Magyar zsidó történelem - másképp. Jeruzsálemi antológia

TitleMagyar zsidó történelem - másképp. Jeruzsálemi antológia
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLaczó, Ferenc
Author(s) of reviewed materialSilber, Michael K.

book. Title translated: Hungarian Jewish History – An Alternative Approach. Yerusalem Anthology. Second, revised edition

PublisherBudapest - Jeruzsálem: Múlt és Jövő
VolumesVolume 6 in the Series Hágár, edited by Michael K. Silber
ISSNISBN 978-963-9512-42-9
Review year


Full Text

This anthology of translated articles that has just appeared in Hungarian features, next to a highly informative introduction by the editor of the volume, Michael K. Silber, five essential papers of Jakov Katz and the circle of historians around him. While Katz’s interests were broader and his scholarly accomplishments more manifold, the members of this group of researchers that was once active in Yerusalem have dealt primarily with the history of Orthodox Jewry in Hungary.[1] This history has remained largely neglected within Hungary where due to a number of considerations several other Jewish topics have taken precedence over the exploration of Orthodoxy. Some historians are even inclined to talk of the previous overwhelming influence of Neolog perspectives and biases.
Magyar zsidó történelem – másképp not only focuses on a previously marginalized topic, but aims to make a strong case to justify this choice. Silber, contesting the way historians from Hungary tend to approach and assess the matter, sees the specificity of Hungarian Jewry in the opposition to assimilation of significant (Orthodox) segments (p.7). Moreover, he rather controversially judges the rise of Ultraorthodoxy and its radically anti-assimilationist ideology as its unique feature, which was one of the consequences of sharp inner polarization (p.15).
Katz’s last major work, titled A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry in English, deals with the fateful split that emerged within Jewry in Hungary as well as Germany. It is conventional knowledge that the profoundity and severity of the Hungarian split was unmatched anywhere else. This anthology, including articles published over several decades, beginning in the 1940s by Jakov Katz, Joszef Ben David, Nataniel Katzburg and Michael K. Silber,[2] is also primarily concerned with events leading up to this schism as well as with crucial individuals and the broader historical context.[3]
The perspective that Orthodoxy is a novel, innovative phenomenon and ought to be seen as an organic part of the process of modernization was first developed by Ben-David’s brilliant study in historical sociology “The beginnings of modern Jewish society in early 19th century Hungary.” Ben-David discusses the stability and cohesion of the traditional Jewish community that lasted approximately till the 1820s and 1830s in which studying the Torah, trading, public and family life formed an integrated unit. Then revolutionary changes occurred in the leading sectors of Jewish society and in their central values. Through the birth of countrywide trade and the highly significant role of Jewish traders in it, a new economic elite with extra–Jewish connections and universalistic ideological practices emerged that was accordingly increasingly distanced from the particularistic group of traditional religious Jewry. When the walls of the ghetto fell in the 1840s, a novel discrepancy between the new affluent elite and the impoverished cultural elite was born (p.104). The status of the latter decreased, alongside the authority and dignity of knowledge in general. This prepared the ground for the radicalization of the maskil strata, who, detached from wealthy patrons and from non-Jewish intellectuals as well at this time, adopted liberal ideology (pp.112-113). Ben-David judges the changing role of students and graduates of yeshivas as even more significant than this pro-liberal development as it led to the emergence of the widespread phenomenon of neoconservatism in his eyes. He analyses the social structure of the yeshiva of Hatam Szofer in particular where a sectarian community based on charismatic leadership was born. In his words, “a part of the community that began to disintegrate got organized into a group led in a charismatic way, and while it consciously used this charisma as means of societal consolidation, it resisted institutionalizing it” (p.122). As Katz himself remarked, empirically more comprehensive later works tended to confirm Ben-David’s partly intuitive points expressed in this intriguing study.
Katz wrote an influential biographical study of Hatam Szofer (Mose Schreiber-Szofer) that originally appeared in 1967 and is included in Magyar zsidó történelem – másképp, in which he traces the early years of Hatam Szofer in particular, i.e. those prior to his arrival in Bratislava (Pressburg in German, Pozsony in Hungarian) in 1806 at the age of 43. Katz begins with the major influences on him, especially that exerted by R. Natan Adler. He evaluates Hatam Szofer as someone who searched for the normative determination of religious faith and practices and who provided direct interpretations of traditional texts (p.143 and p.151). Not only did Hatam Szofer teach and help raise many “consistent and fanatical” (p.168) rabbis of later generations and arranged for his son to replace him, but the city of Bratislava was turned into the bastion of conservative Judaism during his years. This process was significantly influenced by the role he played and especially his attempt to judge all aspects of tradition as equally essential – an attempt that not only meant the desire to strongly separate Jewry from the rest of society but also logically led to considering all deviations from this judgment on the unity and immutability of tradition as a whole as heretical (p.163 and p.167).
