This Day in Jewish History |

1854: Europe's First Modern Rabbinical Seminary Opens

David Green
David B. Green
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Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau (now Wroclaw).Credit: Judaica Europeana
David Green
David B. Green

On this day in 1854, the Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar (Jewish Theological Seminary) opened, in Breslau, then Germany, today Poland. The institution was the first modern rabbinical seminary in Central Europe, and a philosophical forerunner to today’s Conservative/Masorti movement.

The seminary was established by the estate of a businessman named Jonas Fraenkel, who had left instructions and funding for that purpose. Fraenkel had made clear his desire to have Rabbi Abraham Geiger head the new institution, but the executors of his estate viewed Geiger, the founder of what became Reform Judaism, as too radical. Instead they turned to Rabbi Zacharias Frankel (1801-1875), a Prague-born rabbi and historian. The choice of Frankel (no relation to Jonas Fraenkel) over Geiger anticipated the differences that distinguish between Conservative and Reform Judaism to this day.

Zacharias Frankel promoted an approach called “positive-historical Judaism,” which viewed the “positive” necessity of traditional Jewish law and practice to Jewish life, on the one hand, and a “historical,” or critical, reading of Jewish texts and the Jewish past, on the other. Frankel argued that Jewish law, although authoritative, had always been a constantly evolving entity, and that it could not exist in isolation from the community it served.

This placed the Breslau seminary in the middle ground, between the Reform of Geiger -- which took the liberties it felt were necessary to make Judaism compatible with modern life, including dispensing with Hebrew in the liturgy -- and the neo-Orthodoxy of Geiger’s former classmate Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch, the forerunner of modern Orthodoxy, also believed that the modern Jew could participate in contemporary society, but for him Jewish law was divinely bestowed and thus immutable.

The Breslau seminary operated openly from 1854 until 1938, ordaining some 250 rabbis, and offering courses for teachers and youth leaders as well. Its building was sacked during Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938. Following that, despite Nazi orders to close, it continued operating secretly, and ordained its last two rabbis on February 21, 1939.

Much of its library, too, one of the world’s greatest Judaica collections, was destroyed, although parts have been tracked down around the world in recent years.

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