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Claude Montefiore: defender of rabbinic Judaism

Edward Kessler

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Claude Montefiore: defender of rabbinic Judaism?* EDWARD KESSLER Surprisingly few works have been published about Claude Montefiore, although he was the founder of Liberal Judaism in Britain as well as a renowned and controversial figure in Jewish and Christian circles. This is presumably due to the fact that he was an eclectic rather than an original writer. However, his importance to both Jewish and Christian scholarship should not be underestim? ated, for it derives from his role as an interpreter of Jews and Judaism to Christi? ans and as an interpreter of Christians and Christianity to Jews. Montefiore was in the unusual position of being respected by Christians1 and, at the same time, his views were well known among Jews. His writings, both published and unpublished, could have been produced only by someone steeped in the Jewish tradition and with a profound knowledge of Christianity. Montefiore was able to inform Jews and Christians about scholarly and religious developments affecting a wide variety of subjects. The paucity of writings on Montefiore is heavily outweighed by the large number of his own publications - he was a prolific writer.2 His works cover many aspects of Jewish life, including biblical studies, rabbinic, Hellenistic and modern Judaism. He also examined significant aspects of Christian teaching, including the New Testament and Christian theology. Montefiore's writings in general, and his writings on rabbinic Judaism in par? ticular, have been heavily criticized for two reasons. Firstly, he has been accused of being overly influenced by Christianity. Solomon Schechter, for instance, stated that 'what the whole thing means, is not liberal Judaism, but liberal Chris? tianity'.3 Ahad Ha'am also made clear his disapproval of Montefiore's 'infatu? ation' with Christianity.4 Secondly, Montefiore was viewed as denigrating rabbinic Judaism and rejecting Jewish legalism. His writings on the rabbis have been described by Joshua Stein as wholly tendentious5 and by Louis Jacobs as condescending.6 This paper offers an alternative view and argues that Montefiore's role as an interpreter allowed him to defend the rabbis before a Christian audience far more often than to criticize them. Far from negating rabbinic Judaism, Montefiore emphasized its importance in the face of Christian denigration. My * Paper presented to the Society on 15 January 1998. 231</page><page sequence="2">Edward Kessler thesis is that Montefiore was a defender, albeit a critical defender, of the rabbis. His early years illustrate how he was able to obtain an understanding of both Judaism and Christianity. At Oxford he was trained by liberal Christians such as Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, and was able to quote Classical poets and dramatists freely. Jowett's influence on Montefiore at this stage was well known.7 After receiving a first-class degree he travelled to the Hochschule f?r die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin with the intention of becoming a rabbi. There he was assigned to a young tutor, by the name of Solomon Schechter, who was already an outstanding scholar of Bible and Talmud. The person and teaching methods of Schechter contrasted with those in Oxford, but had a similarly significant impact on him. This is particularly important with regard to Montefiore's attitude towards rabbinic Judaism. Montefiore made clear his debt to Schechter in private correspondence8 and public writings.9 It was on account of Solomon Schechter that Montefiore developed his knowledge of, and admiration for, rabbinic literature. However, there were significant elements, particularly in connection with halakhah, that Montefiore disliked, and which had, in his opinion, been developed in too much detail by modern Orthodoxy. For example, as a result of an emphasis on kashrut, Judaism was in danger of becoming a 'kitchen' reli? gion.10 This contributed to what Montefiore saw as the irreversible decline of Orthodox Judaism, which he attributed to the rabbinic view of the perfection and divinity of Scripture. This view, central to Orthodox Judaism, flew in the face of modern biblical scholarship and was the fundamental reason for Montefiore's criticism of the rabbis. Although Montefiore acknowledged the results of biblical criticism, his was not an attempt by a Jew to add to the criticism, but to examine its significance. He concluded that biblical criticism directly threatened Orthodox but not Lib? eral Judaism. Montefiore believed that the Bible contained the highest truth, but that it did not contain all truth, since no book could be completely true in word and thought. The Bible was built up over several generations, and different sections revealed different degrees of knowledge, faith and culture. This did not diminish its value, but did indeed undermine the traditional Jewish understand? ing. 'It may at once be conceded', he wrote, 'that the old Jewish view, according to which the Old Testament, and more especially the Pentateuch, enshrined religious and moral perfection has gone forever. No doubt many orthodox Jews still naively believe it, but they could not obtain hearing from those outside their own ranks. He who would make a claim for the religious greatness of the Old Testament can only do so today if he frankly recognizes its imperfections and limitations.'11 Montefiore, following existing Reform practice, emphasized the importance of the biblical prophets. Although his writings were clearly based on the critical researches of Wellhausen in Germany and of Cheyne in England, he 232</page><page sequence="3">Claude Montefiore: defender of rabbinic Judaism? introduced their results to Anglo-Jewry and evaluated their conclusions in the light of Jewish biblical interpretation. Montefiore was aware of the partisan approach of the biblical critics. His response to Christian misconceptions was admired by Liberal and Orthodox Jews alike. Montefiore vigorously opposed Christian criticism of the rabbis, and especially scholarly Protestant criticism. It was particularly in Germany where anti-rabbinism, in hand with anti-Semitism, came to the fore of scholarship: he wrote that the critics 'freely use the language of mocking irreverence ... in Wellhausen, who is responsible for this ugly fashion, brilliance and even genius cover the gravity of the descent from the language of Ewald. But in the hands of the ordinary clever and industrious German professors, this laborious humour is quite unendurable, and the anti-Semitic prejudice which is presumably at the bottom of it all is only too easily and clumsily revealed.'12 He wrote that 'my German masters ... led me to defend the Rabbis'.13 Christian interest in Jewish literature was apologetic and polemical. The anti-rabbinic tendency in Christian writings of this period was pervasive,14 and a perverse caricature of rabbinic Judaism was often the consequence. Christian scholarship's disdain for sp?tjuden tum was also directed to the heirs of the rabbis - modern Orthodoxy.15 Montefiore vigorously responded to the prejudice and devoted much more energy to defending the rabbis than to criticizing them. This was not only a result of unfair Christian criticism, but also of the need, in his opinion, for Liberal Judaism to remain an historical religion.16 Liberal Judaism was the heir to the rabbis, separated from them in some points, but united with them in the deeper issues. In this interesting area of Montefiore's writings he is caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, he felt strongly that Orthodox Judaism had no future, and that it had, as it were, had its day. Yet if Orthodox Judaism, which saw itself as a link in the development of rabbinic Judaism, was losing its value, could the same not be said of the rabbis and their writings? On the other hand, Montefiore saw that rabbinic Judaism was being unfairly attacked by Christian scholars, who in order to show Jesus in the best possible light, cast his Jewish environment in the worst. Because of this situation, Montefiore was primarily concerned to tackle the criticism and defend the rabbis. For instance, in response to the charge that God was viewed by the rabbis primarily as transcendent, Montefiore argued that God's nearness was effected partly by the Law.17 'In spite of Christian theologians', he said, '(who are ignorant of the true effects of the Law and of the inner spiritual life of the orthodox Jewish congregations of the past and the present) the Law did produce holiness; it did sanctify life'.18 He showed the extent to which the Law had been venerated, and stressed that it had been a blessing and not a curse. The rabbis believed that God, in perfect wisdom, had given the Law to Israel and that Israel, by its faithful obedience, would itself 233</page><page sequence="4">Edward Kessler become wise and holy. The Law was the will of God and to study it was Israel's supreme joy because it brought God near, 'with every kind of nearness'. He made clear to his Christian audience that by the end of the biblical period God had not become remote and 'purified away'. Indeed, the rabbis had expanded the concept of the Law and had brought the people closer to God. Montefiore explained the Law in quasi-Christian terminology, partly as a result of his role as interpreter of rabbinic Judaism to English Christian society. He compared the position of the Law in rabbinic Judaism to that of Jesus in Christianity - both became mediators between God and the people and the means of bringing God close to the people. The Law, he said, 'supplied the motive force, the passion, the love, which the death of Christ and the risen Christ supplied to Paul'.19 In effect, the Law was the means of maintaining Israel's closeness to God.20 The Law was criticized by Christian scholars as a burden which demanded blind obedience and emphasized purely outward motives, but Montefiore vehe? mently rejected this position again and again. 