David R. Einhorn

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David R. Einhorn

Anti-slavery proponent and Jewish theological writer David R. Einhorn (1809-1879) was one of the leaders of the Reform movement of Judaism in the United States. Influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Schelling, he had a turbulent career as rabbi in central Europe before he moved to the United States. Like Abraham Geiger, Einhorn took a more liberal view on the practice of Judaism than did orthodox Jews.

Turned to Radical Jewism

Einhorn was born on November 10, 1809, in Dispeck, Bavaria. Son of Maier and Karoline Einhorn, the reform rabbi David Einhorn had a traditional Jewish education at the Furth yeshiva. He did exceptionally well in his studies and earned his rabbinical diploma at age 17. When Einhorn's father died, his mother helped him attend the universities of Erlangen, Wurzburg, and Munich.

Einhorn was a religious radical. He was raised in the strict traditions of his Judaism, but the more liberal environment of the university helped to change his views. His views included abandoning ceremonial laws that seemed cumbersome in the modern age. He preferred using German rather than Hebrew; he also wanted to eliminate prayers for the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem and for the furtherance of Zion. Because of these views, Einhorn was barred from becoming a rabbi in Germany. It was ten years later, in 1842, that he finally was given an appointment of Landesrabbiner of Birkenfield, Oldenburg. He married Julia Ochs in 1844, and the couple had nine children.

At the Frankfurt Reform Rabbinical Assembly in 1844, Einhorn staunchly argued for reforms, such as preaching in the German vernacular rather than in Hebrew and leaving out prayers for a Jewish nation. In 1847, Einhorn replaced Samuel Holdheim as chief rabbi of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and found himself influenced by Holdheim and by the philosopher F.W. Schelling. More and more opposed to serving in a reactionary state, Einhorn was soon in the midst of controversy. Most people in his congregation were orthodox and were opposed to his views. When Einhorn gave an uncircumcised boy a blessing in the synagogue, the congregation did not approve. Due to the clash of views between Einhorn and his congregation, Einhorn left his position as chief rabbi, and he left Germany altogether.

In 1851, Einhorn went to Hungary, where he served at Budapest's Reform synagogue. The government felt threatened by the religious liberalism preached there. Confusing the religious liberalism with political liberalism, the Hungarian government closed the temple only two months after Einhorn took the pulpit. After the temple was closed, Einhorn began to think about relocating to a place where he could preach his radical religious ideas. He considered the United States as a possibility for his new home but did not leave until 1855.

While he waited for the right conditions to sail for America, Einhorn wrote his Das Prinzip des Mosaismus (The Principles of Mosaic Faith). Published in 1854, this volume reflected his thinking on Jewish philosophy. One of his beliefs echoed that of Abraham Geiger and other reform leaders. These leaders did not accept that revelation from God occurred only in the past; Einhorn believed that God revealed truths to his people over time, so that religious ideas could be perfected.

Campaigned against Slavery

In 1855, Einhorn left Germany for the United States. Once in America, he became the religious leader at Har Sinai Synagogue in Baltimore. Again he found himself in the midst of controversy. Einhorn opposed slavery. Opposition to slavery in a proslavery state put Einhorn in danger. Some of Einhorn's contemporaries felt that slavery was a traditional way of life, although they might not themselves practice it. Einhorn, in direct opposition to these contemporaries, did not share those views. Neither did he support the idea that slavery was ordained of God.

Einhorn felt that using the Bible to support slavery was akin to wielding the whip of slavery. It was following the letter of the law in direct opposition to the spirit of the law. In his sermon "War with Amalek!" based on Exodus 17, Einhorn said, "We are told that this crime [slavery] rests upon a historical right! … Slavery is an institution sanctioned by the Bible, hence war against it is war against, and not for, God! It has ever been a strategy of the advocate of a bad cause to take refuge from the spirit of the Bible to its letter… ."

Outspoken in his views that slavery was a moral sin, Einhorn took a firm stance against it. Although Einhorn preached in German—indeed, he continued to be a proponent of German as the language of biblical scholarship and criticism—his words nevertheless incited a riot on April 19, 1861. According to David E. Lipman of the Gates to Jewish Heritage, "a mob threatened to tar and feather him, and he was forced to flee north." He first fled to Philadelphia and became rabbi of Keneseth Israel Congregation. In 1866, he went to New York and became rabbi of the Congregation Adath Israel. The congregation eventually merged with an orthodox congregation and was renamed Beth El.

Einhorn was staunch in his refusal to give way to the view that slavery had a right to exist. Even though he acknowledged that honorable men could be slave holders, as was Abraham, he nevertheless condemned slavery as a moral evil. Pointing to the bondage of the Jews in Egypt, he noted that they rejoiced when God delivered them; there was no justification for viewing slavery as a state of man established by God. Jews, of all people, should abhor slavery, Einhorn pointed out. He noted that the Jewish race was under the bondage of slavery in places throughout the world; therefore the Jewish race should certainly be against slavery, in all its forms.

