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    Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler – “Willing captive of the gilded gentry”?

    Paper presented by Rabbi Raymond Apple at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem, on 23 September 2019, at an event hosted by the Jewish Historical Society of England Israel Branch. A video of Rabbi Apple’s presentation can be viewed here.

    Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler


    The Times once told its readers that Hermann Adler was a hereditary high priest. It is true that the family were kohanim descended from the Biblical priesthood, but rabbis are not priests in the Christian sense, nor are chief rabbis “high priests”. Yet 19th-century Anglo-Jewry had no doubt that Hermann Adler would inherit his father’s office; he had already fulfilled its functions whilst waiting in the wings. His own son Alfred might have carried the role into a third generation but died as a young man. There was an analogy with the royal family in which Queen Victoria held the throne for many years whilst her son aged as Prince of Wales.
    Born in Hanover in 1839, Hermann was a son of Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler and his wife Henrietta. Arriving in London aged 6, Hermann Adler recalled his “childish wonder” at his father’s installation ceremony. He was educated at University College School and studied Talmud with his father. Ordained in Prague and with a doctorate from Leipzig, he started off by teaching at Jews’ College, gave lessons to the sons of the gentry, and was his father’s secretary.

    When the Bayswater Synagogue was founded in 1863. “Dr Hermann” became its “lecturer”. He was there for 27 years. His colleagues, Isaac Samuel and Raphael Harris, were widely loved, but it was “Dr Hermann” around whom legends were built. His sermons, which often initiated new movements and institutions, were later published. He regularly addressed topics “which moved our hearts both as Englishmen and as Jews”. He called the modern preacher “the lineal successor of the greatest of all preachers – the prophets of old…”.

    Cyrus Adler of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America – no relation – called Adler “a very sensible, plain-speaking preacher.” A Liverpool paper said: “Dr Adler has a slight Hebrew (is this meant to be ‘Germanic’?) accent in his voice, which, however, in preaching is scarcely perceptible… he is an eloquent and most finished speaker, and commands a broad vocabulary of classical English. He possesses that peculiar chromatic richness of language… which is often observable in deep students of Oriental literature”.

    The first Adler was involved in many internal Jewish controversies. Hermann was a polemicist defending Jews and Judaism in the general community. He stood his ground even when Christians and Jews were both against him. His controversies, especially with Goldwin Smith, addressed issues as disparate as Jews as patriots and “irresponsible wealth”. In 1868 he gave a series of sermons rebutting christological interpretations of Scripture. A few Jews feared he would jeopardise Jewish integration; most admired him for speaking out, even though the language was respectful and intended for “defence, not offence”. When the sermons were published, Christian criticism reached a flood. A writer in The Scattered Nation on 1 June, 1869, thought the rabbi would have ignored the subject if missionaries had not been hitting their mark.

    Adler mixed with peers, politicians and prelates. Stories of his friendship with Cardinal Manning include the (apocryphal?) tale that when the cardinal said, “Rabbi, when are you going to eat ham?” Adler replied, “At your wedding, Your Eminence!” It is said that he wore bishop’s gaiters. Cecil Roth said there was “an inevitable tendency for him to interpret his position almost in Anglican terms”.

    After Nathan Marcus Adler moved to Brighton, leaving Hermann as Delegate Chief Rabbi, they wrote to each other almost daily. The old man was physically frail but his opinions were sharp and he made tart comments, for example about a person whom he calls resh-shin. We deduce that resh-shin is Lord Rothschild, president of the United Synagogue. Nathan Marcus died in 1890. On his deathbed he linked the hands of Lord Rothschild and Sir Samuel Montagu in order to create peace. Hermann, as expected, became chief rabbi. It was not an easy time. Immigration was dividing the East and West End. Chaim Bermant calls Adler “the willing captive of the gilded gentry”. Adler told Ahad HaAm that the Russians and Poles were inferior to the English and German Jews.

    Adler’s problems ranged from socialists whose grievances he did not really understand, to immigrant rabbis who conducted shtille chasunahs – weddings without civil registration – which he feared would jeopardise the stability of the community. Though the newcomers attacked his kashrut, Adler sometimes preached in Yiddish and urged the immigrants to learn a trade. Rev B Schewzik said that Adler worked 16 hours a day, 15 of them to help the “foreign” Jews.

