Montage of portraits of delegates to the Jewish Congress, Pest, Hungary, 1868–1869. (Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives / Photograph courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv)

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Jewish Congress

Groundbreaking and contentious interdenominational conference that took place in Pest, Hungary, from December 1868 to February 1869. Having achieved a compromise with Austria that granted Jews independence in domestic affairs in 1867, the new Hungarian government sought to integrate Jews more completely into its general society. To this end, Jews were granted emancipation and the government worked with liberal-minded Jewish leaders to create a consistory-type, autonomous nationwide Jewish organization that could both regulate internal communal affairs and present a unified front in external relations.

On 14 December 1868, the Jewish Congress opened in Pest under the auspices of the minister of culture and education, Baron József Eötvös. Although the mandate set by Eötvös specified that religious issues were to be excluded from the deliberations and that only organizational matters were in its purview, the congress, rather than achieving unity, served to deepen and concretize divisions among Jews that had been growing for decades.

From the outset of the nineteenth century, Hungarian Jews had witnessed sharp clashes between modernists and traditionalists. Parallel to accelerated cultural, economic, and social changes that were felt most strongly in western Hungary, by midcentury two religious orientations—Neolog and Orthodox—had emerged. The Neolog group, dominated by a lay leadership, sought to introduce more widespread secular education along with moderate synagogue reforms. While by no means a homogeneous entity, many Orthodox rabbis viewed modern culture with suspicion and went to great lengths to preserve every detail of customary religious practice. The early 1860s had been a particularly confrontational period in which the more zealous forces increasingly set the agenda for Orthodoxy.

The congress itself was preceded by an acrimonious and at times violent electoral campaign. The result of elections that had taken place on 18 November 1868 revealed that the Neolog voters, who were dominant in densely populated urban centers, gained about half of the 220 delegates, while only 88 (about 40%) could be counted for the Orthodox (about 10% percent were unknown or undecided). The Orthodox protested that Neolog districts received a disproportionate number of delegates, but to no avail; the Orthodox also felt obligated by the government to attend. The two camps were not monolithic: the Neologs, led by Ignác Hirschler, had a moderate wing of about 30 to 40 representatives, while the Orthodox were split between moderates, led by the rabbi of Eisenstadt, Esriel Hildesheimer—around whom almost all of the Orthodox lay leaders gathered. A slightly smaller, militant wing was led by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Löw of Újhely. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch also played a key role in urging an uncompromising stance favoring a schism. The two camps sat facing each other: the Orthodox on the left, the Neologs on the right.

There were attempts to bridge differences. For instance, a consensus was reached on the need to protest the holding of market fairs on the Sabbath. And when the Orthodox demanded that their continued participation be contingent upon all decisions of the congress relating to the organization of the community or schools following rules consistent with the Shulḥan ‘arukh code of Jewish law, the vote revealed that moderate Neologs were willing to give their consent. However, the more intransigent wings of both camps succeeded in undermining any hope for a modus vivendi. Forty-eight Orthodox delegates (including five from Hildesheimer’s faction) tendered their resignation and left the congress. The rest, led by Hildesheimer, stayed on, trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a solution that would satisfy Orthodox demands. The rump congress decided to establish a separate network of Jewish schools (opposed by many of the Orthodox) and to create a rabbinical seminary.

Upon the conclusion of the congress at the end of February, the government sought to create a national body based upon the majority resolutions. The Orthodox, however, petitioned not to be forced to join. They argued that participation in a collective that was controlled by the Neologs was tantamount to a denial of religious freedom. This position was eventually accepted by the parliament in 1870, and the Orthodox were authorized to create their own independent national organization.

The Jewish Congress led to the establishment of three completely distinct frameworks: the Congress (Neolog, liberal), the Orthodox, and the Status Quo (traditionalists who for a variety of reasons wanted to remain independent of both groups). These divisions continued and even deepened throughout the twentieth century. To a great extent, membership and loyalty to one of the respective organizations, rather than beliefs and ritual behavior, emerged as the definitive manifestation of Jewish identity within the Hungarian milieu. As far as the Orthodox were concerned, the outcome of the congress solidified the antimodernist position as the standard for authentic Judaism.

Suggested Reading

Jacob Katz, “The Uniqueness of Hungarian Jewry” Forum 27 (1977): 45–53; Jacob Katz, A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth-Century Central European Jewry, trans. Ziporah Brody (Hanover, N.H., 1998); Nathaniel Katzburg, “The Jewish Congress of 1869,” Hungarian-Jewish Studies II (1969): 6–29.