Rebels, radicals and rabbis: Museum stages dramatization of Civil War debate

Lloyd Street Synagogue building, former home of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (David Stuck)

Today’s Jewish community often views its history as having strong ties to movements of liberation, equal justice and respect for the rights of minorities. But the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s Nov. 15 event, “Illoway vs. Einhorn: A Battle for the Jewish Soul,” reveals a more complex picture.

The event focuses on disagreements over slavery during the Civil War era, specifically on the competing messages of two Baltimore rabbis. In 1861, Rabbi Bernard Illoway of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation spoke in defense of slavery, while Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation spoke out in favor of abolition. Scheduled to be broadcast via Zoom, the event will see a pair of volunteer docents reading excerpts from the public remarks of the two rabbis.

JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert will also participate by providing the historical context to explain where these statements and viewpoints emerged from.

“We refer to this sometimes as the battle of Baltimore Street,” Pinkert said, “because on two sides of Baltimore Street there were two synagogues that held diametrically opposed views on the issue of slavery and the Confederacy.”

The conflicting views of these two men has been a feature of some of the tours of JMM’s Lloyd Street Synagogue (the former home of BHC) since 2013, Pinkert said. With 2020 being the 175th anniversary of the Lloyd Street building, the museum felt that this was the perfect time to hold an event on the topic, especially given the country’s ongoing conversation on race relations.

On Jan. 4, 1861, Illoway gave a public address in English from BHC’s pulpit, Pinkert explained. Sixty days later, Einhorn penned an article in German criticizing a New York rabbi whose views were very similar to those of Illoway.

“Whether [Einhorn] attacked the rabbi in New York because he didn’t want to cause trouble in the community, I don’t know,” Pinkert said. “But he responded, point by point, [to] the arguments that Illoway makes. And so we have taken the liberty of condensing the time of 60 days and making it more of a live debate, and so the two are arguing on the same stage.”

Rabbi Bernard Illoway of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. (Henry Mosler, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under public domain)

According to Pinkert, Illoway felt that “the acceptance of an opposition to slavery on religious grounds was a slippery slope, because it was a modern interpretation of biblical injunctions. And so he believed that it would lead to Reform, which was the worst possible outcome from his point of view.” Illoway saw abolitionist rabbis as having misinterpreted the Torah and suspected them of trying to modernize Judaism through the inclusion of women into choirs and the manner in which Shabbat was celebrated.

According to Pinkert, Illoway made “the argument that Moses did not ban all slaves, but only banned Hebrew slaves, and that they did not go into each land and try to free slaves.

“Rabbi Einhorn, on the other hand, was already a Reform rabbi and was an advocate for Reform and an advocate for abolition,” Pinkert continued. He described Einhorn as a European radical who lost a congregation for his views and was actually tossed out of Hungary. Immigrating to the United States, Einhorn sided with the abolitionist movement, preaching to his new congregants at Har Sinai about how the institution of slavery was opposed to the will of God, Pinkert said.

Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation
Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation (unknown artist, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under public domain)

In his critique of the words of Rabbi Dr. M.J. Raphall of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York City, Einhorn writes that Raphall ought to have been aware that “thousands of years ago, many Jews, the Essenes, rejected slavery as being contrary to the natural equality of human beings.”

At another point, responding to Raphall’s argument that Noah makes mention of slavery existing before the flood, Einhorn insinuates that any form of slavery that Noah would have been familiar with was part of the world of robbery and viciousness that God intentionally wiped from the face of existence.

Regarding Illoway’s arguments on Moses’ allowing of non-Hebrew slaves, Einhorn countered with the question of whether the biblical practice of polygamy (as seen with Abraham and Jacob) should be treated with the same level of acceptance as slavery, Pinkert explained.

Pinkert stated that the views of each rabbi were relatively well reflected by the lay leadership of their respective congregations, with BHC having a very conservative and traditional congregation at the time, while Har Sinai was considerably more liberal.

Current BHC Rabbi Andrew Busch emphasized that Illoway was only at the synagogue for a few years. Busch said that Illoway “preached that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible” and in support of the South’s right to secede, though Busch wasn’t certain if that meant Illoway thought the South necessarily should secede.

“For decades and decades and decades, we have openly said … that Rabbi Einhorn was right,” Busch said. “How often do congregations run around and say that the rabbis of other congregations were right?

“We make no excuses,” Busch continued. “Rather, we understand that at that point in our history, when we were a very different congregation, and three buildings ago, two buildings ago, he was wrong.”

The differences in the choice of language by each rabbi is also noteworthy. Pinkert stated that Illoway made his comments in English to more easily reach the older Jewish residents who had lived in the U.S. for a longer period and held more conservative religious views. By contrast, Einhorn’s German-language rebuttal was aimed at younger, more recent Jewish immigrants who were more comfortable speaking in German.

Einhorn’s outspoken nature was not received in Maryland much more positively than it was in Europe. Pinkert described one incident where a mob threatened to tar and feather Einhorn for his statements. The rabbi subsequently fled to Philadelphia.

That isn’t to say Illoway’s comments left him with smooth sailing. “Illoway looks at the guns on Federal Hill,” Pinkert explained, “and says ‘I think I’ll accept employment in New Orleans as a rabbi, rather than Baltimore.’ So both of them leave town within a year of this supposed debate.”

However, Busch suggested that Illoway’s “position was not deeply popular with the congregation, actually. It shows part of why he was only here briefly. … The position was not deeply opposed, there were people who agreed with him, but overall it was part of what led him to leave as quickly as he did.”

Pinkert noted that Illoway’s departure, coupled with the arrest of a BHC president on charges of selling uniforms to the Confederacy, made room for more progressive voices at the top of BHC’s leadership, aiding in its transition to the congregation it is today.

While he couldn’t cite direct evidence that Illoway and Einhorn had a personal relationship, Pinkert found it hard to believe that the two rabbis did not know of each other, as their respective synagogues, which both served a German-Jewish community, were only three blocks apart.

“There are only four or five synagogues in all of Baltimore in 1860,” Pinkert said, “and so you’re speaking of the two largest. They must have had contact with one another.”

Pinkert said there might be a lesson that can be drawn from this period of history.

“There is a valuable lesson here,” he said, “since most of us would agree that Rabbi Einhorn had the right answer as opposed to Rabbi Illoway, that we ought to be cautious about what we accept on the basis of ‘this is critical to our identity.’”

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