Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Guest post: The Chief Rabbinate and the composition of the London Beth Din, 1840-1984 by Dr Benjamin Elton

I'm pleased to present this guest post by a friend and distinguished scholar. Ben edits Degel, a fantastic journal subtitled "Torah and Jewish Studies From Alei Tzion," a publication of the Alei Tzion synagogue. He submitted this post to me after we discussed the image of the London Beth Din in the 1920s, which I posted here. I thoroughly enjoyed Ben's essay, and I hope other Judeo-Anglophiles will as well.

Although the British Chief Rabbinate has been officially a free-standing institution over its history, it has necessarily developed very strong connections with other Anglo-Jewish institutions, notably the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the United Synagogue, Jews’ College and the London Beth Din. In 1840 the London Beth Din consisted of the Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, already known as ‘Chief Rabbi’ as the Av Beth Din, and a number of rabbinical colleagues. It was axiomatic that the Chief Rabbi would be the head of the court because he had been appointed to his position precisely because of his learning and expertise in Jewish law. His duties as rov required him to answer halachic questions, which he was able to do as a single individual. However some vital functions, such as the granting of a divorce, a conversion or the judgement of a civil legal dispute required the presence of a beth din of three dayanim. In such cases the Chief Rabbi would assemble two colleagues to join him to convene a formal court. As the need for such a court arose frequently a number of men were appointed dayanim, even if the payment was irregular. The Chief Rabbi was therefore Av Beth Din in name, in function and in ability. Today the London Beth Din retains the Chief Rabbi as Av Beth Din but he rarely takes part in its proceedings, and its de facto head is the Rosh Beth Din, the senior dayan of the court. Moreover, the Chief Rabbi is not expected to be a great expert in Jewish law. He is appointed to be a spiritual leader and other men are sought to involve themselves in the complex legal decisions required by a court of Jewish law. But far from being a recent development, this has long been the arrangement, indeed it is one of the defining characteristics of the emergence of a new type of Jewish religious leader in the office of British Chief Rabbi.

From 1802-1842 the Rabbi of the Great Synagogue and Av Beth Din was R Solomon Hirschell. He was assisted during his time as head of the Beth Din by R Samuel of Lissa, R Solomon Aarons, R Zev Wolf, R Hanoch Zundel of Jerusalem, R Azriel ben David Levy, R Aaron Lisser and R Aaron Levy. The Beth Din was kept busy with divorces, law suits and other functions, including the supervision of foreign communities under Hirschell’s authority; on one famous occasion Hirschell sent R Aaron Levy to execute a divorce in Australia. When Hirschell died in 1842 and the community looked for a successor they sought a man who could perform the functions of halachic decisor, fit to head a beth din, as they said, ‘possessed of great Jewish learning and versed in depths of Talmud’ although they also wanted him to have a modern education. The successful candidate was Rabbi Dr Nathan Marcus Adler, previously Chief Rabbi of Hanover. From 1845 until his semi-retirement to Brighton in 1879 Adler fulfilled his functions as Av Beth Din just as his predecessor had done. As colleagues retired or died they were replaced, but that Adler himself was the senior member of the court, both in name and in learning was not contested. In 1876, then, the London Beth Din consisted of the Chief Rabbi, his son Hermann Adler who had rabbinical ordination from Prague, and European immigrant R Dov Ber Spiers, who was also Librarian of the Beth Hamedrash and a traditional Talmudist whose work Divrei Dvash was published posthumously and who was regarded highly by traditionalist East End Jews. We have then a beth din on the same pattern as 1840, the Chief Rabbi, the greatest Jewish scholar in the country, assisted by two learned colleagues. That pattern was broken in 1879 and with exception of one period of five years, never returned.

In 1879 as he retired to Brighton R Nathan Adler appointed R Jacob Reinowitz a dayan of the Beth Din. Reinowitz was Eastern European, born in 1818. He was the religious leader of a European community when in 1876 he was called to London to become rov of a traditional congregation in the East End called the Chevra Shas. Here he came to the attention of Nathan Adler. When Adler appointed him to the Beth Din it was not simply to make up the numbers in his absence, but to become the community’s leading halachic authority. Reinowitz’s colleague on the Beth Din, R Hermann Adler and R Dov Ber Spiers were both men of learning but they were not Talmudists or halachists of Reinowitz’s order, indeed following his appointment Reinowitz taught R Hermann Adler. Reinowitz corresponded regularly with the great world authorities including R Naftali Zvi Berlin of Volozhin and R Isaac Elhanan Spector of Kovno who endorsed his rulings, published responsa and Talmudic analyses and edited the commentary of Rabeinu Hannanel for the Vilna edition of the Talmud. When Nathan Adler wanted a responsum written on the acceptability of machine made matzot in 1882 he turned to Reinowitz. Furthermore, unlike Hermann Adler, Reinowitz was resident in the East End and was therefore a convenient authority to consult when individuals had religious questions. According to the Principal of Jews’ College at the time, Michael Friedlaender, Reinowitz once answered 95 she’elot in a single day.

From his appointment in 1879 until his death in 1893 all major halachic issues that came before the London Beth Din were referred to Reinowitz, although they were subsequently approved by the Chief Rabbi before public judgements were given. This arrangement engineered by R Nathan Adler, and which separated the post of Chief Rabbi with the role of de facto primary halachic authority in the community not only recognised that R Hermann Adler’s greatest strengths did not lie in his halachic acumen, it also enabled him to develop the position of Chief Rabbi in the way that his inclinations led him. It was clear from R Hermann’s return from his rabbinical studies in 1862 that he intended to as much outward as inward looking. He wrote for newspapers and journals, spoke to non-Jewish societies and even church groups in defence of Judaism. Within the Jewish community he was heavily involved in pastoral and charitable work. He travelled up and down the country opening synagogues, preaching encouraging and inspiring sermons. He was also deeply involved in facing the challenge from non-traditional Judaism, for example that propounded by the Jewish Religious Union, later the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. As Delegate Chief Rabbi from 1879 and then as Chief Rabbi from 1890 R Hermann Adler occupied himself with these tasks, and while retaining a deep interest in the activities of the Beth Din, he was after all still one of the three dayanim, left it to make the halachic decisions to which he then added his authority.

R Hermann Adler’s satisfaction with this arrangement can be seen from his action in 1893 following the death of R Jacob Reinowitz in appointing Reinowitz’s son in law, R Susman Cohen as dayan in his place. Cohen like his father in law was a halachist of great distinction who also published responsa. The mantle of leading legal authority passed to him. From 1879, then, the Beth Din consisted of two traditionally educated European rabbis sitting with R Hermann Adler. In 1898 a scheme was developed to place the Beth Din on a firmer footing. It was decided to appoint three full time dayanim with one dayan being permanently available to answer queries and more regular sittings of the Court to encourage litigants to bring cases before the Beth Din rather than the civil courts. On the death of Spiers in 1902 this plan was acted upon. Adler appointed two graduates of Jews’ College, R Moses Hyamson and R Asher Feldman as the new dayanim. Hyamson and Feldman had been born abroad but they were both products of Jews’ College and had received their rabbinical diploma from R Hermann Adler and R Sussman Cohen. This decision caused consternation in the East End and a protest meeting was held against the appointment of two English educated young men instead of an experience Talmudist from Eastern Europe. Julius Jung, Geoffrey Alderman and others, have placed a great deal of emphasis on this protest meeting, as a sign of the East End’s rejection of R Hermann Adler and his foolish attempt to impose Englishmen on the immigrant community, whose needs the new dayanim were appointed to serve. However, the Jewish Chronicle reported that the protest meeting ‘could hardly be said to have had the sympathy of East End Jewry as a whole.’ We should remember that both Feldman and Hyamson were born in Russia, even though they were educated in England. Neither resigned from the Beth Din and both enjoyed distinguished careers. Dayan Feldman remained on the Beth Din for the rest of his career and effectively became its administrative head before he retired in 1938. He also published a volume entitled The Parables and Similes of the Rabbis which demonstrated an encyclopaedic knowledge of rabbinic sources. Hyamson was a candidate for the Chief Rabbinate in 1913 and lost out to R JH Hertz. He then went to New York and was appointed Professor of Codes at the Jewish Theological Seminary, joining Solomon Schechter’s extremely distinguished faculty. He remained there until the 1940s and became one of the last links between the Seminary and its orthodox origins.

