Rabbinical Commission

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The Rabbinic Commission (18481910) was a consultative body under the Ministry of Internal Affairs (specifically the Department of Spiritual Affairs for Foreign Faiths), organized to deal with matters of the Jewish faith. Its creation conformed to the general state policy of centralizing the religious administration of foreign confessions in a single department. Its primary duties were to answer inquiries from the state about Jewish laws and customs, to supervise the activities of rabbis, and to examine controversial Jewish divorce suits. While the state had created this institution to gather information about internal Jewish life, the Commission gradually transformed into a higher court of appeals for private divorce cases (which remained under rabbinical jurisdiction until 1917) and a vehicle for preserving traditional religious and family values.

The changing profile of the Commission's members reflected the transformation in its mission and identity. The first session (1852) included obscure individuals who were well versed neither in the Russian language nor Jewish law: the merchant Bernshtein (Odessa), D. Orshansky (Poltava), Shimel Merkel (Kovno province), and Dr. Cherolzon (Oszeisky province). They examined queries about the censorship of Jewish books, Hasidic sects, the Jewish oath, registration, and marriage of Jewish soldiers. The second meeting (1857) involved more prominent Jews: Dr. Abraham Neumann (Riga), the merchant Yekutiel-Zisl Rapoport (Minsk), the merchant Chlenov, (Kremenchug), and Rabbi Yakov Barit (Vilna). Among other topics, they discussed the establishment of state schools for Jewish girls.

In addition to the previous members, the third session (18611862) included Itskhok Eliiagu (Eliyahu) Landau (Kiev), German Barats (Vilna), and A. Maidevsky (Poltava), Iosef Evzel Gintsburg, and two learned Jews from the Ministry of the People's EducationIosif Zeiberling (St. Petersburg) and Samuel Iosif Fin (Vilna). The Commission examined ten cases on Jewish religious life and its first divorce case.

The fourth session (1879) was an "assembly of rabbis without rabbis." Apart from state rabbi German Faddeyevich Blyumenfeld (Odessa) and Dr. Avraham Harkavy (an Orientalist), the others were secular professionals: Hirsh Shapiro (Kovno), Zelman Lyubich (Minsk), Meier Levin (Pinsk), Baron Goratsy Gintsburg (Kiev), and I. I. Kaufman (Odessa). They examined eight cases of divorce and bigamy.

The fifth session (18931894) reflected the aggressive campaign of the Jewish Orthodox leadership to reassert their authority and preserve tradition. It involved four enlightened Jews (German Barats, Iakov Gottesman, Samuil Simkhovich, Avraam Katlovker) and three prominent Orthodox leaders: rabbis Tsvi Rabinovich (Vilna), Samuel Mogilever (Grodno), and theologian Yuriya Mileikovsky (Mogilev). They examined twenty-seven cases on marriage, divorce, and religious rituals.

The final sixth session (1910) was a victory for the Orthodox camp, which promised to wean Jews from revolutionary activities. Save for one jurist, Moisie Mazor (Kiev), the others were rabbis: Yehuda Leib Tsirelson (Kishinev), Khaim Soloveichik (Brest-Litovsk), Oizer Grodzensky (Vilna), Sholom Shneerson (Liubavich), Shmuel Polinkovsky (Odessa), and Mendel Khein (Nezhin). They examined twenty-three cases on marriage and divorce, as well as questions about burials, cemeteries, spelling of Jewish names, oaths, and censorship of books.

Although the Rabbinic Commission only met six times, it addressed key religious and family issues that plagued Russian Jewry. The shift in influence from the enlightened to Orthodox camp brought a reassertion of traditional values, including the refusal to modify Jewish law to suit modern expectations. The state ceased to convene the Rabbinic Commission as the empire descended into war and revolution.

See also: jews


Freeze, ChaeRan Y. (2002). Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

ChaeRan Y. Freeze

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Rabbinical Commission

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Rabbinical Commission