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Pomposity and point-scoring

November 24, 2016 22:49

FAITH AGAINST REASON: Religious Reform and the British Chief Rabbinate 1840-1990. By Meir Persoff. Vallentine Mitchell, cloth £50.00, paper £19.95. Review in Liberal Judaism Today (Vol.XXXVi, No.1, January/February 2009), by DAVID GOLDBERG

This is an exhaustive, well-written and admirably balanced history of five United Synagogue chief rabbis from Nathan Marcus Adler to Immanuel Jakobovits, and their turbulent relations not only with the Reform and Liberal movements, but even more so with their own clergy and lay leaders.

Reading the book left me with two abiding impressions. First, how smug, small-minded and pompous all the incumbents were, or became, typified by the chutzpah of Jakobovits in paraphrasing Winston Churchill in his induction sermon: ‘I have not become Anglo-Jewry’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of British Judaism.’ And second, how convinced they were that their divine mandate was to set themselves against any glimmerings of religious reform from within or without. Zealous for a traditional Judaism that fewer and fewer of their congregants were observing, they strenuously resisted pressure from their lay officers for modest innovations like shortening Sabbath services or compromising over Progressive representation at the Board of Deputies. Inevitably, that forced them into ever closer embrace with the Orthodox far right. The logical conclusion of such an alliance was reached in 2002, when the current chief rabbi (Jonathan Sacks) was made to go cap in hand to the dayyanim in Manchester and humiliatingly rewrite sections of his book that had already been serialised in The Times.

The keenest of the five for a fight – any fight – was J. H. Hertz (1872–1946). His fractious relationship with Robert Waley Cohen, long-time president of the United Synagogues, was the stuff of legend. Small and bellicose, Hertz, in Sir Alex Ferguson’s phrase about another team’s player, ‘could start a fight in an empty room’, or as the author more tactfully puts it: ‘In any conflict, it was said, he would resort to peaceful means if all else failed.’ During his tenure, open warfare with the Progressives was at its height.

Naturally, I am most familiar with the history of the last three and a half decades, coinciding with my own rabbinic career. Here, I think Persoff is too deferential to the reputations of Orthodox and Progressive personalities still around. The fact is that few on either side have covered themselves in glory, more intent on ‘spin’ and point- scoring in the columns of the Jewish Chronicle than in reaching a genuine modus vivendi. Personally, I never saw the point of conciliation gestures like the so-called Unterman Committee – so secretive that few knew of its existence until five years after its demise – or the Stanmore Accords. All they ever produced were a few nods towards the ideal of mutual respect and working together on ‘issues of joint concern’, which only ever meant defending Israel or fighting efforts to alter shechitah legislation.

Preferable, it seemed to me, to go our separate ways and remain honest to our founding principles. I do recall reluctantly attending one meeting of Progressive rabbis with Jakobovits in his palatial Hamilton Terrace mansion. Naturally, he kept us waiting, while Lady Jakobovits, all gracious charm, dispensed refreshments. As she passed my chair, she whispered: ‘Do you mind moving? That is the chief’s favourite chair.’ I speedily complied, assuring her that I had no designs on her husband’s seat. As Persoff amply demonstrates, it is no job for a nice Jewish boy wanting to retain probity, dignity, reputation and peace of mind.

Rabbi David J Goldberg is emeritus rabbi at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue.

November 24, 2016 22:49

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