Pluralistic Judaism Jewish Theology and Training in Germany

Student of AGK
Student of AGK | Photo (detail): © Tobias Barniske

A new centre of Jewish studies, a new college of Jewish theology in the near future and already several training institutions for rabbis: Jewish religious training is currently experiencing an unexpected boom in Germany. This is intended to serve as a basis for a Jewish community life which has no historical precedent in Germany.

In mid-2012, German education minister Annette Schavan (CDU) opened the new Berlin-Brandenburg Centre of Jewish Studies in Berlin. This is a merger of two Jewish educational institutions run by the universities of the capital and of Potsdam, aimed at interlinking research into Jewish theology, culture and history. Until 2017, Germany’s federal government will be providing the centre with nearly seven million euros in funding, designed first and foremost to finance professorial posts and young researchers.

In August, it was then announced that another institute of Jewish studies is to be set up at the University of Potsdam: unlike the Berlin-Brandenburg Centre, the Potsdam School of Jewish Theology will be denominational, that is to say providing training for young Jewish theologians in Germany just like the Christian theological faculties at universities. Plans to open a dedicated Jewish theological faculty in Potsdam were shelved as a result.

Rabbis and cantors from 13 countries

One driving force behind both new institutions is the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Potsdam and its director Walter Homolka. The college trains rabbis and cantors (precentors) for Jewish synagogue congregations, and does so in the liberal tradition of Reform Judaism. Rabbis trained here already work in numerous German communities, such as in Berlin, Munich, Hanover, Erfurt, Duisburg and Hamburg. At present, 17 men and 10 women are studying here. Only nine of the aspiring cantors and rabbis are from Germany, while the rest come mainly from Eastern Europe, though some are from Israel, Norway, Argentina and South Africa.

Until recently, there were hardly any liberal Jewish communities in Germany. In the so-called “unified communities” of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the orthodox branch of Judaism predominated. Meanwhile, however, 25 liberal communities have joined forces in the Union of Progressive Jews in Germany. “That said, our graduates also end up working in conservative and traditionally-minded communities”, explains Hartmut Bomhoff, the Abraham Geiger Kolleg’s spokesperson. The goal is peaceful cooperation between the various branches of Judaism.

Jewish pluralism awakens

Ordination 2011 in Bamberg Ordination 2011 in Bamberg | © Tobias Barniske The Central Council of Jews is growing into its role as an umbrella organization for an increasingly pluralistic Jewish community in Germany. At an ordination ceremony in Bamberg in November 2011, at which a woman was among those being ordained, its president Dieter Graumann explicitly placed progressive and orthodox Judaism on an equal footing: “Everyone should be allowed to be cheerful and Jewish and happy in their own fashion.”

This new situation paves the way for the blossoming of Jewish training institutions. Since 1979, there has been a University of Jewish Studies (HfJS) in Heidelberg, supported by the Central Council and affiliated to Heidelberg University. Its job, primarily, is to train Jewish religion teachers. Initially, rabbis frequently came from abroad and in some cases had great difficulties becoming linguistically and culturally integrated into communities which themselves were undergoing a process of integrating a handful of long-established and many newly arrived members. In this situation, a number of strictly orthodox movements from Israel and from the USA like Chabad Lubavitch and the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation were also able to become successfully established.

Heyday of liberal Judaism

Generally speaking, however, the new situation allowed above all liberal Judaism to blossom. The most comprehensive study of Judaism in Germany to date, commissioned by the Pincus Fund (2010), surveyed 1,200 Jews throughout the country. Amongst other things, it found that over 30 percent of the new community members describe themselves as “secular”, i.e. not bound to any particular religion. The orthodox rules governing life are alien to them – yet the majority of them still want to live consciously as Jews.

“Our liberal rabbis find it easier to reach out to people here”, says Hartmut Bomhoff from Abraham Geiger Kolleg. “Many women in particular are no longer willing to accept their traditional role in the service in the synagogue, for instance”, he stresses. In many cases, he explains, the direction which immigrant Jews who have often experienced no community life in the past will take depends on the rabbis whom they first encounter: “Anyone who is confronted only with orthodox rabbis and the unified community will often believe that that is Judaism per se”.

Diverse ties

AGK-Jahrestagung AGK-Jahrestagung | © Tobias Barniske “Let a hundred new rabbis flourish”, is Dieter Graumann’s new response to this situation. Apart from the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Potsdam, for instance, there is also an orthodox rabbi school in Berlin’s Mitte district. And the conservative branch – traditionally positioned between orthodox and liberal – also plans to train its rabbis in Potsdam in future, at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. This concentration in and around Germany’s capital is no coincidence – after all, Berlin boasts by far the largest Jewish community in Germany, numbering 11,000 members. Frankfurt and Munich follow some way behind with between 4,000 and 5,000 members each.

The Pincus Fund study is clearly impressed by this historically unprecedented development of Judaism in a country which in the last century attempted its annihilation. The new Jewish community follows on from the Jewish diversity of the pre-war period, despite the fact that today’s community members are not the descendants of the German Jews of that time. Traditions are being revived after an almost complete break with tradition.

Being part of Germany

In 1948, the World Jewish Congress had declared that no Jew should ever again enter German territory. Nowadays, Jewish representatives repeatedly emphasize that the days of living with suitcases packed and ready were over. Nonetheless, the Pincus study paints a more nuanced picture: the typical pre-war sense of being “German Jews” is unlikely ever to return. Although immigrants are gradually developing a stronger sense of belonging to German society, many of their relatives and friends continue to live in Israel or in their old Eastern European homelands. These ties continue to be maintained.

Clearly, something is emerging in Germany which can also be observed on a smaller scale at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg: a transnational, multicultural and pluralistic Judaism that naturally wishes to be part of this country.