Religious law vs. civil concerns
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Religious law vs. civil concerns

They are a small group that observes an exotic religion. Their men wear beards; their women cover their heads. They have their own dietary rules, and speak a strange, guttural language among themselves. Their leaders insist that they maintain their own courts, which rely upon their religious law.

Are these Muslim fundamentalists who seek to impose Islam’s sharia law on the United States? No. These are Central and Eastern European Jews living in the royal provinces of Alsace and Lorraine on the eve of the French Revolution.

A month after the fall of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, France’s National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Article 1 stated: “Men are born equal and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be based only on common utility”; Article 10 declared: “No one should be disturbed for his opinions, even in religion, provided that their manifestation does not trouble public order as established by law.”

Naturally, both the Ashkenazic Jews of Alsace-Lorraine and the Sephardi Jews centered in the Bordeaux region assumed that the declaration applied to them, too.

Bordeaux’s Sephardim by then were well integrated in French society. After living in France for nearly two centuries, there was little other than religion that set them apart from other Frenchmen. Within a month after the National Assembly opened debate about Jewish “emancipation,” the Jews of Bordeaux and southwestern France were recognized as citizens.

Powerful opponents, however, resisted a similar decision for the Ashkenazim. These included representatives of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, and populists from Alsace and Lorraine. In favor were representatives of the liberal nobility, the Church’s lower clergy, and the emerging radical Jacobin Society.

Proponents of Jewish citizenship rested their case on the declaration’s unequivocal statements. In their view, only one matter stood in the way: The community insisted on maintaining its own royally-sanctioned courts, which decided cases based on halachah, the corpus of Jewish law. Traditionally until then, these courts were granted license to decide all manner of secular, as well as religious, matters, including trying criminal misdemeanors.

If Jews wanted to be French citizens, the proponents of equality insisted, they would have to live according to French law.

Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, who represented the Paris nobility in the National Assembly, stated this in clear terms during a lengthy debate on December 23, 1789. He dismissed assertions that Jews could never fit into French society because their religious law rendered them “unsociable.” Personal choices about marriage and diet had no impact on France’s political unity.

The only barrier to citizenship, he said, was the continued existence of a separate judicial system, which contradicted the revolution’s principle that all citizens be subject to the same laws. “[W]e must withdraw recognition of their judges,” he said; “they should have none but our own. We must deny legal sanction to the so-called laws of their self-governing Judaic structure. They should not be allowed to constitute a state within the state, either a political group or a social order; they must be citizens individually.”

Interestingly, there was no demand made by either advocates or opponents of Jewish citizenship that Jews abandon their religion and customs.

The Ashkenazim’s campaign for citizenship was stalled over the issue. So fierce was their desire to retain their courts that in April 1790, Berr Isaac Berr, leader of Lorraine’s Jewish community, wrote an open letter to the bishop of Nancy (who opposed citizenship), stating he would personally guarantee that Jews would renounce their rights to vote and to hold elective office if the community were allowed to retain its courts. His nephew, Jacob Berr, immediately denounced the offer in his own open letter, declaring that his uncle had no mandate to propose such “half-way measures.”

A National Assembly member, Adrien Duport, finally resolved the issue. On September 27, 1791 – two days before Rosh Hashanah 5552 – he noted to the Assembly that the recently adopted French constitution had made the matter moot. The constitution required that all citizens take the oath specified by the constitution: “I swear to be faithful to the nation, to the law, and to the King, and to maintain with all my power the constitution of the kingdom, decreed by the National Constituent Assembly in the years 1789, 1790, and 1791.” Said Duport, any Jews taking that oath were agreeing to be governed by and obey French law. The bet din barrier was no more.

The Jews, Duport said, could no longer be denied what “pagans, Turks, Muslims, even the Chinese, people of all sects,” had already been granted-French citizenship.

The assembly’s presiding officer asked Duport to state his proposal in the form of a decree. He did so from the floor, and his wording was adopted. Duport had ended the deadlock. All French Jews finally became the first in any European nation to join their countrymen as free and equal citizens.

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