Christianity through Reform Eyes: Kaufmann Kohler's Scholarship on Christianity

By Ariel, Yaakov | American Jewish History, June 2001 | Go to article overview
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Christianity through Reform Eyes: Kaufmann Kohler's Scholarship on Christianity


Ariel, Yaakov, American Jewish History


In the early twentieth century, Kaufmann Kohler, one of the outstanding leaders of Reform Judaism in America, wrote a series of articles on Christianity for the Jewish Encyclopedia. Using the opportunity to present his views, he wished to educate Jews as to the nature of Christianity and its relation to Judaism. (1) Kohler also hoped that Christians would read his work and thus encounter a Jewish view of Jesus, early Christianity, and Jewish-Christian relationships. In his opinion it would offer Christians a more comprehensive and sound picture of their own tradition and would bring them to change their views on Judaism and Jews. He believed that the scholarly view on the rise of Christianity and of Judaism would eventually determine the amount of tolerance and acceptance Jews could expect to enjoy in Christian societies.

Kohler's work was one of the early attempts of Jewish scholars to put their imprint on the scholarship on the origins of Christianity. It gave expression to his feelings as a Jewish leader defending Judaism against what he considered Christian intolerance, while at the same time he was a scholar wishing to promote his own work and gain the attention of the general scholarly community. Kohler's position toward Christianity reflects traditional Jewish attitudes towards the Christian religion as well as more innovative Reform ones. The growing interest in Christianity and its relation to Judaism by Reform thinkers reflected a new consciousness among Jewish leaders, who viewed Judaism and its role in the modern world in relation to Christianity.

Kohler's initial interests were not in the origins of Christianity. Born in 1843 in Fuerth, Bavaria, Kohler was a disciple of Samson Raphael Hirsch, the patriarch of German neo-Orthodoxy. Pursuing a doctorate degree at the University of Erlangen, he was influenced by the scholarly climate of German universities, which included the Higher Criticism of the Bible. Adopting a critical view of the biblical narrative, Kohler found it difficult to obtain a rabbinical position in the more conservative climate of Germany and came to America in 1869, where he began his career as a rabbi first in Detroit and then in Chicago. (2) In 1879 he succeeded his father-in-law, David Einhorn, as rabbi of congregation Beth-El in New York and, like Einhorn, became an influential figure in the Reform movement. Kohler, for example, was a leading figure in the writing of the Pittsburgh Platform, a declaration of principles adopted in 1885 by a gathering of Reform rabbis that promoted the universal and rational features of Judaism. In 1903 Kohler became president of the Hebrew Union College and moved to Cincinnati. He worked to reshape the college and turn it into a solid academic institution.

Throughout his career as a rabbi and president of the Hebrew Union College Kohler saw himself as a Jewish theologian writing tracts, sermons, and instructional books on the Jewish religion and its historical mission. But he shifted his interest more and more to the relationship between Judaism and early Christianity, a relationship that, he came to believe, was crucial to understanding both religious traditions. Although his move to Cincinnati ended, in effect, his editorial role in the Encyclopedia as well as his position as writer of articles on Jewish theology for the Encyclopedia, he continued to write articles on the Jewish-Christian relationship which were the focus of his scholarly interest and which he regarded as a mission. He was concerned over what he considered a serious disparity. Christian academicians were unwilling to adopt the same scholarly standards when addressing the origins of their own religious tradition that they used to address the origins of the Jewish religious tradition and its sacred texts. Few, if any, New Testament scholars or those searching for the historical Jesus, for example, were as daring as scholars of the Old Testament in touching upon the foundations of the sacred texts.

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