Page 210 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 46

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
value o f their right to do so. Over the years, leaders in most
communities came to terms with the traditionalists in order to
preserve communal unity and, o f course, Orthodox member­
ship.
At the time o f the controversy during the 1870’s, it may have
seemed ironic to find the leaders o f the larger communities
and o f the newly formed Gemeindebund, the confederation
o f Jewish communities, generally Jews identified with Reform,
insisting on the importance o f preserving communal structures,
by opposing passage o f a new law that would enable Jews to
resign their membership in the communities while continuing
to identify themselves as Jews. Thus, Orthodox Jews were at
least theoretically prepared to surrender communal unity in the
name o f religious principle, while Reform Jews argued explicitly
that Jewish existence transcended religious positions and that
communal bonds must be maintained. The basis was being set
for continuing patterns o f communal tension: Reform Jews and
later secular Jews placed greater importance on communal uni­
ty, while Orthodoxy emphasized the centrality o f Torah in de­
fining the parameters o f Jewish communal identity.
Hirsch enunciated most clearly the ideology o f separation,
and it is for that controversial position that his communal lead­
ership is most especially remembered. However, the more fun­
damental significance o f Hirsch’s historical contribution is to
be found in the demonstration o f Orthodoxy’s vitality and its
adaptability to the changing conditions o f Jewish life. Hirsch
was not responsible for the growth o f autonomous Orthodox
congregations across Germany during the 1850’s and 60’s, but
he was the leader o f the community in Frankfurt that provided
inspiration and served as a model for Orthodox Jews who
sought to take advantage o f increased educational and economic
opportunities while still maintaining their observance o f Jewish
practices. In its historical context separation was a sociological
necessity to establish the vibrancy o f Orthodox Judaism and
to recast its image in the perceptions o f Jews and non-Jews
alike. However, separation has survived well beyond that con­
text into new settings, and Hirsch’s legacy has proven to be
a source o f sharp division within contemporary Jewry, when
one might suggest that the point having been made, new ob­
jectives and new threats facing Jewish life now require a re­
assessment o f the politics o f separation.