How Chief Rabbis have battled against Reform

Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen reviews a new book on how Britain’s Orthodox establishment tried to stop religious schism


Faith against Reason: Religious Reform and the British CHief Rabbinate, 1840-1990

Meir Persoff
Vallentine Mitchell, £50, £19.95 pb

It may be coincidence that, within the past two years, three books have appeared on the subject of the British Chief Rabbinate. This perhaps indicates that religious hierarchy and authority are largely becoming relegated to the status of historical curiosity, with most committed young Jews owing allegiance to their own individual and charismatic spiritual gurus.

The downside is that we are left with a seriously impaired sense of cohesion and a potpourri of disparate forms of religious expression. The mooted disestablishment of the Church of England clearly reflects a fairly universal trend of flight from the mainstream arena.

Whereas Chief Rabbis Jakobovits and Sacks may well have wielded more moral authority within Britain than the Archbishops, their religious authority - as opposed to influence - within Anglo-Jewry fell far below that of their predecessors.

The delegation of that authority to their own Beth Din was, inevitably, a contributory factor. While addressing, with great wisdom and erudition, broad ethical, moral and domestic issues on a national platform, they steered clear of articulating the case for modern Orthodoxy to their own constituency.

Indeed, the present incumbent allowed right-wing influences to engineer the demise of the one rabbinical institution, Jews' College, which was set up to further that synthesis of Orthodoxy and modernity and to train congregational rabbis who reflected it. This may well have facilitated the progress of the Masorti movement in Britain. The absence of a dynamic middle-ground also meant that committed youth had to choose either between religious extremes or between commitment and defection.

The complex theological issue of Torah min hashamayim (the divine origin of Torah versus the documentary hypothesis), which informed the "Jacobs affair" in the 1960s and split the Anglo-Jewish community, was hardly calculated to interest, let alone inspire, the still-committed younger generation. They were ripe for a less theological and more charismatic and participatory celebration of Judaism, and for a religious community that was less authoritarian and hierarchic.

Meir Persoff, a veteran journalist and chronicler of the Anglo-Jewish community, has provided the best and most comprehensive study to date of the various schisms between Orthodoxy and the liberalising tendency in Britain. His book spans a period of 150 years and reflects the strenuous efforts of five Chief Rabbis - Nathan Marcus Adler, Hermann Adler, Joseph Hertz, Israel Brodie and Immanuel Jakobovits - to hold that tendency at bay, and with it the growth of religious pluralism in Britain.

Granted that statistics reflect the quantity rather than the quality of a religious community, nevertheless the fact that mainstream Orthodoxy within Anglo-Jewry is alleged to have lost nearly one third of its support between 1990 and 2006 - with the greatest beneficiary over the same period having been Masorti (up 63.3 per cent) on the left and the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (up 51.4 per cent) on the right - is a most worrying trend. It also underlies the necessity for United Synagogue Orthodoxy to define its specific ideology in relation to those on its right and left wings.

Persoff traces the rise of the reforming tendency in Germany in the early 19th century, at first confined to liturgical and synagogue service refinements and subsequently encompassing rejection of fundamental theological beliefs and ritual practices.

The founding of the West London Synagogue of British Jews in 1842 provided the base in this country for further expansion, laying down the gauntlet for over a century of bitter strife and recrimination between its leadership and the Orthodox mainstream with the Chief Rabbi at its helm. We can be grateful that such acrimony has largely abated in our day, a situation that may be attributable to the devastating effects of the "Jacobs affair" - which left centrist Orthodoxy weakened and divided and in no mood for further schism - coupled with an acceptance of the reality of religious pluralism.

That said, this most informative, thoroughly researched and meticulously annotated chronicle of the Orthodox-Progressive struggle makes compulsive reading and will be of immense benefit to historians of Anglo-Jewry, as well as to those who better wish to understand the background to the current religious divide. Because of the copious correspondence, sermonic references, press reports and archive material that the author quotes in full, it commends itself also to those who are interested in getting behind the news and learning more about the characters and personalities of the religious leadership of the period, the inordinate stresses and strains with which they had to contend, and the political intrigue that surrounded the protagonists of "faith" and "reason", respectively.


Solving the conversion crisis: The plan that never came off

One episode recalled in Meir Persoff's book was a bold proposal in the late 1980s to put an end to the divisions over who is a Jew. It originated with one of the country's leading Progressive figures, Rabbi Dr Sidney Brichto, who was then director of the Liberal movement.

His idea was that the Progressives would agree to stop processing conversions themselves, and instead let all prospective converts go before an Orthodox Beth Din in return for a "lenient attitude" from the dayanim. "The Orthodox Beth Din could demand only knowledge of Orthodox practice and not its observance," Rabbi Brichto explained in a JC article.

But the suggestion was dismissed as unworkable by the Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits. "How can an Orthodox Beth Din validate a conversion without kabbalat mitzvot [acceptance of the commandments]?" he wanted to know.

Rabbi Brichto, however, did receive a more favourable Orthodox response from elsewhere. Persoff reveals a letter to the Liberal director in 1990 from none other than the Chief Rabbi-elect, Jonathan Sacks, who wrote:

"As soon as I read your article... I called it publicly ‘the most courageous statement by a non-Orthodox Jew this century'. I felt it was a genuine way forward. Others turned out not to share my view.

"It will be a while - 18 months - before I take up office. But I believe we can still explore that way forward together. For if we do not move forward, I fear greatly for our community and for Am Yisrael."

Since the book stops at the end of the Jakobovits era, we must await a further, updated edition to find out what happened next.

Simon Rocker

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