Commentary Magazine


The Changing Anglo-Jewish Community: Forces of Division

Many of the forces that have been at work among American Jews since the end of World War II have also begun to show themselves in the Jewish community of England. In the first of the two articles following, A. V. Sherman describes the changing patterns of Jewish settlement in London; and in the second, Alan W. Miller finds in the recent republication of Montefiore and Loewe’s A Rabbinic Anthology (Meridian, 961 pp., $7.50) an occasion for commenting on the new religious atmosphere within the community. Mr. Sherman, a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY, is a free-lance journalist. Dr. Miller, a new contributor, the son of a London-born Orthodox rabbi, was educated at Oxford and at Jews’ College in London and is currently minister in the Southwest Essex Reform Synagogue and a lecturer at Leo Baeck College.

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Not long ago, an American firm (Meridian Books) reprinted a singular work entitled A Rabbinic Anthology which was originally published in England in 1938. As its title indicates, A Rabbinic Anthology is a selection of texts culled from the full range of Rabbinic literature, but approximately a third of this 853-page volume is given over to material written by the two editors, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore and Herbert Loewe. Both Montefiore (who was a Liberal—or in American terminology, a Reform—Jew) and Loewe (who was Orthodox) contributed long introductions in which each expressed, on the basis of his own very different religious commitment, a view of Rabbinic literature; there is also an ad hoc running commentary on the texts (done chiefly by Montefiore) and many pages of notes (done chiefly by Loewe).

A commentary can sometimes transcend its subject in value: Rabbinic literature itself, indeed, very often testifies to that fact. While it would not be true to say that the material contributed by Montefiore and Loewe to A Rabbinic Anthology is more important than the texts, there is no question that the book is in some respects more valuable for its wrappings than for what is inside—which is, after all, available elsewhere. Not that it is easily available, or available in so digestible a form, for there is still nothing in the English language quite equal to this volume as an introduction to Rabbinic literature for the layman. Even if we compare it with what is perhaps the greatest Rabbinic anthology in another language—Bialik and Rabnitski’s Sefer Ha-Aggadah—it still stands in a class of its own.

The coming into existence of Rabbinic anthologies of the modern species constituted a virtual admission that the average Jew would no longer go back to the original sources of his own accord, and that only a selective presentation would encourage him to gather some knowledge of his heritage beyond the merely superficial. This much was accepted by Bialik and Rabnitski in the preface to the first edition of Sefer Ha-Aggadah (1908). But there for them the matter ended. They were quite proud of the fact that they had hardly tampered with the original—apart from dissolving Aramaic into Hebrew, introducing, where possible, critical readings, and providing a strictly limited commentary which reduced itself for the most part to mere glosses on unfamiliar words. Their work was somewhat amorphous, possessing an element of that inchoateness, so characteristic of Rabbinic literature, which it was their professed intention to avoid (as anyone who has endeavored to use their index constructively will readily agree).

Moreover far too many “weeds” were included among the flowers, elements of folklore and folkway that represent not the essence of Rabbinic teaching but accidental historical accretions that have been preserved more fortuitously than deliberately. To the Western sophisticated mind (to whom we may presume the book was at least in part addressed) some of these elements can be irritating, sometimes positively distasteful, not infrequently leaving much to be desired from a religious and ethical point of view.

Montefiore and Loewe, by contrast, deliberately limit their scope to the religious and the ethical, which results in an edifying selection that serves not only the private reader but also the teacher. Unlike many other anthologies of this nature it stands a fair chance of survival among English-speaking Jews who, on the whole, will go on preferring to take the spiritual values of Rabbinic Judaism neat rather than diluted with undesirable folk elements which become increasingly insipid and tasteless as the gap continues to widen which separates them both from Rabbinic Judaism of two thousand years ago and from Rabbinic Judaism as it stood at the end of the 19th century.

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To be sure, there are certain qualifications to be made about the scholarly foundations upon which the present book rests. Scholars are still undecided as to the exact implications of the Qumran discoveries, but this much is agreed: that a large part of the standard work on the early Rabbinic and Christian periods will have to be re-written. Moreover Montefiore’s constant complaint that the Rabbis were naive people who would have benefited no end had they enjoyed the good fortune to read Classical Greats at Balliol with Benjamin Jowett hovering in the background is simply no longer valid. Certainly there were naive Rabbis, but the researches of Saul Lieberman into the relation between Judaism and Hellenism in the early post-Christian centuries indicate that these were neither so numerous nor so naive as Montefiore would have us, on occasion, believe. “The intelligent Rabbis were able to demonstrate the superiority of Judaism by the means and methods current among the cultured men of their time. They were able to compete even with Gentile Christians, including those who got their education in Greek schools, in winning proselytes. . .they used the ‘scientific methods’ of their time and place; they were the ‘modern’ men of their time.” Thus Lieberman. A far cry from Montefiore’s:

Another point to remember in regard to Rabbinic literature is that it comes from men whose outlook was extraordinarily limited. They had no interests outside Religion and the Law. They had lost all historic sense. They had no interest in art, in drama, in belles lettres, in poetry, or in science (except, perhaps, in medicine). They had no training in philosophy. How enormously they might have benefited if, under competent teachers, they had been put through a course of Greek philosophy and literature.

