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    London Jewry in the 1890s: The Religious Controversies

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in L’eylah: A Journal of Judaism Today (published by the Office of the Chief Rabbi and Jews’ College, London) in September 1990 – Rosh HaShanah 5751, no. 30.

    [One hundred years ago Anglo-Jewry was experiencing many controversies. As well as arguments over shechitah and the format of services, the seeds of breakaway movements from the United Synagogue were established. Some of the problems of a century ago seem familiar today. In a paper read to the Union of Anglo-Jewish Preachers, Rabbi Raymond Apple outlined some of these controversies.]

    In the whole of the recorded history of the Anglo-Jewish community there was hardly ever a decade of greater transition than the 1890s and there was certainly never a decade of greater significance in the development of the religious life of Anglo-Jewry.

    The 1890s witnessed the death of Nathan Marcus Adler and his son, Hermann’s, peaceful and uneventful succession to the Chief Rabbinate. The community over which Hermann Adler now assumed responsibility was however a different one from that which his father had led and served. For coinciding with the change in the Chief Rabbinate there came a change in the old order of things.

    Dr Bernard Homa writes in his history of the Machzikei Hadath community, “By the time Dr Hermann Adler was elected Chief Rabbi, in June 1891 (following his father’s death), there were already the rumblings of revolt”. What Dr Homa was specifically referring to was the revolt of the newly-emergent right-wing against the Chief Rabbinate, but his observation is, remarkably, equally true of every section of the community at that period: the right, the left, and the centre.

    The nature of the community in the latter part of the nineteenth century is well-known. The old rivalry between Ashkenazim and Sephardim had waned, the bitterness surrounding the establishment of the West London (Reform) Synagogue had died down, and the community was mostly long-settled and homogeneous, enjoying political and social emancipation and considerable material prosperity. Nathan Marcus Adler had been in office for forty-five years, and his policy of strong centralised religious government had brought into being institutions like Jews’ College and the United Synagogue, which — with the Board of Deputies and the Board of Guardians — were at the peak of their strength and fame.

    First Stirrings of Dissent

    But as the 1880s gave way to the 90s, “rumblings of revolt” were becoming more and more audible. Israel Zangwill, writing in Children of the Ghetto, published in 1892, tells us that the rabbinate was experiencing “grave difficulties in reconciling all parties to its rule” and “could scarcely do aught else than emit sonorous platitudes and remain in office”.

    From which quarters was the revolt coming? The answer is symbolised by three significant events:
    (a) Hermann Adler’s argument over Kashrut with the new Machzikei Hadath Synagogue;
    (b) the agitation for liturgical reform associated with the opening of the Hampstead Synagogue; and
    (c) the consequences of the Hibbert Lectures given by Claude Goldsmid Montefiore in 1892.

    Together, they challenged the Chief Rabbinate on three basic fronts of Jewish life: (a) observance, (b) worship and (c) theology.

    The Machzikei Hadath controversy stemmed from the arrival in England of a group of strictly Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe. The establishment was too compromising for them. How, for example, could someone used to the strict standards of Eastern European Jewish learning and observance be satisfied with ministers in western clerical garb who were called “the Reverend” and who lacked full rabbinic status — some because they did not seek it, others because Anglo-Jewish ministers were deliberately denied the opportunity to obtain the rabbinical diploma and if they ventured abroad to gain it, were denied the right to call themselves “rabbi”.

    It is true that some of the old established Anglo-Jewish families had maintained high standards of Orthodox observance, but it was only the aftermath of the Russian pogroms from 1880 onwards that brought this influx of Eastern European Jews, who set up little chevras all over the East End, leading to the formation of the Federation of Synagogues by the first Lord Swaythling (then Samuel Montagu) in 1887. The purposes for which the Federation was established included the provision of “Orthodox rabbis, ministers of dayanim” as well as “to assist in the maintenance of Orthodox religious instruction in Talmud Torahs and Yeshivoth” and “to obtain and maintain Kashruth”. Some saw it as a movement of revolt against the existing standards of ministers, of education and of kashrut.

