Gabriel A. Sivan on “From One End of the Earth to the Other”: The London Bet Din

, April 20, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

How often has a mysterious old portrait led someone to investigate its background, thereby shedding light on a neglected chapter of Jewish social and religious history? The central figure in this book, Rabbi Aaron Levy (c. 1795-1876), was a member of the London Bet Din (Jewish tribunal) and his portrait had been found, virtually undamaged, in the ruins of the Great (Duke’s Place) Synagogue after a Nazi air raid in 1942. It was then entrusted to Jack and Leah Corman, this author’s future in-laws, Leah being a great-grandniece of the man portrayed. They hung it over the sideboard in their dining room, but could tell Pfeffer little about “Reb Aaron,” apart from the fact that he had sailed to and from Australia in 1830 in order to issue a get (bill of  divorce) for the wife of a transported Jewish convict.

Having graduated from the Imperial College of Science and Technology at London University, Jeremy Pfeffer worked in his family business and then taught chemistry and physics at Carmel College, British Jewry’s elite “public school.” After his aliyah (immigration to Israel) in 1969 and further study in Israel, he held an administrative post in the town of Rehovot and served as principal of various high schools. He has published a number of scientific articles and two recent studies in English on the Book of Job.

The work under review started to take shape after Pfeffer’s retirement in 2004, when he and his wife “made the journey of a lifetime to Australia and New Zealand.” That tour revived his curiosity about Aaron Levy, the rabbinical emissary whose own voyage had taken place over 170 years before. Why was this young man picked for such a mission? How many Jewish husbands, tried and convicted in Georgian England, were transported to Australia? What became of them there? And what steps had been taken to prevent the wives of those transportees from remaining agunot – perpetually tied to their menfolk?

A Wealth of Unique Information

In his search for answers to these questions Pfeffer decided to investigate the London Bet Din’s minute books (pinkasim) – three handwritten volumes covering the years 1805-1855 – and archives in Britain, Israel, the United States, and Tasmania. This enabled him to piece together the story of those Jewish convicts, their families, and a nascent Australian Jewry. “As my research progressed,” the author notes, “I realised that the minute books told another story too: that of the London Bet Din itself….” Established by Rabbi Solomon Hirschel in 1805, “it was the first and for many years the only fully accredited Bet Din in the English-speaking world.” No other rabbinical court has left a record of its transactions comparable to the one preserved in its minute books, which (Pfeffer maintains) include a wealth of information largely overlooked by previous researchers.                       

The author claims, justifiably perhaps, that Hirschel and his achievements are underrated, even if the sick and aged rabbi was unable to halt the erosion of traditional observance in his day. That could also be said of Anglo-Jewry’s Sephardi and Reform ministers down to our own time: “Indeed, if success in forestalling disaffection is the criterion by which religious leaders are to be judged, then historically most were failures, including all the biblical prophets from Moses through to Elisha.” Pfeffer goes too far, however, when (ignoring the foundation of Jews’ College by Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler) he asserts that Hirschel’s Bet Din was “the only truly Jewish institution established in nineteenth-century England.”

Various case histories involving marriage, divorce, and proselytes, with the Hebrew names of those concerned, enable one to appreciate the efforts made by Hirschel and his religious court judges to relieve the plight of long-forsaken wives, and of children threatened with the stigma of mamzerut (bastardy), in order to keep them within the Jewish fold. Two Acts of Parliament had a direct bearing on matters of personal status affecting Jews. The Blasphemy Act of 1698 was thought to prohibit Christians from embracing the Jewish faith. Since proselytes do not merely “convert to Judaism” but become Jews, the Bet Din was wary of accepting converts in England and only registered Halakhic “conversions” performed overseas. Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act of 1753, which declared only unions conducted by the Church of England to be lawful, specifically exempted Quaker and Jewish marriages from this regulation. British courts then tended to uphold the authority of Jewish law in such matters.