    Bernard Drachman, a graduate of the Breslau seminary, called Adler “a man of noble presence, erect and stately. His expressive countenance, encompassed by a brown full beard, revealed the inner goodness of his nature. His manner was kind and affable… I was thrilled. It almost seemed as if we were intimate friends.”

    Adler was more visible in public life than his father. He served on a committee established to settle disputes between England and America. Awarded the CVO he tucked the lower part of the insignia into his robes so that it would not look like a cross. He mixed easily with the British aristocracy and even with royalty, though some were uncertain whether he should have entered Westminster Abbey for the coronation of Edward VII on a Shabbat. He had attended an early service at the Western Synagogue and walked to the abbey with a police escort. He said that entering a church enhanced the welfare of the Jewish community.

    He had visited the Holy Land and supported Jewish colonisation, but he called political Zionism “an egregious blunder… fostering fantastic and visionary ideas”. Herzl sarcastically called Adler “a man from Germany who would undoubtedly like to think of himself as a descendant of the Anglo-Saxons”. He found the chief rabbi more interested in shechitah than Zionism.

    Though the breach between Orthodox and Reform had been largely healed, a new challenge had come onto the scene, the radical views of Claude Montefiore. Orthodox ministers such as AA Green, JF Stern and Simeon Singer, showed an interest, but Adler made them withdraw. Soon the new movement became the Liberal Synagogue.

    In the Orthodox community, the Hampstead Synagogue, which opened in 1892, wanted Rev Morris Joseph as their minister; Adler “inhibited” him, though they remained friendly. When a group of Orthodox congregations sought liturgical change; Adler listened but made few concessions. When Hampstead wanted women in the synagogue choir, Adler said he had “in no case sanctioned such an arrangement”. But he agreed to “an organisation of voices”. Soon many Orthodox synagogues had mixed choirs; only one such choir survives.

    Despite their preoccupations, chief rabbis all enjoy studying and research, and Hermann was no exception. He inherited rabbinical works from his father, but did little academic writing. His literary output was mostly tracts and sermons.

    Hermann had shown signs of burn-out before becoming chief rabbi, but he gave twenty strenuous years to the role. Israel Zangwill caustically remarked that the Chief “could scarcely do aught than emit sonorous platitudes and remain in office”. Ahad HaAm was more generous when, with all his criticisms, he dubbed Adler “the most influential rabbi in all Judaism”. Adler died in 1911, and “Adlerism” – tight central control – basically died with him. Minhag Anglia (“The English Usage”, which adulated everything English) lingered but dwindled.

    • What now follows focusses on aspects of Hermann Adler’s career.


    Hermann’s Orthodoxy was set by his father and had to meet the latter’s standards of rabbinic leadership. Both however were denied the ultimate power of imposing their will on the community by means of cherem (ban). This had been tried against the Seceders at the end of Solomon Hirschell’s rabbinate. Never again was a chief rabbi empowered to issue cherem. The Adlers had to use other – and ultimately more effective – weapons, notably personality, persuasion and the pulpit. They gave Orthodoxy a firm hold, but an Orthodoxy of a particular kind.

    There was a tug-of-war between Hungarian and German Orthodoxy; both firmly opposed Reform but each had its own approach. The Hungarian rabbis opposed any concessions, upholding Moses Sofer’s dictum, “Everything new is forbidden by the Torah”. The German rabbis preferred a form of decorous, cross-cultural Orthodox integration: in a sense, beating the Reform at its own game. It was the Germanic model that the Adlers exemplified. Previously, English Judaism had no firm policy; Solomon Hirschell tended towards the Hungarian approach, though the congregants were often uninterested in any brand of Orthodoxy.

    Nathan Adler was already an exemplar of German Torah im Derech Eretz, though this slogan only came later, and he moulded English Judaism to his pattern. It suited England with its ethos of propriety and conservatism. One result was that Reform made little headway in England and was never quite certain of its ideology, which was rather Biblicist, rejecting some post-Biblical institutions but maintaining others. On the whole it seemed closer to the Adler pattern than to German Reform despite Adler’s pulpit debates with the Reform minister on the Oral Law, the second days of festivals and other issues.

    By the end of the century many people felt that a reconciliation between the factions was both desirable and inevitable, though both groups were shocked by the arrival of the far more radical Liberal movement. The reconciliation never happened, and Reform remained outside the establishment.

    Hermann Adler followed his father’s approach, but it was a more difficult age. His Orthodoxy was put to the test from three groups – the Orthodox immigrants, the establishment congregations and the emergent Liberal movement.

    The immigrants felt the chief rabbi and dayanim were too lax and permissive and the ministers were too “goyish”. The Machzike Hadath attacked the level of kashrut, with both sides appealing to Continental rabbis for support. Reading the material one cannot entirely fault either side. The 15-year battle more or less ended when both camps realised that shechitah as a whole might be in jeopardy.

    The establishment concern was with synagogue procedure. Though some synagogues had been partially rebuffed when they asked Nathan Adler in the 1870s for liturgical change, a fresh approach was made to Hermann Adler in the 1890s. Hermann, like his father, allowed change to minhag (custom) but not din (law). He would not cross the red lines of halachah. Jacob Reinowitz, the dayan, opposed the changes. The Great Synagogue kept aloof.

    Occasionally it was necessary to insist on a point of theological tradition, such as Rev Morris Joseph’s wish for the Hampstead Synagogue to omit prayers for the restoration of sacrifices. Despite his friendship with Joseph, Hermann had to put his foot down and “inhibited” Joseph’s appointment to Hampstead.

    Claude Montefiore’s Jewish Religious Union (the original name of the Liberal movement) wanted radical revamping of Jewish theology, arguing that Adler was only working on the facade. Adler, however, vehemently opposed any departure from the authority of scripture. Some of the establishment ministers felt the JRU might appeal to Jews on the fringe, but he made them withdraw.

    The struggle within Orthodoxy is typified by the Azriel Hildesheimer controversy on the Continent. The anti-Hildesheimer forces opposed vernacular sermons, a bimah adjacent to the Ark, clergy wearing canonicals, removing or reducing the gender partition (mechitzah), introducing synagogue choirs (even if all-male), holding weddings in the synagogue and altering prayer customs – all accepted by German Orthodoxy and promoted by the Adler chief rabbinate. Both sides quoted halachah and debated Hildesheimer’s idea of a seminary where rabbis combined Talmud with university study, which tallied with the Adlers’ concept.

    The Adlers created the Anglo-Jewish ministry, but some ministers emphasised Shakespeare more than Shass, and emulated the moralistic preaching style of the 19th century Church. Some permitted themselves foibles that were hardly strictly Orthodox, but on the whole their deviations were tolerated because they remained loyal to the Adler establishment and the theory of the Adler approach. Yet though the Adlers were expected to seemed to want a quasi-Anglican style, Minhag Anglia (“the English Usage”) was not mere hype without halachah. “Adlerism” may have differed from the traditional rabbinate but it fitted into the structured English way of doing things.


    To the Jews of Bayswater he was Dr Hermann, a rabbi who loved and was loved, a man of piety and peace. To the world at large he was Dr Adler, a religious leader and a doughty fighter for his people’s good name. Where his father’s polemics were generally within the Jewish community, Hermann was the community’s greatest rabbinic wrestler with the outside antisemite. That “outside antisemite” was not just a type but had a name, William Goldwin Smith. Their encounters were mostly in the monthly intellectual magazine, Nineteenth Century, though Hermann had polemics with other people in other places.

    Goldwin Smith was an Oxford academic who moved to the USA to establish the humanities at Cornell University. He settled in Canada, where he was a powerful controversialist, with targets ranging from imperialism to the Jews. His effect on Canadian policies was considerable and he became the Dominion’s leading antisemite. Recently people have questioned whether such a prejudiced man should have the Cornell University Hall named after him.

    The late 19th century saw a new stage in the history of antisemitism. Feeding on centuries of anti-Judaism, it put Jew-hatred on a new footing. Jew-hatred was originally religious (“The Jews rejected Jesus – therefore God rejected the Jews”) and Jews could (generally) escape by means of baptism. With the secularisation of European society, the Jew was not judged so much by Christian dogma but in pseudo-scientific terms (“Jews are inherently evil and baptism does not erase their inborn traits”). The new quasi-genetic challenge could not be left without protest and rebuttal. According to Lucien Wolf, Goldwin Smith was the one who initiated the antisemitic agitation in England, though Smith denied it and said he was “absolutely free (of) the slightest shadow of religious antipathy”.

    Nonetheless, Goldwin Smith frequently compared Judaism to Christianity (even to Islam), singling out what he called “genuine”, i.e. Orthodox Jews. In 1913 Goldwin Smith’s former private secretary, Arnold Haultain, wrote a book about his master and denied that the latter ever recanted his anti-Judaism, adding that once launched on a diatribe there was no way to control him.

    Goldwin Smith’s views were deemed by Adler “Hamanic”. Hermann might have been urged by his father and other leaders to reply to Goldwin Smith: He could not remain silent. People were being influenced by Goldwin Smith. The stability of the Jewish community was under attack.

    After Goldwin Smith asked “Can Jews be Patriots?” in 1878, there came a series of articles involving Hermann Adler. In December 1881 he said, “Each sentence (by Goldwin Smith) is a barbed arrow; each barb is tipped with venom”. In the April, 1878, issue he said, “The time was when, on being reproached and reviled, we had no alternative but to muffle our faces in our gaberdines and meekly to hold our peace. Those times, it is to be hoped, have gone for ever. The interests of truth, the sacred cause of civil and religious freedom, demand that we should repel with indignation charges against our faith and our race – charges which I cannot characterise otherwise than as cruel and gratuitous calumnies.”

    The Goldwin Smith articles began in the early part of 1878, just before Hermann became Delegate Chief Rabbi. They purvey the standard tropes of Jewish wealth, power hunger, deviousness, tribalism, superiority complex and loyalty only to themselves. Each article brings a lengthy riposte from Hermann Adler. The controversy went beyond Nineteenth Century but typical arguments, summarised below, derive from two exchanges in Nineteenth Century:


    Goldwin Smith: Jews can’t be patriots: their only country is their race. Their monotheism is unreal; their God is the deity of His chosen race. Jewish law and morality are tribal.

    Hermann Adler: the Hebrew Bible expressly denies Goldwin Smith’s claims. Judaism has a real belief in universalism and loyalty to the country of one’s residence. Goldwin Smith substitutes fiction for fact.

    Goldwin Smith: the ruling motives of a Jew are not English but “plutopolitan”. Jewish influence is strong in the financial and press world and is a political danger. A Jew is not an Englishman: he is a Jew; the rest of mankind are aliens in blood. Jews do have civil and social qualities but it is tribal and not universal.

    Hermann Adler: the Pentateuch contains laws that apply only to Jews but the moral laws are universal. We have the same relationship to our countrymen as any other religion. No Jewish law conflicts with an English law. Our interests are those of our country. Judaism is not a tribal but a universal religion.


    Goldwin Smith: Jews want to push us into wars which we don’t need. They are a separate race with tribal objects; their enmities must not sway the councils (counsels?) of England. Jews like Montefiore serve the nation but most Jews make an idol of their own tribe. Their mischief is not in their creed but their character, especially their tribal exclusiveness.

    Hermann Adler: We do not make an idol of our tribe. All men are our brethren. We are loyal to the country where we dwell. We hope for a messianic age of universal brotherhood. The Jew is not a parasite but contributes to the world, especially through the Bible. No town in Germany lacks its Jewish physician; no university is without its Jewish teachers. Jews do not deserve to be called pariahs and insulted. Justice is one of England’s noblest qualities.

    The tone of the exchanges reveals a great deal about bigots and how they work. Gil Troy articulates the issue in the Jerusalem Post of 13 March 2019. What bigots do, he says, is not to address specific actions but to go “essential”, “caricaturing a people’s character, not characterising their actions”. In the case of Goldwin Smith and Hermann Adler, there are two different methods at work: the “essentialism” of Smith as against what we might call the “factualism” of Adler. Smith says in effect, “this is what Jews are”, which enables him to besmirch Jewish character without needing to cite facts to prove his allegations.


    Though he supported the traditional feeling for the Land of Israel, had visited the land and supported its colonisation, he called political Zionism “an egregious blunder”. He endorsed the Hovevei Zion movement (as did the non-Orthodox Rev Dr A Lowy, Sir John Simon and Sir Julian Goldsmid) and preaching at the North London Synagogue in 1898 he said, “Every believing and conforming Israelite must be a Zionist” who believed in the return to the Holy Land. But at the Anglo-Jewish Association annual meeting in 1896 he warned, “We must be on our guard against fostering fantastic and visionary ideas about the re-establishment of a Jewish State and a Jewish nation”.

