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Gabriel A. Sivan on Faith against Reason: Religious Reform and the British Chief Rabbinate 1840-1990

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

The Jewish community in Great Britain, once regarded as an inspiring model, has undergone a steep numerical decline from around 450,000 souls in 1945 to less than 300,000 today. A generally low birth rate, childless “partnerships,” intermarriage, and the loss of observant families through aliyah account for much of this erosion. Another reason has been the failure of mainstream Orthodoxy – represented by the United Synagogue[1] and the Chief Rabbinate – to stem the religious drift and keep most of “Anglo-Jewry” within its ranks. How this process began and developed is the subject of Meir Persoff’s informative and enlightening study. A well-known author, journalist, and former editor of the influential weekly the London Jewish Chronicle, Persoff brings an insider’s knowledge of and insight regarding the workings and history of the Anglo-Jewish community and its religious leadership. In his introduction, Dr. Todd M. Endelman, William Haber Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Michigan, neatly sums up the message of this volume, when he observes that “Chief Rabbis…variously battled with their own clergy and lay leaders, as well as with the religious leadership of congregations both to their left…and to their right….” Essentially, Faith against Reason shows how successive Chief Rabbis, in their effort to prevent schism, fell into the trap of confusing Jewish unity with religious uniformity.

The author begins with the “Great Secession” of 1842 which resulted in the establishment of the West London Synagogue, whose mainly Sephardi membership desired a more conveniently located place of worship. This led to the rabbinic herem (excommunication) and ensuing bitterness. Although the Sephardic authorities withdrew their herem in 1849, allowing erstwhile opponents to be reconciled, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate never formally revoked the ban. Persoff argues that had wiser counsels prevailed, authorizing the establishment of branch synagogues in the West End, secession might have been avoided. In addition to opposing new synagogue locations, the rabbis objected to changes such as English sermons and more decorous services. Persoff observes that at this point “British Reform was a lukewarm affair. Hebrew remained the language of prayer; liturgical references to the messianic redemption, the return to Zion and the chosenness of the Jews were retained; organ music was delayed for two decades; and mixed seating was to await the twentieth century.” As time would show, most changes made by those who seceded differed little from those eventually sanctioned by Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler.

Despite Rabbi Adler’s neo-orthodox training and German doctorate, political considerations influenced many of his decisions. For example, his attempt to prevent the registration of the West London Synagogue’s marriage secretaries by an Act of Parliament in 1856 met with failure and caused further dissension. And although Adler and his supporters (notably Sir Moses Montefiore) prevented reformers from serving on the Board of Deputies, he maintained good relations with wealthy reformers but neglected the lower-class Jews. His major achievement was the founding of Jews’ College – the rabbinical, cantorial, and teaching seminary – in 1855. His son and, in 1891, his successor, Hermann Adler, fostered minhag anglia, a peculiarly “English tradition” in behavior, clerical dress, and worship influenced by the Anglican clergy. He also sanctioned a new, anglicized prayer book. Edited, with a new translation, by Simeon Singer, this Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire (ADPB), first published in 1890, enjoyed wide-spread popularity and went through numerous reprints before its first revision in 1962. While omitting or abbreviating many traditional prayers and blessings, the ADPB introduced new ones (often of the rites de passage type) designed for late Victorian Anglo-Jews. Strictly orthodox Jews vehemently opposed such innovations.

For the Jewish masses escaping to England from the Russian pogroms there was little or no difference between United Synagogue congregations and the reform synagogues in London and Manchester. They had no use for the ADPB, and in their eyes Hermann Adler was the “Chief Reformer.” Aiming to integrate these newcomers without undermining their orthodoxy, Samuel Montagu (the first Lord Swaythling), a strictly observant Jew, established a new roof organization, the Federation of Synagogues. Nevertheless, in 1889, the Chief Rabbinate had to face the challenge of a reformist group within the United Synagogue itself, whose prominent members – led by Morris Joseph, Simeon Singer, and Israel Abrahams – held “revised” services with a mixed choir and organ accompaniment, which attracted hundreds of nominally orthodox and reform Jews in the Hampstead area on Saturday afternoons.

