Aside from transforming Europe militarily and politically, Napoleon redefined the Jews’ place in his secular empire. To that end, he even revived the Sanhedrin

The True Heirs of Palestine

Jews have been fascinated by Napoleon Bonaparte ever since he became fascinated by them. Jewish folklore chronicles his affection and admiration for the people of the book. In Jerusalem’s Hurva Synagogue, legend has it, the curtain covering the holy ark on festivals was sewn from the general’s coat. In the early 19th century, rumors spread through Europe that Napoleon considered the Jews “the true heirs of Palestine” and had promised, if he conquered the Holy Land, to grant them their own state.

In April 1799, Le Moniteur Universel was one of many newspapers in France and Germany to publish a report – reputedly originating in Istanbul – inviting the Jews of Asia and North Africa to “rally around Napoleon’s banner.” French forces had advanced through Egypt with the declared aim of capturing Jerusalem, and Akko was under siege. Thousands of Jews, the paper claimed, had already joined Napoleon’s battalions. It wasn’t true, of course – the Jews of the Ottoman Empire weren’t about to risk all for the sake of an upstart French general – but the propaganda certainly made waves.

A Hasidic tale even brings a disguised Napoleon face to face with the Maggid of Kozhnitz (Kozienice, in Poland) during the disastrous Russian campaign. Seeing through Bonaparte’s simple soldier’s garb, the Maggid warns of defeat.

Napoleon’s relations with the Jews peaked with his fabled attempt – on February 9 (1 Adar), 1807 – to reinstate the Sanhedrin, the council of seventy-one elders that governed Jewish life until Roman times. Some see this move as an expression of the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” granted by the French Revolutionary general to all his subjects. Others view it as Napoleon’s way of controlling Jewish law and leadership, and even as the beginning of Judaism’s Reform movement.

To grasp Napoleon’s complex relationship with the Jews, we have to appreciate their role in the French Revolution, as that molded his expectations of them. He was, after all, a product of the revolution, even if he later crowned himself emperor of France and ruled autocratically.

Napoleon’s overarching ambition wasn’t limited to the military. His social, political, and national vision embraced many French Revolutionary values, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying the pomp and splendor of royalty. Napoleon in his study in the Tuileries Palace at the height of his career, just before the Russian campaign proved his downfall. Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas, 1812

Napoleon’s overarching ambition wasn’t limited to the military. His social, political, and national vision embraced many French Revolutionary values, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying the pomp and splendor of royalty. Napoleon in his study in the Tuileries Palace at the height of his career, just before the Russian campaign proved his downfall. Jacques-Louis David, oil on canvas, 1812


Liberty? Equality? Brotherhood?

At the end of the 18th century, most of France’s forty thousand Jews lived in Alsace-Lorraine. They were largely traditional, Yiddish-speaking, and of German origin. Like other medieval Jewish communities, France’s was relatively autonomous and comprised mainly peddlers and moneylenders. Court Jews – a small, wealthy, urban elite – supplied the army and financed government loans, but developments in Versailles and the Parisian center of the French Revolution were distant events in which the Jewish community played no part.

Yet the revolution eventually challenged Jewish continuity. The principles of liberty, equality, and brotherhood also underlay the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre’s famous remark, “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation but granted everything as individuals.” Jews were to be equal to everyone else before the law – at the price of Jewish communal autonomy. Religion in general was targeted, with Catholicism suffering most from the official separation of church and state in 1793. Church property was confiscated, and bishops’ heads rolled along with French aristocrats’. Not surprisingly, when Louis XVIII was reinstated as king of France after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, court Jew Herz Cerfbeer of Medelsheim reportedly told him the Jews had never supported the revolution. Nevertheless, the Napoleonic conquests certainly weren’t all bad for the Jews.

