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Homberg, Herz

(1749–1841), Bohemian maskil and author. Herz Homberg is known mainly for having been the government-appointed supervisor of the German Jewish school system in Galicia between 1787 and 1806. He fully endorsed the policy of enforced enlightenment of Jews and was one of the first to establish a pattern of maskilic cooperation with absolutist governments in Eastern Europe and denunciation of conservative Jewish opponents.

Born in Lieben (near Prague), Homberg attended yeshivas in Prague, Pressburg, and Glogau. From the age of 18 he began studying German, German literature, Latin, mathematics, and the new educational theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the latter, for example, as in Émile). A visit to Berlin in 1778–1779 brought him into contact with the circle of Berlin maskilim and Moses Mendelssohn. Homberg formed a close friendship with Mendelssohn and tutored his son Joseph from 1779 until 1782.

When the Edict of Tolerance was first issued in 1781, new possibilities in the field of education seemed available in Vienna. However, Homberg’s services were not needed in the Austrian capital. Instead, he continued and completed his work as coauthor of the Bi’ur commentary on Deuteronomy there. In 1782, he began to teach at newly established Jewish normal schools in the Italian provinces, first in Gorizia and from 1785 until 1787 in Trieste, where moderate modernizing reforms were introduced into the traditional Jewish curriculum.

In a period when most maskilim were autodidacts, Homberg was the first Jew in the Austrian Empire to take the formal examination at the University of Vienna (1784). In 1787, he became supervisor of the German Jewish school system in Galicia and assistant censor of Jewish books. Despite suspicion and opposition from Galician Jews, he embarked upon a program of educational reform based on the model of the normal school. Within four years he had founded about 100 schools, including one for girls in Lemberg. In a somewhat patronizing circular letter in 1788, he tried to convince Galician rabbis to cooperate with the new program. The aims were the teaching of correct Hebrew grammar; the study and use of German instead of Yiddish; the introduction of grades according to the age and abilities of the pupils; moral improvement; preparation for a trade or craft; and attention to the education of the poor.

Throughout the years in which a German Jewish school system existed, the opposition of rabbis, community leaders, and the Galician population only intensified. German Jewish teachers were regarded as outsiders and heretics who led the children astray. The teachers, like Homberg himself, had to rely strictly on local Austrian authorities and police to enforce the demands of the school system by fines or other compulsory measures. By establishing a pedagogical seminary in Lemberg in 1792, Homberg tried to create a reservoir of local teachers who also could replace the traditional religious teachers and who, for an indefinite period, could serve as assistants during their training.

In 1793, Homberg was ordered back to Vienna to advise the central government in legal matters concerning the reorganization of Jewish life in Bohemia. This resulted in the memorandum “Über die moralische und politische Verbesserung der Israeliten in Böhmen” (On the Moral and Political Improvement of the Israelites in Bohemia; 1794), which served as the basis for the Systemalpatent (an edict of toleration) for Bohemia (1797). Homberg attacked the rabbis, whom he regarded as incorrigible, and spoke out for the abolition of yeshivas and even for the burning of rabbinic books. During this stay in Vienna, he renewed his request of 1789—to be appointed as chief censor of Vienna and chief supervisor of all the Jewish schools in the Habsburg Empire—but without success.

Officially Homberg served as chief supervisor of the German Jewish school system in Galicia until 1806, when the Austrians abrogated this school system. In reality, however, Homberg had left Galicia in 1799. His name had been severely tainted because of his support for the candle tax in 1797 and rumors of his receiving part of its revenues, along with other accusations of nepotism and corruption. Some claim that he avoided facing judicial charges by fleeing in 1799 to Vienna. The intervention of Emperor Francis II finally saved him from further disgrace.

In 1808, Homberg published the catechism Imre shefer, in Hebrew and in German with Hebrew letters. The first part of the catechism is based on Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith and the Ten Commandments and is written in a moderate traditionalist spirit; the second part deals with the importance of derekh erets, the civil duties of a Jew toward society and the love for the state and the emperor. A second catechism, Bne-Zion (1812), is written entirely in German. Although based on the Ten Commandments, this catechism celebrates the absolutist state and emphasizes the shared, universal principles of faith of Judaism and Christianity. Jewish couples who wanted to register for a civil marriage within the Habsburg Empire had to pass an examination based on Bne-Zion. A shorter version, Ben yakir (1820), was translated into Polish by the censor Jakob Tugendhold in 1824.

During these years in Vienna, Homberg worked as censor of Hebrew books. In 1811, he wrote an advisory memorandum for the censor in which he proposed to severely restrict the publication of traditional and new rabbinic literature and to prohibit publication of kabbalistic literature. He also proposed to establish a rabbinical council for Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, and Galicia that would decide which parts of the Talmud and prayer books could be expunged. The Viennese authorities did not accept these proposals.

From 1816 on, Homberg lived in Prague, where he served as supervisor of the Jewish school system in Bohemia, and in 1818 was appointed imperial and royal school councilor and teacher in the ethics of religion for rabbinical candidates and Jewish gymnasium students in Bohemia. He composed a maskilic version of Tsene-rene and published a new commentary, Ha-Korem, in the 1818 edition of Mendelssohn’s translation and commentary on the Torah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Job. He also contributed small pieces to the Hebrew journals Bikure ha-‘itim and Kerem ḥemed.

While Homberg remained despised among Galician Jewry (a fact recognized by the authorities), his fellow maskilim also expressed strong reservations about his ideas and methods. Despite his lifetime of service to the Austrian state, he was twice denied the status of “tolerated Jew” in Vienna.

Suggested Reading

Louise Hecht, “The Clash of Maskilim in Prague in the Early 19th Century: Herz Homberg versus Peter Beer,” World Congress of Jewish Studies 12.B (2000): 165–174; Rachel Manekin, “Naftali Herts Homberg: Ha-Demut veha-dimui,” Tsiyon 71 (2006): 153–202; Alfred Francis Pribram, ed., Urkunden und Akten zur Geschichte der Juden in Wien: Erste Abteilung, allgemeiner Teil, 1526–1847 (1849), vol. 2, pp. 161–172 (Vienna, 1918); Isabel Röskau-Rydel, Kultur an der Peripherie des Habsburger Reiches: Die Geschichte des Bildungswesens und der kulturellen Einrichtungen in Lemberg von 1772 bis 1848 (Wiesbaden, 1993); Dirk Sadowski, “Maskilisches Bildungsideal und josephinische Erziehungspolitik: Herz Homberg und die jüdisch-deutschen Schulen in Galizien, 1787–1806,” Leipziger Beiträge zur jüdischen Geschichte und Kultur 1 (2003): 145–168.