    From 1886-1909 Samuel Montagu, the founder of the Federation, was also President of the London Board for Shechita. This made it difficult for those elements in the Federation who were dissatisfied with the communal facilities for kashrut to strike a blow for the right to set up independent facilities. But in 1891 a society was formed which, for the time being at least remained outside all synagogal organisations, and from it now emanated full-scale revolt.

    Origins of Machzikei Hadath

    This society was known as Chevrath Machzikei Hadath, “The Society of Strengthened of the Faith”. It was not as yet a synagogue, but a pressure-group consisting mostly of members of the North London Beth Hamedrash (established in 1889 in Stoke Newington) and the synagogue in the East End of the Machzikei Shomrei Shabbath, “The Strengthened of Sabbath Observance”, set up in 1890. The Machzikei Hadath set themselves one primary aim, and towards it they commenced active campaigning. Their aim was to persuade the Chief Rabbi and the community that serious infringements of the laws of kashrut were taking place and to make sure that their agitation led to improvements.

    Kashrut Laxity

    They claimed that those responsible for the administration of kashrut were not carrying out their responsibility properly:
    (a) in seeing that shochtim and butchers and others under their control were religiously above reproach and observed the Sabbath properly;
    (b) in selling hindquarter meat only if it had been purged;
    (c) in ensuring that no forbidden fat, such as kidney suet, was sold;
    (d) in controlling the slaughter of poultry so that there could be no question of stall-holders in Petticoat Lane dealing in poultry which had not had proper shechitah; and
    (e) in requiring that butchers should not retain meat for more than seventy-two hours unless it had been kashered or poured over with cold water (begiessen).

    Representatives of the Machzikei Hadath went to see Hermann Adler on several occasions. He, however, would not concede that there were grounds for serious objection to the kashrut administered by the London Board for Shechita. It has been suggested (by Dr Homa) that Adler could have persuaded the lay leaders of the community that some laxity was prevalent, and he might have been able to effect some improvement. It is hard to explain his refusal to entertain the objections of the Machzikei Hadath, which in themselves were not unreasonable. But there were personal reasons as well as differences of background which made it difficult for the two sides to understand each other fully.


    With all his diplomacy, he could not avoid calling them “uncultivated and uncivilised” and they could not forget their distrust of a Chief Rabbinate and Beth Din in which they felt there to be “almost no-one of whom to ask any question in Jewish law”.

    At first Adler told them that “we should have no objection to grant licences to butchers of their own choice, they exercising the most rigorous supervision”. Not completely satisfied, the Machzikei Hadath then said they would also want their own shochtim acting under the supervision of their newly-appointed rabbi, Abraham Abba Werner. What they wanted was clearly an independent shechitah. This both the Chief Rabbi and the Board of Shechita would not countenance. The Board feared it would interfere with unified communal provision of and control over kashrut. The Chief Rabbi feared that these “uncultivated and uncivilised” people might not observe sufficient precautions to prevent the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals stepping in and having shechitah banned altogether.

    A similar problem faced the Chief Rabbi in relation to certain religious marriage ceremonies, or Shtille Chuppahs, which the Machzikei Hadath carried out without complying with the statutory requirements of civil registration laid down by law in 1836.

    Separate Shechitah

    The Board of Shechita discussed the matter at length without reaching agreement about possible action. The Machzikei Hadath promptly inaugurated their own shechita. Shochtim were appointed by them and they had to comply with stringent conditions, working under the supervision of Rabbi Werner. The butchers likewise were subject to strict control, and a poultry yard was opened and all poultry was marked with a special seal of kashrut.

