The significance of the new meeting hall
Strength through Jewish solidarity
B'nai B'rith as an organization of its day
Taking inspiration from history
This speech was written by Gustav Tuch, president of Hamburg's B'nai B'rith lodge, which since its founding in 1887 was named after Henry Jones, a Hamburg Jew who had emigrated from Germany to the United States, where he became one of the co-founders of the first B'nai B'rith lodge in New York in 1843. Gustav Tuch, who had come to Germany from Poland as a child, was a well-established Hamburg Jew who was socially active in many areas, including B'nai B'rith. Not only was he involved in campaigning for and funding the new meeting hall, as the donor list in the publication's appendix shows, he had also served as one of the Hamburg lodge's founders in 1887. Tuch's audience were those present at the opening ceremony, primarily members of Hamburg's B'nai B'rith lodge and their wives, as well as honorary guests and delegates from other lodges such as the Noble Grand President of B'nai B'rith Germany, Counselor of Justice Justizrat Berthold Timendorfer. Representatives of various local Jewish congregations are also mentioned as attendees. It is thus safe to assume that the audience was mostly Jewish. By calling all those present “brothers,” Tuch addresses his audience as one united body stressing the importance of unity and social cohesion, which he goes on to emphasize repeatedly.
Tuch's speech has three parts. Its introduction and conclusion address the occasion of his speech, the opening of the new meeting hall. Its main section covers the nature and work of B'nai B'rith in general. Thus Tuch connects the significance of the Hamburg lodge with B'nai B’rith's universal ambitions in Germany and beyond and gives his audience a feeling of belonging to something greater.
As Tuch stresses in his opening words, the Hamburg meeting hall was meant to be a place of “work and sociability” (p. 25). He makes it clear though that work was supposed to be at the center of the meeting hall and the lodge that used it. While the ideal of “noble sociability,” which was also central to Freemasonry and many other German associations as a male and bourgeois-dominated form of socializing, could “frame” this work, it was not to obstruct the lodge's missionary and educational character. In stating this, Tuch demonstrates that while B'nai B'rith lives and appreciates bourgeois values, it understands these merely as a means to its end of charitable work that goes beyond bourgeois circles. By their “noble” actions, lodge members are supposed to become a “blessing” for others. It is striking how Tuch's use of religious semantics amplify the missionary tone of his words.
The “noble acts” of Hamburg's B'nai B'rith members were by no means to be limited to Jews in need only. “Every being bearing a human face” (p. 26) was meant to be covered by the charitable work of B'nai B'rith. With this pluralist message, it adopted a humanism that was aimed at refuting the prejudice that Jews only supported each other, not however Gentiles in need, while expanding the commandment to help needy Jews (Tzedakah) to include non-Jews as well.
This ideal of an expansive and inclusive charity was the expression of the B'nai B'rith members' identification as “German citizens of the tribe of Israel,” as we can read in the commemorative publication's opening words (p. 11). The term “tribe” [Stamm] testified to their feeling of belonging to the German nation, and it clearly distanced the members from terms such as people [Volk], religion, or race. “Tribe” [Stamm] was a term that had been established throughout Germany as an expression of diversity within a unified nation.
Teaching absolute loyalty to one's fatherland was not only an integral part of B'nai B'rith principles, it also found its expression in practical patriotism, such as during national holidays and days of remembrance. Even the naming of the first lodges in Germany points to this strong feeling of belonging: the first lodge, founded in March 1882, was called “German Reich” Lodge Deutsche Reichsloge, followed by the “Germania”-Lodge existing since August 1882. One particularly telling example for this identification with German culture is the fact that on the day of the meeting hall opening ceremony, the march from Wagner's “Tannhäuser” “Tannhäuser” was an opera based on a traditional German folk tale of the tragic love story of a knight by the same name. It was composed by Richard Wagner and premiered in 1845. Five years later, in 1850, Wagner published his notorious tractate “Judaism in Music” (1850) which displays antisemitic concepts. The Bayreuth circle founded during his lifetime by supporters of his music and ideas engaged in strengthening and promoting völkish, nationalist and racial ideas. was played to open the banquet. A close connection to one's Jewish tradition did not contradict loyalty to one's nation, but was, as Tuch's speech shows, considered a precondition for a healthy national consciousness and successful charitable work to benefit both Jews and non-Jews.
