The elections for the German National Assembly of 1919 gave women the right to vote and stand for election. Hamburg’s Jewish congregation followed this new policy insofar as it changed its by-laws in 1919 to the effect that women were now at least granted the right to vote in the election of its Council of Representatives [Repräsentanten-Kollegium]. The German-Israelite Congregation (DIG, Deutsch-Israelitische Gemeinde) [Deutsch-Israelitische Gemeinde] intended to decide the question of women’s right to stand for election as part of a fundamental reform of its by-laws. In order to accommodate the considerable reservations held especially by Orthodox Jews, they agreed to request rabbinical opinions on the question of how religious law judged the question of women’s right to vote. A first request for an opinion was made in 1921 to the Chief Rabbi of the local Synagogue Association, Dr. Samuel Spitzer. Chief Rabbi Spitzer replied on August 26, 1921 that he was astonished by the inquiry since he had previously concluded that “the granting of the right to vote or stand for election to women is prohibited by religious law” StAHH JG 301 a, Letter by Chief Rabbi Spitzer to the board of the German-Israelite Congregation in Hamburg dated 26.8.1921; quoted in: Ina Lorenz, Die Juden in Hamburg zur Zeit der Weimarer Republik. Eine Dokumentation, vol. 2, Hamburg 1987, p. 844. while delivering a halakhic discussion from the pulpit. Another request was sent to the highly regarded rector of Berlin’s rabbinical seminary, Dr. David Zwi Hoffmann. In his reply dated June 26, 1921, Hoffmann referred the board to his opinion published in 1919 (Jeschurin VI 1919, pp. 262-266). As was to be expected, the answers were all negative. Altona’s Chief Rabbi, Dr. Meir Lerner (1857-1930), too, voted in the negative in 1922.
In early summer of 1923 the question of women’s eligibility to stand for election was again debated as part of a fundamental reform of the congregation’s by-laws. This time it was the board of the Synagogue Association who sought a rabbinical opinion. David Hoffmann, who had previously issued an opinion, had died in the meantime. His son, Wrocław rabbi Dr. Moses Jehuda Hoffmann, replied on May 24, 1923 with a negative opinion. It combined a summary of his father’s 1919 opinion with his own position, which seemed to be of a more pragmatic nature, however. In the fall of 1924, an attempt to change the congregation’s by-laws in favor of women’s right to stand for election failed. The reasons were the same as before. Conflict with the Orthodox was to be avoided. It was hoped, however, that in the following years the Orthodox would come around to the position that women should be given the right to run for office.
Rabbinical opinions are difficult to understand for non-Jewish readers; the present example is included here in order to show how important and influential the Orthodox interpretation of religious law could be for Jewish congregational life. The author of this opinion, Moses Jehuda Hoffmann, served as rabbi in Wrocław from 1921 until 1938. He was a council member of the Prussian State Association of Jewish congregations [Preußischer Landesverband jüdischer Gemeinden], the Association of Traditional, Legal-Literalist Rabbis of Germany [Vereinigung der traditionell-gesetzestreuen Rabbiner Deutschlands], and Agudas Jisroel. Deported to the Buchenwald camp in 1938, he managed to emigrate to Palestine in 1939. In his opinion, Rabbi Hoffmann refers to a decision by Moses Maimonides (Hilchot Mĕlachim 1,5) and to the Sifre Deuteronomy 157. The core of his opinion essentially consisted in his interpretation of 5 Moses 17, 14-15. Based on the translation by Leopold Zunz, it reads: “14. When thou art come unto the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein, and shalt say, I will set a king over me, like as all the nations that are about me; 15. thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.” The text explicitly mentions a king, not a queen. The offices held by the prophetess and judge Deborah and the reign of Jewish queen Salome Alexandra are considered exceptions explained by the particular political circumstances of their time. Therefore, Hoffmann writes, they cannot be cited as precedents and women must be denied the right to stand for election.
According to Maimonides (born between 1135 and 1138 in Córdoba, died 1204 in Cairo) none of the decisions made by Possĕkim stipulated the prohibition of women’s right to vote. Therefore women should be allowed to vote. Moses Maimonides is considered an important philosopher and legal scholar of the Middle Ages as well as the most significant Jewish scholar of all time.
In the end the rabbinical opinions the Hamburg congregation had requested blocked the congregation’s efforts at reform, for they had to realize that the question of women’s eligibility to stand for election was a matter of principle for Orthodox Jewry. Thus the majority, which had consisted of Liberals and Zionists since the beginning of the Weimar Republic, shelved their demands for equality of the sexes for the sake of the congregation’s unity. Throughout past decades, they had repeatedly experienced conflicts escalating into a crisis and therefore acted very carefully in this situation. Within the “Hamburg system,” the DIG had committed themselves to religious neutrality towards the religious associations. When a conflict about Jewish funerary rites erupted in the mid-1880s, some Orthodox members left the congregation because the Synagogue Association’s chief rabbi, Anselm Stern, had decided that the DIG’s solution (at the Ohlsdorf / Ilandkoppel cemetery) did not meet the requirements for a Jewish cemetery as stipulated by religious law. Now the question of women’s right to vote threatened to cause another major conflict. Since the rabbinical opinions confirmed Orthodox Jewry in their strict rejection of it, the congregation upheld the status quo for the time being, meaning women were able to vote in congregational elections as well as serve as members of the various charitable committees. It was a pragmatic solution that temporarily created unity within the congregation.
