Commentary Magazine

The Phenomenal Life of Sir Moses Montefiore

Anyone famous who lives to be a hundred acquires an extra bonus of esteem; and this was the experience of the most famous Jew of the 19th century, the English philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, whose double centenary is being celebrated this year. Montefiore was regarded with almost mystical awe by Jews all over the world when he reached his hundredth birthday on October 24, 1884. When he died nine months later, in July 1885, the memory that survived, especially in the Jewish heartland of Russia, was of a “nobleman” who had devoted his life to the welfare and freedom of his people. “Ordinary” Jewish leaders had been common enough: in every area one could find a shtadlan, a rich Jew with access to the government and ready to intercede in behalf of his fellow Jews. But Montefiore was different: he was shtadlan for the Jews of the whole world.

It was not that he was richer than anybody else; the Rothschilds were the symbols par excellence of such wealth. Nor had he set in motion some great philanthropic program on the scale of the vast benefactions that flowed in the 19th century from Baron de Hirsch. What came from Montefiore was something more distinguished than this, however hard to define. His ability to confront the mightiest rulers of the world seemed to put him beyond ordinary ken. Yet at the same time people felt, and correctly, that he was basically a simple Jew, firm in his conviction that the verities of the Jewish faith were the verities of man’s existence on earth.

All this was embedded in the myth that sprung up around him, expressing, inevitably, the time and place in which he lived. How symbolic it was that his long life came to an end when it did. As a leader, he epitomized the piety and optimism of the Victorian age. His death in the mid-1880’s was a cut-off point at which Jewish leadership—and the Jews being led—began to enter a new world. One need only recall that it was in 1881, when Montefiore was ninety-seven, that pogroms on an unprecedented scale broke out in Russia. These were a very large factor in the massive migration of East European Jews to the West, leading to the creation of a major Jewish community in the United States. And 1881 was also the year in which the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) made their first decisive move to launch pioneering work on the soil of the Holy Land. It is characteristic of the legend that had grown up around Montefiore that the first major congress of Hovevei Zion, held at Kattowicz in 1884, bore his name and was timed to open, in his honor, on his hundredth birthday. But neither he nor anybody else at that time could have foreseen, except in fantasy, that an independent Jewish state would be created in the century following, or that bringing this about would require, and result in, a revolution in Jewish leadership.

On broader historical grounds, it was at the end of his life that signs first emerged that political emancipation in Europe would not necessarily lead to a steady improvement in the Jewish condition of the kind that Montefiore the Victorian took for granted. He had believed that his policy of “smoothing things out” (as he called it) through direct negotiations with people at the top would set the Jews on the road to freedom, even in the backward lands of Eastern Europe. The idea that Jews might face more intense rejection, especially in civilized countries like France (as over Dreyfus) and Germany, would have come as a great shock to him. To be sure, England continued for the most part to express the liberal attitude toward Jews that Montefiore had found so supportive to his work elsewhere in the world. But this was now to be a less significant factor, for after Montefiore’s day England began to lose its preeminence, another change that he would have found hard to envisage.

Montefiore’s life covered a magic period in which a Jew who spoke for the Jewish elite in England was able to appear everywhere in the world with England’s power behind him. The story of his exciting missions abroad, in the care everywhere of British ambassadors and the Royal Navy, is entrancing. Yet there is more to the story, which is given in his voluminous diaries,1 than the charm of a period piece. Jewish leaders in later years had to deal with new situations in new ways; but the positive outlook that motivated Montefiore in his time rested on ideas and feelings that are not limited in their validity to the Victorian age. Montefiore was deeply pious, in terms of the pieties of the prayer book. He was also a Sephardi Jew, and expressed the unique form of pride that flowed from the sojourn of the Jews in Spain and Portugal centuries earlier. In 19th-century England, it was not difficult to unite this with the self-confidence and love of tradition so natural to the society in which he moved. But Jewish pride has a wider base than this; and behind Montefiore’s confidence, which often carried with it some strains of Victorian pomposity, there were principles that can be usefully adduced even in the changed circumstances in which we now live.



Like many Jewish spokesmen today, particularly in the United States, Montefiore was independently—though not fabulously—rich; and his wealth (again like theirs) had been created through hard work in his early years during a period of his country’s extraordinary economic expansion.

The Jewish community in England in Montefiore’s day was small in number (around 20,000 in London in 1850), and had been stable in size, though rising steadily in social position, since the beginning of the century. The basis of this community was the settlement in England of a few Sephardi families in the second half of the 17th century, the first Jews to be acknowledged as resident in England since their expulsion by royal decree in 1290.2 These new settlers, who had links with Sephardi Jews in Holland and elsewhere (mostly Marranos who had fled from the Inquisition), began to be joined in the 18th century by Ashkenazi Jews with similar financial expertise and connections. By the end of the century all were well placed for success when England launched its vast colonial and industrial expansion. In organizing loans and supplies for the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century, they had become a small but indispensable element in the City, with free access—though in a special way—to government and high society.

