With the breakout of the French Revolution, the supporters found themselves having to face what was called “the Jewish question”.
When they were not engaged in destroying the old world order and creating a brave new one, the Jewish question gnawed at the French revolutionaries until it came to symbolize the most difficult question of all for the Enlightenment: Is it in the power of man to change? The Jew, who more than any other group symbolized the “Other” (and mainly an “other” who was not Christian), was now at the top of the great “Renewal” project that the French revolution had intended for its people.
Bound up with the idea of “Renewal” was also a cold political calculation: it considered which of the groups in post-revolutionary French society will be prepared to accept political rights and contribute their share toward the establishment of a more enlightened, rational world that was free of prejudices. The initial inquiry carried out by the revolutionaries touched on the question of citizenship: whether France’s poor, among them the Jews, were entitled to “active citizenship” – that is, the right to elect and be elected to the revolution’s political institutions or whether they were entitled only to “passive citizenship” embodied most clearly in the defense of the patrimony of the Republic? Even for the most ardent supporters of emancipation of the Jews there was a precondition: France’s Jews must renounce any aspirations of Jewish nationalism and assimilate as individuals within the French nation. The Judaism of the Jews of France was, therefore to be solely an expression of their faith and nothing more.
The most interesting expression of the ambivalent, yet also positive, attitude toward the Jews in the revolution is found in an essay by the revolutionary Henri Gregoire who argued that the poor condition of the Jews stemmed from two main reasons: Christian discrimination against them and the ridiculous theories spread by their rabbis. He called upon the French nation to extend their hands toward its Jews in order to raise them up from the gutter, and for the Jews to respond in kind and make themselves over into more modern individuals.
In September 1791, unprecedented legislation called for the abolition of any legal distinction between Jews and non-Jews in the French Republic. From a legal standpoint, during the decade of the revolution, the Jews had stopped being a distinct group. However, this step was both a blessing and a curse. Their unexpected emancipation allowed for Jews to more easily integrate into French society as individuals. However, as a society with a distinctly communal nature, there was no collective body – rabbinic or other – that could approach the government to bargain for its collective rights.
In 1789, the glorious general Napoleon Bonaparte stepped into the revolutionary fray. In a military coup, he unseated the Republic and established the short-lived Consulate regime. At the head of this new governing body, which replaced the failed revolutionary directory, stood the first consul, Napoleon himself, along with two other consuls below him.
Out of a deep desire to learn from the failures of the revolution, First Consul Napoleon, who had meanwhile crowned himself emperor in 1804, sought to reach a series of historic agreements and compromises, among them reconciliation with the pope (the Concordat) in 1801, and recognition of the legitimacy of the Lutheran and Calvinist churches in France. Rabbinic authority in France which, with the revolution, had lost much of its power and its role turned to the new regime demanding a similar solution.
In an attempt to legitimize the dictatorial regime whose origins lay in an illegitimate military takeover, Napoleon chose the Jews as a case study in propaganda. After solidifying his position as liberator of the Jews with the abolishment of the obligation to reside in ghettos, on 30 May 1806, he invited an assembly of Jewish leaders that included rabbis, enlightened Jewish officials and leaders and other well-known figures. The meeting was arranged following a complaint filed against the usurious practices of the Jews of Alsace. Napoleon’s aim was to bring about the integration of the Jews and even to their full assimilation into French society. Napoleon was especially eager that Jews give up their erroneous ways – mainly the source of their livelihoods as moneylenders to the Christian populace – and adopt crafts and occupations that will benefit them and the French nation.
In order to formalize, consolidate and expand the conclusions of the meeting, Napoleon convened an even larger gathering not only from France but from across Europe. As with everything the emperor did, behind this step was an ambitious vision for the future: Napoleon demanded the creation of a religious constitutional codex for Jews to which they would be beholden as they were to the Talmud. He called the new body established in February 1807, “The Great Sanhedrin,” and decreed that like its ancient counterpart it have seventy-one members. But unlike in the past, twenty-five of its members would not be clerics.
The document issued by “The Great Sanhedrin”, which was written in French and translated into Hebrew, offered twelve answers to twelve questions posed by Napoleon. The members of the Sanhedrin tried their hardest to offer solutions that would please both sides: they declared that Jews must work toward integrating into the realm in which they lived but must also preserve their religious identity. But when loyalty to state conflicted with loyalty to halakha, apparently loyalty to the state took precedence. An example of this is the sixth amendment in the document, which states that when a Jew’s military duties clash with religious observance, he may refrain from certain religious observance in order to defend his country.
In the rest of the amendments, an attempt was made to integrate the two authorities – the French state and the Jewish religion – and find a middle way. The most prominent example is the wedding ceremony: in order for the wedding ceremony to be “kosher” according to the Sanhedrin, the couple must register the marriage with a government official in addition to the religious ceremony performed by a rabbi.
With the Sanhedrin’s presentation of its learned answers to the twelve questions posed by Napoleon, the Emperor called it to disband and in its stead called for the establishment in France of six consistories, official bodies whose role it would be to enforce the rulings of the Sanhedrin.
If all this sounds somewhat familiar, you would not be mistaken. This was in fact the first modern incarnation of the “Chief Rabbinate,” an idea that made its way across various communities in France and Germany, and even to the State of Israel. As a mark of appreciation for the tireless efforts of the French Emperor (and of the French Jews), the Jews of Napoleon’s expanding empire composed dozens of songs, sermons and religious texts hailing Napoleon as “God’s chosen one.” The Jewish community used every opportunity to celebrate every positive event in the life of Napoleon: his escape from an assassination attempt, the victories of his army, his crowning as emperor, his birthday, his royal marriage, the birth of his son and more.