Until Sir Robert Peel began to reform the English penal system, its administration was corrupt and poor men could be sentenced to death or transportation for stealing goods worth only a few shillings. Pfeffer might have quoted Alexander Pope’s bitter words in The Rape of the Lock (1714): “The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, / And wretches hang that jurymen may dine.” The fate of English convicts transported to the American colonies was often worse than that of black slaves and, when a temporary alternative was found by cramming offenders into hulks along the Thames (1776-1787), conditions were so bad that one-third of them died. Convicts were then transported to destinations from which there was virtually no escape – Botany Bay (New South Wales) and Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

According to reliable estimates, the crime rate among poor Jewish immigrants at this time was disproportionately high. They labored under many disadvantages, having no vocational skills, being excluded from trade guilds, and meeting with prejudice even on the part of established Anglo-Jewry. As a result, they were forced to become peddlers and dealers in secondhand clothes or to live by their wits as pickpockets, forgers, and petty thieves. Yet Charles Dickens’s Artful Dodger was not a Jew, nor was Fagin a specifically Jewish type.

Since married men constituted 25 percent of the Jews transported to Australia, their wives and families were in a parlous situation. “Presumption of death” allowed a Christian woman to remarry after her husband had been absent for seven years (the usual period of transportation), but Jewish law made no such provision. A convict unwilling to return home from Australia often took a new wife or mistress, while his legal spouse in England was apt to seek a new partner as well. Pfeffer shows how the Bet Din endeavored to prevent such a woman from becoming an agunah. Thus, on the basis of certain takkanot (corrective legal measures), hearsay evidence might be accepted; or, if both sides agreed, a conditional divorce might be arranged before the convicted man’s departure.

Down Under for a Get

These problems could not always be solved in England and the purpose of Aaron Levy’s journey to the antipodes (the first by an ordained rabbi) was to issue a get on behalf of a woman whose husband had no intention of seeing her again. The death sentence passed on this Jew, a serial counterfeiter, had been commuted to transportation for life and he had already spent twenty-two years in New South Wales. Rabbi Levy began his ocean voyage in August 1830 with a multiple task ahead of him. It involved acting as the forsaken wife’s shali’ah (emissary); convening and heading an ad hoc bet din in Sydney; utilizing his ability as a sofer (traditional scribe) to write the bill of divorce; and, finally, acting as the ex-husband’s shali’ah when handing the woman her get after he returned to London in September 1831.

Levy’s five-month sojourn “down under” also gave him an opportunity to “correct many errors and abuses” in the emerging community there, to provide it with a Torah scroll, and to sell prayer books that it needed. Who defrayed his travel expenses is still a mystery; a cabin-class passage would then have cost the princely sum of ₤50 at least. Yet he evidently performed a task that no one else was willing and qualified to undertake in order to “right a great wrong.” Apart from being a proficient calligrapher, he was also a talented illustrator of Jewish ritual items (e.g., handbooks for conducting marriages and circumcisions), a number of which are reproduced in Pfeffer’s book. Oddly enough, however, the illustrations do not include the portrait of “Reb Aaron” with which this whole story began.

Chapters 1, 7, and 8 are digressive and should have been condensed. The author names three friends who “were kind enough to read, check and comment on the final manuscript,” but there is no evidence of this in the text, which is marred by spelling mistakes, faulty punctuation, and the repetitive use of “notwithstanding” (instead of “nevertheless” or “however”) at the beginning of a sentence. Pfeffer locates the Great Synagogue in Duke Street (instead of Duke’s Place) and believes that Marrano is an Arabic (rather than Spanish) term for “swine.” He also refers to Cossack “hoards,” speaks of “proselytation,” and apparently  believes that the average reader will know what is meant by the “pre-Chabad era.” One slip is unintentionally comic: when a Jewish thief was sentenced to transportation in 1832, a plea was entered for the mitigation of his sentence “in consideration of his hitherto impeachable character” (204). Professional editing would have eliminated such mistakes, which detract from the value of an otherwise useful work.

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DR. GABRIEL SIVAN, a cultural historian, has published, edited, and translated many works in the field of Judaica. He is chairman of the World Jewish Bible Association and an executive of the Jewish Historical Society of England’s Israel branch.

Dr. Gabriel Sivan

Dr. Gabriel Sivan, a cultural historian, has published, edited, and translated numerous works in the field of Judaica. He is currently Chairman of the World Jewish Bible Association and an executive of the Jewish Historical Society of England’s Israel branch.