The Ashkenazi element in this tightly knit group was now particularly important. The anchor man was Levy Barent Cohen, who had arrived in London from Amersfoort (Holland) in the third quarter of the 18th century, and whose descendants have graced British life in every field of banking, industry, law, and politics for two hundred years. Among other Ashkenazim, two Goldsmid brothers, whose father had settled in England in the middle of the 18th century, achieved fame by stealing much of the thunder of the Sephardi loan-bankers. Nathan Mayer Rothschild, founder of the English branch of the great German family, began to operate in London only at the beginning of the 19th century; but within a few years he was the outstanding government financier, apart from his other interests.

Montefiore, due to emerge as the accepted leader of the Jews of England, was in a position, through family connections, to draw on the rising Ashkenazi element, as well as on the old Sephardi background which meant so much to him. His family had come to England from Italy in the 18th century, and his father had intensified the Sephardi connection by marrying the daughter of Abraham Mocatta, the outstanding Sephardi figure in the City whose ancestor had settled in England in the 1670’s. Among other things, Mocatta was linked with the Goldsmids as bullion brokers. (Mocatta & Goldsmid are still world leaders in this field.) With the help of his Mocatta uncle, Montefiore was thus well launched in the City. It was no disadvantage, also, that he then married one of the daughters of the great Levy Barent Cohen. Rothschild had already married another of Cohen’s daughters.

These intermarriages within the Cousinhood—to use Chaim Bermant’s term for the great English Jewish families—were endless in their ramifications; but they by no means guaranteed a golden life. The history of the time is full of stories of members of the Cousinhood who fell by the wayside, or disappeared in failed adventures to India or the Caribbean. This did not happen, of course, to young Moses Montefiore, who joined skill and character to good fortune. To begin with, we hear of years of hard work; but as a brother-in-law of Rothschild and linked to the Mocattas and many other well-established City men, he soon had a strong financial base. For a time, he worked as a stockbroker, making the most of his connections. In some instances he joined with Rothschild in financing government, as when the two of them floated a loan of £15 million in 1835 through which the government was able to facilitate the emancipation of all slaves still remaining in British territory. More generally, he was a director or chairman of a number of major businesses—insurance, gas lighting, railways, banks—all destined to expand enormously in the 19th century.



In all this Montefiore seemed a typical Victorian worthy; but suddenly, at the age of forty-two, he gave up all routine business work to dedicate himself for the rest of his life—almost sixty years—to the cause of his people. His devotion to Jewish affairs at home had already been expressed through serving in various offices in the synagogue (as all his City colleagues did at that time) and through becoming an active member—and then president for nearly forty years—of the Jewish representative body, the Board of Deputies of British Jews. But while he took all this very seriously, what riveted his attention was the condition of Jews overseas, and in particular the Jews of the Holy Land. Here, he operated on a principle more compelling, and historically much more significant, than that of merely extending help to the poor. To Montefiore, to be true to one’s faith was to accept—as in the wording of the Bible and the prayer book—the full force of the unique relationship between God and the Jewish people. The Holy Land was the primary focus of this miraculous relationship, and to work for Jews in the Holy Land was therefore a supreme act of holiness.

It is ironic to recognize that in this profoundly important respect Sir Moses Montefiore, Baronet, friend of Queen Victoria, imposing (6 feet 3 inches tall), rich and full of honors, was on an equal level of thought and faith with the fanatically Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem, stooped, bearded, and otherworldly, who then as now were absorbed in prayer and in their relation to God. They were not more observant than he. Every prayer ritual, every feast or fast, was rigorously followed by him. If he was served on gold plate at princely receptions, he was meticulously kosher (after his early, more carefree days) in what he ate from the plate. The entourage of carriages with which he crossed the continent of Europe included among the passengers his own shochet (ritual slaughterer), together with his servants and his wife Judith’s personal maid. If he was not able to participate with the rabbis and their pupils in the study of the Talmud, he was completely at one with them in their literal conception of God and His universe. The thoughts and prayers in his diaries illustrate this, often at inordinate length.



