Perhaps no man has more right to the title of founding father of Reform Judaism then Samuel Holdheim. It is he who moved the Sabbath for Sunday, who removed all mention of the final redemption from the prayers, who called for the abandonment of the Brit Millah,etc. And yet as is true for most of his contemporaries he did not hate Judaism. He was not a "hater of Israel". Had he in truth hated Judaism he could have easily abandoned ship and converted to Christianity. The fascinating aspect of the lives of Holdheim, of Geiger, etc. is that their religious radicalism actually bespoke of a great love for Judaism and a desire to ensure its continuity. At this point, centuries after the polemical debates that surrounded these men we are perhaps at greater liberty to fully evaluate the many diverse aspects that motivated these men.
On Holdheim we have Michael Meyer's excellent article - "Most of my brethren find me unacceptable": the controversial career of Rabbi Samuel Holdheim" Jewish Social studies 2003, I have chosen to excerpt parts of it in order to provide a brief glimpse into the world-view of this most complex personality.
"By sharply differentiating Jewish past from German present, Holdheim was implicitly raising questions about whether Judaism in any recognizable form was worthy of continuation. But no less troubling to them was the effect they assumed Holdheim's critique of rabbinic Judaism would have on the Jewish struggle for emancipation. Would not the enemies of the Jews claim that the adherents of a legal tradition that did not treat non-Jews in the same manner as it treated Jews and that possessed legal means to avoid fulfilling an oath were not worthy of Jewish political equality? Holdheim must have called to mind the medieval apostate who, using his knowledge of Judaism, took the Christian side in disputations directed against his former comrades. They could not look with equanimity upon this talmudist who attacked the Talmud, this rabbi who raised moral questions about the rabbis of old. In their eyes, he was an underminer not only of the Jewish past but also of the Jewish future. Both Graetz and Zunz (as early as 1839) called him a second Paul, comparing him to the New Testament figure who had cast aside a Judaism based on law in favor of a new faith entirely liberated from it. (16) In Graetz's unsparing words: "Since Paul of Tarsus Judaism had not experienced such an enemy from within, who tried to shake the entire structure down to its foundations." Yet that was not at all the way that Holdheim understood himself. "
"Graetz possessed an emotional attachment to Judaism that made him detest Holdheim as a critic who lacked his own appreciation for Jewish historical achievements. He wrote: O what impertinence, what shamelessness! This Holdheim! All historical reminiscences, which grip my heart with tremendous force and make the full glory of the Jewish past come alive within me and shine radiantly for me, and which instill the ecstasy of pain--all of this to the impudent Kempner [from the town of Kempen] is a horror, a fable. "
"In Prague, Holdheim also undertook rabbinical studies with the leading rabbis of the city, among them Samuel Landau, later dedicating a sermon "to the memory of his unforgettable teacher and benefactor."
Much as Holdheim saw no lasting value in the Jewish ceremonial law, he expressed his severe opposition to any German state's requiring Jews to give up dietary and ceremonial laws in order to gain civic equality. He also believed that the state did not have the right to force Jewish schoolchildren to write on the Jewish Sabbath. Even less did he tolerate an offer of emancipation made conditional on Jews giving up elements of their belief. But what indicates most clearly that Holdheim was concerned with religion first and political status only second is his refusal to abandon his severe moral critique of talmudic Judaism although he realized that it might very well be used by state authorities as an excuse for withholding emancipation. The sharp opposition to Holdheim was motivated in no small measure by his critics' fears that Holdheim was undermining their struggle for political equality.