'It is false that in Judaism religion was mere outward obedience', he wrote. 'It is false that the relation of man to God was conceived only as one of action and reward, and that the character remains wholly out of account. It is false that the Law was an outward taskmaster which evoked fear and not love. No-one can understand the Rabbinic religion with these presuppositions. There is no such fundamental contrast between it and the religion of Jesus. The Law was not a mere external law, fulfilled from fear of punishment and hope of reward. It was the Law of the all-wise and all-righteous God, given to Israel as a sign of supremest grace. It was a token of divine affection and in its fulfilment was the highest human joy.'21 It is important to note that Montefiore agreed with his critics that rabbinic Judaism was primarily a legalistic religion and that rabbinic legalism was far greater than the legalism of the Bible. He accepted that there were dangers to legalism and was critical of this, yet he criticized the dangers of legalism, rather than legalism itself. He also emphasized that, for the most part, the dangers of legalism were avoided by the rabbis. The fundamental reason why this was so was because the Prophets and the Law had succeeded in making the service of God into a passion - God and God's Law were so loved that the fulfilment of the Law was carried out for its own sake and not merely for the sake of reward.22 Montefiore maintained his defence of the rabbis from Christian criticism throughout his life. Examples can be found not only in his earlier writings when he was more influenced by Schechter,23 but in his later writings, such as Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teaching, in which he wrote that 'Christian theologians only knew and know the Law from outside. How it really affected and affects life they knew and know not.'24 However, although primarily a defender of the rabbis, it is quite true that Montefiore also criticized them. He explained that, on the one hand, they 234</page><page sequence="5">Claude Montefiore: defender of rabbinic Judaism? had allowed room for development and change through reinterpretation. The Oral Law, by definition, was an ongoing process, an unfinished tradition. The rabbis were successful in responding to new and different situations. Montefiore realized that there were numerous ways of illustrating the manner in which the rabbis shaped and moulded Judaism so that rabbinic Judaism maintained its diversity, flexibility and creativity.25 On the other hand, new interpretations could allow only so much room for change, and no more. How could there be outdated laws if they were received from God? They were part of a divine and therefore perfect constitution. As a result, he argued, rabbinic flexibility diminished from age to age as every generation of rabbis tended to defer to its predecessors.26 Over time, the system solidified, and it became harder and harder to maintain flexibility and to avoid the negative consequences of an ever-powerful built-in tendency towards rigid ification. This was the reason, in his opinion, for the failure of Orthodoxy: the tendency to believe in the infallibility of the talmudic sages, let alone the Bible, operated in favour of extreme conservatism.27 For example, he argued that the rabbinic view of 'merit and reward' was a regression from biblical teaching,28 and that such regression was nearly always a consequence of the rabbinic belief in the divinity and perfection of the Bible. The most primitive statements, as well as the most beautiful ones, were viewed as equally true. This 'inadequacy' was the basis for Montefiore's criticism of the rabbis. 'The real trouble with the rabbis,' he wrote, 'the real check upon religious advance, was the burden of the Old Testament, the burden of the Book'.29 This criticism enabled him to be vehement in his rejection also of Orthodox Judaism, and to express his certainty that, as a result of this 'burden', Orthodoxy would eventually decline.30 Montefiore's literary style has been attacked for reflecting his disrespect towards the rabbis. For instance, when discussing halakhah Montefiore wrote that 'it has almost all become distant and obsolete: to most of us the larger part of it seems a waste of mental energy and time'. However, the following comment by Herbert Loewe, his Orthodox co-author, could perhaps be criticized on the same grounds when he wrote that Montefiore was partly correct, and that the halakhah could be compared to bye-laws which 'are not a burden: they are essential. Yet dull they certainly are'. Even when Montefiore criticized the rabbis31 he nearly always balanced it with a favourable comment. For example, Montefiore was critical of what he saw as their naive understanding of God - rabbinic anthropomorphisms, he said, were 'childish'32 and their view that God rewards and punishes good or bad behaviour seemed to him unworthy.33 Immediately after these criticisms, however, he extols the rabbis for other teachings.34 In this way Montefiore tended often to follow criticism by a statement of admiration for the rabbis.35 Sometimes his criticism was tempered with a comparison with the Christian 235</page><page sequence="6">Edward Kessler tradition. He argued that the rabbinic conception of circumcision, for example, strengthened one of the biblical crudities and that 'reflected or justified imper? fections are worse than naive and spontaneous ones'. He goes on to compare this with the concept of hell in the Gospels which was 'bad enough', but what was said by Augustine 'was far worse'.36 This particular criticism of the rabbis was to be read in the context of his criticism of the Church. In conclusion, I suggest that Montefiore should be viewed as a defender of the rabbis for two reasons: firstly, he believed that Liberal Judaism was their heir. 'We maintain with pride and care our historic connections, in faith and ceremonial with the past but it would be idle to deny the greatness of the differ? ence.'37 Liberal Judaism needed to accept, even to embrace its rabbinic inherit? ance, but also to respond to it. Although the perfection of the Bible and the rabbinic emphasis on the Law had to be revised, Montefiore could dismiss nei? ther the rabbis nor the Law. 'What was to become of the Law' was a question that needed to be asked and answered.38 Although Montefiore never described his final position on the Law, at no time did he reject it. Secondly, while Montefiore would not deny the 'greatness of the difference' between himself and the rabbis, he was their defender because of the fierce criticism they attracted, and especially because of Christian prejudice. He confronted the critics, and he was able, due to the respect he enjoyed among Christian ministers and scholars alike, to challenge existing views and to educate both scholars and lay people. It is true that Montefiore's language was in many ways Christian. But it was useful in addressing Christians to use Christian expressions as a means of elucidating Jewish concepts. Such forms of expression were an import? ant element in his attempt to educate a Christian audience. For Montefiore, Liberal Judaism was a crucial phase in the development of Judaism. It offered hope for the future and maintained a link with the past. As a result of this link Montefiore devoted much of his energy to rejecting Christian criticism of the rabbis. Rather than being viewed as their denigrator, Montefiore should be seen as a rabbinic apologist - a rabbinic defender, albeit a critical defender. NOTES 1 For instance, Montefiore was the first Jew to be invited to deliver the Hibbert Lectures, which he did in 1892. 2 Montefiore published 18 books and over 120 articles. For a bibliography of published and unpublished works see my An English Jew (London 1989) 198-205. 3 Maurice G. Bowler, Claude Montefiore and Christianity (Atlanta 1988) 95. Schechter had Montefiore in mind when he complained that Jews should 'have no need to borrow commentaries on our Scriptures from the Christians, nor constantly use foreign fertilisers in our sermons. Jewish soil is rich enough for all purposes ... To ignore Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Kimhi in favour of Stade and Duhm means to move from the "Judengasse" into the Christian ghetto'. Studies in Judaism (London 1908) 199 200. 4 Rejecting Montefiore's approach he 236</page><page sequence="7">Claude Montefiore: defender of rabbinic Judaism? wrote, 'Every true Jew, be he orthodox or liberal, feels in the depth of his being that there is something in the spirit of our people - though we do not know what it is - which has prevented us from following the rest of the world along the beaten path ... Let those who still have this feeling remain within the fold; let those who have lost it go elsewhere. There is no room here for compromise.' Achad Ha'Am, Achad Ha-Am, Trans. L. Simon (Oxford 1946) 126-7. 5 Joshua B. Stein, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore on the Ancient Rabbis (Missoula 1977) 1. 6 Louis Jacobs, Montefiore and Loewe on the Rabbis (London 1962) 4. 7 In a tribute to Jowett, Montefiore admitted that he had tried to incorporate Jowett's ideas into his writings. 'The Religious Teachings of Jowett', Jewish Quarterly Review 12 (London 1900) 291-377. 