As a guide to action, Montefiore’s strong simple faith made him invulnerable, and there can be no doubt that he was completely fulfilled by the endless practical missions he undertook; the renown that grew around him made him feel, justly, that he had given his life a wonderful shape of service. His numerous political missions all over Europe generated universal fame, starting with his fight against the ghastly blood libel in Damascus in 1840, when a number of Jews were forced to “confess,” under torture, that they had murdered a Christian to use his blood for Passover rituals, and 63 children were arrested to force their mothers to reveal the hiding place of the blood. On this and other subsequent missions Montefiore confronted the rulers of the world—the Sultan of Turkey, the kings of Europe, the Czar himself. All this gave him a sense, though it was really an illusion, of power. Certainly the Jews of Eastern Europe loved it, thronging the streets to see their savior, as they did later with Herzl. But if Montefiore himself enjoyed the feeling, he was really moved much more deeply by the mysterious effect on him of his seven visits to the Holy Land.

In 1827, armed with introductions to governors, ambassadors, and admirals along the journey, Montefiore and Judith set off on the first of these visits. They traveled in their own carriages via Calais, Florence, and Rome to Naples, and thence to Malta, where they were advised by the governor to go East “in a ship of war, on account of the Greek pirates.” In the event, they sailed for Alexandria “under convoy of the Garnet and four other vessels.” Endless parties and excursions were involved, described in detail in the diaries.

But however sumptuous the hospitality encountered en route, to Montefiore and Judith this was above all a religious journey. They had started in May. In Malta they broke off from “amusements” to celebrate Tish’ah be’Av (the 9th of Ab), the twenty-four-hour fast instituted in memory of the destruction of the Temple. “Thank God,” Montefiore says in his diary on August 2, “we are quite well after breaking the fast, which we did at 9:35, several stars being then visible. The day has been dreadfully hot and fatiguing. My poor wife suffered so much that I endeavored to persuade her to break her fast by about four o’clock, but she would not.”

The religious element became very strong as the journey proceeded. Disregarding the threats of war and plague, they finally arrived at Jaffa on October 16, and the following day approached Jerusalem on foot, dismounting, as all pilgrims did in those days, to express their sorrow at seeing the Holy City in ruins. They stayed only a few days, visiting the holy places and all manner of synagogues. But this short visit seems to have supplied a mainspring for the rest of Montefiore’s life. Boarding their ship at Jaffa, he wrote in his diary: “This day I begin a new era. I fully intend to dedicate much more time to the welfare of the poor, and to attend synagogue as regularly as possible on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday.”

Mondays and Thursdays are days on which a short passage from the Torah is read in synagogue, in preparation, as it were, for the major reading on the Sabbath. The custom links daily piety with regular pious work; and never was a vow carried through with greater conscientiousness, especially in relation to the Holy Land. Though he worked there on a mass of relatively small practical matters, some of what he did, especially in housing, has survived to this day, as in the charming residential area of Yemin Moshe overlooking the walls of Jerusalem. What matters much more, though, is the sense of a vow sustained.

This spiritual fulfillment in the Holy Land stands in sharp contrast to the empty results of the great political missions which he undertook throughout the second half of his life. Although he carried with him everywhere personal introductions from the Queen and supportive instructions from the Foreign Office to Britain’s representatives in foreign capitals, and although he was received everywhere politely, even with deference, nothing whatever survived from the promises, made by every ruler he met, that an end would be put to the persecutions which had prompted his visit. At one point, he secured a firman from the Sultan of Turkey purporting to reverse the Damascus blood libel; but despite untiring efforts, all he could secure for the Jews who had been charged with this monstrous crime was a “pardon,” not a clear statement that the charge had been false from the very beginning.



In its own terms, the phenomenal life of Sir Moses Montefiore seems wholly admirable, both for its splendid style and for its qualities of devotion and consistency. And it is no detraction, while seeing him in his own context, to point to the limits of his Jewish understanding—a blindness to what was coming, and a scant awareness of what had gone by.

On what lay ahead it was perhaps inevitable that a man so embedded in Victorian optimism would miss the fateful evils inherent for Jews in European society, and would miss, too, the need for a revolution that could fashion a new spirit of Jewish independence. Montefiore’s religious love for the Holy Land did link him with those who came later to redeem it; but he never envisaged the possibility, or the necessity, of a large-scale return. As it happens, a truer conception of the future was expressed in the form of a salute to Montefiore in the last months of his life. Chaim Weizmann, the great builder of Zionism, was then a boy of eleven living in a shtetl in Russia called Motol. He was entering high school in the nearby “metropolis” of Pinsk, and wrote a letter in Hebrew to his old rebbe, reassuring him that even in the big town he would never forget the Jewish teachings he had imbibed. Eloquent even at eleven, Weizmann set out in the letter his philosophy for the Jewish future. He admired the work being done in the Holy Land, and said that all Jews should “thank the patriot Moshe Montefiore.” But this was not enough. Only a transformation of the Jews, through mass immigration into the land of Israel, would save the Jewish people: “For why should we look to the kings of Europe for compassion, that they should take pity on us and give us a resting place . . .? To Zion, Jews! To Zion let us go.”



