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Notes from Limmud 2008

Napoleon Bonaparte: Friend, Foe or Liberator of the Jews?

Rabbi Danny Rich

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Napoleon was a man of immense talents; particularly a successful soldier and administrator. He did also have a demonstrative feeling for timing and show. In spite of his ultimate defeat by the Russian winter of 1812, and at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he had an impact on the modernisation of Europe; and this had an impact on the Jewish community.

Napoleon is generally considered a friend of the Jews; but is this down to his self-publicising?

The Jewish community in France has been there since the Roman period. It rose to great prominence in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with Rashi and the Tosafists, prominent commentators in the Ashkenazi world. Despite this glorious history, Jews were constantly exiled, banned, reinvited and banned again from parts of France. In 1394 under Charles VI Jews were for a short period banned from all parts of France. Yet by the time of the French Revolution there were 50,000 Jews in France, 80% of whom lived in Alsace-Lorraine, which had come under French suzerainty after the Thirty Years War; these Jews were Germanic, and largely traders, money lenders, and non-guild craftspersons. There were also 3500 Jews in Bordeaux who were Sephardic, and considered a separate community. These were people of a much high social standard, and were international traders.

When the Revolution took place, one of the problems with whether the Jews got their full rights was because these two communities lobbied separately.

In 1722 the Sephardim had a separate recognition treaty with the French government. As the Revolution approached, the first thing to notice about the Jews is that they had no common cause. There was a debate as to whether Jews could be loyal French citizens, and what arrangements, if any, do they require.

The Jews came up with three different answers. The Sephardim said we quite like the current arrangement: they had much to lose from too much revolutionary change. The more cosmopolitan Parisian Jews said they would get rid of all their current arrangements; they want to join the Revolution. The Jews of Alsace-Lorraine said they want to join the Revolution, but the conditions must be right.

The Assembly had in it people influenced by Church anti-Semitism; there were different views of the Revolution by the revolutionaries themselves; there was great confusion. And now the Jews were giving them three different communities.

The French Revolution turned into anarchy; there was the Terror, which was anti all religions; we see rabbis having their wings clipped, and butchers brought to trial for selling kosher meat. Then, on the ninth of November 1799, Napoleon was made the First Consul. He was already known as the conqueror of Italy, Belgium, Egypt, etc; he must have encountered Jews.

Could we at any stage identify a consistent policy on behalf of Napoleon towards the Jews? The speaker thinks that Napoleon was unstable: he calls an Assembly of Notables, he calls a Sanhedrin, he appoints two High Priests of Egyptian Jews: he's lost the plot! Unstable dictators tend not to be consistent. (Note though that in contemporary England, rabbis were sometimes called priests by non-Jews, and the Chief Rabbi was called the Jewish High Priest.)

Or was he just saying that the Jews are very exotic, and un-French?

He did write to his brother, Jerome, king of Westphalia, "The Jews are the most despicable of men." Did he regard them as a threat to modern Napoleonic France? He wanted to control France, particularly by controlling religion. He said the people need a religion, but the government needs to control the religion.

Now, the Revolution has hit the Catholic Church hard in France; they've lost their lands. In 1802 Napoleon agrees with the Pope a Franco-Papal Concord Act, which whilst it concedes Catholicism as the majority religion in France, makes Catholic priests state officials. This was the objective of Napoleon throughout his career.

Napoleon later follows this with a similar act with the Protestant clergy. In a way, he is modelling the Consistoire [the present-day umbrella group of French Jewry]. This is a model enabling the state, if it chooses, to have some control over its Jewry.

So what was he going to do with the Jewish community? He was very powerful by now. Prior to becoming the most powerful person in the land, before the turn of the century, the Jewish community in Italy welcomed him with open arms. He was perceived to be the liberator of the ghetto. Passing by the debate as to whether this was a good thing for the Jews, from Napoleonic terms, he went in and did in Italy what had been done in France: he broke the existing powers, and physically broke the ghetto walls in a number of cities. He is called חֶלֶק טוֹב, the Good Part (i.e. Bonaparte) in at least one reference: at least some of the communities into which his armies marked welcomed him. He also lauded Jewish soldiers who went in to break the ghetto walls.