The congress of Nagymihály that hosted 24 rabbis and dayans led by Hillel Lichtenstein took place in November 1865 and passed a resolution banning all changes in the language of sermons and the order of prayers as well as adopting anything resembling the habits of other people. This resolution was later additionally signed by 43 rabbis and dayans in Hungary. Assessing and contextualizing this decision is the topic of Nataniel Katzburg’s shorter article who shows the limited geographical scope of this movement to halt any and all reform (restricted to the North-East, the so called Unterland, where Hasidic communities and others close to them resided) and institute separation from those who pursue them. Rabbis from the North-West of the country were not ready to sign for both theoretical (they were not convinced of the rightness of the arguments used) and practical reasons (since they were using German), but even so only a single rabbi took an explicit stance against the Nagymihály resolution – clearly, more moderate Orthodox opponents were not ready to challenge it. Though questions of educational reform and emancipation, burning issues of the times, were not addressed at Nagymihály, this ideology of separation proved influential. More moderate opinions were marginalized, which were to prove decisive in 1867-68, as Katzburg argues.
Silber, in his thoroughly learned and beautifully written article “The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition,” proposes that ultra-orthodoxy be accounted for in the context of its original emergence in Hungary of the 1860s. He points to the major challenges to Orthodoxy (such as secular education, linguistic magyarization, pressures to nationalize and synagogue reforms) which led to the crystallization of alternative answers and wings within Orthodoxy in 1864-65: neo-orthodoxy on the left (especially through Hildesheimer in Kismarton/Eisenstadt) and ultra-orthodoxy on the right – though both these wings diminished after the birth of the first countrywide Orthodox organization. The latter group constituted approximately one-quarter of the 280 Orthodox rabbis (p.221) and fought the former most bitterly. Its perhaps most important representative was Akiva Joszef Schlesinger, author of the influential Le ha-ivri. Silber analyses the arguments and worldview of this Ultra-Orthodox group, showing their fundamentalist strictness and de facto impatience towards halachic discourse through their uncritical acceptance of the codexes. In his felicitous formulation “they have interpreted tradition and the past, shaped, selected and reworked them in such a way as to serve the cause of traditionalism better” (p.215). In other words, they created the myth of authentic Judaism out of formerly marginal elements of the Jewish tradition – ironically, by not strictly Orthodox methods (pp.243). In Silber’s assessment, they paradoxically formulated an almost complete national program by 1863 by stressing that the bases of Jewry are name, language and dress (sem, lason and malbus).
This collection includes in-depth explorations on previously little known phenomena in Hungary and its publication in Hungarian, in meticulous though at times not the merriest translations (done by seven persons and approved by foremost experts), ought to be welcomed as it not only adds substantially to our understanding of complex and contradictory processes within Hungarian Jewry in the 19th century, but comparing these studies with works from Hungary provides an interesting illustration of the embeddedness of historical scholarship in national and political-ideological contexts.

[1] This interest is certainly related to the personal background of these historians. For more on this issue, see for instance Jacob Katz, With My Own Eyes: The Autobiography of an Historian (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1995).

[2] I have kept the Hungarian spelling of their names in this English text, i.e. the way their names appear in the volume under review.

[3] The first article in the volume is written by Jakov Katz and deals with the arrangement of marriage and married life in the late Middle Ages (as he calls the 16th to 18th centuries). It is somewhat incongruous with the rest, as it deals with Ashkenazi Jews as such and also addresses the general sociological problem of what the transition from traditional to modern society meant and how we can account for it. Katz traces the objective reasons behind prearranged marriages and sees religious justifications as well as economic and political causes behind them, embedding these in his overall interpretation concerning Jewish social structure. According to Katz, without forgetting that there was a lengthy period of transition towards individuation, the change heralding the advent of the modern age – when parallel though partly varied changes could be observed within Jewry and in society in general – can be detected in the change of what was considered desirable and decent.