THE NUMERICAL strength of the vibrant Orthodox Jewish presence in contemporary Britain should not blind us to the fact that— historically —Orthodoxy in this country has been weak and peripheral.
Shortly after becoming Ashkenazi chief rabbi in 1845, Nathan Adler undertook a survey of the communities over which he ruled. The results persuaded him that Orthodoxy was too fragile to be left to its own devices: what were needed were locally based functionaries who, firmly under Adler’s command-and-control, could teach in a cheder, lead a Sabbath service, and deliver a passable sermon in decent English.
It was to train such preacher-ministers that Jews’ College was established. The facility, as originally conceived, did not educate rabbis; rather, it produced a succession of “Reverends”, complete with clerical dog-collars, who could minister and moralise within their congregations but who were in no sense halachic authorities.
It had, originally, another purpose, as a grammar school to educate an Anglo-Jewish middle-class (and naturally all-male) elite. The school failed. The college, however, survived — living a precarious handto-mouth existence, always short of money but secure so long as it had chief-rabbinical patronage. Under Chief Rabbis Brodie and Jakobovits it did indeed experience a golden age. Rabbis were ordained under its aegis. Its curriculum was broadened. It attracted — as teachers — scholars of high calibre. But it could not compete with the yeshivas of Israel and the USA. Now rebranded as the London School of Jewish Studies, it has repositioned itself as a rather different (though not unsuccessful) mixed-sex educational institution.
This is the story Derek Taylor out to tell in Defenders of the Faith (Vallentine Mitchell, £39.50, pb £18.95).
His style is conversational and needlessly polemical. More seriously, his use of source materials is limited. In recounting the furore that followed the dismissal from Jews’ College of its Chasidic senior lecturer in Talmud (the late Simche Lieberman), Taylor pleads that the relevant file has been embargoed. Had he searched a little further, he would have found that a copy of the Deed of Submission (May 13 1985), by which the dispute was by mutual agreement referred to an independent Beth Din, is freely available on the web.
Nor could I find any reference to my own account of this cause célèbre, which was published in 1990.
At one point, Taylor insists that Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler “resigned less than a year after” the appointment, in 1907, of the brilliant Adolphe Büchler as college principal. I can assure him that Hermann died in office on July 18, 1911.
Originally it was a grammar school but it failed