Max Kadushin, Isaac Heinemann, and other scholars have done a great deal in considerably modifying this extreme viewpoint.

Yet when all is said and done, the defects which the modern expert can point out in the scholarly fabric of Montefiore’s work as little destroy the pleasure derived from reading his introduction as the lack of perspective in a Byzantine mosaic detracts from or interferes with aesthetic enjoyment. Indeed, one marvels that such clarity and honesty were possible in the sphere of Anglo-Jewish writing on religion in pre-war days. But I shall return to that point later.

To describe Montefiore as honest by no means implies that his collaborator in this work, Herbert Loewe, was dishonest. We do not call a man dishonest who defends his wife from the accusations (which he suspects may be well founded) of a neighbor. Yet there is a quality of spirit evident in Montefiore’s: “I am sure that I love God less deeply than the Rabbis; yet I have a feeling as if my God were somehow a greater, purer God than their God”—which utterly puts to shame Loewe’s half-hearted defense of the inclusion within the Singer Prayer Book of the Mishnaic observation that women die in childbirth, among other things, for not observing the laws governing relations with their husbands during their menstrual periods and for kindling the Sabbath lights at the wrong time. The love which covereth a multitude of transgressions and which refuses to admit the truth from the highest of motives is great indeed, but greater than this is the painstaking honesty which characterizes almost every line which Montefiore wrote. Loewe was never quite able to achieve this level.

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II

To Anyone who knows the English Jewish community, a glance at the new edition of A Rabbinic Anthology is likely to give rise to reflections on the extraordinary degree of change which has overtaken that community in the short span of twenty-two years. No such book could conceivably be produced today, for the world has disappeared that made possible the development of types like Montefiore and Loewe and enabled them to collaborate fruitfully in an undertaking like A Rabbinic Anthology.

The Anglo-Jewish community is, in the best sense of that much abused word, thoroughly assimilated to the life of the wider community or, perhaps better, thoroughly reflects the vicissitudes through which the wider community passes. Thus, one of the main distinctions between preand postwar Anglo-Jewry is the gradual and irresistible closing of the gap between aristocrat and non-aristocrat in the leadership of the community—a situation which reflects the egalitarian drift of postwar English society in general. An American rabbi recently visiting London observed that the most prominent English Jews—prominent either by reason of family or professional status—were far more involved in communal activity than their American counterparts. Yet many positions of leadership in the Anglo-Jewish community today are held by men who are the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Eastern Europe, while in pre-war days such positions were monopolized by members of wealthy old Anglo-Jewish families of the kind described by C. P. Snow in The Conscience of the Rich.

It was from such a family that Montefiore came. A fabulously wealthy man, he devoted his life to furthering Jewish knowledge and the principles of Progressive Judaism. His like no longer exists in England not only because there is no Jewish scholar of his calibre in the country today, but because wealth by itself can no longer insure the kind of influence and authority a man of his social position was able to attain in the hierarchical society of pre-war England. Even if Montefiore has been less gifted, he would undoubtedly have risen to great prominence as a community leader. Being both gifted and blessed with the privileges of high birth, however, he was able to develop into a giant whose full personal weight had no trouble in making itself felt. Such a perfect wedding of man and situation is hardly imaginable today. The contemporary Anglo-Jewish scholar is limited financially owing to the conditions prevailing throughout the community in general—he must work for his livelihood—and hence is ultimately cramped in his scholarly output. There are several scholars on the Anglo-Jewish scene who, if by some miracle were granted absolute financial security and enabled thereby to devote their lives to writing and philanthropy, might perhaps grope in the direction of a Montefiore. But this is fantasy. Montefiore stares at us from his last publication more as a man who died twenty-two decades rather than twenty-two years ago. The times have changed. The constitution of the soil has altered so basically that the seed could not flourish.

But if the pre- and postwar Anglo-Jewish community differ so fundamentally owing to economic, political, and social changes reflected from the wider community, they differ even more greatly from a religious point of view. In London—which can serve to illustrate the pattern of the country at large—the improving economic conditions created for the masses by the Welfare State, as A. V. Sherman notes, almost emptied the poorer districts of the East End and set off a migration into a rising scale of superior residential ghettos, culminating in later days to a move outside London altogether.

Parallel with this trek in social status went a religious trek: invariably social upgrading meant a diminishing of the Orthodox Judaism that had flourished in the East End and similar neighborhoods. But this trend—which might have been expected to leave Orthodoxy sapped and to swell the numbers of the Liberal and Reform congregations with Jews who were affiliating mainly for social rather than religious reasons—was crossed by the emergence as an active force in the community of recent refugees from the continent of Europe. It is impossible to exaggerate the impact that has been made by these refugees—some of whom came into England after escaping from Hitler in the 30′s and others of whom arrived in the years following the war—on the Anglo-Jewish religious scene. On the one hand the left wing of the community was dramatically revitalized and galvanized into activity. The Reform Synagogues (the equivalent of what in America is called Conservative), autonomous, isolated, and independent, suddenly multiplied and flourished into an Association of Synagogues served almost entirely by refugee rabbis trained at German seminaries. On the other hand the right wing of the community was rudely awakened to a sense of its relative laxity by an influx of fundamentalist rabbis.

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In pre-war England, the Orthodox Jewish community—the vast majority—was reasonably tolerant in its relationships with other sections of the religious community. Progressive (Liberal and Reform) Judaism as yet presented no real challenge. It is true that the late Chief Rabbi Hertz made moderately rude remarks about Liberal Judaism from time to time, but then he also on occasion made moderately rude remarks about other institutions and the former, like the latter, could easily be interpreted as efforts to pacify his own as yet modest right wing. In any case, Hertz was certainly no fundamentalist. Anglo-Jewry’s Orthodox community in pre-war days reigned supreme as the virtual equivalent of the Established Church of the wider Christian community and indeed possessed many of its virtues and vices. Its primary theological college produced tolerable imitations of the Anglican pastor—mild, moderately versed in Jewish learning, cultivated, and refined, but on the whole lacking in fire and passion. In dress (clerical collar), in speech, and in bearing, the pre-war home-produced minister, as distinct from the imported Eastern European type, was barely distinguishable from his Anglican counterpart. (There are still a few survivals.)

Such rabbis were, of course, ridiculed by the minute fundamentalist Orthodox wing of the community (fed chiefly by a steady stream of Eastern European Jews), but the ridicule could be ignored and indeed was scarcely noticed. (“At Jews’ College”—the primary Jewish theological establishment of the British Empire—the fundamentalist wags remarked in Yiddish, “they are not so much concerned with what Abaye and Raba actually said as with what sort of trousers they wore.”) Orthodoxy was gentle. Proselytes were accepted with some few qualifications. Questions about catering and food, which now reverberate throughout the community, were rarely asked. Kashrut was expected, but its particular degree of observance was never precisely defined. Live and let live was the dominant theme.

It was against this background that the cooperation of Montefiore and Loewe could take place. For if the average rabbi (or rather Reverend—traditional ordination was rare in those days) was a quasi-Anglican parson, Loewe—who held the post of Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge—was, in many respects, a quasi-Anglican scholar. He was not, it is true, strictly answerable to the Chief Rabbi, as an Anglican is to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in matters of religious doctrine. But he certainly felt morally dependent on the Orthodox Establishment and, indeed, set himself up as acting unpaid father confessor to the Orthodox students at Cambridge who were finding it somewhat difficult to reconcile their Jewish backgrounds with what they were learning at the university. One cannot help feeling that the late Chief Rabbi might even have approved (off the record) of his literary relationship with Montefiore. Certainly the impression we derive from Loewe’s comments is of a tolerance and mutual respect abroad in the community in prewar days between men of different religious convictions and commitments that has altogether disappeared today.

It has disappeared because a wave of fundamentalism—brought in by the refugees—has swept over Orthodoxy and artificially polarized the community. Not the rank and file have been affected as much as the leadership, and not the leadership as much as a handful of leaders, but these, possessed of a virtual monopoly of ecclesiastical authority in a reasonably closely knit and centralized Orthodox Establishment, effectively control the major part of that Establishment. In actual fact Anglo-Jewry is on the whole probably less observant today than ever before. The phenomenon of Orthodox rabbis, like generals who have lost all their soldiers, calling for a holy war against Liberal and Reform Jews, presents a pathetic picture to the Anglo-Jew cognizant of the extent to which serious doubts about the theological Establishment have gnawed deeply into the hearts not only of the more intelligent and sensitive Orthodox clergy (who dare not speak out fully for fear of victimization), but also of the wider Orthodox community who are for the most part as individuals as much related to fundamentalism as the Unitarian is related to Roman Catholicism.

