In mid-1952 a controversy concerning Hebrew pronunciation erupted in England (reference should be made to the Hebrew pronunciation controversy in Amsterdam circa 1808, but a fuller treatment will be in a future post). The question was, was it appropriate for Chazzanim or Torah readers in Ashkenazi synagogues to change their pronunciation to "sefaradit"? Undoubtedly the desire to do so was precipitated by the rise of modern Israeli Hebrew and, indeed, Israel itself. According to the first notice from the Jewish Chronicle (Jul. 11, 1952) the background is that three years earlier a particular prominent synagogue had resolved that the Torah reading would be read according to the Sefaradi pronunciation. In 1952 one member set a motion to rescind that resolution; the Chairman then ruled that both the original resolution and the motion to rescind were improper. He seems to have based himself on a ruling by the Chief Rabbi (Israel Brodie) the year before, in which he states that "the Ashkenazi pronunciation will be retained throughout the entire service."
The report continues, that the Torah reader in the Hampstead Synagogue continues to read it in sefaradit. The editorial line here is that while the nusach ha-tefilla surely comes under the purview of the Chief Rabbi, and therefore a change in nussach from the "Polish or German ritual" would be properly forbidden or confirmed by him, that pronunciation should be different, for different pronunciations of the same language aren't really meaningful.
The writer acknowledges that this argument can be used *against* switching to sefaradit, which "in some quarters has been turned into a fetish." However, "on the whole . . . conformity to Israeli practice would outweigh all the disadvantages." Adopting the Israeli pronunciation is good, because Israel leads the world's Jews in the development of Hebrew, and this is a good way for Jews to maintain good contact with Israel.
On Aug. 8, the Jewish Chronicle printed a report concerning the Chief Rabbi's ruling on Hebrew, which he confirmed. The only exception which Brodie made was for classes conducted in synagogues for teaching Hebrew as a modern language. In all other synagogue contexts, including outside prayer services, the Ashkenazic pronunciation must be retained.
Since the Chief Rabbi referred to a 1949 letter by Rabbi Dr. Alexander Altmann, the JC summarizes its contents. Altmann had asked Rabbi Brodie whether he would agree that the Prayer for the Welfare of Israel be read in the Israeli/ sefaradic pronunciation "so as to identify ourselves, by this symbolic gesture, with the spiritual revival of our people in Israel." The reply was that he had no objection, provided the person who read it used the pronunciation properly. Brodie further quoted M.H. Segal, the famed Hebrew linguist (among his accomplishments was proving decisively that Mishnaic Hebrew [leshon hakhamim] was a real language, rather than an artificial scholar's construction), on Hebrew pronunciation. Segal had written that in his view the Israeli pronunciation should be used in synagogues in Israel so long as the majority of worshippers use that pronunciation in their speech. In synaogues of new immigrants, their pronunciation should be retained, until the majority used Hebrew as their vernacular. The idea was that pronunciation should not seem strange or interfere with the prayer of worshippers. Brodie pointed out that in England, while modern Hebrew use and knowledge was expanding, the Israeli pronunciation was still limited, and therefore his ruling stands.
On Oct. 31, a JC reporter noted that the London Board of Jewish Religious Education decided to comply with the Chief Rabbi's ruling in their Hebrew classes.
On Nov. 11, the JC printed a lengthy letter from Rabbi Dr. Louis Rabinowitz, Chief Rabbi of Johannesburg, South Africa,taking issue with Brodie's ruling. Rabinowitz was "sorry" to read it, so he decided to inform the Jewish Chronicle readers what had occurred in South Africa on the question. When he came to the country he noticed that in the various Zionist groups the modern pronunciation was being used, while in the synagogue the Ashkenazic was used. He decided that a uniform pronunciation was "essential" and that it ought to be the Israeli one. Rabinowitz writes that he competely agrees with Brodie, that the same pronunciation must be used in school and in synagogue. So it was that after a delay of one year he introduced the Israeli pronunciation simultaneously. That had occurred four years earlier (1948).
Rabinowitz explained how he dealt with the point raised by M. H. Segal, quoted with approval by Brodie, that the pronunciation used in the synagogue should not appear strange to worshippers. Rabinowitz said that he agreed, but realized that those fears were without foundation. His point was not that he expected individual worshippers to change their own pronunciation, but that frankly "I do not think that worshipper[s] will be unable to understand the reader when he says 'Baruch Atta' instead of 'Boruch Atto' to which he has hitherto been accustomed."