הצהרת זכויות האדם והאזרח הייתה אחד המסמכים הראשונים בהיסטוריה שנועדו להבטיח שיוויון זכויות מלא לכלל אזרחי המדינה. נוסח מעוטר של המגילה, זאן-זאק פררנסיס לה ברבי, 1789

Representation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789

The Italian Model

Napoleon first encountered Jews when his French Revolutionary army trounced the combined forces of Austria and Italy, placing the latter at his feet. Proclaiming a new republic based on the French model, he granted civil liberties to all, including the Jews. After centuries of persecution by the Vatican, Jews in northern and central Italy welcomed Napoleon as their redeemer. As an anonymous Jewish writer from the papal state of Ancona recorded:

“Then God’s salvation came in the blink of an eye, and mourning turned to joy, for rumors reached the ghetto that the French were approaching the city…. After we thought we were all as dead, our spirits were raised and our souls restored to us. The truth is that, thanks be to God, the French dashed into town, swifter than eagles and stronger than lions…. [A]fter the redeemer of Italy, the great general – may God apportion him a goodly reward – arrived, the town customs were overturned, for the laws of the Inquisition were uprooted, blessed be He who uprooted them! And [the Inquisition] courts were abolished, blessed be He who abolished them! And the general began instituting new local laws and customs – where earlier they’d been unjust, full of corruption and trickery – establishing a code of truth, justice, and righteousness, after first proclaiming freedom and brotherhood”. (Barukh Mevorakh, Napoleon and His Times: Hebrew Records and Testimonies of the Generation, pp. 31–33 [Hebrew])

After the initial excitement as the ghetto walls were breached, the equal rights – and obligations – bestowed on the Jews brought unfamiliar challenges. The doubts raised by these social changes echo from a responsum sent to the community of Mantua by Rabbi Ishmael Hakohen of Modena, then Italy’s foremost halakhic authority. The gates of the Mantua ghetto had been dismantled in January 1798, the French Revolutionary flag had been raised in its main square, and two Jewish leaders had been appointed to the city council. As a result, the following question arose:

“… the council happens to have declared a holiday on a holy Sabbath, when all the councilors are to ride by carriage in a festive procession to the council house. The councilmen want the two Jews to join them in the carriage. I was therefore asked if there are grounds to permit this, as [the Jews] fear it will be very difficult to be excused from it”. (Rabbi Ishmael Hakohen, Zera Emet, vol. 3, “Laws of the Sabbath,” sec. 33 [Hebrew])

Such inquiries were relatively rare in Italy, but after Napoleon returned to France, they became existential issues for French Jewry.

Equality Comes at a Price

After his Middle East offensive failed, Napoleon arrived back in France ahead of his army in August 1799 to take command of the campaign in Europe. On November 9 – 18 Brumaire according to the Revolutionary calendar – Napoleon ended the Revolutionary chaos in France by appointing himself first consul. Five years later, in December 1804, he crowned himself emperor.

ביקורו הקצר של נפוליאון בארץ ישראל הותיר רושם רב על תושבי הארץ. נפוליאון מבקר חולים ביפו. ז'אן אנטואן גרו, שמן על בד, 1894

Napoleon’s Holy Land campaign was beset by rumors that he’d murdered prisoners and poisoned sick troops. To dispel this hearsay, the general risked his health to visit a military infirmary. Antoine-Jean Gros, Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa, oil on canvas, 1894

Although this consolidation of power theoretically undid all the political achievements of the “Glorious Revolution,” Napoleon maintained – and enforced – much of its enlightened spirit. Detailed and efficient centralized legislation brought all aspects of the state – social, cultural, and political – under his thumb, but equality for all, including Jews, remained sacred. Catholicism became the official religion, but ecclesiastical appointments remained in Napoleon’s hands. Thus, religion as well effectively came under his control, to be harnessed as a progressive force.

This attitude also governed Napoleon’s Jewish policy: as equal citizens, the Jews were to contribute to the development of France. Autonomous Jewish communities, each functioning almost as a state within the state, stood in the way. In 1806, when anti-Semitic lawyers from Alsace complained that Jews were lending with interest only to non-Jews, the issue of Jewish integration into the Napoleonic republic came to a head.