    Samuel Montagu, at a meeting of the Board of the Federation of Synagogues, castigated this separatism as “intolerable”; the leaders of the United Synagogue regarded it as a tiresome nuisance which would best be removed by being ignored. The Jewish World said that Dr Adler’s assurances that official kashrut was above reproach were “not quite convincing” and added, “Until these questions are satisfactorily answered it is useless to condemn the Chevrath Machzikei Hadath as an attempt at schism”. To expect the Chief Rabbi publicly to capitulate was too much; but without great publicity certain steps were now taken by the Chief Rabbi and Shechita Board to tighten up on each of the main points which had originally been the subject of the demands of the Machzikei Hadath. The latter took note of the changed situation but were adamant that too many loopholes still remained, and proceeded with their opposition shechita.

    The next move came from the Chief Rabbi and Beth Din, who sought to quell the revolt in a simple, unambiguous way, by issuing a public statement saying that Machzikei Hadath meat was treifa and forbidden to be eaten by Jews. The Machzikei Hadath were unmoved. Now Dr Adler resorted to a bold stroke. On 20 November, 1891, he wrote to one of the most renowned rabbis of the time, the Kovner Rav, Isaac Elchanan Spektor, and five days later there came a reply approving of Dr Adler’s ban on Machzikei Hadath meat.

    Rabbis At Odds — Settlement

    The Machzikei Hadath, in the belief that the Rav of Kovno could not have been given all the facts of the case, now entered into its own correspondence with great rabbinical figures, and gained the support of Salomon Breuer of Frankfort-am-Main and others. Before long each side had collected a sheaf of letters in its support from eminent continental rabbis, and handbills and posters containing accusations and counter-accusations were circulating throughout the East End. Pickets were posted outside the butcher shops of the Machzikei Hadath and it was even alleged that a customer of one of the shops was refused a charity grant. The Jewish World called it all a scandal and said that the religious authorities had no right to crush opposition by force.

    After a few months the battle quietened down a little. Little by little the Machzikei Hadath accumulated further rabbinical support, notably from the saintly Chafetz Chayyim, who however anxiously advised the Chevra to continue to seek peace with the Chief Rabbi. And at the same time they developed from a pressure-group into a pulsating Orthodox congregation and by 1898 became the Spitalfields Great Synagogue. But the dispute dragged on for fourteen years until both parties were in financial difficulties and there were threats to shechita from outside, due to a libel case involving a provincial community and also a report from an Admiralty Committee which was unfavourable toward shechita. In 1904 the two parties came together for negotiations. The result was that the Machzikei Hadath retained religious control over their own shechita but administrative control passed to the Board of Shechita, and religious officials appointed by the congregation became subject to the Chief Rabbi’s approval. And at the same time the congregation joined the Federation of Synagogues.

    Clash of Cultures

    This kind of controversy, with its overtones of civil war, could obviously not have been a pleasant thing for either side. But it was not just a battle over meat and butcher shops. It was the clash of an old community and a group of new immigrants; it was the clash of two cultures which the Jewish Chronicle described in 1899: “In the East End there is encamped a large and ever increasing foreign element; to the North and West has gravitated a great section of English-born Jews, separated from their East End brethren by a gulf which widens rather than contracts.”

    Dr Adler did, one must add, find an increasingly cordial reception in the East End as the years went on. The Rev. B. Schewzik was certainly exaggerating when he said, at a Memorial Service for the Chief Rabbi held in 1911 at the Great Assembly Hall, Mile End, that Dr Adler was to the East End Jews “a father, a leader, a benefactor… Dr Adler had worked 16 hours a day of which he devoted fifteen to the interests of the foreign Jews.” But the Jewish Chronicle was not exaggerating when it wrote, at the same period, of “the markedly reverent reception accorded the departed ‘Rav’ when visiting a place of worship that had in the past been somewhat of a thorn in the body ecclesiastic”… shades of the Machzikei Hadath! And in a message left for the community after his death Dr Adler advised them to appoint a new Chief Rabbi as soon as possible, saying: “He must be a strong personality, strong in piety and learning, one who will be equally acceptable to the East and the West, the native and the immigrant.”

    Liturgical Reform — Revolt from the Centre

    The second controversy of the period, now that we have dealt with the revolt from the right, is the revolt from the centre, that is, from the established community. Here there was no sign of what Zangwill called “rabid zealots, yearning for the piety of the good old times”. Here there was a complacent respectability, and insofar as religious movements could arouse their passion, they were not deep movements concerned with religious observance or with matters of theology, but instead superficial, involving mainly rationalisation of the synagogue service and ritual procedure.

    Throughout the last part of Nathan Marcus Adler’s long term of office he had been urged to sanction minor alterations to the synagogue services, and in fact in earlier years he had taken the initiative in order to iron out the chaotic lack of organisation in many synagogues. In 1879 a conference of representatives of many congregations formulated a comprehensive list of requests for the omission or amendment of some of the poetry and prose of the prayer-book, and for the reconsideration of parts of synagogue ritual which were felt to be out of keeping with contemporary taste. To some of these proposals the Chief Rabbi acceded, though with the utmost reluctance.

    But the movement for change was only temporarily defeated. It gained decided momentum towards the end of the 1880s through a combination of circumstances. Jews were moving into West Hampstead and Kilburn in large numbers, and these included not only many of the intelligentsia of the community but also a number of those who had been campaigning for ritual reform. In 1889 a group of them met to plan for the establishment of a synagogue in the Hampstead district — not an ordinary synagogue, but one which would be sui generis, combining the best features of Orthodox and Reform, Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike.

    Chief Rabbi’s Stand

    They worked out a scheme of services and placed it before the Chief Rabbi. Apart from a few minor points, he would not countenance any of the more far-reaching proposals. He would not allow the repetition of the Amidot to be omitted on Sabbaths, nor the abolition of the duchaning ceremony. The reading of the ten commandments was not to be part of the Sabbath service. No English prayers were to be permitted except the Prayer for the Royal Family and certain supplementary Bible readings. He would also clearly have rejected the introduction of the organ and the alteration of the traditional scheme of Torah readings, which the committee had discussed and decided not to press at the moment.

    The consequence of the Chief Rabbi’s reply was that half the Hampstead committee, those with more radical views, severed their association with the embryo congregation. In an attempt at saving the situation, a delegation from Hampstead went to see the Chief Rabbi’s son, Hermann Adler, who was by now exercising most of the functions of the office on his father’s behalf. Hermann Adler could not explicitly contradict his father’s ruling, but conceded that the repetition of the Amidah was not utterly vital to Judaism, and that once the synagogue was actually established it was in the power of the committee to make alterations in the way in which the priestly blessing was recited, subject to an appeal from any member of the congregation to the Chief Rabbi.

    Modified Minchah

    But this did not bring the dissentients back. Most of them were in fact already busily engaged in organising a more radical movement in the district, a Sabbath afternoon service “so framed as to meet the wants of those who are not en rapport with the present form of public worship.” The plan was for a modified Mincha service in Hebrew, together with a scriptural reading, a psalm and a prayer in English. The preacher would be the Rev Morris Joseph, or on occasion Israel Abrahams, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore or Oswald John Simon. There would be an organ and a mixed choir.

    Morris Joseph had previously been the minister at North London and in Liverpool but had returned to London for a long rest after a breakdown in health and was now living in St. John’s Wood. He was the most frequent preacher at the Sabbath afternoon services, which continued for three or four years in local town halls. He later published a selection of these addresses; most were non-controversial but in a few cases he expressed views which did not completely accord with Orthodox teaching. In particular he attacked prayers for the restoration of sacrifices, saying that “the sooner such outworn, misused elements are eliminated from religion, the better it will be for religion”.

    In 1892 these views, and Joseph’s insistence on his freedom to express them, became the ground for another bitter controversy. The proposed Hampstead Synagogue was by this stage almost ready to open its doors. The synagogue committee approached Morris Joseph and invited him to become their first minister. Joseph agreed; but the Chief Rabbi refused to sanction the proposed appointment on the basis that Joseph’s religious views were “not in accord with the teachings of traditional Judaism”.