By the time he left Frankfurt, Holdheim had come to view what he called the present-day Zeitbildung, the contemporary cultivation of mind and character, as the criterion by which historical Judaism was to be judged and modified. In his first major tract in favor of religious reform, he argued that Judaism could survive only if it attached itself to the Zeitbildung, which was already embodied in a large portion of the German Jewish population. (22) This Zeitbildung, however, as Holdheim would repeatedly make clear, was for him neither Christian-Germanic nor Christian-European, but universally human. What Holdheim set out to do in the following years was to pour Jewish tradition through the filter of universally human moral principles, removing all those elements that he believed to be in contradiction with them. Not only did his efforts bring him into conflict with all but the most radical reformers but they also involved a severe struggle with himself. Holdheim told a visitor to his home in 1845 that Jews were reluctant to abandon the Talmud "because the Talmud still sticks in people's limbs, because they are still chained to it by invisible bonds, still unable with complete freedom and self-consciousness to position themselves opposite it in the way that Christian theologians do with regard to equally reprehensible church teachings of earlier times." (23)
"The Talmud seems to have stuck in Holdheim's bones as well. Contemporaries and later writers noted that Holdheim--ironically, for a critic of the Talmud--himself remained a talmudist, even a pilpulist, in his style of writing. But perhaps it was not simply a matter of style. Holdheim engaged himself in a struggle to liberate German Judaism from what he believed to be the dead hand of the Talmud, a struggle that was energized by his personal quest for self-emancipation from it. We gain some insight into his inner emotional turmoil when Holdheim refers angrily to the "rotten principles of talmudic-orthodox Judaism" or writes of the "progressive inner self-liberation from the legal bonds of Judaism." Compromises, which Holdheim consistently rejected, at least in theory, would have meant to him compartmentalization into a Jewish self and an incompletely self-emancipated one. It seems not unfair to Holdheim to suggest that his unmitigated critiques of Jewish tradition were motivated, at least in part, by his need to justify rationally his own emotionally difficult abandonment of it. His polemics were not solely directed against his opponents but also against himself. "
In general, Holdheim during his last years became more appreciative of both the history of Judaism and the history of the Jews. Although he continued to deny the dogmatic authority of the Talmud, he now claimed that it was "indisputably an unshakeable historical authority." And he began to glorify the Jewish past. Like Graetz, his severest critic, he extolled the history of Jewish martyrdom, recommending that it be taught to Jewish children so that its deep impact would prevent them in later life from engaging in the "faithless denial of Judaism for the sake of external advantage." Loyalty to Judaism, set against apostasy, now became a leading theme in Holdheim's writings and sermons. On one sermonic occasion he was even willing to compare the present unfavorably with the past, complaining that the present "enervated time" with all of its "much praised Bildung" was far removed from the spirit of sacrifice that characterized the spirit of Moses. In the 1850s, it continued to be true that remaining Jewish required a measure of sacrifice, and Holdheim declared that the unwillingness to accept that sacrifice was a moral offense. He referred to the Reform Congregation as an "association against apostasy." Earlier his arguments for liberation from traditional Judaism had reflected his own quest for self-liberation from it; now he spoke of the abandonment of Judaism as an abandonment of self. Holdheim had always had a special interest in Jewish education. Surprisingly, the Reform Congregation's religion school, which was under his direction, offered instruction both on the significance of the ceremonial law and, on a voluntary basis, in the Hebrew language.
"When the Jewish community informed its elderly Rabbinats-Verwalter, Jacob Joseph Oettinger (not to be confused with the Aruch LaNer), of Holdheim's death, he is supposed to have replied: "Holdheim is dead? Boruch dajin emmes--he was a great lamdan; whatever else he did and his turn of thought--for that he will now have to render account to God. Death blots out everything. I have nothing against his being buried in the row of the rabbis."
"Within the perspective of his own life, however, Holdheim appears more as a divided personality than as a pioneer.His early inner struggle for self-emancipation was driven by both mind and heart, but with his achievement of it the two became divided. The Nobel Prizewinning Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon relates the following anecdote: Samuel Holdheim was the preacher of the Reform house of worship in Berlin. Those were the reformers who shifted the holy Sabbath to the first day of the week. On the Day of Atonement, between the morning and afternoon prayers, when they would take a long recess, Holdheim was accustomed to visit the cafe close to the synagogue. People were of the opinion that he had gone there to eat and drink,but in fact he went there only to read all those prayers and liturgical poems that he had excised from the High Holyday prayer book of his congregation. "