Nevertheless, following East End protests R Hermann Adler recognised the necessity of acquiring the services of a man who was already an established halachist of high reputation. R Moshe Avigdor Chaikin was born in Russia 1852 and received his rabbinic ordination in 1877 from R Isaac Elhanan Spector and others. He came to England in 1890 after being expelled from Russia. R Hermann Adler recommended him to the Sheffield Jewish Community. In 1901 Chaikin became Chief Minister of the Federation of Synagogues, again on Adler’s recommendation. After the controversy following the appointments of Feldman and Hyamson Adler invited Chaikin to join the Beth Din, although officially only as an assistant dayan. Nevertheless, due to R Sussman Cohen’s declining health Chaikin because the senior member of the Court. The Beth Din now had five members including Adler himself, of which two, Feldman and Hyamson were full time dayanim. Adler was therefore able to detach himself yet further from the day to day business of the Court; even in his absence there were still four men to call upon to make up the standard bench of three judges.

This was the composition of the Beth Din that faced the challenge over shechita from Machzike Hadass, which ran from 1891 to 1904, at which point Machzike Hadass joined the Federation and accepted the limited authority of the Chief Rabbi. Machzike Hadass were therefore opposed not only to Hermann Adler and the Haham, R Moses Gaster, but also to Reinowitz, Cohen and Chaikin. As Eugene Newman has observed, whatever the Machzike Hadass said or wrote about Adler, Reinowitz’s was unassailable as a halachic authority and traditional rabbi of the Eastern European type. Further, Reinowitz was actively engaged in generating support among Eastern European authorities for R Hermann Adler, and this bore fruit in the form of the letter of support for Adler from R Isaac Elhanan Spector of Kovno. When historians examine the Machzike Hadass controversy it is important they realise that it was not simply a case of the East End versus the Anglicised Adler. Adler enjoyed powerful traditional support in the form of his dayanim. These figures were sufficiently prestigious that Bernard Homa, even suggested that they privately supported the grievances of Machzike Hadass, although there is no evidence for this assertion, and Homa has a considerable axe to grind.

When R Sussman Cohen retired in 1906 it is clear that Adler would have liked to appoint Chaikin to be a full time dayan, thus setting up a Beth Din of three full time members, enabling Adler to concentrate on pastoral duties. However at this stage inter-communal politics intervened. The United Synagogue honorary officers refused to promote Chaikin to the status of full dayan and the Federation refused to allow him to spend half of his time working for the United Synagogue. The Federation therefore withdrew Chaikin from the Beth Din, returning it to the position it had occupied in 1879, being composed of the Chief Rabbi as the senior member with two colleagues. This was unfortunate for three reasons. First it returned to Hermann Adler the burden of regular attendance at the Beth Din, secondly it meant that any cases requiring a full Court could only take place when all three members were in town and thirdly it reduced the prestige of the Beth Din because Adler simply was not a halachist of the calibre of Reinowitz, Cohen or Chaikin, but nevertheless found himself the leading authority on the Beth Din. This situation continued for the rest of Adler’s life, and it was only after his death, in 1911 that the United Synagogue, which now found itself with only two dayanim in total, and therefore simply too few to maintain the Beth Din, made an accommodation with the Federation and elected Chaikin a dayan once again.

