Sunday 25 June 2023

434) Why was R. Natan Adler of Frankfurt excommunicated?

The anonymous work entitled Ma'aseh Ta'atuim (Act of Deception).


This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Rachel Elior,[1] explores the little-known story of R. Natan Adler of Frankfurt and his Chassidim, who were excommunicated twice, in 1779 and 1789 respectively. These Chassidim of Frankfurt were in some ways similar, but technically unrelated, to the better-known Chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov. 

Four groups of “Chassidim” coalesce simultaneously

Towards the latter part of the eighteenth century, four distinct groups were co-existing in the same areas of Europe and they all called themselves “Chassidim.” This made matters very complicated. Historically, the followers of the false Messiah Shabatai Tzvi (1626-1676), known as Sabbatians, were the first to emerge. They were trailed by the adherents of another false Messiah, Jacob Frank (1726-1791). Next to emerge were the followers of the Baal Shem Tov (c.1700-1760) who were also called Chassidim. And the fourth group of Chassidim were the followers of R. Natan Adler of Frankfurt (1741-1800). 

R. Natan Adler of Frankfurt

R. Natan Adler was a highly respected Halachic authority, Kabbalist and Rosh Yeshiva who had trained many prominent rabbis including R. Moshe Sofer known as the Chatam Sofer, who referred to his teacher as “the most pious of priests.” R. Natan Adler was praised by R. Chaim Yosef David Azulai, known as Chida, when he visited Frankfurt. R. Adler’s teacher was the famed R. Yakov Yehoshua Falk, known as Pnei Yehoshua; and his teacher of Kabbalah was R. Avraham Avush, who was known as a Baal Shem (mystical healer). 

How does a man with such a pedigree and legacy get excommunicated…twice? And how did the rabbinic body that excommunicated him, permit the publication of disparaging material about him? This is all the more surprising, considering that the rabbinate of Frankfurt, unlike other centres, was usually reluctant to issue writs of excommunication, preferring to exile recalcitrant members instead. 

The problem

Although R. Natan Adler had no connection to the Chassidic movement of the Baal Shem Tov of Medzebuzh, it seems that his excommunications in 1779 and 1789 were based on similar fears that provoked the excommunications of the (Baal Shem Tov's) Chassidim, slightly earlier, in 1772. 

Adler neither left any writings nor published any books. We rely, instead, on the written record of both his supporters and detractors who did write about him and about what was going on in Frankfurt at the time. The negative perceptions of Adler were recorded in an anonymous work entitled Ma’aseh Ta’atuim (Act of Deception) published in 1790. The positive framing of Adler was recorded in the writings of the Chatam Sofer as well as in the latter’s grandson, R. Shlomo Sofer’s work entitled Chut haMeshulash (The Tripple Thread) published almost a century later in 1887. 

R. Natan Adler placed a great premium on Kabbalistic thought and practice. He encouraged his students to pray with mystical and ecstatic intentions. But he also created a new form of ritual. In the early 1770s, he broke away from the community and established a prayer centre in his home. The group of followers that were beginning to emerge practised extreme asceticism, drawing lines between what was considered holy and profane beyond the requirements of normative Halacha

R. Natan Adler’s innovations

By analysing the two excommunication bans against Adler, Elior shows that there were five distinct and primary areas of concern for the conservative Frankfurt rabbinate: 

1) There were significant changes that had been introduced to the ritual and liturgy. Adler's new community had effectively removed itself from the mainstream practising Jews of Frankfurt, and set up its own synagogue, with different rites. The new community under Adler prayed according to the Siddur of R. Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari (1534-1572). And they prayed using the Sefaradic pronunciation. Also, they changed the standardised Ashkenazic format of the afternoon and evening Shemona Esrei (Amidah) prayer, concluding it with the passage Sim Shalom rather than Shalom Rav.

2) They emphasised and focused extreme ascetic practices - abstinence, additional fasts, and matters of purity and impurity, Significantly: 

“[t]his led to the prohibition of eating and drinking with those not belonging to the group for fear of violation of kashrut…” (Elior 1995:228). 

3) They changed the standard format of the circumcision ceremony, introduced two sets of Tefillin, attached Tzitzit (ritual fringes usually only worn by men) on the garments of women, and recited the priestly blessing (Yevarechecha) daily. 

4) They introduced changes to the religious times and the calendar. This included: 

“independent determination of the times that holidays and festivals begin, and the assertion of freedom to determine the calendar” (Elior 1995:228). 