Of course, the Jewish community was divided as to whether to welcome this. In the ghettos was security; outside it was scary. Also, they didn't know whether the Revolution was going to succeed—and ultimately, it did not, fully: there was a Counter-Revolution.

In Egypt he established the office of High Priest. He had no idea what it meant; it's like where in Tractate Shabbos [of the Babylonian Talmud] a gentile comes and demands to be made High Priest, with no understanding that the High Priest must be a born Jew, of the priestly line.

In 1799 Napoleon called on the Jews of Asia and Africa to join him in reestablishing ancient Jerusalem. Now Napoleon was not a Zionist, so what was he trying to do? Perhaps he thought of the Jews as exotic foreigners; perhaps he needed their support. Or maybe he was just trying to destabilise the Ottoman Empire, which was an opposing empire to his own.

When he returned from his campaigns and began to take office, the peasants said, "we've been liberated from the Catholic Church and now we're under the Jews," i.e. under the control of the Jewish moneylenders. There is no evidence that Jews were using their influence and economic power inappropriately. Nevertheless, the peasants appealed to Napoleon, and it became clear which side he was on.

In 1806, for all he had done beforehand, Napoleon proposed anti-Jewish legislation (primarily to do with the repayments of loans). When push came to shove, he would pass such legislation if it helped him keep the peasants under control.

His Council of State resisted him, though. And this is why he did finally call the Assembly of Notables. He had two major objectives in this: First to institute a system of control of the Jewish community; secondly to get the Jews to own up to what the anti-Jewish sentiment charged them with: to say they owed people money, and were going to pay it. He also accused the Jews, in 1806, of a lack of civic morality, whatever that means.

The Assembly of Notables

The Assembly of Notables consisted of one hundred and eleven delegates (including sixteen from Italy), appointed by Napoleon's local prefects—not exactly [lacuna]. Their first meeting was to be held on a Shabbos. They were to be supervised by three commissioners, who would report to the Minister of the Interior, who would report to Napoleon. It turns out the commissioners were not sympathetic to the Jews, but the Minister was.

There were people in the Assembly who claimed Italian, Portugese, French and German origin. There were rich people and poor people; rabbis and laymen. The fact they produced a report of virtual unanimity was therefore quite impressive!

Like Jews do, they went through the proper procedures. They elected a chair, a Sephardi called Abraham Furtado; and appointed a committee headed by David Sinzheim, an Ashkenazi halachist of note.

This is probably the first example of a group of Jews considering both halachically and sociologically what it meant to be citizens of a modern Jewish state.

The Assembly gave a fulsome response in the preamble to their Declaration. It quotes דִינָא דְמַלְכוּתָא דִינָא: the law of the land is the law.

Resolved, by the French deputies professing the religion of Moses, that the following Declaration shall precede the answers returned to the questions proposed by the Commissioners of His Imperial and Royal Majesty.

The assembly, impressed with a deep sense of gratitude, love, respect, and admiration, for the sacred person of His Imperial and Royal Majesty, declares, in the name of all Frenchmen professing the religion of Moses, that they are fully determined to prove worthy of the favours His Majesty intends for them, by scrupulously conforming to his paternal intentions; that their religion makes it their duty to consider the law of the prince as the supreme law in civil and political matters; that consequently, should their religious code, or its various interpretations, contain civil or political commands, at variance with those of the French code, those commands would, of course, cease to influence and govern them, since they must, above all, acknowledge and obey the laws of the prince.

That, in consequence of this principle, the Jews have, at all times, considered it their duty to obey the laws of the state, and that, since the revolution, they, like all Frenchmen, have acknowledged no others.

Napoleon asked the Assembly to consider the following questions: (Where the answer was summarised in the talk, the actual text of the Assembly is given for reference in small print.)

1. Is it lawful for Jews to marry more than one wife?

This is a strange question for him to argue given that both Ashkenazim and Sephardim in France did not. Perhaps it was because the Jews in Egypt did. The answer they gave him was that for reasons of custom in all European countries, the Jews conform to the practice of only marrying one wife. It's also odd because it doesn't have a big impact on the Jews' relationship with French customs.