When R JH Hertz arrived as Chief Rabbi in 1913, as we have already noted, he lost a dayan, as his rival for the post, R Moses Hyamson, left for New York. Hertz, who was very eager to see the establishment of a prestigious Beth Din, but had no intention of spending much time there himself, very swiftly appointed replacements. The major appointment was of R Samuel Isaac Hillman, who had previously served in Glasgow and who possessed a vast erudition in rabbinic texts. Chief Rabbi Jakobovits later identified the appointment of Hillman as the beginning of the London Beth Din’s status as a court of international standing, although we can see from the events of 1879-1911 that this was not the case. At the same time Hertz appointed two Anglicised dayanim, R HM Lazarus, who was R Sussman Cohen’s son in law, and R Louis Mendelson, who had taken the rabbinical diploma in 1913 and served the communities of Melbourne, Newcastle, Bristol, Dublin and West Ham. The Beth Din now enjoyed the services of five dayanim plus the Chief Rabbi as Av Beth Din. Further, the Beth Din also contained two authorities of international standing in the form of Hillman and Chaikin as well as three ‘English’ dayanim, led by Feldman. When Chaikin left for Tel Aviv in 1926 Hillman became the senior dayan before himself leaving for Palestine in 1934. During that period the Beth Din papers make it clear that all technical halachic questions addressed to Hertz were passed to Hillman. It is worth noting that Hertz enjoyed excellent relations with his colleagues on this, his first Beth Din. There is only one recorded disagreement of a serious nature, concerning the service of cohanim in the First World War. Hertz supported their military service, the dayanim opposed it. Hertz corresponded with both Chaikin and Hillman after their retirements. Hertz was very active in trying to raise money for Hillman in Palestine, and Hertz’s memorial sermon for Chaikin is a lyrical masterpiece.

Hertz’s second Beth Din took shape following the departures of Chaikin and Hillman. He appointed R Mark Gollop, Minister of the Hampstead Synagogue, whom he held in high regard, as a part time dayan. He entered into lengthy negotiations with the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (Adath Yisroel) and offered at seat to it senior rabbi, R Dr Victor Schoenfeld, but discussions broke down. However when Hillman left in 1934 and the Beth Din thereby lost its leading scholar the situation became urgent and Hertz began to look for a replacement of the appropriate stature, a process which became at times extremely complicated lasted for two years. A United Synagogue minute records ‘the Chief Rabbi feels that it is important that the man who is appointed should be an outstanding authority.’ Hertz had a number of candidates in mind as Hillman approached retirement. He considered R Eli Munk, Rabbi of the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash who had escaped from Nazi Germany. He also suggested R Isaac Herzog, Hillman’s son in law and Chief Rabbi of Ireland, and R Isser Unterman, rabbi in Liverpool. Both of these men would later become Chief Rabbis of Israel. However from very early in the process Hertz had a clearly preferred candidate, R Yeheskel Abramsky.

Abramsky was possibly the greatest Jewish scholar to reside in England in modern times. He had been imprisoned in his native Russia until his release was engineered by Hertz in 1931, who arranged for him to become the rav of Machzike Hadass. Hillman retired in early 1934, the United Synagogue agreed Abramsky’s appointment on 25 June 1934 and when Hertz offered Abramsky a seat on the Beth Din in the summer of 1934 Abramsky agreed in principle, but made a firm acceptance condition on Hertz resolving irregularities concerning the sales of kosher meat. Meat from the hindquarters requires the removal of the sciatic nerve if it is to be kosher in a procedure known as porging. In the 1930s about 30 of the butchers under the supervision of the London Board of Shechita sold hindquarters meat with a shomer present to porge the meat if the customer desired. However his services were often not called upon and non-kosher meat was bought and sold in supposedly kosher butchers. Abramsky demanded that no hindquarter meat be sold in shops under the jurisdiction of the Beth Din. Hertz and the Beth Din justified this situation on the grounds that a shomer was always provided at shops licensed to sell hindquarter meat, and the failure to licence new butchers who wished to sell such meat led to the illicit sale of hindquarter meat and that the policy therefore enable more people to maintain kashrut. Hertz conceded however that this was becoming increasingly less true. It seems likely that the reason Hertz and the Beth Din had not clamped down on the abuses was the significant financial power of the butchers, who supplied a good proportion of communal funds through the kashrut licenses. They opposed mandatory porging probably because it would put people off buying the more expensive cuts, as porging can turn a piece of meat into a pile of strips.

At first Hertz gave a general undertaking to address the problem, but Abramsky did not find such loose guarantees acceptable. Then Hertz offered to prohibit the sale of any unporged hindquarter meat and sent a letter to the Board of Shechita instructing that no unporged meat be sold as a condition of the licence. Abramsky, however, remained firm and refused to accept a post on the Beth Din until all hindquarter meat was banned from Beth Din butchers. At this point negotiations broke down and Hertz began to look around for other candidates. Hertz was very conscious that he needed a dayan who could maintain the authority of the Beth Din even after Abramsky’s criticisms had become public. Hertz wrote to Waley Cohen on 7 October 1934 that the new dayan must have ‘a strong enough personality to stand up against the coalition of forces that would gather round Abramski.’ He alighted upon R JJ Weinberg, Rector of the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin and a great international authority. Weinberg initially expressed interest in the position, R Isidore Epstein, Dayan Feldman and Sir Robert Waley Cohen all went to see him and were very impressed. However the Seminary brought pressure to bear on Weinberg and urged him that it would disintegrate if he left, and in early 1935 Weinberg accordingly withdrew his candidature.

Hertz was forced to turn again to Abramsky. This time Abramsky dropped his demand that no hindquarter meat be sold and following the passing of a resolution by the Shechita Board to end the selling of unporged meat at the end of May 1935, Abramsky accepted the post of dayan and was appointed on 20 June 1935 under the same conditions he had turned it down in October 1934. On 12 July 1935 the Beth Din issued a public statement signed by all the dayanim, including Abramsky, announcing the end of unporged meat. By the end of the year Waley Cohen was receiving complaints that the new regulations were driving butchers out of business, but by then the matter was settled. During the Second World War a shortage of porgers caused Abramsky to prohibit the sale of all hindquarter meat, and his aim was achieved.

The Beth Din once again had a rabbinic giant, assisted by three English dayanim. Hertz was enabled by the exodus of Jews from Germany in the late 1930s to engage the services of three more dayanim who fitted neither into the category of English dayan nor Eastern European authority. R Isidore Grunfeld a German lawyer and Jewish scholar was appointed Registrar of the Beth Din in 1937 and was promoted to full dayan when he received his rabbinic ordination, presumably to replace Feldman who retired in 1938. R Morris Swift, English born and educated at Gateshead and the great Eastern European centres of Ponevitz, Radin and Mir was appointed a part time dayan during the Second World War and R Julius Jakobovits, a distinguished communal rabbi from Koenigsberg was appointed to the Beth Din in 1943. Hertz also tried to appoint R Israel Brodie to the Beth Din on his return to England from Australia in 1939, but Brodie first took a job with the Board of Deputies and then became a Chaplain to the Forces, eventually Senior Chaplain.

By the end of his life, then, Hertz had significantly altered the composition of the Beth Din. When he arrived he found the English Feldman and the Eastern European Chaikin. By 1946 the Beth Din was significantly larger and stronger, it was composed of more traditionalists and was less Anglo-Jewish in orientation. There were still the Anglicised Lazarus who sat part time, but there was also Abramsky (and before him Hillman) Grunfeld, Swift and Jakobovits. There can be no doubt that this was a significantly embedding of more traditionalist elements in the Beth Din, but there can also be no doubt that it was Hertz’s achievement at his conscious policy. The Beth Din that was lambasted after the Second World War for turning the United Synagogue away from Hertz’s policy of ‘progressive conservatism’ was Hertz’s legacy, and there is no evidence that the Beth Din behaved in any way other than Hertz expected when he made his appointments. Endelman has written that Abramsky ‘moved the bet din in a conservative direction’, indeed, but that is what Hertz appointed him to do. Furthermore, for all the tensions during the 1934-1935 negotiations Hertz and Abramsky developed a warm relationship of mutual respect. Abramsky delivered the hesped for Hertz at the graveside in Yiddish and spoke of Hertz’s courage in defending the Sabbath at Geneva, Jewish religious education and, perhaps surprisingly, kashrut. Before we move on it is also worth commenting that it is possible overstate Abramsky’s hard line attitude. For example Abramsky permitted the serving of non-kosher wine at functions under the supervision of his Beth Din, a situation impossible to imagine in the 1980s.

