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Hildesheimer, Esriel

(1820–1899), rabbi and scholar. German-born Esriel (‘Asri’el) Hildesheimer set out upon his rabbinical career in 1846. By that time he had completed his training under the tutelage of Ya‘akov Ettlinger—the preeminent contemporary German Orthodox halakhist—and received a doctoral degree from the University of Halle. He spent the years 1846–1851 as secretary of the community in his hometown of Halberstadt before being appointed rabbi of Eisenstadt, the well-known Jewish settlement in the Burgenland section of western Hungary. There he founded and developed a famous post–primary school yeshiva that combined intensive Torah learning with a full range of secular studies.

In the course of his 18-year tenure in Hungary, Hildesheimer also grew to be the leading advocate of a moderate style of Orthodoxy, and came under increasing attacks in the Orthodox camp in the 1860s over his advocacy of a modern rabbinical seminary. He also sought to narrow the constantly expanding gaps between the growing secular and Neolog-oriented Jews on the one hand, and the intensely committed Hungarian Orthodox on the other. This policy contrasted sharply with the belligerent Hungarian ultra-Orthodox ideology then emerging that saw separation from non-Orthodox Jews as an ideal. In fact, Hildesheimer’s decision to return to Germany in 1869 was only partly due to his excitement about opportunities that lay ahead for him in Berlin. It was as much a reflection of his conclusion, after unsuccessful efforts to broker a compromise at the General Jewish Congress of Hungary of 1868–1869, that his approach was doomed to remain on the periphery of Hungarian Orthodoxy.

Paradoxically, upon reaching Berlin, Hildesheimer became the leading religious figure in its newly established separatist Orthodox subcommunity, Adass Jisroel. In fact, he was a staunch supporter of the German secession law of 1876. This legislation gave legal sanction to Orthodox Jews who felt threatened by their local non-Orthodox majority to relinquish formal ties with the established Jewish community and create their own independent communal body.

The apparent contradiction between his great efforts to heal the rift in the Hungarian environment and his support of separation within the German milieu reflects Hildesheimer’s evaluation of the differences between communal life in these two areas. The grassroots strength still maintained by conservative elements in mid-nineteenth-century Hungary led him to believe that Orthodox survival was not threatened. Indeed, he hoped that maintaining contact with liberal-minded Jews would prevent them from more radical assimilation. By contrast, his perception of the Reform-dominated communities in many major German cities led him to conclude that only independence would enable the Orthodox minority to persevere.

That being said, even in Germany Hildesheimer cultivated a sympathetic separatism, devoid of the animus toward other factions that characterized the outspoken ideologue of Orthodox independence, Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt am Main. Hildesheimer was willing to sit with non-Orthodox representatives to address mutual Jewish interests. These included fighting antisemitism and supporting the development of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel as a haven for Jews suffering from discrimination. Of particular note is his cooperation with figures such as Heinrich Graetz, the famed historian and leading faculty member of the non-Orthodox Breslau Rabbinical Seminary, and with organizations such as B’nai B’rith and the Alliance Israélite Universelle.

Hildesheimer considered his Berlin Rabbinical Seminary—where students were exposed to both traditional and critical approaches to the study of Jewish texts and history—to be his most important and lasting contribution. Indeed, most German Orthodox rabbis in the period up to the Nazi regime received their training in Berlin. Here too, the less dogmatic approach to secessionism was evident. Both separatist Orthodox and those Orthodox congregations connected to heterogeneous communities supported and were on the staff of the institution that Hildesheimer founded in 1873 and headed until his death in 1899. Moreover, in directing graduates toward rabbinical positions, no distinction was made between independent Orthodox and those Orthodox in unified communities.

The published volume of Hildesheimer’s personal correspondence, Rabbiner Esriel Hildesheimer Briefe (1965), highlights his deep concern for the physical and spiritual welfare of world Jewry. His reputation as a multifaceted rabbinic scholar was enhanced with the publication of his Talmudic novellae, Ḥidushe Rabi ‘Asri’el (1984). It is the two published volumes of Hildesheimer’s halakhic responsa, She’elot u-teshuvot Rabi ‘Asri’el (1969 and 1976), that testify most clearly to his intensive encounter with the gamut of questions confronting Hungarian and German Jewry from the mid- to late nineteenth century. While his rulings were often directed toward his own Orthodox adherents, consistent with his overall outlook he also searched for ways to preserve a religious connection with other constituencies. Despite his deep roots in the German tradition, after his return to Germany he demonstrated particular reverence for Lithuanian halakhic authorities such as Yitsḥak Elḥanan Spektor, and often deferred to his East European counterparts on controversial legal issues.

Suggested Reading

David H. Ellenson, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 1990); Adam S. Ferziger, Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity (Philadelphia, 2005), pp. 152–171; Jacob Katz, A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry, trans. Ziporah Brody (Hanover, N.H., 1998).