Joseph Sinzheim, President of Napoleon's Sanhedrin and the First Chief Rabbi of France

Article excerpt

The recent celebrations of the bicentennial of the establishment of Napoleon's Sanhedrin (1806-1807) and the Central Consistory of the Jews of France (Consistoire Central des Israelites de France) (1808) warrant revisiting the personality of its president, Rabbi David Joseph Sinzheim (1745-1812) who subsequently became the first chief rabbi of France. Early in his rabbinical career, he stood out as an eminent Talmudic scholar and spiritual leader of Alsatian Jewry that was becoming a vibrant Jewish community since the eighteenth century. Rabbi Sinzheim was born in Trier where his father served as rabbi. In the preface to Yad David, his commentary on almost the whole Talmud, Rabbi Sinzheim informs us about his early years as an eager disciple of his father who taught him how to approach gradually the study of Talmud in order to master it thoroughly.

In 1778, his brother-in-law Cerf Beer of Medelsheim, a prominent communal leader, chose him to become the head of a yeshiva he had founded in Bischeim, a town in the vicinity of Strasburg. Rabbi Sinzheim writes that by that time he had covered the Talmud for the third time and was able to undertake the writing of his magnum opus, the Yad David that was meant to clarify many topics which had remained insufficiently explained heretofore.

While Rabbi Sinzheim writes of his joy at being able to devote himself fully to Torah scholarship, he did not shirk his responsibility as a community leader. When King Louis XVI called the General Estates in January 1789 giving the opportunity to the French people to voice their grievances, the twenty-five thousand Alsatian Jews were not allowed to do so. Permission was eventually granted to them after Cerf Beer protested to the government in Paris. They requested equal rights as any other citizens in the matter of taxes, housing, marriage, trade, property ownership, religious practice, and protection from persecution in their "cahiers de doleances" (Books of Grievances) that were presented in Paris by two delegates, one of them being Rabbi Sinzheim.

After the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, while Jews were granted rights, they continued to be victims of persecution. Several petitions seeking protection were sent to Paris bearing the signature of Rabbi Sinzheim. In September 1791, when the Jews of Bischeim were requested to pledge allegiance in a manner that was offensive to their religious practice, it was Rabbi Sinzheim who succeeded despite fierce opposition by local authorities to have the procedure altered to the satisfaction of the Jews. Feeling unsafe in Bischeim, he moved to Strasburg with his family and his disciples. However, as attacks against the Jews of Alsace persisted during the reign of Terror in 1793 which was directed against religion in general, Rabbi Sinzheim went into hiding. It was not until 1795, when freedom to practice religion was restored, that he could return to Strasburg as chief rabbi of the city. (1)

After Napoleon became the Emperor of France in 1804, Rabbi Sinzheim soon realized the importance of maintaining proper relations with the state. A year later, he delivered in the synagogue of Strasburg a sermon praising Napoleon's victories on the European battlefields. He said: "Who led our victorious armies? Who triumphed over the approaching enemy pursuing him? Isn't it our cherished sovereign, the great Napoleon, our Emperor and King whose virtues, sacred head and glory were crowned by God Himself?" This dithyrambic style was maintained in later sermons pronounced by Rabbi Sinzheim on occasions such as Napoleon's birthday, the birth of his son, etc. (2)

When Napoleon returned from his victory at Austerlitz (1806), he stopped at Strasburg and heard the complaints by the Alsatian population against the Jews practicing usury. Napoleon, who had been made aware previously of the extent of "the Jewish problem" both in its economic and social aspects, decided to convene what is known as the "Assembly of Jewish Notables. …