1879: A Rabbi Too Shocking for Bavaria Delivers His Last Sermon

Einhorn's truth included the rejection of the Talmud, dietary laws, the use of tefillin and the prohibition of work on the Sabbath.

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David Einhorn.
David Einhorn.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On July 12, 1879, Rabbi David Einhorn, a respected – if not beloved – leader of U.S. Reform Judaism, delivered his final rabbinical sermon.

Einhorn was something of a revolutionary in his readiness to re-imagine Jewish theology and law for a new age and a young country, with a vision that saw the message of the Mosaic faith as one intended for all of humanity. But he was convinced that German, his native tongue, was the most appropriate language for transmission of that message. Hence, even this last sermon, delivered from the pulpit of Congregation Beth-El, in New York, was delivered in that language.

David Einhorn was born on November 10, 1809, in Diespeck, in the kingdom of Bavaria. His parents were Maier and Karoline Einhorn, who arranged for him to have a traditional Jewish education, which included ordination at age 17 at the seminary in nearby Fuerth. He then went on to study philosophy and the classics at the universities of Erlangen, Munich and Wuerzburg, between 1828 and 1834.

Einhorn became enamored of the theological approach of Rabbi Abraham Geiger, one of the founders of German Reform, who advocated the use of the vernacular (that is, German) in prayer services and the elimination of prayers that called for the restoration of the Temple and its sacrifices, as well as those calling for Jewish nationhood.

Yet the ones concerned about Einhorn’s radical views weren’t the faithful: When a congregation in Wallhausen wanted to hire him as rabbi, the Bavarian government thought him too radical to confirm his appointment.

He subsequently did hold several pulpits in Germany, but was driven from the country after he gave a blessing to an uncircumcised baby boy while serving as chief rabbi of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

In 1851, Einhorn relocated to Budapest, but government again got in the way. Within two months of his arrival, the synagogue employing was ordered closed, the Austrian government fearing that his religious radicalism was linked to the 1848 political revolutionary movement.

While pondering his next stop, Einhorn wrote his seminal book “The Principles of Mosaic Faith,” published in 1854. The next year, he traveled to the United States, where he was became the first rabbi of the Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. Politically, it was a flammable mix, as Maryland was a border state, and generally sympathetic to slavery and the South.

In January 1861, a Reform rabbi in New York, Morris Raphall, gave a sermon in which, while not praising slavery, he argued that the institution had “the providential sanction of the Divine Being,” because it appeared in the Bible. Raphall’s talk went the 19th-century equivalent of viral, as did Einhorn’s response of April 19, in which he termed Raphall’s argument a “deplorable farce,” and presented a strong philosophical case against the institution of slavery.

Einhorn’s words were well received in the North – but not in Baltimore, where an angry mob destroyed his printing press (he published a monthly journal, Sinai) and supposedly threatened to tar and feather him.

Einhorn decamped to Philadelphia, where he took up a pulpit at Congregation Keneseth Israel, before moving, in 1866, to New York, to become the first rabbi of what eventually became known as Congregation Beth-El.

Not only did Einhorn speak his mind about his beliefs; he also was personally contentious, carrying on an ongoing battle against the acknowledged leader of American Reform, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, almost from the day he stepped off the boat. Wise, though far from a traditionalist, was a champion of Jewish unity, whereas Einhorn’s slogan was “First truth, and then peace.”

Einhorn’s truth included rejection of the Talmud as authoritative in interpreting Jewish law and of such traditions as dietary laws, the use of tefillin in prayer or the prohibition of “work” on the Sabbath.

Eventually, after his death, Einhorn’s approach was to become dominant in Reform Judaism, through the efforts of his son-in-law Kaufmann Kohler, who became president of the Hebrew Union College and edited the 1895 Union Prayerbook, which incorporated – in English -- many elements from Einhorn’s “Olat Tamid” German-language siddur.

Rabbi David Einhorn died less than half a year after his retirement, on November 2, 1879, at his Manhattan home.

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