Happy Austritt Day?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This Thursday marks 140 years since the Prussian government allowed Jews to secede from the general Jewish community in order to establish separatist, Orthodox communities. Is it a day to celebrate? It depends whom you ask. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch famously championed Austritt, secession, even appealing to leading Hungarian rabbis like Rav Moshe (Maharam) Schick for support. Rav Azriel Hildesheimer, who led the modern wing of Hungarian Orthodoxy before leaving for Berlin in 1869, supported Austritt as well, but in a different way than Rav Hirsch.

These two personalities — Rav Hirsch and Rav Hildesheimer — represent two different ideologies. Rav Hirsch was an innovative Torah thinker and powerful apologetic writer who successfully built a community of committed laypeople, people who were part of the modern world while remaining staunchly religiously conservative. His movement was called Torah Im Derekh Eretz, by which he meant Torah and culture, worldliness.

In contrast, Rav Hildesheimer was a Torah giant whose responsa and Talmudic commentaries made an impact on subsequent Torah literature. No less a Charedi figure than Rav Elazar Shach praised Rav Hildesheimer’s Torah insights in a 1976 approbation to the latter’s novellae on the Talmud, published from manuscript. Rav Hildesheimer, whose students joined him in the traditionalist scientific study of Judaism, was among the greatest figures of Torah U-Madda in history. I find it very telling that Rav Hildesheimer’s insights into the weekly Torah reading, published at the end of his second volume of responsa, lack any methodological innovation. In style and approach, they are completely traditional, even uninspiring. In contrast, Rav Hirsch’s Torah commentary was groundbreaking, combining careful textual readings with thoughts on Jewish philosophy and theology. Rav Hildesheimer’s Torah was a traditional Torah while Rav Hirsch’s was a new Torah for a new age. But in addition to that traditional Torah, Rav Hildesheimer supported and engaged in new types of academic studies which Rav Hirsch strongly opposed. The two joined forces on certain initiatives but from different perspectives.

In 1873, the Prussian government passed a law allowing Christians and Jews to secede from their religious communities if they renounced their membership in those religions. Both Rav Hildesheimer and Rav Hirsch had joined with other Jewish figures in lobbying for an amendment to this law, allowing Jews to secede from the official Jewish community and establish separate congregations for reasons of conscience. On July 28, 1876, this amendment was signed into law [1]I’m a little unclear whether this was an amendment to an existing law or a new law. by the king, enabling Orthodox Jews to secede from Reform-dominated communities. [2]On this, see Jacob Katz, A House Divided, ch. 22. Already in 1869, Rav Hildesheimer led a segment of the Berlin Orthodox community (Adass Jisroel) into secession from the main Berlin Jewish community, but until the 1876 change in law, Adass Jisroel members still had to pay a tax to the Jewish community from which they had seceded.

Prof. David Ellenson (Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy, pp. 87-88) writes:

Throughout this struggle [ to pass this amendment ], Hildesheimer both supported Hirsch and urged passage of this law… Hildesheimer’s activities on behalf of Orthodox secession from the general Jewish community took other forms. In 1876 his former student Israel Goldschmidt was offered the position of community rabbi in Frankfurt. Hildesheimer wrote to him in February, encouraging him not to accept the position. There were several reasons for this decision… but it is clear that a major one was that he did not want to weaken the Austrittsgemeinde (Orthodox secessionist community) in that city. Goldschmidt heeded his teacher’s advice and turned down the proffered position. Indeed, a year later Hildesheimer offered similar advice to his outstanding and beloved pupil Marcus David Horovitz, who had been invited to become the Orthodox rabbi of the general Jewish community in Frankfurt. Horovitz defied his teacher’s counsel, but Hildesheimer’s advice nonetheless indicates his wholehearted commitment to the concept of Orthodox secession, when necessary, from the larger Jewish community…

[ Regarding the Frankurt secession debate, Hildesheimer wrote to Lippman Mainz in support of secession. ] Hirsch was right to secede from the general Jewish community, and in Hildesheimer’s view, Mainz was wrong to oppose Hirsch on this issue.