    He had four objections to “Political, Secular, or Basle Congress Zionism”:
    • Theological – the ideal was messianic and should wait for the Messiah.
    • Sociological – it will divert attention from the real problems, cause antisemitism and encourage accusations of dual loyalty.
    • Definitional – it wrongly suggests that Jews are a nation.
    • Pragmatic – the world will laugh at dreamers who talk of founding a State.

    In a sermon he called it “a novel idea” appealing to “Eastern Europe and Eastern London” and told a journalist that “nobody whose opinion is of any weight” advocated Palestine being acquired by the Jews for a State.

    Upper class English Jews thought the movement was “foreign”. Claude Montefiore said he felt “nearer to (his) English gardener than to Polish Jews”. Adler thought that Herzlian Zionism might jeopardise anglicisation. Herzl sarcastically called Adler “a man from Germany who would undoubtedly like to think of himself as a descendant of the Anglo-Saxons”.

    However, Hermann’s Zionist son Alfred noted that Herzl, “tall, leonine, and inspiring”, attracted the Jewish masses: “Herzl was to them – and by them – endowed with almost supernatural powers”. Alfred attended the 5th and 6th Zionist Congresses in Basle; Herzl liked his reports and they shared “many pleasant moments”. Alfred said when the East Africa scheme was debated, “I saw his face pale, his muscles twitch… Perhaps he felt that, strong man as he was, he had somehow failed. Perhaps he died of a broken heart”.

    Hermann was not alone in his negative attitude to political Zionism. Not only were many strictly Orthodox rabbis “Protestrabbiner” who opposed pre-messianic Zionist activity, but many Reform rabbis felt that wherever Jews lived was their Holy Land. A number of Adler’s own Anglo-Jewish ministers feared that the gentiles would think the Jews had divided loyalties.

    Hermann’s attitude is especially relevant because this was the era when Herzlian Zionism began. It was to England that Herzl turned, probably expecting the chief rabbi’s support. Adler’s lead was followed by rabbis elsewhere in the British Empire and complicated the Zionist movement’s hope of solid progress.


    Hermann gave the chief rabbinate new heights of public presence. He carried himself with unique ecclesiastical dignity. Despite the Schewzik view that he exerted himself indefatigably on behalf of the immigrants, he was more at home with the so-called “good and the great”. The Jewish patricians were proud of him. National figures regarded him as one of themselves. When Chaim Bermant – writing in the Jewish Chronicle – called him “the willing captive of the gilded gentry” he was right to place Hermann in the “gilded gentry” milieu but wrong to say he was their captive, since he and they gravitated to each other quite happily and willingly.

    It was not yet politically possible for Hermann to be awarded a peerage but he would have liked it and it would have given pleasure to his friend Edward VII if not to Queen Victoria. He was however made a CVO and had several honorary doctorates. Cecil Roth called him “a typical product of the placid Victorian era in Western Europe”; it might be more correct to say that Adler was not a product but (at least to a degree) a producer.

    The West End was more congenial to him than the East End. He thought the uncultured immigrants were a threat to the Jewish position in England. They were also a threat to the chief rabbinate since they had little enthusiasm for the Adler system of religious government. They wanted a rav who could answer a she’elah (religious question) – as against another rav who had a different opinion. They wanted a maggid, not a minister with a clerical collar.

    Adler told Ahad HaAm in 1893 that the Russian refugees were not like the English and German Jews who made up the community in the days of his father. They were always quarrelling among themselves, finding fault with the rabbinate and nothing he did could satisfy them. It must be said that he did try to help the newcomers to settle down and to learn and earn a trade, but Jewish employers were often the stumbling block. Becoming chief rabbi after long years in the wings had tired him and he probably did not have the stamina or initiative to really understand and support the immigrants. Yet he knew that the community had to do something about the problem and just before he died in 1911 he penned a message urging Anglo-Jewry to find a successor who could knit together the West and the East.

    His eventual successor was Joseph Herman Hertz.

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