The Influence of Progressive Judaism in Poland-An Outline

By Galas, Michal | Shofar, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Influence of Progressive Judaism in Poland-An Outline


Galas, Michal, Shofar


In the historiography of Judaism in the Polish lands the influence of Reform Judaism is often overlooked. The opinion is frequently cited that the Polish Jews were tied to tradition and did not accept ideas of religious reform coming from the West. This paper fills the gap in historiography by giving some examples of activities of progressive communities and their leaders. It focuses mainly on eminent rabbis and preachers such as Abraham Goldschmidt, Markus Jastrow, and Izaak Cylkow. Supporters of progressive Judaism in Poland did not have as strong a position as representatives of the Reform or Conservative Judaism in Germany or the United States. Religious reforms introduced by them were for a number of reasons moderate or limited. However, one cannot ignore this movement in the history of Judaism in Poland, since that trend was significant for the history of Jews in Poland and Polish-Jewish relations.

In the historiography of Judaism in the Polish lands, the history of the influence of reform Judaism is often overlooked. The opinion is frequently cited that the Polish Jews were tied to tradition and did not accept ideas of religious reform coming from the West. This opinion is perhaps correct in terms of the number of "progressive" Jews, often so-called proponents of reform, on Polish soil, in comparison to the total number of Polish Jews. However, the influence of "progressives" went much further and deeper, in both the Jewish and Polish community. And one should not overlook this aspect when discussing the issue of the history of Judaism in Poland.

Michael Meyer, the most prominent contemporary scholar of the history of Reform Judaism, also writes that the history of the impact of Reform Judaism in Central and Eastern Europe is neglected by modern historians of Judaism and Jews. However, Meyer's only article on Eastern Europe is limited mainly to Russia, but he writes that there are also signs of reform in the Polish lands.1 In his view there was only one small group from a German synagogue in Warsaw that introduced a radically reformed worship and a sermon preached mosdy in Polish. However, the Polish progressives, mostly wealthy and assimilated, had no consciousness of belonging to the worldwide movement.2

Reform Judaism centers in Polish territory were mostly synagogues or prayer houses known as "progressive," "reformed," "German" or "Polish," or "Temple." Unfortunately, the historiography of the Jews in Polish territory in the nineteenth century pays much more attention to the processes accompanying the Haskalah, that is, acculturation, assimilation, secularization, and integrationism, than to purely religious aspects. Those few works on the influence of the reform relate primarily to the history of individual communities and synagogues, rarely addressing religious issues of changes in the liturgy, rabbis and preachers, the sermons they preached, and modifications to worship.3 Almost none of the great preachers and advocates of the Polish-Jewish fraternity in the nineteenth century, including Abraham Goldschmidt, Izaak Cylkow, Izaak Kramsztyk, Szymon Dankowicz, Ozjasz Thon, and many other progressive rabbis, have larger biographical or critical studies of their legacy, except for Markus Jastrow.4

New ideas of the reform of Judaism had already reached the Polish lands in the early nineteenth century with the settling of German Jews in the Prussian partition zone. In 1802 Isaac Flatau, a Jew who came from Prussia, founded a private synagogue on Danitowiczowska Street in Warsaw, which from the outset was called a German synagogue. Originally, worship in the synagogue did not differ from services in other synagogues in Warsaw. What stood out was the reformers' dress and the language in which they preached. More radical changes were made only after the death of the synagogue's founder, when it ceased to be a private synagogue and became a synagogue of the progressive community in Warsaw.5

The first changes in the liturgy were introduced by a preacher named Abraham Goldschmidt. …

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