Nevertheless, the issuing of a war cry has presented the community with a shibboleth which is effectively splitting the ranks of Anglo-Jewish opinion. If there are no more Montefiores alive today, so also are there no more Loewes (he died in 1940). “I am an Orthodox Jew,” he wrote in his introduction, “but I am not a fundamentalist.” Again: “So I feel it incumbent on me to write this Introduction and to attempt to show how Orthodox and Liberal may cooperate, without one of them absorbing the other. Having done so, by sketching the ground they have in common, it will be necessary to deal in greater detail with those points on which the two attitudes differ.” And again:

It is when we pass from the theory of Revelation to its implications that divergencies naturally arise. Since men are not vegetables, different conceptions of duty are inevitable. Mass-produced or enforced religion means unreal religion. . .Individuality must make itself felt. . . . Heterogeneity is a symptom of vigorous vitality, of the prevalence of sincerity and independence in thought. These conditions can be observed among Liberal and Orthodox equally. They are natural, since the Jewish unit is the Congregation. . .general centralization has been alien to the Jewish spirit, for in it there lies a danger to local autonomy. . .it simply will not do to say that the difference between the Orthodox and the Liberals is that the former do, and the latter do not, obey the rulings of the Shulhan Aruk. This is commonly said, but it is inexact. What we mean is that Liberals keep less of that code than do the Orthodox. I have yet to find a Jew who observes every detail of the Shulhan Aruk. . .How many Rabbis of so-called Orthodox congregations refuse to wear garments of linsey-woolsey? And Sha’atnez is a Biblical and not even a Rabbinic prohibition! . . . The test of the Shulhan Aruk must be applied with accuracy and thoroughness. Once we consider ourselves at liberty to pick and choose, our definition fails; our actions are dictated not by principle but by objective choice. Instead of differences of principle or of kind, we are confronted by differences of degree.

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There is hardly an Orthodox scholar—and certainly no Orthodox rabbi—who would dare to utter or publish such sentiments today. After the European Conference of Orthodox Rabbis—in which British Orthodox rabbis played a leading and vocal part—recently poured virulent abuse on the growing forces of Progressive Judaism within Anglo-Jewry, not a single public comment was elicited in protest from any Orthodox rabbi or scholar. The non-scholarly and non-rabbinical Jewish Chronicle alone produced a dignified and tolerant leading article in protest—and was almost certainly rebuked for so doing by the leaders of the Establishment.

What has happened to the traditions so nobly represented by Loewe and Montefiore, the Orthodox Jew who could, while firmly disagreeing on many points, cooperate with and, above all, respect, the Liberal Jew? In a sense, such cooperation was bound to disappear. Non-orthodox Judaism presented no real challenge to tolerant Orthodoxy in pre-war days, and cooperation therefore involved no dangers. Now things have changed. Apart from the considerable growth of the forces of Progressive Judaism as a result of the not inconsiderable influx of left-wing continental Jewry, an insurmountable obstacle to cooperation has reared its head in the only sphere of Jewish law which still has any practical significance for the vast majority of Orthodox Anglo-Jewry and in which the Orthodox rabbinate still possess a vestige of authority which is also enforceable (albeit only to a limited degree): divorce, marriage, and personal status. A war is being waged on the rights of Reform and Liberal Jews to deal with these problems in accordance with their own interpretation of Jewish tradition. The situation has further been exacerbated by other factors as well: an increasing rigidity in accepting proselytes on the part of Orthodoxy; a serious growth in intermarriage (in itself a reflection of the laxity of genuine Jewish values throughout the community in the past and the intrinsic poverty of Jewish education in the present); the formation of a Reform Beth Din which now serves an ever growing sector of Anglo-Jewry; and last, but by no means least, the setting up of the Leo Baeck College, a Reform Theological Seminary for the training of rabbis and teachers.

In years to come when the ratio of officially Orthodox to officially non-Orthodox Jews begins to resemble the ratio in the United States, Orthodoxy will no longer dare to indulge in the kind of abuse which sees in the steady growth of Progressive Judaism not the answering of a genuine religious need in the community, but only moral and religious profligacy and a wanton dissipation of the storehouse of Jewish tradition. Until that time comes, the cooperation of a Montefiore and a Loewe will continue to remain something of a curiosity on the Anglo-Jewish scene.

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