Classical Knowledge, Power, and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Dutch Rabbinic Education

Tell me, o Muse, of the man . . .
— Homer

Francis Bacon’s belief that “knowledge is power” is one of the great epistemic mottos of all time. In early nineteenth-century Jewish Amsterdam, where civic emancipation had overturned the old corporate hierarchies, the rabbinic elite soon came to experience its merciless truth. In the newly established Kingdom of the Netherlands (1814), both their position and their expertise were pushed to the margins. To make things worse, the centralized organization of the newly constituted Israelite Denomination left no room for German-style Reform–Orthodox dualism. As a result, innovation and consolidation all took shape within a single, outwardly stable, yet inwardly polarized community, in which conservative rabbis and progressive lay executives vied for initiative and control. This perpetual state of discord posed high demands on a rabbi’s personal skills. It was no longer enough to be a competent teacher and judge; in order to survive, the rabbi had to become a kind of statesman. But what in his rabbinic experience would provide him with the wherewithal to become a politician?

Charismatic Leadership

In 1862, Krakow-born Joseph Hirsch Dünner (1833–1911), who had received his rabbinic education at the famous Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, was appointed rector of the Dutch Israelite Seminary in Amsterdam, which had trained rabbis and religious teachers since 1836. Realizing that the Dutch gridlock called for a reinterpretation of the rabbinate, he set out to modernize the seminary’s stale curriculum. His reforms, however, did not entail a fundamental makeover of the knowledge order as it had emerged in the 1830s. The customary triad of Bible, Talmud, and national (Dutch) language and literature retained its undisputed prominence. But Dünner added new methods and competencies, which were also supposed to modernize existing maskilic (Jewish enlightened) knowledge practices.

Joseph Hirsch Dünner in 1900. Source: Joods Historisch Museum via Wikimedia Commons

Classical philology played a key role in the exercise. Perhaps we should speak of “applied classics” since the discipline was meant to professionalize the rabbinate as a pastoral and political force by teaching a combination of virtue ethics, political insight, and social skills. If I could be allowed an early spoiler alert: Bogged down by intellectual complacency and internal strife, Dünner’s attempt at professionalizing his rabbis was doomed to fail from the start. “University gimmickry” (Universitätsspielerei), his critic Jaap Meijer called it, ridiculing the intellectualism of what he considered a “mini-Breslau on the river Amstel.”[1]

Stuck between nihilist Reform and nostalgic Orthodoxy, nineteenth-century Judaism was, as Dünner wrote to Moses Hess in 1862, heading down a cul-de-sac. The state of Dutch Jewry, in particular, struck him as one of alarming ignorance, materialism, and religious alienation. It would take a man of extraordinary capacities to help it retrieve its heritage of “Jewish intellect [Geist], virtue, and scholarship [Wissenschaft]” and get it back on track.[2] But who had the skills—and the powers of persuasion—to become a modern Moses and lead the spiritual exodus?

By the 1860s, the rabbi had become an unlikely candidate for the job. From a representative of the semi-autonomous Jewish community he had become a receding Jewish conscience in a rapidly secularizing world. With the rabbinate increasingly identified with obsolete liturgy and contested ritual, a simple restoration to its former glory was out of the question. Dünner had to invent a new persona, one that would appeal to the masses and inspire loyalty. The rabbi’s rank in the Amsterdam organization would not earn him any respect, so there went Weber’s first type of leadership, the one backed up by a neutral bureaucratic order. The rabbi’s place in the chain of tradition was also not a ready asset, for by the 1860s, Dutch Jewry had become estranged from its collective pious past. And so Dünner turned to Weber’s third form of legitimate leadership: the charismatic type, whose ability to influence did not issue from any formal power (postestas) but instead resided in personal authority (auctoritas), in the combination of exemplary character and merit.

Bourgeois Classics

It is here that classical philology came in. Dünner could trust that his lay directors shared his view that the modern rabbi needed to pair Talmudic knowledge with a classical education. The bourgeois elite had always advocated a seminary that combined the best of Athens and Jerusalem. Besides inspiring reason and beauty, they argued, reading classics would strengthen the rabbi’s academic ethos, enhance his rhetorical sensitivity and broaden his outlook. Together with the Sages, the Greeks and the Romans would nourish a generation that could determine the course of Judaism through an understanding of God, man, and the world. If this tells us anything, it is that by the mid-nineteenth century the Dutch-Jewish elite had developed a firm public identity and expected the religious leadership to represent its norms and values.

Training the rabbi to develop a polished mind in a genteel body: As rector of the seminary, Dünner clearly endorsed the modern canon of bourgeois virtues. Yet his attempt to professionalize the rabbinate by teaching the classics went further. Erudition and civilization were all very well, but the ancient authorities did more than embody truth and beauty. They could also be relied upon to offer guidance of a more strategic nature.


In the seminary’s first (and only) annual report of 1874, the classics curriculum was outlined with utmost brevity, listing only authors’ names and short titles. Still, the overall impression is one of exuberant ambition. First there is quantity. According to a memorandum written for the Ministry of Education in January 1874, the number of hours spent on classics and ancient history was set at 28 per month. To put this into perspective: the same hours were devoted to a combination of Hebrew, Bible and catechetics, while instruction in the Dutch mother tongue, that vital interface with the civilized world, was determined at 26. Thirty hours were set aside for Halacha, though it should be added that here, too, classical methodology prevailed. Rather than teaching his students the ropes of actual rabbinic legislation, Dünner prepped them to write “Talmudic dissertations,” historical studies in the best German philological tradition.

And then there was the quality of the program. For its grammatical basis Dünner relied on a set of all-time classics. While Kühner’s legendary 1834–35 Ausführliche Grammatik der Griechischen Sprache was to provide the rudiments of Greek, Latin was approached through Johannes Siebelis’s Tirocinium Poeticum: Erstes Lesebuch aus Lateinischen Dichtern, which by the 1870s had gone through no less than eleven editions. Equally unsurprising, the students’ first forays into Greek and Latin prose were Xenophon’s Anabasis and Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, texts describing a military campaign with the third-person singular in simple, vivid language. “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”—the generation that masters Latin without following Caesar into battle at Alesia has yet to be born.

People Skills

On these conventional foundations, Dünner built a program that would teach a combination of virtue, morality and judgement. Rather than entering the historical world of the ancient authors, it exploited their ability to articulate timeless humanistic truths. This appears as much from the selection of texts as from the telltale omissions. Deviating from the original Breslau shortlist, Dünner included neither Herodotus (too anecdotal?) nor Plato (too speculative, no doubt). Leaving out Demosthenes, Plutarch, and Sophocles, he also skipped Cicero’s De oratore and De officiis, despite their obvious importance for teaching rhetoric. Instead we find Xenophon’s Memorabilia, a collection of simple dialogues in which Socrates gave hands-on advice to family and friends. Between the lines, Dünner must have hoped, the students would pick up the importance of Socratic composure in the face of adversity.

The Latin counterpart of this last text was Cicero’s De Amicitia, a treatise on the nature of friendship that Cicero had written late in life. If there was one thing that qualified this work for Dünner’s reading list, it was its claim that friendship should consist in enjoying each other’s virtue, not in the prospect of mutual gain. Finally, the poetry of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid was to convey “noble substance [Einhalt] and quiet grandeur [Größe],” as Johann Joachim Winckelmann had defined the classical ideal in 1755. If, like the ancients, the future rabbi managed to keep “a grand, poised soul amidst all passions” (Winckelmann again), he definitely was fit to lead a modern congregation.

Next to these personal qualities, the rabbi needed a compass to safely navigate the snake pit that was the modern Jewish community. Here the Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos stood to aid, as did that other evergreen, Gaius Sallustius Crispus. Together they coached the would-be rabbi in growing a feel for res publica and developing a repertoire for tackling the snags of daily politics. Sallust’s Bellum Jugurthinum (on the war against Captain Jugurtha of Numidia) was famed for its bleak picture of the later Roman Republic, when abiding prosperity had dented Rome’s morality, corrupted its citizens, and corroded its institutions. Any similarity to the sorry state of Judaism as observed by Dünner was of course far from coincidental. In the light of this Israelite dissolution, Sallust’s Bellum could be read as a diagnostic manual of public vice.

