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March 25: Last Chief Rabbi of France

Lawrence Bush
March 24, 2017

Zadoc Kahn was inducted as the last official Chief Rabbi of France on this date in 1890. His tenure, which would last until his death at 66 in 1905, was marked by Dreyfus Affair: Kahn officiated at the 1890 wedding of Captain Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus and supported them throughout Dreyfus’ false imprisonment, but was unable to arouse the organized Jewish community in France to a vigorous defense against the anti-Semitism of the anti-Dreyfusards. Kahn also oversaw the establishment of the proto-Zionist Hibbat Zion movement, as well as Zionism itself, in France, which he strongly supported despite opposition by most secular Jewish leaders to the colonization movement. Kahn also aided in the establishment of several important Jewish philanthropic organizations, and gained a reputation as an outstanding orator, particularly for his 1889 address on “The French Revolution and Judaism,” which marked the Revolution’s centennial. (Jewdayo has been unable to locate the speech; help is welcome.)

“His position both as chief rabbi of Paris and chief rabbi of France was marked by a series of critical events in the history of French and world Jewry. After the death of Adolphe Crémieux in 1880, French Jewry had no recognized secular leader, and institutions and individuals turned to Kahn for advice and leadership. . . . French Jewry lost its most active communities during his tenure of office, when Alsace-Lorraine was annexed by Germany. The years 1881–82 witnessed the beginning of a mass emigration of East European Jews, some of whom turned to France. But Kahn was unable to influence this important event, as policy was dictated by the Alliance Israélite Universelle and the Paris charity administration, which tried to limit the immigration.” --Jewish Virtual Library

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.