Prof. Adam Ferziger adds some nuance to the evaluation of R. Hildesheimer’s view. In his Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity (pp. 151, 153-154), he writes:

However, [ the Berlin separatist community ] developed a far less rigid perception of communal separation than that espoused by Hirsch and his followers. According to popular legend, when the austritt law was passed, in Frankfurt the Orthodox proclaimed, “Blessed are we for having been granted the right to secede,” while in Berlin they lamented, “Woe unto us for having reached the point of secession”…

The differences between Berlin and Frankfurt separatist Orthodoxies were not limited, however, to a less antagonistic stance on the part of Berliners toward the non-Orthodox community. Rather, unlike the Hirschians, when it can to issues that were of common interest to all Jews, the Adass Jisroel community and its leaders were willing to work together with other Jews. Hildesheimer, who set the tone for the Adass Jisroel community, cooperated with non-observant Jews in a variety of ways. Within his own locale, he was willing to join with non-Orthodox rabbis and even the leaders of the Berlin Gemeinde in order to fight anti-Semitism… He was directly involved in setting up welfare and educational institutions to serve refugees from Eastern Europe. In this capacity, Hildesheimer, unlike many of his Orthodox colleagues, was willing, once again, to work with non-Orthodox Jews–even ones with whom he had sharp ideological differences or whose lifestyles were antithetical to the religious values he held dear…

In all of the examples of cooperation with the nonobservant described here, the Hirschian separatists were extremely critical of the Berliners. As far as the Frankfurters were concerned, any cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews in an organized framework was tantamount to legitimizing their religious ideology and lifestyle.

I believe there are many parallels between Rav Hildesheimer’s approach to interacting with non-Orthodox leaders and organizations, and Rav Soloveitchik’s approach, many decades later in America, of distinguishing between internal and external matters.

And in answer to my initial question, according to popular legend quoted by Prof. Ferziger in the above passage, Rav Hirsch and his followers in Frankfurt might wish people a happy Austritt day. Rav Hildesheimer and his Berlin congregation would probably consider it a sad day, when Orthodoxy was forced out of the general Jewish community.



1I’m a little unclear whether this was an amendment to an existing law or a new law.
2On this, see Jacob Katz, A House Divided, ch. 22.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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, 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 has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as 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.


  1. A story from a close family member of mine. He was a youngster in another major German city. His schul built a new edifice. The Rabbi of the schul was a member of the Agudah. At the Chanukas Habayis the opening greetings were given by the senior Rabbi of the community-a Reform Rabbi. German Orthodoxy was all over the place in terms of separation.

  2. Many good points in this post but there’s too much stress on the differences between the two men and not enough on the difference between the two cities.

    From the Klugman biography on Hirsch:

    “Reform Judaism, of course, was hardly a phenomenon unique to Frankfurt. But as one observer put it, there was a difference. Whereas elsewhere the Reformers were, by and large, mumarim le’tayavon (sinners for pleasure), in Frankfurt they were mumarim le’hach’is (premeditated sinners).” (p. 117)

    “Already in 1812, the government reorganized the Community Board and set new regulations governing its activity and authority. Over the years, most of the board members and community officials were strong adherents of Enlightenment and Reform. As such, the Board launched a systematic campaign to eradicate the study of Torah, and endeavored to bring about the complete atrophy of all religious institutions.” Not content with merely banning religious studies from the Philanthropin the only officially sanctioned Jewish school in the city, the Community Board refused to tolerate them anywhere in the city. Thus, from 1818 to 1838, at the Board’s initiative the Frankfurt authorities made it illegal to operate a Talmud Torah, and young people who wished to study Torah were forced to do so in hiding. All teachers of religious subjects were banished from the city, and anyone who attempted to teach Torah in spite of this edict was subject to a civil fine of 50 florins. The intention of the Board was to compel all parents to send their children to the Philanthropin, and to a great measure they succeeded. In no other Jewish community in Germany did the proponents of assimilation work so diligently and for that matter so successfully, to achieve their aims.” (p. 114)

