Guest post by Ben Elton
Dr Ben Elton is a Civil Servant in the British Government and the author of Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry 1880-1970 (Manchester University Press 2009). In 2011-12 he will be a Visiting Scholar in the Hebrew and Judaic Studies Department at NYU.
The mainstream Orthodox community in Britain is starting the process of finding a new Chief Rabbi, to replace Lord Sacks who retires in 2013. The job only comes up every 20-30 years and a new Chief Rabbi is usually 40-50 when he takes office, so many potential Chief Rabbis are disqualified by being the wrong age when the post is available. Usually when the office does become vacant there are a number of realistic candidates, and it’s interesting to speculate about the might-have-beens.
When R Nathan Marcus Adler became Chief Rabbi in 1845 another candidate was R Samson Raphael Hirsch. In fact R Hirsch was at one point agreed upon as a compromise candidate. If R Hirsch had gone to London instead of Frankfurt both Anglo-Jewish and German-Jewish history could have been very different. R Hirsch would never have become involved in the question of Austritt – it simply was not an issue in London where the Jewish community was not a state institution but a voluntary association. Without R Hirsch in Frankfurt German communities might have remained united and R Hirsch would be known primarily for his commentaries, philosophy of mitzvot and Torah im derekh erets.
R Adler created an acculturated Orthodoxy in London to attract Westernised members of the community, and it is likely that R Hirsch would have done the same, just as he did in Frankfurt. R Hirsch would not have created Jews’ College as a Wissenschaft inclined institution for training ministers, because unlike R Adler he was firmly opposed to Wissenschaft. In Germany, this caused a split between Independent Orthodoxy in Hirschian, anti-Wissenschaft Frankfurt, and Berlin, where intellectual life focused on the Wissenschaftlich Rabbinerseminar. Those ruptures would have been prevented.
Another candidate for the Chief Rabbinate in 1845 was R Benjamin Tsvi Auerbach, who also opposed much Wissenschaft activity. He attempted to refute R Zacharias Frankel’s Darkei HaMishna in Hatsofeh al Darkhei HaMishna. Had either R Hirsch or R Auerbach come to London a leading agitator against Wissenschaft would have been removed from the German-Jewish scene.
There was no doubt that R Hermann Adler would succeed his father in 1890, but there was an open race when R Adler died in 1911. The job went to R Joseph Herman Hertz, but there were a number of fascinating alternatives. Solomon Schechter sounded Mordecai Kaplan out about the post. Kaplan had yet to make his heterodox views know, and Schechter said later he would not have encouraged Kaplan had he been aware of them. In any case, Kaplan declined to enter the race. The mass of Anglo-Jewry was never particularly theologically inclined, but Kaplan’s radical views would have been too much, even in phlegmatic England. It would likely have been a short incumbency.
Another American candidate was R Bernard Drachman. R Drachman was a graduate of R Frankel’s Seminary in Breslau and a founder of the JTS who later broke with the institution and taught for many years at RIETS. R Drachman alienated almost everyone on his visit to London by refusing to eat the food in a home of a United Synagogue minister and disdaining to speak Yiddish in the East End.
The leading British candidate was R Moses Hyamson. When he lost, he took R Hertz’s job at Congregation Orach Chayim in New York and became Professor of Codes at the JTS, where he remained until 1940. He gave some Orthodox credentials to the Seminary even as Conservative Judaism emerged as something distinctive and the JTS became its intellectual centre. Had R Hyamson not been around and the Seminary faculty become more homogenously non-Orthodox from an earlier date the JTS and the Conservative Movement might have developed in a different way.
Hertz died in 1946 and was succeeded by R Israel Brodie in 1948. R Brodie had the advantages of modern and traditional scholarship, oratorical skills and two good wars as a Chaplain. He was also helped by the other major candidate, R Louis Rabbinowitz, comprehensively blotting his copybook. R Rabbinowitz came from a distinguished rabbinical family, was already Chief Rabbi of South Africa and had also been a British Army Chaplain. But as a fervent supporter of Zev Jabotinsky, he publicly threw away his medals in 1947 in protest at the policies of the British government in Palestine. It was a courageous act, but one that would prevent him from ever becoming part of the British Establishment, unlike the Oxford educated R. Brodie.
Another name mentioned was R Joseph Soloveitchik, but when word reached London that he could not use a knife and fork properly (i.e. he ate in the American manner), he was ruled out as ineligible.
When R Brodie retired in 1965 he was succeeded by R Immanuel Jakobovits, but just a few years earlier R Jakobovits was far from the most likely candidate. Ten years before, many others would have been much the better prospect. R Kopul Rosen, graduate of the Mir, brilliant preacher and charismatic leader had been considered too young in 1946. Tragically, he died of Leukaemia in 1962.
Louis Jacobs, star of the Gateshead Kollel, outstanding teacher and popular rabbi of the New West End Synagogue revealed his non-Orthodox views in increasing detail from 1957, and by 1964, as the Jacobs Affair reached its climax, had set up his own congregation outside the United Synagogue. Had he kept quiet for another 10 years, until he was safely ensconced as Chief Rabbi, Anglo-Jewry might have become an outpost of American Conservative Judaism.
R Joseph Soloveitchik was more seriously considered in 1965 and would have transformed Jewish intellectual life in London, but made it clear he was by this point profoundly uninterested in the post. The search settled on Yaakov Herzog, son of Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, non-practising rabbi, senior Israeli civil servant and diplomat. Herzog accepted, but when he too was struck down by an illness he withdrew. He died in 1972. It had been hoped that his diplomatic skills would help heal the community after the Jacobs Affair. As it happens, R Jakobovits’ decision to end open hostilities did the job just as well.
R Jonathan Sacks was the outstanding and effectively unchallenged candidate in 1991. He was the Principal of Jews’ College and the favourite of Stanley Kalms, a major financial backer of the United Synagogue. The situation today is different. Half a dozen names have been mentioned, from Britain and further afield. Whatever man the Chief Rabbinate Council chooses they will create a whole new series of counter-factuals as the disappointed candidates return home to think about how they would have done the job.