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Josephinian Reforms

The accession of Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741–1790) as sole ruler of the Habsburg lands in 1780 ushered in a tumultuous decade of change. The enlightened absolutist emperor intervened in the internal affairs of his Jewish subjects on an unprecedented scale, with the intent of altering the contours of Jewish culture and society.

Joseph II’s mother, Maria Theresa, had, during her 40-year reign (1740–1780), already introduced major reforms aimed at strengthening her vulnerable dominions. As an absolutist ruler, the empress had sought to concentrate power in her hands and bring about a measure of uniformity in her far-flung realms.

Joseph II was determined to pursue the absolutist policies of his mother, but abandoned her caution and perceived half-measures, and was clearly influenced by the Enlightenment. Mother and son had dramatically parted ways over religious toleration. In a sharp exchange conducted while Joseph was on a visit to France in June and July 1777, he questioned the wisdom of the prevailing policy of discrimination and urged complete freedom of worship. His mother was appalled, viewing his religious toleration as a sign of indifference that would prove disastrous to her realms. Most probably it was not by chance that it was during this very time she penned her oft-cited bitter assessment of Jews: “I do not know a worse public plague than this nation; with their fraud, usury, and money dealing they reduce people to beggary, practicing all sort of evil transactions that an honest man abhors. Therefore, they are to be kept away from here and [their numbers] diminished as far as possible.” While her son shared many of these sentiments—“I have never regarded the so numerous Jewry in my hereditary lands as the best kind of people,” he wrote in 1788—he nevertheless tried to overcome his aversion and improve their lot. His reign inaugurated the modern tutelary state’s policies of tough love toward its Jewish subjects.

Within a year of succeeding his mother to the throne, Joseph issued a cluster of sweeping reforms, among them the Edict of Toleration for Protestants, permitting private worship and access to public office. Addressing a different set of issues, he also issued Edicts of Toleration for his Jewish subjects, separate patents (systematic regulations made public) for each of the various possessions where Jews had been permitted to reside in significant numbers: Bohemia, 19 October 1781; Lombardy, Goricia, and Gradisca as well as Trieste, between September and December 1781; Austrian Silesia, 15 December 1781; Lower Austria (Vienna), 2 January 1782; Moravia, 13 February 1782; Hungary, 31 March 1783; Galicia, 27 May 1785 and 7 May 1789.

Earlier, on 13 May 1781, Joseph had made his intentions known to both the supreme chancellor Count Blümegen and the Hungarian chancellor Count Pálffy, outlining a series of measures that would make the “numerous members of the Jewish nation more useful to the state.” Utility was measured by the standards drawn from current ideas of political economy, heavily influenced by populationist and to some extent by then outdated physiocratic notions that judged Jewish economic endeavors as “unproductive,” a term that carried moral and not only economic connotations.

The means to achieve a useful and “productive” Jewry involved a dual transformation: economic and cultural. The languages of the Jews bred mistrust, misunderstanding, and corrupt practices; hence, Hebrew and Yiddish were to be confined strictly to the religious sphere. Within a space of two or three years all documents were to be formulated in one of the local vernaculars. Education was the means to accomplish this linguistic shift; Jews were to establish their own schools under state supervision or were to send their children to Christian ones without prejudicing in the least their religious beliefs. Universities and other institutions of higher learning should now be opened to Jews. Economic transformation was to be accomplished by removing existing constraints, expanding the range of new branches of livelihood in order to channel Jews away from their “characteristic usury and deceitful trade” toward productive occupations such as agriculture, transportation, crafts, arts, and manufacture. Jews were to be restored to their dignity: their notables could carry swords; they were no longer obligated to pay the degrading body tax or display discriminatory signs such as yellow bands or beards.

