David Friedlaender and the Radical Reform of Diaspora Judaism

I’ve put up a number of articles quoting scholars of Judaism to argue that rather than being an essential, defining tenet of Judaism, Zionism and Jewish nationalism has always been just one view of the religion amongst many that Jews have held. Many Jews have rejected it, from Orthodox Jews, who feel that the creation of a Jewish state without the divinely ordained actions of the messiah is sheer blasphemy, to Progressive Jews, who believe that Jews are better off remaining in the diaspora as the equal citizens of the countries, in which they were born and have their ancestral roots.

One of the major figures in the Halaska, the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, was David Friedlaender (1750-1834). The Halaska was the movement by which European Jews, such as the great Moses Mendelssohn, the grandfather of the composer Felix, took over European Enlightenment thought and argued and strove for Jewish emancipation. Their goal was that Jews should indeed become equal citizens with their gentile fellow-countrymen, fully participating in their country’s national life, culture and politics.

I found this brief description of Friedlaender’s life and ideas in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: OUP 1997), p. 359. This runs

A forerunner of Reform Judaism. Through his marriage, he became part of a distinguished Prussian family of Court Jews and he was one of Moses Mendelssohn’s circle. He believed the Jews were ‘destined from time immemorial to guard and teach by example the pure doctrine of the unity and sanctity of God, previously unknown to other people’. He argued that prayers for friends and country should be substituted for the messianic hope, and that secular law should be studied rather than the Talmud. He also was tireless in his efforts for Jewish political and civil rights in Prussia.

This is clearly a very radical reformulation of Judaism. The hope of redemption by the messiah is, I understand, one of the core tenets of Judaism and was considered as such by the great rabbinical authorities in their attempts to define those same core beliefs in their Responsa. It has sustained Jews throughout millennia of exile and persecution. At the same time, the Talmud is the Jewish holy book containing the judgements of the great Jewish sages on how the Mosaic Law is to be interpreted and applied, as well as the oral law, which Jews traditionally believe was passed on to the Jewish people by Moses at the same time he revealed the written Law. Again, it’s one of Judaism’s most important, defining features. One Jewish sect, the Karaites, rejects the Talmud, but they have often been viewed with bitterness by those Jews, who retained it.

From reading the above article, it appears to me that Friedlaender in his rejection of the messianic hope, and his support of the study of secular law instead of the Talmud, felt that Jews should concentrate on becoming equal citizens in the nations in which they were born, rather than wishing to be a separate nation with their own state.

The Israel lobby attacks and reviles those, who criticise Israel as anti-Semites. Those Jews, who do so, are also smeared as such. They are also maligned as ‘self-hating’. Martin Odoni, one of the many great commenters on Mike’s blog, who is, I believe, another Jewish critic of Israel, posted a comment on this blog, which shows how nasty the Israel lobby’s abuse of its Jewish critics get. They revile dissenting Jews as ‘kapos’, the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War, who were charged by the Nazis with selecting which of their community should be sent to the death camps. If they did not do so, the SS would move in a murder everyone. It’s a vile insult, and shows just how low the Israel lobby is. Especially as many of the Jews protesting against Israel have lost family in the Holocaust, and/or have suffered real anti-Semitic abuse and violence themselves.

One of the charges against Mike that have been levelled against him by those smearing him in the Labour party, is that by attacking Jewish national aspirations for a homeland he is being anti-Semitic. But as I’ve sought to show in the past blog posts, many Jews and Jewish sects and organisations have also rejected Jewish nationalism, viewing Judaism as a religion rather than a nation. Rejecting or criticising Jewish nationalism therefore cannot on its own be considered anti-Semitic.

I’ve no doubt that Friedlaender’s suggestions were intensely controversial in his time. Even today some Orthodox Jews appear to view Reform Judaism with hostility and suspicion. I can remember how, a few years ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, caused outrage when he declared that Reform Jews were ‘enemies of the faith’. It’s chilling language of the same time used by the gentile persecutors of Jewry.

But it’s also clear that Friedlaender was no anti-Semite by any stretch of the imagination. He was an ardent champion of Jewish equality and dignity, and believed that the Jews were, in the words of the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament ‘a light to lighten the gentiles’ regarding the Almighty as the only, holy God.

And thus other Jews and gentiles are also not guilty of anti-Semitism as they have been so libelled and abused by the Israel lobby, if they similarly reject Zionism or simply criticise Israel and its barbarism towards the Palestinians.

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