Napoleon brought Jews out of the ghetto and into modernity

Although the French leader gave the Jewish community many benefits, many argue that the costs were simply too high

May 06, 2021 11:54

The 200th anniversary of the death of Napoleon this week is not just a significant moment for France but for Jews across Europe. He was one of the people most responsible for their transition from enduring medieval restrictions inside ghettos to becoming citizens of modern nation states.

Some would argue, though, that the cost was too high.

His contribution to Jewish life took two forms: first, wherever he led the French armies, he carried with them the principles of the French Revolution and made sure that liberty, equality and fraternity applied to Jews as much as to others, bringing down the ghetto walls and integrating Jews into wider society.

Second, he had the audacity to summon a Grand Sanhedrin, the supreme political and religious body which used to exist in Jerusalem in Temple times and which continued to govern Jewish affairs until its dissolution in 425 by the Romans.

Napoleon had several different motives. He wanted to use it as a vehicle to ensure that Jews would be bound to the state and comply with national laws above their own.

Jews would no longer be a “nation within a nation” but would play the same role, and have the same duties, as other citizens. He had acted similarly with French Catholics via the 1801 Concordat, through which they pledged loyalty to Paris not Rome.

He also wanted to appease the many French peasants, who had taken out loans from Jewish money-lenders to buy lands formerly belonging to the nobility, but who resented the debts they now faced and had petitioned him to limit Jewish usury.

In addition, Napoleon may have been thinking ahead to his campaign in Eastern Europe, hoping that the glory of a revived Sanhedrin would help gain support among the Jews there, persuading them to join his army, provide intelligence on the opposing forces or assist with food and other provisions.

The Grand Sanhedrin met on 9 February 1807 and consisted of 45 rabbis and 26 laymen from France, Italy and Spain, corresponding to the 71 members of the original Sanhedrin, although the latter had all received rabbinic ordination, or smichah.

Napoleon asked 12 questions, covering the four main areas in which he was most interested, with three in each category. They posed a major dilemma for the delegates, who wanted to be faithful to Jewish law but were keenly aware that he was expecting certain answers.

Their responses were a mixture of ingenuity and compromise. In the preamble, for instance, they made their new identity crystal clear, no longer describing themselves primarily as Jews, but as “Frenchmen professing the religion of Moses”.

They also signed away any claim to a separate legal system by stating that, “it is their duty to obey the laws of the state and, since the revolution, they, like all Frenchmen, have acknowledged no others”.

The first set of questions concerned marriage and divorce. First: is it lawful for Jews to marry more than one wife? Believing that polygamy was allowed in Jewish law, Napoleon wanted reassurance that Jews would conform to French insistence on monogamy. This was duly given.

Second: is divorce allowed, can it be given by the rabbis and without approval of the French courts? The answer was not correct but became the new norm: yes, divorce was allowed (that was true) but no, it was not valid unless already certified by French law (untrue, as rabbis had never made divorce dependent on civil law but had operated their own internal system).

Third: can Jews marry a Christian? This lay at the heart of whether Jews could engage fully with other French people or would always remain apart. The delegates tried to avoid a direct answer, saying (correctly) that the only official ban was on intermarriage with the seven Canaanite nations and that Jews had always intermarried with others (while neglecting to add that this was regarded with great communal disapproval).

They also stated that a Jew who intermarried through the French courts would be considered to be married civilly, if not religiously. This careful distinction, now widely accepted elsewhere, was just within the bounds of Jewish tradition but conceded primacy to state law.

The second set of three questions dealt with interpersonal relationships: firstly, and very directly, “in the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen considered as their brethren... or as strangers?” It is an eternal question that could still be asked today in many other countries.

The Sanhedrin replied exactly as Napoleon wished, along with a fascinating insight into their low self-perception: “Yes, France is our country; all Frenchmen are our brethren, and this glorious title, by raising us in our own esteem, becomes a sure pledge that we shall never cease to be worthy of it.”

The next asked what conduct Jewish law prescribed towards non-Jews. Not surprisingly, the answer was that they are to be treated the same as Jews, but what was telling was the reason that was given:

“At the present time, when Jews no longer form a separate people, but enjoy the advantage of being incorporated with the Great Nation...”

The other question laid bare one of Napoleon’s key concerns, asking if Jews were bound to serve in the army to defend France and to conform to all laws in his new civil code. Both would be major departures for many Jews, but the answer was a resounding yes.

The third set of questions covered the position of rabbis, whose authority Napoleon saw as a potential threat and whose influence he wished to neutralise. The delegates deliberately downplayed the power of rabbis to enact and apply Jewish law, and instead claimed that they primarily gave sermons and officiated at cycle of life ceremonies. This was an astonishing diminution of their role from halachists to preachers, and was repeated in the replies to the next two questions, denying that they had any judicial powers. It paved the way for rabbis to be functionaries within the French state system and expected to uphold its principles. Two centuries on, imams in France are facing the same demands.

The final set of three questions revolved around money-lending. When asked if Jews were forbidden to take interest on loans to fellow Jews, the reply completely distorted Jewish law and said that this ban also applied to fellow countrymen, irrespective of their religion.

Anticipating Napoleon’s raised eyebrows, it went on to admit that some Jews had behaved badly in this respect, but urged that it would be unfair to tarnish all Jews with the malpractices of a few of them.

The responses to the 12 questions added up to a momentous change in Jewish life: no longer a separate group, but individual citizens; no longer bound primarily by Jewish law, but with French codes taking precedence; no longer a race, but a religion.

Napoleon was delighted, and it sealed the Jews’ entry ticket into European society. The Grand Sanhedrin itself never met again.

It had served its purpose.

It set the pattern for Jewish life in the modern era, surviving the downfall of Napoleon, although still leaving open the question for Jews of how best to balance their loyalty to Judaism and their national allegiance.

However, not everyone welcomed the concessions that had been made. When Shneur Zalman of Ladi, the then-Lubavicher Rebbe, was asked by his followers in 1812 whether to support Napoleon’s incursion to Russia, he responded: “If Napoleon wins, he will grant us freedom and Jews will lose their yiddishkeit; if the Czar wins, he will continue to oppress us, but we will remain Jews; so support the Czar.”

Both his reply and the Grand Sanhedrin’s answers touch on questions of Jewish identity and continuity that are just as pressing today. As for Napoleon: was he pro-Jewish, extending Jewish rights? Or anti-Jewish, limiting their autonomy? Neither: he was pro-France and pro-Napoleon.

Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue

May 06, 2021 11:54

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