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The establishment of the Reform Beth Din in 1948 - a barometer of religious trends in Anglo-Jewry

Jonathan A. Romain

<plain_text><page sequence="1">The establishment of the Reform Beth Din in 1948 - a barometer of religious trends in Anglo-Jewry* JONATHAN A. ROMAIN A Jewish community cannot function fully without a Beth Din - a Rabbinic Court dealing with status issues such as conversion, adoption and divorce. It is surpris? ing, therefore, that whereas the first Reform synagogue, the West London Syn? agogue, was founded in 1840, the Reform Beth Din was not established until 1948. Why was it so late? Why did it take 108 years? What did Reform synagogues do without it? What were the factors that led to its coming into existence? And, once formed, what effect did it have on wider Anglo-Jewry? It seems that at first the West London Synagogue managed reasonably well without a Beth Din. Requests for conversion were rare, and any applicants were sent abroad to Paris or to Amsterdam. The Orthodox authorities did exactly the same, as it was not considered desirable to offend English sensibilities by doing anything that might appear akin to missionary activity. This was largely based on the mistaken belief that one of the conditions for the readmission of the Jews by Cromwell was that there should be no 'Judaizing'. After 1875, however, a less timid attitude prevailed and conversion ceremonies were carried out in England by both the Reform and the Orthodox. Cases at West London Synagogue were still infrequent and whenever one arose an ad hoc court of three people was created, consisting of three ministers, or two ministers and a warden, or one minister and two wardens. The conversion course entailed the study of Jewish beliefs, customs and history along with an elementary knowledge of Hebrew. The attitude to conversion was sympathetic and the general policy was to 'welcome proselytes and make their reception easier than it is'.1 Halachic requirements were considered background details that were not necessarily followed: circumcision was required for males, but tevilah ('immersion') was not. Sincerity was the key? note; fulfilling the commandments was regarded as an additional piety for those that so wished. The courts at West London were held primarily for the needs of its own membership. The Manchester and Bradford Reform congregations referred their religious queries to their own ministers, who would also convene courts when the need arose. None of these ad hoc courts dealt with matrimonial matters, for reli * Paper presented to the Society on 20 May 1993. 249</page><page sequence="2">Jonathan A. Romain gious divorce at that time was not required by Reform synagogues. Civil divorce was considered sufficient and a get was not needed in order to remarry. Despite their limited nature, the West London courts attracted occasional applicants from other sections of Jewry who found the Reform approach more suited to their needs. Sometimes they had been referred to the Reform by Orthodox ministers who felt it more appropriate to their situation. Some cases were even sent to West London direcdy from the Chief Rabbi's Court. Writing in 1930 to the Revd Simmons about a non-Jewish woman who was engaged to a nominally observant Jew, Dayan Gollop stated: 'The fact that the gentleman concerned is not a stricdy Orthodox Jew would seem to point that he would be more at home with you than with us. It would be almost absurd to train an applicant for stricdy Orthodox Judaism when the man she proposes to marry does not observe the religion she is presumed to undertake. I see no reason why you should not deal with the case if he wishes to place it in your hands.'2 In turn, the West London ministers occasionally referred cases to the Chief Rabbi's Court that were felt to belong under Orthodox auspices. The willingness of the two authorities to recommend proselytes to each other indicates a degree of mutual respect and goodwill. It also reflects the esteemed position that West London had acquired in the general community, and the tolerant, liberal position of Orthodoxy at the end of the 19th century and in the first three decades of the 20th century, which consisted of extending the boundar? ies of the permissible to the maximum in order to promote harmony within Anglo Jewry and to encourage those on the fringes to stay within the communal frame? work. When Chief Rabbi Hertz was guest of honour in 1934 at the opening of West London's extension, he affirmed the rapprochement: 'I feel that my presence here requires some words in explanation. It is certainly not due to the fact that I dismiss the religious issues which led to the formation of this synagogue ninety four years ago as of trifling importance. I am the last person in the world to minimise the significance of religious differences in Jewry. If I have nevertheless decided to be with you this morning, it is because of my conviction that far more calamitous than religious difference in Jewry is religious indifference in Jewry.'3 Hertz went on to praise West London's contribution to Jewish life, and presented the Reform community as his ally rather than his enemy. It was a remarkable speech, that epitomized a mood of religious harmony that would never have been imagined at the time of West London's inception, with the accompanying threats of herem. Unfortunately that sort of speech would not be repeated again. The crucial point at which there was a change from the domination of the liberal tendency within the Orthodox rabbinate to that of a stricter one can be dated to 1935. It was to have important consequences for the Reform too. That year witnessed the appointment of the renowned Lithuanian scholar Rabbi Yehez kel Abramsky as the senior dayan of the Chief Rabbi's Court. It brought right wing pressures into the very