Was Rav Hildesheimer A Centrist?

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imageIn the 1980’s, Orthodox intellectuals, primary among them R. Norman Lamm, attempted to name their religious movement “Centrist Orthodoxy.”1 The name never took and even his devotees generally do not bother to use it. As R. Mark Dratch recently noted on this website (link), R. Lamm used the name Centrist as a reference to Rambam’s adaptation of Aristotle’s Golden Mean.

However, I have found an earlier reference to Centrist Orthodoxy. Scholars of modern Hungarian Judaism point to a three-fold division of Orthodoxy in the 1860’s. There were the Ultra-Orthodox, of which R. Hillel Lichtenstein and R. Chaim Sofer (the Machaneh Chaim) were two of the leaders. There were the Traditional Orthodox, led by R. Moshe Schick and R. Avraham Binyamin Sofer (the Kesav Sofer) among others. And there were the Neo-Orthodox, led primarily by R. Azriel Hildesheimer.2 By the end of the decade, R. Hildesheimer had left Hungary for Berlin, where he would found a rabbinic seminary based on the principles of what we would now call “Torah U-Madda.”

In Germany, R. Hildesheimer was not just a leading Torah educator but also a halakhic decisor. His published responsa cover all four sections of the Shulchan Arukh. In a responsum (Yoreh De’ah 179) dated 1877, R. Hildesheimer was asked by a rabbi about a prominent layman who received a medal from the government which he proudly wore to synagogue. The medal contained a cross. Is he allowed to wear the decorative cross, particularly to synagogue?

R. Hildesheimer responded that it is technically permissible but highly improper. The layman should be told not to wear the medal. However, while R. Hildesheimer volunteered to speak to the man personally, he suggested that a Centrist rabbi should preferably be enlisted to instruct the layman (min rabbani[m] ha-nikra’im Emtza’i’im). Apparently, R. Hildesheimer used the term Centrist to refer to a moderate rabbi. Much like today, if a layman senses that the rabbi does not share his values, he will be less likely to accept his views. This is especially true on an issue that hinges on openness to general society. To R. Hildesheimer, a Centrist rabbi will have more influence on the public who view him as sharing their values. And more importantly, R. Hildesheimer did not consider himself a Centrist.

Did R. Lamm and R. Hildesheimer use the term Centrist in the same way? This fleeting reference is insufficient to reach a conclusion. However, the impression I get is that R. Hildesheimer meant Centrist more culturally while R. Lamm meant it ideologically.
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  1. See, for example, R. Norman Lamm, “Some Comments on Centrist Orthodoxy” in Tradition 22:3, Fall 1986. 

  2. See Jacob Katz, A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth Century Central European Jewry; Michael Silber, “The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition” in Jack Wertheimer ed., The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

3 comments

  1. Regarding the question itself:

    -R’ Revel was presented with the question by the dean of a Catholic law school- Jewish students didn’t want to accept their diplomas, which had a cross as part of the decoration. R’ Revel answered that if there’s no figure (i.e., Jesus) on the cross, there’s no religious problem, especially as it serves not as a religious symbol but as one of the affiliation of the school. Still, he wrote that he appreciates the feelings of the students, and hopes the dean can as well.

    -R’ Kook and R’ Meir, Chief Rabbis during the Mandate period, were members of the Order of the British Empire and wore the order’s cross-shaped medals. (Some pictures of R’ Kook show one arm of the cross tucked under his lapel, but it’s unclear if this was deliberate.) I can’t say whether they wore them to shul.

    The fact, of course, is that crosses appear everywhere in secular contexts. They usually are derived from a religious context, of course, but have long since lost that meaning. The United States awards a number of cross-shaped medals, for example, and many flags of Europe contain them. Can anyone tell us if shuls in Europe have a national flag up front as they often do in the United States? The most obvious issues would be with the British and Scandanavian flags.

  2. Regarding Hungarian Orthodoxy: This is the first I’ve heard of “Traditional Orthodox” or even “Neo-Orthodox” in this context. I’ve always seen it as breaking down as Orthodox (separatist, as R’ Hirsch), Neolog (borderline Conservative), and Status Quo (non-secessionist, as indeed R’ Hildesheimer was in Germany).

    • See the sources in footnote 2. It’s very interesting history, much of which happened while the US was fighting its Civil War.

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