• The "positive-historical" approach to Judaism

    Zacharias Frankel College at the University of Potsdam (Germany) is partnering with the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles to establish a school to train Conservative rabbis in Europe. This is reason enough to look back at Zacharias Frankel and his Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, now Wroclaw (Poland). Zacharias Frankel is rightly remembered by naming a rabbinical seminary after him. His call for “positive-historical Judaism” stood at the beginning of a Jewish movement that intended to find a way forward for world Jewry.  He was especially influential on the hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews who migrated to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Some of the rabbinic founders of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York (e.g., Henry Pereira Mendes, Bernard Drachman) simply wanted to teach Orthodox Judaism more effectively to this new, large population of American Jews. Others of the founding rabbis (e.g., Marcus Jastrow, Frederick de Sola Mendes) were considerably more liberal but were bothered by the excesses of the Pittsburgh Platform adopted in 1885 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis of the Reform movement; they wanted to teach a more moderate version of Reform Judaism, one that retained the main elements of Jewish law.  Before the immigration of Eastern European Jews to America, the vast majority of America’s Jews were Reform, but these two groups of rabbinic leaders knew that most of the new immigrants would not accept Reform Judaism, and so they united in founding the Jewish Theological Seminary of America as a way of teaching a form of Judaism that would appeal to traditional Jews who were trying to adjust to the United States.  That form of Judaism had to be both traditional and modern.

    These two groups clearly needed an ideology (that is, an explanation and justification of their position) that could at once unite them and also show how there could be several different approaches to Judaism that could all be legitimate. They found it in the work of Zacharias Frankel, head of The Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, Germany, who, together with a number of other European scholars, had developed the "positive-historical" approach to Judaism.”[1] There are several senses in which that approach may be called "historical":


    The fundamental doctrine of the historical approach is the claim that if we want to understand Judaism correctly, we must study it historically. That is, when we examine Jewish texts, we must use the same intellectual techniques that we would use if we were analyzing the documents of any other group of people. So, for example, in analyzing any Jewish writing, we must ask who wrote it, when, for whom, and why, just as historians ask about any text they are examining.  Moreover, we must be using the tools that historians use, including texts from surrounding nations, archaeology, and linguistic studies.  We must also distinguish between the meaning that the author intended (the "peshat") and the meaning(s) given the text by the later tradition (the "derash " or “midrash”).

    Intellectual result

    When you study Judaism in that way, you discover that Judaism has been a phenomenon in history, influenced and changed by the various people with whom Jews came into contact and the political, social, and economic conditions under which Jews lived. In other words, Judaism has not been the same during all of the years of its existence; on the contrary, its ideas, values, and practices have changed in response to the changing conditions in which Jews found themselves - just like the religion and culture of every other human group. Putting the same point negatively, Judaism is not ahistorical; that is, it is not something that has existed outside of the normal pressures and influences of history. This does not mean, however, that Judaism has changed so much from one period to another that there are no connections between our Judaism and that of Moses. The point is, rather, that Judaism has changed organically throughout the ages.

    Practical result

    Moreover, Judaism should change from one time and place to another. The simple fact is that the world does not stand still, and consequently all living organisms must learn to live under new circumstances if they are going to survive. Judaism is no exception. It not only is "historical" in that it has been influenced and changed in the past by new ideas and practices that Jews developed themselves or learned from others; it must also change in the present and future if it is going to continue to be a part of history, an ongoing concern of a living people.

    This brings us to the other part of the title of the approach that Conservative Judaism adopted. The full name of that approach is "positive-historical Judaism." The "positive" part of that name can have one or two meanings. "Positive" can mean "concerned only with observable, empirical data." In that sense, "positive-historical Judaism" would describe a method of study that analyzes the history, ideas, and practices of Judaism as objectively and dispassionately as possible. That is certainly what is intended by the method of study described above.

    But "positive" can also denote enthusiasm, agreement, and concern, as when we say that a person has" a positive attitude" toward something. That sense is almost exactly the opposite of the one above: the former denotes dispassionate objectivity; the latter refers to passionate involvement. Whether Zacharias Frankel and the other members of the "Positive-Historical School" intended the latter meaning as well the former one is questionable, but it certainly does describe another important element of the way in which the founders of the Conservative Movement planned to use the methods and results of this approach. Specifically, they were deeply interested in taking and promoting a positive attitude toward Judaism, that Jews honor it, hold it dear, and seek to preserve it. In fact, it is only when you are completely honest and thorough in examining the Jewish tradition that you can love God and embrace Judaism “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” as the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5) requires us to do.

    We should thus try to be as dispassionate and objective as possible when we study Judaism, but that should not prevent us from being very passionate and actively concerned about its present and future. Both, dispassionate objectivity in the study of Judaism and passionate concern for a vivid Judaism of tomorrow should be the guidelines of those who will study at the Zacharias Frankel College, as it is for those who study at the other seminaries affiliated with the Conservative/Masorti Movement. Then, as rabbis, those ordained by the Zacharias Frankel College will do justice to Frankel as patron of this school and they will bring beauty and strength to our Jewish people.

    Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, Ph.D.

    Rector and Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy,

    American Jewish University, Los Angeles

    [1] For more detail see: Elliot N. Dorff, Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants (New York: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, second, revised edition, 1996), pp. 17f.




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