Period representation of Napoleon, Caesar-like and holding the Law of Moses

People Of The Book:
Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

David Sinzheim
David Sinzheim
Period representation of Napoleon,  Caesar-like and holding the Law of Moses
Period representation of Napoleon,
Caesar-like and holding the Law of Moses

Nearing the end of the eighteenth century, Rabbi Joseph David Sinzheim (1745—1812) had enjoyed a quiet career as a French rosh yeshiva, occupied with his students and writing a commentary on the Talmud, until he was swept up in the whirlwind of the French Revolution of 1789. His role as a community leader included a representation to the king of France in the last months of the Ancien Régime (Old Regime). During the anti-religious backlash of the Terror, R’ Sinzheim was forced into hiding, but by 1795 the sound of the guillotine’s vicious blade subsided and he was appointed to serve as the chief rabbi of Strasbourg.

The French emancipation of its 30,000 Jews did not address lingering anti-Semitism, however, and in 1806 R’ Sinzheim was once again pulled into the public forum to respond to a series of penetrating questions posed by the Emperor Napoleon himself. R’ Sinzheim’s carefully crafted answers, later published as the minutes of the Assembly of Jewish Notables, ultimately charted the political course of Jewish existence in modern European states for centuries to the present day.

Napoleon formulated his questions after receiving complaints that the 1791 emancipation of Jews created economic havoc in the eastern region of Alsace. The lifting of discriminatory legislation, according to the delegations approaching the Emperor, allowed the Jews to expand their commercial and banking activity to the extent that non-Jews were exploited unfairly. Napoleon took the charges seriously and demanded that a convocation of representative Jewish leaders respond to 12 basic questions that determined their relationship to the fledgling nation-state. A collection of Jewish figures drawn from both Sephardic and Ashkenazic populations, both observant and non-observant, hastily came together in Paris. Rabbi Sinzheim, universally respected for his learning, was selected to write the answers, which he did with profound sensitivity to both the Talmudic tradition and political expediency.

Napoleon wanted to know if the Jews considered themselves true citizens of France, or if they would conceivably join with Jews from enemy countries (especially neighboring Germany) against their home country. He also wanted to learn about the internal organization of the Jewish community, whether Jews would recognize French law over Talmudic law, and what authority the rabbis possessed. Finally, Napoleon inquired about Jewish marriage practices–were French Jews monogamous, did they recognize divorce, and so on. R’ Sinzheim understood that a single misstep could result in disaster for the Jewish community, and his answers negotiated the pragmatic challenges of realpolitik without sacrificing the integrity of Torah. Some of his answers–for example, on the question of the recognition of marriage between Jews and non-Jews–might seem strange to modern readers, but those versed in the halachah will recognize the delicate balance struck by R’ Sinzheim in his attempt to protect the population from a resurgence of anti-Jewish violence.

R’ Sinzheim’s attempt was a qualified success. Napoleon was pleased with the answers, and in his typical grandiose manner he called for a meeting of the Grand Sanhedrin, a body that had not met since ancient times, to ratify the responses of the Assembly of Notables. R’ Sinzheim was appointed president of that august body, receiving, among other things, an unusual double-peaked hat to mark his station. The emancipation of the Jews was upheld, but at the same time Napoleon also promulgated the so-called “Infamous Decree” that placed new restrictions on Jewish economic activity in Alsace. He also co-opted the Rabbinate by establishing a consistory system, a hierarchical organization of Jewish religious leadership that still exists in contemporary France. Nevertheless, R’ Sinzheim’s model for the political orientation of Jewish minorities in European countries served as the basis for the expansion of Jewish rights in Europe for centuries. v

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here