More difficult to define is Montefiore’s failure to identify fully with the range of Jewish thought and experience before his time. It is true that Montefiore and his wife Judith read the Bible, and especially the Psalms, whenever they could, and in a spirit of total belief. He had a fund of Bible quotations at his command, and introduced them regularly into his diaries to express his satisfaction at the way things were working out under the promised rubrics of virtue and its rewards. What he never seemed to do was to ask questions, to seek some deeper illumination related to his faith that would yield intellectual or emotional excitement beyond the pieties and certainties of formal prayer and traditional theology. He knew some Hebrew, but not enough, one imagines, to surrender to its mysteries as one brought up with a formal English education rejoices at the shafts of light that burst out of Shakespeare or Shelley.

The point can be illustrated, perhaps, by comparing Montefiore’s Hebrew background with that of a Jewish leader seven or eight hundred years earlier in the Golden Age of Spain. Like Montefiore, there were Spanish and Portuguese Jews at this time who were powerful figures at court, wealthy enough in their private lives, skilled in their professions as financiers or scientists. But at the same time they were absorbed in an open exploration of Jewish cultural experience through the medium of the Hebrew language and Jewish philosophy. This was, admittedly, a rare phase of Jewish life in which there was not just an interchange between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures but, more strikingly, an expectation on the part of Jews that the deepest meanings, the most intense forms of expression, would be found within their own tradition.

These cultural, religious, and philosophical explorations were kept alive—and were even intensified for a time—in the Mediterranean countries and the Near East for a century or so after the expulsions from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century. In his book The Jews in the Renaissance, the historian Cecil Roth writes of Jews active in Italian science, music, philosophy, the theater, and literature. These “were not merely loyal Jews but intellectually active Jews, conversant with Hebrew, studying its literature and devoted to Talmud scholarship.” The men who were doctors to the Pope and mingled in the banks with the Medici were also rabbis of their communities.

Montefiore’s ancestors—and those of the other “potent, grave, and reverend signiors” of his Sephardi community—had once lived by these canons, until the center of Jewish life moved to Eastern Europe where it fell under the talmudic disciplines of Poland. From the 18th century on, Jews who became absorbed in non-Jewish culture—as many increasingly did—ceased to look beneath the surface of Jewish history and literature unless they were professional scholars. Something precious was thereby lost, though it is beginning to resurface to some extent in our day.



No one can say that Montefiore would have been a better leader, or have derived more out of his Jewish existence, if his mind had been suffused by the cultural experiences in which his cherished Sephardi ancestors were so deeply involved. And can one, in any event, reverse the flow of history? There were special reasons, as Cecil Roth explains, why the Jews were far ahead of Europe culturally during the flowering first of the Arab and then of the Italian renaissance—the only periods, he writes, “when absorption into the civilization of the environment had no corrosive effect on Jewish intellectual life.”3 After that, “Europe” caught up, and Jews put increasing emphasis on learning from their new environment.

From this perspective, Montefiore seems to have struck a balance peculiarly his own. Oblivious to the more complicated philosophies of Jewish life, he joyfully gave his full measure of devotion to the welfare of the Jewish people. In the new balance that Jewish leaders of today and tomorrow have to strike for themselves, the demands of welfare have been moved, by extraordinary circumstances, to a new dimension, and will evoke an appropriate response; but by the same token, the evaluation of Jewish spiritual life seems to stir up forces that had atrophied during the emancipation period. If these, too, begin to be satisfied in new ways, it will be as if those concerned were filling in the blank pages of Montefiore’s Jewish affinities.




1 The Diaries of Sir Moses and Lady Montefiore, an edited summary by his long-term companion Dr. Louis Loewe of 85 handwritten diaries by Sir Moses and some journals by his wife, was published in 1890 and reissued in facsimile in 1983 by the Jewish Historical Society of England and the (English) Jewish Museum. A cookbook by Lady Montefiore, which she published in 1846 under the title The Jewish Manual: Edited by A Lady, was also reissued in facsimile in 1983 by Nightingale Books (New York).

2 The status of the Jews was undefined until the 19th century. Oliver Cromwell had considered reversing the expulsion order, but no decision had been taken.

3 The dream of recapturing this balance today appears to animate a good deal of the recent work of Cynthia Ozick, who in her latest novel, The Cannibal Galaxy, invokes symbolically the immensely cultured French Jewish writer Edmond Fleg: “Lordly civilization enmeshed with lordly civilization, King David's heel caught in Victor Hugo's lyre, the metaphysicians Maimonides and Pascal, Bialik and Keats, Gemara hooked to the fires of algebra.”

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