David Latchman

The Chief Rabbinate: Navigating Opposition from Within

The Chief Rabbinate was always mired in controversy. As we have delved into previously, successive Chief Rabbis faced attacks both from the Reform and Liberal movements, for being too Orthodox or from organisations such as the Machzike Hadaas and the UOHC for not being Orthodox enough.

As if that was not sufficient, the two Adler Chief Rabbis faced attacks from within their own community, demanding various reforms to the services.

Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler felt the need to preach a sermon on the second day of Pesach 1868 defending the continuing celebration of the second days of the Festivals (illustrated). These had been abolished by the Reform movement on the basis that they had only been instituted because of uncertainty in the exact date of the Festivals, and so were not required once the calendar was fixed.

A pamphlet of the sermon Chief Rabbi Adler delivered in 1868 in defence of observing the second day of the festivals.

The Chief Rabbi did not mince his words calling for “a little more knowledge… less assurance, less self-conceit from his opponents.” Despite this, the Chief Rabbi’s ruling was attacked by ‘Two Orthodox Members’ in a published pamphlet (illustrated).

A write up of a rebuttal to Chief Rabbi Adler by “two Orthodox members of the Jewish community”.

The robust approach of the Chief Rabbi quelled the opposition for some time, but the problem did not go away. Following the formation of the United Synagogue, a conference of delegates was held “to consider modifications in the services of the synagogues.” The Chief Rabbi responded to their proposals by making some minor concessions allowing some piyyutim, liturgical poems, to be omitted on the Festivals but he held the line on many other radical suggestions such as the proposed abolition of the Kol Nidrie prayer at the start of Yom Kippur (illustrated), for example. It was a measure of the respect in which the Chief Rabbi was held that the delegates fully accepted his responses.

Chief Rabbi Adler’s first measured and balanced response to the radical proposals, with concessions allowing some piyyutim, liturgical poems, to be omitted.

However, in 1892, a further series of proposals was put forward by the synagogues, perhaps to test the relatively new Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler. I have his annotated copy of the proposals in my collection (illustrated). The Chief Rabbi responded to these proposals in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Ritual’ (illustrated). As with his father, he conceded on various peripheral issues but steadfastly held his ground on critical issues, refusing to allow the Shofar to be blown when the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbos, for example.

A list of Suggestions for the Modification of the Services by the New West End Synagogue.
Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler’s response to these proposals in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Ritual’

Interestingly, in a response which is highly relevant today, he refused to sanction men saying the same blessing as women in the daily morning service (“Who has made me according to your will”) rather than thanking the Almighty for making them a man.

This is just one illustration of how the nature of the services held today in the constituent synagogues of the United Synagogue was set over 100 years ago by the approach of the two Adler Chief Rabbis, combining rigorous application of their religious principles with a pragmatic approach where possible. They finely navigated not just between the accusations of opposing movements, but also within their own.

About the Author
Professor David Latchman, CBE, is a leading UK academic, author, and philanthropist, and currently holds the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck University of London, having led the university since 2003. Latchman holds First-class Honours in Natural Sciences, a MA, and a PhD, and has completed a three-year post-doctoral fellowship at Imperial College London. He also has a DSc (higher doctorate) from the University of London.
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