• Zacharias Frankel

    Zacharias Frankel was born September 30, 1801, in Prague (Bohemia, Austrian Empire, now Czech Republic). After a yeshiva and secular education, he obtained a doctorate in classical languages from the University of Budapest and was then ordained as a rabbi, serving in various German communities before assuming the post of Oberrabbiner, chief rabbi, of Dresden, from 1836 to 1854.

    It was then that Frankel was elected to the presidency of the newly founded Jewish Theological Seminary at Breslau (Germany, now Wroclaw, Poland).

    As a result of his first major work Die Eidesleistung der Juden (1840, Oath Taking by Jews), Frankel succeeded in influencing the government of Saxony to abandon the special oath More Judaico, which had been humiliating to Jews testifying in courts. Frankel’s work on the oath helped to dispel the notion that Jews were untrustworthy in swearing oaths, for it had been alleged that they nullified their oaths at each Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

    Frankel also published Vorstudien zur Septuaginta (1841, Preliminary Studies in the Septuagint), in which he, the first and only nineteenth-century scholar who wrote on the first Greek version of the Old Testament, sought to establish clear links between Talmudic and Septuagintic exegesis.

    Frankel’s particular and lifelong interest was the development of Jewish law. His history of the halachah entitled 'Darkei ha-Mishnah' (1859) created a storm of protest in Orthodox circles, for in it he maintained that the oral law was not of Sinaitic, but of rabbinic origin.

    Another important work was Frankel’s 'Mavo ha-Yerushalmi' (1870), an introduction to the Palestinian Talmud, and a subject which had hitherto been neglected in favour of the other Talmud, as scholars had mostly concentrated on the Babylonian.

    Perhaps the greatest impact was given to Frankel's thought by the doctrines of nineteenth-century German historicism which were initially formulated by the historical school of jurisprudence: 'The historical method takes every theme back to its roots and thus discovers an organic principle whereby that which still has a life force separates itself from that which does not and is therefore relegated to the realm of history'. According to this view, laws were 'not the gift of legislators, but rather the result of the organic life of a group'. A people's legal system should be looked at through the prism of history, because history 'grows and develops with the people and declines when a group of people loses its unique characteristic'.

    This was a view which deeply impressed Frankel and which would have influenced his view on halachah: according to this approach called the 'historical method', the law of the people, but also their language and customs, could be traced back to their historical roots. Further, the proposed method would allow one to interpret a people's law as an expression of dynamic group life and as rooted in concrete historical occurrences. Applied to the Jewish people, the method allowed one to emphasise their uniqueness and specific characteristics. Hence, the overall merit of the historical method was, as Frankel must have seen it, its commitment to the view that 'what for a given people is warrantedly assertible is determined by the distinctive historical perspective in which they view life and society'.

    This would mean for Jewish law that it could not be changed easily through a legislator, for, as an expression of dynamic group life, its sacred duty was keeping alive the link between the present and the past.

    Frankel’s theory of law was, however, not without flaws, because of the complicated interaction between permanent components and transitory doctrines and practices. On one hand, the law was fixed, eternal and unchangeable, and yet it was supposed to represent a developing, dynamic spirit! Perhaps the apparent contradiction disappears when we consider a somewhat typical Jewish concept of 'time', which Frankel would seem to have supported: the precepts sanctioned by divine authority are eternally revealed, but they do need a response by the people over time – therefore, the law is fixed ('positive'), but nevertheless, in practice, it is also fluid and flexible in its interpretations ('historical').

    The 'positive historical approach' which Frankel wanted to apply to Judaism would preserve tradition and yet forge ahead on the path of progress. It was important for Frankel to find a middle way between these two goals, which did not seem easy to reconcile. Frankel thought that Judaism could be adapted to modernism but that progress and change must start and reckon closely with tradition. Frankel hoped to find the criterion, by which 'dead elements' could be discarded and separated from those that retained their validity, in a notion taken from German Romanticism: in the sentiments of the people. He thought it would be wrong to modify practices which the people cherished; therefore, only the community at large should have the authority to introduce reforms to Jewish practice. Frankel, it seems, was in the same predicament as the German historical school of jurisprudence which had proclaimed that the common consciousness of the people (Volksgeist) determines the law and not the arbitrariness of the lawgiver, while it was pointed out, at the same time, that only legal experts were able to understand the spirit of their time (Zeitgeist). Similarly, Frankel made it clear that the authority he had in mind was not the entire Jewish community, a great number of whom were ignorant of or indifferent to the intricacies of Jewish law, but rather the teachers and scholars of Judaism, whose task was the preservation and advancement of the Jewish heritage and tradition.

    This aspect brings us back to the Breslau seminary, for whose scholars Frankel identified 'the task of setting-up a scholarly teaching method which would liberate theology from its isolated position and help it acquire its own justified status'. 

    His chosen historical middle path would not negate tradition, but rather coexist with free research, demonstrating 'thorough knowledge, in-depth study and carefulness' whilst keeping alive the scholar's consciousness of his point of departure and the aim of his research. This scholarly approach would protect theology from one-sidedness. While this would not preclude rabbinical methods of thought, Frankel demanded that 'the methods of Jewish thinking and Jewish exegesis be examined freely and without prejudices as to their justification'.

    Hence came into existence 'the first modern institution of higher learning and school for the education of rabbis and teachers in Central Europe whose guiding idea was 'to reconcile positive Judaism with contemporary life on the basis of scholarship'.

    In practice, Frankel’s positive-historical approach differed, as a theology, from both Orthodoxy and Reform to the extent that, concerning the former, it insisted on scientific and historical research and allowed some liturgical changes, and with regard to Reform, it insisted on maintaining all the traditional customs.

    When Frankel died, on February 13, 1875, in Breslau, he left behind a Jewish Theological Seminary which became one of the most important modern European institutions for the training of rabbis until the Nazi period. Through faculty and students who went on to become lecturers, Frankel’s “Weltanschauung” became highly influential in central Europe. It took root in the United States of America in the twentieth century, where it became a powerful movement under the name of “Conservative Judaism,” whose main representatives were Isaac Leeser (1806–1868), Solomon Schechter (1847–1915), and Louis Ginzberg (1873–1953).

    Esther Seidel

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