In the months that followed, intensive discussions took place at all levels of administration in the different Habsburg dominions where Jews lived. There were objections, especially at the lower levels of the bureaucracy. The emperor felt compelled to issue an imperial resolution on 30 September, later incorporated into the Silesian edict, to clarify the proposed legislation. The main purpose of the new laws, he stated, was not to increase the number of Jews in the realm, but rather through enlightenment and economic opportunities to render Jews no longer harmful to society. In time they would become either good Christians or would improve their moral character and become useful citizens. It is noteworthy that Joseph’s edicts did not abolish the Familiants Laws that limited the Jewish population in the Bohemian lands, or the restrictions on tolerated Jews in Vienna, or the Toleration Tax.

In the wake of the edict, Jewish Normalschulen (“normal” schools; a pedagogic system) were established during the decade of Joseph’s rule: one each in Trieste and Görz, 25 in Bohemia, 42 in Moravia (probably exaggerated), 23 in Hungary (certainly too low), and 93 (rising eventually to more than 120) in Galicia and Bukowina. These schools, located often in quite backward areas, provided thousands of Jewish boys and girls with modest skills in reading and writing as well as arithmetic. (While German was not mandatory, it did become the language of instruction throughout the empire, except in Italy.) This was a utilitarian program, which the traditional Jewish establishment could cautiously accept. Celebrations accompanied the inauguration of schools in Trieste, Prague, Pressburg, Lemberg, and Brody. There is no reason to suppose that there was any principled opposition to these schools; if anything, it was the financial burden that posed a problem. However, a new phase began when Herz Homberg was appointed supervisor of the Jewish normal schools in Galicia in 1787, and a bit later as supervisor of religious education as well. His unprecedented autonomy with regard to the Jewish communities; control of relatively large resources, funds and manpower; supervision not only over the secular, but also the religious educational network; and Haskalah-inflected worldview that did not balk at coercion, aroused suspicion and opposition.

In the years that followed the initial edicts, a number of additional decrees, regulations (more systematic), and patents were issued in order to bring Jewish legal status in line with general reforms. Among these were several that were seen by Jews as unwarranted intervention in their internal religious affairs. In general, the period from 1785 onward was characterized by a more systematic and radical bent, in some ways more liberal, but also tending toward rash social engineering. The promulgation of the general Justice Patent led to a confining of the authority of rabbinic courts to arbitration, proscribing the ban of excommunication, and restricting communal autonomy to purely religious matters (27 May 1785 Galician Patent). The general Marriage Patent of 1786 also impinged upon specific Jewish laws and customs such as divorce (17 January 1788), as did the mandated waiting period of 48 hours before the dead could be buried (3 July 1786). The normal-school certification came to be increasingly exploited as a convenient prerequisite for any number of matters: engaging in certain occupations (already in the Hungarian edict of 31 March 1783); marriage (15 April 1786); qualification for Behelfers, that is, assistants to religious teachers (20 December 1787); and the rabbinate and Talmud study for children (1789 Galician edict).

Potentially more damaging were the emperor’s proposed regulations of Jewish economic activities. Already in the first years of his reign, Joseph ordered the brutal expulsion of several thousand indigent and vagabond Jews from Galicia. Although these draconian measures affected only about 1 percent of Galician Jewry, they gave an indication of what the emperor was capable of. Joseph, like many of his officials, perceived a Jewish presence in the countryside as harmful to the peasantry. Only those Jews who personally worked the land were to be tolerated, even encouraged, in rural areas. At first, the early edicts of toleration spoke only of the possibility of leasing, but the 1785 Galician Patent already permitted Jews expressly to purchase such land. Similar ordinances were passed for the other dominions of the empire. Two months later (16 July 1785), Joseph went further and proposed that Jewish agricultural colonies be set up along the lines of German settlements then being established in Galicia. Groups of Jews petitioned to settle in such colonies: the first of these, Dombrówka near Sandz (Nowy Sącz), was founded in the spring of 1786; the best known was Neu-Babylon near Bolechów. The 1789 Patent declared that every Jewish community was to designate a number of families for agricultural settlement; a quota of 1,410 families was set for Galicia. Inexperienced, lacking funds and allocated poor farm lands, these colonies had little chance of success.

