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Book Notes: Claude Montefiore: His Life and Thought, Daniel R. Langton; An English Jew - The Life and Writings of Claude Montefiore, Edward Kessler (ed.)

Norman Solomon

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Claude Montefiore: His Life and Thought, Daniel R. Langton, isbn 0-85303-369-2 cloth, ?45; isbn 0-85303-376-5 paper, ?19:50. An English Jew - The Life and Writings of Claude Montefiore, edited by Edward Kessler (2nd edition) isbn 0-85303-439-7 cloth, ?35; isbn 0-85303-441-9 paper, ?14:95. The appearance of these two works to coincide with the centenary of the foundation of the Jewish Religious Union in 1902 is timely. Kessler's book is a welcome reissue of the well-chosen selection of the writ? ings of his hero first published in 1989. Though not a comprehensive critical study it forms an excellent introduction to Montefiore's thought. The biogra? phy is a model of concision, the selection admirably chosen, and the introduc? tions and conclusion offer helpful and insightful comment. It is a pity the opportunity was not taken to correct printing errors such as the statement (p. 2) that Montefiore obtained a First Class Degree in 1889 (which should read 1881), or the misspelling on the same page of Galicia as Galacia. Langton's book, a reworking of his PhD thesis for the University of Southampton, is somewhat more pretentious. Subtitled 'His Life and 210</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes Thought', it draws on archival as well as published material for the life, and on Jewish (mainly Reform) and Christian (mainly Anglican) theologians of the period for the thought. Montefiore was exposed in his early life to at best a very attenuated Judaism, and to very little Jewish society beyond the family. Langton aptly cites (p. 175) a letter to the Oxford moral theologian Hastings Rashdall in which Montefiore explained 'I don't feel so apart. You see, 1 have lived with and loved, Christians all my life. My dearest friends have been and are passionate Roman Catholics, Anglicans (of all sorts) and so on ... I can see with their eyes and feel with their feelings . . ..' On the other hand, he had been taught privately by Philip Magnus and the Revd David Marks, ministers of the West London Reform synagogue, and after coming down from Oxford was sufficiently motivated to journey to Berlin to familiarize himself with rabbinics at the Berliner Hochschule. While there, he was so impressed by his incomparably more learned fellow student Solomon Schechter that he induced the latter to return to England with him as his private tutor in 1882. Langton argues forcefully that Montefiore's own personal conception of Judaism should be regarded as an attempt to remould Reform Judaism in terms of the contemporary Liberal Christianity. But is Christianity or enlightenment liberalism the operative factor here? Langton is aware of the problem, and ably does battle with scholars such as David Philipson, Eugene Black and Michael Meyer who feel that the main influence on Montefiore was German Reform, as well as Jonathan Romain, Michael Leigh and Robert Lieberles who place the emphasis on socio-political fac? tors. Readers will make up their own minds. One intriguing test-case concerns the problem of decorum. Did Montefiore urge improved decorum at services in emulation of the 'Victorian-Christian service ethos', as Langton believes, following Endelman's interpretation of the much earlier call for decorum by Orthodox Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler? While it would be foolish to ignore this factor, it seems equally foolish to ignore, on the other side, the simple fact that Orthodox leaders throughout the centuries, drawing on entirely traditional halakhic sources, have constantly railed against congregations for failing to maintain appropriate decorum in synagogue. The fact is that not only is it impossible to separate the influences of enlightenment and of Victorian Protestantism from one another, but it is impossible to separate either from some of the more liberal trends that have always existed within Judaism. Probably the only area in which a separation can be made is the strictly doctrinal one, which is precisely where Montefiore remained at odds with Christianity. That Montefiore admired and learned from several Christian theologians is beyond doubt; but surely what he thought he was doing was not adapting Christianity, but attempting to do for Judaism what 211</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes the Christians had done for Christianity, viz. to reformulate it in terms of Liberal Enlightenment. One could wish that Langton had made better use of primary sources when relating Montefiore's thought to that of his contemporaries, too often the reference is to someone else's account of a theologian, or at best to an anthology. In writing of Montefiore's opposition to Zionism, for instance, someone familiar with Hermann Cohen's writings could hardly fail to cite his 1916 essay Deutschtum und Judentum in which he defends German patri? otism on the grounds that it corresponded to the later, universalistic stage of Judaism, at the same time as he rejects Zionism as a reversion to a primi? tive, nationalistic stage of Judaism, an argument entirely analogous to that urged by Montefiore shortly afterwards in opposition to the Balfour Declaration. Likewise, Montefiore's acceptance of historical criticism of the Bible echoes that of Geiger, whom he admired, and who had declared 'The Talmud must go, the Bible, that collection of mostly so beautiful and exalted - perhaps the most exalted - human books, as a divine work must also go'. In sum, Montefiore was by no means as original a thinker as Langton claims in chapter 7, 'The Essence of Judaism', where he contrasts him in turn with Kaufman Kohler, Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck, Buber and Rosenzweig. Neither Kessler nor Langton gives a serious assessment of Montefiore's interpretation of rabbinic texts. We do indeed see how he used some of the texts, but evidently neither author feels sufficiently at home in rabbinics to assess the legitimacy of his interpretations, or how dependent he was on Schechter and Herbert Loewe. Despite these reservations, both Kessler and Langton have produced works which will be of great value to all who wish to come to grips with the thought of one of the all too few English-born Jewish religious thinkers of significance. Norman Solomon</page></plain_text>

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