5) They not only emphasised the study of Kabbalah and mysticism but were prone to make use of dreams and visions claiming they understood the hidden secrets of the spiritual realms. It was in this area specifically, that they evoked feelings of fear in the hearts of the general population who were literally afraid of associating with them because of the knowledge and power they claimed to have commanded: 

“For they began to terrify the people with their dreams and to frighten them with the lie of their visions, and this is the sum of their wisdom…to arouse the power of their imaginations while they lie prone upon their beds, and whoever dreams the most is the most praiseworthy in their society” (Ma’aseh Ta’atuim, p. 7). 

In 1779, the Pinkas Kahal (Community Register)  records some severe admonitions against those who continued to frighten the community with their dreams. 

Parallelisms between the opposition to Adler and the Baal Shem Tov?

Most scholars tend to view the excommunications in Frankfurt as being entirely unrelated and disconnected from the excommunications of the Chassidim. Elior (1995:227), however, sees both excommunications as arising out of essentially the same fears that had begun to seriously threaten the mainstream rabbinate, namely, the spread of the Sabbatian and Frankist doctrines. Sabbatianism and Frankism were two sides of the same coin and Elior shows that during that very period, these movements had reached their influential zenith. All these groups, including the Frankists, called themselves “Chassidim” and they were all intent on introducing innovations to Judaism. The rabbinate was concerned that these innovations might spread and change the face of Judaism as they knew it.

[This observation that four groups who all called themselves "Chassidim," almost simultaneously, were indenting to innovate aspects of Judaism (not by modernisation but by mysticism) is a fascinating point, because we generally tend to regard the primary period of innovation and reform to Judaism as occurring during the Haskalah (Enlightenment movement) of the following century. Perhaps one could regard both the innovations of the various "Chassidim" (by introducing mysticism into the mainstream) and the innovations of Reform (by infusing modernisation) as corresponding internal and external reforms, respectively. I have previously even dubbed some of the innovations of the Chareidi movement, for example, which was only formed around the mid-1800s, as “Reforms of the ultra-Orthodox.” Although the latter was a reform relating more to Halachic strictures than to  mysticism, it would still fall into the category of internal reforms.] 

Elior’s rationale for the bans against Adler and the Baal Shem Tov

Elior points out that most of the content of the bans against the followers of Adler was quite similar to that of the bans against the (Baal Shem Tov's) Chassidim. For this reason, she tends to maintain that the concerns were similar too. Around the time of the Adler bans of excommunication, Jacob Frank (who was also known for his dreams and visions) had just moved to Offenbach, in 1787 - just across the river from Frankfurt. Thus, she suggests, the fear was not so much of the mystical and Kabbalistic content (many of which was anyway related and derived from earlier Kabbalistic traditions) – but rather the fear of Sabbatiansm and Frankism which was on the ascension at that time. 

The Sabbatians and Frankists had adopted these mystical practices as well (often from Lurianic Kabbalah). The fear of the conservative rabbinate was that by turning a blind eye to the new and developing mystical movements (like those of Adler and the Baal Shem Tov, even if they weren’t related to Sabbatianism and Frankism),[6] the traditional authority of the rabbis and the rabbinate would be seriously undermined (Elior 1995:231). 

“The lines of demarcation between the Kabbalistic, Hasidic, Sabbatian, and Frankist circles, all of which called themselves “Hasidim,” became increasingly blurred in the consciousness of those who were observing from without…Every tendency to spiritualistic autonomy transcending the authority of the community was banned, with no attempt to distinguish among the essential differences between those who were delving deeply into the mystical heritage and penetrating to the depths of the tradition and those who had passed beyond it and constructed a new spiritual world on its ruins” (Elior 1995:242). 

It is interesting to note, to Elior’s point, that the perception that the authority of the rabbinate was in the process of being undermined, is alluded to in the Communal Register. It records that in 1783, there were nine private minyanim which was a further affront to the central rabbinic desire to command and control the city. As an aside, it has also been noted that such fractional division in the city would have impacted economically on the funding to the central rabbinate and communal institutions.[3] 

Ma’aseh Ta’atuim expressed the challenges to the mainstream rabbinate as early as 1790: 

“For they have invented new laws for themselves and intend to rebel against the rabbis…and ruled against our bread and wine…and not to use our vessels, and never to mingle with us…for we are regarded as Samaritans by them and as Karaites…” 

Although this reference from Ma’aseh Ta’atuim does not acknowledge that the Kabbalistic practices were based on previous ‘mainstream’ Kabbalah and refers to the news practices as “inventions,” it highlights the fear that the mainstream rabbinate felt ostracised and severely threatened by these mystical movements. 

A different view

For the record, it must be pointed out that some scholars (and rabbis like the Vilna Gaon) take a different view and advance the idea of a more direct flow of aspects of Sabatianism and Frankism into the Chassidic wellsprings. This is reflected in the Vilna Gaon’s excommunication of the Chassidim (of the Baal Shem Tov) in 1772 where, as Shever Poshim records, he said: 

“[T]he sect of Chassidim [contained] many heretics from the sect of Sh[abbatai] Tz[vi].” 

This view does not challenge Elior's notion that the central rabbinate and the communal structures were being threatened and undermined, but reflects a more ideological perspective that sees perceived theological influences from Sabatianism and Frankism on particularly the Chassidism of the Baal Shem Tov.

Chassidic support for the Chassidim of R. Natan Adler

Not everyone, however, felt threatened by the Chassidim of Adler. Needless to say, there was support for him which emerged concurrently from the camp of the Chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov. 

The Chassidic tradition contains a reference to Adler, with R. Elimelech [of Lezansk] declaring: 

“For many years such a holy soul as Rabbi Nathan Adler has not come into this world, except for our Teacher, Rabbi Israel the Baal Shem” (Toledot Yakov Yosef, Mishpatim, 56). 

One of the early leaders of this Chassidic movement, R. Yakov Yosef of Polonnoye writes in 1780, apparently in support of the likes of Adler and this ‘sister’ group of Chassidim

“…in the same manner Israel was separate and secluded from the [biblical mixed][2] multitude in two ways: when eating, they would not eat the same food as them; and also that they would not be mingled with them…

I myself, my eyes and not a stranger’s, have seen this war that is always waged against him who wishes to be sanctified and to seclude himself and pray in a quorum of his own, since it is impossible to pray in a public where they pray out of routine habit…

In the matter of eating, this generation can not be trusted, since anyone may slaughter…

[T]he pre-eminent worshiper should form a separate quorum with particular people and also not eat with the masses at the same table at all…and…they should make a House of Study for select individual Jews, who will be separate from the masses of the people, for it is impossible that they should be together” (Toledot Yakov Yosef, Naso). 

The excommunication order against R. Natan Alter        

The Pinkas Kahal (Community Register) of Frankfurt records the (very respectfully written) ban they issued against Adler in 1779: 

“…it is forbidden to the master of Torah, his honor the Rabbi, Rabbi Nathan…Adler…to form a quorum of ten and to pray in their home, and any member of our congregation who goes to their house…whether a householder or other member of our community, he is excommunicated and banned.” 

After his passing in 1800, the Jewish community in Frankfurt composed a memorial or yizkor prayer in Adler's honour. R. Yekutiel Greenwald (1889-1955) wrote an introduction to Sefer Ma'aseh Ta'atuim, which deals with his history of R. Natan Adler. Also, Professor Jacob Katz, wrote a biography on the Chatam Sofer and dedicated a section therein to his teacher, R. Natan Adler (I thank Dr Avi Harel for pointing these sources out to me).[5] 


The story of an under-studied ‘sister’ form of Chassidism developing in Frankfurt and the reasons why there was such an outcry against it is yet another facet of the untold stories of Jewish religious movements. The evolution, opposition, support, contribution and attempts at their undermining must all be told together, as they only serve to broaden the greater picture that frames the diverse realities of Jewish theology.[4]

[1] Elior, R., 1995, ‘Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfurt and the controversy surrounding him’, in Mysticism, Magic and Kabbalah in Ashkenazi Judaism, Edited by Karl Erich Grözinger and Joseph Dan. Berlin, Walter de Gruyter,  223-242.

[2] Square brackets are mine.

[3] Nadav, M., 1957, ‘Pinkas Kahal Frankfurt de-Main’, Kiryat Sefer, 31, 513.

[4] There is, however, a subtext to our story: Maimonides is well-known for his references to the “masses” and the “ignorant masses.” In his rationalist writings, this distinction between the “intellectual elite” (yechidei segulah) and the “masses” (hamon am) is even more pronounced. Sometimes one even begins to get the impression that he advocates two distinct approaches to Judaism with dispensation for the ‘masses” to believe in various principles that might not apply to the more intellectual Jews.

A similar distinction is also evident regarding the archetypical Mitnagedim who are depicted as only being concerned with masters of the dialectics of Talmud and have no time to engage with the unlearned masses.

But we generally don't expect to see this stark distinction advocated by mystical movements, like Chassidism, which is perceived to be concerned about the amecha and simple ordinary folk that Judaism often ignores. Yet, as we see in the Chassidic writings of R. Yakov Yosef of Polonnoye, a call for a separation between the “spiritual elite” and the “masses” features very strongly in his book which was the first Chassidic work to be published.

The radical rationalists, the conservative rabbinic scholars and the esoteric mystics all seem, at some stage, to have exhibited a distinct disregard for the “simple masses.”

[5] Harel also points out that while Sefer Ma'aseh Ta'atuim is essentially and historically accurate, it reflects some tendentious views of its time and should be understood in that context. 

[6] Not all scholars agree that Chassidism was not influenced somewhat by Sabbatianism

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