R Julius Jakobovits died in 1948 and in the same year R HM Lazarus retired after spending two years as Deputy for the Chief Rabbi after the death of Hertz, although he was briefly brought out of retirement in 1952 and was helping out as late as 1959, 45 years after he was first appointed. In 1950 Swift also left the Beth Din to work for other Jewish bodies. The new Chief Rabbi, R Israel Brodie, appointed in their place the Eastern European R Aryeh Grossnass, who served until 1978 and published the collection of responsa entitled Lev Aryeh. Abramsky naturally remained the senior dayan until his retirement to Israel in 1952. Indeed, he described himself as the ‘mara ‘d’atra’, the legal authority of the area. Technically, of course, the Chief Rabbi was the mara d’atra but neither Abramsky, Hertz nor Brodie considered it to be any more than a technicality.

When Abramsky retired Brodie sough to appoint R JJ Weinberg, a candidate for the bench in 1934, but the honorary officers of the United Synagogue vetoed the offer of a seat as they considered that Weinberg was too old, and, in any case, Weinberg was not interested. So, after 1952 Grossnass effectively became the leading authority alongside the newly appointed R Abraham Rapoport, previously rabbinical director of the Kashrut Commission the two worked together until Rapoport’s retirement in 1974. Rapoport also published responsa, under the title Ber Avraham The Russian born but Anglicised R Dr I Lew, minister of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue was also appointed in 1952, filling the vacancy for the ‘English’ and secularly educated dayan, a role that became more important after Grunfeld’s retirement in 1956. Lew served, with a short break, until 1976. On his retirement, Grunfeld’s seat was filled by the minister of the Brixton Synagogue, the Eastern European R Meyer Steinberg, a great scholar with a sweet nature who had been rabbi of Lemberg before the Second World War, and who retired in 1971. Swift returned to the London Beth Din in 1959 and served, with a brief break, until just before his death in 1984.

This bench, of Grossnass, Rapoport, Swift, Steinberg and Lew was the famous Beth Din which has been held responsible for the Jacobs Affair, and whom Jacobs caricatured as possessing some of the finest rabbinic minds of the fourteenth century. These were the men whom Jacobs and his supporters held responsible for, in their minds, capturing the Chief Rabbi and turning him against Jacobs. However, an analysis of the characters involved shows the situation, as always, to be more complicated. The leading Eastern European halachists, Grossnass and Rapoport were not interested in abstract theology. Lew was a graduate of Jews’ College, had a PhD and was committed to modern scholarship. Steinberg was a gentle soul uninterested in conflict and argument. Swift was outspoken and sometimes insensitive in his statements, but, as it happens, he was not responsible for bringing Jacobs’ book We Have Reason to Believe to Brodie’s attention. In fact it was Grunfeld, already in retirement, who gave Brodie an annotated copy of the book with all the heresies underlined in red. Of all the dayanim who have served the Beth Din Grunfeld was the one most rooted in secular learning, indeed he began as a lawyer with a good Jewish education. He was the greatest exponent of R SR Hirsch’s philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz, and a distinguished translator of Hirsch’s writings. He was not an obscurantist or unworldly Eastern European, but a man with a full appreciation of non-Jewish wisdom who had significant exposure to the secular world. In other words, he was a true representative of Modern Orthodoxy.

The exclusion of Jacobs was therefore not a coup by the haredim, to which group Grossnass, Rapoport and possibly Swift belonged. Rather it was an effort by the Modern Orthodox, of Grunfeld and Brodie, to exclude a man they felt was not orthodox. The Beth Din did not even support Jacobs’ exclusion from the pulpit of the New West End in 1964, but Brodie held firm. It has been suggested that the ire directed against the Beth Din had its root in their refusal to convert the sister in law of William Frankel, editor of the Jewish Chronicle at the time of the Jacobs Affair. That is not to say that these dayanim were not highly traditional in their outlook. For example they refused for many years to act as external examiners for the Jews’ College rabbinical diploma, on the basis, it has been suggested, that they did not fully approve of the College.