leadership of the United Synagogue itself. His 250</page><page sequence="3">The establishment of the Reform Beth Din in 1948 enormous personal influence served both to give the Court much greater stature within the United Synagogue and to promote a much stricter interpretation of Jewish law. He was opposed to conversion to Judaism if there was any question of a marriage involved, something which he regarded as an automatic sign of insincerity. The claim that 'it was practically impossible to get a conversion while he was at the Beth Din'4 is not totally accurate, but reflects the general feeling that conversion became considerably harder to achieve once he joined the Court. Another element in the changes within the Orthodox leadership at that time was the influx of Continental Jews fleeing the growing oppression in Europe. Although many gravitated towards the Reform community, there were a consider? able number from strictly traditional backgrounds who bolstered the new Ortho? doxy in Great Britain. They brought a very different approach to communal life, provoking comment on the 'new Jewish clergy' that was coming into existence: 'The Reverend X, whose Jewish studies terminated when he was 18, who dressed like an Anglican clergyman, carried his umbrella on the Sabbath and was very broadminded about the dietary laws, was the real religious guide of his congrega? tion. Owing, however, to changes in the community, the Reverend X has fre? quently been replaced by Rabbi Y who eats with very few of his congregants and generally comports himself in an Orthodox fashion. This is not a development which has found universal favour.'5 A graphic illustration of this was that: 'A photograph of the Anglo-Jewish Preachers (Ministers) Conference in 1935 shows that forty-three out of fifty-six ministers present wore canonicals, and the majority wore no headgear or beards. No ministers can be seen wearing canonicals in the photograph of the ministers at their Conference in 1956, but their heads were covered and many had short or trimmed beards.'6 As well as serving United Synagogue congregations and provincial synagogues under the jurisdiction of the Chief Rabbi, some of the immigrant rabbis came to sit on the London Beth Din. Until 1935 all members had been English born or trained, but by 1945 all but one came from the Continent. Moreover, the relation? ship of the immigrant dayanim to the United Synagogue was different from that of previous incumbents. In the past many of the dayanim had also been part-time ministers of the United Synagogue and had been in regular contact with ordinary members of the community, such as Lazarus and Gollop who served at Bayswater and Hampstead. Most of the new dayanim not only came from very different types of communities abroad, but they no longer served as ministers within the United Synagogue, just as today. Thus they never became part of, or familiar with, its general membership, and were out of touch with its character and needs. The change in both the personnel and the policies of the Orthodox rabbinate was commented on by one of the 'old-style' English ministers, Revd Dr Abraham Cohen: 'It is an undeniable fact that about 1935 or 1936 the Beth Din began to reject applicants on the grounds which did not disqualify before that date. If the Beth Din claims that its new decision is based solely on Jewish Law, the deduction 251</page><page sequence="4">Jonathan A. Romain is that Chief Rabbi Nathan Adler, Hermann Adler, and Joseph Hertz (before 1935) acted contrary to the din in accepting the types of candidates which are now refused.'7 Concern was also expressed by the lay leadership of the United Synagogue, who felt that the stance of the Chief Rabbi's Court was unnecessarily rigid. A former President of the United Synagogue, Ewen Montagu, declared: 'The honorary officers were aware of the popular dissatisfaction with the Beth Din on proselytisation, and often raised the matter informally to ameliorate the situation and to show the human face of Judaism, but to no avail whatsoever.'8 Another area of Jewish life that evoked increasing public anger was the problem of civilly divorced women who were prevented from remarrying in synagogue because their former husbands refused to agree to a get, which was dependent on the mutual agreement of the husband and wife. The Beth Din had no executive role; its function was only to supervise the arrangements or to offer an opinion in cases of dispute. While this left the couple free to make their own decisions, it also meant that no effective action could be taken by a Beth Din when a couple disagreed about a get. Moreover, women were at a disadvantage because originally a woman could be divorced against her wishes, whereas a man could not. A woman whose husband refused to agree to a get had no means of compelling his consent, and the Beth Din was powerless to intervene. She was known as an agunah (a 'chained woman') and was unable to remarry in synagogue. The lack of any solution led even Chief Rabbi Hertz to admit that concerning the 'tragical problem of the agunah, Jewish religious law suffers from arrested development.'9 The onset of the Second World War and the deaths of hundreds of Jews serving in the British forces, many of whom were merely reported 'missing in action', made the problem even more critical. It was not a problem that affected just Jews; the newly formed United Nations won widespread praise for its attempt to establish a central source of information on the death of missing persons, utilizing the expertise of the Red Cross. However, the Chief Rabbi's Court refused to accept certificates of death issued by the Red Cross unless accompanied by corroborating evidence. In the eyes of the general community the 'progressive conservatism' originally espoused by Hertz had turned into a reactionary Ortho? doxy that had little in common with the Judaism of Anglo-Jewry. For many Jews the Chief Rabbi's Court sometimes appeared to be less a communal servant than a communal tyrant. Indeed, exacdy forty years ago, at another Jewish Historical Society meeting, a devastating picture of the decay that had begun in the 1930s was presented by Dr Redcliffe Salaman in his Lucien Wolf Memorial Lecture, delivered on 18 May 1953: 'In the last two decades, it has been obvious that a new type of relationship had arisen between the community as a whole and the ecclesiastical authorities. The latter had been "captured" by the ultra-Orthodox who, through the influence of the Rabbinate had attempted to dragoon the community into accepting rulings and decisions on matters of social and so-called religious behavi 252</page><page sequence="5">The establishment of the Reform Beth Din in 1948 our, which are unacceptable to the majority and which are felt to be out of harmony with the spiritual aspirations of a cultured people .... The policy has led to the loss of that rapport between the Jewish public and its religious leaders which was a feature of Jewish life thirty years ago. The gulf is growing.' These were stern words. As it happened Chief Rabbi Brodie was chairing the meeting, and refused to give the vote of thanks. At the same time, there were also four important developments affecting the Reform synagogues, which were to change the character of Reform Judaism in Britain and to lead directly to the establishment of the Reform Beth Din. The first development was the arrival of Rabbi Harold Reinhart at West London Synagogue in 1929 from the United States. He had studied for the ministry at the Reform Seminary in Cincinnati, the Hebrew Union College, and was ordained as a Rabbi in 1915. Reinhart's religious outlook was dominated by the principles of the Pittsburgh Platform, which concentrated on the prophetic tradition within Judaism and placed much greater emphasis on personal conduct and morals than on outer forms and rituals. It stressed the spiritual and ethical demands of Judaism rather than its legalistic elements. While many Orthodox rabbis recognized the need for change in Jewish law, they felt constrained by their own lack of authority or of any universally accepted mechanism for such changes. Reinhart, however, had no such reservations: 'The authority for ultimate decision is the voice of God in our own hearts. "To thine own self be true", say we, and not only "Thou canst not then be false to any man", but also "thou canst not be false to God himself ours [is] the task to revive the creative side of Jewish faith and practice, ours to hew the channels through which may flow the waters of a new and refreshing faith.'10 It was Reinhart's aim to establish a central Reform Beth Din in place of the scattered ad hoc courts maintained by individual Reform congrega? tions. He was influenced greatly by his American background and his experience of conversion in the Reform congregations of the United States. There was no overall control by a central rabbinic body. Each community was responsible for its own procedures and standards. The result was 'anarchy', and he was deter? mined not to let the pattern be repeated in England. Another motive of Reinhart's was ideological rather than practical. He regarded Reform Judaism as authoritative Judaism and the true heir to Jewish tradition. He constantly emphasized that 'it is not a sect' and that it preserved rather than destroyed the original tenets of Judaism. Having a Beth Din was part of normative Judaism, and so Reform should have one. Thus a curious contrast emerges: despite Reinhart's radicalism and his cavalier attitude towards halachic authority, he was also keen to restore many traditional procedures and emphasize rabbinic influences. If the first of the four developments affecting the world of British Reform Judaism in the 1930s was the personality of Reinhart, the second was the growth of Reform membership and communities. Once the initial drama of the Reform secession had taken place in 1840, there was little evidence of any missionary 253</page><page sequence="6">Jonathan A. Romain spirit or of any desire to establish branch congregations. But new patterns of Jewish setdement from city centres into the suburbs were now leading to profound changes. In London the emigration from the East End at the turn of the century exploded during the interwar years, going in all directions, but with a particularly strong move northwest, virtually following the route of the Northern Line. How? ever, not all suburban Jews continued their former religious affiliation. As Mar? shall Sklare has shown in his study of American Jewry in the same period, 'sub urbanisation brought with it the problem of maintenance of Jewish identity.'11 Many in America whose attachment to Orthodoxy was superficial took the oppor? tunity afforded by their physical move into new surroundings to effect a religious transition as well. This occurred in Britain too, albeit on a more modest level. New Reform communities in Golders Green (the North Western Reform Synagogue), Edgware and Hendon reflected the great migration to northwest London, while the one in Wimbledon indicated the move south. A similar process took place in other urban centres, such as Manchester and Leeds, where new Reform synago guges also arose. In addition to these demographic changes, the 1930s also saw the influence of some 60,000 German Jews fleeing Nazi oppression. It was Germany that had been the birthplace of the Reform movement in Judaism at the beginning of the 19th century. Since that time it had attracted wide support and had become well established. Many of the German refugees, therefore, were sympathetic to Reform Judaism and their arrival swelled existing congregations and helped lead to the foundation of new ones. The sum total of these individual growths resulted in a fast rate of increase for the Reform movement as a whole. The total Reform membership in London rose from approximately 4000 in 1940 to 15,000 in i960.12 Even more striking is the success in the provinces: between 1949 and 1970 seventeen new synagogues were opened in all, and of these nine were Reform. Among the Continental refugees who came to England were some thirty-five Reform rabbis. Their arrival was crucial to both the expansion of the Reform movement and the establishment of the Reform Beth Din, and constitutes a third development in British Reform Jewry. There was at that time no facility for training Reform rabbis in England. Homegrown lay preachers might appear, such as Basil Henriques, while some Jews' College graduates switched allegiance and joined a Reform synagogue, such as Percy Goldberg and Philip Cohen. The more usual source for obtaining ministers, and the only method of ensuring rabbinic leadership, was importing Americans who had graduated from the Hebrew Union College. Thus it was that the West London Synagogue had brought Reinhart over from the United States to succeed Morris Joseph. The few other Reform rabbis in England also came from across the Adantic: Cashden (also at West London), Baron (serving Glasgow) and Starrels (serving North Western Reform). The sudden immigration of German Reform rabbis provided the movement with 254</page><page sequence="7">The establishment of the Reform Beth Din in 1948 a quality of leadership to which it could not otherwise have aspired. The availabil? ity of such rabbinic manpower was also to make the establishment of a Reform Beth Din feasible in practice. It was to be one of the refugee rabbis, Michael Curtis, who was eventually appointed to become the first Clerk to the Reform Beth Din. Apart from Reinhart himself and Goldberg in Manchester, the Reform Beth Din was to be manned exclusively by refugee rabbis for many years, and they were to dominate it for the following two decades. Those who sat on its courts were Baeck, Berg, Bienheim, Cassell, Curtis, Dorfler, Graf, Italiener, Karten, Katz, Lowenstamm, Maybaum, Sawady, Schreiber and Van der Zyl. Without them the formation of the Reform Beth Din would have been impossible. Alongside the developments within Orthodox and Reform circles, an even more dramatic change was to occur. The Second World War had a profound impact on British life in general and affected the Jewish community in particular. It resulted in a widespread disruption of communal life, which was then predomin? antly under the auspices of the Orthodox authorities. Some 60,000 British Jews - approximately 15 per cent of British Jewry - joined the armed forces and left their homes. There was also mass evacuation of the civilian population, leading to the breakup of many Jewish families, with children sent to non-Jewish homes either alone or with their mothers. There was little religious education: classes were difficult to organize, teachers had been called up, rabbis were serving as chaplains, while synagogue activities were severely curtailed. A significant effect of the war years was the sharp rise in intermarriage - Jews marrying non-Jews - a phenomenon that had always occurred within Anglo-Jewry, but which previously had been contained. Now it mushroomed. The extent of the courtship between Jews and non-Jews is evident from the number of proselyte enquiries at West London Synagogue: whereas before the War they numbered 20-30 per annum, by 1942 they had increased to 54 and in 1945 leapt to 105 enquiries. While there are no specific figures available for intermarriage, this dramatic increase can be discerned in the marriage statistics generally:13 whereas the synagogue marriage rate per thousand for the decade beginning 1931 was 8.4, in the decade beginning 1941 it dropped to 7.3, while for the decade beginning 1951 it plummeted to 4.6. Thus synagogue marriages virtually halved within two decades. As there was no major change in the marriage rate for the general population in the corresponding period, nor any fluctuation in the size of the Jewish community, it indicates a steep rise in intermarriage. The war brought enormous changes to British Jewry - particularly in terms of the breakdown of religious authority, the lessening of religious loyalty, and changes in religious affiliation. Many of the servicemen and evacuated families never returned to their homes, but settled in new areas and looked for a new religious format. So, by 1942, three of the factors behind both the need for, and the means of, establishing a Reform Beth Din were in place: the drive of Reinhart, the growth of Reform synagogues, and the arrival of German Reform rabbis. However, one 255</page><page sequence="8">Jonathan A. Romain further crucial step was required before concrete plans could be put into opera? tion. There were still no formal links between the Reform synagogues. It was a measure of the fierce independence of the congregations that this state of affairs should have continued even after a century of Reform Judaism in Britain. By then their number had grown to six, with West London, Manchester and Bradford being joined by St George's Settlement, North Western and Glasgow. (Edgware, although founded in 1935, was disbanded temporarily between 1939 and 1945 because of the disruption caused by the war.) However, this lack of co-ordination was to change decisively on 4 January 1942 when delegates from the six congregations gathered in Manchester under the name of 'The Associated British Synagogues' (now known as the RSGB). It started because Chief Rabbi Hertz had concluded an agreement with the Board of Deputies Education Committee dealing with evacuated children: members of Reform synagogues were to be excluded from the committee, were to be barred as teachers, and no part of the funds raised by the Board were to be used for religious education along Reform lines. It reflected the more uncompromising stance of the Chief Rabbinate and the disappearance of the previous inter communal harmony. The Reform congregations gathered together in protest. It was the first official meeting of Reform representatives and, from what was initially a very limited agenda, it was to lead to momentous changes. At the beginning of the meeting it was agreed that the six synagogues should formalize links with each other. By the close of the meeting a fourteen-point plan had emerged covering a wide spectrum of topics, among which was the intention to sponsor a rabbinical court. There followed a great debate within the nascent Reform movement about the value of establishing a Reform Beth Din. Opponents argued against it, either from fear of a central body that would threaten the autonomy of individual congregations and take away the right to local courts, or from fear of rabbis claiming too much power and becoming over-authoritarian. Those in favour claimed that it would ensure uniformity of practice, guarantee high standards, and be a source of guidance on communal issues. This division of opinion also occurred within the Reform rabbinate itself, with Percy Goldberg hostile to the idea of a London court taking away responsibility from Manchester, while Ignaz Maybaum was opposed to the idea in principle and claimed that a Reform Beth Din would be 'playing Orthodoxy'. There were several years of debate over the issue. Being a new movement, it was important to achieve unanimity; being a small movement it could not afford resignations. Eventually the Reform Beth Din was achieved, albeit in three separate stages. Firsdy, the Court was set up in February 1948 by Reinhart without any official sanction and established de facto. This was in response to the lengthy delays that had already lasted six years and seemed likely to carry on further. Secondly, in March 1950 the Court was recognized by the ministers themselves and designated 'The Court of the Assembly of Ministers'. And thirdly, in Sep 256</page><page sequence="9">The establishment of the Reform Beth Din in 1948 tember 1954 the Court was recognized by the congregations of the Reform move? ment, they having finally given their assent, and it was renamed 'The Court of the Association of Synagogues of Great Britain' (as the movement was then called). Altogether it had taken twelve years to establish, since the proposal was first made. Once established, the Reform Beth Din occupied a unique position internationally. Its centralized authority was without any counterpart in the Reform movement elsewhere: in Germany, the United States, or in South Africa, Reform Jews had local or regional courts but no national one. As for the actual cases heard by the Reform Beth Din, I have carried out a detailed study of these from its inception in 1948 until 1965. What happened during that time epitomizes the character and direction of the Reform Beth Din up to today, as I will indicate where appropriate. In the years 1948-65 the Reform Beth Din dealt with just over 2500 cases. These not only reveal moving stories in the lives of the individuals concerned, but also reflect important aspects of Anglo Jewry during that period. Examined one by one the cases may seem to be of personal interest only, but taken together they show distinctive trends within the community. The number of adult proselytes coming before the Reform Beth Din indicates a pattern of steady increase. Thus the 40 cases appearing in its first year rose to 109 cases in 1965. (This figure has remained largely the same since then, although for reasons that are beyond the scope of this paper, and are not relevant to its theme.) There were a variety of factors behind this initial growth. One was the rapid expansion of the Reform Movement. On the establishment of the Reform Beth Din there were ten synagogues in the ASGB; by 1965 they had grown to twenty-five. While many were in London, others were spread throughout the provinces, ranging from Brighton to Newcastle. Many increased their mem? bership at an enormous rate. As a result the Reform Beth Din served a constituency that was becoming larger every year, a fact which was reflected in a corresponding increase in cases. A more detailed analysis of the cases indicates that another factor was the rising rate of intermarriage. Only 9 per cent of applicants were converting purely for love of Judaism itself and with no other motive to influence their decision. In all other instances a Jewish partner was involved, pointing to a growing number of Jews forming liaisons with non-Jews. Moreover, more than half the Jews con? cerned had married their spouses before they had converted. The fact that conver? sion was an afterthought to marriage for many is shown also by the large number of young children who converted at the same time as their mother. It is noticeable that the overwhelming number of proselytes were women, with a total of 1120 applicants compared to 229 men. This overall ratio of approximately five females for every male compares exactly to Reform conversions in the United States where the same ratio is found.14 The predominance of women is to be expected for two reasons. First, the conversion course was a much more daunting prospect for men than for women, for although the study requirements were the same for both 257</page><page sequence="10">Jonathan A. Romain sexes, circumcision was incumbent on the men. Fears of the pain and discomfort involved, along with deeper worries about the effect on their virility or sexual ability, were discouraging factors that female proselytes did not face. A second, and perhaps even more important reason was the fact that Jewish status is tradi? tionally passed down through the female line, a definition to which Reform adheres. This provided