Why was Joseph Hertz the greatest chief rabbi?

David Latchman, author of a new book on Orthodox leaders in the UK, explains his choice


The Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, may have had a small part in the coronation of King Charles at Westminster Abbey in May but it was a significant one — indicating to the nation and the world beyond that he was recognised as the leading representative of British Jewry.

Some might think the role of both — sovereign and chief rabbi — is anachronistic in the 21st century.

After all, the chief rabbi wields ecclesiastical authority over barely half of synagogue-affiliated Jewry today; if you throw in the third or more of the community who do not belong to a congregation, then he represents less than half of the UK Jewish population.

But the institution will survive, predicts one man more qualified than most to pronounce upon it, Professor David Latchman, author of the recently published Ten Chief Rabbis.

It is an illustrated history of the spiritual heads of the centrist Ashkenazi community, based on his own substantial private collection of artefacts and documents.

“The issue is do you need someone who is seen by the outside world as the representative of Anglo-Jewry,” he said. “Nobody pretends that Rabbi Mirvis’s authority extends over every person in Anglo-Jewry.”

But while the middle ground of the United Synagogue and its kindred synagogues in the region might be shrinking with the growth of the Orthodox right and non-Orthodox left, he poses the question: “In the end, if you didn’t have a chief rabbi from the shrinking middle, who would represent Anglo-Jewry?”

He admits to being “surprised” that the Progressives did not challenge the Chief Rabbi’s pre-eminent status in the coronation, seeking their own representative. The Charedim would not have wanted to send anyone to the abbey in any case, he assumes.

(Rabbi Joseph Dweck, head of the S & P Sephardi Community, did get a seat for the occasion as both he and Rabbi Mirvis remain the titular ecclesiastical authorities of the Board of Deputies.)

But challenges to the purpose of the office are nothing new, he recalls. “In 1910, when Hermann Adler died, there was exactly the same argument: do we need a chief rabbi?”

Professor Latchman may be a man of science, a geneticist who is Vice-Chancellor of the University of London’s Birkbeck College.

But in his spare time he is a passionate student of Anglo-Jewry’s religious history whose personal library houses, among other things, the organ from an Orthodox synagogue in Manchester used for weddings and the Second World War service medals that Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz flung to the ground in a demonstration in South Africa against British policy in Palestine in 1946, swearing never to wear them again.

His ten chiefs span three centuries, from Rabbi Aaron Hart, who became leader of the Great Synagogue in London in 1704, to Rabbi Lord Sacks, who retired from the office in 2013.

Some only date the chief rabbinate to his fourth, Solomon Hirschell, the first to be elected by vote as leader of the Great Synagogue in 1802 — but he believes that to start with Hirschell is a “spurious argument”.

Only three were born in the UK, two grew up in the UK and Rabbi Sacks was unique in serving as a rabbi exclusively in Britain before his appointment as chief (others having spent time as ministers abroad).

The last four chief rabbis including Rabbi Mirvis have all been knighted, although Israel Brodie only so after his retirement. (His predecessor Joseph Hertz was made a Companion of Honour).

Five chief rabbis in succession, from Hermann Adler to Jonathan Sacks, all had doctorates, indicating a high level of secular academic attainment alongside their rabbinic knowledge.

Before Brodie, chief rabbis could serve until they were called to the great pulpit in the sky. But a retirement age was introduced after the office of his predecessor Hertz, who had clashed with the president of the United Synagogue, Sir Robert Waley-Cohen, until Hertz’s death in 1946.

“They fought over Zionism,” Latchman explained. “Hertz called on his ministers to speak from the pulpit, basically saying Britain needs to change its policy.” Waley-Cohen went “berserk,” believing rabbis should not be publicly attacking the government.

When Sir Ephraim celebrates his tenth anniversary in office in September, he will be a year older than the official national retirement age of 66 but there has been no hint from either him or the leaders of the United Synagogue that he is preparing to hang up his canonicals (which he actually didn’t wear at the coronation).

Professor Latchman believes he is doing “a great job” in his representative capacity and particularly deserves credit for cultivating links with Muslim leaders in the UK and abroad, taking advantage of the Abraham Accords signed by Israel and the UAE.

As for who tops his ten predecessors, Professor Latchman is in no doubt. Chief Rabbi Hertz was “the greatest of all.

“He faced in my view the greatest challenges of any chief rabbi.”

Raised in South Africa, Hertz was the leader of a small Orthodox community in New York when he was recruited to become rabbinic head of the Commonwealth. To the ordinary Jew in the pew, he would not have been the most obvious choice to be chief rabbi, Latchman said.

He guided the community through two world wars — and not only was he a fearless advocate of Zionism who was prepared to speak out when British commitment to it wavered after the Second World War but, Latchman observed, there would have been no Balfour Declaration without him.

His predecessor, Hermann Adler, had opposed the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl. "If Adler would still have been chief rabbi, the Balfour Declaration would not have happened because the British government would not have gone against the view of the chief rabbi.”

Hertz also produced an edition of the daily siddur and a Chumash still used today. Among his achievements was, in a sense, being the saviour of Shabbat, when he saw off a lethal threat to the Jewish calendar.

George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, had been campaigning for the adoption of a new secular calendar, whereby the 365th day of the year would be a blank day ie not a Monday, Tuesday etc. (In other words, the date would fall on the same day of the week each year).

But this would have rendered Shabbat, which must be every seventh day, out of sync with the secular calendar, shifting it to different days of the week.

The League of Nations had been seriously interested in Eastman’s proposition. But, said Latchman, “Hertz went to Geneva and basically stopped this.”

Ten Chief Rabbis’ published by the United Synagogue, £39.99, is out now

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