This was the Beth Din that R Immanuel Jakobovits found when he became Chief Rabbi in 1967. Chaim Bermant has documented the tensions between the dayanim, already long in the service of the community, and the young Chief Rabbi. Jakobovits himself admitted that relations could have been better. He did get on much more comfortably with his appointments, Dr Isaac Lerner, who replaced Dr Lew in June 1976, R Casriel Dovid Kaplin who was appointed in the same year and Isaac Berger, appointed in 1980. Jakobovits also attempted to recruit the Rav Rashi of the Federation of Synagogues, R Michael Fisher, another Eastern European scholar of international reputation, but the United Synagogue vetoed the appointment because Fisher was too old to join the pension scheme. After R Morris Swift finally retired in 1984 there was disquiet among the rabbinate of the United Synagogue that R Chanoch Ehrentreu was appointed not simply a dayan but the first Rosh Bet Din, alongside the Chief Rabbi who was Av Bet Din. This was seen by some as an abdication of authority by Jakobovits, but we can now see that it followed a well established pattern of the Chief Rabbi appointing a great authority to take the lead on halachic matters.

The London Beth Din began as the Rav of the Great Synagogue, and the later the Chief Rabbi, and two colleagues, but a survey of the history of the Court reveals that since Nathan Adler’s semi-retirement in 1879 the Chief Rabbi has never, as a matter of policy, set himself up as the leading halachic authority of his community. The succession of leading legal authorities began with R Jacob Reinowitz and with a few bumps along the way passed to R Sussman Cohen, R Moshe Avigdor Chaikin, R Samuel Hillman, R Yechezkel Abramsky, R Aryeh Grossnass and R Abraham Rapoport, R Morris Swift and R Chanoch Ehrentreu. The latter’s formal appointment as Rosh Bet Din was only a public acknowledgement of what had long been the de facto situation. For example, it would be risible to suggest that Ehrentreu enjoyed less authority in 1984 than Abramsky did in 1944. The senior dayanim have been joined by other serious scholars, including R Dov Ber Spiers, R Isidore Grunfeld and R Meyer Steinberg. They were all appointed by Chief Rabbis who were fully aware that their level of halachic expertise exceeded their own and that their religious outlook was further more traditional and Eastern European than their own. To suggest, then, as historians have, that the Beth Din acquired a will of its own and right wing dayanim suddenly appeared which dragged the community away from its centrist course is highly questionable.

It is more likely that the complexion and role of the Beth Din after 1879 was brought about for two reasons. Firstly the Chief Rabbis from Hermann Adler onwards turned more and more outwards from their community. They became the ambassadors of the Jewish community to the nation as a whole, and internally they became spiritual rather than legal leaders. They could not sustain that position while serving two or three days in the Beth Din. Once they began to look of dayanim to perform the day to day work of the Court they naturally sought the best candidates. These were almost inevitably men from the world of the Eastern European yeshivot, and therefore of a more traditionalist outlook than the Chief Rabbis themselves. But that does not mean, of course, that the Chief Rabbis did not know the weltanshauung of the men they were appointing, and further this phenomenon did not begin in the 1950s or 1960s. Reinowitz, Chaikin and Hillman were no less traditional than Grossnass, Rapoport and Ehrentreu, and, as we have seen, it was a more modernist dayan, Grunfeld, who caused the most tumult in the community by sparking off the Jacobs Affair. In sum then, a balanced appreciation of the role played by the Chuef Rabbinate in the composition of the London Beth Din has to take into account the role of continuity as well as change and give appropriate weight to the part played by the agency of the Chief Rabbis, which has often been understated.

Benjamin Elton read History at Cambridge University, has a PhD from London University and learned at Yeshivat Darche Noam. His book Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the religious character of Anglo-Jewry was published by Manchester University Press in 2009. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Research Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies.


Archives of the London Beth Din. ACC/3400 London Metropolitan Archives.
Archives of the Office of the Chief Rabbi ACC/2805 London Metropolitan Archives.
Archives of the United Synagogue ACC/2712 London Metropolitan Archives.

Jewish Chronicle 1893, 1913, 1951, 1952, 1956
Le’ela 1976, 1977, 1978

Adlerman, G., Modern British Jewry Oxford 1992
Bermant Ch Lord Jakobovits London 1990
Feldman A The Parables and Similes of the Rabbis Oxford 1924
Hertz JH Sermons, Addresses and Studies Hindhead 1938
Homa B Footprints in the Sands of Time Charfield, 1990
Jung, J Champions of Orthodoxy London 1974
Newman A Chief Rabbi Dr Joseph H. Hertz, C.H. London 1972
Ornstein, P Historical Sketch of the Beth Hamedrash London 1905
Persoff M (ed) Immanuel Jakobovits: A Prophet in Israel London 2002
Renton, P Lost Synagogues of London London 2000
Simons H Forty Years a Chief Rabbi London 1980
Wertheimer J (ed) Tradition Renewed New York 1997


  1. Since R. Hanoch Zundel was mentioned, I thought some might wish to see this earlier post about him:

    Great post, Ben.

