Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Rabbi Joseph Herman Hertz (1872-1946) became Chief Rabbi of Great Britain in 1913, a position he held for a remarkable 33 years, encompassing both world wars and the Holocaust. A powerful preacher and a dominating figure known for his eloquent oratory, lucid writing, and deep scholarship, he brought unshakable Orthodoxy and fervent Zionism to the office.

Although his opposition to non-Orthodox Judaism was unyielding, he never allowed it to create personal animosities, and he remained dedicated to the essential unity of the Jewish people.


Rav Hertz is perhaps best known for his “Hertz Chumash” (1929-36). At a time when English- speaking Jewry relied principally on Christian translations, he recognized the need for an authoritative English commentary on the Chumash broadly accessible to all yet true to Jewish traditional interpretations.

His commentary, which was designed in part to counter the growing anti-Torah fad of “scientific criticism” of the Scriptures, drew criticism from some Orthodox circles because he cited both Jewish and non-Jewish commentators. His response, which he incorporated into his introduction, was that “Accept the truth from whatever source it comes” is well-recognized as “sound rabbinic doctrine – even if it be from the pages of a devout Christian expositor or of an iconoclastic bible scholar, Jewish or non-Jewish.”

The Hertz Pentateuch, which remains a major contribution to modern Jewish scholarship, is still broadly used in English-speaking congregations worldwide. His other principal works also filled important gaps, including his Book of Jewish Thoughts (1917), of which hundreds of thousands of copies were sold, and his commentary on the siddur (1942-1945).

Rav Hertz held various leadership positions at the Jews’ College in London; served as president of the Jewish Historical Society of England and of the Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers; and was a member of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (he attended its 1925 dedication ceremonies), later becoming a member of its board of governors and chairman of the governing body of its Institute of Jewish Studies.

At a time when Zionism was not broadly popular amongst British Jews, R. Hertz was a passionate Zionist whose intervention on behalf of the Balfour Declaration played a decisive role in its adoption. In 1917, when the Zionist movement under Chaim Weizmann was actively seeking British governmental support, older Anglo-Jewish leaders feared that favoring a Jewish state would raise allegations of dual loyalty and, in May 1917, the presidents of the Board of Deputies and the Anglo-Jewish Association issued a statement rejecting the dream of a Jewish homeland.

In an indignant and thundering May 28, 1917 letter, R. Hertz challenged their attack on Zionism and declared that it did not reflect the views of “Anglo-Jewry as a whole or by the Jewries of the overseas dominions,” and his views carried the day.

Born in Slovakia, R. Hertz immigrated with his family to New York (1884), where he received both his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, then a highly respected modern Orthodox institution, and his doctorate from Columbia University (1894).

After serving as rav in Syracuse, New York (1894-1896), he was appointed rav of Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg, South Africa (1898), where he was a formidable advocate for the removal of religious limitations on Jewish and Christian practice. His pro-British sympathies and outspoken opposition to Boer discrimination resulted in his deportation at the outbreak of the Boer War (1899), but he returned to his office at the end of the war.

Supplement to the Illustrated London News (February 22, 1913) depicting Rav Hertz and announcing his appointment as chief rabbi of the British Empire, displayed with a handwritten card, “J. H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi.”

Hertz next served as rav of Congregation Orach Chayim on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (1911) before being elected chief rabbi of Great Britain after Rav Hermann Adler died unexpectedly in June 1911. His tenure as chief rabbi was marked by courage and energy, as he frequently expressed his profound sympathies with the recently-arrived foreigners, publicly criticized Russian anti-Jewish policy, and fought against the spread of Liberal Judaism.

World War I brought new challenges to the Chief Rabbinate and a new prominence to Rav Hertz. In 1915, he toured the Western Front and visited Jewish soldiers. The position of Jewish Chaplain to the Forces was very new, and R. Hertz reinforced the institution of a specifically Jewish chaplaincy by writing Book of Jewish Thoughts, a small volume for the Jewish soldiers on the front which became an instant classic.

After the war, Rav Hertz led pastoral tours throughout the United Kingdom, meeting with his constituents in Jewish communities around the world. In the handwritten letter shown here – sent April 15, 1921 from Brisbane, Queensland on his “Pastoral Tour of the Chief Rabbi” letterhead – he pays homage to his Australian hosts through a characteristically interesting philosophical observation:

In the Southern Hemisphere, the stars shine so much more brightly than in the Northern Hemisphere. This is also true in the world of ideas.

Later, he fought courageously against Nazism and strongly criticized the policies adopted by the British Mandatory Government in Eretz Yisrael, which he visited frequently.

When William Temple was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury on April 1, 1942, R. Hertz sent him a lovely congratulatory letter, thereby launching a warm relationship between the two religious leaders. Exhibited here is a great historical rarity, the Archbishop’s April 29, 1942 response to the rav:

Letter from William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to Rav Hertz.

I am profoundly grateful to you for the letter which you have sent with reference to my entry on the office of Archbishop of Canterbury.

I am happy to say that I am in touch with some of the leading Jews in England and that we are forming a definite organization for the promotion of understanding and good will.

I have just received your telegram about the condition of affairs in Poland. When I arrive in London next week, for I have yet to wind up my affairs in the North of England, I will go into this matter with the utmost sympathy, but I cannot do more at present.