8 In a letter to Schechter, dated 12 September 1900, Montefiore wrote, 'I have often defended the Rabbis etc &amp; have shown myself a disciple of yours'. Joshua B. Stein, Lieber Freund: The Letters of Claude Goldsmid Montefiore to Solomon Schechter (New York 1988) 45 9 'My whole conception of the Law and of its place in Jewish religion and life is largely the fruit of his inspiration and teaching.' Hibben Lectures on the Origin of Religion as Illustrated by the Ancient Hebrews (London 1892) x. 10 Liberal Judaism (London 1903) 130. 11 'A Plea for the Old Testament', The Nineteenth Century (London 1921) 837. 12 'Biblical Criticism and the Pulpit', Jewish Quarterly Review 18, p. 310. 13 Liberal Judaism and the Law (London 1903) 3 14 For example, Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (Edinburgh 1890), identified rabbinic Judaism with legalism, his most cherished antipathy, that resulted in 'an incredible externalising of the religious and moral life' (vol. 2, p. 93). Jewish life, in his opinion, became a service of the letter of the Law for the letter's sake, i.e., the outward correctness of the action was crucial and not the inward end or motive. 'Even prayer itself... was bound in the fetters of rigid mechanism, vital piety could scarcely be spoken of (vol. 2, p. 115). Schurer was representative of the consensus that the Law demanded blind obedience and emphasized purely outward motives. 15 For more information on anti-Jewish Christian scholarship in this period see, Charlotte Klein, Anti-Judaism in Christian Theology (London 1978); E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London 1985) 23-58. 16 The Old Testament and After (London 1923) 555-9; A Rabbinic Anthology (London 1938) xxiii-xxv. 17 The use of the term 'Law' for the translation of Torah, although inadequate, was commonplace during this period. 18 Liberal Judaism (London 1903) 107-8. Montefiore's view of the Law is misunderstood by Stein who states that it 'never had any salvific value'. Joshua B. Stein, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore on the Ancient Rabbis (Missoula 1977) 74 19 The Old Testament and After (London 1923) 57". 20 Ibid. 215-7. 21 Synoptic Gospels (London 1902) 502-3. 22 Montefiore criticized Strack and Billerbeck's four-volume Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Munich 1922-8) for this reason. 'He [Billerbeck] misinterprets the inner meaning of rabbinic legalism. As an orthodox Lutheran theologian, enamoured by the doctrines of Paul, and passionately attached to them it is hard for him to fully appreciate the rabbinic point of view . . . doubtless He [God] does give blissful and eternal sugarplums to those who obey it [the Law]: but the better spirits amongst the Rabbis did not obey it for that reason; they obeyed it because to do so was high joy and delightful and altogether adorable.' Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teaching (London 1930) 161-2. 23 In the Hibbert Lectures, for instance, Montefiore explained that Christian theologians were unfair in their portrayal of the Law because of their ignorance. Hibbert Lectures on the Origin of Religion as Illustrated by the Ancient Hebrews (London 1892) 502. Also, 'Many Moods in the Hebrew Scriptures', Jewish Quarterly Review Vol. 2, p. 163. 24 Rabbinic Literature . . . (see n. 22) 239. 25 Montefiore referred to the following: Hillel nullifying the biblical law about the remission of debts in the Sabbatical years (Deuteronomy 15:2; Sheviit 10:4); Yohanan ben Zakkai suspending the ordeal of jealousy (Numbers 5:11-31; Sotah 9:9); Joshua ben Chananyah rendering inoperative the prohibition against Ammonite and Moabite proselytes marrying into the Jewish community (Deuteronomy 23:4; Yadayim 4:4). For further 237</page><page sequence="8">Edward Kessler examples see Hibben Lectures on the Origin of Religion as Illustrated by the Ancient Hebrews (London 1892) 489-91; A Rabbinic Anthology (London 1938) xxxiv-xxxvii. 26 Shabbat 112b. 27 The Old Testament and After (London 1923) 299-300. For a more recent examination see Louis Jacobs, Tree of Life (Oxford 1986) 236-47 28 A Rabbinic Anthology (London 1938) xxxv. 29 The Old Testament and After (London 1923) 299. 30 The Jewish Religious Union: Its Principles and Future (London 1909) 9-10. 31 Louis Jacobs, Montefiore and Loewe on the Rabbis (London 1962) 5; A Rabbinic Anthology (London 1938) xvii and xcv. 32 A Rabbinic Anthology (London 1938) xxvii. 33 Ibid. xxxv. 34 'Yet, other and opposite phenomena in Rabbinic religion deserve notice', ibid, xxvii; 'Yet, it is pleasant to notice that, with hardly a perception of the inconsistency, contrary teachings are often found.' ibid, xxxvi. 35 For further examples, see Joshua Stein, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore on the Ancient Rabbis (Missoula 1977) 61-3. 36 A Rabbinic Anthology (London 1938) xxiv. 37 The Old Testament and After (London 1923) 579. 38 What is Judaism? (London 1964) 47-51. Also see Liberal Judaism and Hellenism (London 1918) 159-60. 238</page></plain_text>