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  • Rabbis and Revolution: The Jews of Moravia in the Age of Emancipation
  • Rebekah Klein-Pejšová
Rabbis and Revolution: The Jews of Moravia in the Age of Emancipation, by Michael Laurence Miller. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. 464 pp. $60.00.

In Rabbis and Revolution, Michael Miller vividly captures the experience of profound change that defined the era of emancipation in the history of central European Jewry. Miller tells the story of Moravian Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century from the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) to the initial emancipation of the Jews within the Habsburg Empire during the Revolution of 1848 (they were emancipated again in 1867) through intricate examination of the religious, ideological, political, and socioeconomic challenges that transformed it. His multilayered, beautifully crafted narrative is based on meticulous research conducted in German, Czech, Hungarian, and Hebrew in central and regional archives in the Czech Republic, Israel, Austria, and the United States, as well as examination of over 30 contemporary Jewish and non-Jewish periodicals. Focus on Moravia, where patterns of religious reform reflected the “tame and moderate” (p. 9) nature of Moravian Jewry, enables Miller to shed new light on a central story in modern Jewish history, usually told in terms of radical innovation and zealous response. The thoroughness and expertise with which Miller handles his subject makes this a valuable contribution to the literature of Jewish emancipation.

Miller’s is the first work that treats Moravian Jewry—itself an infrequently studied subject—as a “cohesive whole, the sum of its many complex parts” rather than as a collection of disparate Jewish communities (p. 8). Miller accomplishes this largely through analyzing the shifting position of the office of the Moravian Chief Rabbinate in relation to its constituency, investigating the implications of legislation affecting the communities of the province as a whole, especially aspects of the restrictive Familiants Law of 1726–27 peculiar to Moravia, and examining the shared features of Moravian Jewish communities that distinguished them from neighboring Bohemia, Germany, Galicia, the Kingdom of Hungary (namely the territory of today’s Slovakia), and Austria. Much of the distinction is demographic, based on regional settlement patterns. While Jews in Bohemia, Germany, and even Hungary up through the mid-nineteenth century tended to be scattered across hundreds of tiny towns and villages, and Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were vastly more numerous, Jews in Moravia settled in 52 noble-owned medium-sized communities of 500 Jews or less, large enough to support rabbis, ritual slaughterers, ritual baths, synagogues, and often yeshivas, of relatively even socioeconomic status, a high degree of communal self-government, and [End Page 171] part of a deeply rooted supracommunal organization led by a chief rabbi. As such, “no single Jewish community could claim to be the undisputed center of Moravian Jewry” (p. 4). Miller provides a listing of these 52 competing Jewish communities by their German, Czech, Hebrew/Yiddish names, and number of familiants (those firstborn Jewish sons entitled to marry and establish a family under the Familiants Law), the eleven communities formed after the relaxation of residency restrictions in 1848, and Jewish population statistics from 1754 through 1921 in a set of three appendices.

Throughout the text, Miller proves particularly adept at creating memorable vignettes to illustrate his points, bringing out the fault lines of communal conflict, painting intimate portraits of the chief rabbis along with their supporters and detractors, and explaining the nuances of numbers and subtle changes in policy. His storytelling reminds us of the ambiguities and uncertainties of the protracted process of emancipation, as if it were unfolding before our eyes. Miller himself has been a keen observer of and participant in profound change: in this case, post-communist transformations affecting Jews, Jewish communities, and Jewish scholarship in central and eastern Europe. Miller is Associate Professor in the Nationalism Studies Program at the Central European University in Budapest.

The development of Rabbis and Revolution hinges on changes in the institution of the Moravian Chief Rabbinate. After an overview of the development of the Moravian Jewry from initial settlement under the Přemyslid Dynasty in the eleventh century through the connected phenomena of the avid reception of Sabbatianism...


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