    In general, North Americans take for granted religious freedom and the fact that in N. America Jews don’t interfere with each other and have no government to use for strong arm tactics. But in Germany, the reform were wildly antagonistic to Orthodoxy and controlled the community via empowerment from the German city government. It became difficult to be Observant under their control. We often take Austritt as some kind of contemporary expression of intolerance but for the Jews of 19th century Germany it was a matter of religious life or death. If Hirsch’s community rejoiced at Austritt, it was a bitter sweet rejoicing. They were happy to have their religion back. This doesn’t mean they were happy to be losing touch with other Jews. Be careful not to judge them from the contemporary landscape.

    “With only one Jewish community permitted in each city, and therefore no option of seceding and forming an independent community, all power was effectively in the hands of the majority of the Community Board. In Frankfurt, where the Community Board had no need to resort to elections, the community came to be controlled by a small group of self-appointed individuals.” (p. 135)

    “Prussian law as of 1847 granted the boards of the Jewish communities total control over all religious and communal matters. As a consequence, laymen usurped positions of real power in religious matters, which had heretofore been the province of the rabbis. Since the law stipulated no religious credentials for membership on the community boards, it became a not uncommon occurrence for those who attended synagogue barely twice a year to have a decisive role in determining religious issues for the community. The very law, which so greatly increased the power of the board members, commensurately weakened the authority of the rabbinate, by according it almost no official role in . the community structure. Rabbis were effectively relegated to the role of a clerk. The attitude to the rabbinate on the part of the board members usually reflected this reality.” (p. 135)

    “During the period in which Rabbi Hirsch came of age, the Reform Movement increasingly began to gain control of community structures in Germany. Orthodox Jews who lived in towns dominated by the Reformers were forced to contribute, in effect, to the ruin of traditional Judaism by paying dues to the local Jewish community. Such was the situation in Frankfurt where the community had fallen under the
    absolute control of the Reformers. Although the members of the IRG had received permission in 1849 to organize as a religious association, they were, nonetheless, required to pay membership dues to the
    Reform-dominated community. The recognition they won in 1849 gave them the right to exist as a private religious organization, but nothing more; legally they were still members of the community. This insufferable situation continued for many years, during which no alternative status was available to Orthodox Jews. However, because the law gave no choice but to pay the community tax, such payments were not considered in the eyes of the Orthodox as an admission of the validity of Reform Judaism.” (p. 135)

    “Traditionally, the community had provided kosher meals to patients in the city’s hospitals, but this practice was also stopped. When Rabbi Trier forbade work on the renovation of the Jewish hospital on the Sabbath, the Community Board overruled him and ordered that the work proceed, especially on Shabbos, in spite of the objections of the hospital’s administration. One of the directors of the hospital volunteered to cover the added cost of the cessation of work on Shabbos out of his own pocket, but this offer was also refused.” (p. 115)

    “In 1838, the Community Board declared, in an official report to the Senate of Frankfurt, that the value of Tanach was doubtful,” and the Board also decided that any Jew who still put on tefillin was ineligible to serve as a Board member.”” (p. 115)

    “In 1837, a group of about 200 Jews who had remained faithful to tradition sought permission to renovate, at their own expense, the two abandoned and dilapidated synagogues. (Reform services were held in the Philanthropin building.) Their request was denied. Similarly, permission to renovate the old mikveh was refused, and women who wished to perform ritual immersion were forced to use facilities in the nearby towns of Bockenheim or Offenbach. Eventually the Community Board ordered the old mikveh to be sealed up completely.” (p. 115)

    “Thus, Rabbi Hirsch’s charge that the destruction of authentic Judaism with such success in Frankfurt was the result of the single-minded efforts of the Community Board is a historical fact. Even the Reform Rabbi of Frankfurt, Leopold Stein complained, in a pamphlet explaining his resignation in 1861, of the tyranny and the total lack of tolerance of the Board.” (p. 117)

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter



%d bloggers like this: