< Back

I. A., 1858-1925

C. G. Montefiore

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Dr. Israel Abrahams From the painting in the Liberal Jeivish Synagogue by I. M. Cohen, B.P., li.O.I. Facing p. 239]</page><page sequence="2">i. a. 239 I. A., 1858-1925. By C. G. Montefiore. It is a sad privilege to be allowed to write a short " necrology " of my dear friend and exact contemporary, Israel Abrahams. The privilege has doubtless been extended to me just because I was a near friend for so long a time. Otherwise, for the Jewish Historical Society the notice of Abrahams should have been allotted to some one who knew Abrahams' work for the Society from within, and who had been his colleague. This inner knowledge I do not possess, but my deficiencies in this respect can be filled up by drawing upon Mr. Lucien Wolf's unpublished address of December 21, 1925, which, in due course, I shall proceed to do. There are other sides of Abrahams' life (and many more sides still of his knowledge !) which were closed books to me. But I have this comfort. There must be few, if any, who could adequately write about Abrahams from personal knowledge in the fullest sense of those two words. He was so many-sided ; he had made such rich use of his years ; he had acquired such stores of varied knowledge, both special and general; he had his finger in so many learned pies. And he had acquired this knowledge in spite of many difficulties. For he had to make his own way and living ; he had to give up an enormous number of hours to teaching. Then, in addition to what his duties or his livelihood demanded in energy and time, he was extraordinarily generous. He would give ready and frequent help to others quite over and above what he had to do officially. Nor did he ever seem to me hurried and flurried. Moreover, his learning was digested and unified. In fine, he was a real and distinguished scholar. While his special field of knowledge was all that pertained to Judaism and the Jews, the characteristic and'peculiar thing about him was that he knew so much outside his own subject, and that he saw that subject as part of a larger whole. He could illustrate and illumine it from without. He could set it in its true environment; he could estimate it in its right proportions. In his theological work he never fell into that frequent fault of the clever Jew?the fault of paradox or</page><page sequence="3">240 I. A. whimsicality. And though part of his life's duty was to do full justice to Rabbinic religion and ethics, he rarely, if ever, was seduced into inaccurate and vulgar apologetics. He somehow lifted the whole business on to a higher plane. His allusiveness, the width of his know? ledge, the play of his imagination, made a few of his later writings a little difficult to follow ; they need very careful reading, but they repay it, for one gets something which is new, suggestive, and, as it were, above the ruck and routine of controversy. He surprises and charms. Abrahams may speak about a somewhat isolated corner of knowledge : but he never sits in a corner; his mind is in the centre. As the ripe and wise Sanday said of him, he was a humanist as well as a scholar : the two were interfused. (Nothing, I might add, gave him greater pleasure than this discriminating praise from Sanday : we may gather this from the pardonable pride and satisfaction with which he refers to it in the preface to the second series of his Studies.) Lastly, his scholarship was, I think, at least partly, the product of his character ; at any rate, his character made his scholarship the more attractive. He would not have got where he did, and he would not have written as he did, had he been conceited. His singular modesty and simplicity, his kindness and generosity, his broad outlook and his capacity to see the good in all sorts of persons : these qualities contributed, more than one might think at first sight, to the texture of his scholarship. It is no part of my duty to give any outline of his life, or to tell of the influences which shaped his upbringing and career. It was wise advice as well as inward prompting which made him secure a broad general education as well as special training in Hebrew and Rabbinic. As a result he became a fair classic, more than a fair mathematician, and well equipped in Philosophy and Political Economy. He also gradually acquired a considerable acquaintance with science. He read widely in general literature, and all his life was a voracious reader of novels, both old and new. Various circumstances, among which was a gradual abandonment of the old orthodox position in which he had been brought up, did, I believe, at one time make it possible that he might have concentrated upon other departments of learning than upon those in which he achieved pre-eminence. One influence which prevented this was his intercourse with Dr. Schechter, who came to England in 1883, when Abrahams was not yet twenty-five. It is not</page><page sequence="4">I. A. 241 too much to say, and if so, it is, perhaps, only fair and right to say, that that part of Abrahams' life work which consisted in presenting to the world a truer picture of Eabbinic teaching and religion, was largely due to the inspiration of Schechter. For intercourse with Dr. Schechter was very stimulating and inspiring, and the great Eumanian scholar helped (though, I imagine, unconsciously) to keep Abrahams firmly attached to Jewish learning. After many years, Abrahams succeeded Schechter as Reader in Rabbinic at Cambridge, where he lived from 1902 until his death. Yet, if he lived at Cambridge, it can be said with little paradox that he never left London : he lived a double and very tiring life, though his constant journeys from Cambridge to London and from London to Cambridge were enlivened and shortened by the perusal of endless novels upon the way. But Cambridge made a considerable difference in Abrahams' development. It helped his outfit. He was thrown into close contact with many Christian students and theologians ; he learnt to understand and appreciate their points of view, their opinions, and their ideals. He learnt what they wanted and needed to know about Judaism; he learnt how to put Rabbinic Judaism before them in a way which was both true and attractive, which appealed to them, touched them, arid won their apprehension and their sympathy. The better understand? ing of Pharisaic and Rabbinic Judaism which we meet with now in so many of the best Christian scholars is largely due to him. Directly or indirectly, it is his work. Abrahams, on the other side, was also helped by them. He learned to understand and appreciate the New Testa? ment and Christianity better and more vividly by his association with his Christian colleagues and friends. The result was that, in the Studies he writes about Judaism and Christianity, or about Rabbinic teaching and the teaching of Jesus, in a singularly original way. You may find books as learned about both. But you will not find the same measure of learning with the same point of view anywhere at all; in no book will you get this combination, whether English, French, or German. Abrahams stands above the facts, but he is always full of sympathy. It is the beauties and excellences of the Gospels and of the Talmud that he is concerned with, not their defects, even though, in order to indicate the beauties adequately, honestly, and historically, he has also to admit the defects. " Amidst the weeds of VOL. XL R</page><page sequence="5">242 I. A. Pharisaism," he says, " are flowers; amidst the evangelic flowers are weeds. I cannot overcome my preference for the flowers. I am no gatherer of weeds." This is eminently characteristic of him every? where, alike as regards doctrine and books, systems and persons, the past and the present. Some may regret that Abrahams left behind him no systematic work on Jewish or on Rabbinic theology. The truth was that by the pressure of his multifarious engagements?of his work for others, and of the necessary work for those dearest to him and nearest?he had not adequate time over for a large and comprehensive book, the production of which would have run into many years. Moreover, it may be doubted whether " systematic theology " was his line. After all, he was less of a theologian than a humanist, and what he cared for was the human aspects of religion, the aspiration of man towards God, the everyday relations, if the adjective may be allowed, of man with God and of God with man, rather than the metaphysical bases of religion and the higher speculations of theology. It has also to be remembered that though he wrote a good deal, his writing was largely a matter of compulsion. Or, rather?for the word " compulsion " may be mis? understood?his writing was largely in reply to demands and requests ; it arose out of the circumstances of his life and environment. The origin of the Studies was a demand of my own which, in its original form, was not fulfilled. But the impetus given by this demand, and the immense interest shown by scholars in the first series of the Studies led Abrahams to produce a second series, which contains several essays that were, I think, spontaneous?produced by the mere interest of the author in the various subjects with which he deals. But it is characteristic of Abrahams that most of the subjects which, in the preface to Series I, he hopes to discuss in Series II find no place there. Some may have proved too complicated ; in others his interest may have slightly waned; or again, other subjects had taken a prior place in his busy and teeming brain. It may confidently be said that these Studies will long Temain a quarry for suggestions and material, as well as a stimulus and an illumination. I cannot forbear to add that the last Study he wrote may be found at the end of the second edition of my commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. It is on the 'Am ha-Aretz of the first century after Christ. It was written in fulfilment</page><page sequence="6">I. A. 243 of a great wish which I had often expressed; it was written when he was already very ill, and it was never revised. Nevertheless, it is of great value, and that it will probably satisfy the desires or the prejudices of neither orthodox Jew nor orthodox Christian gives it a cachet and a character of its own. The Studies continue Schechter's work of making better known to the world at large Rabbinic Judaism as it truly was. But in Abrahams' hands the work is carried forward with more impartiality, with a greater regard to dates, with a wider general knowledge, a larger framework, and with more appreciation and understanding of New Testament teaching. Those who have no time or inclination to read the Studies will find much of Abrahams' best and most characteristic qualities in the two essays, Some Permanent Values in Judaism (1924) and The Glory of God (1925). These were lectures delivered in America, and to a certain extent the product of necessity, but, nevertheless, he let himself go in them, especially in the Glory, and though ''occasional," they are very fresh, and in that sense very spontaneous. But because they are, as it were, the outcome of a richly stored mind, playing about the subject in hand, they are not easy reading. They are allusive and discursive, if also instinct with a charm, an aroma, a humanity, peculiarly their own. Abrahams was at home in pretty well all fields of Jewish learning. His posthumous Ethical Wills, his lectures on Campaigns in Palestine, show his variety ; he was no less capable of writing papers on Jewish mystical poets and poetry than on mediaeval Responsa. Even on his death-bed his mind was full of an entirely spontaneous work for which nobody had asked, but about which he felt very keenly?a commentary on Jeremiah, and there is no doubt that it would have been of extraordinary interest and originality. Meanwhile, it is now proper to record his unceasing labours for the J ewish Historical Society. Mr. Wolf says of him in that regard : " Besides being a founder of the Society and active in every branch of the administration, he held every onice of importance except the Treasurer ship. He was elected on our first Council and Executive Committee, and retained his connection with those bodies to the end. He was our first Honorary Secretary, and only resigned that post when he succeeded to the Presidency in 1904. In 1905 he became Editor of Publications. The best</page><page sequence="7">244 I. A. monument to the industry, taste, and scholarship he brought to the work of his Editorship is supplied by the long series of Transactions and special volumes which have been produced by the Society. I do not think that a page of these volumes was sent to the press until he had passed it, and there was not much of their contents which did not owe something to his inspiration, his generous scholarship, and his technical advice. In the last few months of his life, when his strength was visibly waning, an attempt was made to spare him his editorial labours, and I wrote to him that I was not going to worry him with the proofs of my book on the Canary Inquisition. He would not hear of it, and within a few days of his passing away he returned me the proofs full of useful suggestions and with a covering letter of kindly and in? dulgent comments. He was, in short, the soul of our Society during the thirty-two years of its existence. His influence was felt?it was indeed decisive?in every branch of our work. . . . " His Jewish Life in the Middle Ages is perhaps the best piece of Jewish Kulturgeschichte which has been written in any country since the Renascence of Jewish history forty years ago. It is a pity that he did not publish more volumes of the same kind, but we have to remember that his hands were full of other things, and that history had not the first charge on his time. As it was, he gave to our Transactions and to the Jewish Quarterly Review, of which he was one of the editors for twenty years, a long series of delightful papers which showed that the severe method which he practised was not incom? patible with great literary charm. The political and legal externals of Jewish history he very rarely touched, although he never failed to insist on their importance. Our Society owes him a very special debt of gratitude for the work he accomplished in the teaching of Jewish history outside our lecture hall. He was chiefly responsible for the organisation, in conjunction with the Union of Jewish Literary Societies, of the University Extension Lectures on Jewish history which for many years were held in Toynbee Hall, and in connection with which he conducted a tutorial class. All this work is inde? pendent of a still greater volume of work he performed outside our Society and beyond the limits of Anglo-Jewish history?books, essays, lectures, newspaper articles, and hundreds of learned papers contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and similar works. When his old friend and col? league Joseph Jacobs died, some of us in this hall delivered Memorial Addresses. Abrahams' tribute took the far more eloquent form of a Bibliography. I hope that our Society will be able at an early date to erect a similar monument to Abrahams' unparalleled activity throughout the broad fields of Hebrew learning and Jewish science." Thus it was " not only in organisation and administration that Abrahams was a giant among us. In our scientific work he was our teacher and our brightest</page><page sequence="8">I. A. 245 example. Although essentially a theologian and a moral philosopher, he approached the study and compilation of history with very definite scientific principles in which art and philosophy had little or no place. He always pleaded for the most impartial investigation of sources and the largest possible accumulation of facts in order to produce automatically a social picture in which both the external and internal life of the social organism should be adequately represented under its most variegated aspects. All this will be found set forth in the admirable Presidential Address on ' The Science of Jewish History ' which he delivered in November 1904. I should like to see this Address reprinted for periodical circulation among our members, for it is useful alike as a manual for students and a guide and reminder to our advanced workers." In addition to Abrahams' work upon the past, whether as teacher or writer, it has to be remembered that he was also interested in the present. Indeed it may be said that his very interest in the past was partly due to his interest in religion and in Judaism as something yet alive and yet of value. While retaining his religious faith in Judaism, he had become a convinced " Liberal," and from the year 1902 he was closely associated with the work of the Jewish Eeligious Union and of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. This is not the place to refer in any detail to the services which he rendered to the Union and to the Syna? gogue. It is sufficient to say that they were very considerable. His knowledge was freely put at the disposal of the Governing Bodies to which he also himself belonged. His advice was often sought and was freely given. Nor was his pen inactive. Though it was alien to his nature and instincts, he had even to take part in controversy, and his strokes, when once they had to be delivered, were vigorous and doughty, if also courteous and temperate. It added greatly to the prestige of the Liberal movement that by far the greatest English-born Jewish scholar of the age should belong to it and be known as enthusiastic in its support. What made his effort and advocacy the more precious and valuable was that Abrahams the Liberal was also the best ex? pounder and defender of Orthodoxy. He was not only the Liberal, but the Eeconciler. He wore his Liberalism with a difference. He helped his friends : those from whom he differed he did not wound. In some things he was probably at the end of his life more " thorough? going," or even possibly more " extreme," than many an average member of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue; but because he knew so</page><page sequence="9">246 I. A. enormously more, and because of his wide and generous sympathies, he knew also how to extract every drop of merit and worth from the Old as well as to champion and explain the New. And he saw how there was a sense in which the New was contained in the Old, and the Old was preserved and quickened in the New. The present writer, who owes so very much to Abrahams, has had to compose several notices of him and " necrologies," all incomplete and all inadequate. This one, in all probability, is the last. Let me end with the hope that, both in scholarship and in the presentation of living religious problems, the spirit of Abrahams may abide with us, and help us to work as he would have wished us to work, and as he worked himself. And so, with a higher trust and vision than were vouchsafed to the great Roman poet, In perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.</page></plain_text>