Faith Against Reason. By Meir Persoff. Vallentine Mitchell, xxxi+476 pages; $34.95. Reviewed by Hyam Corney, THE JERUSALEM POST, January 1, 2009.
To the outsider -- the non-Jew in Britain and the Jew in the rest of the world -- Anglo-Jewry must seem like a haven of tranquility and unity, broken only by the infamous "Jacobs affair" in the 1960s when an Orthodox rabbi was barred from becoming principal of Jews' College because he dared to question the principle of the divine origin of the Torah.
But Faith Against Reason, Meir Persoff's monumental book examining, as its subtitle indicates, "religious reform and the British Chief Rabbinate 1840-1990," shows just how untranquil and disunited the community was -- and to a large extent still is. While that disunity manifested itself only occasionally to the wider public, behind the scenes there was constant bickering, verging at times on bitterness and personal vindictiveness.
The root cause was the creation and rise of non-Orthodox Jewry, with its attempt to satisfy and appeal to those who found the rigidity of Orthodoxy unattractive at best and totally unacceptable at worst. And at the center of the 160-year battle to keep the community united was the chief rabbi of the day.
Whoever he was and whatever his background -- and many of the early chief rabbis came from continental Europe -- he had an impossible task. Indeed, no less a figure than the prime minister of the day, Lord Palmerston -- who offered 10 Downing Street as a venue for a conciliatory meeting between the minister of the West London (Reform) Synagogue, David Woolf Marks, and the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the famous Sir Moses Montefiore -- commented: "Sir Moses, we can't maintain orthodoxy in the church, why should you expect to do so in the synagogue?"
That "obsession with communal unity," commented the community's penultimate chief rabbi, the late Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, was "a peculiarly Anglo-Jewish trait."
The author spent four decades on the editorial staff of the Jewish Chronicle, one of his posts being editor of its Judaism section. That gave him an informed platform from which to write this book. Although now living in Israel, he traveled to London on several occasions in its preparation, utilizing extensively the contemporary reports, correspondence and editorials of that paper as well as the archives of numerous Jewish institutions (and also institutions in Israel and America). The result is a fascinating and revealing religious history of Anglo-Jewry in which his own views -- and he approaches the subject as an Orthodox Jew -- rarely if ever intrude.
The book, he writes in the preface, is offered "as an extensive excursus into the frailty and fragility of communal relationships," examining the "how as well as the why, allowing the key protagonists to speak for themselves..."
THE FIRST serious Orthodox-Progressive clash recorded by Persoff occurred in 1847 with the death of Benjamin Elkin who, although a member of an Orthodox synagogue, was a "staunch supporter of ritual reform." The chief rabbi, Nathan Marcus Adler, ruled that the burial service could not be conducted by the usual funeral officiant but only by the sexton. The furious family rejected the proposal and Elkin's remains were consigned to a Reform burial ground.
Adler had many skirmishes with the Reform, often over sanctioning marriages between its members and those belonging to Orthodox synagogues, but demonstrated an ambivalence in his private and public stance. It was, Persoff writes, the approach adopted by Louis Cohen, nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore, who stated: "I am ready to eat, drink and trade with these gentlemen and with the members of their congregation. But I will not join with them in any religious act."
Many of Adler's successors, it appears, would not even "eat, drink and trade." Adler's son, Hermann, however, did attend two memorial services at a Reform synagogue and the burial service for a leading reformer, on the grounds that "it is recognized more and more that it is the mission of religion not to sunder and embitter but to unite and reconcile."
Hermann was followed as chief rabbi in 1913 by Dr. Joseph Herman Hertz -- he of the Soncino Chumash fame -- whose appointment was welcomed by both Reform and Liberal. But he was soon at odds with the non-Orthodox, defending "traditional Judaism against the Liberal onslaught." In 1925, however, he gave a lecture in a Reform synagogue hall on the grounds that "far more calamitous than religious differences in Jewry is religious indifference." Right-wing Jewry, not surprisingly, saw it otherwise and launched a strong attack on him and the United Synagogue (the central body of Orthodox synagogues) for their ambiguity and "lukewarm colorlessness."
The coronation of George VI in 1937 provided a rare example of communal unity when a service held at an Orthodox synagogue was conducted by Hertz as well as leading representatives of non-Orthodox communities. But, Persoff notes, that service marked the end of Hertz's "honeymoon" with Reform and soon was followed by an increasingly proactive role by right-wing dayanim in the affairs of the United Synagogue.
THE NEXT chief rabbi, English-born and educated Dr. Israel Brodie, had to face the problem not only of the formation of a Reform beit din but also the growing prominence -- nurtured by the JC and its editor, the late William Frankel -- of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, an outstanding scholar and teacher, whose subsequent banishing to the margins of Anglo-Jewry -- known later as "the Jacobs affair" -- stemmed from his questioning, in a book entitled We Have Reason to Believe, the principle of Torah min hashamayim (divine revelation). His appointment as principal of Jews' College, the training-ground for Britain's Orthodox rabbis, was blocked and led eventually to his breakaway from the United Synagogue and the formation of the independent Orthodox New London Synagogue.
Echoes of the affair were still heard during the reign of chief rabbi of Immanuel Jakobovits, who spoke of Jacobs's "increasing detachment from the Orthodox rabbinical world." The new chief rabbi, however, set out with good intentions towards Reform and Liberal Judaism, expressing the desire to create "a new atmosphere of friendliness, trust and goodwill," and noting that his main challenge would not be Reform but secularism. He would, he pledged, "seek to befriend those who dissent." These included, Persoff reveals, Jacobs himself, with whom Jakobovits conducted a hitherto unknown "cloak-and-dagger" meeting.
But by the end of his tenure in office, "there was little left of the bridges of understanding." That was the legacy he unwittingly left to his successor, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, appointed in 1991 and still only 60. He has already faced many challenges from non-Orthodox circles and when his period in office finally ends, I look forward hopefully to reading Persoff's assessment of how he handled them.
Before making aliya six years ago, the reviewer was deputy editor of the Jewish Chronicle.