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Frankel, Zacharias


FRANKEL, ZACHARIAS (1801–1875), rabbi and scholar. Frankel was born in Prague. After receiving a talmudic education under Bezalel *Ronsburg, he studied philosophy, natural sciences, and philology in Budapest (1825–30). In 1831 the Austrian government appointed him district rabbi (Keiserrabbiner) of Leitmeritz (Litomerice) and he settled in Teppliz (Teplice) where he was elected local rabbi. He was one of the first rabbis to preach in German and express by that his positive attitude towards modernity and social integration of Jews within general society and culture. In 1836 he was called by the Saxon government to *Dresden to act as chief rabbi. The publication of his study on the Jewish *oath (see below) led to its abolition in several German states. He declined a call to Berlin in 1843, mainly because the Prussian government would not meet his stipulations (complete legal recognition of the Jewish faith – until then merely "tolerated"; denial to support to missionary activities among Jews, etc.). In 1845 he attended the second conference of Liberal rabbis in Frankfurt and advocated there a much more moderate-conservative approach than most of the participants to the issue of required reform in Judaism. He withdrew from the conference and broke his ties with Liberal rabbis once his direction was rejected and the conference adopted the idea of promoting both prayers and sermons in German rather than in Hebrew. In 1854, after having actively advocated its establishment, Frankel became director of the newly founded Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar (Jewish Theological Seminary) at Breslau, where he remained until his death.

Religious Outlook

As a theologian Frankel aimed at a synthesis between the traditional notion of Judaism as linear continuity anchored in divine revelation and based on Jewish law (halakhah) on the one hand and response to contemporary fundamental changes in the Jewish life on the other hand. He viewed Judaism as a dynamic balance between the Divine will, as expressed in the Torah, and the human response of the Jewish people, as manifested in the history of the Jewish people. This balance was articulated in the title he gave to the new denomination he established within Jewish life, namely "positive-historical" Judaism. The positive pole of this formulation referred both to the revealed-legalistic nature of Judaism and to its objective eternal and unchangeable content. The historic pole expressed the role Frankel ascribed to the human, ever-changing, and contextually dependent response of the Jewish community to this Divine content. Only the combination of these two poles determines what Judaism is and what is truly a mitzvah. The duty of the rabbis, as he understood it, was to combine loyalty to halakhah with sensitivity to the voice of kelal yisrael (the entire community or people of Israel). Frankel's approach thus led him to a rejection of both Reform and Orthodox notions of Judaism. In the Reform movement, led by Abraham *Geiger he saw both a negation of loyalty to Jewish law and the lack of genuine dialogue with the Jewish masses. The Reform rabbis mistakenly believed that they had the authority to determine Jewish dogma by themselves without taking popular sentiment and their way of life seriously into consideration. The Orthodox rabbis, led by S.R. *Hirsch, were criticized by him for not taking in account the historic dynamics and evolution of Judaism, and the need to free Judaism from its frozen state and irrelevance to current Jewish life. Both Reform and Orthodox ignored the very life of the Volk, the real source of authority for the work of the rabbi. It should be noted, that though Frankel wished to place himself at the "center," his critique of the Reform wing was much sharper and aggressive than that of Orthodoxy. The former were accused of transgressing Judaism altogether; the latter only of not properly relating to the current needs and concerns of the Jews. This imbalance represents the fact that it was Orthodoxy that designed for him the criteria for Jewish life, while his Reform counterparts were perceived as representing a much less urgent and acute challenge. Frankel promoted these ideas in his professional life in the way he designed the program of the Breslau seminary as well as in the kind of tendencies he developed within academic Jewish research (Wissenschaft des Jusentums). The Breslau seminary was the first modern institute for rabbinical education, combining clear emphasis on rabbinical studies – mainly in a traditional manner – with the study of the wider range of Jewish studies in connection with the local university. The unique nature of the Breslau seminary was questioned by Samson Raphael *Hirsch, who challenged Frankel, upon the seminary's opening, to state the religious principles that would guide instruction there. At the same time, Abraham Geiger criticized the seminary's classic method of talmudic instruction.

