Hermeneutice, Mysticism and Religion, New York 1990.
Gunther Plaut, The Growth of Reform Judaism: American and European Sources, Philadelphia 2015 [50th Aniversary edition].

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About the Author

Philipp Lenhard, Dr. phil., is research assistant / academic councilor at the Department for Jewish History and Culture at the Historical Seminary of Ludwig-Maximilian-University Munich. His dissertation was published by Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht under the title "A people or a religion? The emergence of modern Jewish ethnicity in France and Germany 1782-1848" in 2014.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Philipp Lenhard, The Hamburg Temple Controversy. Continuity and a New Beginning in Dibere Haberith (translated by Richard S. Levy), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 21, 2017. <> [July 22, 2024].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.