He says that the change would inevitably come, and once it was introduced into the schools it would simply be a matter of time until that was the normal pronunciation of most worshippers. Meanwhile, the change was accomplished without incident. He even relates an anecdote about how, after the pronunciation was changed, the hazzan read 'Simon Shalom' instead of 'Sim Sholowm.' At that, a 5-year old boy excitedly extended his hand to his father, and said 'Shalom, Abba!' It was the first time that he realized and recognized the word from the tefilla, as a word he knew from home!
Rabinowitz acknowledges that there was a greater Israeli influence in the South Africa than in England, with a greatger percentage of Hebrew speakers,but he still feels that the same arguments which made it work in South Africa apply to England. He notes that on the same page as the Chief Rabbi's ruling was an advertisement for a Hebrew Seminar at Carmel College. If Brodie's ruling were adhered to then what would happen, in effect, was Shacharis in Ashkenazis, breakfast with Birchas Hamazon in Ashkenazis, followed by the Seminar in Sefaradit, lunch with Birchas Hamazon in Ashkenazis, Seminar in Sefaradit, Mincha in Ashkenazis, etc. The point? Absurd.
He also points out that in the synagogue advertisements in the Jewish Chronicle one advertises for a Baal Tekiah (S) and another for a Baal Shachris (A). There is a Board of Shechita (S) not Shechitoh (A) and Chazanim (S) are not called Chazonim (A). He gives several more examples along these lines. In any event, he asks, "Has not the time arrived to remove all this confusion which sets up a barrier between the Hebrew of Israel, of the street and of literature, and that of synagogue and school? Nothing but good can emerge from the change."
On Nov. 14, we see a letter from Dr. Sidney S. Woolf concerning Hebrew transliteration. Wishing to "ventilate the topic" of the Jewish Chronicle's own use of Sefardic Hebrew in its transliteration, which is the 'organ of "British Jewry"', Woolf writes that as the Sefardim do not outnumber Ashkenazim, then the Ashkenazic pronunciation should be favored. Words like "Shabbat" and "Simchat Torah" are "cold and forbidding renderings" of words like "Shobbos" and "Simchas Toura" which evoke warm and fuzzy feelings. "Berishis" is more pleasant to the English Jewish ear than "Bereshit." To be fair to Woolf, he does suggest as a possibility printing Hebrew words in Hebrew letters.
Then a Dr. S. Fundaminsky points out what must have been his pet peeve, that the zayin in "Ashkenazi" has a dagesh, and therefore nothing by Ashkenazzi could be correct.
On Nov. 21 the JC received a couple of letters concerning Woolf's letter on the transliteration of Hebrew. One writer fondly recalls his mother admonishing him "Nochum Itshe, nem dem shiddur und stell sech davenen," in her "Litwachke" prounciation. "Gut sabbes!" But his point is that nostalgia for our upbringing is not a very powerful argument in the face of the modern revival of the nation and language.
The next writer thinks it absurd that the Jewish Chronicle has a role as "the organ of British Jewry," and therefore has a duty to print Hebrew words transliterated in Ashkenazis. He says that if that logic were taken to its logical conclusion, then the JC would no longer be entitled to an editorial point of view of its own. Furthermore, it must also always reflect the majority view, always ignore the minority. So Dr. Woolf has to make a choice: deal with it, and continue to read the JC on Shabbat or celebrate his Shobbos sans Jewish Chronicle!
Finally, from the same issue (Nov. 21) the Jewish Chronicle itself replies to a speech by Brodie in which he deplored that the JC had a "distinct tendency to denigrate authority" - his authority, and that of the Chief Rabbi's Beth Din. The paper believes that the basis of the accusation was its publication of some letters critical of their decisions.
The JC maintains that it has supported the authority of the Chief Rabbinate ("strenuously and assidously") and offered it the support and publicity which is its due. Same goes for the Beth Din. However, that is not the only duty of the newspaper. It's obligation also extends to the whole community, and that means that it has to act as a forum for a wide variety of views, including criticisms and dissent. The paper thinks that Rabbi Brodie was referring, among other things to letters challenging his ruling on retaining Ashkenazic pronunciation as arbitrary. Et cetera.
Note: this is not exhaustive. Clearly there is other material on a controversy which references rulings made a couple of years earlier. I have not looked into those. A full accounting and treatment of this would no doubt be interesting. One point to note is that a reference to the Aug. 8, 1952 piece mentioned in this post was included in H.J. Zimmel's Ashkenazim and Sefardim in his appendix on pronunciation in the responsa. He noted that Chief Rabbi Brodie's ruling (which he takes to agree entirely with M.H. Segal, although I have my doubts) agreed with Rav Kook. For an overview of some of the halachic positions on this issue, see E. Turkel "Variations in Sephardi and Ashkenazi Liturgy, Pronunciation and Custom," Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Volume 18, 5-34, 1989.