The emancipation of the European Jews came first in France because France led in the emancipation of the mind, and because the Enlightenment had accustomed a rising proportion of adults to interpret history in secular terms. Biblical research had revealed Jesus as a lovable preacher critical of Pharisees but loyal to Judaism; and the Gospels themselves had shown him as gladly heard by thousands of Jews, and welcomed by thousands as he entered Jerusalem. How, then, could an entire people, through thousands of years, be punished for the crime of a high priest, and a handful of incidental rabble, demanding his death? Economic hostilities remained, and fed the natural unease in the presence of strange speech and garb; but even that animosity was declining, and Louis XVI had encountered no popular resistance to his removal of taxes that had specifically burdened the Jews. Mirabeau, in an essay that barbed logic with wit, had pleaded for the complete emancipation of the Jews (1787), and the Abbé Grégoire had won a prize from the Royal Society of Science and Arts in Metz, in 1789, for his treatise The Physical, Moral, and Political Regeneration of the Jews. It seemed only a logical consequence of the Declaration of Human Rights when the Constituent Assembly, on September 27, 1791, extended full civil rights to all the Jews of France. The armies of the Revolution carried political freedom to the Jews of Holland in 1796, of Venice in 1797, of Mainz in 1798; and soon the Code Napoléon established it automatically wherever Bonaparte’s conquests reached.
Napoleon himself came to the problem with the soldier’s customary scorn of tradesmen. Stopping at Strasbourg in January, 1806, on his return from the Austerlitz campaign, he received appeals to help the peasants of Alsace from their financial misery. Suddenly released from feudal servitude, they had found themselves without employment or land to give them a living. They had asked local bankers—mostly German Jews—to lend them the substantial sums they needed to buy acres, tools, and seed to set themselves up as peasant proprietors. The bankers provided the funds, but at rates reaching sixteen percent interest, which, to the lenders, seemed justified by the risks involved. (Borrowers in America today pay similar rates.) Now some of the farmers could not meet their payments of interest and amortization. Napoleon was informed that unless he interfered many peasants would face the loss of their lands; he was warned that all Christian Alsace was up in arms over the situation, and that an attack upon the Jews was imminent.
Arrived in Paris, he took up the matter with his Council. Some members advised harsh measures; others pointed out that the Jews of Marseilles, Bordeaux, Milan, and Amsterdam were living in peace and respect in their communities, and should not be penalized by any general revocation of the rights held by Jews in regions controlled by France. Napoleon compromised: he ruled that the claims of Jewish creditors in certain provinces should not be collected until a year had passed.66 But at the same time (May 30, 1806) he invited Jewish notables from throughout France to meet in Paris to consider the problems affecting the relations of Christians and Jews, and to suggest means of spreading the Jews more widely throughout France, and into a greater variety of occupations. The prefects of the departments were to choose the notables, but “on the whole their selection was fortunate.”67
The rabbis and laymen most respected by their congregations gathered in Paris in July, 1806, in number in, and were given a hall in the Hôtel de Ville for their deliberations. Napoleon, or his councilors, submitted to the meeting some questions on which the Emperor solicited information: Are Jews polygamous? Do they allow the marriage of Jews with Christians? Do the rabbis claim the right to grant divorces independently of the civil authorities? Do the Jews consider usury lawful? The notables formulated answerscalculated to please Napoleon: polygamy was forbidden in the Jewish communities, and divorce was allowed only when confirmed by the civil courts; intermarriage with Christians was permitted; usury was contrary to Mosaic law.68 Napoleon sent Count Louis Molé to express his satisfaction; and the Count, formerly critical, addressed the notables with spontaneous eloquence: “Who would not be astonished at the sight of this assembly of enlightened men, selected from among the descendants of the most ancient of nations? If an individual of past centuries could come to life, and if this scene met his gaze, would he not think himself transplanted within the walls of the Holy City?”69 However, he added, the Emperor desired a religious sanction and surety to be given for the principles affirmed by this predominantly lay assembly, and proposed that the notables should call to Paris, for this and other purposes, the “Great Sanhedrin”—Israel’s supreme rabbinical court—which, because of the dispersion of the Jews after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, had not met since A.D. 66. The notables were happy to cooperate. On October 6 they sent to all the leading synagogues of Europe the Emperor’s invitation to elect delegates to the great “sitting together” (Sanhedrin was from the Greeksynedrion) to consider means of mitigating the difficulties between Christians and Jews, and to facilitate the entry of French Jews into all the rights and advantages of French civilization. The notables accompanied their invitation with a proud and happy proclamation:
A great event is about to take place, one which, through a long series of centuries our fathers, and even we in our own times, did not expect to see. The 20th of October has been fixed as the date for the opening of a Great Sanhedrin in the capital of one of the most powerful Christian nations, and under the protection of the immortal prince who rules over it. Paris will show the world a remarkable scene, and this ever memorable event will open to the dispersed remnants of the descendants of Abraham a period of deliverance and prosperity.70
The Great Sanhedrin could not live up to these enthusiastic expectations. Eight days after the invitations went out Napoleon and his troops fought the Prussians at Jena. All through that fall he remained in Germany or Poland, dismembering Prussia, creating the grand duchy of Warsaw, playing politics or war; all through the winter he remained in Poland, reorganizing his army, fighting the Russians to a draw at Eylau, overwhelming them at Friedland, and making peace with Czar Alexander at Tilsit (1807). He had little time left for the Great Sanhedrin.
It met on February 9, 1807. Forty-five rabbis and twenty-six laymen conferred, listened to speeches, and ratified the replies given to Napoleon by the notables. They proceeded later to issue recommendations to the Jews: to end any animosity to Christians, to love their country as now their own, to accept military service in its defense, to avoid usury, and to enter more and more into agriculture, handicrafts, and the arts. In March the Sanhedrin sent its report to the distant Napoleon, and adjourned.
Almost a year later, on March 18, 1808, Napoleon issued his final decisions. They ratified the religious freedom of the Jews, and their full political rights in all of France except Alsace and Lorraine; there, for the next ten years, certain restrictions were imposed upon bankers to lessen bankruptcies and racial animosities; the debts of women, minors, and soldiers were canceled; the courts were authorized to cancel or reduce arrears in payment of interest, and to grant a moratorium for payment; no Jew was to engage in trade without a license from the prefect; and further immigration of Jews into Alsace was forbidden.71 In 1810 the Emperor added another request: that every Jew should take a family name—which he hoped would facilitate ethnic assimilation.
It was an imperfect settlement, but perhaps some allowance must be made for a ruler who insisted on ruling everything, and therefore found himself repeatedly inundated with problems and details. The Jews of Alsace felt unjustly injured by the Emperor’s regulations; but most Jewish communities in France and elsewhere accepted them as a reasonable attempt to ease an explosive situation.72 Meanwhile, in the constitution that he drew up for Westphalia, Napoleon declared that all the Jews of that new kingdom were to enjoy all the rights of citizenship on a complete level with other citizens.73 In France the crisis passed, and the Jews entered fruitfully and creatively into French literature, science, philosophy, music, and art.