It is not lawful for Jews to marry more than one wife: in all European countries they conform to the general practice marrying only one.

Moses does not command expressly to take several, but he does not forbid it. He seems even to adopt that custom as generally prevailing, since he settles the rights of inheritance between children of different wives. Although this practice still prevails in the East, yet their ancient doctors have enjoined them to restrain from taking more than one wife, except when the man is enabled by his fortune to maintain several.

The case has been different in the West; the wish of adopting the customs of the inhabitants of this part of the world has induced the Jews to renounce polygamy. But as several individuals still indulged in that practice, a synod was convened at Worms in the eleventh century, composed of one hundred Rabbis, with Gershom at their head. This assembly pronounced an anathema against every Israelite who should, in future, take more than one wife.

Although this prohibition was not to last for ever, the influence of European manners has universally prevailed.

2. Is divorce allowed by the Jewish religion? Is divorce valid when not pronounced by courts of justice by virtue of laws in contradiction with those of the French Code?

The assembly replied: Repudiation is allowed by the law of Moses; but it is not valid if not previously pronounced by the French code. I.e. the state's more important. The halacha supports this: before you issue a get, all bonds should be broken. If you consider civil marriage a bond, then that has to be broken. The question is doesn't answer, though, is: are you prepared to give a religious divorce without a civil one. Possibly the reason they don't answer it is because they might have given a wrong answer!

Repudiation is allowed by the law of Moses; but it is not valid if not previously pronounced by the French code.

In the eyes of every Israelite, without exception, submission to the prince is the first of duties. It is a Principle generally acknowledged among them, that, in every thing relating to civil or political interests, the law of the state is the supreme law. Before they were admitted in France to share the rights of all citizens, and when they lived under a particular legislation which set them at liberty to follow their religious customs, they had the ability to divorce their wives; but it was extremely rare to see it put into practice. Since the revolution, they have acknowledged no other laws on this head but those of the empire. At the epoch when they were admitted to the rank of citizens, the Rabbis and the principal Jews appeared before the municipalities of their respective places of abode, and took an oath to conform, in every thing to the laws, and to acknowledge no other rules in all civil matters...

3. Can a Jewess marry a Christian, and a Jew a Christian woman? Or does the law allow the Jews to marry only among themselves?

What Napoleon really wanted them to do, as he said later on, was to encourage mixed marriage, and for them to assimilate into the community. But this was where the Jews really broke with Napoleon. The Assembly waffled a bit about Ammonites and Moabites, and idolatry; but eventually said we rabbis can neither sanction nor encourage mixed marriage. They also said that the Church didn't like mixed marriages either.

The law does not say that a Jewess cannot marry a Christian, nor a Jew a Christian woman; nor does it state that the Jews can only marry among themselves. The only marriages expressly forbidden by the law, are those with the seven Canaanite nations, with Amon and Moab, and with the Egyptians. The prohibition is absolute concerning: the seven Canaanite nations: with regard to Amon and Moab, it is limited, according to many Talmudists, to the men of those nations, and does not extend to the women; it is even thought that these last would have embraced the Jewish religion. As to Egyptians, the prohibition is limited to the third generation. The prohibition in general applies only to nations in idolatry. The Talmud declares formally that modern nations are not to be considered as such, since they worship, like us, the God of heaven and earth. And, accordingly, there have been, at several periods, intermarriages between Jews and Christians in France, in Spain, and in Germany: these marriages were sometimes tolerated, and sometimes forbidden by the laws of those sovereigns, who had received Jews into their dominions.

Unions of this kind are still found in France; but we cannot deny that the opinion of the Rabbis is against these marriages. According to their doctrine, although the religion of Moses has not forbidden the Jews from intermarrying with nations not of their religion, yet, as marriages, according to the Talmud, requires religious ceremonies called Kidushin, with the benediction used in such cases, no marriage can be religiously valid unless these ceremonies have been performed. This could not be done towards persons who would not both of them consider these ceremonies as sacred; and in that the married couple could separate without the religious divorce; they would then be considered as married civilly but not religiously.