Philosopher, theologian, educational reformer, and the leader of the ecumenical movement, Temple (1881-1944) was arguably the most significant Anglican churchman of the 20th century. One of his first efforts as Archbishop was to work closely with R. Hertz to combat anti-Semitism, and their meeting in 1942 led to the founding of the British Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ), the first national interfaith organization in the United Kingdom.

Not surprisingly, both leaders faced serious opposition and criticism from extremists in their respective ranks, R. Hertz from ultra-Orthodox blocs and Temple from the Christian right. A few months after its formation, the CCJ Executive, contrary to its ecumenical mandate, decided to promote Christian education in schools, but it quickly recanted after R. Hertz’s threatened resignation, and the CJC went on to become an important voice for equality and non-discrimination.

Temple proved to be one of the great outspoken advocates for the Jewish victims of the Reich. In public speeches, articles, and letters to the British press, he expressed his “burning indignation” at the Nazi mass murders and his strong disappointment at the Allied response. He regularly and unabashedly took publicly unpopular positions, including advocacy for England and its allies to grant asylum to Jews able to escape Hitler.

In a remarkable and especially stirring speech before the House of Lords on March 23, 1943 – very likely in response to the letter from R. Hertz referenced in our exhibit – Temple presented detailed evidence of the Nazis’ systemic murder of Jews and of their destruction of entire Jewish communities and called on the British Government to take immediate action on the grandest scale to help the Jews.

In taking this courageous and dramatic action before Britain’s upper chamber, Temple disputed the British government’s claim that public opinion would oppose taking in refugees and insisted that the government could easily rally public support for helping those who “were being delivered to almost certain death.” He spared no effort on behalf of Europe’s Jews, including making radio broadcasts through the BBC World Service to listeners throughout Europe urging them to take immediate and concrete steps to protect Jews from Nazi genocide.

Letter from the Yishuv to the Archbishop regarding the British disruption of Yom Kippur services at the Kotel.

Sadly, an argument can be made that British church leaders, led by the indefatigable Temple, played a greater role in advocating for the admission of Jewish refugees to Great Britain during the Holocaust than Anglo-Jewish leaders, many of whom, expressing great antipathy to their “green” co-religionists, were concerned that only the “right kinds of Jews” – i.e., educated, professional, urbane, ready to assimilate, etc. – be permitted entry.

Under the Archbishop’s leadership, the English Church, unlike the many diverse Jewish factions, maintained a unified front in lobbying the government and the public on behalf of the Jews in the halls of Parliament, in the press, and on the air.

The Archbishop’s messages were soon heard in the halls of power, as British and American officials alike were concerned to see a prominent religious leader at the head of a growing wave of public criticism over the Allies’ indifference to the Holocaust. As a result of the Archbishop’s principled stand, British officials began formulating plans for an Allied conference on refugees. An internal Foreign Office memorandum explaining the need to respond to the “intense public interest” in the refugee problem singled out the Archbishop as one of those who had been “agitating the public conscience.”

However, U.S. State Department official Breckinridge Long moved quickly to block the British proposal that the conference be held in Washington, and it was ultimately held in Bermuda where, far from the eyes of the international media and pressure groups, U.S. and British officials decided there was little they could do to help the Jews. Sadly, at the end of the day, the British government made no changes to its refugee policy.

The disappointing results of the Bermuda Conference triggered even more criticism of the Allies’ refugee policy in the Jewish community, the press, and Congress, and criticism of the conference was such that millions of Americans learned for the first time that the head of the Church of England was urging Allied action to rescue Jews. Eventually the tide of public opinion would help prod the FDR administration to take some belated, albeit very limited, action to aid Jewish refugees near the end of the war.

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From the very establishment of the British Mandate, the British Government severely restricted the right of Jews to worship at the Western Wall, even banning blowing the shofar there. Even to the limited extent that Jewish worship was permitted, British officers regularly interfered, sometimes with violent force.

Several weeks before the High Holy Days in 1944, the Irgun began to issue a series of warnings to the British to keep away from the Wall, including threats against any policeman found near the Kotel on Yom Kippur. A few weeks before Yom Kippur, the Yishuv turned to its friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for assistance. Exhibited here is the September 11, 1944 telegram (Yom Kippur began that year on the evening of September 26th) sent by the Yishuv to the Archbishop:

Hebrews who dwell in the enslaved and struggling Zion appeal to Your Eminence as follows:

Every year on the holy Day of Atonement, British constables violently break through the Western Wall, the remains of our Holy Temple and the might of our state, British constables – who in the majority are members of the Anglican Church – disturb the worshippers by pushing them, abusing their dignity and desecrating the sanctity of the day, the sanctity of the place, and the sanctity of the prayer.

In the name of the mother of the monotheistic religions, in the name of the unwritten laws of civilized mankind, in the name of our mourning for the enslavement of our country and the destruction of our people, we apply respectfully to Your Eminence and beg You, as the head of the Anglican Church, to interdict its members to commit these atrocious deeds, which are comparable only to those of the Nazis.

Whether because of the Irgun’s threats or the Archbishop’s intervention, not a single British policeman was present at the Kotel that Yom Kippur; the traditional blowing of the shofar after Ne’ilah took place without interruption; and the congregation burst into a loud and spontaneous rendition of Hatikva following the shofar blast. When Temple suddenly and unexpectedly died shortly after, less than two years after becoming Archbishop, his death was mourned by Jews worldwide, who understood that they had lost a true friend.