Most people know that two American presidents – John Quincy Adams and George W. Bush – had presidents for fathers. Many also know that Israel’s two chief rabbis today – R. David Lau and R. Yitzchak Yosef – had Israeli chief rabbis for fathers. Few, however, know that Great Britain also had a father-son duo for chief rabbis: Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler and Rabbi Hermann Adler.
When Oliver Cromwell successfully lobbied for Jews to return to England in 1656, the result was a steady stream of Sephardic and Ashkenazic immigrants. These immigrants built Jewish communities and the first Ashkenazic synagogue in London in 1690.
For the next 150 years, the rabbi of the “Great Synagogue” essentially served as the chief rabbi of all Ashkenazic Jews in the British Empire. The institution of the Chief Rabbinate in Great Britain, however, was only formally established in 1842 when representatives of 26 British congregations, seeking communal Jewish representation similar to Christian representation provided by the Archbishop of Canterbury, elected Nathan Marcus Adler (1803-90) as their first chief rabbi.
Rav Adler and his successors were unique among other formal European chief rabbis in that they were elected by the Jews of their country and not appointed by secular governmental authorities. A contentious battle in 1765 for the mantle of the chief rabbinate led to a schism amongst Ashkenazic Jews, but British Jews came to generally accept the chief rabbi’s authority in the 19th century, including his accreditation of ritual slaughterers, issuance of marriage licenses, and responses to halachic questions.
Known from an early age as a rabbinic scholar, Rav Nathan Marcus Adler was writing Talmudic novellae at age 17 and was rabbinically ordained in 1828. After studying classics and modern languages at various universities, he received a doctorate from the University of Erlangen, also in 1828.
One of his first official duties as the rav of Hanover was to conduct a memorial service for George IV, and his connection with British royalty grew stronger when the Duchess of Cambridge fell ill; R. Adler summoned his congregation to pray for her and she recovered. The rabbi refused the Duke’s significant monetary reward, requesting that it be given instead to the poor.
A marvelous story is told about Rav Adler being recommended for the chief rabbi position by Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, Viceroy of the Kingdom of Hanover. The duke’s very pregnant wife was in Germany and, were she to give birth there, the child would be ineligible to ascend the throne as a British sovereign. The duke consulted with his “local rabbi” in Hanover (Germany), and Rav Adler advised him to take his wife out to sea outside German territorial waters – which is exactly what he did. Years later when the subject of nominees for chief rabbi arose, the Duke remembered Rav Adler’s advice.
Out of 13 candidates, mostly from Germany, Rav Adler made the “final four” list for chief rabbi along with Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch, Benjamin Hirsch Auerbach, and Hirsch Hirschfeld. The election was held on December 1, 1844 and each of 135 communities had one vote. R. Adler received 121, R. Hirschfeld received 12, and R. Hirsch received two. (R. Auerbach withdrew before the vote.)
Rav Adler’s victory was due to multiple factors, including his Western education and broad experience. He also maintained an unwavering fidelity to Orthodox beliefs and practices and staunchly opposed Reform Judaism even while embracing many components of modernity, including preaching in the vernacular. Indeed, he became renowned as “the father of the Anglo-Jewish pulpit.”
Rav Adler quickly asserted his authority upon his ascension by issuing a booklet of laws and regulations “for all the Ashkenazi Synagogues in the British Empire”; he became the first chief rabbi to conduct regular pastoral tours within the United Kingdom; and he helped establish the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty and Better Protection of Children.
In 1860, he devised a plan to establish a United Synagogue to unite all British congregations under a single administration, an idea that was realized in 1870 when Parliament passed the United Synagogue bill.
Rav Adler, troubled by decreased synagogue attendance, concluded that the primary causes were poor spiritual guidance and too many rabbinical leaders with whom their congregants could not relate, so he determined that rabbis must also be secularly trained. Accordingly, on November 11, 1855, he founded the Jews’ College, a rabbinical seminary in London. The college had two specific objectives: to train English-speaking ministers and laymen in Jewish and secular subjects and to educate boys in a Jewish secondary school.
His first step was gaining support, both philosophically and financially, for what would prove to be a difficult undertaking. Rav Adler was a close friend of Moses Montefiore, and they often joined together to battle the spread of Reform Judaism. Despite Montefiore’s support, however, few others provided financial backing for the College, and the secondary school was closed in 1879. Nonetheless, the College continued to train Orthodox ministers, readers, and teachers for the English-speaking world and, from 1883 onward, the College’s students graduated at London University.
However, despite the considerable distinction attained by College staff and graduates, attendance at the Jews’ College was never high. Between 1883 and 1967, 91 students qualified as ministers with a university degree, and from 1896 through 1967, 65 obtained the rabbinical diploma. Unlike Yeshiva University in New York, the College has not found it easy to be both a committed seminary for Orthodox rabbis and a college in the liberal academic tradition.
Many distinguished Jewish scholars have lectured at the College, and the Series of Jews’ College Publications comprises several important contributions to Jewish scholarship. The school’s library was founded in 1860 and, by 1969, it contained 60,000 printed books and 700 manuscripts, including the famed Montefiore collection.
Shown here is an example of a publicity campaign undertaken by Rav Adler to spread the word about the Jews’ College to every British synagogue. In this beautifully handwritten correspondence dated September 22, 1859 (only four years after the College was founded), Henry A. Franklin, secretary to the Jews’ College Council, writes to H. Karo, Esquire, Presiding Warden of the Cheltenham Hebrew Congregation:
By direction of Dr. Adler, Chief Rabbi, President of the Jews’ College, I have the honor to enclose a printed Circular containing the Regulations of the Lord Mayor’s Commemoration Scholarship, and to ask the favor of your causing the same to be affixed to the door of the Synagogue over which you preside.
Franklin was well-known for translating Tfillat Yisrael, into English (The Form of Daily Prayer According to the Custom of German and Polish Jews). The Cheltenham Hebrew Congregation, which was established in Gloucestershire in 1823, closed in 1903.
When Rav Adler’s health deteriorated in 1879, his son Hermann was appointed delegate chief rabbi to carry out the duties of the office and, when his father died in 1891, Hermann was unanimously elected chief rabbi in his own right and formally installed on June 23, 1891, serving for 20 years until his death in 1911.
Exhibited above is an original page from The Illustrated London News (November 1, 1884) marking the celebration of Moses Montefiore’s 100th birthday at the Bevis Marks Synagogue. Shown at the bottom right is Rav Hermann Adler preaching the sermon at the celebration.
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Rabbi Hermann Adler (1839-1911) received broad recognition as the representative of English Jewry and played an important role in raising the position of chief rabbi to one of great nobility and significance. Under his leadership, the United Synagogue maintained full Jewish observance while also exhibiting broad tolerance to non-Orthodox English Jews. He was noted for his work to improve the conditions of Jews in Britain and abroad, particularly in Russia; he represented the Russo-Jewish Committee at Berlin (1889) and Paris (1890).
Rabbi Adler continued his father’s efforts to establish religious unity and conformity, using his position to facilitate unity and avoid religious discord amongst Anglo-Jewry wherever possible. He also served as principal and later president of the Jews’ College, and he became known for his extensive efforts in countering Christian misrepresentations of Jewish scripture.
He was one of the most prominent figures in English philanthropic circles, and Edward VII, referring to him as “my Chief Rabbi,” made him a Companion of the Royal Victorian Order. He was also an anti-Zionist. Even though he supported Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael, he characterized Herzl’s political Zionism as “an egregious blunder” and against the Torah. Not surprisingly, his position was distasteful to many European Jewish immigrants who harbored dreams of a Jewish homeland.
Rabbi Adler was a severe critic of the Liberal Jewish movement, but he also promoted modernist Orthodoxy and authorized some small modifications to religious ritual in response to requests by some synagogues under his jurisdiction.
He determined that British Jewish clergy ministers should be called “reverends” rather than “rabbis” because there could only be one “rabbi” – the Chief Rabbi himself. He also caused controversy by wearing Anglican vestments while delivering sermons. (He later authorized the use of the title rabbi to ministers within the United Synagogue.)
Rabbi Adler was known to sometimes exhibit a biting sense of humor. In one famous exchange while dining with Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, the Cardinal asked him “Now, Dr. Adler, when may I have the pleasure of helping you to some ham?” Without missing a beat, he responded: “At Your Eminence’s wedding.”
In this September 17, 1921 correspondence on his Chief Rabbi letterhead, Rabbi Adler thanks his correspondent for forwarding a copy of “Public Morals,” which he found to “contain most valuable counsel and should be disseminated widely among our young men.” He closes by noting that “the holy cause of purity is very close to my heart.”
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The legacy of the two Rabbi Adlers is a British Rabbinate operating under “Adlerism,” the essence of which is the consolidation of religious government and the concentration of ecclesiastical control, which continues in Great Britain to this day.