Rabbi Ferenc Raj Congregation Beth El:



In the last one hundred years, among the many topics included in the study of Jewish history, "Emancipation" has been one of the favorite ones. In a recent scholarly anthology "The Modern Jewish Experience - A Reader's Guide", David Weinberg, Professor of History at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, observes: "Whether because of ideological preference, the lack of a suitable alternative model, or simple inertia, it is unlikely that Emancipation will soon be dethroned, as the central topic of the study and teaching of modern Jewish history."1

In my paper I will briefly introduce the subject "Emancipation" and then continue with several specific historical examples that will demonstrate some of the unique features that characterize the tough road to Emancipation in Hungary. This paper, even in its final form, is a preliminary study, based on primary sources and archival documents that will lead to a more comprehensive analysis of the Emancipation of Hungarian Jewry.

The term "Emancipation" in modern Jewish historiography refers to the "legal processes by which Jews acquired civil and political rights in their countries of residence." The original phrase, as was pointed out by scholars of subsequent generations, originates from Roman law where it meant "the liberation of a son from the authority of his father and his attainment of independent legal status." While the word "Emancipation" referring to granting equal rights to Jews gained popularity in the 1830s and 1840s, until then only the betterment of their situation, namely the "amelioration" of their civil status (bürgerliche Verbessenung) was mentioned. This technical term was introduced in 1781 by Christian Wilhelm von Dohm (1751-1820) a German historian, economist and diplomat. Many a historian follow Simon Dubnow's dating and division of Jewish Emancipation who considered the French Revolution (1789) as the starting point. I agree with Jacob Katz, the "dean" of late twentieth century Jewish historians who would antedate the movement to the 1781 publication of Dohm's pamphlet "Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden" (Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews).2

The long and often painful road that led to Emancipation for Hungarian Jews started in the 1780s. Hungary's new ruler, Joseph II, who refused to wear the crown of St. Stephen, decided to break the power of the Diet, the Free Royal Cities and the "Almighty" Catholic Church. His Edict of Toleration in 1781 (Edictum Tolerationae) was the first and perhaps the best known of religious edicts that extended the "free practice" of religions to all confessions, though quite a few of the restrictions were still in practice. This specific edict does not deal with Jews, but only with Protestants and members of the Greek Orthodox Church. A few months later, the "Edict of Tolerance" was issued, one of the first in a series of edicts concerning the Jewish subjects of Joseph II. The Edict of Tolerance, promulgated on January 2, 1782 was a quite lengthy document consisting of twenty-five paragraphs. It is clear that the Emperor did not issue the edict to emancipate his Jewish subjects; rather he granted more rights to them in order to make them "useful and serviceable to the State, mainly through better education and enlightenment of its youth as well as by directing them to the sciences, the arts and the crafts."3

The Jews were considered small players in the Emperor's master plan "to convert the multifaceted monarchy into a single province equal in all its institutions and responsibilities...a single mass of people all equally subject to impartial guidance." The first paragraph of the edict clearly states the price the Jewish community must pay for the privileges promised.

It certainly is not at all Our supreme wish herewith to grant the Jews residing in Vienna an expansion [of rights] with respect to external tolerance [Duldung]. On the contrary, in the future it will remain that they do not constitute an actual community under a designated leader from their own nation, but as hitherto each family, considered separately, will serenely enjoy the protection of the laws of the land in accordance with the tolerance [Duldung] specifically given it by Our government of Lower Austria. Further, as hitherto they will not be allowed public religious worship or public synagogues; they will not be permitted to establish their own press for the printing of prayer books and other Hebrew books, but when necessary they are to turn to available printing presses in Bohemia; should they wish to import Jewish books from foreign lands, which in general is forbidden, they are accordingly obligated in each such instance, to apply for permission and, like all other subjects, to submit imported books to the censor.4

On March 31, 1783 the "Systematica Gentis Judaicae Regulatio" was proclaimed. This decree promises privileges if and when the Jews are willing to give up their special status of being a state within the State. In every official document and communication Jews should use the language of the province; neither Hebrew, except for liturgical use at worship services, (excepta duntaxat cultu Divino) nor Yiddish (jüdisch-deutsch) will be allowed. Jewish subjects will be given two years to master those official languages. Preference is given to three languages: Hungarian, Latin and German. Paragraph 4/d mentions spoken languages such as German, Hungarian and "Sclavonica" or Slavic, though it was not yet determined that all of these languages will be taught in the new school system. Joseph II and his administration do not hide their desire namely "the speedy extermination of Jewish languages". Again Hebrew books that are used at services or for a specific ritual purpose will be exempt. Otherwise printing or even importing Hebrew, Yiddish or just books that use Hebrew characters should be severely and absolutely prohibited.