Napoleon convened an “assembly of Jewish notables” in Paris, including representatives of Italian Jewry, “to make their religious commitments compatible with their duties as Frenchmen” (Mevorakh, p. 79). To analyze to what extent Jews could be citizens of a non-Jewish state, twelve questions were presented. The answers were to obligate all Jews, subordinating Jewish law to French legislation.

Shortly afterward, in September 1806, Napoleon announced a conference of rabbis to be known as the Sanhedrin, whose job was to translate the assembly’s decisions into religious decrees that would bind all Jews. In February 1807, this rabbinic body duly assembled under the leadership of Rabbi David Sinzheim of Strasbourg, dean of a Talmudic academy in Beisheim and a leading halakhic authority. Rabbi Ishmael of Modena was also invited, but he excused himself on account of his extreme age and sent a detailed halakhic paper instead. Other attendees were Rabbi Aaron Worms, a student of Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gunzburg, author of the responsa work Sha’agat Arye, who headed the yeshiva in Metz and later became that city’s chief rabbi; Rabbi Israel Karmi Marggio Emilia; and Rabbi Elijah Aaron Lattis of Savigliano, in Piedmont. The Sanhedrin therefore included the leading rabbis of France, the Rhineland, and northern Italy.

Representatives of Amsterdam’s Adat Jeshurun, generally considered the first Reform Jewish community, weren’t allowed to participate. Neither were the Reform Jews of Frankfurt.

איור זה של הסנהדרין שהקים נפוליאון מדגים את האופי הממלכתי והרשמי שביקש לשוות למוסד זה

An illustration of Napoleon’s Sanhedrin. 1806

Facing New Challenges

The first two questions presented to the Jewish assembly of notables and passed on to the Sanhedrin focused on the permissibility of polygamy and divorce in Judaism. In Catholic France, divorce was illegal, so these questions were intended to test French Jewry’s loyalty to state law: if Jews renounced divorce, as the law required, might they rely on polygamy as a solution?

The next four questions concerned relations with non-Jews. Were mixed marriages permitted? Were non-Jewish French citizens viewed as brothers or strangers? The sixth question was whether French Jews felt bound by state law and considered France their homeland. Three questions dealt with the rabbinate, asking how rabbis were appointed and to whom they were answerable. The last three questions pertained to Jewish occupations, particularly moneylending, and how loans made to non-Jews differed from those extended to Jews.

The members of the Sanhedrin were well aware of their delicate situation and feared the consequences of displeasing the emperor. Their answers were cautious but showed how broad-shouldered rabbinic leaders with a deep commitment to halakha could negotiate all obstacles, producing a document both modern and faithful to Jewish law. No wonder Rabbi Sinzheim was lauded (based on the daily morning liturgy) as:

“David, of grand opinion and broad understanding. David, pride of this generation and refined of heart. You are God’s chosen, prince of wisdom, Guardian of the Faithful, shining like the sun”. (ibid., p. 121)

בתקופת שלטון הטרור ששררה במהלך המהפכה הצרפתית נרדפו אנשי דת מכל הדתות והרב יוסף דוד זינצהיים נאלץ לברוח ולהסתתר. הרב זינצהיים בעת כהונתו כראש הסנהדרין. פייר פול פרודון, שמן על בד

Clergymen of all religions were persecuted in the French Revolutionary “Reign of Terror.” Rabbi Joseph David Sinzheim, for one, was forced into hiding. This oil painting captures him as president of Napoleon’s Sanhedrin. His hat, though seemingly modeled on the stone tablets in Michelangelo’s Moses, actually resembles a Catholic priest’s headpiece. Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, oil on canvas

The Sanhedrin ruled that while the Bible states, “You shall lend with interest to the stranger and not to your brother” (Deuteronomy 23:21), the Jews of France were  not to regard their countrymen as “strangers.” Though this interpretation may seem to bend Jewish law to fit Napoleon’s requirements, it was based on Rabbi Ishmael of Modena’s halakhic ruling.

