Israel Abrahams: Master Teacher of Liberal Judaism. (LIBERAL JUDAISM CENTENARY)

Article excerpt

Dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Michael Leigh (1928-2000)

I. Jewish Life in the Middle Ages

Solomon Schechter departed England in the spring of 1902 to become president of the reorganised Jewish Theological Seminary of America. His post as Reader in Rabbinic and Talmudic Literature at Cambridge University was taken up by 44-year-old Israel Abrahams who remained at the post until his demise at age sixty-seven. (1) Israel Abrahams hailed from a distinguished pedigree. His father Barnett Abrahams served as a Principal of Jews' College but died from rheumatic fever before his thirty-third birthday. Israel's mother, born Jane Rodrigues Brandon, traced her family tree to fugitives from the Spanish Inquisition. (2)

Entering Jews' College, London, in 1872, Israel Abrahams remained connected to the institution for thirty-three years where he taught English and Mathematics (1881-1899), Homiletics (1894-1903), and acted as Senior Tutor (1899-1905). As a prolific popular writer, his articles appeared in Anglo-Jewry's oldest newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle (1885-1919), including a weekly column that ran for almost twenty-five years. From 1919 until his death he wrote serially for the organ of Liberal Judaism, the Jewish Guardian. (3)

As scholar, Abrahams was both a founder (1893) and editor, until his passing, of the Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England. Earlier, in 1888, he joined with his beloved friend and colleague, Claude Goldsmid Montefiore (1858-1938) to publish the nondenominational journal, The Jewish Quarterly Review.

From its inception in 1902, Israel Abrahams aligned himself with Anglo-Jewry's Liberal religious movement, under its initial banner, the Jewish Religious Union for the Advancement of Liberal Judaism. In its first decade of operation he was looked upon as its unofficial rabbi and spiritual mentor. (4)

Placing his reputation on the line, Abrahams tried to persuade the mainline United Synagogue religious establishment of the need to support serious religious alternatives. In a 1903 letter to Chief Rabbi Herman Adler, the Cambridge scholar emphasised the authentic Jewish character of the Sabbath afternoon services held by the JRU, defending on historical grounds the decision to make ample use of English in the worship service. He contended that the Union's legitimacy lay in its efforts to warm the Judaism of those who were cold, and to win back those who were half-hearted or worse. (5)

The intellectual seeds of Abrahams's Liberal religious Weltanschauung can be gleaned in embryonic form in his 1896 research tour de force, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages. His panoramic historical reconstruction carried a subtle, and at times, veiled agenda: to validate the cause of the Liberal Jewish religious ethos. Availing himself of the critical apparatus of Wissenschaft des Judentums established a generation earlier in Germany, the book attested to his adeptness at extracting pertinent historical data from the disparate sources of rabbinical literature covering a thousand year sweep from the eighth to the eighteenth century. (6) It established his stature as an early twentieth-century social and cultural historian of the Jewish experience.

He was keen to sketch the merits and demerits of the Jewish legal tradition. Through painstaking sifting of Jewish responsa literature Abrahams demonstrated how rabbinical authorities validated the Law not as inert and dry, but embedded with spiritual and ethical values of enduring worth. With communal power and control vested in medieval Jewish corporations (at the discretion of feudal overlords), rabbinical synods plumbed talmudic and geonic wellsprings, applying their findings to all spheres of daily life. In the process they wove a social fabric ensuring `Jews were clear of the more hideous vices which eat at the root of social life in civilised states'. (7)

This triumphalist culture generated a nobility of character, and Abrahams spelled out its implications. …