Special emphasis is put on education and on reforming the Jewish school system. The document refers to the "well-known obstinacy and natural prejudice" Jews possess that will cause difficulties in the implementation of the Emperor's plans. Joseph II expects that the Rabbis and Elders of the Jewish community should encourage their people to carry out these ordinances especially those that concern education. If Jewish children decide to attend Christian schools, they do not have to learn catechism but they should receive instruction in the Jewish faith instead. The tutor must be paid by the parents of the Jewish children. Ten years following the proclamation, no Jewish person age twenty-five or younger will be allowed to conduct any business or conduct any commercial activity unless he completed the educational requirements at one of these officially approved schools.

On a positive note, the "Systematica Gentis Judaicae Regulatio" opened up the universities for Hungarian Jewish youths and eased for them the regulations concerning apprenticeship for craftsmen, and subsequently for joining guilds. Joseph II warns Christian artisans and craftsmen to show understanding towards their Jewish apprentices. Special mention is made about their dietary requirements that should be honored.

The last of the ordinances numbered section 13 is most interesting. The "distinguishing marks [distinctiva signa], that separate the Jewish Nation from others should be abolished." The ordinance mentions as one of these marks, the beard, but very likely it meant the "peot" or side-locks. In exchange for abandoning all the outer signs of their religion" Joseph II would allow them to carry a sword and promises them protection against any disturbance or violation of their rights guaranteed by the law.5

In addition to the royal decrees, there were genuine efforts by well-intentioned Magyars of the Enlightenment who argued vehemently for the Emancipation of the Jews. Most of their writings appeared in brief pamphlets such as the one authored by Janos Nagyvathy (1755-1819), one of the first compilers of Hungarian agricultural manuals.

If we dare to found our faith upon the Jewish Bible, and if we dare, and even like, to sing Jewish Psalms in our churches, we have no reason to exclude Jewish people from society on grounds of their [different] customs, nor to collect from them taxes for toleration of their very existence. And why [is this done]? Just because they exist. Oh, Europe! When you behave like this, are you not acting against yourself?6

Among the early pioneers of Reform Judaism in Hungary there are many rabbis whose lifestyle was not much different from that of their most "pious" colleagues, though their ideas were extremely enlightened and revolutionary. It is the task of the 21st century scholars to rediscover the teachings hidden in dusty and rare books. In his study "The Historical Experience of German Jewry and Its Impact on Haskalah and Reform in Hungary", Michael Silber demonstrated, through numerous examples, that "The boundaries between rabbinic and Haskalah cultures were not sharply defined in Hungary and the Bohemian provinces."7

One of the most prominent thinkers who lived in between these boundaries was David ben Meir ha-Kohen Friesenhausen who identified himself as a Hungarian Rabbi. His name is not even mentioned in the Encyclopedia Judaica though the 1903 Jewish Encyclopedia contains a brief article on him.8 We learn from the latter that he was a mathematician; born at Friesenhausen about the middle of the eighteenth century. He lived in "Berlin and later in Hunfalu and Újhely, Hungary; died in Gyula-Fehérvár (Hungary), on March 23, 1828." He wrote Kelil ha-Heshbon, a Hebrew manual of algebra and geometry (Berlin 1796) and authored Mosdoth Thebel, a treatise on astronomy in which he explains the Copernican system (Vienna 1820). In the second part of his Mosdoth Thebel, Friesenhausen furnishes evidence as proof for the eleventh axiom of Euclid. However, the most interesting part of this opus for Jewish cultural history is the third section that contains the author's "Tzavaah", Ethical Will to his children. This Tzavaah, which consists of twenty-six double pages, is indeed a treasure house of unique and revolutionary ideas and suggestions (66/b-93/b). In it he refers to a German letter he wrote in 1806 to Joseph the Prince Palatine of Hungary in which he advocated the necessity of establishing modern Rabbinic Schools (90/b). The twentieth century scholar Mordechai Eliav, in his Hebrew monograph "Jewish Education in Germany in the Period of Enlightenment and Emancipation"9, unaware of this document, credits Elkan Henle in 1827 as being the first to suggest the establishment of a modern Rabbinic School that would take the place of the old fashioned Yeshiva. Since Friesenhausen's plan for modern rabbinical schools was sabotaged by the Rabbi of Pest and his lay leaders, the frustrated Friesenhausen felt it important to include this, his most cherished plan, in the Tzavaah.