As a scholar Frankel focused on the study of rabbinic literature, presenting it as a human activity, reflecting its historical context, and hence a dynamic and open process of hermeneutics and adaptation of the Torah. By that he presented the rabbinic discourse and authority as the center of Jewish history and essence, in contrary to the Reform theologians and scholars who emphasized the Bible and theological discourse. At the same time Frankel presented the rabbis as the creators of Jewish legal tradition, in contrary to the traditional and Orthodox understanding of them as the carriers of the Divine oral law, revealed at Sinai. The "positive-historical" ("Breslau") school influenced later the *Conservative movement in the United States and served as its theoretical basis. In the controversy over the Hamburg prayer book (1841) and in his subsequent reply to the circular of the Hamburg preacher, Gotthold *Salomon (Litteratur des Orients, 3 (1842), nos. 23–24), he declared that only changes that were not in conflict with the spirit of historical Judaism should be permitted in the traditional ritual. He believed that the messianic belief, which expressed the "pious wish for the independence of the Jewish people" was of importance for the survival and development of Judaism, and that it brought a new spirit and vigor into the life of German Jews, even though "they already had fatherland which they would not leave." This statement and others express Frankel's deep devotion to Jewish peoplehood and national existence, a devotion not shared by Hirsch's neo-Orthodoxy or by contemporary Reform, but which was, in some ways, a precursor of later national Jewish thought. Frankel's monthly review, Zeitschrift fuer die religioesen Interessen des Judentums (1844–46), was a platform for his opinions. Frankel's view aroused opposition in both Reform and Orthodox quarters.


Frankel's first work, on the Jewish oath, Die Eidesleistung bei den Juden (1840), arose out of a practical political need and was at the same time a pioneering attempt at scientific analysis of halakhic problems using the method of comparative jurisprudence. He further examined the question in Der gerichtette Beweis nach talmdischem Rechte (1846), a study of legal evidence according to talmudic law, and again in a series of articles in various periodicals: mgwj, 2 (1853), 289–304, 329–47; 9 (1860), 321–31, 365–80, 406–16, 445–54; 16 (1857), 24–26, 70–72; and Jahresbericht des Juedisch-Theologischen Seminars (1860). Several of his works deal with the history of the oral tradition: in his first studies on the Septuagint, Vorstudien zu der Septuaginta (1841), he tried to show that traces of the Palestinian halakhah could be found in the Greek translation of the Bible; on this he based a further work on the influence of Palestinian exegesis on Alexandrian hermeneutics, Ueber den Einfluss der palestinischen Exegese auf die Alexandrische Hermeutik (1851). He published his research into the methodology of the Mishnah and the Talmud in Darkhei ha-Mishnah (1859; with supplement and index, 1867; new ed. 1923), which exercised a decisive influence on further research on the Mishnah. On the publication of that book Hirsch attacked him in hisperiodical Jeschurun in a series of critical essays in which he demanded that Frankel give a precise exposition of his views on rabbinical tradition and the revelation at Mount Sinai, an attack that was supported by a long line of other Orthodox rabbis. Confining himself to a brief statement in his journal, Monatschrift fuer Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums (vol. 10 (1861), 159–60), Frankel stressed that it was not his purpose to dispute the worth of rabbinical tradition or to deny its antiquity, adding that the question as to which of its halakhic elements were to be considered of Mosaic origin was not yet resolved. Further scholarly works of Frankel are his Mevo ha-Yerushalmi (1870), an introduction to the Jerusalem Talmud. He also wrote Ahavat Ziyyon, a commentary to several tractates of the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot, Pe'ah 1847; Demai 1875), and Entwurf einer Geschichte des Literatur der nachtalmudschen Responsen (1865), the outline for a history of post-talmudic responsa literature. In 1851 he founded the scholarly journal Monatschrift fuer Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, editing it for 17 years and publishing numerous articles on Jewish cultural history. In the Breslau seminary, Frankel set the standards for modern rabbinical training, and his curriculum of study and the qualifications he established for both students and lecturers were adopted by all similar institutions.

add. bibliography:

M. Brann, Verzeichtnis der Schriften und Abhandlungen Zacharias Frankel, in: M. Brann (ed.), Zacharias Frankel, Gedenblaetter zu seinem hundersten Geburtstag (1901), 144–160; R. Horwitz, Zecharia Frankel ve-Reshit ha-Yahadut ha-Positivit Historit (Zacharias Frankel and the Beginnings of Positive-Historical Judaism; 1984); A. Braemer, Rabbiner Zacharias Frankel – Wissenschaft des Judentums und konservative Reform im 19. Jahrhundert (2000; Netiva – Wege deutsch-juedischer Geschichte und Kultur; Studien des Salomon Ludwig Steinheim-Instituts, ed. Michael Brocke, 3) [biography, incl. full bibliography of Frankel's published and unpublished writings]; idem, "The Dilemmas of Moderate Reform – Some Reflections on the Development of Conservative Judaism in Germany 1840–1880," in: Jewish Studies Quarterly, 10:1 (2003), 73–87; M. Meyer, Response to Modernity (1988), 84–89 and index; I. Schorsch, "Zacharias Frankel and the European Origins of Conservative Judaism", in: From Text to Context – The Turn to History in Modern Judaism (1994), 255–265; E. Schweid, Toledot Filosofiyyat ha-Dat ha-Yehudit ba-Zeman he-Ḥadash, vol. 2 (2002), 144–56.

[Joseph Elijah Heller /

Yehoyada Amir (2nd ed.)]

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