Samuel Holdheim

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Samuel Holdheim (1806 – 22 August 1860) was a German rabbi and author, and one of the more extreme leaders of the early Reform Movement in Judaism. A pioneer in modern Jewish homiletics, he was often at odds with the Orthodox community.[1]


Early life

Holdheim was born at Kempen in South Prussia in 1806. The son of rigidly traditional parents, Holdheim was early inducted into rabbinical literature according to the methods in vogue at the Talmudical yeshivas. Before he was able to speak German with even moderate correctness he had become a master of Talmudic argumentation, and his fame had traveled far beyond the limits of his native place. This reputation secured for him employment as teacher of young boys in private families both in Kempen and in larger cities of his native province. It was while thus engaged that he began to supplement his store of rabbinical knowledge by private studies in the secular and classical branches.

Holdheim went to Prague and subsequently to Berlin to study philosophy and the humanities; and his keen intellect, combined with his eagerness to learn, made it possible for him to reach his goal in an incredibly short time, though the lack of preliminary systematic preparation left its imprint upon his mind, to a certain degree, to the last. Under Samuel Landau of Prague he continued also his Talmudical studies. While still a young man it became his ambition to occupy a rabbinical position in a larger German town; for he desired to show the older rabbis that secular and philosophical scholarship could well be harmonized with rabbinical erudition. But he had to wait until 1836, when, after several disappointments elsewhere, he was called as rabbi to Frankfurt (Oder). Here he remained until 1840, encountering many difficulties, due both to the distrust of those within the congregation who suspected the piety of a rabbi able to speak grammatical German, and who was a graduate of a German university, and to the peculiar legislation which in Prussia under Frederick William III regulated the status of the Jewish congregations.

Attitude toward government

To bring about a change in this state of affairs was the purpose of Holdheim. In the preface to his Gottesdienstliche Vorträge (Frankfurt (Oder), 1839) he appealed both to the government to accord the modern rabbinate the dignity due to it, and to the congregations to cease regarding the rabbi as an expert in Jewish casuistry mainly charged with the duty of answering she'elot (ritual questions) and inquiries concerning dietary laws. He insisted upon the recognition of the rabbi as preacher and teacher, who at the same time gives attention to the practical requirements of his office as the expert in Talmudical law.

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