Nathan Adler, the forgotten master of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy

Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler: The Forgotten Founder, Derek Taylor, Vallentine Mitchell, £40


In this engaging and readable work, veteran author Derek Taylor brings to life the achievements and challenges of Anglo-Jewry’s longest-serving chief rabbi, Dr Nathan Marcus Adler. Adler held office at a time of sweeping changes and presided — often in partnership with Sir Moses Montefiore — over extraordinary developments in the community’s infrastructure, including the opening of Jews’ College and the formation of the United Synagogue.

Taylor deftly traces Adler’s early years as a rising star in the German rabbinate through his appointment as chief rabbi while still in his 30s.  We are treated to fascinating vignettes about Adler’s family background, his attempts to alleviate the crushing poverty prevalent in his community and his ability to navigate the British establishment despite his strict Orthodoxy and heavy German accent.  

The book demonstrates how Adler — the first university-educated chief rabbi — increased the reach and status of the chief rabbinate and prepared the office and the communities under its auspices to face modernity, especially the growing challenges from factionalisation at both ends of the religious spectrum.

Unusually for the time, Adler was an acknowledged scholar, something that made the illiteracy of his flock and the ignorance prevalent even among his ministers especially vexing. Indeed, his conviction that only Jewish education could save Anglo-Jewry drove many of his initiatives.

The book is a little long, under-edited, and, perhaps, too heavily weighted towards Adler’s early life.  While Taylor does discuss Adler’s liturgical rigidity, I would have preferred more detail in this area. Yet it is a worthy addition to the Anglo-Jewish bookshelf, one that re-establishes the place of a leader whose bold approach and convictions continue to influence centrist Orthodoxy today.

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