considerable incentive to the female partners of Jewish men to convert for the sake of the children's religious identity. Conversely, there was much less pressure on the male partners of Jewish women to convert, as any children would have full Jewish status anyway. The religious affiliation of the Jewish partners of the converts is even more revealing and indicates another factor in the growth of cases presented to the Reform Beth Din. Of those cases heard, 85 per cent came from outside the Reform movement. This is still true today. The figure testifies to the dissatisfaction with the attitude and policies of the Chief Rabbi's Court by those for whom it should have been their natural home. In the eyes of the Chief Rabbi's Court applicants for conversion who were already in a relationship with a Jew - the vast majority - were to be excluded automatically. Thus a female applicant married to a Jew was turned away 'because her Jewish husband had committed a sin in marrying out'.15 This hostile attitude extended even to the children of a mixed marriage: a woman whose father was Jewish and whose mother was non-Jewish was informed that 'nothing could be done as long as my mother is alive or married to my father'.16 Another commonly reported reason for rejection by the Chief Rabbi's Court was not that the applicant was unworthy, but that their Jewish partner failed to meet the standards of the Court. In many cases it related to proper observance of the Sabbath: 'He was informed that since he was working on the Sabbath the conversion of his wife could not be accepted'.17 No exceptions were made for those in emergency services: 'I was refused because my husband is a doctor. He could not promise not to look after his patients on the Sabbath.'18 In other instances the applicants were turned down because the Jewish partner did not lay tefillin (phylacteries) every day19 or could not read Hebrew fluendy enough.20 The inevitability of a rebuff by the Chief Rabbi's Court is confirmed by several pros? elytes who had approached the minister of their local Orthodox synagogue but were told that it was in their best interests to apply to the Reform Beth Din. The clerk to the Reform Beth Din, Michael Curtis, noted of one candidate: 'Dr M is very friendly with the Reverend Ephraim Levine who warned him NOT to go to the Chief Rabbi's Beth Din, and advised him to come to us.'21 Another aspect of the Reform Beth Dirts work concerned Jewish parents adopting non-Jewish children and wishing to register them as Jewish. As with proselyte cases, the rise in number reflected both the growth of the Reform movement and the dissatisfaction with the Orthodox authorities, who would not allow adoption unless the parents were totally observant. Many Jewish couples were rejected on the grounds that they 'must be stricdy Orthodox in every respect 258</page><page sequence="11">The establishment of the Reform Beth Din in 1948 before consideration of the adoption can be made'.22 The Reform Beth Din asked adopting parents to undertake to bring the child up 'in the Jewish faith' and was content to accept that general commitment. The third main area of the Reform Beth Din's work was divorce cases. Once again the figures show that it served not only Reform synagogues but the wider community, for in only 14 per cent of all cases had the couple been married in a Reform synagogue - the other 86 per cent coming from Orthodox synagogues. The figure is slightly lower today - around 63 per cent - but it still means that most divorce cases are from couples originating outside the RSGB. This was due, as referred to earlier, to the inability of the Chief Rabbi's Court to grant a get should the husband object to it, even though the couple might have been divorced civilly for many years. One female applicant was told that as nothing could per? suade her former husband to consent 'she must be a martyr of the Jewish race'.23 In many instances the husbands offered to withdraw their objections to the get in return for financial remuneration or revoking maintenance payments. Despite the questionable morality of such a solution, it was sometimes recommended by the Orthodox authorities. As Dayan Golditch wrote to one woman: 'I strongly urged him to accept a get from you. To my regret he refused to do so. In the absence of his consent there is little that we can do. i would suggest that you make it worth his while and manifest a substantial degree of appreciation.'24 While the Orthodox authorities may have felt they had no other means of helping such applicants, those concerned were aggrieved at what they considered to be a mix? ture of indifference and blackmail. The Reform Beth Din took an entirely different approach to divorce. While it endeavoured to gain the consent of both parties, it took on itself the power to award an equivalent document despite the objections of either party, if it was felt that they were acting unjustly. In the words of Curtis: 'Is not the hardship of the frustrated wife undeserved and unjust? Under such circumstances our Beth Din dissolves the marriage and issues a document which allows the wife to remarry in any of our synagogues ... We depart in these cases from the practice of the Orthodox Court which condemns those unfortunate people to lifelong celibacy in the name of Jewish Law.'25 Despite the large number of Jews outside the Reform movement who turned to the Reform Beth Din, this development had never been intended. The Court had been envisaged as a service for the Reform synagogues alone. There was therefore no attempt to publicize it within the wider community, as it was seen as purely an internal matter. The existence of the Reform Beth Din had major consequences also for the Orthodox authorities. They themselves did not recognize its validity, but they were aware that others in Anglo-Jewry did accept it and that even members of Orthodox synagogues were prepared to utilize its services. In effect, the Orthodox authorities had lost their monopoly over matters of status. They made no official reference to the Reform Beth Din, although they were well aware of its activities. 259</page><page sequence="12">Jonathan A. Romain The reason was that they did not want to be seen as acknowledging its existence even by condemning it. There was also the influence of some lay honorary officers against public attacks on the Reform. By i960, Orthodox authorities felt that the Reform Beth Din posed too great a threat and had to be combatted. They issued an official declaration that it was invalid and that its documents for conversion and divorce were worthless. Commenting on the Orthodox/Reform divide, Dayan Golditch admitted that the Orthodox hostility was due to the increasing influence of the Reform movement. Whereas previously it could be dismissed, now it had to be opposed: 'Before the War I could ignore Manchester Reform Synagogue and even patronise it - it did not then present a vital challenge. I personally was very friendly with the then minister ... and he would come to see me from time to time. But today I dare not be seen in the company of this same minister.'26 A testimony, remarkable for its frankness, that highlights the changed relationship and the element of fear that lay behind it. It should be noted that the Reform Beth Din served as a distinguishing feature between the Reform and Liberal movements. The Liberals never sought to create a formal Beth Din, and instead had a Rites and Practices Committee to deal with its status cases. It therefore marked the Reform as a form of Judaism that retained this traditional institution of Jewish communal life, even if it changed some of the rules under which it operated. The Reform Beth Din also played a pivotal role in acting as a catalyst for the changing situation within the Reform movement. What had started as a loosely linked association of synagogues was developing into a more centralized and co? ordinated organization. The struggle for the recognition of the Reform Beth Din was connected closely with the struggle for the acceptance of a more unified structure to the movement. The Reform Beth Din became a test as to whether the individual congregations were prepared to surrender a certain amount of authority in order to strengthen the movement as a whole and to bring a corporate benefit to each one of them. With the exception of Manchester, they were all willing to give uniformity and structure to the ASGB, and even Manchester eventually agreed. When they did so, it meant that the central authority of the Association over internal congregational affairs had been extended considerably. The formation of the Reform Beth Din also had profound religious implications for the Reform movement. The establishment of a court was the first major religious innovation of the movement since the publication of the Prayer Book in 1840. It reflected renewed confidence and was founded on a forthright assertion of the religious justification of Reform thinking: 'To develop the Law and to adapt it to the changing conditions of the centuries as was the aim of our great teachers in former times. Lack of courage and rivalry amongst the religious leaders have brought a factual standstill in the development of Jewish Law which has resulted in a rigid legalism that bears no longer any relation to the needs of the Jewish community. That is why we have instituted our own Beth Din, not to 260</page><page sequence="13">The establishment of the Reform Beth Din in 1948 abrogate the Law but to develop it again. In all humbleness and in true Jewish spirit we endeavour to make it again the living force that it has always meant to be.'27 Thus the Reform Beth Din was seen not only as a method of helping individual congregants but as a rejuvenation of Jewish Law itself. The establish? ment of the formal Court gave much impetus to searching for a response to contemporary problems which harmonized both tradition and humanity. Although no definitive Reform halachah emerged, and no new laws were immutably codified, there was a surge of religious creativity and research. The steady stream of those non-Reform members seeking the assistance of the Reform Beth Din made a sizeable contribution to the growth of the movement. Reference has already been made to the estimate that the membership of the Reform synagogues in London rose by some 11,000 during the period 1940-60. If one adds together the number of proselytes from Reform synagogues in London, their non-Reform partners, and those from non-Reform backgrounds seeking a Reform divorce, it amounts to a minimum of 1600 people. As this is approximately 15 per cent of the total growth, it is clear that it is a significant factor and needs to be taken into account when assessing the rise of Reform membership. Moreover, those using the Reform Beth Din also had an even more considerable impact on the number of marriages performed in Reform syn? agogues, which increased dramatically during this period, whereas Orthodox mar? riages decreased. If the total number of proselytes whose conversion was followed by a marriage (1204) is added to the number of individuals whose divorce was followed by a remarriage (211), the total sum accounts for 45 per cent of all Reform marriages during that time (3139). The novelty of the Reform Beth Din might conceivably have resulted in a more flexible attitude by the Orthodox, particularly in matters of conversion and divorce, concerning which so much criticism had been expressed within the Orthodox world itself. Adopting a more flexible attitude in status matters might also have undermined the appeal of the Reform Court and limited it to serving Reform members rather than attracting a much wider range of applicants. The reaction of the Chief