Frankel, Zacharias

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FRANKEL, ZACHARIAS (18011875), was the founder, in Germany, of Historical Judaism, the forerunner of Conservative Judaism in America. A member of the first generation of modern rabbis, Frankel fashioned a multifaceted career as pulpit rabbi, spokesman for political emancipation, critic of radical religious reform, editor, head of the first modern rabbinical seminary, and historian of Jewish law.

Frankel was born in Prague, then still the largest Jewish community in Europe, into a financially comfortable family with a distinguished lineage of rabbinic and communal leaders. His education combined traditional immersion in Jewish texts with systematic exposure to secular studies in a manner that was still far from typical. In 1830 he received his doctorate from the University of Pest and in 1831 acquired the post of district rabbi of Litoměřice, becoming the first Bohemian rabbi to hold a doctorate. His advocacy of changes in the synagogue service, the education of the young, and the training and role of the rabbi brought him, in 1836, an invitation from the government of Saxony to occupy the pulpit in Dresden as chief rabbi of the realm. Despite several subsequent offers from the much larger and rapidly growing Jewish community of Berlin, Frankel stayed in Dresden until 1854, when he was called to become the first director of the new rabbinical and teachers' seminary in Breslau. By 1879, four years after his death, the seminary had instructed some 272 students and had placed nearly 120 teachers, preachers, and rabbis in the most important Jewish communities in Europe.

A self-styled moderate reformer in matters of religion, Frankel formulated his program of "positive, historical Judaism" in the 1840s to stem the rising tide of radical religious reform. Against the Reform movement's unbounded rationalism, Frankel defended Judaism's legal character, the sanctity of historical experience, and the authority of current practice. The term positive pointed to prescribed ritual behavior (halakhah ) as the dominant means for the expression of religious sentiment in Judaism, while the term historical designated its nonlegal realm, sanctified by time and suffering.

What gives Frankel's definition its dynamic quality is the role of the people. Genuine reform evolves organically from below and not by fiat from above. It is for this reason that Frankel repudiated the innovations of the three rabbinical conferences of the 1840s; whether dictated by political considerations or the canons of reason, their measures did violence to prevailing sentiment and practice.

On a popular level Frankel tried, as author and editor, to deepen Jews' loyalty to the past by offering them a brand of heroic history that stressed cultural achievement. As a scholar Frankel was the preeminent modern rabbinist of his generation, and he devoted a prolific career to introducing the concept of the development of Jewish law over time. Using the method as well as the ideology of Friedrich C. Savigny's geschichtliche Rechtswissenschaft, Frankel tried to recover and analyze the stages of legal evolution, from Alexandrian exegeses of scripture to medieval rabbinic responsa. In the process he left enduring contributions to the modern study of the Mishnah and the Palestinian Talmud.

Frankel's undogmatic research on the Mishnah challenged the traditional image of the ancient rabbis as transmitters rather than creators of the oral law and provoked a bitter assault in 1861 from the Neo-Orthodox camp of Samson Raphael Hirsch. Growing religious polarization served to clarify denominational lines and forced Frankel to occupy the middle ground.

Two institutions created by Frankel embodied, amplified, and disseminated his vision of Historical Judaism. Die Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, which he edited for eighteen taxing years (18511868), provided its readers with a balance of high-level popularization and critical scholarship, setting the standard for all later nineteenth-century journals of Jewish studies. Similarly, the Breslau seminary, which he led for twenty-one years, transformed rabbinic education by integrating modern scholarship with traditional piety and requiring its graduates to be both spiritual leaders and practitioners of Wissenschaft.


Brann, Marcus, ed. Zacharias Frankel: Gedenkblätter zu seinem hundertsten Geburtstage. Breslau, 1901.

Heinemann, Isaac. "The Idea of the Jewish Theological Seminary Seventy-Five Years Ago and Today." In Das Breslauer Seminar, edited by Guido Kisch, pp. 85100. Tübingen, 1963.

Rabinowitz, Saul Pinchas. R. Zekharyah Frankel (in Hebrew). Warsaw, 1898.

Schorsch, Ismar. "Zacharias Frankel and the European Origins of Conservative Judaism." Judaism 30 (Summer 1981): 344354.

New Sources

Brämer, Andreas. Rabbiner Zacharias Frankel: Wissenschaft des Judentums und konservative Reform im 19. Jahrhundert. Hildesheim, 2000.

Goetschel, Roland. "Aux origines de la modernité juive: Zacharias Frankel (18011875) et l'école historico-critique." Pardès 1920 (1994): 107132.

Horwitz, Rivkah, ed. Zachaia Frankel and the Beginnings of Positive-Historical Judaism (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, 1984.

Ismar Schorsch (1987)

Revised Bibliography