Smicha in Germany
The Potsdam Miracle
On Thursday, September 14, 2006, three rabbis of the reform denomination were ordained in the city of Dresden in the eastern part of Germany. These three, Tom Kucera, Daniel Alter and Malcolm Mattitiani, are the first rabbis to be graduated from a German rabbinical seminary in sixty years. Therefore, these ordinations were given widespread publicity in Germany. The ceremony at the Dresden synagogue was attended by a number of German politicians. The president, chancellor and speaker of the German parliament all sent greetings to the new rabbis and German TV and print media made “big tzimmes” of this event.
Those of us who fled Germany many years ago were at that time convinced that Jewish life had come to an end in Germany and that no Jews would ever set foot in the land of the Holocaust again.
Yet, today there is in Potsdam a Jewish seminary. Potsdam is a small town near Berlin. It was at one time the source of Prussian militarism. At the end of the Second World War a conference between the English, American and Russian leaders was held there to discuss the future of Germany.
The Potsdam seminary is named after Abraham Geiger (1810-1874). Geiger, originally a disciple of the great orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, sought to reform Judaism in an effort to stem the tide of exodus from Judaism which he and everyone else saw in Germany at that time and which has continued in the U.S. in our day.
Geiger believed that Judaism needed to be made more “modern” so that Jews would no longer appear “different” from other Germans. He believed that anti-Jewish hate would abate if Jews resembled non-Jews in their religious practices and that Judaism needed to be a religion of reason in order to appeal to non-Jews.
Therefore Geiger proposed that German be used in Jewish religious services; that “davening” be abolished; that organ music be introduced and that a German sermon be the most important aspect of the Shabbat service. Geiger succeeded at first and even founded a school for religious studies in Breslau. However, all this came to naught after the Nazi government destroyed all Jewish schools, burned all synagogues and murdered 350,000 of the 580,000 Jews living in Germany in 1933. Of the 230,000 who escaped, 130,000 were allowed into the U.S. The others went to Israel, South America, South Africa and every place on earth including Shanghai, China, as you can read in the newly published biography of W. Michael Blumenthal, former Secretary of the Treasury, who survived in Shanghai.
In 1933, when Hitler became chancellor, Germany had a population of 62 million, so that the Jews were the tiniest minority in that land. Consider that in Poland, equally anti-Jewish, there were 3 million Jews amidst 30 million Christians.
After the Second World War only 5,000 Jews remained in Germany. These were slave laborers who had survived the horrible conditions in the German war industry. Few were born in Germany . It was thought that these 5,000 would soon leave for Israel or the United States. Many did. Yet some remained and founded new congregations in Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt. They organized new businesses and in many cases succeeded in becoming at least middle class people in the land in which Jewish blood flows beneath the surface of the streets to this day.
Then, in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed and nearly 100,000 Soviet Jews moved to Germany. Therefore there are today 110,000 Jews in that country. There are about 100 congregations there and of these only one in five have a rabbi, who usually came from England, Israel or the United States. These rabbis seldom stay long. Therefore, the ordination of three rabbis in Germany itself is significant, although one of them will return to South Africa, his homeland.
Anyone who has visited Germany during the last thirty years can see that synagogues and other Jewish institutions are surrounded by barbed wire and need constant police protection. Germany now has a population of over 80 million, so that the Jewish community there is even smaller than it ever was. The Germans, like the Poles, continue to be generally anti-Jewish, although Poland, which has no Jews at all, is still the country in which anti-Jewish hate is broadcast over radio stations every day. This does not happen in Germany, where hate propaganda is “verboten”, i.e. prohibited.
Yet, it is significant that the German Jews elect a president of the “Zentralrat für die Juden in Deutschland” or Central Committee for the Jews in Germany. This president speaks to the government in the name of all German Jews just as was common in the Middle Ages and ever since. In short, German Jews are not normal citizens, but are viewed as a separate entity.
It is difficult to understand how anyone can raise a Jewish child in Germany. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore our brethren there. They will remain in Germany and must be included in Klal Yisrael, however foolish settlement in that accursed place may seem.
The principal lesson we learn from the ordination of the three rabbis is that Jewish life cannot be extinguished. Not even in the land of horrors. Therefore there are those who say that by maintaining Judaism in Germany we are depriving the Nazis of a posthumous victory. They may be right.