The excommunicated: Áron Chorin

Stones were thrown at him, he was threatened his beard would be cut and forced to withdraw his teachings. Yet, Rabbi Áron Chorin did not give up and wanted to modernize Jewish religious practice. Did he manage to break through the wall of conservatives? Are Jews allowed to eat sturgeon and why is this issue so important?


Rabbi Áron Chorin

Rabbi Áron Chorin


The youth of a rabbi
The conflict between Jewish reformists and conservatives had reached the breaking point by the first half of the nineteenth century. Jews had been isolated during the preceding centuries. The new era caused traditional lifestyles to transform. Modernization of Judaism began in Germany as more and more demanded that religious practices be reformed. Before long, Hungarian Jews were faced with the same dilemma: should they give in to the realities of the new times or should they seclude themselves in ancient traditions? One of the leading figures of the reformist movement was Rabbi Áron Chorin.
Chorin was born in Mährisch-Weisskirchen (today: Hranice na Moravě, Czech Republic) in 1766. He pursued religious studies in the yeshivot (yeshiva: religious colleges) of Prague and Mattersdorf. Yeshiva students usually studied in pairs in order to make learning easier by continuously asking each other questions. Thanks to his outstanding intellect, Chorin was able to study alone; he did not need a learning mate to analyze complicated religious issues. This promising talent however, did not want to become a rabbi right away. He first established a trading company in 1783 which immediately went bankrupt. Central European Jewry lost a bad merchant, but in return, gained an influential rabbi. The community of Arad invited Chorin to be their rabbi in 1789.

The sturgeon war
Chorin, this born again rabbi jumped right into the middle of the Jewish religious-scholarly arena. European rabbis having lively debates and exchanging correspondence  paid a sympathetic attention to the energetic young Chorin. As he began to advocate modernist views, he soon became a dangerous heretic in the eyes of conservative rabbis.
The first major scandal broke out of a seemingly insignificant issue. Jewish tradition bans the consumption of marine animals without fins and scales. A lot depends of course on how one defines scales. With certain species of fish this is ambiguous and one of these is the sturgeon. According to Sephardic tradition sturgeon is kosher, while Ashkenazi practice forbids it. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, the influential Ashkenazi rabbi of Prague and Chorin’s mentor therefore caused a major uproar when he ruled in favor of the sturgeon being kosher. The ruling definitively caused the Jewry of Eastern Europe to split. The conflict of course had wider implications: reformists were in favor of the ruling while conservatives contested it. By passionately supporting the former, Chorin lost the sympathy of the latter for good.
The consequences followed soon.  Chorin was invited to become the Chief Rabbi of Somogy County in 1802. Rabbi Moses Scheiber of Bratislava, the leading figure of the conservative movement convinced local Jewish leaders that Chorin’s views were dangerous and subversive, who later changed their mind and desisted from the invitation.

The heretic
All this did not put Chorin away from introducing reforms. He proposed changes that went way beyond the sturgeon issue. He was in favor of allowing train-rides on Shabbat arguing that upholding the prohibition was impossible under the new circumstances. Similarly to the reformation of the Christian faith in the 16th century, he suggested that instead of Hebrew, German be the language of prayer in synagogues so that everybody understands the religious services. Communities in Germany fought an unrelenting war with each other over the issue of whether or not pipe organs could be used as an instrument during services. Reformists argued that organ music would make services more attractive to the masses, while conservatives labeled it a Christian tradition, alien from Judaism.
Chorin made a conscious decision and sympathized with the German reformists: the sound of the pipe organ was first heard in 1842 in the synagogue of Arad of all Hungarian synagogues. The rabbi also advocated for issues outside of the scope of religion and urged Jews to take up trades other than traditional ones and become farmers and craftsmen.
Chorin became an iconic figure in Reformist circles and inevitably an archenemy of the Conservatives. The chief rabbi of Moravia even wanted to burn Chorin’s 1803 book in which he compiled his suggestions and recommendations. Chorin was brought before the Beth Din (religious tribunal) of Óbuda and threatened with cutting his beard had he not been ready to withdraw his theses. Under the threat of a complete moral destruction and the hostile masses that gathered around the courthouse, the rabbi of Arad had no choice but to give in. This did not however prevent the mob from insulting him physically while he was leaving the building. Physical insults were not uncommon; years later the students of the ultra-Conservative yeshiva in Bratislava threw stones at Chorin. His isolation gradually eased over the years however, the walls never came down completely. As Rabbi Dániel Pillitz of Szeged, himself a reformist put it in his speech delivered at Chorin’s funeral service in 1844: “His teachings did not suit his times or his times did not suit his teachings”. Nevertheless, Chorin was popular both among the Jewish and the non-Jewish population of Arad. The bells of Christian churches were rung on the day of his funeral and the Minorite Franciscans delivered a holy sermon for Chorin’s salvation.