    The Storm Breaks

    The Jewish press now resounded with the noise of the supporters of each side. Joseph himself wrote that the Chief Rabbi’s decision meant that “the religious needs of a progressive congregation are to be ignored and its spiritual life starved, in obedience to a rigid system”. Solomon Schechter, Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge, wrote bitterly that the Chief Rabbi was employing the wrong criterion. If adherence to Orthodox doctrine were to be the test of a minister, then some of the greatest names in Jewish scholarship and some of the greatest Jewish preachers on the Continent would never be allowed to enter a United Synagogue pulpit. An appeal to doctrine “will only breed cant and hypocrisy”, Schechter argued: “If a test there be, and it is most desirable that there should be one, let it be a thorough knowledge of the Bible and of the Talmud as well as the Poskim, a thorough acquaintance with Jewish history and a sound secular education.”

    But the Chief Rabbi’s ruling stood, and Morris Joseph withdrew his acceptance of the position at Hampstead. His Sabbath afternoon services kept going, but when in 1893 he became senior minister of the Reform Synagogue they lapsed. It deserves to be added that Hampstead did not maintain the peak of its early radicalism, but these controversies left their mark in the independent spirit that has characterised the congregation ever since.

    A last remark on the subject of the Hampstead controversies. Hermann Adler called a conference of ministers in 1892 to consider requests for further modification of the synagogue ritual, and the opportunity was taken by Hampstead and some other congregations to put proposals before the conference. Some were eventually accepted, and in particular explicit permission was now given for the non-repetition of the Mussaf Amidah with its reference to the restoration of the Temple sacrifices. Morris Joseph was not alone in the wish to discontinue these prayers. What then was his offence? Did it perhaps lie in the embarrassment caused by his clear, unambiguous public expression of views to which others gave only tacit assent? The answer must be left to the verdict of history.

    Revolt from the Left

    Let me now finally turn to the third great religious controversy of the decade. We have considered a revolt from the right on matters of religious observance, and one from the centre on matters of ritual and synagogue service. The third controversy, which centred round the views of Claude Goldsmid Montefiore, was a theological dispute going far beyond both of the others.

    First some background about Claude Montefiore. Zangwill, whose clever pen was at its pointed best at this time, called him “an angel — with a revenue”. Montefiore was born in London in 1858, the year of Jewish political emancipation in England. His father was a Montefiore, his mother a Goldsmid — both from wealthy, distinguished Anglo-Jewish aristocratic families. At Balliol College, Oxford, he studied classics and came under the sway of Benjamin Jowett; in Berlin, he learnt rabbinics and came under the spell of Solomon Schechter whom he persuaded to come to England as his private tutor. Well endowed financially, Montefiore was now able to devote his life to scholarship and philanthropy.

    Claude Montefiore’s Theology

    Benjamin Jowett invited him to deliver the Hibbert Lectures for 1892. Montefiore took as his subject “The Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Hebrews”. His theme was that religions did not drop down, ready-made, from Heaven but were the result of long processes of development and evolution. Their elements did not derive from one pure source, but were drawn from the the usages and ways of a variety of peoples. Judaism, in common with other religions, did not descend in toto from Mount Sinai, but was influenced by the ancient tribes in whose midst the Israelites lived and it developed gradually throughout the Biblical period.

    In 1892 these views scandalised many in Anglo-Jewry, but throughout the decade, in addresses at the Hampstead Sabbath afternoon services and elsewhere, and in his writings, he continued to develop his “progressive” philosophy. It was soon apparent that this approach, taken to its logical conclusion, would have far-reaching effects on traditional Jewish wor¬ship and observance.

    In 1901 the Hon Lily Montagu wrote an article on “The Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today” in the Jewish Quarterly Review, edited by Montefiore and Israel Abrahams; the latter soon afterwards succeeded Schechter at Cambridge. Lily Montagu’s intention was not specifically to propagate a new theology but to win back for Judaism those who were drifting away from it.

