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Navigating Rough Waters: Alexander Kohut and the Hungarian Roots of Conservative Judaism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 April 2008

Howard N. Lupovitch
Colby CollegeWaterville, Maine


With these words, Alexander Kohut engaged the radical Reform stance of Kaufman Kohler in the spring of 1885. The exchange with Kohler crystallized Kohut's raison d'être for Conservative Judaism: an authentic alternative to what he termed “stupid Orthodoxy and insane Reform.” Kohut articulated a fully developed version of this view in Ethics of the Fathers, a compilation of his polemics against Kohler that he published a few months later. This earned Kohut a place among the Conservative movement's pantheon of nineteenth-century founders, along with Sabato Morais, Benjamin Szold, and Marcus Jastrow.

Research Article
Copyright © The Association for Jewish Studies 2008

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1. Alexander Kohut, Ethics of the Fathers (New York, 1885), 12.

2. American Hebrew, September 6, 1895, 426, quoted in Hasia Diner, “Like the Antelope and the Badger: The Founding and Early Years of the Jewish Theological Seminary, 1886–1902,” in Tradition Renewed: A History of the Jewish Theological Seminary, ed. Jack Wertheimer (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary Press, 1997), 6. On the Kohler–Kohut debate, see Robert E. Fierstein, A Different Spirit: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1886–1902 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary Press, 1986), 36–37; and Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1988): 267– 68.

3. Jonathan D. Sarna, American Judaism: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004), 184ff.

4. The search for a balance between unity and diversity has engaged Conservative thinkers for more than a century, most recently expressed by Arnold Eisen at a roundtable discussion “Jewish Denomination in a Post-Denominational World” at the conference of the Association of Jewish Studies, December 17, 2006.

5. Sarna, American Judaism, 189 –91; and Jeffrey S. Gurock, From Fluidity to Rigidity: The Religious World of Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Twentieth Century America, David W. Belin Lecture in American Jewish Affairs no. 7 (Ann Arbor: Jean and Sam Frankel Center for Jewish Studies, University of Michigan, 1998), esp. 5–33. See also Kimmy Caplan, ‘Ortodoksiyah ba-’olam he-ḥadash: rabanim ve-darshanut be-'amerikah, 1881–1924 (Jerusalem: Merkaz Zalman Shazar, 2002), 282–83.

6. Diner, “Like the Antelope and the Badger,” 6.

7. The Status Quo movement never included more than 8 percent of Hungarian Jewish communities; the Conservative movement's membership barely exceeded 100 families at the time of Kohut's death in 1894. On the beginnings of the Conservative movement, see Moshe Davis, The Emergence of Conservative Judaism: The Historical School in 19th Century America (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1963), 224ff. On the origins and character of Status Quo, see Howard Lupovitch, “Between Orthodox and Neolog: The Origins of the Status Quo Movement in Hungary,” Jewish Social Studies 9, no. 2 (2003): 124ff.

8. Gershom Scholem, “Tradition and Commentary as Religious Categories in Judaism,” Judaism 18 (1966): 27, 33.

9. Louis Finkelstein, “Takkanot of Rabbenu Gershom,” in Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary Press, 1924), 121.

10. Kohut, Ethics of the Fathers, 48.

11. Rebekah Kohut, In My Father's House: The Story of George Alexander Kohut (New Haven, 1938), 2. Elek Fényes, in his 1851 compendium of Hungarian towns and villages, described Félegyháza in a single sentence: “On the Puszta [steppe] in Pest County, consolidated within the boundary of Tápio-Szele” (Puszta Pest megyében, határával egybe van tagositva). See Fényes, Magyarország geographiai szótára (Pest, 1851), 2:13.

12. Rebekah Kohut, In My Father's House, 4; and Moshe Reines, Sefer dor ve-hachamav, part I (Cracow, 1890), 94 –95.

13. On the Congress of 1868–69, see Jacob Katz, A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2002), 139ff.

14. Kimmy Caplan, “In God We Trust: Salaries and Income of American Orthodox Rabbis, 1881–1924,” American Jewish History 86, no. 1 (1998): 87.

15. Mordechai Waxman, ed., Tradition and Change: the Development of Conservative Judaism (New York: Burning Bush Press, 1958), 7.

16. Elliot N. Dorff, The Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law after Sinai (New York: Aviv Press, 2005), 45.