Such is the opinion of the Rabbis, members of this assembly. In general they would be no more inclined to bless the union of a Jewess with a Christian, or of a Jew with a Christian woman, than Catholic priests themselves would be disposed to sanction unions of this kind. The Rabbis acknowledge, however, that a Jew, who marries a Christian woman, does not cease on that account, to bc considered as a Jew by his brethren, any more than if he had married a Jewess civilly and not religiously.

4. In the eyes of Jews, are Frenchmen considered as their brethren? Or are they considered as strangers?

This was not a problematic question for them.

In the eyes of Jews Frenchmen are their brethren, and are not strangers.

The true spirit of the law of Moses is consonant with this mode of considering Frenchmen. When the Israelites formed a settled land or independent nation, their law made it a rule for them to consider strangers as their brethren.

With the most tender care for their welfare, their lawgiver commands to love them, "Love ye therefore the strangers," says he to the Israelites, "for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt." Respect and benevolence towards strangers are enforced by Moses, not as an exhortation to the practice of social morality only, but as an obligation imposed by God himself.

A religion whose fundamental maxims are such—a religion which makes a duty of loving the stranger—which enforces the practice of social virtues, must surely require that its followers should consider their fellow-citizens as brethren.

And how could they consider them otherwise when they inhabit the same land, when they are ruled and protected by the same government, and by the same laws? When they enjoy the same rights, and have the same duties to fulfil? There exists, even between the Jew and Christian, a tie which abundantly compensates for religion—it is the tie of gratitude. This sentiment was at first excited in us by the mere grant of toleration. It has been increased, these eighteen years, by new favours from government, to such a degree of energy, that now our fate is irrevocably linked with the common fate of all Frenchmen. Yes, France is our country; all Frenchmen are our brethren, and this glorious title, by raising us our own esteem, becomes a sure pledge that we shall never cease to bc worthy of it.

5. In either case, what line of conduct does their law prescribe towards Frenchmen not of their religion?

Napoleon wanted to be sure that they weren't going to treat Jews first. But generally this isn't a problem in Jewish law: whilst there are exceptions, there is enough material in Jewish law to satify Napoleon.

The line of conduct prescribed towards Frenchmen not of our religion, is the same as that prescribed between Jews themselves; we admit of no differences but that of worshipping the Supreme Being, every onein his own way.

The answer to the preceding question has explained the line of conduct which the law of Moses and the Talmud prescribe towards French men not of our religion. At the present time, when the Jews no longer form a separate people, but enjoy the advantage of being incorporated with the Great Nation (which privilege they consider as a kind of political redemption), it is impossible that a Jew should treat a Frenchman, not of his religion, in any other manner than he would treat one of his Israelite brethren.

6. Do Jews born in France, and trated by the laws as French citiziens, consider France their country? Are they bound to defend it? Are they bound to obey the laws and to conform to the dispositions of the civil code?

What he was hedging around here was conscription. The answer to the first part is yes; that of the rest, yes, with a few exceptions, such as if the state requires you to murder.

Men who have adopted a country, who have resided in it these many generations— who, even under the restraint of particular laws which abridged their civil rights, were so attached to it that they preferred being debarred from the advantages common to all other citizens, rather than leave it—cannot but consider themselves as Frenchmen in France; and they consider as equally sacred and honourable the bounden duty of defending their country.

Jeremiah (chapter 29) exhorts the Jews to consider Babylon as their country, although they were to remain in it only for seventy years. He exhorts them to till the ground, to build houses, to sow, and to plant. His recommendation was so much attended to, that Ezra (chapter 2) says, that when Cyrus allowed them to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, 42,360 only, left Babylon; and that this number was mostly composed of the poor people, the wealthy having remained in that city.

The love of the country is in the heart of Jews a sentiment so natural, so powerful, and so consonant to their religious opinions, that a French Jew considers himself in England, as among strangers, although he may be among Jews; and the case is the same with English Jews in France.

To such a pitch is this sentiment carried among them, that during the last war, French Jews have been seen fighting desperately against other Jews, the subjects of countries then at war with France.

