February 3

Edouard Moyse, "Le Grand Sanhedrin" (1868)

Without a knowledge of history, we assume that things which are must always have been; and especially in matters of religion, where we tend to think they must have been since the very beginning. 

The Immaculate Conception for example, the belief that Mary alone of women was free of original sin, and managed to conceive Christ while still being a virgin – it only became Christian dogma as late as 1854 (and strangely on December 8th, when you would have thought that nine months before parturition would have been much more likely - or maybe, it being an Immaculate Conception, the nine-month term is by-passed, so it really doesn't matter when: December 8th was the date on which Pope Pius IX declared the miracle, in 1854 in his case, in the year minus 1 apparently for the original event). 

But it is a very different kind of miraculous conception that I am here to write about, one in which human enlightenment challenged religious superstition. Forty-eight years before Pope Pius' declaration, different sorts of radical changes were being imposed on European society by the Emperor Napoleon, through his conquests, and especially through his "Civil Code", known colloquially as "The Edicts of Tolerance", and which were passed into law after four years' devoted labour on March 21st 1804. Most of us can't say his name without spluttering, and equating him with other despots, but the truth is, the Code was the first set of civil laws that any European country had adopted since the Roman Empire; it formally abolished feudalism, gave individual human beings rights and status, and has formed the basis for every European national constitution since, and several beyond Europe as well.

One of the immediate consequences of the Code was the summoning of an "Assembly of Notables" in Paris - Jewish notables - from which what amounted to a manifesto was issued to all the communities of Europe, detailing the ways in which they intended to make effective the Talmudic injunction that "the law of the land is the law". 

Six months after that communique, on February 3rd 1807, the newly formed Sanhedrin of Paris gathered for its opening session (the first formal discussions began on February 9th), under the Presidency of Rabbi David Sinzheim of Strasbourg; seventy delegates plus the President, two-thirds of them Rabbis, one-third laymen, pressed by the Emperor Napoleon to resolve a dilemma: how to bring the ostracised and ghettoised Jews of Europe into the fold, without secular law impinging on the Jewish, or Jewish Law infringing the Napoleonic.

They met eight times, in sumptuous surroundings: a Romanised marble hall with curtained pillars and a splendidly-carpeted floor, in two corners of which debating tables were set up – no hint of the Yeshiva in the setting, but most definitely in the method, the traditional Judeo-Socratic dialogue. The delegates sat around three sides, behind the debaters and the President, looking more like Republican lawyers than Pharisees. The elegantly dressed Jewish bourgeoisie provided an audience, and a bust of Napoleon as Emperor of Rome receiving his laurel crown from winged angels looked down benevolently on the proceedings from a frieze in an arch below the ceiling behind and above the Speaker's chair – he is my only concern in all this grand portrait, for the formal hat of his Presidency appears to have been modeled on the mediaeval Horns of Moses, the worst symbol of all anti-Semitic motifs.

Prior to the conference, Napoleon sent a letter containing twelve questions to the Notables, for them to be able to prepare ahead of the event. At the event, nine rules were agreed, and the entire history of Jewish participation in secular society starts here (though not, as Napoleon had really hoped, the complete assimilation of the Jews into European society, their Judaism abandoned in the process):

✡ Polygamy is henceforth prohibited (what, Jews were still practicing polygamy in Europe as late as 1807?!)

✡ Jewish bills of marriage and divorce require parallel civil documents (which sadly does not help the women who are agunah, which is to say "chained", by husbands who have divorced them but refuse to give the "get" that allows them to re-marry)

✡ Mixed marriages have civil validity but not religious (a key factor in the development of Reform Judaism, which does give religious validity to such marriages)

✡ Jews are expected to treat their non-Jewish compatriots as brothers (alas, this never did quite work out the other way around; the Dreyfus affair, for example, arose less than a hundred years after this)

✡ Universal moral codes apply to Jews as well as non-Jews (specifically meaning the Edicts of Tolerance themselves)

✡ Jews must engage in useful professions (law, banking, medicine, retail, real estate, manufacturing, restaurant-management, as well of course as psychology and general science; the "traditional" Jewish professions, though in fact Jews were prohibited from entering any of them until this time)

✡ The lending of money to Jews must accord with national laws (the lending of money by anyone except the Jews had been prohibited by Christian law until this time)

✡ The lending of money to non-Jews must accord with national laws (Jews had never chosen to become moneylenders; they had been obliged to do so, and over the past 1000 years had lost far more money than they had made, because expulsion and pogrom were repeatedly used as a strategy to avoid the repayment of forced loans)

Napoleon's theoretical objective was the liberation of the Jews from anti-Semitism, but what it actually achieved was the liberation of two-thirds of Jews from Judaism, and the driving of the remainder into levels of orthodoxy deeper than had ever been known in mediaeval Europe. It is nonetheless the case that none of the great Jewish names in 19th and 20th century secular Europe (Marx, Freud, Mahler... or for that matter Felix Mendelsohn, born today in 1809, or Gertrude Stein, born today in 1874) could have achieved what they did, nor the contributions of the Jewish secular world to science, culture, politics and commerce, throughout the world, in the two centuries since that first gathering, without the breaking down of the ghetto walls by that tyrannical monster Napoleon.

And yet, in all likelihood, Napoleon's "theoretical objective" was only that - theoretical. The three decrees of March 17th 1808 suggest that his real hope was to see the end of Judaism altogether, by way of assimilation, and through social engineering and control; he wanted to "normalize the status of France's Jews", which is a highly worthy aim in a multi-cultural, secular society, but alas ignores the fact that most people prefer their Immaculate Conceptions to their Edicts of Tolerance. Such are the paradoxes of left-right politics.

The third of Napolloron's decrees (I have to give him that variant on his name because the decree came into force on July 2nd 1808, which was also the anniversary of the death, in 1566, of Michel de Nostre-Dam, Jewish seer and visionary, who predicted him) was the one that had the greatest impact: the "Infamous Decree" that required all Jews to adopt family names, prohibiting Ben-somebody as one of the options.

Some did the obvious, calling themselves by their caste-status: Cohen, Levi or Israel; and later these evolved into the less obvious: Collins, Kirwen, Craig, Lewis, Levanthal, Lee. Many took their trade, their village (Sander, Prashker, Netupski, Donert). Many took poetic names, or borrowed from their Christian neighbours... but to take, and use, a family name, infers the cessation of usage of the father’s name (I, for example, should be David ben Yakov, not David Prashker), and in this cessation is also the breaking of that historic chain elucidated in the opening of the opening verse of Pirkey Avot. To take a family name is to be assimilated into Christian-European culture. No surprise then that the most religious families defied the edict, or skirted round it by assuming the father's as the family name anyway, doing so by a route not formally proscribed, by translating the Ben: Jacobson, Rabinowitz, Isaacs.

The Jews, as Theodor Herzl would point out at the time of the rather-less-than-tolerant Dreyfus trial some years later, the Jews are a people who worship four things: the land, the hand, the book, the name. It is far more than just identity that is threatened when a person is compelled to change that most immaculate of conceptions, his name.

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