Homberg, Naphtali Herz

views updated


HOMBERG, NAPHTALI HERZ (1749–1841), pioneer of the *Haskalah movement. Born in Lieben near Prague, he attended the yeshivot of Prague, Pressburg, and Gross-Glogau, subsequently going to Breslau. In 1767 he began to learn German secretly and later studied languages and mathematics in Berlin and Hamburg. Influenced by the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Homberg turned to pedagogy and in 1779 became tutor to Moses *Mendelssohn's son Joseph. In 1782 he moved to Vienna, attracted by the educational activities initiated by the government following the toleration edicts issued by *Joseph ii. He contributed the section on Deuteronomy of Mendelssohn's German Bible translation Biur; from 1783 to 1784 he taught at the Jewish school in Trieste, established in accord with the educational principles advocated by Naphtali Herz *Wessely. His efforts to obtain a teaching post at a university were unsuccessful because he was a Jew.

In 1787 the Austrian authorities appointed Homberg superintendent of the German-language Jewish schools in Galicia and assistant censor of Jewish books (see *Censorship). In this capacity he wrote Iggeret el Ro'ei Seh Pezurah Yisrael (addressed to the rabbis in 1788) proposing that Jewish education should be adapted to European culture, and advocating the teaching of Hebrew grammar, German, and handicrafts, and showing special concern for education of the poor. Homberg threatened the rabbis that if they did not adapt themselves to his principles the government would force them to do so. Altogether Homberg founded 107 classes and schools in Galicia, including a teachers seminary at Lemberg (Lvov). Most Jews tried to avoid sending their children to these schools, regarding them as instruments of conversion to Christianity. Homberg was ruthless in denouncing to the authorities religious Jews who refused to comply with his requirements, and in applying pressure against them. In his official memoranda he blamed both the rabbis and the Talmud for preventing Jews from fulfilling their civic duties toward the Christian state. He accused them of retaining their loyalties to Ereẓ Israel, supporting its Jewish community, and evading military service. Homberg recommended to the authorities that they disband most traditional educational institutions, prohibit use of the Hebrew language, and force the communal bodies to employ only modern teachers. He also proposed that Jewish literature be purified of superstition and that every text inciting hatred against gentiles be excised from Jewish literature. He suggested that Jews should be compelled to take up productive occupations and that civil rights be granted to Jews who obeyed the laws of the state. Homberg pleaded for the abolition of all external marks distinguishing Jews from gentiles, such as their beard and traditional dress.

Considered the expert on Jewish affairs in government circles, he was called temporarily to Vienna in 1793 to elaborate on suggestions for the reorganization of Jewish life, which served as the basis for the Bohemian Systemalpatent of 1797 (see *Bohemia) and for this he was rewarded with an imperial gold medal. Homberg suggested that civil rights should be granted to all Jews who lived "an irreproachable bourgeois life" for 10 years, as well as to Jewish artisans, agriculturists, and soldiers. He regarded as the ultimate goal "to forsake all prejudices and achieve complete union with the Christians."

Homberg compiled a list of Jewish books to be prohibited or censored. It included many kabbalistic works and works of moral instruction, most hasidic writings, and even the prayer book. He prepared for publication a version of *Ze'enah u-Re-enah in Hebrew characters, adapting it to his opinions; although approved by the government censorship, it was not printed (the manuscript is in the National Library in Jerusalem). When the *candle tax was introduced in Galicia (1797) Homberg supported it, and was accused of securing for himself a portion of the revenue. For this reason, as well as an additional charge of embezzlement, he was forced to leave Galicia in 1802 and went to Vienna as censor of Jewish books there. His repeated applications for permanent residence were rejected, although he argued in his favor that his four sons had adopted Christianity.

In 1808 Homberg published Imrei Shefer, a catechism for young people in Hebrew and German. When the French *Sanhedrin convened in Paris in 1806 Homberg published a pamphlet commenting on their deliberations and emphasizing that the Torah permits both intermarriage and civil marriage; however, in part because of concern for the spread of Deism, it was viewed with suspicion by the ruling circles. In a memorandum written in 1812 he proposed that a council of rabbis should be convened to decide on abrogations of the Oral Lawand emendations of the prayer book. In 1814 Homberg moved to Prague where he became teacher of religion and ethics in the German-language schools with Peter *Beer, and inspector of Jewish home tutors. In 1812 he published a catechism in German, Benei Zion (approved by Mordecai *Banet), which was made a compulsory textbook in all Jewish schools in the Hapsburg dominions. All young couples applying for a secular marriage license in Bohemia and Moravia were required to take an examination in it. Most Jews of Galicia resisted the law and were married in a religious ceremony without the benefit of the governmental license. In his book Homberg denied the belief in Israel as the chosen people, the Messiah, and the return to Zion, and tried to show the existence of an essential identity between Judaism and Christianity. He denied all the traditional Jewish customs. A condensation, Ben Jakkir, also in German, was published in 1814. To its second edition (1826) Homberg appended a summary of the principles of Jewish religion according to Moses Mendelssohn's Jerusalem. He also wrote in this period Ha-Korem, a commentary on the Pentateuch, and commentaries on Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Job, published in Vienna in 1817–18. Homberg incurred the nearly universal hatred of his Jewish contemporaries. Even Moses Mendelssohn, his mentor, had reservations about Homberg's collaboration with the gentile authorities in order to compel acceptance among Jews of his ideas on enlightenment. Similar misgivings were shared by Naphtali Herz Wessely and later Isaac Samuel *Reggio. The verdict of H. *Graetz was that he was "morally and by performance the weakest" personality in the circles of Enlightenment.


P. Sandler, Ha-Be'ur la-Torah shel M. Mendelssohn (1940), index; Klausner, Sifrut, 1 (1952), 211–23 (bibl.); R. Mahler, Divrei Yemei Yisrael, Dorot Aharonim, vol. 1, book 2 (19542), index; idem, Ha-Ḥasidut ve-ha-Haskalah (1961), index; R. Kestenberg-Gladstein, Die neuere Geschichte der Juden in Boehmen, 1 (1969), index; Zinberg, Sifrut, 6 (1960), index; A.F. Pribram, Urkunden und Akten zur Geschichte der Juden in Wien, 2 (1918), index; B. Wachstein, Die Inschriften des alten Judenfriedhofes in Wien, 2 (1917), index; M. Grunwald, Vienna (1936), index; M. Eliav, Ha-Ḥinnukh ha-Yehudi be-Germanyah (1960), index; Roubik, in: jggjc, 5 (1933), 319–37; Singer, ibid., 7 (1935), 209–28.

[Encyclopaedia Hebraica]