A greater crisis was still to come. In 1902, Singer and other representatives of the United Synagogue established the Jewish Religious Union which held services on Saturday afternoons without separate seating for men and women and without a sefer torah. While Singer returned to the fold, Claude Montefiore, a great-nephew of Sir Moses and Lily Montagu, daughter of Lord Swaythling, became the cofounders of a radical movement that broke away from Orthodoxy – not Reform – and out of which Liberal Judaism would emerge. In Britain, “Liberal Judaism” is what is called “Reform Judaism” in the U.S., while “British Reform” is less radical.

The next Chief Rabbi, Joseph Herman Hertz, first rabbinical graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, championed its “enlightened Orthodoxy,” which he styled “Progressive Conservatism.” Hertz saw a far greater threat in the Liberal movement than in English Reform, and endeavored to maintain a policy of conciliation vis-à-vis the moderate reformers. He also faced criticism on the right by uncompromisingly orthodox rabbis such as Victor (Avigdor) Schönfeld and Isaac Halevi Herzog, who objected to his presence alongside non-orthodox clergy at various communal events and to his conciliation of reformers. While Hertz endeavored to reassert his authority within the orthodox mainstream, the Second World War radically changed Anglo-Jewish life and many refugee rabbis found a welcome in reform congregations. In a letter to the United Synagogue’s lay leaders (April 1945) venting all his pent-up frustration, Hertz cited numerous examples of their interference in exclusively religious affairs. This bitter conflict ended with the death of Hertz in January 1946. No great religious revival had taken place during his years in office, but he bequeathed to Anglo-Jewry works of lasting value, notably the Pentateuch and Haftorahs (1936) and an enlarged Daily Prayer Book (1941), both of which included his notes and commentary.

Israel Brodie, the next Chief Rabbi, educated at Jews’ College and Oxford, had served as a chaplain to the forces in two World Wars and was a popular congregational rabbi in Australia. An excellent speaker and an English gentleman, Brodie surprised the wealthy laymen by waging war against the resurgent Liberal and Reform movements, emphasizing the rate of intermarriage that made conversion to Judaism “a thorny issue.” He also opposed any attempt by the Conservative movement in North America to “infiltrate” Europe. During Brodie’s tenure, the lay leaders became more observant and Singer’s prayerbook underwent a major revision in 1962.[2]

It was Rabbi Brodie’s misfortune that during his term as Chief Rabbi the so-called “Jacobs Affair” took place. This affair rocked the orthodox community and led to another “Great Secession.” Persoff devotes two chapters of Faith against Reason to the issues and personalities involved. Louis Jacobs attended a yeshiva in Manchester, where he was ordained. While studying Semitics at London University, he discovered “higher criticism” of the Bible which influenced his views on the origins and authorship of the Torah, his religious outlook, and his future path. Jacobs expressed these ideas in his induction sermon at the New West End Synagogue (1954) and in books such as We Have Reason to Believe (1957) and Principles of the Jewish Faith (1964).

The Chief Rabbi became aware of Jacobs’ views when he started lecturing at Jews’ College, a stepping stone to the Chief Rabbinate. When Brodie vetoed his appointment as principal of Jews’ College after Isidore Epstein’s retirement, a public battle ensued between Jacobs and his supporters (“Jacobites”) and Brodie and his dayanim (“Israelites”). The Jewish Chronicle and the media misrepresented the dispute as one between an enlightened Jewish theologian and “foreign rabbis” and “obscurantists.” Jacobs resigned from Jews’ College and, along with his supporters, established the independent New London Synagogue, which eventually allied itself with the Conservative movement, but remained “traditional.” Had Jacobs defined his religious position more forthrightly at the outset, the United Synagogue and Anglo-Jewry might have been spared a great deal of heartache, mud-slinging, and character assassination. What lay behind this “theological” conflict was a hankering after the old minhag anglia coupled with a power struggle between the United Synagogue’s irreligious “grand dukes” and the growing number of observant “shul-goers” who sought to dethrone and replace them.