These are the highlights of Friesenhausen's ideas concerning the seminary. The children who are worthy to attend the new Seminary should be selected by their respective rabbis. From all the parts of the Habsburg Empire Jewish children should be selected in the age groups of 9-13 who are good-natured, studious and bright. These candidates will attend the Seminaries that will be constructed in Hungary, Galicia and Bohemia-Moravia. The schools should not be in large cities where the children might be influenced by the glamour and lust so common in those metropolises. Neither should they be placed in small villages where the local people are boorish. The right choice to house the schools, Friesenhausen believes, would be in medium sized cities. Each school will have two departments with two principals who will do much of the teaching.

The principals will be given comfortable apartments and the pupils will enjoy all the luxuries early nineteenth century living could offer. Well-equipped libraries and special quarters for maids and cooks are among the many of Friesenhausen's proposals. Students will wear departmental uniforms so that one can distinguish between the older and the younger groups.

"The schedule of studies should be as follows. The students of the lower school, up to the age of twelve or thirteen who work under the direction of the "small teacher" (ha-m'lameid ha-katan) will study one and a half hours every morning before breakfast. They will concentrate on "Torah, first Prophets, Books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel as well as the Books of the Chronicles, combining these studies with Hebrew grammatical exercises. After breakfast till noon they continue with Talmudic courses, selections taken from the Tractate of B'rakhot and other tractates of Seder Moed. The teacher should explain to the children the different laws that have been derived from those Talmudic discourses, chapter by chapter, but it is not advisable to use difficult commentaries. Then for a while the students should take a walk or do something that would relax their bodies...They should also study arithmetic, the language of the country and German and Latin..."10

These subjects, as Friesenhausen indicates, may be taught by non-Jewish teachers. The teachers ought to be disciplinarians and the views expressed by them should not contradict those taught in the Torah courses. Secular studies such as biology, geography, social studies, languages and rhetoric are encouraged and required on the higher level as well.

Students are to be ordained at the age of eighteen when they may get married, but they may not get married before they reach that age. The approval of the bride by the principal is a must. Upon ordination, a sum of one thousand "z'huvim" is allocated from the school's treasury for every graduate. This sum of money is invested and given to the newly ordained rabbi at his wedding to secure his future independence.

In order to avoid unnecessary problems, Friesenhausen suggests that after fifteen years of the establishment of the Rabbinical Schools, no Rabbi should be accepted to new positions unless he was ordained by these institutions.

David Friesenhausen realized that his plan was costly and its effectiveness depended entirely on the financial support of the Jewish community. Our author concludes that the establishment of such Rabbinical Schools in the Diaspora is as essential as was the building of the Temple in Ancient Israel11.

This preliminary study that focused on Hungary indicated that there were three major forces that played an important role in the struggle for Jewish Emancipation.

First, the Emperor/King and his administration used the policy of carrot and stick to assimilate Hungary's Jewish subjects. Many historians believe that the throne's ultimate goal was total assimilation, namely conversion to Christianity. Thought the research so far is not conclusive, it is clear that while more rights were given to the individual Jew, Jews were gradually deprived of their very existence as a vibrant, independent and self-supportive community. Hungary too followed the West European model articulated by the French politician, Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre (1752-1792): The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals. They must be citizens. It is claimed that they do not want to be citizens, that they say this and that they are (thus) excluded; there cannot be one nation within another nation...It is intolerable that the Jews should be come a separate political formation or class in the country. Every one of them must individually become a citizen; if they do not want this, they must inform us and we shall then be compelled to expel them.12

The second, but perhaps the least effective force was the efforts of the Hungarian "do-gooders" and idealists who, influenced by the Bible, Masonic ideas and the literature of the Enlightenment could not tolerate the humiliation and suffering of their Jewish neighbors.

