Holdheim, Samuel

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HOLDHEIM, SAMUEL (18061860), was a rabbi and spokesman for the more radical Reform Jews in Germany. Born in Kempen, Posen, Holdheim mastered the traditional study of rabbinic texts as a youngster. He was also attracted to secular culture, however, and as a young man gained fluency in German and attended the universities of Prague and Berlin. He became rabbi in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1836 and in 1840 succeeded to the post of chief rabbi of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. He became well known in these positions as a champion of Reform and emerged from the Reform rabbinical conferences of 18441846 as the leader of its extremist elements. In 1846 he was elected rabbi of the Reform congregation in Berlin, a post Abraham Geiger refused because of the congregation's separation from the general Jewish community. Holdheim served there until his death.

Holdheim articulated his philosophy of Reform Jewish belief and practice in numerous articles, sermons, pamphlets, and books, including Ueber die Autonomie der Rabbinen und das Prinzip der jüdischen Ehe (The autonomy of the rabbis and the principle of Jewish marriage laws; 1843), in which he advanced the thesis that the laws of the state and not rabbinic legislation should regulate matters of marriage and inheritance for Jews. In his philosophy of Reform Judaism, he distinguished between religious-ethical and national components in Judaism. The latter, he claimed, constituted the "perishable shell" of Jewish teachings and were no longer binding in the modern era. The religious-ethical elements, in contradistinction, comprised the "everlasting kernel" of Jewish faith and remained valid in the contemporary period. Thus, he was able to write, "The Talmud speaks with the ideology of its own time, and for that time it was right. I speak from the higher ideology of my time, and for this age I am right" (quoted in W. Gunther Plaut, The Rise of Reform Judaism, New York, 1963, p. 123). While Holdheim was not alone among the Reformers in expressing these views, his prominence among the leadership of the movement made him a significant exponent of these sentiments.

Holdheim's thought found practical expression in his enthusiastic support of Jewish political emancipation as justifying the radical transformation of Judaism, in his sanctioning of mixed marriages, and in his advocating that the Jewish Sabbath be transferred from Saturday to Sunday, "a civil day of rest." Holdheim also supported the almost complete removal of Hebrew from, and the adoption of the vernacular in, Jewish prayer services (although he advocated the reading of Torah in Hebrew) and, in his Berlin congregation, introduced radical reforms into the prayer book and ritual. His approach to Reform found expression in America through the efforts of David Einhorn of Baltimore and later Philadelphia; Holdheim can thus be identified as an architect of the "classical Reform" position in the United States.


Perhaps the best summary of Holdheim's thought appears in Max Wiener's Jüdische Religion im Zeitalter der Emanzipation (Berlin, 1933), pp. 87101. A great deal of information about Holdheim's career and thought can be found in David Philipson's The Reform Movement in Judaism (New York, 1967), while Jakob J. Petuchowski's Prayerbook Reform in Europe (New York, 1968) describes Holdheim's approach to liturgy. In a superb article, "Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim: Their Differences in Germany and Repercussions in America," Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 22 (1977): 139159, Petuchowski analyzes the significance and impact of Holdheim in both Germany and America.

New Sources

Meyer, Michael A. "'Most of My Brethren Find Me Unacceptable': The Controversial Career of Rabbi Samuel Holdheim." Jewish Social Studies 9 (2003): 119.

David Ellenson (1987)

Revised Bibliography