The Life of the Synagogue

Leopold Löw

Leopold Löw
Photographed by Mayer és Bietler, Szeged

Rabbi Leopold Löw (1811–1875) was a Hungarian rabbi who combined his extensive religious training with a university degree. He was a major supporter of religious, educational, and communal reforms, which he advocated in his multiple roles as preacher, polemicist, editor, scholar, and historian.

Löw helped create what became known as Neolog Judaism, a particular Hungarian version of Reform Judaism that was more aesthetic than ideological. Neolog clerics wore special vestments, Neolog synagogues moved the bimah close to the ark, and Neolog preachers delivered sermons in Hungarian. For the most part, however, the reformers avoided radical changes to core synagogue liturgy and did not break with the traditional and widely accepted Shulchan Aruch (code of Jewish law).

Löw grew up in the village of Czernahora (Černá Hora), now in the Czech Republic, but then part of Austria-Hungary. His father was a strong supporter of education, and at age 13, Löw left home to begin an extensive formal education, first in several prominent yeshivas, and, starting in 1830, rabbinical studies under liberal rabbi Löw Schwab. He was ordained in 1835 but did not gain a rabbinic post until 1841, after he moved to Hungary. There he began implementing various reforms, many involving the introduction of the Hungarian language into the synagogue service. He promoted the teaching of Hungarian, preached one of the first Hungarian sermons, and even published the first Jewish Hungarian-language journal, though it was short-lived.

Löw believed that the surest means to emancipation was through a merger with the Hungarian nation; he thus became a supporter of Hungarian nationalism, stating, “instead of Hungarian Jews, let us become Jewish Hungarians!” He was at the forefront of the Jewish struggle for emancipation, attained in 1867. Löw also supported the Reform movement and continued to play a central role in the campaign against orthodoxy. Besides supporting reform and emancipation, he also made impressive scholarly contributions, writing several seminal works on the history of Hungarian Jewry, as well as scholarly studies of Judaism, in which he often cited halakhic literature as an important historical source