Rabbi's Court, however, was to ignore any implications raised by the establishment of the Reform Beth Din. Indeed, it may be said to have provoked a determination to adhere even more strongly to a strict interpretation of the law. The concern of the Orthodox was reflected, though, in a secret meeting in 1962 between Chief Rabbi Brodie and the leading Reform Rabbi Van Der Zyl. It was not publicized and the honorary officers of the United Synagogue did not know about it. A possible compromise was discussed whereby divorce cases would be handled by the Orthodox and only sent to the Reform if no solution was possible. Brodie admitted the high standards of the Reform proselytes and hinted that if ritual immersion were added at the end of their course, the Orthodox might recognize them. However, nothing came of the meeting and the Reform Beth Din continued as an oft-used alternative to the Chief Rabbi's Court. 261</page><page sequence="14">Jonathan A. Romain Today it maintains its dual role: for some, a second resort after experiencing rejection or delay at the Chief Rabbi's Court; for others, a first resort, the natural seat of authority for those within the Reform movement. To sum up: looking back it is clear that the Reform Beth Din not only played an active role in the community at large, but its existence and development indic? ate major changes within Anglo-Jewry in several different ways: 1 The enormous percentage of cases that came from outside Reform syn? agogues showed the gulf that had arisen within the Orthodox world between the religious leadership and the lay membership, many of whom began to feel they could not relate to the Judaism of their rabbis. 2 It signalled the end of the monopoly enjoyed by the Chief Rabbi's Court as the only official Beth Din to which to turn, and the intensity of Orthodox attacks in later years indicated the extent to which they felt it had become a threat to their authority. 3 It was one of the most tangible symbols of the birth of the Reform as a national movement, and the new era that had arisen in the religious life of Anglo-Jewry. 4 It furthered the process of unification among the constituent synagogues by showing how certain powers could be surrendered for the greater good, and it helped the new movement in the delicate problem of harmonizing central control with local independence. 5 It played a role in the actual growth of the Reform movement by acting as an important source of recruitment for those wanting a conversion, divorce or adoption, and their children then grew up within Reform and compounded the increase. 6 It distinguished British Reform from Reform movements elsewhere in the world, having a central Beth Din commanding national jurisdiction. 7 On a wider level, it mirrored the contribution of the German refugees to the religious life of Anglo-Jewry, and also reflected the increase in intermarriage experienced by the community. The Reform Beth Din therefore both contributed to, and mirrored, the new postwar Jewry that had emerged. It does indeed serve as an important barometer of the religious trends of our time. NOTES This paper is based on my PhD thesis entitled The Formation and Development of the Rabbinical Court of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain, 193 5-1965' (University of Leicester 1990), which can be consulted for further details. Where references relate to individuals who appeared before the Reform Beth Din, their names have been omitted for the sake of confidentiality. 2?2</page><page sequence="15">The establishment of the Reform Beth Din in 1948 1 Morris Joseph, Judaism as Creed and Life (4th ed., London 1958) 167. 2 Gollop to V. G. Simmons, 30 October 1930, Reinhart Papers (Anglo-Jewish Archives). 3 Speech delivered 27 May 1934; quoted in The West London Synagogue Magazine VIII: 11 (July 1934) 4 Private conversation, 19 October 1982, Professor Chimen Abramsky (son of Dayan Abramsky). A similar analysis is provided by Louis Jacobs: 'It was Dayan Abramsky, not Cromwell, who was responsible for the (anti-conversion) attitude of the Beth Din\ Louis Jacobs, Helping with Enquiries (London 1989) 218. 5 Norman Cohen, 'Trends in Anglo-Jewish Religious Life', in Jewish Life in Modern Britain, (ed.) Julius Gould and Shaul Esh (London 1964) 46. 6 Stephen Sharot, Judaism - A Sociology (London 1976) 158. 7 Jewish Chronicle, 8 June 1945. 8 Private conversation, 19 October 1983, Ewen Montagu. 9 Opening address to the Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers, 14 July 1925; quoted J. H. Hertz, Sermons, Addresses and Studies II (London 1938) 131. 10 The West London Synagogue Magazine, April 1930. 11 Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism (2nd ed., New York, 1972) 256. 12 Stephen Sharot (see n. 6) 160. 13 S. J. Prais and Marlena Schmool, 'Statistics of Jewish Marriages in Great Britain 1961-1965', Jewish Journal of Sociology IX:2 (1967) 151-3. 14 D. M. Eichorn (ed.) Conversion to Judaism - a History and Analysis (New York 1965) 172. 15 Mrs P. (i960) Records of the Reform Beth Din. 16 Mrs H. (1965) Records of the Reform Beth Din. 17 Mrs M. (1951) Records of the Reform Beth Din. 18 Mrs L. (1964) Records of the Reform Beth Din. 19 Mrs R. (1959) Records of the Reform Beth Din. 20 Mrs M. (1956) Records of the Reform Beth Din. 21 Mrs M. (1950) Records of the Reform Beth Din. 22 Mr and Mrs Q. (1959) Records of the Reform Beth Din. 23 Jewish Telegraph, 14 November 1958. 24 Dayan Golditch to Mr C, 19 June 1959, Records of the Reform Beth Din. 25 Michael Curtis, 'The Beth Din of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain', Reform Judaism, (ed.) DowMarmur (London 1973) 130. 26 Address to Liverpool Jewish Graduates Association; quoted in Jewish Gazette, 9 February 1962. 27 Our Beth Din (undated ms circulated privately, but pre-1958), Records of the Reform Beth Din. 263</page></plain_text>