Rabbi Aaron Worms took an even more radical approach, permitting the charging of interest to a non-observant Jew, since by throwing off the yoke of Jewish law, he had “estranged” himself from his people (Me’orei Or 7:11–12)! On the other hand, the ties of brotherhood forbade lending with interest to a non-Jew who observed the seven Noahide laws. The rabbi went further still, ruling that just as the laws of the Sabbath could not be overridden to circumcise the son of Karaites (who were widely considered to be outsiders to the Jewish people, although they upheld the biblical laws), neither was the son of non-observant Jews to be circumcised on the Sabbath:

“Those who turn away from Israel toward unkosher meat [and] impure women, and who desecrate the Sabbath, are even worse than Karaites and shouldn’t be circumcised even on weekdays … nor can their children, who grow up like all the other nations, be considered Jews, as children inherit the deeds of their fathers”. (ibid. 6:112)

Rabbi Aaron appears to have been extremely conservative and uncompromising on the one hand, effectively excluding non-observant Jews from the Jewish people, and progressive on the other, extending the ties of brotherhood to include non-Jews as far as usury was concerned.

The Sanhedrin was equally creative in other areas. It forbade rabbinical courts to issue a get, a bill of divorce, to any couple who hadn’t already attained a civil divorce. Their reason was that no get could be valid as long as the two remained linked by the law of the land: “The only valid get according to the law of Moses our teacher is one that completely severs any ties between the couple, including legal statutory ties” (Mevorakh, p. 92).

The Sanhedrin similarly forbade marriages unless “they have first been recorded before the town clerk” (ibid.). Mixed marriages were invalid in Jewish law, the rabbis ruled, but valid under secular law, and such couples were not to be ostracized by the Jewish community.

'קוד נפוליאון', שנכנס לתוקף במרץ 1804, נוסח בשפה פשוטה כדי שיהיה מובן לציבור הרחב ולא רק למומחים למשפט. הוראות יסודיות רבות שנוסחו בקוד לא השתנו והן קיימות בחוק הצרפתי עד היום. בעקבות כיבושי נפוליאון הפך הקוד לאחד מספרי החוקים המשפיעים ביותר על החקיקה המודרנית. אחד מכרכי הקודקס המקורייםבאדיבות אריק חיים קליינה מכירות פומביות

Enforced as of March 1804, the Napoleonic Code was written simply, so anyone could understand it. Many of its basic enactments remain part of French law today. Spread by Napoleon’s conquests, the code became one of the most influential modern legal works worldwide
Courtesy of Eric Chaim Kline, antiquarian bookseller

A Loving Monarch

Satisfied with the Sanhedrin’s responses, Napoleon ordered them to be endorsed by national legislation. The resulting codex, published in 1812 (though copies were distributed earlier and even translated into Italian, English, and German), began with the following exaggerated praise of the emperor:

“Blessed is the Lord, God of Israel, now and forever, who has placed a man after His own heart on the throne of France and Italy. His soul has surely selected that greatest among rulers, Napoleon the Great”. (ibid., p. 88)

This kind of adulation appears in Jewish literature from the 16th century onward, particularly in Rabbi Solomon ibn Virga’s Shevet Yehuda [Tribe of Judah] and in the writings of Don Isaac Abravanel. Even traumas like the Spanish expulsion are described as the fault of the Church or the mob, which forced the king’s hand. As such, the Sanhedrin’s preamble was by no means unusual.

Napoleon’s Sanhedrin was assembled by an emperor at the height of his power, who not only conquered vast swathes of territory but also imposed a standardized system of measurements and instituted egalitarian law. It wasn’t just his army that was unstoppable; the Napoleonic Code became the law in Europe, persisting after his defeat despite efforts to turn back the clock. Any mistakes made by the Sanhedrin would have impacted the Jews not just in France and Italy but in Holland, where Napoleon installed his brother Louis as king; Germany, which he dominated after the battle of Jena-Auerstädt in 1806 and the conquest of Berlin; and Poland, where he created the duchy of Warsaw under his ally Frederick Augustus I of Saxony. The Sanhedrin’s decisions were intended to be the lesser of many evils, and its members’ cautious, complex attempts to negotiate a sticky situation were the first of their kind, admirably balancing commitment to religious law with modern challenges.