17. This scholarly approach was aptly described by Ismar Schorsch: “With remarkable accuracy, [Frankel's] conception, as it gained adherents across Germany, became known as historical Judaism...The name embodied the essence of Frankel's accomplishment: harnessing the power of Jewish History for the preservation of Judaism...Though more intuitive and less systematic, the program stands comparison with the historical reconciliation of Judaism and philosophy that was begun in tenth-century Baghdad … Studied with compassion and understanding, Jewish history could provide a source of inspiration, meaning, and renewal … Freed from the shackles of dogmatic history on the one hand and the pressure to subordinate the past to the present on the other, the Breslau school was able to achieve a creative symbiosis between traditional piety and modern scholarship.” See Schorsch, “Zacharias Frankel and the European Origins of Conservative Judaism,” Judaism 30, no. 3 (1981): 354.

18. Andreas Brämer, “The Dilemmas of Moderate Reform: Some Reflections on the Development of Conservative Judaism in Germany, 1840–1880,” Jewish Studies Quarterly 10 (2003): 81.

19. Barnett A. Elzas, “Memoir of Alexander Kohut,” in Alexander Kohut, The Ethics of the Fathers, ed. Barnett A. Elzas (New York, 1920), xi–xii. On Palota's role on the sturgeon controversy, see Aron Chorin, Shiryon kaskasim (Prague, 1803), 12:a.

20. Moses Ezekiel Fischmann, “Divrei shalom ve-emet,” Ben Chananja 4 (1863). For an English translation, see Howard Lupovitch, Jews at the Crossroads: Tradition and Accommodation during the Golden Age of the Hungarian Nobility (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2007), 271–72.

21. On the Jews of Kecskemét, see Nathaniel Katzburg, Pinkas he-kehillot: Hungariya (Jerusalem, 1975), 475ff. On the religious mentality of Moses Ezekiel Fischmann and Miskolc Jewry, see Lupovitch, Jews at the Crossroads, 245ff.

22. Statutes made by the Delegates of the Jewish communities assembled at the great Congress who convened at the behest of the King and his ministers in the royal city of Budapest on 14 December 1869 (Buda, 1869), 2, 3.

23. Ibid., no. 43:f, no. 44:12.

24. On the decision of these three communities to affiliate with Status Quo, see Lupovitch, “Between Orthodox Judaism and Neolog,” 125ff.

25. Brämer, “The Dilemmas of Moderate Reform,” 80; and Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1955), 199.

26. What David Ellenson noted with respect to Hirsch was no less true for Frankel and other German Jewish ideologues: “No group in nineteenth century Germany is more representative than modern Orthodoxy of the struggle both to adapt and to modify Judaism to the challenges of the time and to maintain a link to the past.” See Ellenson, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990), 12. On the distinct experience of German Jewry, see Meyer, Response to Modernity, esp. 77–89; and Ephraim Navon, “The Relationship of Religious Thought and Liberal Politics in the Writings of Abraham Geiger, Zacharias Frankel, and Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1830–1851,” Jahrbuch des Intituts für Deutsche Geschichte 6 (1984): 154ff.

27. For a more detailed examination, see Lupovitch, Jews at the Crossroads, 189ff.

28. Moshe Davis, Yahadut Amerika Be-Hitpathutah Toldot ha-Ascola ha-Historit be-Mea ha-Tesha-‘esrei (New York: JTS Press, 1951), 80.

29. Quoted in Elzas, “Memoir of Alexander Kohut,” xxxi.

30. Davis, Yahadut Amerika Be-Hitpathutali, 81.

31. Meyer, Response to Modernity, 258–60. For biographical information on Hübsch, see Jewish Encyclopedia (New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1904), 6:486–87; and Péter Újvári, Magyar Zsidó Lexikon (Budapest, 1929), 382. Hübsch's teacher in Óbuda was Löw Schwab, a traditionalist who “sanctioned reforms deemed unavoidably necessary” (ibid., 776).