In light of a modern antisemitism that began to spread in Germany since the second half of the 19th century in a new form and at a new pace, this affirmation of humanitarian values and love for the German fatherland is remarkable. German Jewry was meant to be presented as a unified, loyal community in order to prevent accusations that it lacked a true bond with the German nation. For this reason, B'nai B'rith regarded those groups within Judaism who intended to turn away from such loyalty and supported the idea of a distinctly Jewish nationalism with great concern. When Tuch speaks of new “differences” within Judaism, which he considers harmful to the work of B'nai B'rith in this context (p. 26), he mainly refers to the emerging Jewish splinter movements such as the various Jewish nationalisms (Bundism Named after the Jewish socialist party “Der Bund”. or Zionism), but also to the divisions within the Jewish faith (the Reform movement, conservative Judaism, Jewish Orthodoxy) that emerged and consolidated in the 19th century and also hindered joint action. Tuch points out that these diverging Jewish interests must blur within B'nai B'rith since they stood in the way of realizing its guiding principle of unqualified charity. He picks up on these conflicting interests several times and stresses the significance of cohesion within the lodge, which suggests that the divisions within German Jewry put a heavy strain on the work of B'nai B'rith and the atmosphere within the Jewish community in Germany overall.
At the same time, it is evident that B'nai B'rith could only be created with the help of precisely those splinter movements Tuch criticizes so strongly. Tuch may place B'nai B'rith above all Jewish splinter movements in his opening remarks, yet the actions and thoughts of its members show that the work of B'nai B'rith was strongly influenced by the ideas of Liberal Judaism – and thus by one of these very splinter groups. Although B'nai B'rith originally distanced itself from religious practice and defined itself as a secular group, it did adopt some ideas of Liberal Judaism in its own work. Among these were the feeling of belonging to the German nation as well as the idea of acknowledging Jewry as the chosen people, but only using it to live and spread the Jewish values of charity and solidarity rather than to separate oneself from other peoples. In this vein, Tuch declares the hardship of Jewish exile the “seed of the most noble and purest humanity” (p. 27) that ensured that Jewish ideals were observed for the benefit of all humanity.
By emphasizing the historically based mission of the Jewish people, for whom Tuch uses the original tribal name of “Judea,” he also follows a tradition particular to the Hamburg lodge, which was the first lodge to dedicate itself to preserving the tradition of the Jewish people by initiating the foundation of a “general archive of Germany's Jews” allgemeines Archiv der Juden Deutschlands and a “collection of Jewish antiquities” Sammlung jüdischer Altertümer. Louis Maretzki, Geschichte des Ordens Bne Briss in Deutschland. 1882-1907, Berlin 1908, p. 160. They did so believing that Jewish identity would be strengthened and consolidated by an awareness of one's roots. The renewal of the Jewish people, in conjunction with its return to its original geographical roots in Eretz Israel, was also central to the work of Zionism. In contrast to Zionism, however, B'nai B'rith expressly understood the history of German Jewry as the basis for their future integration into German society.
At the end of his speech, Tuch returns to the specific goals of B'nai B'rith and the Hamburg lodge and he explains that active charity must begin with charitable work to benefit eastern European Jewry, who faced particular challenges at the turn of the century due to new restrictions and violent pogroms. Tuch believes that such assistance eventually benefited “all humanity” (p. 29), which reveals his (perhaps too) great faith in the power of humanitarian ideals and the capabilities of B'nai B'rith. The role he ascribes to the Hamburg lodge in particular and B'nai B'rith in general within the history of the work and nature of German and global Jewry does not suggest that the B'nai B'rith association only had a relatively short history of 60 years at the time. Rather, he considers B'nai B'rith as the completion of an all-encompassing Jewish history. The opening of the dedicated meeting hall after only 17 years of the Hamburg lodge's existence does indeed testify to the particular ambition of this group to strengthen and promote its work by an expensive and modern building. Yet Tuch also reminds his audience that the work of B'nai B'rith could by no means be considered done with the opening. In fact, the new meeting hall was to be seen as a call for increased activity and effective work in line with the discerning ideas of its members.
Tuch characterizes B'nai B'rith in general and the Hamburg lodge in particular as catalysts of the overall progress of the modern age. His view of B'nai B'rith as a link between the Jewish community and its non-Jewish environment illustrates the self-perception of many German Jews whose faith in humanity's progress was unbroken, especially around the turn of the century. Therefore Tuch's speech represents an important source that helps us better understand the German Jews' view of history, their expectations of the new century, and the upheaval that occurred in various areas of Jewish life.
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Rebekka Großmann, M. A., is currently writing her PhD thesis about “The Mobility of Images. Photography and Nationality in Palestine between 1920 and 1950”. Among her research interests are: the history of Jewish thought in the 20th century, Jewish politics, the history of Jewish nationalism, history of film and visual culture, and European intellectual history.
Rebekka Großmann, The Henry Jones Lodge. Jewish Self-confidence and the Path into the Modern Age (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, October 23, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-167.en.v1> [May 29, 2023].