In 1856, Einhorn began publishing a monthly magazine on Judaism reform, Sinai. Written in German, the magazine was published for seven years before it folded, due to its anti-slavery message. Sinai was a vehicle used by Einhorn to voice his opposition to the views of his colleagues who accepted slavery as a necessity. When one of his peers, Rabbi Morris Raphall, delivered proslavery words from the pulpit, Einhorn fiercely opposed him in Sinai. Calling Raphall's sermon a "deplorable farce," Einhorn refuted the notion that slavery was acceptable because it was mentioned in the Bible, any more than murder was acceptable because Cain committed it. Einhorn further explained in volume. VI of Sinai that "to proclaim slavery in the name of Judaism to be a God-sanctioned institution— the Jewish-religious press must raise objections to this, if it does not want itself and Judaism branded forever. Had a Christian clergyman in Europe delivered the Raphall address, the Jewish-orthodox as well as Jewish-reform press would have been set going to call the wrath of heaven and earth upon such falsehoods, to denounce such a disgrace."

Einhorn accused Jews who supported slavery of putting money before their values, because the economic advantages some enjoyed because of slavery did not mean that it should be tolerated. The Jews, once in slavery themselves and now free, should not feel that they practiced a humane religion if they were willing to believe that religion allowed for the justification of slavery. Because of his outspoken views against slavery, Einhorn was elected as an honorary member of the Union League Club of Philadelphia.

Influenced American Reform

In 1855, Einhorn opposed the decision of the Cleveland Rabbinical Conference that the Talmud was the only acceptable interpretation of the Bible. Led by Isaac Mayer Wise, the conference adopted a unified approach that allowed for incorporating broad practices present in American Judaism. Einhorn considered this to be false to the Reform's cause; his disagreement sparked a lasting feud between him and the more moderate Wise.

At the same time that Einhorn opposed recognizing the Talmud as divine, he never deviated from his belief that the Law of Moses held true and lasting principles that guided his people. He compared Mosaic law to a weapon against the enemies of the Jewish people. His people could not afford to lose this weapon, he said. Einhorn maintained that for Jews to curry favor with those in power by departing from the time-tested principles given by Moses was to agree to their own destruction.

Although a radical, Einhorn still believed the scripture in Exodus 19:6 that spoke of the Jews as a priestly people: "And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel." Einhorn believed that in order to be holy, Jews needed to keep the covenants their ancestors made with God. He did not subscribe to a defeatist mentality found in the Wissenschaft des Judentums.

But to maintain their status of a holy people, Einhorn maintained that Jews should not intermarry. In Sinai he wrote that marrying into other races was "a nail in the coffin of the small Jewish race." Although he once blessed an uncircumcised boy, Einhorn insisted that male converts be circumcised. He believed that the Jews had to preserve their heritage in order to maintain their identity as the people of God. At the same time that he wished to continue the practice of circumcision, Einhorn wished to cast off other practices of the "Ceremonial Law" that he considered to be outdated. He was against practices such as wearing phylacteries twice a day; refraining from 39 different kinds of work on the Sabbath; and following dietary restrictions. Einhorn was interested not in the outward forms of the Mosaic law, but in the moral aspects of it.

In 1856, Einhorn published his prayer book and called it Olat Tamid, which means "Eternal Sacrifice." The title of his prayer book might seem ironic, given the fact that Einhorn had agreed with Geiger that the Talmud had no divine authority. But unlike Wise's prayer book Minchag America, Einhorn's work was more than just a shortened version of the existing service. Olat Tamid was a creative expression on universal human values that served as a model for the original Union Prayer Book. Olat Tamid was a more modern approach to religious practice than the traditional worship for it did not emphasize the chosen status of Israel. It also removed mention of a Messiah and eliminated references to a return to sacrificial practices and a return to Israel.

As Wise's moderate approach to Judaism eventually became the standard for Jewish reform in America, Einhorn's influence lived on. His son-in-law, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, collected a volume of Einhorn's sermons and published it in 1880. Kohler was responsible for forming the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which became a foundation for American Reform. Kohler also helped incorporate material from Einhorn's Olat Tamid into the Union Prayer Book.

Einhorn retired in 1879 and died just four months later on November 2, 1879. He will be remembered as an eloquent man who refused to change his opinions. His theological writings have a rational strain that apply universally to the human race. A leading reform theologian in his day, Einhorn was instrumental in bringing Jewish reform to a modern school of thought.


American National Biography, Volume 7, p. 364-365.

The New York Times, January 15, 2000, p. B11.


"Anti-Slavery Answer to Dr. Raphall by Dr. David Einhorn," Jewish-American History on the Web,http://www.jewishhistory.com/einhorn.html (January 6, 2002).

"David Einhorn," Dictionary of American Biography, Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936, http://galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (January 15, 2002).

"David Einhorn," Encyclopedia.com,http://www.encyclopedia.com/articlesnew/14885.html (January 6, 2002).

"David Einhorn," Infoplease.com,http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0816890.html (January 6, 2002).

"David Einhorn: Radical American Reformer," Gates to Jewish Heritage,http://www.jewishgates.org/personalities/einhorn.stm (January 6, 2002). □

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