Refugees, Rabbis and reformers

Tradition and Change - The Jewish Religion
June 7, 1996

Since the 1780s, when Moses Mendelssohn sought to harmonise Jewish thought and practice with modern philosophy, Jews have been trying to keep pace with intellectual shifts and secularisation. The objective of each new Jewish religious movement was not, as their detractors usually complained, to further dilute Judaism, but to reformulate it in contemporary terms and give it purchase on the intellect of young Jews tempted to stray from the fold or repelled by a religion easily branded archaic.

The reform movement, whose story is excellently told by Anne Kershen and Jonathan Romain, is one such rearguard action. The historicisation of Judaism and its legitimation according to modern, rational thought by Rabbi Louis Jacobs is another.

Kershen and Romain set a new standard for synagogue histories. Their book is well-written, admirably balanced, serious, but not without humour. Kershen covers the origins of Reform Judaism in Britain up to the 1920s. As befits a social historian she is stronger on the societal background than theology, although, as she notes, the founders were more interested in decorum than doctrine. Reform in Britain was not much influenced by the intellectual currents churning through continental Jewry in the wake of the Enlightenment. It was a conservative rebellion, engineered by the elite of London Jewish society. Kershen argues that they were impelled to shorten the sabbath service and drop obscure prayers in order to stem defections from Judaism.

The reformers also wanted to demonstrate their affinity to British culture by anglicising the service. Kershen doubts whether they were motivated by the concurrent campaign for civil emancipation. If they were, she asks, why would a leading reform activist and champion of emancipation like Francis Goldsmid risk a split in Jewry at such a sensitive time? The answer is surely that the emancipationists wanted to cause a schism precisely to undermine the claim of the conservatively-minded Board of Deputies to speak for all Jews on emancipation or any issue.

After the secession in 1840-42, as Israel Zangwill observed waspishly, the west London synagogue "stood still for 50 years admiring its past self". To be fair, its members had to put up with obloquy. They were excluded from the Board of Deputies until 1874 on the grounds that they were not Jews. This was hard enough. As David Englander has observed, the founders were wealthy men who had no wish to be bracketed with dour Protestant nonconformists and the radical politics of the chapel.

Significantly, the reform synagogues in Manchester and Bradford were more avant-garde. Whereas London insisted on English ministers who would symbolise anglicisation, Manchester and Bradford appointed foreign-born rabbis who brought with them a whiff of gunpowder from the barricades. But it is also notable that Solomon Schiller-Szinessy, who arrived in Manchester from Budapest in the wake of the 1848 revolution, and Gustav Gottheil, who preached against slavery and the American Confederacy, both flourished only after they had left the parochial embrace of their congregations. Schiller-Szinessy pioneered Jewish studies at Cambridge, while Gottheil became a leader of American reform.

Paradoxically, Joseph Strauss, the long-suffering minister in Bradford, distinguished himself as an early follower of Theodor Herzl. Strauss thereby defied the universalising thrust of Reform Judaism which was to strip the liturgy of references to the restoration of Zion, the Temple or the redemption of the Jews alone. The antipathy to Zionism faded only many years after the Holocaust. Throughout 1948, the magazine of the west London synagogue contrived to avoid mentioning that the state of Israel had been established.

Jonathan Romain, a rabbi and prolific author, takes up the story from 1929 when Reform Judaism in Britain was moribund. It was revived by the suburbanisation of London Jewry and the call for decorous, nativised synagogues to which congregants could drive without fear of condemnation by their rabbi. The influx of refugee rabbis from central Europe in the 1930s provided a source of erudite, inspired leadership. Although it had to compete in the suburbs with the well-oiled machine of the United synagogue, Reform synagogues were more in tune with the needs of the British-born children of immigrants.

Yet the story of the decades after 1945 is one of a return to tradition. Romain is wonderful at decoding the changes to successive editions of the Reform prayer books. The 1930s edition, by the American Rabbi Harold Reinhart, was perhaps the most radical. It excised all references to the restoration of the Temple, the Messianic age or the resurrection of the Jewish dead. Psalms were modified to avoid any hint of hostility to Gentiles. Reinhart, who had grown up in the American Mid-west, preferred a Bible thumping, ethically charged and universalised Protestant Judaism.

The inclusion of prayers for life-cycle events, however, showed that the practice of Judaism was being turned inside out. The synagogue was now the place for rituals once carried out at home. More attention was paid to the aspirations of women and the education of girls, always a strong point of Reform Judaism. By the time that rabbis Lionel Blue and Jonathan Magonet produced a prayer book for the 1980s, it was impossible to ignore the fact that most congregants would be unable to concentrate on the service or believe what they were reading. The expression of theological uncertainty was built into the liturgy, along with an acknowledgement that the Holocaust and Israel had become central to the identity of diaspora Jews.

Romain conveys with exemplary objectivity the internal contradictions of Reform Judaism, but equally the creativity with which it has met the challenge of secularism. It is not by chance that the best-known voices of Judaism in Britain, Rabbis Lionel Blue and Hugo Gryn, and its most prolific authors, including Haim Maccoby and Rabbis Ignaz Maybaum and Albert Friedlander, hail from the Reform wing. This outstanding book goes a long way to explaining why and does as much credit to its authors as the movement they historicise.

Louis Jacobs sprang to fame in 1962 when he was denied the principalship of Jews' College on the grounds that his 1957 book, We Have Reason to Believe, was heretical. Jacobs had recapitulated the biblical scholarship which treated the Hebrew Bible as the product of human agency, replete with contradictions and irrationality. But his intention was to reveal more clearly the essential truths and spiritual grandeur of the biblical project. He went on to restate the principles of Judaism in modern terms and provided one of the most attractive and persuasive Jewish credos of modern times.

His companion to the Jewish religion exemplifies the best of his work. Indeed, many entries are extracted from his large output of books. They are luminously written, crackling with insight and frequently amusing. Jacobs compiled the volume to help Jewish and non-Jewish readers understand more about Judaism. As such it is an erudite aid and guide to reading. It begins with a concise introductory essay on Judaism and modern Jewish thought and ends with a useful bibliographical essay. Yet it is also a delightful companion in itself, a book that can be dipped into and savoured for its own sake.

David Cesarani is professor of Judaism in modern times, University of Manchester.

Tradition and Change: A History of Reform Judaism in Britain, 1840-1995

Author - Anne J. Kershen and Jonathan A. Romain
ISBN - 0 85303 316 1 and 298 X
Publisher - Vallentine Mitchell
Price - £25.00 and £15.00
Pages - 393

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments