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Löw, Leopold

(1811–1875), rabbi, historian, and Judaic scholar. Leopold (Lipót) Löw was the outstanding Reform rabbi of nineteenth-century Hungary. One of the first rabbis in Hungary to combine rigorous traditional training with a university education, he advocated religious, educational, and communal reforms in his manifold roles as preacher, polemicist, editor, scholar, and historian. He played an important part in the fight for Jewish emancipation and the Magyarization of Hungarian Jewry.

Löw was born into a prominent family rooted in the Moravian community of Boskowitz that traced itself to Maharal of Prague and had produced several generations of rabbis and lay leaders. He grew up in the village of Czernahora, where the Löws were the sole Jewish family. His father Moses (d. 1856), a typical Moravian maskil who also prized traditional learning, had the firstborn of his seven children tutored privately in Hebrew and Czech. At age 13, Löw left home to pursue studies in yeshivas of such luminaries as Ḥayim Deutschmann (whose favorite he became at Trebitsch and Kolín), Barukh Fränkel (Leipnik), and Mosheh Perls (Eisenstadt). In 1830, he moved to Prossnitz, the center of the Moravian Haskalah, where he continued his rabbinical studies under the tutelage of the liberal rabbi Löw Schwab; at the same time, he acquired a broad mastery of European literature and scholarship.

It was during this period that Löw began an intensive correspondence with the controversial rabbi of Arad, Aharon Chorin, who had pioneered religious reform in Hungary. Löw received his ordination in 1835 from Deutschmann, Chorin, Schwab (who was in the process of moving to Pest), and Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport (known as Shir, then rabbi of Tarnopol). Despairing of ever receiving the approval of the Moravian chief rabbi for a rabbinical post in the country, Löw decided to move to Hungary. During the next five years he served as house tutor to wealthy families in Óbuda and Pest. He also studied classical languages, philosophy, philology, theology, and history at various institutions of higher learning in Pest, Pressburg, and Vienna, but never received a doctorate.

In 1841, he was appointed rabbi of Nagykanizsa, one of the first Hungarian communities to embrace both Haskalah and religious reform. There he instituted educational reforms and Hungarian-language instruction that became models for other communities in the country. In what was then an unusual step for a rabbi, he set out to master Magyar, and preached in 1845 one of the first Hungarian sermons in the synagogue, declaring, “Let the synagogue naturalize Magyar, and hope that the Magyar will naturalize the synagogue!” In time, he became one of the great Magyar orators of his adopted land; a collection of his sermons, Zsinagógai beszédek, appeared in 1870. Löw also published the first Jewish journal in the Hungarian language, the short-lived Magyar zsinagóga (1847). Nevertheless, the bulk of his publicistic and scientific writings appeared in German.

Swept up in the national revival, Löw became an enthusiastic champion of Hungarian nationalism. He believed that merging with the Hungarian nation was the surest means of achieving Jewish emancipation; accordingly, in 1843 he stated, “instead of Hungarian Jews, let us become Jewish Hungarians!” Jewish nationality, he argued in a polemical essay, had long ceased to exist. It was a stance he later reiterated in a review of Moses Hess’s Rom und Jerusalem. Regarding emancipation, Löw crossed swords with Louis Kossuth, protesting the latter’s editorial in the Pesti Hírlap (1844) that linked emancipation with assimilation and religious reform.

Löw maintained close ties from that time on with such leading figures of the Hungarian nationalist movement as Ferenc Deák and László Csányi. Later, in Pápa, he taught Hebrew at the famous Calvinist Collegium and was elected as a member of the local casino. During the 1848–1849 revolution, Löw served as army chaplain of the National Guard, and was imprisoned by the triumphant Austrian authorities for several weeks for preaching an inspiring sermon on the eve of battle that was quickly printed and disseminated among the troops.

During the depressing aftermath of the failed revolution, Löw assessed the meager efforts of Hungarian liberals on behalf of Jewish emancipation, and expressed his disappointment with Hungarian nationalism. He briefly considered taking up rabbinical posts outside the country, in Brno and Lemberg. This seems to have been a fleeting phase and by the end of the 1850s he once again assumed the mantle of a fervent Hungarian nationalist, advancing such projects as translating the Bible into Hungarian. Despite his nationalist stance, he enthusiastically embraced the Alliance Israélite Universelle and actively promoted its activities in Hungary.