32. Elzas, “Memoir of Alexander Kohut,” xxxii.

33. Alexander Kohut, A zsidók története a biblia befejeszésétől a jelenkorig (Nagyvárad, 1881).

34. Ibid., 41.

35. Ibid., 42 –43.

36. Insofar as he is still often pigeonholed as the father of Reform Judaism in Hungary, Chorin remains a largely misunderstood figure. This is due in no small part to the fact that most works on Chorin still rely primarily on Leopold Löw's factually rich but biased biography of Chorin, written a century and half ago; see Löw, “Aron Chorin,” in Gesammelte Schriften II (Hildesheim, 1979), 251– 420. Three notable exceptions are Moshe Pelli's short essay, which presents Chorin as a transitional figure between Haskalah and reform; Avigdor Löwenheim's short article on Chorin and the Parisian Sanhedrin, which raises the question of Chorin's complex religious outlook but settled for categorizing him as a Hungarian Israel Jacobson, a proto-Reform, or a proto-Neolog rabbi; and Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger's seminal article on Chorin and his relationship with the Jewish community of Arad, which does not address Chorin's relationship with the German Reformers or with the Neologs. See Pelli, “Milhamto ha-ra'ayonit ve-hahalachtit shel ha-Rav Aharon Chorin be'ad reforma datit be-yahadut,” Hebrew Union College Annual 39 (1968, Hebrew section): esp. 64 –69; Löwenheim, “Igeret Aharon Chorin le-asefat ha-nichbadim ha-yehudiyim be-Paris,” Ẓiyon XLVI (1991): 201– 204; and Carmilly-Weinberger, “The Jewish Reform Movement in Transylvania and Banat: Rabbi Aaron Chorin,” Studia Judaica 5 (1996): 13–60.

37. Aron Chorin, Hillel (Buda, 1837), i (emphasis added).

38. Kohut, Zsidók története, 160.

39. Ibid., 161.

40. Solomon Judah Rapoport, Tokhahat megulah (Frankfurt am Main, 1945), 2, quoted in Paul Mendes-Flohr and Judah Reinharz, Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 189.

41. Alexander Kohut, Gedächtniss-Rede zu Ehren der verewigten Salomo Jehuda Rapoport (January 5, 1868). The most complete biography of Rapoport is still Isaac Barzilay's factually rich but problematic Shlomo Yehudah Rapoport (Shir) 1790–1867, and His Contemporaries: Some Aspects of Jewish Scholarship of the Nineteenth Century (Ramat-Gan: Masada Press, 1969).

42. Kohut, Gedächtniss-Rede zu Ehren der verewigten Salomo Jehuda Rapoport, 8, 11–12.

43. Alexander Kohut, A Talmud és a középkori rabbinusi tekintélyeknek: a ‘Goj’-ra vonatkozó egynehány állitásáról: Istóczy ur figyelmébe ajánla (Nagyvárad, 1881), 1–2.

44. Alexander Kohut, Ein Frommer Wunsch an Meine Gemeinde oder wann dürfen wir einer schönen Zukunft entgegensehen (Pécs, 1874), 2–3.

45. Ibid, 4.

46. Kohut, Zsidók története, 224.

47. Ibid., 228.

48. Ibid., 229.

49. Alexander Kohut, Gedächtnissreden auf den Oberrabbiner und Seminardirector Dr. Zacharias Frankel, 21 February 1875 (Leipzig, 1875), 252.

50. Alexander Kohut, Wehklage über den Hintritt des Oberrabbiners Leopold Löw (Pécs, November 3, 1875), 9. On Löw's career, see György Haraszti, “A Ben Chananja szerkesztoje,” in A szegedi zsidó polgárság emlékezete, ed. István Zombori (Szeged, 1990), 61ff.

51. Ibid., 11. Michael Silber has noted that more conservative progressive positions were the target of the most virulent Orthodox tirades. See Silber, “Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition,” in The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, ed. Jack Wertheimer (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary Press, 1992), 36 –37, 54ff.

52. Kohut, Leopold Löw, 17–18.

53. Kohut, Ein Frommer Wunsch, 7.

54. Alexander Kohut, Aufruf zur Gründung eines Talmud-Thoravereins (Pécs, May 16, 1875), 7–9.

55. Elsewhere I have shown that, until 1849, Lajos Kossuth's link between religious reform and emancipation dominated the discourse on Jewish emancipation; thereafter, and especially during the 1860s, Kossuth's notion was supplanted by those of Bertalan Szemere and Baron József Eötvös. Eötvös and Szemere were relatively indifferent to the particular religious affiliation of Hungarian Jews, as long as the latter embraced the Magyar language and culture. See Lupovitch, Jews at the Crossroads, 189ff.

56. Rebekah Kohut, In My Father's House, 11.

57. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, trans. Bernard Drachman (New York: Funk and Wagnells, 1899), 167 –68.

58. Andreas Brämer, Rabbiner Zacharias Frankel: Wissenschaft des Judentums und konservative Reform im 19. Jahrhundert (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 2000), 89–90.