Many of them are covered with honourable wounds, and others have obtained, in the field of honour, the noble rewards of bravery.

7. Who names the Rabbis?

This is Napoleon trying to take over!

Since the revolution, the majority of the chiefs of families names the Rabbi, wherever there is a sufficient number of Jews to maintain one, after previous inquiries as to the morality and learning of the candidate. This mode of election is not, however, uniform: it varies according to place, and, to this day, whatever concerns the elections of Rabbis is still in a state of uncertainty.

8. What police jurisdiction do Rabbis exercise among the Jews? What judicial power do they enjoy among them?

Answer: not very much, in most European countries. What did Napoleon think they would do?

The Rabbis exercise no manner of Police Jurisdiction among the Jews. It is only in the Mishnah and in the Talmud that the word Rabbi is found for the first time applied to a doctor in the law; and he was commonly indebted for this qualification to his reputation, and to the opinion generally entertained of his learning.

When the Israelites were totally dispersed, they formed small communities in those places where they were allowed to settle in certain numbers.

Sometimes, in these circumstances, a Rabbi and two other doctors formed a kind of tribunal, named Beth Din, that is, House of Justice; the Rabbi fulfilled the functions of judge, and the other two those of his assessors.

The attributes, and even the existence of these tribunals, have, to this day, always depended on the will of government under which the Jews have lived, and on the degree of tolerance they have enjoyed. Since the revolution those rabbinical tribunals are totally suppressed in France, and in Italy. The Jews, raised to the rank of citizens, have conformed in every thing to the laws of the state; and, accordingly, the functions of Rabbis, wherever any are established, are limited to preaching morality in the temples, blessing marriages, and pronouncing divorces....

9. Are these forms of Election, and that police-jurisdiction, regulated by law, or are they only sanctioned by custom?

The answer to the preceding questions makes it useless to say much on this, only it may be remarked, that, even supposing that Rabbis should have, to this day, preserved some kind of police-judicial jurisdiction among us, which is not the case, neither such jurisdiction, nor the forms of the elections, could bc said to be sanctioned by the law; they should bc attributed solely to custom.

10. Are there professions which the law of the Jews forbids them from exercising?

There are none: on the contrary, the Talmud (vide Kidushin, chapter 1) expressly declares that "the father who does not teach a profession to his child, rears him up to be a villain."

11. Does the law forbid the Jews from taking usury from their brethren?

This was a difficult one.

Deuteronomy says, "thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother, interest of money, interest of victuals, interest of any thing that is lent upon interest."

The Hebrew word neshekh has been improperly translated by the word usury: in the Hebrew language it means interest of any kind, and not usurious interest. It cannot then be taken in the meaning now given the word usury.

12. Does it forbid or does it allow to take usury from strangers?

You can't allow usury to interfere with someone's life, but this does not apply to commercial institutions. They wriggled their way out of this, in such a way as to keep Napoleon happy. This was actually the most difficult one for them. (For mixed marriage, most people were prepared to give the answer Napoleon did not want.)

We have seen, in the answer to the foregoing question, that the prohibition of usury, considered as the smallest interest, was a maxim of charity and of benevolence, rather than a commercial regulation. In this point of view it is equally condemned by the law of Moses and by the Talmud: We are generally forbidden, always on the score of charity, to lend upon interest to our fellow citizens of different persuasions, as well as to our fellow-Jews.

The disposition of the law, which allows to take interest from the stranger, evidently refers only to nations in commercial intercourse with us; otherwise there would be an evident contradiction between this passage and twenty others of the sacred writings. Thus the prohibition extended to the stranger who dwelt in Israel; the Holy Writ places them under the safe-guard of God; he is a sacred guest, and God orders us to treat him like the widow and like the orphan. Can Moses be considered as the lawgiver of the universe, because he was the lawgiver of the Jews?