In the run-up to the election of the Council of Representatives [Repräsentanten-Kollegium] of 1930, the debate on the status of women as stipulated in the congregation’s by-laws was revived. The Orthodox once again blocked a reform. Nobody wished to deny the Orthodox Synagogue Association its right to decide the question of votes for women autonomously as far as internal matters were concerned, but the Orthodox were eager to assert their religious views on the level of the congregation’s institutions as well. This put them in a minority position, however. By the mid-1920s, the share of congregation members who also belonged to one of the religious associations had sunk to about 35 percent, about half of whom belonged to the Synagogue Association. A motion filed by the Liberals to grant women the right to stand for election to the Council of Representatives [Repräsentanten-Kollegium] and another motion filed by the Zionists to make women eligible to run for a seat on the congregation’s board initially failed to win the majority required to change the by-laws to that effect. When the Zionists gave up their demand, a clear majority was at least won for women’s right to stand for election to the Council of Representatives [Repräsentanten-Kollegium] by a vote of 13 to five votes against it by the Orthodox. As a result, the chief rabbi’s son, Dr. Alexander Spitzer, publicly declared he was leaving the congregation, and others followed him. In the 1930 election of the Council of Representatives [Repräsentanten-Kollegium], for the first time three women (Anni Bauer, Dr. Lilli Meyer-Wedell, and Phoebe Caro) were among those elected to its 21 seats. Rabbinical opinions subsequently became less influential. Thus the opinions written by Samuel Spitzer, David Hoffmann, and Meir Lerner at the request of the DIG mainly represent a snapshot in its history. It is not known what the position of Joseph Carlebach, on voting rights for women was when he became the Synagogue Association’s chief rabbi. His views on many other issues were less strict than those of his predecessor from Altona, Meir Lerner, though. In Berlin women had already been granted the right to vote and stand for election in the February 1925 elections to the Prussian State Association of Jewish Congregations [Preußischer Landesverband jüdischer Gemeinden]. In Saxony, Bavaria, and Brunswick, too, opposition began to weaken.
The DIG held elections every five years. The question of women’s right to stand for election would therefore have come up again in 1935 – yet that never happened. In light of the changed political circumstances in the National Socialist state many major Jewish congregations in the spring of 1934 considered whether to postpone their upcoming elections. Hamburg authorities granted a request filed by the DIG to extend the tenure of the Council elected in 1930 until March 31st, 1937. It was obvious that in early 1937 at the latest an ultimate decision would be necessary. The congregation agreed to decide the appointment of its board and Council of Representatives [Repräsentanten-Kollegium] without elections. In 1937 two women, Tilly Zuntz and Dr. Lizzy Valk, were appointed to the Council. There still was no woman on the congregation’s board, however. Regular elections had become impossible anyway. According to the by-laws, the tenure of the 21 members of the Council of Representatives [Repräsentanten-Kollegium] was to last until March 31st, 1940. This never happened either. In the wake of the 1938 November pogrom, the Gestapo removed the traditional institutions of the board and council and replaced their collegial structure of decision-making with the “Führerprinzip” [leader principle]. Collective cooperation between Jewish officeholders survived only on the working level.
The by-laws of Hamburg’s Jewish Congregation, whose new beginning and rebuilding dates back to the fall of 1945, granted female members of the new uniform congregation the right to vote and stand for election. Rabbinical or halakhic arguments for opposing it, as David Hoffmann’s opinion citing religious law had formulated them against women’s eligibility for office, were no longer discussed. The majority of Hamburg’s Jews differed from his opinion and considered the concerns expressed as a result of circumstances at the time. In 1995 Gabriela Fenyes finally became the first woman to be elected chairperson of the congregation’s board.
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Ina Lorenz (1940), Prof. Dr. phil. habil, deputy research director at the Institute for the History of the German Jews (IGdJ) until 2005 and professor at the Institute for Economic and Social History at Hamburg University. Her work focuses on German-Jewish history in the 19th and 20th century, as well as on social history of the Jewish comunity during National Socialism. She published several critical source editions on the history of the Jewish congregations in Hamburg, Altona and Wandsbek.
Ina Lorenz, The Introduction of Women’s Right to Vote in Hamburg’s Jewish Congregation (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, July 05, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-44.en.v1> [April 21, 2021].