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Rabbis and Revolution: The Jews of Moravia in the Age of Emancipation, by Michael Laurence Miller. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. 464 pp. $60.00.
In Rabbis and Revolution, Michael Miller vividly captures the experience of profound change that defined the era of emancipation in the history of central European Jewry. Miller tells the story of Moravian Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century from the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) to the initial emancipation of the Jews within the Habsburg Empire during the Revolution of 1848 (they were emancipated again in 1867) through intricate examination of the religious, ideological, political, and socioeconomic challenges that transformed it. His multilayered, beautifully crafted narrative is based on meticulous research conducted in German, Czech, Hungarian, and Hebrew in central and regional archives in the Czech Republic, Israel, Austria, and the United States, as well as examination of over 30 contemporary Jewish and non-Jewish periodicals. Focus on Moravia, where patterns of religious reform reflected the “tame and moderate” (p. 9) nature of Moravian Jewry, enables Miller to shed new light on a central story in modern Jewish history, usually told in terms of radical innovation and zealous response. The thoroughness and expertise with which Miller handles his subject makes this an valuable contribution to the literature of Jewish emancipation.
Miller’s is the first work that treats Moravian Jewry—itself an infrequently studied subject—as a “cohesive whole, the sum of its many complex parts” rather than as a collection of disparate Jewish communities (p. 8). Miller accomplishes this largely through analyzing the shifting position of the office of the Moravian Chief Rabbinate in relation to its constituency, investigating the implications of legislation affecting the communities of the province as a whole, especially aspects of the restrictive Familiants Law of 1726–27 peculiar to Moravia, and examining the shared features of Moravian Jewish communities that distinguished them from neighboring Bohemia, Germany, Galicia, the Kingdom of Hungary (namely the territory of today’s Slovakia), and Austria. Much of the distinction is demographic, based on regional settlement patterns. While Jews in Bohemia, Germany, and even Hungary up through the mid-nineteenth century tended to be scattered across hundreds of tiny towns and villages, and Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were vastly more numerous, Jews in Moravia settled in 52 noble-owned medium-sized communities of 500 Jews or less, large enough to support rabbis, ritual slaughterers, ritual baths, synagogues, and often yeshivas, of relatively even socioeconomic status, a high degree of communal self-government, and part of a deeply rooted supracommunal organization led by a chief rabbi. As such, “no single Jewish community could claim to be the undisputed center of Moravian Jewry” (p. 4). Miller provides a listing of these 52 competing Jewish communities by their German, Czech, Hebrew/Yiddish names, and number of familiants (those firstborn Jewish sons entitled to marry and establish a family under the Familiants Law), the eleven communities formed after the relaxation of residency restrictions in 1848, and Jewish population statistics from 1754 through 1921 in a set of three appendices.
Throughout the text, Miller proves particularly adept at creating memorable vignettes to illustrate his points, bringing out the fault lines of communal conflict, painting intimate portraits of the chief rabbis along with their supporters and detractors, and explaining the nuances of numbers and subtle changes in policy. His storytelling reminds us of the ambiguities and uncertainties of the protracted process of emancipation, as if it were unfolding before our eyes. Miller himself has been a keen observer of and participant in profound change: in this case, post-communist transformations affecting Jews, Jewish communities, and Jewish scholarship in central and eastern Europe. Miller is Associate Professor in the Nationalism Studies Program at the Central European University in Budapest.
The development of Rabbis and Revolution hinges on changes in the institution of the Moravian Chief Rabbinate. After an overview of the development of the Moravian Jewry from initial settlement under the Přemyslid Dynasty in the eleventh century through the connected phenomena of the avid reception of Sabbatianism and Frankism and subsequent rejection of Hasidism in the eighteenth century (p. 57), Miller uses the figures who came to occupy the seat of the Moravian Chief Rabbinate to work through the evolution of Moravian Jewish society. The first of these is Rabbi Mordecai Benet, who embodied the “moderation . . . esteem for the Hebrew language, and deep respect for rabbinic tradition” characteristic of the Haskalah in Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, and Vienna (p. 65) in dealing with the momentous challenges to halakhic tradition and modernization of Jewish education that coincided with his forty-year tenure as chief rabbi (1789–1829) (p. 60). The institution of the Moravian chief rabbinate precipitously declined under the much shorter and more tendentious tenure (1832–1842) of Benet’s successor Rabbi Nehemias Trebitsch , who most notably clashed with his constituency as a perceived enemy of the German language (pp. 121–123).
In the five-year interval between the death of Rabbi Trebitsch and the arrival of the well-known figure of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in 1847, we learn from Miller that “Moravia's rabbis—and the chief rabbi in particular—were increasingly viewed as the key to lifting the Jewish population to a higher educational, cultural, and moral level and simultaneously paving the way for the expansion of Moravian Jewry's civic and political rights” (p. 138). Miller gives proportionately more space in the book to examining the conflict surrounding the meaning of the conflict between the already famous and charismatic Hamburg-born Rabbi Hirsch with the local Rabbi Hirsch Fassel (“locking antlers”) against this politicized backdrop, combined with the demands of political leadership confronted by Rabbi Hirsch in the turbulence of the 1848 revolution and its aftermath in his brief tenure as chief rabbi (1847–1849) as this is the turning point in the Jewish emancipation process. Though disillusioned with Rabbi Hirsch in communal affairs, Moravian Jewry found in him a spokesman in the struggle for common human rights, a representative to the Moravian Diet, and champion of emancipation for Habsburg Jewry as a whole (p. 211). Miller deals with the meaning of the shift from corporate entity to individual rights after the issuance of the March 1849 constitution; including the outbreak of anti-Jewish violence, the perceived Jewish support of German national interests in the intensifying Czech/German conflict, and the demographics of Jewish communal crisis.
In some respects, Rabbis and Revolution shares characteristics with Moravian Jewry itself: the book is tame and moderate, and the author is perhaps too deferential to the arguments of his indeed illustrious mentors. Miller prefers to present the reader with a collection of impressive insights, rather than overarching conclusions. The books offers a minimal sense of the post-1848 trajectory, which, while it is not the focus of the study is important for contextualizing the achievements and ambiguities of 1848–1849. The reader also misses comparison with non-Jewish demographics. Miller should be commended, however, for penning an important, highly readable, comprehensive contribution to the fields of Modern Jewish and Central European History, that draws on his uniquely expert understanding of the lay of the land.