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From The Pages of Jewish History: Rabbi Bernard Illowy Print E-mail

Rabbi Bernard IllowyThe 3rd of Tammuz is the Yahrtzeit of Rav Yissachar Dov Illowy (1814-1871). born in Kolin, Bohemia. He learned in Pressburg under the Chasam Sofer. He later enrolled in the University in Budapest where he earned a doctorate. Rabbi Illowy arrived in America in 1853. In the 1840s, leading exponents of German Reform had begun to immigrate to the United States, and active opponents of Torah Judaism such as Isaac Mayer Wise and Max Lilienthal emerged as important factors on the American Jewish scene. As a talmid chacham and an educated university graduate, Rabbi Illowy was especially qualified to debunk Reform mythologies. He soon accepted the position of Rav of Shaarei Zedek in New York. However, his zealous speeches and writings against Reform resulted in several changes in employment. After a short tenure in New York, Rabbi Illowy moved on to Philadelphia (Congregation Rodef Shalom), followed by service in St. Louis, Syracuse, Baltimore, New Orleans (1860 until 1865), and finally Cincinnati.


Rabbi Dr. Bernard Illowy was born in Kolin, Bohemia, in 1812. Ordained at the yeshiva of the Chatam Sofer, he also received his PhD at the University of Budapest. In 1848 he delivered addresses to revolutionary forces passing through Kolin, and, subsequently, was deprived of holding rabbinical office by a conservative government official. Consequently, Rabbi Illowy decided to leave your up and, in 1853, arrived in the United States. He initially obtained the position as Rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tsedek in New York, but later in the year migrated to Philadelphia. He eventually moved to New Orleans.

In 1864, when a son born of a Gentile mother and Jewish father was presented for circumcision in New Orleans, Rabbi Illowy ruled that the Mohalim of the city could not perform this religious ceremony. Prior to this ruling it had been the custom of the community for such boys, upon the request of the father, to be circumcised in a Jewish ceremony by a Mohel and, in fact, there were at least 12 such children, ranging in age from five months to 12 years, then residing in New Orleans. There were three Mohalim serving in New Orleans at this time, and two agreed to obey the order issued by the Rabbi.

One, however, a Mr. Goldenberg, refused to obey the rabbis willing and, as a consequence, Rabbi Illowy “declared him unfit for the holy office of a Mohel.” In addition, then, to ruling that a Mohel could not circumcise the son of a Jewish father and a Jewish mother, Rabbi Illowy announced that a Mohel who did perform such a circumcision was ritually unqualified and that it was sinful for any Jew to bring his son to such a person for circumcision.

On October 31, 1864, Rabbi Illowy wrote to a leading Orthodox periodical in Germany, in order to elicit the opinions of the European rabbinate one of the issues raised by this whole matter. Adjusting himself to Rabbi Dr. Lehman, the editor, Rabbi Illowy's letter was published under the title, “The Circumcision of Children Born to Non-Jewish Mothers in Mixed Marriages.” Rabbi Illowy explain the matter to Rabbi Lehman and told of the controversy his decision had aroused in new Orleans. The mothers, he reported, had no intention of raising their children as Jews and the fathers, who were Jewish, or flagrant violators of the Law.

In addition, Rabbi Illowy related his argument with Goldenberg and stated that he had declared this Mohel who would not obey his decision to be ritually unqualified. He concluded by asking three questions of the European rabbit.

Is such a circumcision, as described in this report, forbidden according to Jewish religious law?

Has the Rabbi a right to declare a Mohel who disobeys his instructions to be unfit?

Is it sinful for someone to permit his child to be circumcised by a Mohel whom the Rabbi has declared to be unfit?

Rabbi Lehman replied by stating that a similar case had occurred in Hamburg and that the rabbis there had not permitted such children to be circumcised. Rabbi Lehman was of the opinion that this decision was correct, for if a blessing had been recited at the ceremony of such a child, God's name would have been taken in vain.

The one major European rabbi to dissent from Rabbi Illowy's views and attack his position was Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer:

“Regarding the question as to whether it is a sin to circumcise children such as these it seems to me that it is not a sin, but only a mitzvah.”

These boys are to be considered holy offspring. “We are commanded to circumcise him at the proper moment according to the directive of his father, so that when he grows up, the boy will quickly be able to obey the directive of his father and immerse himself ritually according to Jewish law. And if we do not circumcise him, it is as though we repel him with both hands from the community of Israel.

“When a sinner direct seems hard to repent, how will his repentance be accepted if he raises his children as Gentiles? However, if we perform his will in this matter and circumcise his sons, he, along with his children, will return and we will have aided him in repenting. And if, God forbid, he should not repent, in this matter his desire to circumcise his children according to the Jewish Legion is a good one, without a doubt; when they grow up they can be immersed ritually before a Jewish court.”

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