    Incipient Liberal Judaism

    As an outcome of this article, a small group was set up, with Montefiore’s encouragement and assistance, to consider ways of putting the ideas of Miss Montagu, which in turn owed much to Montefiore’s own teaching, into effect. Special services, both for children and adults, were planned, and at first the idea was that these would be supplementary to, and would not compete with, the existing synagogue services. There was some support, but the movement was not taken too seriously. Among those who associated themselves with it were three United Synagogue ministers — AA Green of Hampstead, Simeon Singer of the New West End, and JF Stern of East London.

    The tolerant amusement with which the group was received was short-lived. A manifesto, a statement of principles, was produced, which made it obvious that this was not simply one more tiresome attempt at toying with the externalities of synagogue worship, but a challenge to the very basis on which the traditional synagogue was founded. The literal interpretation of the Bible was rejected: as Montefiore put it, “The Bible contains the highest truth, but not every word of the Bible is true.” The scriptural account of the giving of the Ten Commandments was denied. It was claimed that the Law of Moses was of less moment than the ethics of the Prophets. Judaism had to become less tribalisticand more universalistic, and should not hesitate to re-examine and revise its attitude towards Christianity and other faiths.

    The group assumed the name “Jewish Religious Union” and approached the Chief Rabbi for permission to use United Synagogue premises for its services. Hermann Adler refused to entertain the request, explaining his attitude in a famous sermon called “The Old Paths”. He and other influential leaders of the Orthodox community also expressed disapproval of the continued participation of Orthodox ministers in the Union’s services, and before long Green, followed by Singer and Stern, withdrew their support.

    The Jewish Religious Union asked the Reform Synagogue in Upper Berkeley Street if their services could be held there. The Berkeley Street authorities agreed if nine conditions, e.g. separation of the sexes, the key prayers in Hebrew, etc., were accepted. To this the JRU could not promise to conform.

    The movement now embarked upon an independent path, under the leadership of Montefiore, Abrahams and Miss Montagu, and developed into the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. This caused deep disquiet to Montefiore’s former tutor, Solomon Schechter. The views of the two had gradually diverged so widely that it has been suggested that Schechter’s distress at the formation of the Liberal movement was one of the factors responsible for his decision to leave England and accept the post of President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. “For what the whole thing means”, said Schechter of the new movement, “is not liberal Judaism, but liberal Christianity.”

    ‘A Judaism Fit For Westerners’

    Montefiore, one need hardly state, assessed his movement very differently. In his book The Old Testament and After he wrote: “Liberal Judaism has nothing to fear… Liberal Judaism has taken up again, on distinctly Jewish lines, the teachings of the Prophets. It has, we may truly say, put Prophets and Law in a new position and relation to each other. It has religiously emancipated women, and in this respect, as in some other respects, it has become a religion suited to, and fitted for, the western world. It has attempted to denationalise Judaism and to universalise it. It has fashioned or adopted new ideas of much moment and significance concerning revelation and inspiration, as well as new ideas concerning authority and freedom. It has boldly and openly faced the new conclusions of history and criticism, and sought to find new adjustments to them. It has attempted to fashion a Judaism which can look Science in the face without flinching, which is independent of the dates and authorships of the Biblical books and of the miracles recorded in them. It has sought to free Judaism from obsolete priestly conceptions…”

    This then was the revolt of the left. Once the 1890s were over, Anglo-Jewry was no longer a single, middle-of-the-road community. From right, left and centre came challenges to the authority and strength of the established ecclesiastical order. It was not Hermann Adler’s fault that he could not prevent challenges arising: nor was it simply that new, unforeseen issues of these kinds caught unawares a Chief Rabbi whom Cecil Roth has called “a typical product of the placid Victorian era in Western Europe”. The fact that such controversies could rage indicates that by the close of the nineteenth century the firm centralised policy dubbed by its detractors “Adlerism”, was already out of date, and it was with understanding insight of these events that monolithic policy gave way in the next generation of the Chief Rabbinate to the famous concept of the umbrella under which could shelter all who rendered substantial loyalty to the tradition of Judaism.

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