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Weiss, Marcus Nissa

(1751–1817), early maskil and pioneering religious reformer in Hungary. Marcus Nissa Weiss received a strong Talmudic education, and although he was a businessman, would preach on occasion in his community, Ungvár. In an 1808 autobiography, he recorded his sudden transformation wrought by the establishment of the Josephinian school system. Painstakingly, he learned German and discovered Moses Mendelssohn and the Haskalah. He became a lessee on the royal cameral estates of Ungvár and prospered at least until the mid-1780s, when he was embroiled in a debilitating and costly lawsuit that in the decade to come was to drain him financially.

In 1796, Weiss arrived in Pest and submitted a long memorandum to the Hungarian Palatine, proposing to “establish an educational institution to improve the Jewish national schools.” He criticized the two-tiered system of separate secular and religious education that had come into being with the establishment of the Josephinian schools in the 1780s, and urged that they be combined with instruction in the Hebrew language, the Bible, and religion along the model of the recently inaugurated Wilhelms-Schule in Breslau. Ultimately, he envisaged a curriculum that would include not only Hebrew and German, but also Latin and Hungarian, as well as any number of useful sciences.

Nothing seems to have come of his plan. Weiss, now permanently residing in Pest, eked out a living and continued to hatch projects and proposals. In October 1802, he circulated among a number of his trustworthy friends (all gentiles, it appears), copies of a manuscript highly critical of Jewish society and Judaism, “Der Jude wie er ist.” Someone leaked a copy to the Jewish community and, according to Weiss, it was swiftly disseminated even beyond Hungary, arousing harsh opposition. No evidence has surfaced to corroborate this account, nor have any copies of the manuscript survived. Its contents, however, were summarized and expanded upon in a pamphlet that Weiss did publish in Vienna the following year, Der bedrängte Markus Nissa Weis an die Menschen (The Hard-pressed Marcus Nissa Weiss to the People; 1803).

Referring to what he deemed the dishonest occupations of the Jews, Weiss placed blame squarely on rabbinic teachings. Jews should rely instead, he stated, on the teachings of Moses and Reason. Weiss lashed out at the hypocrisy of rabbis who burden the Jewish nation with the heavy yoke of their restrictions. In order to improve the level of Jewish morality, he called for the ruling prince to appoint a commission of suitable men to compose useful publications to combat the baneful influence of the Talmud.

This “Mosaic” stage in Weiss’s life did not last long. His emphasis on the biblical text and reason led him to believe that in Christianity he could find a religion that was both rational and moral. In 1805, he converted to the Roman Catholic faith in Pest. He served as an assistant to the censor of Hebrew books in Pest until his death in 1817.

Interestingly, this was not Weiss’s last word on Judaism and the Jews. As an apostate, he returned to his obsessions in his last published work, Unpartheyische Betrachtungen über das grosse jüdische Sanhedrin zu Paris (Impartial Thoughts on the Great Sanhedrin of Paris; 1807). While covering much old ground, Weiss also raised new points. For the first time, he took a quasi-sociological tack, describing the reprehensible hedonism of urban life and linking political equality to religious reform. He proposed to convene a modest Sanhedrin of six to twelve men who would arrive at a reformed Judaism. Those who accepted this reformed religion would receive political equality and enjoy all the rights of citizens. Those who chose to continue in their old ways, the Orthodox or the falsely enlightened, would be excluded from the cities to minimize their harm. In time, their numbers would recede and a new reformed Jew would triumph.

Suggested Reading

Sándor Büchler, “A zsidó reform uttörröi Magyarországon,” Magyar Zsidó Szemle 17 (1900): 107–119.