When compared to Sallust’s cultural pessimism, Nepos’ Excellentium imperatorum vitae, the only extant volume of his series De viris illustribus (On Illustrious Men), offered guidance of a more cheerful kind. Documenting the careers of famous generals had allowed Nepos to lay bare the Machiavellian tensions—individual conscience versus general interest, personal weakness versus joint responsibility—that came with holding a public office. The students were to read about the heroes of Marathon and, especially, about the dilemmas these great men had posed to the state once their moment of glory had passed while their military prowess had not. Nepos was no dry reporter of facts, but a keen dissector of private and public morale. Again the lesson to be learned was clear: When enmeshed in community politics, a rabbi should know how to gauge character, identify allies, anticipate opposition, and calculate interests. In short, he should come well-armed to assert his power as the true leader of the congregation.

Helicopter View

In that capacity, the rabbi was always supposed to stick to his role of independent judge and try to transcend local hysteria and petty party politics. In order develop the necessary “helicopter view,” Dünner’s curriculum included an interesting little exercise. Advanced students were supposed to read not only books eight to ten of the Odyssey, in which the Greek hero Odysseus tells of the fall of Troy and his subsequent wanderings, but also books two and three of the Aeneid, where the Trojan prince Aeneas relates his side of the story to Dido of Carthage. On the one hand, there is Odysseus, bursting into tears when Demodokos the Blind sings of the wooden horse being smuggled into Troy. On the other, there is Aeneas, conjuring up the image of his burning city and the death of his wife Creusa. To learn that one event is experienced differently by two parties seems an apt preparation for life as an ish sar ve-shofet, a Mosaic prince and judge (Exodus 2:14) in the Dutch kille koudesh (Holy Congregation), where, according to Dünner, “strife and conflict seemed the rule, or rather, an addiction.” With the help of the classical authors, his seminary would offer management courses fit for an American president.

But did it work? Well, if on paper the program looked convincing, in practice it turned out impossible to realize. The actual teaching was soon outsourced to the local Athenaeum Illustre, where the notoriously tedious Samuel Naber, an exponent of the hypercritical Leiden School, bored all love of the classics out of his students. The texts proved difficult, the students indifferent. Within no time, the program was downsized to the bare minimum, leaving only Kühner’s grammar, Siebelis’s chrestomathy, Caesar’s War, and Xenophon’s Journey Home. No Nepos, no Sallust, or Cicero. No epic sorrows, no poetry. Dünner found out the hard way that Amsterdam was no Breslau. Until further notice, the spoils of Greece and Rome, and with them prudence, judgement, and a superior bourgeois habitus, remained out of the reach of the Dutch rabbinate. Yet they continued to adorn the curriculum, as a symbol, an ironic memory if you will, of Jewish emancipation in a universal, humanist key.

Irene Zwiep is Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University of Amsterdam.

  1. Jaap Meijer, Rector en Raw: De levensgeschiedenis van Dr. J.H. Dünner (1833–1911) (Heemstede: Jaap Meijer, 1984). For Dünner’s long-term reputation, see Bart Wallet, “The Great Eagle, the Pride of Jacob: Jozeph Hirsch Dünner in Dutch Jewish Memory Culture,” in The Religious Cultures of Dutch Jewry, ed. Yosef Kaplan and Dan Michman (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 299–315.
  2. This phrase, from Dünner’s 1874 inaugural address, shows that Hegelian thinking had become a stock ingredient of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, literally, science of Judaism. By way of background, see Sven-Erik Rose, “Wissenschaft des Judentums, Freedom, and Hegel’s State,” AJS Perspectives (Fall 2016), “The Freedom Issue,”
Suggested Citation: Irene Zwiep, “Classical Knowledge, Power, and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Dutch Rabbinic Education,” History of Knowledge, January 28, 2019,