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Rabbi Wolfgang Hamburger 1919-2012

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Fall 2012

Rabbi Wolfgang Hamburger, a longtime member of the board of the American Council for Judaism, died on March 20, 2012 in St. Joseph, Missouri.  
Born March 12, 1919 in Stettin, Germany, Rabbi Hamburger, whose mother was not Jewish, lived through the years of World War II in Nazi Germany. He emigrated to the United States after the war and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Cincinnati and was ordained a rabbi at Hebrew Union College.  
He served congregations in Lincoln, Nebraska, Duluth, Minnesota and Longview and Houston, Texas before coming to Temple Adath Joseph in St. Joseph, Missouri, from which he retired in 1986.  
In 1973, Rabbi Hamburger wrote an essay on classical Reform Judaism, a philosophy to which he was committed, for the Council. Because of the intolerance which existed in the organized American Jewish community to dissenting points of view, Rabbi Hamburger chose to have this essay published anonymously.  
It was his belief that Jewish nationalism is incompatible with the classical principles of Reform Judaism. In the preface to this essay, it is declared that, “It is a sad reflection on the moral decay of the current Jewish tradition that a Jewish scholar of recognized stature should be inhibited by considerations of severe personal loss from speaking openly on this sensitive subject. It is unmistakably clear that the only path to full participation in an ‘open’ American society is through the preservation of an ‘open synagogue.’”  
After assuming his rabbinical post in St. Joseph, Rabbi Hamburger published a series of articles under his own name in Issues.  
He was particularly concerned about the formal adoption by Reform Judaism of a Zionist agenda, which holds that the state of Israel, not God, was “central” to Judaism and calling for American Jews to make “aliyah,” emigration to Israel. By doing so, he argued, the essence of Classical Reform Judaism had been abandoned. That essence, he believed, was as true and relevant as ever.  
He wrote: “Many advocates of classical Reform Judaism are saddened by the embrace of Jewish nationalism by today’s Reform Jewish establishment.” Contrasting the religious vision of the original reformers with the political vision of the advocates of Zionism, he explained: “Reform Judaism as a religion is concerned with the individual’s life, with its singularity and preciousness, with honesty, decency, and charitableness of thought and deed. Zionism was a political movement based upon the notion of Jewish ethnicity. But the notion is senseless. ‘Ethnicity’ is a term which sociologists coined and used. Its definition — common race, common nationality and distinctive culture — needs no elaboration to make it obvious that Jews cannot be considered an ethnic group. Nowadays definitions must yield precedence to impressive and elegant phrases which are dazzling but in fact have no connection with reality...Reform Judaism is an authentic outreach for God. Zionism is today a fabrication of nationalist Jews. The opinion that the two should be merged is the fabrication of ideologues.”  
One of the salient points of Reform Judaism’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, Rabbi Hamburger pointed out, was that these American rabbis and congregants “considered themselves to be a religious community and no longer a nation.” Even in the face of dramatic change, he remained an optimist: “Classical Reform Jews who take their form of Judaism seriously and cherish it as part of their lives need not worry about this poorly conceived assault upon their religious convictions and values as long as they have the courage and perseverance to defend them in their congregations against rabbis of the ethnic outlook. In the long run, that which is genuine in daily living will abide.”  
We extend our condolences to Rabbi Hamburger’s wife Susan and other members of his family.

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