59. Alexander Kohut, Az új korszak: zsinagogai beszéd melyet az egyejogositási Ünnepély alkalmával a Székesfehérvári Izraelite főközség templomában tartott... [The new age: A sermon delivered in the main synagogue of Székesfehérvár on the occasion of the celebration of emancipation], 5 (emphasis added).

60. Hirsch, Nineteen Letters, 169.

61. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observances, trans. I. Gruenfeld (New York: Soncino Press, 2002), 460.

62. Hirsch, Nineteen Letters, 167.

63. Brämer, Rabbiner Zacharias Frankel, 91.

64. Zachariah Frankel, “Die Epoche des Maccabäerkampfes und die heutige Zeit,” Zeitschrift für die religiösen Interessen des Judenthums 3 (June 1844): 118.

65. Alexander Kohut, Félreismert Izrael: Töténetikép Histszónoklat Tartotta (Nagyvárad, December 5, 1882), 16 –17.

66. Kohut, Leopold Löw, 14.

67. Alexander Kohut, Thanksgiving Day: An Appeal to the American People (New York, 1890), 3.

68. Davis, Yahadut America Be-Hitpathutah, 38–42.

69. Ibid., 55.

70. Kohut, Félreismert Izrael, 8.

71. Kohut, Leopold Löw, 16.

72. For a broader perspective on Jewish bilingual tendencies, see Israel Bartal, “From Traditional Bilingualism to National Monotheism,” in Hebrew in Ashkenaz: A Language in Exile, ed. Lewis Glinert (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 142–44.

73. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Judaism Eternal: Selected Essays from the Writings of Samson Raphael Hirsch, trans. I. Greenfield (New York: Soncino Press, 1956), 1:194–95, 201.

74. Kohut, Félreismert Izrael, 6.

75. Kohut, Zsidó története, 128–29. “The many questions and many answers in modesty of the much learned Rashi, here and there he put questions to such men whose instruction was not under his great Talmudic authority, such as Rabbi Nathan ben Yechiel who was a teacher in a Talmudic academy in Rome and who compiled the famous Talmudic-Midrashic dictionary, the Aruch.”

76. Alexander Kohut, ed., Sefer ‘arukh ha-shalem (New York, 1955), xlv.

77. Ibid., xlv–xlvi.

78. Kohut, Uj korszak, 9.

79. Alon Rachamimov, “‘My Soul Is the Daughter of Shem, Ham, and Japhet’: Avigdor Hameiri and Austro-Hungarian Jewish Dilemmas,” Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook 5 (2006): 142.

80. Marc A. Raider, The Emergence of American Zionism (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 10 –11.

81. For a recent appraisal of Montefiore as early Zionist that agrees with Kohut's, see Israel Bartal, “Moses Montefiore: Nationalist before his Time, or Belated Shtadlan?” Studies in Zionism 11, no. 2 (1990): 115 –16.

82. Alexander Kohut, “Moses Montefiore: The Fourth Moses in the History of Judaism,” American Hebrew, October 9, 1885, 140 – 41.

83. Ibid., 148 –50.

84. Ibid., 149.

85. Meyer, Response to Modernity, 302; and Yeshayahu Jelinek, “Jewish Youth in Carpatho-Rus: Between Hope and Despair (1920–1938),” Shvut 7, no. 23 (1998): 149–51.

86. Robert Liberles, “Wissenschaft des Judenthums Comes to America: A Chapter in Migration History, 1890 –1935,” in Wertheimer, Tradition Renewed, 2:331.

87. Solomon Schechter, “The Beginnings of Jewish Wissenschaft,” in Seminary Addresses and Other Papers (Burning Bush Press, 1959), 177–78.

88. Indeed, just as Kohut's religious outlook was shaped by his experiences in Hungary, Schechter's notion of Catholic Israel was a reflection of his childhood home in Focsani, Romania. See Howard Lupovitch, “Searching for Catholic Israel in Focsani: Solomon Schehcter's Childhood in Romania,” Studies in Jewish Civilization 16 (2005): 313ff.

89. David Weinberg, “The Jewish Theological Seminary and the ‘Downtown’ Jews of New York at the Turn of the Century,” in Wertheimer, Tradition Renewed, 2:6.

90. This was noted by Diner, “Like the Antelope and the Badger,” 4; see also Lupovitch, “Searching for Catholic Israel in Focsani,” 315–16.

91. Brämer, Rabbiner Zacharias Frankel, 35ff.

92. Kaufman Kohler, “Alexander Kohut,” in Tributes to the Memory of Alexander Kohut (New York, 1894), 6 –7.

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