Persoff devotes the last few chapters to Rabbi Brodie’s successor, Immanuel Jakobovits, who had served for nearly a decade as rabbi of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York. After assuming office as Chief Rabbi in 1967, he attempted to unite Anglo-Jewry by “preserving its character, and working with all types of Jews in Jewish and general causes.” Issues such as conversion, the Beth Din’s invalidation of all marriages performed at the New London Synagogue, and the exclusion of non-orthodox representatives from a communal service celebrating Israel’s twentieth anniversary thwarted his efforts. He fought against intolerance on the part of orthodox Jews, but statements by some Liberal rabbis were also not conducive to reconciliation. After his retirement in 1991, Jakobovits admitted his failure to eliminate polarization into “ever more extremist groups.” He viewed his task as speaking “for Judaism and not necessarily for Jews” and promoting Jewish education, and he gave up on the obsession for unity among the different Jewish groups.

Centrist Orthodoxy now accounts for less than half the Jewish population in Greater London (and about 55% throughout the United Kingdom), but the outlook and practice of members and lay leaders are now far closer to the rabbinate’s than at any time in the past. One example of this change can be seen in the demand for an eruv – creating a “public domain” that enables observant Jews to carry and wheel baby carriages on the Sabbath. The present Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, who recently became a life peer, has made effective use of the media and authored books on a high intellectual level.

One notable development was the festive service commemorating the 350th anniversary of Jewish resettlement in England, held at London’s historic Bevis Marks (Spanish and Portuguese) Synagogue in 2006. Attended by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, it brought together for the first time representatives of all religious streams in Anglo-Jewry – from Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger on the far left to Rabbi Avrohom Pinter on the far right. Such a demonstration of unity within diversity also needs to be galvanized in the wider field of self-defense.

Meir Persoff describes the history of the rabbinate and the community elegantly and cogently. His prologue, nineteen chapters, and epilogue are accompanied by three appendices and a comprehensive bibliography. An outstanding feature of the book lies in its inclusion of addresses, sermons, pronouncements, press interviews, and letters. Persoff allows these sources and personalities to speak for themselves. He also includes thirty-two portraits of the dramatis personae which enhance the text. However, one might raise a few points of criticism. Persoff does not mention the fact that Michael Wallach, Chief Rabbi Brodie’s private secretary, turned out to have been a secret agent of the “Jacobites.” Nor does he devote more than one footnote to the role of Immanuel Jakobovits in British public life. The late Chief Rabbi’s outspoken, conservative views on moral issues and the family reached a wide audience and commended themselves to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who scorned the liberal Anglican hierarchy and reputedly named Jakobovits as her “favorite cleric.” She had him knighted and then elevated to the House of Lords (1988), the first Chief Rabbi to be so honored – and also the first to be interred in Jerusalem. In addition, the book contains over forty pages of footnotes printed in small type which are hard to read. These notes include many names that should have appeared in the index.

All in all, Faith against Reason is a ground-breaking work, the first of its kind to make extensive use of untapped archive material, especially private correspondence. Is it likely to attract readers outside the British Commonwealth? The answer may be found in the growing number of American scholars, such as Todd Endelman, who have become experts in one period or another of Anglo-Jewish history. Lloyd Gartner, another example, is the long-serving chairman of the Jewish Historical Society of England’s Israel branch. Clearly, Meir Persoff’s book will provide material for researchers throughout the world in years to come.

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[1]. Established by an Act of Parliament in 1870, the United Synagogue is an association of Orthodox Ashkenazi congregations in the London area. Its original nucleus (the Great, Hambro’, New, Central and Bayswater synagogues) had expanded to over eighty constituent, district, and affiliated congregations a century later, representing 40,000 families or about half the number of Jews in Greater London. Popularly known as “the U.S.,” it is the main supporter of Britain’s Chief Rabbinate. Its designation was borrowed in 1913 for the Conservative roof organization established by Solomon Schechter in the United States.

[2]. On the revised editions of the ADPB, published by Chief Rabbis Brodie and Jakobovits “to reflect the changing priorities of Anglo-Jewry,” see Stefan C. Reif, Judaism and Hebrew Prayer: New Perspectives on Jewish Liturgical History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 305-8.

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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.