2016 Leo Trepp Lecture & Torah Scroll Dedication

The Center’s third annual Leo Trepp Lecture was graced by a performance of music from the Mainz synagogue Trepp attended in his youth and the dedication of the Trepp Torah scroll.

Lecture series sponsor Gunda Trepp, who donated her late husband’s Torah scroll to be permanently housed at the Center, explained that Leo Trepp was taught as a child to love Torah but also symphony and opera. His “openness to the world” later evolved into his focus on Torah im derech eretz, or “Torah and worldly culture,” which some call “Jewish humanism,” the idea that Torah lives in response to human experience.

But does it? Delivering this year’s lecture, Rabbi David Ellenson of Brandeis University said classical Rabbinic Judaism always asserted that the Torah, as the literal word of God, is immutable and ahistorical. In his talk entitled How Germany Produced Modern Judaism – Lessons for Today, Ellenson traced the 19th century German religious, cultural and political changes that led to new forms of Judaism with differing views on the duality of Jewish religiosity and secular culture.

Before the Enlightenment and Jewish emancipation, Ellenson noted, Spinoza declared that the Torah was written by man, not God, and 18th century German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn asserted that it was possible for a Jew to be modern.

“They were the intellectual bridge to modern Judaism,” Ellenson said.

In the early 1800’s, German Jews gained entry to the universities and Leopold Zunz, the first to take a historic lens to Judaic Studies, declared that Judaism had changed over time in response to contemporary influences.

With acculturation, Jews began to see and interpret their Judaism differently, Rabbi Ellenson explained. Ideas of individuality and identity, of studying German instead of Hebrew, and of gender roles, began to shift. In this context, German rabbis Abraham Geiger and Samuel Holdheim launched the Reform movement, creating a new Judaism less adherent to Halacha and more responsive to the times and German secular culture.

In response to Reformist liberalism, Neo-Orthodoxy also arose during this period, led by Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch, who stressed the immutability of Jewish oral and written law and Esriel Hildesheimer, who created the rabbinical seminary where Rabbi Trepp later studied.

But Rabbi Zechariah Frankel advanced another view, Historical-Positive Judaism, now known as Conservative Judaism, ascribing Torah to history and not literal divine revelation. “We cannot return to the letter of Scripture,” he wrote. “The gap between it and us is too wide to be bridged.”

In concluding, Professor Ellenson spoke of his great affection for the German rabbis and scholars who dedicated themselves to integrating the worlds of Jewish tradition and the contemporary world.

“I admire the quest,” he said. “I love how they grapple with the issues all of us as Jews grapple with…In a very real sense, we owe them a tremendous degree of admiration and gratitude.”


Listen to the full lecture “How Germany Produced Modern Judaism – Lessons for Today” using the audio player below: