Assembly of Jewish Notables

views updated


ASSEMBLY OF JEWISH NOTABLES , convocation of rabbis and Jewish communal leaders from the communities situated in the territories of the French Empire and the "Kingdom of Italy" convened by a decree of Napoleon *Bonaparte, issued in May 1806 to clarify the relations between the Napoleonic state and the Jews.

The process of Jewish adaptation to the conditions of the modern state and society had already begun before the Napoleonic era, after the granting of Jewish *Emancipation during the French Revolution. The Napoleonic regime attempted to subject all public activity to its authority, including the activities of the various religious denominations. Napoleon attained this objective in regard to the Catholics when he concluded the Concordat with the Pope in 1801. Later, government supervision was also extended over the Protestants. Attention was finally turned to the Jews, but this problem was more complicated because it was necessary to establish a central Jewish religious framework before subjecting it to the authority of the state. When early in 1806 complaints were made that the Jews of Alsace were engaging in usury, Napoleon accepted that there was ground for investigation, attributing this practice to a specifically separatist and undeniable Jewish character. He therefore passed consideration of the Jewish question to the Council of State. Subsequently its majority proposed either the adoption of general legislation against usury, or the expulsion of Jews from the country, if it became clear that they were unable for religious reasons to qualify as citizens of a non-Jewish state. Napoleon objected to the majority view, however, and decided to call a meeting of "Jewish estates" to clarify their situation for the benefit of both Jews and non-Jews. The decree of May 30, 1806, convening the Assembly of Jewish Notables, was issued on this basis. At the same time, the public debate in France about Jews and Judaism was resumed: in addition to the arguments of the rationalists, who advocated separating the "political," separatist, and harmful traits in Judaism

from its "religious" aspects and abolishing the former, new arguments were advanced, typifying the Catholic-Romantic approach of intellectuals such as Louis-Gabriel-Ambroise *Bonald and Count Louis Matthieu Molé. Molé was the most active and influential of the three commissioners Napoleon appointed to the assembly and the expert in the Council of State on the Jewish question. The other two were Pasquier and Portalis junior.

The Assembly of Jewish Notables met on July 26, 1806. Its deliberations in plenary session and committees continued almost uninterruptedly to April 6, 1807; its final membership was 111. The delegates had been elected by local Jewish leaders, in consultation with the district prefects, on the basis of one representative to every 100–500 Jews. The assembly thus reflected most of the social patterns and attitudes of the Jewish communities of Central and Western Europe. The delegates from districts of overwhelmingly German Jewish culture, *Alsace-Lorraine, and other formerly-German areas which had been annexed to the empire, formed its largest group. Many of them were orthodox in outlook. The communities and "national organizations" in this area had been little affected by the upheavals that had taken place after the French Revolution. Some of the members from Alsace-Lorraine were disciples of Moses *Mendelssohn, of the conservative type and, while observant, would have liked to see social and educational reforms (for instance Berr Isaac *Berr). Only a small minority professed the radical ideas of the Enlightenment (see *Haskalah), such as Michel *Berr (son of Berr Isaac Berr). On the other hand, the Portuguese Jews from southern France and the Jews of Paris were largely radical. They were headed by Abraham *Furtado of Bordeaux, an adherent of Voltaire and a former Girondist, who was elected chairman of the assembly. The "Portuguese" delegates were few but, as the most radical upholders of the state views, they became the leaders of the assembly. The 16 representatives from Italy were mostly observant Jews, and members of organized communities anxious to preserve Jewish autonomy and traditional way of life, like Rabbi Jacob Israel Carmi (*Karmi) from Reggio (the exception being A. *Cologna). They included noted talmudic scholars, such as Hananel (Graziadio) *Neppi.

At the second session of the Assembly of Jewish Notables Molé presented 12 questions on four main aspects of social and political life:

  1. the civil-matrimonial aspect.
    1. Is it lawful for Jews to marry more than one wife?
    2. Is divorce allowed by the Jewish religion? Is divorce valid when not pronounced by courts of justice, but by virtue of laws in contradiction to those of the French Code?
    3. Is intermarriage with Christians permitted to Jews or does the law allow the Jews to intermarry only among themselves?
  2. the political-patriotic aspect.
    1. In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen considered as their brothers or are they considered as strangers?
    2. In either case, what line of conduct does their law prescribe toward Frenchmen not of their religion?
    3. Do Jews born in France and treated by the laws of French citizens, consider France as their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and to conform to the civil code?
  3. the fear of a "state within state."
    1. Who appoints the rabbis?
    2. What police jurisdiction do rabbis exercise among Jews? What judicial power do they enjoy among themselves?
    3. Are the forms of choice of rabbis and their police judicial jurisdiction regulated by law, or are they only sanctioned by custom?
  4. the moral-socio-economic aspect.
    1. Are there professions which the law of the Jews forbids them from exercising?
    2. Does the law forbid the Jews to take usury from their brothers?
    3. Does it forbid or does it allow the taking of usury from strangers?