Finally, the members of the third group that desired Emancipation were comprised of the majority of the Jews living in Hungary. For the first time in history, large numbers of Jews identified with Hungary and declared themselves Magyars. In their 1790 Latin language petition to the Hungarian Diet, the representatives of Hungarian Jewry declared:

Around the globe there is no homeland for us except Hungary, no father for us except the King in whose rule the Lord of the Universe entrusted Hungary and her nationalities. We have no other mentors, but the governmental authorities and our landowners. We have no other brethren, but the ones with whom we live and die in one society. We have no other protection but the laws of the homeland".13

The fast growing Jewish community of Hungary faced countless obstacles and challenges, but also tremendous opportunities. There was no notable middle class in Hungary and Jews were perhaps the natural candidates to fill that vacuum. The major question that had to be answered was "By what price?"

David Friesenhausen and other enlightened and dedicated individuals, who were perhaps the true reformers, tried to present ways and means through which Jews could preserve their communal integrity and still become good citizens of Hungary.

In the long run, the opportunistic elements of the assimilated Jews, with the encouragement and support of Hungarian political groups, dominated the leadership of the Hitközség or Gemeinde, whose members in the post Emancipation era often became willing and unprincipled collaborators with any Hungarian government in power, regardless of its political or ideological views.

1 David Weinberg, "Jewish Emancipation", in The Modern Jewish Experience, A Reader's Guide, Jack Wertheimer, ed., New York, 1993, p. 96

2 Jacob Katz's views are summarized in his "The Term 'Jewish Emancipation' Its Origin and Historical Impact", in Jacob Katz, Emancipation and Assimilation - Studies in Modern Jewish History, Gregg International Publishers Limited, 1972, pp. 21-45. Christian Wilhelm von Dohm's pamphlet is available in English translation by Helen Lederer. Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1957

3 Quoted from The Jew in the Modern World, A Documentary History, Second Edition, Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds., New York, 1995, p. 37

4 Ibid.

5 The original Latin text of the Systematica gentis Judaicae regulatio was published several times - e.g. Magyar Zsidó Oklevéltár - Monumenta Hungariae Judaica, XVIII, Sándor Scheiber, ed., Budapest, 1980 pp. 347-353, no. 650 ; most recently a new Hungarian translation of the original Latin was provided by Judit Borbély in László Gonda, A zsidóság Magyarországon 1526-1945 [Jewry in Hungary 1526-1945], Budapest, 1992, pp. 261-268

6 Bela K. Kiraly, Hungary in the Late Eighteenth Century - The Decline of Enlightened Despotism, New York, 1969, p. 168

7 Michael Silber, "The Historical Experience of German Jewry and Its Impact on Haskalah and Reform in Hungary", in Towards Modernity, The European Jewish Model, Jacob Katz, ed., New Brunswick, 1987, p. 113

8 Meir Gilon's Hebrew article "R. David Friesenhausen between the Enlightenment and Hassidism" is perhaps the only modern scholarly essay dedicated to this rather neglected figure of Jewish cultural history; in The Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest 1877-1977 - A Centennial Volume, New York 1986, Hebrew Section, pp. 19-54

9 Mordachai Eliav, Ha-Chinukh ha-Y'hudi b'Germaniyah, Jerusalem, 1960, p. 153

10 David Friesenhausen, Mosdoth Thebel, Wien, 1820, p. 79/b

11 Ibid. p. 92/b

12 Quoted from The Jew in the Modern World, A Documentary History, Second Edition, Paul Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds., p. 115

13 Sándor Büchler "De Judaeis", in IMIT Évkönyv [Annual of the Israelite Hungarian Literary Association], Budapest, 1900, p. 297

Rabbi Ferenc Raj was born at the height of World War II in Budapest, Hungary. He survived the Holocaust through the heroic efforts of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

Ferenc Raj was awarded a PhD in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University. He is a graduate of both the University of Budapest where he earned a Master's Degree and a Diploma of Merit in Near Eastern Studies and the Jewish Theological Seminary of Hungary where he was ordained in 1967.

Rabbi Raj continued his rabbinic career in America serving Reform congregations in Brooklyn, New York and Belmont, Massachusetts prior to his election as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, California.

Rabbi Raj retired on June 30, 2007 and continues in his role as Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth El. He is also Founding Rabbi of Bet Orim Reform Jewish Congregation in Budapest, Hungary.