As early as the early 1830s, Löw had aligned himself with the Reform camp and had become a close confidant of Chorin, to whose Jeled Secunim (1839) he had written an introductory essay on Reform. In 1846, he was invited to the rabbinate of one of the largest communities in Hungary, Pápa. When Löw assumed his post, the community was already torn between a sizable Orthodox majority and a small but wealthy and influential Reform minority over the recently built synagogue. Over the next four years, Löw was at the epicenter of the bitterest religious conflict Hungary had witnessed to date. (He gladly seized the opportunity to abandon the troubled community when he received a call in 1850 from prosperous Szeged.)

Yet during those very years when the Reform rabbinical assemblies were taking place in Germany, Löw espoused a relatively moderate line, locating himself firmly in Zacharias Frankel’s camp. In 1845, it was the opinions of Frankel and the conservative Rapoport he sought on the advisability of introducing an organ (played by a non-Jew) for the Sabbath services in Nagykanizsa—an innovation he felt was certainly permissible in theory. He had little sympathy for the brand of radical reform that was set up in several communities in Hungary during the 1848 revolution. Like his close friend Schwab, the moderate Reform rabbi of Pest who had in the meantime become his father-in-law, he branded the radical reformers as sectarians in an organizational blueprint solicited by the postrevolutionary government. The move earned him much resentment in Pest and blocked his chance to be Schwab’s successor. Ironically, he now began to edge closer to the positions of Abraham Geiger on reform, outflanking his critics in Pest from the left.

Although in the decades to come Löw remained at the center of the campaign against the Orthodox, the increasingly independent and highly critical positions he had adopted in the 1860s—when the cultural wars between the Orthodox and the reformers rose to a climax—further alienated him from the lay-dominated Neolog establishment that sought to sideline clerics and play down dogmatic differences. While he attended the Reform-sponsored synods in Germany at the end of the decade, he boycotted the crucial General Jewish Congress of Hungary (1868–1869), even demonstrating a measure of sympathy for the Orthodox stance.

The scope and originality of Löw’s scholarly output earns him a prominent place in the history of the scholarly study of Judaism. Throughout his writings, Löw cited the importance of halakhic literature as a historical source that he felt was often neglected by a younger generation of scholars. Although many of his shorter studies (collected together in his five-volume Gesammelte Schriften by his son Immánuel) were tendentious and polemical, mobilized to justify specific reforms with a relentless historicism, they were often informed by sharp historical insights, the result of a happy combination of an intimate and profound knowledge of the entire corpus of rabbinical literature that he had amassed during his yeshiva years and a thoroughgoing grounding in philology and history. These studies were often first published on the pages of his journal Ben Chananja, which had made its debut briefly in 1844 as the first German periodical for Hungarian Jews, and was revived in Szeged as a monthly and later as a biweekly from 1858 until 1867.

Löw was also one of the first to write on the history of Hungarian Jewry, inspired by an early statement of Leopold Zunz on its potential importance. Among his major contributions was a valuable biography of Chorin (1863) and a rambling narrative on communal organization with an important collection of documents titled Der jüdische Kongress in Ungarn (The Jewish Congress in Hungary; 1871), later reissued as Zur neueren Geschichte der Juden in Ungarn (To the Modern History of Jews in Hungary; 1874). Among his most interesting later works were volumes in the series Beiträge zur jüdischen Alterthumskunde (Contributions to Jewish Antiquity), in which he published the two-volume Graphische Requisiten und Erzeugnisse bei den Juden (Graphic Requisites and Products by Jews; 1870–1871) and Die Lebensalter in der jüdischen Literatur (Ages of Man in Jewish Literature; 1875), pioneering projects adumbrating the historical anthropology of the Jewish past that can still be read with profit. He had planned three more volumes on synagogue ritual, division of labor, and transportation.

Löw was married twice and had 14 children. Several of his sons achieved prominence in their chosen fields; the youngest, Immánuel, followed in his footsteps as rabbi of Szeged and as an outstanding Jewish studies scholar.

Suggested Reading

Immanuel Löw and Zsigmond Kulinyi, A szegedi zsidók, 1785-től 1885-ig (Szeged, Hun., 1885), chap. 7; Leopold Löw, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Immanuel Löw, 5 vols. (1889–1900; rpt., Hildesheim, Ger., and New York, 1979).