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Schwab, Löw

(1794–1857), Moravian and Hungarian rabbi; pioneer of moderate reforms in the Habsburg Empire. The son of a peddler in Moravský-Krumlov, Löw (later he would occasionally employ the archaic Hungarian equivalent, Arszlán) Schwab was a gifted child who mastered rabbinic literature under private tutelage. At age 11, he enrolled in the Nikolsburg yeshiva of the chief rabbi of Moravia, Mordekhai Banet, and upon bar mitzvah he briefly attended the Pressburg yeshiva, led by Mosheh Sofer. For the next four years, Schwab continued his studies at Nikolsburg and Trebitsch, where he also acquired a secular education independently and worked his way through the classics of medieval Jewish philosophy. In the new rabbi of Gewitsch (mod. Jevíčko, Czech Rep.), Joachim Deutschmann, Schwab found the mentor he had been seeking: a brilliant Talmudist who had also been part of the circle of Prague maskilim surrounding Baruch Jeitteles.

After his marriage to Elisa Pfeifer, Schwab became a private teacher in Prossnitz (Prostĕjov) in the household of the wealthy textile manufacturer Veit Ehrenstamm until being invited in 1824 to return to Gewitsch to assume the rabbinate. Schwab, however, had acquired a reputation for a modern outlook and Banet, the chief rabbi whose approval was a prerequisite for the appointment, viewed him with distrust. He put Schwab through an examination that lasted for weeks, and while finally authorizing him to serve as rabbi of Gewitsch, Banet delayed the formal certificate of ordination until 1828. In the intervening years, Schwab had also been invited to serve in the larger Eibenschütz community, but Banet vetoed the appointment.

Precisely those qualities that had disqualified him in the eyes of the establishment made him an attractive candidate for communities that sought a traditionally learned but also cultured rabbi by modern standards. When Schwab succeeded Neḥemyah Trebitsch as rabbi of Prossnitz in 1831, it was Sofer who led the opposition to his candidacy during the period following Banet’s death. Prossnitz, one of the largest communities in the land, had earned a reputation as a Sabbatian center in the previous century and was now the center of the Moravian Haskalah. Schwab’s circle included his future son-in-law Leopold Löw; the physician Gideon Brecher; the poet Baruch Schönfeld; the future rabbi and historian Josef Weisse; and Samuel Holdheim, the outstanding radical reform rabbi in the following decade. Following the model set by Isaak Noah Mannheimer in Vienna, Schwab in 1832 became the first rabbi in Moravia to perform a wedding inside a synagogue rather than outdoors and to preach a modern sermon in German (1835). He spearheaded the transformation of the Moravian rabbinate, setting the precedent for younger rabbis such as Hirsch Bär Fassel and Abraham Neuda.

Schwab’s considerable erudition as a Talmudic scholar combined with his stance as a moderate reformer attracted the attention of the largest Jewish community in Hungary, Pest, which had long sought a candidate acceptable to the various factions. After considerable negotiations, Schwab occupied the office in January 1836. He insisted that he have the right to deliver a modern German sermon at the choral synagogue, and on alternate Sabbaths he would preach an old-style Jüdisch-Deutsch sermon in the traditional synagogue housed in the same building. Unlike Mannheimer in Vienna, Schwab refused to downgrade the post of rabbi and bifurcate its functions between a prestigious preacher and a modest ritual expert; Schwab thus set a precedent for the next generation’s Neolog rabbinate in Hungary.

Schwab soon assumed a rare political role, writing a pamphlet on the occasion of the 1840 Hungarian Diet, the first to consider Jewish emancipation seriously (A zsidók [The Jews]; 1840). In the wake of the disappointing Diet of 1843–1844, at the request of the Pest community leadership, he wrote a bilingual book in German and Magyar outlining the principles of religious instruction that was still being reprinted a half a century later (Emlékeztetés vallásban nyert oktatásra az iskolábol kilépizraelita ifjuságnak ajandék gyanánt [A Reminder of Religious Instruction for Graduating students]; 1846).

Schwab’s position on religious reform gradually and reluctantly moved leftward. Orthodox rabbis could still invite him to the 1844 Paks rabbinical assembly to which he insisted that the pioneering reform rabbi, Aharon Chorin, also be summoned. In the background were accusations raised against Jewish emancipation during the last Diet. Schwab proposed that the assembly declare that for Jews Hungary was the “fatherland”; the injunction to love one’s fellow man encompassed non-Jews as well; an oath was binding; and that there was a holy obligation to instruct the younger generation in useful occupations. (Schwab had been one of the motivating forces behind the establishment of a productivization society in Pest in 1842, the Magyar Izraelita Kézmü- és Földmüvelési Egyesület [MIKEFÉ].)

When canvassing signatures for an antireform manifesto in response to the Braunschweig Reform Rabbinical Conference the following year, Orthodox rabbis could still consider turning to him. However, in response to the queries of the Pápa community in 1845, he praised the spirit of rejuvenating reforms and permitted that the bimah (reading platform) be placed in the front of the synagogue; that weddings be performed within the synagogue; that there be choirs in services; that heads remain uncovered during communal assemblies as long as religious topics were not discussed; and that kitls (traditional white robes) not be worn on the High Holidays. He evaded answering whether leather shoes could be worn on those days.

At the same time, Schwab vehemently attacked the Pest Reformgennosenschaft (Reform Association) that had introduced radical reforms in the summer of 1848 and subsequently seceded from the mother community, charging that it had bartered away religion in anticipation of political gains. In the wake of the failed revolution in the fall of 1849, Schwab was imprisoned for 12 weeks, charged with having preached a seditious sermon for Hungarian independence in the previous spring. He was reinstated in his post and soon after was appointed by the Viennese authorities to a committee charged with formulating educational and religious guidelines for Hungarian Jewry. Schwab’s repeated petitions to dissolve the Pest Reformgennosenschaft finally bore fruit in the fall of 1852. But in order to appease the returning dissidents, he and the Pest community now acquiesced to some of the innovations of the Reform community. The plans for the new Dohány Street synagogue (which would be inaugurated only after Schwab’s death) incorporated an organ, an innovation that the neighboring Viennese at the behest of their preacher Mannheimer had refused to introduce. Some of Schwab’s correspondence can be found at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York and at the National Library in Jerusalem.

Suggested Reading

Michael Brocke, Julius Carlebach, and Carsten Wilke, eds., “Schwab, Löb,” in Biographisches Handbuch der Rabbiner, pt. 1, Die Rabbiner der Emanzipationszeit in den deutschen, böhmischen und grosspolnischen Ländern, 1781–1871, vol. 2, pp. 798–799 (Munich, 2004); Moritz Ehrentheil, Jüdische Charakterbilder, vol. 1 (Pest, 1867), pp. 42–57; Michael Laurence Miller, “Rabbis and Revolution: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Moravian Jewry,” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2004); Michael K. Silber, “Shorashe ha-pilug be-yahadut Hungaryah: Temurot tarbutiyot ve-ḥevratiyot mi-yeme Yosef ha-Sheni ‘ad ‘erev mahepekhat 1848” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 1985).