  2. Can you expand upon this point?

    "For example Abramsky permitted the serving of non-kosher wine at functions under the supervision of his Beth Din, a situation impossible to imagine in the 1980s."

    Do you mean non-mevushal? Were these functions mixed (Jewish and non-Jewis)?

    >Further, Reinowitz was actively engaged in generating support among Eastern European authorities for R Hermann Adler, and this bore fruit in the form of the letter of support for Adler from R Isaac Elhanan Spector of Kovno.

    Not to suggest that the wealth of British Jews had anything to do with it, but R. Adler also sent a letter to R. Yitchak Elchanan, and if memory serves the letter hinted that continued financial aid from wealthy British Jews might depend upon his support. I can't say if the threat had anything to do with his support, or if it was even necessary, but it was there.

    >In fact it was Grunfeld, already in retirement, who gave Brodie an annotated copy of the book with all the heresies underlined in red.

    Wow, I'd love to see that copy.

  3. Wonderful post. I would, however, note that Bernard Homa's account ( should not be so easily dismissed. The fact is there were indeed severe problems with the kashrus of meat in London, which carried on after the founding of Machzikei Hadass, as can be seen from the fact that there were still problems later on when Dayan Abramsky came. The fact that the London Board of Shechita managed to keep the dayanim on their side does not mean that the complaints of those in the East End were baseless.

  4. First guest post ever on onthemainline?

  5. Very good post. When you say I. Lew, I assume you mean Myer Lew.

    Also, there is no denying the fact that the beit din has moved the community in a rightward direction. One has to ask why Brodie, Jakobovits and Sacks, did not look to hire dayanim who were not identified with the haredi world. Why should a supposedly Modern Orthodox organization have haredi dayanim. This of course leads to the crazy spectacle whereby Sacks needs to defend the Beth Din's opposition to brain death even though he certainly personally disagrees with the viewpoint he is defending. So why not appoint graduates of the Hesder yeshivot or a YU grad as a dayan? Other than Dayan Binstock, all of the dayanim today are in the haredi world. This is a problem.

  6. "In 1876, then, the London Beth Din consisted of the Chief Rabbi, his son Hermann Adler who had rabbinical ordination from Prague, and European immigrant R Dov Ber Spiers..."

    Wait, can you -do- that? I thought you couldn't have two relatives on the beit din except under certain limited circumstances.

  7. To S:

    It was all singing, all dancing stam yeinam.

    I am sure money played a part, although I wonder whether R. Adler's supporters contributed much to R Yitzchak Elchanan's cause (Samuel Montagu might have)

    To J:


    There is no doubt that there were serious problems with the kashrut of meat in London. The Board of Shechita and the dayanim were weighing up the best way to deal with it, and working in a wider context (e.g. the financial power of the butchers). Machzike Hadath came to a different view. But we should remember that even Dayan Abramsky did not crack down as hard as he might have, at least initially.

  8. "Abramsky was possibly the greatest Jewish scholar to reside in England in modern times."

    I take issue with this. I think that Rabbi Yudelovitch was the greatest halachacist to have resided in England in modern times. I guess scholar would be a different story?

  9. Marc - On that note, refer to Homa's 'Footsteps on the sands of time', p. 127, where it says that after R. Hertz passed away in 1946, Rav JB Soloveichik was being considered for the post of Chief Rabbi, until the Chairman of the US was informed that 'he did not use a knife and fork properly' (i.e. he cut up his food first and then ate it with his fork as is customary in America), at which stage they decided they weren't interested in him any more.

  10. "He submitted this post to me after we discussed the image of the London Beth Din in the 1920s"

    Did not realize you were that old.

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