Modern Jewish History.
Reform rabbinical conference was held in Frankfurt Germany in July 1845 and its theme was whether Hebrew was to be preserved as the legal language of the Jewish prayer. The debate led to the emergence of two key figures, Zacharias Frankel (1801-1875) whose life was clearly divided between two interests that he pursued and that is active Rabbinate and scholarship and Abraham Geiger (1810-1875) who took two a different side over the issue. Frankel wanted Hebrew to be the official praying language while Geiger wanted Hebrew language to be substituted by German citing various reasons. The topic of discussion was in respect to the report that had been given by the commission on liturgy. Should Hebrew be the preserved as the language of the Jewish prayer? The basis for this essay is to insightfully analyze the different views that were raised by these two individuals and the reasons each cited to support their arguments.
According to the report that was made by the committee on liturgy, it was not necessary to use Hebrew language in every instance of the Jewish prayer but since many Jews in Germany had subjective attachment to the language, for this reason it was necessary to incorporate some German words such as parshat, barechu and shema in the prayer. The commission also proposed that the first three and the last three benedictions both in liturgy and blessings which followed Torah’s readings were to be recited in Hebrew while the rest were to be left for Germanic adaptations. This brought about the question whether Hebrew was to become the legal praying language. (Mendes-Flohr 178).
It was here that the two individuals took sides one being a protagonist and the other an antagonist: Geiger in support of the introduction of the German language while the other wanted Hebrew language to be preserved. The objective of the conference was to make changes that would bring integration and not to separate groups and that was why Frankel referred to these reforms as the reform of religious commandment as opposed to faith. In this matter, Geiger strongly advocated for German to be made the legal language to be used in prayers and he referred to it as the language of the soul, “our deepest emotions and feelings, our most sacred relationships, our most sublime thoughts find their expression in it”(Mendes-Flohr 179).
Hebrew was Geiger’s mother tongue and that was something he had no doubts about it. To him it was the language that he had learnt first and was the language that he could use freely but he had to admit that German was better than Hebrew, “a German prayer strikes a deeper chord than a Hebrew prayer” (Mendes-Flohr 179) He added that Hebrew had become obsolete and that it was no longer valuable to be used in Jewish prayers as it was no more the language of the prayers.
On the question of the introduction of vernacular language and to be specific the Hebrew language, he refused that it would weaken the foundations of Judaism and said that those who thought that Judaism was walking with the language clutches were mistaken. He was completely opposed to the idea of making Hebrew to be the official praying language and therefore he did not want the prayers to be restricted to a particular language because that would lead to the nation the isolation by others, “separate language is an element of a separate nation.” (Mendes-Flohr 179)
This elicited a sharp reaction from Frankel in that Geiger seemed to say that restricting prayers to a particular language would lead to the nation being isolated by others. Frankel wanted Hebrew to remain the prayer’s language citing the reason that religion had nothing to do with the emancipation of a nation. “Countries that have granted Jews full emancipation such as Holland and France… experience has fortunately shown that the Hebrew language does not prevent the Jews from being genuine patriots and from fulfilling all duties towards the state.” (Mendes-Flohr 180)
Frankel was not impressed by Geiger’s statement that language can lead to divisions and that was why he dismissed the expression made by Geiger that German prayer strikes a deeper chord than Hebrew one as purely subjective and did not apply to all. In his advocacy for the Hebrew language, he refers to it as, “a stronger expression of religious emotions… is the language of our scripture which contains every ingredient of our religion.” (Mendes 180)
According to Frankel, Hebrew language gives both an abstract and external bond between people and their supreme being and therefore it was to be preserved at all costs.
He advocated that Hebrew be the language that would be used to instruct the youth so that they would understand the scripture better. All in all, Frankel was not totally against the introduction of other languages but what he wanted was the Hebrew language to be preserved. He was not opposed to the use of German language in some parts of the services.
The issue of the language be used in Jewish prayers was of prime importance as it formed the very foundation upon which Judaism stands on. Hebrew was the language that God used to communicate to Moses and for this reason; it had to be preserved and be used in prayers. According to Judaism, there are not supposed to be divisions as the scripture is supposed to bring all people together. It is for this reason that the Jews were given the responsibility of spreading the word to the rest of the world but this job was not restricted to a certain group of people like priests but was given to all Israelites. If Geiger’s views were to be implemented, there would be divisions as one nation would have a religion of its own and this would absolutely be a contravention to Judaism. (Mendes-Flohr 181)
One of the foundations of Judaism was Hebrew language and so, if vernacular languages were to take the place of Hebrew that would undermine one of the pillars of Judaism. This would lead to the emergence of a national religion as each country would be using its own language. Hebrew language is the bond that links people to their God and for this reason it is like a covenant that binds people.
The issue of language to be used in players was paramount although it was not the main issue in the conference. It helped to clarify issues related to Judaism, to shape and preserve the foundations of Judaism. Much of the credit goes to the two figures who actively participated in this debate and one of them was Geiger and the other one was Frankel. The conference reached to the conclusion that Hebrew language was to be the default praying language and had to prevail although some services would be conducted in German language.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul R.and Reinharz, Jehuda. The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History. US: Oxford University Press, 1995.