Felsenthal, Bernhard

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FELSENTHAL, BERNHARD (1822–1908), U.S. Reform rabbi. Felsenthal was born in Munchweile, Germany. He intended to enter the Bavarian civil service, but seeing no prospect of being admitted, he attended a teachers' seminary at *Kaiserslautern and taught in Jewish schools before settling in the U.S. in 1854. There Felsenthal served a congregation in Madison, Indiana, as officiant and teacher; then in 1858 he moved to Chicago as clerk in a banking house, while also devoting himself to rabbinical and theological study. Deeply influenced by David *Einhorn, Felsenthal became one of the first protagonists of Reform Judaism in the Midwest. He was a strong opponent of slavery and refused to accept a pulpit in Mobile, Alabama. He was a founder and secretary of the Chicago Juedisches Reformverein. A statement of Reform views which he published in 1859, Kol Kore ba-Midbar: Ueber Juedische Reform, attracted some attention, and when the Reformverein developed into the Sinai Congregation, he became its first rabbi (1861). He was ordained by Einhorn and Samuel Adler. In 1864 Felsenthal became rabbi of the newly formed Zion Congregation, which he headed until his retirement in 1887. Felsenthal was a constant student and, though he wrote no books, wielded a ready pen. When questions on ritual came to him, he generally took an advanced Reform view. In several instances he dissented from the proposals of Isaac M. *Wise. Thus, he strongly opposed the establishment of a rabbinical seminary, believing that conditions in America did not provide a satisfactory foundation. On the other hand, he advocated Jewish day schools. In 1879 he declined a professorship at Hebrew Union College. In later years Felsenthal became concerned with the threat to the Jews in America posed by religious indifference, and feeling that the course taken by Reform was preparing a "beautiful death" for Judaism, became an enthusiastic supporter of the Zionist movement. Felsenthal was a founder of the Jewish Publication Society of America and of the American Jewish Historical Society.


E. Felsenthal (ed.), Bernhard Felsenthal, Teacher in Israel (1924), includes extracts from his writings and bibliography; Stolz, in: ccary, 18 (1908), 161; idem, in: ajhsp, 17 (1909), 218–22. Universal Jewish Encyclopedia (1941) 4: 273–274. add. bibliography: K. Olitzky, L. Sussman, and M.H. Stern, Reform Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1993).

[Sefton D. Temkin]