Nobody knows exactly when Jews first arrived in what later would become Germany. In all probability they came with the Romans who had been warring with Germanic tribes even before the Common Era. Arguably, there were Jews living as Roman citizens in the Rhineland as early as the second century CE.
What is known is that there was a Jewish presence in 321 CE in Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, a Roman colony on the Rhine River and the historical nucleus of today’s city of Cologne. It was in that year that Emperor Constantine in a written edict allowed the colonia to appoint Jews to the municipal council. This is why a German organization, the Association 321 – 2021: 1,700 years of Jewish Life in Germany, decided to declare 2021 an official anniversary and celebrate it with a big splash – with the blessing of the body politic as well as that of the Jewish community.
This anniversary year provides an opportunity to raise public awareness of the long Jewish history in Germany among the general populace. It was by no means a history of undivided happiness, culminating in the singular crimes of the Nazi dictatorship. And yet, starting with the Emancipation, Jews have managed to make a huge impact on German culture, science and on the economy. Recalling both the oppression perpetrated against Jews and the contributions by the Jews will be very much in focus in 2021.
For the Jewish world, the anniversary year is a good opportunity to look back at the enormous contribution to the development of Judaism by the Jewish community in Germany. Many features of the Jewish world as we know it today, can be traced to German Jewry.
Ashkenaz, of course, is the original name of Germany in Jewish tradition while the term Germania is of Roman provenience. Ashkenaz appears in the Torah as the name of one of Noah’s great-grandsons, but starting in the 11th century CE it came to designate the area of the Rhineland, the Palatinate (today in Western Germany) and parts of Northern France. How the biblical name ended up being identified with this specific region, is not really clear.
In any case, it was the cradle of German Jewry in particular and of Ashkenazi Jewry in general. A defining influence on the emerging Ashkenazi world originated in the 10th and the 11th century in the so-called SHUM cities, an acronym for Shpira, Vormayza, and Magentza, today’s Speyer, Worms and Mainz. None other than Rashi – whose commentary we still read in Talmud editions – studied at the Worms yeshiva around 1060.
Groundbreaking halachic rulings were issued by poskim (scholars who determine Jewish law) from the SHUM cities. The most prominent among the SHUM rabbis was Rabbenu Gershom. Gershom was born in 960 in Metz, in the Lorraine area – today in France – but later he headed the famous yeshiva in Worms.
ONE OF his formative rulings was the prohibition of polygamy, which adapted the structure of Jewish families to that of the Occident. Interestingly, Gershom also forbade reading letters by people who were not their intended recipients. In the 12th and 13th centuries SHUM deciders issued additional important edicts, known as Takkanot Shum, which dealt, among other topics, with business ethics.
Another important influence on the development of Jewish thinking was the Hassidei Ashkenaz movement. Starting out in the Bavarian city of Regensburg and in the SHUM cities in the 11th century, the movement took hold throughout Germany and later spread to other countries as well. Hassidei Ashkenaz stressed God’s incorporeality and omnipresence. In order to better understand God’s nature and true will, members of the movement immersed themselves in the study of supernatural phenomena and miracles, making an important contribution to Jewish mysticism. Their search for the right path also included turning away from worldly things.
In the following centuries, Talmud study and deep piety remained the foundation of Jewish life. If there was a continuous Jewish presence in Germany in the Middle Ages, it was primarily for lack of a strong central rule in German territories. Thus, German Jews escaped wholesale expulsion like the edicts of expulsion in England in 1290 or in Spain in 1492.
This does not mean that there were no regional acts of wanton and violent persecution, including regional banishments. Yet, despite the ups and downs, or, often enough, downs and downs, German Jewry remained a strong force in the Jewish world. The list of rabbinical luminaries living and teaching in Germany was long, even as the demographic center of European Jewry shifted to the east. According to estimates, some 60,000 to 80,000 Jews lived in Germany in the second half of the 18th century – just one tenth of the Jewish population in the Polish-Lithuanian dual monarchy at that time.
In the 19th century, changes that took place in Germany would substantially shape the development of the modern Jewish world. Germany became the cradle of three streams of Judaism as we know them today: Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox (or Neo-Orthodox as it was originally called).
The point of departure of Reform Judaism in Germany was liturgy. Its pioneers strove to adapt services to modern times. In Reform synagogues, which began appearing in the second decade of the 19th century, the separation between men and women was gradually eased, organs were introduced and German at least partially replaced Hebrew as the language of the services.
There was, however, more than liturgy at stake. Rabbi Abraham Geiger, considered the key founder of the Reform movement, called for a new understanding of those mitzvot that he saw as the result of historical developments – and therefore alterable – among them the rules of kashrut, as opposed to those mitzvot that were regarded as universal.
FOR SOME Jews the Reform movement went too far, even though they favored a modernization of Jewish religious life as well. One of them was Rabbi Zacharias Frankel who founded the Conservative movement which put greater emphasis on Jewish tradition and the history of the Jewish people.
Change was introduced in Orthodox Judaism, too. Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Azriel Hildesheimer insisted on the compatibility of an Orthodox way of life with secular education, including academic education, which both of whom had enjoyed in addition to their religious studies. In 1873, Hildesheimer founded the rabbinical seminary in Berlin, which soon became an important rabbinical training center known and respected throughout the Jewish world.
Many Orthodox Jewish educators set out to ensure that young Jewish children obtained profound Jewish knowledge even as the winds of change were blowing strong. One of the most prominent was Rabbi Seligmann Baer Bamberger of Würzburg, the Würzburger Rav. In 1856, he founded, the Israelite Institution for Education and Studies – an elementary school which combined secular studies with a rigorous religious curriculum.
Germany was also the home of a forerunner of religious Zionism, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874). Kalischer, a Talmudic scholar, considered Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel as a contribution to the coming of the Messiah. In this, his views were similar to the concept of the State of Israel as the beginning of redemption.
In the 19th and early 20th century, Germany also became a magnet for countless Jewish intellectuals and ideologues from across the Jewish political spectrum, mainly from Eastern Europe. Many studied at German universities while planning a new Jewish future – each one according to his own Weltanschauung. This rich Jewish life came to a tragic halt when Nazi hordes forced a major part of German Jews into exile – and murdered nearly all of those who had not managed to escape (and repeated throughout much of Europe).
Today, there is a thriving Jewish community in Germany again. The registered membership of the Jewish communities is close to 100,000 while many other Jews – among then a large number of Israelis living in Germany – chose to remain unaffiliated.
Let there be no mistake: We know that the historical glory of German Jewry cannot be restored. We have, however, succeeded in creating quite a vibrant Jewish life. In today’s Germany, there are some 90 Jewish communities, Jewish day schools, including five high schools and a multitude of Jewish institutions dealing with all aspects of communal life.
Without trying to go back in time, we do try to remember and to commemorate the history of Jews on German soil. This is why our three rabbinical seminaries, a liberal, an orthodox and a conservative one, are named after the founding fathers of the movements whose traditions they represent: Rabbi Abraham Geiger, Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer and Rabbi Zacharias Frankel. Yes, 2021 is a good year to honor the illustrious past as we march on into the future.
The writer is the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.