Excluding Jews from leasing various monopolies became the object of a string of ordinances between 1784 and 1787. These measures would have been disastrous to the approximately one-third of Galician Jewry engaged in leasing of one sort or another. Another third would also have been adversely affected by the ban on peddling in Galicia, although buying up produce from peasants was still allowed (27 May 1785 Galician Patent).

Just how far these decrees were implemented is not clear. At times they did not apply to current leases, only to new ones, and at other times a grace period of several years was allowed. The emperor was also none too consistent when dealing with dominions other than Galicia. In May 1786, Joseph proposed that after the termination of present leases in Hungary, Jews should be prohibited from leasing inns. Here, too, about a third of the Jewish populace would have been affected had the emperor not been dissuaded by his Hungarian vice-chancellor Pálffy of this rash move. Likewise, peddling in Hungary was explicitly allowed (7 April 1788) as it was also in Bohemia (4 June 1787).

These various decrees and their reversals were summed up in the 7 May 1789 Galician Patent, which was also meant to be implemented for the rest of the empire. All restrictions on choice of livelihood were now lifted, but the prohibition of leasing of peasant landholdings, mills, tenths, market fees, and inns was maintained. The leasing of entire estates and associated monopolies, however, was now permitted for the first time. Peddling was also allowed in both urban and rural areas. After the death of the emperor, most of these measures were reversed or observed in the breach.

One decree that did have far-reaching consequences ordered Jews to adopt personal and family names (23 July 1787). This was yet another expression of bureaucratic standardization linked to the obligation that rabbis now maintain parish registers (Matrikel) of births, marriages, and deaths. The personal names were expressly ordered to be German ones and were chosen from a prepared list of ostensibly biblical, but often bizarre names such as Abdenago, Achitophel, Nabuchadonosor, and Semiramith. At the same time, typical postbiblical names such as Meir and Akiba were missing. These choices were soon rectified. Jews were usually free to choose their family names (there is little actual evidence of the abuses that reportedly were visited upon Galician Jews by malicious officials); most, save the Italians, chose German names though there were a few who elected Slavic or Hungarian ones.

Military conscription of Jews began in Galicia in February 1788 and spread to the Bohemian lands and Hungary in the months that followed. This was the first time that Jews served as soldiers in modern times. While the war council consistently opposed Jewish participation in the army and recommended that instead Jews be permitted to hire mercenary substitutes, the emperor was quite adamant that Jews do personal service. Repeated petitions and delegations to the emperor proved useless. At first, Jews were designated only for transport and hauling artillery, but soon were permitted to volunteer for combat and to serve in the infantry. It has been estimated that 35,000 Jews served in the Habsburg armies during the quarter of a century of French wars.

The Edict of Toleration issued for Galicia on 7 May 1789 was the most far-reaching to date. It tried to resolve the following question: Were Jews to continue their existence within the state as a separate corporate entity with special privileges and liabilities, or were they to be set on equal footing with other citizens and all that implied as far as rights and duties were concerned? It reiterated what the 1785 Patent had decreed, that the traditional community was now abolished and that Jews were to be fully incorporated into their locales, subsumed under the authority of the local judicial and administrative authorities. The Jewish community was to be conceived from then on as a guildlike association intended only to serve strictly religious needs. The 1789 edict added a new dimension: Jews were now granted equal civil rights in their places of residence along with passive and active voting rights in municipal elections. But what did it mean that Jews were to be treated as equals in a society where inequality of estates still obtained?

The 1789 edict had hinted at its vision in a subparagraph stating that if Jews worked land that incurred urbarial obligations—that is, labor duties of a serf—then they had to fulfill them. But if Jews could be conceivably viewed as serfs, was there a possibility that they could also become nobles? A few months later, a decree enabled Jews to buy up entire estates with all the attending feudal privileges. Israel Hönig applied immediately to purchase the Velm estate, and in consequence requested to be ennobled. On 2 September 1789, he became the first Jew in the Habsburg monarchy to be raised to the nobility.

