Napoleon & Jewish Emancipation

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Great Sanhedrin*

In July 1806 the Emperor Napoleon I called a meeting of 111 rabbis and Jewish laymen to Paris. They assembled in the Hôtel deVille in order to answer some questions for which the emperor wanted answers. These questions were: 1.Are Jews polygamous? 2. Do they allow the marriage of Jews to Christians? 3. Do the rabbis claim the right to grant divorces independent of the civil authorities? 4. Do the Jews consider usury lawful?

The Jews answered that Judaism prohibits polygamy; that marriage to Christians is permitted; that divorce must be approved by civil authorities and that usury is not allowed in Jewish law. These answers were given because they were what Napoleon wanted to hear.

Thereupon Napoleon told the assembly that he wanted the ancient Israeli Sanhedrin, Israel’s ancient supreme court, to meet again, although it had not met since 66 CE. The Sanhedrin, consisting of 45 rabbis and twenty six laymen, met on February 9, 1807. They ratified the answers given by the earlier assembly and urged Jews to end all animosity to Christians. The Sanhedrin, feeling coerced and pressured, told the Jews of France to enter military service, end all usury, become farmers and participate in the arts and in handicrafts.

Then, in March 1808, Napoleon returned from numerous victories in Germany and announced the religious freedom of the Jews, granted them political rights in all of France except Alsace and Lorraine and demanded that all Jews take a family name. Many Jews were still known only as Yaakov ben Yuehoodah, etc. Henceforth many Jews took names derived from towns where they traded, such as Hamburger or Berliner or Frankfurter, while others used occupations as names such as Schuster, Schneider, Cantor or Bronfenbrenner. Yet others used characteristics, real or imagined, such as Friedman, or they used a patronymic name such as Jacobs.

When Napoleon conquered Westphalen, a German principality, he imposed these regulations on the Germans as well, so that after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1814, the German Jews were legally equal to other Germans. That, however, did not last long. The Germans could not tolerate Jewish equality but did keep the French imposed laws “on the books”.

The emancipation of the French Jews was older than the ascension of Bonaparte. Already in 1787, the writer Mirabeau, by no means Jewish, demanded the emancipation of the Jews and in the year of the French revolution, 1789, the Abbé Grégoire won a prize from the Royal Society of Science and Art for his essay “The Physical, Moral and Political Regeneration of the Jews”. Remember that 1789 was also the year in which George Washington was first inaugurated and the first Congress of the U.S. met.

After the success of the French revolution, the Constitutional Assembly, in 1791, issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and pointedly extended all civil rights to the Jews of France. This led to the promotion of these rights to all the Jews living in areas conquered by Napoleon, including Holland in 1796, Venice in 1797 and various German states in 1798.

The Germans found the emancipation of the Jews distasteful, so that almost immediately after the Jews came out of the German ghettos during Napoleon's rule, German writers and politicians agitated against the Jews. It was then that religious anti-Judaism was turned into racial anti-semitism, so that even the Nazi killers would recite: “Die Religion ist einerlei, in der Rasse liegt die Schweinerei” or, “The religion is immaterial; the obscenity lies in the race.”

Because the German states before 1870 and all of Germany after 1870 maintained the Napoleonic Code regarding the Jews, the German Jews became “marginal” men during the nineteenth century. A “marginal” man is someone who lives at once in two cultures.

The Jews, clinging to the belief that they would eventually be accepted de facto and not only de jure, went out of their way to please their “fellow countrymen”. They converted en masse to Christianity. They married Christians. They raised their children as Catholics or Lutherans and they served in the German armies during World War I in disproportionate numbers. None of this helped them. The hate permeated 19th century German society and reached its culmination in the European gas ovens, 1941-1945.

During the entire 19th century Jews were hounded in Germany so that the great German poet Heinrich Heine and great composer Jaques Offenbach both lived in Paris to escape the hate in their native land. Heine (pronounced like Line or Wine followed by a short “e” as in bed) was born in Düsseldorf but spent his youth in Hamburg. He moved to Paris at age 34 and is buried there. He “converted” to Christianity but returned to Judaism when his conversion did him no good. He became Germany’s most famous lyricist, composing poems and essays. His famous poem Die Lorelei has been set to music and is played on the Rhine tourist ships as they steam up and down that great river past Offenbach.

That is the name Jakob Eberst used when he encountered the hatred of his German compatriots after he became a well known musical composer. He moved to Paris where, as Jaques Offenbach, he wrote “The Tales of Hoffman” and many truly French sounding melodies played almost every day on our radios.

Heine and Offenbach illustrate the dilemma of the German Jews of the nineteenth century. Hoping year in and year out to yet be accepted as Germans, the Christian gas ovens put an end to those hopes between 1933 and 1945.

Yet, the Great Sanhedrin did not meet in vain. It represented a milestone in the effort of the European Jews to liberate themselves from medieval oppression. That oppression did indeed become worse and led to the deportation of the French Jews to Nazi death camps during 1940-1945. Yet, we look at the Great Sanhedrin today as we look at the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Both failed materially. Yet, both serve as an inspiration to us because they demonstrate that we Jews are indestructible, undefeated, courageous, exceptional, superior and the CHOSEN PEOPLE after all. Am Yisroel Chai. Be glad and of good courage and remember “Adonai Lee, v’lo iro.”

Shalom u’vracha.

*(Greek=Syn hedrion or sitting together)

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Man's Ascent to Reason (2003) & the forthcoming Football & American Identity.

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