Were the laws he gave to the people, which God had entrusted to his care, likely to become the general laws of mankind? Thou shalt not lend upon interest to thy brother. What security had he, that, in the intercourse which would be naturally established between the Jews and foreign nations these last would renounce customs generally prevailing in trade, and lend to the Jews without requiring any interest? Was he then bound to sacrifice the interest of his people, and to impoverish the Jews to enrich foreign nations? Is it not absolutely absurd to reproach him with having put a restriction to the precept contained in Deuteronomy? What lawgiver but would have considered such a restriction as a natural principle of reciprocity?

How far superior in simplicity, generosity, justice, and humanity, is the law of Moses, on this matter, to those of the Greeks and of the Romans! Can we find, in the history of the ancient Israelites, those scandalous scenes of rebellion excited by the harshness of creditors towards their debtors, those frequent abolitions of debts to prevent the multitude, impoverished by the extortions of lenders, from being driven to despair?

The law of Moses and its interpreters have distinguished, with a praiseworthy humanity, the different uses of borrowed money. Is it to maintain a family? Interest is forbidden. Is it to undertake a commercial speculation, by which the principal is adventured? Interest is allowed, even between Jews. Lend to the Poor, says Moses. Here the tribute of gratitude is the only kind of interest allowed; the satisfaction of obliging is the sole recompense of the conferred benefit. The case is different in regard to capitals employed in extensive commerce: there, Moses allows the lender to come in for a share of the profits of the borrower; and as commerce was scarcely known among the Israelites, who were exclusively addicted to agricultural pursuits, and as it was carried on only with strangers, that is with neighbouring nations, it was a11owed to share its profits with them....

It is an incontrovertible point, according to the Ta1mud, that interest, even among Israelites, is lawful in commercial operations, where the lender, running some of the risk of the borrower, becomes a sharer in his profits, This is the opinion of a11 Jewish doctors. It is evident that opinions, teeming with absurdities, and contrary to all rules of social morality, although advanced by a Rabbi, can no more bc imputed to the general doctrine of the Jews, than similar notions, if advanced by Catholic theologians, could be attributed to the evangelical doctrine. h same may be said of the general charge made against the Hebrews, that they are naturally inclined to usury: it cannot be denied that some of them: are to be found, though not so many as is generally supposed, who follow that nefarious traffic condemned by their religion. But if there are some not over-nice in this particular, is it just to accuse one hundred thousand individuals of this vice?

Would it not be deemed an injustice to lay the same imputation on all Christians because some of them are guilty of usury?

The Assembly of Notables gave their answers first to the three commissioners, who were not very helpful; but they gave the report to the Minister of the Interior, who was happy with their answers.

The Great Sanhedrin

So why, then, did Napoleon now convene a Sanhedrin, and effectively put to them the same questions? He wanted a concordat with the Jews in the same way he had a papal concordat: he wanted an answer with authority.

Here he added the question of conscription, to which the Jews agreed, provided they were given dispensation to carry out religous activities.

The only issue on which they could not make progress was mixed marriage.

The Sanhedrin met for about a month, then was closed down, and Napoleon passed his decree, on the 18th of March 1806. He did two things: centralised the centre of Jewish life, and removed from the Jews for at least ten years their civil rights: he was not satisfied they were playing ball, primarily on usury.

He softened this a bit in 1812, when he needed the support of Jewish traders to get supplies back and forth from Moscow.

And then by 1815, Napoleon was defeated and out.

So, was he a friend, foe or liberator? In general, most of his engagement with the Jews was for his own purposes. When political expendiency required him to be friendly, he was friendly; when it required him to be unfriendly and unfair, he was unfriendly and unfair.

As regard liberation, though, he catapulted French Jewry into the modern world. He forced the Jews to begin their dialogue with the modern nation state. You have to ask yourselves whether or not being engaged with the modern nation state was of itself liberating or not for the Jews. There have been great achievements and triumphs made by the Jews in modern nation states since; there have also been great tragedies, particular in one particular country that Napoleon liberated.

Consider: If Napoleon had not existed, where would the French Revolutionary ideas have got to? Would there have been a Counter-Revolution, and everything would have gone back to normal? Was it the power and charisma of Napoleon that ensured everything went forward and could not go back? There's no denying, too, that it was Napoleon who brought the ideas of the French Revolution to the rest of Europe: Italy, Germany and the other territories he conquered.

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