The 1789 Edict was probably the most influential piece of Jewish legislation in Central and Eastern Europe, since in a truncated fashion—that is, divested of all its truly liberal clauses—it became the model for the Bohemian Judensystemalpatent of 1797, the Prussian legislation for the newly acquired Polish lands, the General-Juden-Reglement für Sud- und Neu-Ost Preussen, and the Law of 1804 and subsequent Russian legislation. Even earlier, Joseph’s initial edicts of toleration had a noticeable impact on many German principalities and even on revolutionary France.

Contemporaries well recognized the importance of the 1789 Edict. Historians have overlooked the explicit reference to Joseph II’s 1789 patent in what has become the classic statement on behalf of Jewish equality, Count Stanislas Clermont-Tonnere’s speech of 23 December 1789 before the National Assembly. “Everything must be refused to the Jews as a nation; everything must be granted to them as individuals.” Jewish judicial, legislative, and corporate autonomy must be abolished, he went on. They must not constitute in the state a political body or estate. They must be individually citizens and if they do not wish to be so, then they must be banished. “There cannot be a nation within a nation.” What was this if not a rehearsal of the main features of the Galician Judenpatent? The liberal count continued and made the following clinching argument for Jewish equality: “The Jews in the state of the emperor enjoy not only the rights of citizens, but also still the possibility of attaining those honorific distinctions [meaning Hönig’s ennoblement] that we have destroyed and which still survive there in all their force.” The legislation of Joseph II in 1789 thus represented the farthest point to which enlightened absolutism could move toward Jewish equality within the context of a feudal society of legally differentiated orders.

Suggested Reading

Wolfdieter Bihl, “Zur Entstehungsgeschichte des josephinischen Patents für die Juden Ungarns vom 31. März 1783,” in Beiträge zur neueren Geschichte Österreichs, ed. Heinrich Fichtenau und Ernst Zöllner, pp. 282–298 (Vienna, 1974); Abraham Jacob Brawer, Galitsyah vi-yehudeha (Jerusalem, 1965), pp. 141–194; Josef Karniel, “Das Toleranzpatent Kaiser Josephs II. für die Juden Galiziens und Lodomeriens,” Jahrbuch des Instituts für Deutsche Geschichte 11 (1982): 55–89; Josef Karniel, Die Toleranzpolitik Kaiser Josephs II. (Gerlingen, Ger., 1986), originally in Hebrew as Ha-Mediniyut kelape ha-mi‘utim ha-datiyim be-mamlekhet Habsburg bi-yeme Yosef ha-Sheni, 1765–1790 (Tel Aviv, 1980); Hillel J. Kieval, Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (Berkeley, 2000); Michael K. Silber, “From Tolerated Aliens to Citizen-Soldiers: Jewish Military Service in the Era of Joseph II,” in Constructing Nationalities in East Central Europe, ed. Pieter M. Judson and Marsha L. Rozenblit, pp. 19–36 (New York, 2005); Ludwig Singer, “Zur Geschichte des Toleranzpatentes vom 2.1.1782,” Bnai Brith-Mitteilungen für Österreich 32 (1932): 1–20; Ludwig Singer, “Neue Beiträge zur Geschichte der Toleranzpatente Josefs II.,” Bnai Brith-Mitteilungen für Österreich 33 (1933): 186–191, 233–237; Ludwig Singer, “Zur Geschichte der Toleranzpatente in den Sudetenländern,” Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Juden in der Čechoslovakischen Republik 5 (1933): 231–311; Ludwig Singer, “Zur Geschichte der Juden in Böhmen in den letzten Jahren Josefs II. und unter Leopold II.,” Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Juden in der Čechoslovakischen Republik 6 (1934): 193–284; Michael Stöger, Darstellung der gesetzlichen Verfassung der galizischen Judenschaft, 2 vols. (Lemberg, 1833).