The rise of the house of Rothschild in banking not only played an important role in the development of the modern mercantile system, but in Jewish history as well as. The success of Rothschild proved to Western European Jews that the barriers were about to fall and that Jews could look forward to participating fully in the general society.
However, the Jews of that age — as the Jews of almost every age — suffered from a type of myopia. The myopia lay in the fact that the very success of the Rothschilds and the Jews in Western Europe in the arts, science, medicine, business, finance and trade, would unleash a new type of anti-Semitism that did not exist before. In effect, the Jews, without realizing it, were trading in religiously based anti-Semitism of the Christian world for a new far more virulent and far more dangerous type of anti-Semitism.
A very good analysis of this idea appears in the opening chapters of a book called The Siege, by Conor Cruise O’Brien, who was the Irish representative to the UN for many years. Since they sat in alphabetical order, he sat between Iraq and Israel for years and it gave him a unique perspective on the Middle East problem.
He writes how Christian anti-Semitism had limits. Even though there is nothing to be proud about the Church’s record vis-a-vis the Jewish people, the truth is that the Jews in the Middle Ages were never subject to extermination. Secular anti-Semitism, by contrast, was based not upon religious beliefs. It was based upon ideas of race, genetics and economics. That made it far more virulent and dangerous.
Now we look back in hindsight and say it was obvious. Nevertheless, the Jews in the middle and the end of the 18th century — who were bursting from the ghettos, who for the first time had a chance economically, and who at least felt they had a chance socially to escape the persecutions of the old type of anti-Semitism — did not see it at all. They were absolutely convinced that the solution to the Jewish problem lay in the abandonment of the Jewish religion and assimilation.
Already not long after the death of Moses Mendelssohn, German Jews started calling themselves “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.” They did not identify themselves as Jews. They said that they had much more in common with their German Christian brethren than they did with their co-religionists in Eastern Europe.
The Reform movement originally was the product of a man by the name of Abraham Geiger. Geiger was radical in the ways he wanted to change Judaism. He had contempt for Mendelssohn, because he felt that Mendelssohn was still too Jewish. Mendelssohn still prayed the afternoon prayer. Geiger would not be accused of that crime.
The first thing he did was abolish the use of the Hebrew language in prayer and study, substituting it for German. To Geiger, German became the language of Judaism.
Next, he removed from the prayers all references to Zion, Jerusalem, the Land of Israel, the Temple, animal sacrifices. He argued: How would Jews be loyal servants of the Kaiser and Fatherland if every day they prayed that they should be returned to Zion? (A few decades later, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen said, “Woe to those who say regarding Berlin that it is Jerusalem.”)
Another point that Geiger maintained was that the Jewish prayer service could not really be different from the non-Jewish prayer service. Therefore, in the Jewish houses of worship the organ was introduced — because the organ existed in every church in Germany. Mixed choirs were introduced because they existed in churches in Germany. One thing not introduced was mixed seating because mixed seating did not exist in the German Lutheran churches.
These radical changes were topped by the fact that Reform took the Jewish day of rest and moved it from Saturday to Sunday. Today, they have moved it back to Saturday. But vestiges of such practice existed in the United States as late as the 1950s.
Bridge to Assimilation
American Reform today sees itself as a fence against assimilation. In the United States, 70 or 80% of the population is completely unaffiliated. Therefore, Reform sees itself on the side of religion. However, Reform during its inception — in the late 1700s and the early 1800s — saw itself as a bridge into assimilation; as a conduit by which Jews could come into German society and eventually convert.
The grandchildren of Reform’s founder, Moses Mendelssohn, were non-Jews. Another descendant, the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn, was an apostate Jew. As late as 1936, when the Nuremburg laws were passed, the intermarriage rate in Germany was 45%.
The failure of Reform to complete its original mission to serve as a bridge for assimilation was the result of non-Jews, not Jews. In general, assimilation does not depend on the Jews. It depends on the non-Jews. To the extent that society is willing to accept Jews — to that extent Jews will assimilate. That is arguably the most common thread throughout Jewish history. It is a terrible thing to contemplate, but the reason that Reform failed in Germany was because the Germans did not want the Jews. The reason that it failed in Russia was because the Russians did not want the Jews.
Sweeping the Jewish World
The Reform movement was very successful within Germany. In a matter of five centuries it is estimated that over 90% of German Jewry had forsaken their tradition. It just swept the populace. Old established Jewish communities that had weathered hundreds of years from the time of the Crusades caved in.
When Reform took over a community, its leadership usually allowed religious functions to remain in the hands of the Orthodox. For instance, they allowed ritual slaughter to continue and had Orthodox people taking care of the slaughtering. They even allowed the few die-hard Orthodox to maintain their synagogues, ritual baths and cemeteries. There was an older element in Reform that still needed and wanted that for a short while.
It would not be until Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in the late 1850s that there would be a revival of Orthodoxy in Germany. It would not be the Orthodoxy that existed before. It would provide Jews, so to speak, with the benefits of Reform without losing any of their tradition. That was the genius of Rabbi Hirsch. We will discuss it in its proper place because it would only take place about 100 years after Mendelssohn. In the interim, everything in Germany went the way of Reform.
The French Revolution
Reform was also successful in France. Even though the leaders of the French Revolution were anti-Semitic, in theory the revolution was committed to Jewish freedoms, Jewish social rights and Jewish citizenship.
Of course, the French Revolution ate itself up, as many revolutions do. It degenerated into a reign of terror. The people in charge were killed. There was just no end to the chaos and destruction. Too much freedom too soon in the wrong hands was a recipe for disaster.
Be that as it may, the ideals of the French Revolution survived the chaos and found expression and official confirmation during the time of Napoleon. He eventually got carried away with himself, as people in his position often do. He was unfortunately blessed with a great deal of early and uninterrupted success, which guarantees a tremendous ego. There are insane asylums filled with people who think they are Napoleon. Napoleon had the same problem. He really came to believe that he was Napoleon.
Today, we would call Napoleon a dictator. When he established himself as the Emperor of France, as the new royalty, in effect he undid the political accomplishments of the French Revolution. Nevertheless, he succeeded in keeping its spiritual, social, and moral ideas alive. He wanted Jews to be equal and have all the rights. Practically speaking, he wanted the benefit from the Jewish genius. He also was financed a great deal by the Rothschilds. But he wanted to modernize the Jewish people. He wanted to modernize Judaism. He wanted to make it presentable to the non-Jews. He engaged in what today we call social engineering.
In 1809, he convened a group of rabbis whom he called the Great Sanhedrin. As Napoleon became engaged with other matters, including Josephine and the war in Russia, the Sanhedrin idea fell apart. Nevertheless, aborted as it was, it was really the birth of what we call the Jewish Enlightenment, which later would be the Haskalah in Eastern Europe. Haskalah tried to do within the Jewish people what Napoleon tried to do from without. It tried to make a new modern Judaism, one that the outside world would accept — and once they accepted Judaism, they would accept the Jews.
Unfortunately, the leaders of Haskalah would fall into the same trap that the leaders of Reform fell into. They waged a war against Judaism. The problem was not Judaism, however. The problem was racial anti-Semitism. It was a barrier that no Sanhedrin, that no devotion to non-Jewish ideals could overcome.
It is easy to say that with the hindsight of history. But in 1800, at the beginning of the modern era, no one saw that yet. Since no one saw it, the Reform movement was launched. And it continued on a track that would eventually prove suicidal. Its own success would be its own defeat.