Formulation of the answers was entrusted to a "committee of twelve," headed by the halakhic scholar David *Sinzheim of Strasbourg. Sinzheim applied a remarkable degree of flexibility to his formulation, and while avoiding any infringement of halakhic principles, he was careful not to prejudice the civic status of French Jewry, which, it was thought, would be endangered should the answers fail to satisfy the emperor. Patriotic declarations were adopted unanimously at the plenary session in reply to questions 4 to 6, stating inter alia: "A French Jew considers himself in England as among strangers, although he may be among Jews… To such a pitch is this sentiment carried among them, that, during the last war, French Jews have been fighting desperately against other Jews, the subjects of countries then at war with France."

The answer to question 3 was fiercely disputed in the assembly. While the "progressives" favored mixed marriages, the upholders of orthodoxy insisted that such marriages had no validity from the religious point of view. The latter view was incorporated in the answers. Another difficulty arose, regarding questions 11–12 on usury, a problem widely disputed in Europe over many centuries. The answer stated that post-Mosaic Judaism, which no longer retains its egalitarian-agricultural character, permits "interest" (the assembly rejected the term "usury" for the Hebrew neshekh) to all alike, Jews as well as non-Jews. This is based on an apologetic definition, current from the 17th century, where in the biblical text "brother" denotes a citizen of the same state, whatever his religion may be, while "stranger" denotes a citizen of a foreign state. This point additionally reinforced the previous answers concerning civil brotherhood.

In reply to questions 7–9 the delegates stated inter alia that the rabbis had no authority over communal life. They also stressed that the communal authority had become impaired by lack of organization and lack of funds, after communal dues had become voluntary since the French Revolution and Emancipation.

An introduction to all 12 answers reiterated that according to halakhah the secular "prince" is the final authority in political or civil matters. Consequently, should their religious code, or its various interpretations, contain commands on civil or political matters at variance with those of the French code, those commands would, of course, cease to influence and govern them.

The content of these answers, as well as letters from the delegates of various countries, show that the majority of the assembly considered such statements to be a compromise, in form but not in substance, between the laws of the state and those of halakhah.

The deliberations of the assembly aroused interest among both Jewish and non-Jewish circles in Europe. Its "Transactions" consisting of the questions, answers, minutes (after internal censorship), and part of the public debates before and during the sessions, were published in French. They were republished the following year with the deliberations and decisions of the *Sanhedrin, and subsequently in English, Italian, and German at different times and places in varying versions.

The answers generally suited Napoleon. He decided to establish in accordance with their spirit an ecclesiastical organization to lead the Jews as French citizens of the Mosaic faith. The latter sessions of the assembly were therefore devoted to framing statutes to regulate the "ecclesiastical structure" of the Jewish religion. They provided for the abolition of communal organizations and establishment of the *Consistories, whose authority was limited to the appointment of rabbis, determination of their salaries, regulation of religious services, and the maintenance of synagogues; a central consistory was established in Paris. The budget was secured by a compulsory Jewish consistorial tax. The statutes were received with satisfaction by almost all participants. For the delegates from Alsace-Lorraine, they provided a setting for the continuation of their communal life with an assured budget, while other delegates welcomed the statutes as an expression of their own ideas for improving Jewish society. The sole exception was the Italian delegates, who also wanted to include education and welfare in the jurisdiction of the consistories.

The answers of the assembly and the institutions it created have shaped the opinions and actions of certain Jewish circles confronted with the problem of regulating Jewish existence in a modern absolutist state. They furnished a rationale for conformity with the postulates of a modern centralized state and society which had already become, or were about to become, nationalist in character. The ad hoc answers of the assembly are, in historical perspective, a modern, if extreme, formulation of the old maxim "the Law of the land is [binding] Law" (bk 113a).


Graetz, Hist, 5 (1949), 474 ff.; Roth, Mag Bibl, 273, 397; Z. Szajkowski, in: sbb, 2 (1956), 107–52; R. Anchel, Napoléon et les Juifs (1928); E.A. Halphen, Recueil des lois, decrets et ordonances concernant les Israélites depuis la Révolution (1851); D. Tama, Collection des écrits et des actes relatifs au dernier état des individus professant la religion hébraïque (Paris, 1806); S. Romanelli, Raccolta di inni ed ode de parechi Rabbini dell' Assemblea degli Ebrei e del Gran Sinedrio (Mantua, 1807); J.I. Carmi, All' Assemblea ed al Sinedrio di Parigi, 1806–1807; lettere… ed. by A. Balletti (1905); B. Mevoraḥ (ed.), Napoleon u-Tekufato (1968).

[Baruch Mevorah]

About this article

Assembly of Jewish Notables

Updated About content Print Article