Home / The Consistory: 200 years of history

March, 1832:  A few enterprising young men create the Jewish Central Consistory of Belgium.  Their names are Adolphe Oppenheim, Henri Furth, Sigmund Benda, Adolphe Hauman, and Henri Schuster, and most originally came from Germany.  Of course, the body that they were setting up was not truly new.  Both its name and its form were modeled after an institution that Napoleon had created twenty-five years earlier and had persisted during Belgium’s period under Dutch rule.  The country’s Jewish communities had effectively been governed since 1808 by a centralized body called the Consistoire during the Empire period and then the Hoofdsynagogue (”Chief Synagogue” or Community) between 1815 and 1830.  However, the new leaders of Belgian Judaism had intentions of much greater scope.

As the “Belgian citizens professing the Jewish faith” stated most emphatically in a petition to the National Congress in January 1831, the principles that presided over the adoption of the Constitution enshrined the Belgians’ equality before the law, the freedom of education, and above all the equality of the faiths, thereby making the Belgian Constitution “the wisest and most liberal in continental Europe,” with the country described as endowed with the most progressive Constitution and a pioneering spirit in economic and financial matters.  As individuals most of them quickly adopted this state of mind, shared this pioneer spirit, and contributed to the young Kingdom of Belgium’s rapid expansion, which would quickly turn it into a leading economic power.  As a group they ensured that their community of origin, that is, the Jewish community, would have a place within this new society and political and religious culture and enjoy the privileges granted to the other recognized faiths.  This is the principle that should guide our understanding of the Jewish Central Consistory of Belgium’s founding.

To the outside world, the Consistory is the representative of Belgian Jewry, the official speaking partner when it comes to managing Jewish religious worship, and the embodiment of the guarantee that the Jewish masses will subscribe to the liberal contract of modern society.  Inside the community the Consistory is of course the body that serves as the “head of the faith” and the religious communities’ spiritual authority.  However, it would also become the driving force of what was still called at the time - in direct line with the philosophy of the Enlightenment - the Jews’ “regeneration,” that is, the guarantee of their emancipation and the vector of their religious and social modernization.  Indeed, this became its preponderant role.

The Consistory obviously is not monolithic:  Tradition and modernity sometimes clashed within its structures.  Of course, the country’s religious communities would root themselves in the tradition of jealous self-determination and often enjoyed considerable spiritual independence, as in Antwerp.  Nevertheless, the Consistory became and has remained the central body of Belgian Jewry as both its showcase and its spokesperson.

Even though most of the people who headed the Consistory over the years were members of the Jewish haute bourgeoisie who were fully integrated in the social, economic, and sometimes political fabric of Belgium and their views on Judaism were sometimes remote from those of a portion of the Jewish masses, they were no less ardent defendants of Judaism’s fundamental religious interests.  The ways they defended the perpetuation of Jewish cemeteries in the 19th century and ritual slaughter in the 20th century are proof of this.

The Consistory was sometimes caught between tradition and modernity, especially with the arrival of representatives of Orthodox communities composed of Central and Eastern European Jews starting in 1910.  It was above all a meeting place for fundamentally different views on Judaism.  It was a forum for exchange rather than a battlefield, a place for searching for a compromise around which the idea of a Judaism that was both fully integrated in modern life, devoted to the Belgian constitutional regime, and open to social, scientific, and cultural progress in society but also deeply immersed in Jewish tradition and faithful to Jewish law gradually took shape.

This intersection of ideas was the work of some men with striking personalities, be they laymen or ministers of the faith.  Four of the latter can be cited as representative of both this constant search for compromise and the diverse sensitivities that were manifested within the Belgian Jewish community as a whole.  They were Chief Rabbis Alie-Aristide Astruc and Armand Bloch before World War I, Chief Rabbi Ernest Ginsburger in the interwar period, and finally Chief Rabbi Robert Dreyfus, the last spiritual head of the Jewish communities of Belgium, after World War II.

Several Consistory presidents were emblematic figures of Belgian Judaism, whether in the 19th century (Louis Lassen, Joseph Oppenheim, and Jacques Wiener) or in the 20th century (Franz and Paul Philippson, Ernest Wiener, Jean Bloch, and Georges Schnek).  Under Georges Schnek’s impetus the Consistory took many initiatives in the areas of Jewish education (supporting the development of the Jewish Studies Institute), the preservation of Jewish heritage (the creation of the Jewish Museum of Belgium and Institute of Jewish Audiovisual Memory), the history of Belgian Judaism (the Contemporary Memory Foundation/Jean Bloch Foundation), and remembrance of the Holocaust (Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance in Mechelen).  Finally, the Consistory promoted knowledge of Judaism through many actions, such as radio and television broadcasts, religious education classes, and the publication of its newsletter, Nouvelles Consistoriales/Consistoriaal Nieuwsblad.

The continuity that the Consistory has shown in searching for a balance among diverging tendencies and mentalities has not eliminated paradoxes.  We can thus see that the Consistory was extremely liberal when it came to religious matters from the time of its founding to about 1880, and even a few years afterwards, whereas today it has distanced itself from the liberal current.  For example, it has not accepted the liberal Jewish community in its midst.  As for the rest, it seems to remain faithful to the spirit in which it was founded and that drove it throughout the 20th century.

The Consistory, the current president of which is Professor Julien Klener, remains without a doubt the unchallenged moral authority of Belgian Judaism.  This authority is not due solely to its respectable age and status as the oldest Jewish institution of Belgium.  The Consistory perpetuates the idea of a federation of the religious communities in the entire country and thus the entire Jewish population of Belgium.  It maintains and guarantees the synthesis of the contrary currents that flow through it.  Finally, it personifies the model of the Jews’ integration in modern society to the point of inspiring ideas for the integration of religious minorities that have taken root in our regions more recently.

This last element enables us to understand better the Consistory’s true political dimension, one that was resounding in the 19th century, less present over the next fifty years, and manifest since 1967.  The interfaith dialogue, especially since the changes that were made in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, is not the only place in which the Consistory has demonstrated its role as a representative of Belgian Jewry.  It has often appeared to be the only institution capable of incarnating the Jewish community of Belgium as a whole in many other matters as well.  And in that, too, it is definitely faithful to its past.