The former outstanding chief rabbi of Székesfehérvár — a city one hour south of Budapest — Sándor Kohut, who was one of the founders of the best Jewish theological university in New York, was born 180 years ago. With the help of historian Anna Gergely, we pay tribute to his memory.
Sándor Kohut was born as the son of Jakab Kohut and Cili Hoffmann 180 years ago, on June 11, 1842 in Kiskunfélegyháza, a small town just South-East of Budapest. After graduating from elementary Jewish school, he continued his studies at the reformate high school in Kecskemét. At the same time under the direction of the chief rabbi F.H. Fleischmann, he also studied the Talmud.
In 1860, his parents sent him to Pest (a town which a decade and a half later became known as Budapest) to learn German language — a language was mostly spoken back then in most Hungarian cities – , where he passed his final exams with excellent results at the state German high school.
Right after graduation the young scientist candidate became a student of the famous rabbinical seminary in Boroszló (today known as Wroczlaw, in south-Poland), where he furthered his education with great diligence and talent.
These student years were spent amid difficult financial circumstances, but his professional awareness and desire for knowledge helped him overcome all obstacles. He studied ten Eastern languages at the same time and also excelled in theological and secular sciences.
In 1865, he obtained his diploma in Leipzig, Germany according to the expectations of the time: in addition to his rabbinic degree, he also had to prove his excellent skills and knowledge in secular humanities. After his doctorate, he was ordained a rabbi in 1867.
In the same year, he returned to Hungary and the young rabbi, whose name was already known throughout Europe, was invited by the reform (so called neolog) community of Székesfehérvár to give a trial speech for the upcoming Pesach holidays.
The rabbi’s speech, knowledge, and personality made such a deep impression on the community members that they unanimously and with great enthusiasm elected Sándor Kohut as their rabbi.
In 1868, he was elected secretary-general of the National Jewish Congress, and Baron József Eötvös, Minister of Culture, appointed him director of all Jewish schools in Fejér County.
During these years, the life of Székesfehérvár Jews was characterized by the debate between orthodoxy and neology, causing quite a bit of tension in the city, and the dispute and submissions even reached the highest forums of the Governorship.
The reformists or neologists inaugurated their beautiful, representative synagogue in 1864 during the autumn holidays. Chief Rabbi Kohut already held the service in the new church in front of the ever-increasing number of believers.
During these busy years filled with a lot of work, Chief Rabbi Kohut created a family in the city, and his children were also born there. His wife, Júlia Weiszbrun, gave birth to four children: Elemér (1869), Ilonka (1871), Valéria (1872), György Kohut, Alexander (1874).
After his time in Székesfehérvár, Chief Rabbi Kohut was elected spiritual leader first in major cities in Hungary: Pécs in 1874 and in Nagyvárad (1880-1885). In his seat in Pécs, he declared that he was a supporter of harmonious balance.
“The achievements of the present are salutary and blessed only in addition to the heritage of antiquity.” However, “… not everything is old, but also heavenly”. — he stated in a famous speach.
Between 1878 and 1892, his main work, the Áruch Completum, a dictionary and encyclopedia for Talmudic and Midrashic literature, was published in 9 volumes, which also made Pécs famous worldwide.
The work was supported by a significant sum of money by the bishop of Pécs, Nándor Dulánszky. The importance of the personality of Rabbi Kohut is clearly shown by the fact that during his visit to Pécs (1880) Ferenc József I also visited the synagogue…
The chief rabbi was a member of several scientific societies; as an orator, he preached in Hungarian, German and English, and his philosophies and writings made him a world-renowned theologian
, so it should not have been a big surprise that the Ahavas Chessed community from New York invited him to be their spiritual leader. He moved to the United States with his family.
On the initiative of Chief Rabbi Kohut, one of America’s first and still the most important Jewish higher education institutions, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was founded, of which he was not only a founding member, but also a professor and director until his death.
On June 11, 1894, when the news of Kossuth’s death reached him, he got up from his sick bed to offer spiritual comfort to his followers. The excellent chief rabbi died in the pulpit of his synagogue, causing an irreparable loss to his family, his followers, and the Jews of Hungary and the world.
His youngest child, Kohut G. Alexander, became an excellent rabbi, theologian, and professor of history, who mainly worked on the history of the Jews of Latin America and the old Spanish colonies in his works.
He established a literary foundation named after his father, whose income was used to publish Jewish scientific works.