Kohler, Kaufmann

views updated May 18 2018


KOHLER, KAUFMANN (18431926), Reform rabbi, scholar, and theologian. Born in Fürth, Bavaria, into a pious Orthodox family of rabbinical ancestry, Kohler entered the Gymnasium in Frankfurt in 1862 and continued his earlier rabbinic training with Samson Raphael Hirsch, leader of German Neo-Orthodoxy, whose crucial religious impact on him Kohler frequently acknowledged. Gradually, however, with exposure to modern science and the critical studies of philology, the Bible, history, and comparative religion at the universities of Munich, Berlin, and Erlanger (where he received his Ph.D. in 1867), his faith in Orthodox Judaism was shattered.

Attracted to the religious orientation of Abraham Geiger, leader of German Reform Judaism, Kohler embraced Reform as an outlet for both his profound religious faith and his scholarly proclivities. When a rabbinical appointment in Germany was not forthcoming, he moved to the United States in 1869 and served congregations in Detroit and Chicago until, in 1879, he succeeded his father-in-law, David Einhorn, in one of the most prestigious Reform temples in the country, Beth El in New York City.

During the next decade, through his books and articles, Kohler became recognized as a preeminent advocate of classical Reform Judaism. Undaunted by controversy, he defended Reform against critics such as Felix Adler and Alexander Kohut; in the wake of his celebrated polemic with the latter, Kohler convened the Pittsburgh Rabbinical Conference in November 1885 and steered its eight-point statement of principles to reflect his own views; these corresponded to and articulated most Reformers' religious self-understanding for the next two generations. From 1903 to 1921, Kohler served as president of the Reform seminary at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Kohler's scholarship included works in theology, Semitics, Hellenistic studies, comparative religion, and intertestamental literature. These were consistently marked by the application of modern scientific analysis to Jewish literary sources, an approach reflecting the nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums. He assumed that this historicist reassessment of Judaism and its texts uncovered the essence of Judaism, which he identified with the central beliefs of Reform Judaism. His scholarship therefore was often an adjunct to his religious beliefs.

Recognized as a giant in his day, Kohler now has scant influence. His scholarship is generally dated, and his rationalist, anti-Zionist Reform orientation has long since been set aside by the mainstream of Reform Judaism. Nevertheless, he typified one of its most significant stages and expressed its major ideals in a bygone era.


Kohler's most notable work, well reviewed in its day, is Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered (1918; a revised edition of the 1910 German version); the current edition (New York, 1968) includes a fine introductory essay by Joseph L. Blau that combines biographical data with a critical assessment of Kohler's text. His other scholarly writings can be found in Hebrew Union College and Other Addresses (Cincinnati, 1910), Heaven and Hell in Comparative Religion (New York, 1923), and two posthumously published books, The Origins of the Synagogue and the Church (1929; New York, 1973) and Studies, Addresses, and Personal Papers (New York, 1931). The best retrospective on Kohler, written by an admirer and colleague, is H. G. Enelow's "Kaufmann Kohler," American Jewish Year Book 28 (19261927): 235260.

Benny Kraut (1987)

Kohler, Kaufmann

views updated May 29 2018


KOHLER, KAUFMANN (1843–1926), U.S. Reform rabbi and president of Hebrew Union College. Kaufmann Kohler was born in Fuerth, Bavaria, long known as a center of rabbinic learning, and was himself descended from rabbinic stock. He pursued rabbinical studies from an early age and in 1862 entered the gymnasium at Frankfurt. While in that city he came under the influence of Samson Raphael *Hirsch, champion of Neo-Orthodoxy, and, though later diverging sharply from his viewpoint, never ceased to pay tribute to his influence. Kohler pursued his university studies at Berlin and Erlangen, receiving a doctorate in 1867. His university studies had shattered Kohler's Orthodoxy and his doctoral thesis, Der Segen Jacobs (1867), took such a radical viewpoint that no rabbinic position was open to him. For a time he continued his studies at Leipzig with a view to entering the academic world, but, warmly recommended by the German Reform leader Abraham *Geiger, Kohler accepted the office of rabbi of Congregation Beth El, Detroit (1869). In 1871 he moved to Sinai Congregation, Chicago (where he introduced Sunday services in 1874), and in 1879 he succeeded his father-in-law, David *Einhorn, at Temple Beth El, New York.

Kohler emerged as a national champion of Reform Judaism in 1885 when, replying to attacks by Alexander *Kohut, he published a series of sermons entitled Backward or Forward (1885). The outcome was his convening of the Pittsburgh Conference of Reform Rabbis and its adoption of a radical program on the basis of Kohler's draft. In 1903 Kohler was appointed president of *Hebrew Union College and set about immediately to improve the curriculum and to bring fresh talent to the faculty. His dealings were not always diplomatic, and he was soon involved in a clash with several members of the faculty on the subject of Zionism, which he opposed. He became the chief spokesman for classical Reform. His major theological work was Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered (1918; repub. 1968), which traces Jewish thought from the perspective of 19th-century Reform Judaism. He revamped the curriculum, introduced biblical criticism and reduced the time spent on Talmud, but also held daily services and taught reverence through study. Under his presidency the College moved to a new, spacious setting. Upon his retirement, Kohler received the title of president emeritus (1921) and returned to New York.

Throughout his career Kohler showed wide scholarly interests and prodigious industry as a researcher and writer. When Studies in Jewish Literature Issued in Honor of Professor Kaufmann Kohler on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday was published in 1913, 801 of his articles were listed in the bibliography. He was editor of the department of philosophy and theology of the Jewish Encyclopedia, to which he contributed 300 articles, and a member of the board of editors of the jps English translation of the Bible. His Studies, Addresses and Personal Papers (1931) was published posthumously.

Kohler was an active member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and his learning and position enabled him to exercise a significant influence on the trend of American Reform Judaism in his day. He was an unusual combination of rationalist and believer. The evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin exercised an important influence on his thinking. Man, Kohler declared in 1874 "… is driven by the creative forces farther and farther away from his root, away from his natural origin, toward the higher, the infinite; away from the transient shell towards the eternal … everything that stamps man as man … our entire culture has grown from rude beginnings into ever higher perfection." With this he combined a strong belief that the task of the Jew was to lead the world to a universal religion and that the Messianic era was approaching in his own day.


Philipson, in: ajhsp, 31 (1928), 268–71; idem, in: ccary, 36 (1926), 170–7; Enelow, in: ajyb, 28 (1926–27), 235–60; R.J. Marx, Kaufmann Kohler as Reformer (1951); J.L. Blau, in: K. Kohler, Jewish Theology (1968), xi–xii. add. bibliography: K.M. Olitzky, L.J. Sussman and M.H. Stern, Reform Judaism: A Biogrpahical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1993).

[Sefton D. Temkin /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

Kohler, Kaufmann

views updated May 21 2018

Kohler, Kaufmann (1843–1926). Prominent US Reform rabbi. Recommended by Abraham Geiger, he became rabbi of Temple Beth El in Detroit in 1869, and in 1879 he took over Temple Beth El of New York from his father-in-law, David Einhorn. His collection of sermons Backward or Forward (1885) led to the convening of the Pittsburgh Conference of Reform rabbis, and in 1903, he was appointed President of the Hebrew Union College. His best known book was Jewish Theology (1918).