Claude Montefiore and Liberal Judaism

By Kessler, Edward | European Judaism, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Claude Montefiore and Liberal Judaism


Kessler, Edward, European Judaism


Introduction

Claude Montefiore was a member of what Chaim Bermant has aptly called `The Cousinhood' -- in other words, the Anglo-Jewish aristocracy. Montefiore was born in 1858, the year in which Lionel Rothschild became the first Jew to take his seat in the House of Commons. Montefiore's father was a nephew of Moses Montefiore and his mother a daughter of Isaac Goldsmid, one of the founders of the non-sectarian University College, London and also of the West London Reform Synagogue.

Montefiore studied at Balliol College, Oxford, and came under the wings of Benjamin Jowett, who was to be a lasting influence upon him. Jowett encouraged Montefiore to devote himself to Judaism and once wrote:

   I cannot advise you for or against the ministry, but I would certainly
   advise you to lead an ideal life, by which I mean a life not passed in the
   ordinary pleasures and pursuits of mankind; but in something higher, the
   study of your own people and their literature, and the means of elevating
   them. No life will make you as happy as that. (1)

Upon obtaining a First Class Degree in 1889, he went to the Hochschule 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 biblical and talmudic scholar. Schechter formed quite a contrast to his student -- a native of Romania, from a Chassidic family, who received a yeshiva education at a famous Talmudic college at Lemberg (Lwow) in Galacia.

Montefiore started his first major scholarly exercise when he was invited to deliver the Hibbert Lectures in 1892. He was the first Jewish scholar to receive this honour. The lectures were one of the first Jewish attempts to interpret the history of the Bible in accordance with the conclusions of `Higher and Lower' criticism. Lower criticism examined the text, comparing and correcting it with ancient manuscripts. Higher criticism inquired into the authorship and dates of different books and weighed their value as historical documents. These lectures attracted enormous attention because Montefiore:

1. Accepted many of the results of modern scholarship

2. Paid tribute to the teachings of Jesus

3. Vigorously defended Judaism from Christian criticism concerning the Torah

In the Jewish community the benefit of Montefiore's response to Christian criticism overshadowed any sentiment of alarm, which his opposition to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the value of the Synoptic Gospels might have aroused. His biblical studies are based upon the view that the essence of the Bible is most truly shown, at its best, and not at its worst -- its true tendency and issue are displayed -- not in Esther but in Jonah.

Following standard Victorian interpretation of Scripture, Montefiore felt free to compare what he saw as more `primitive' or `lower' elements with `higher' aspects. He concluded that the Bible contained the highest truth but that it did not contain all truth. No book could be completely true in word and thought. The Bible was built up during several generations and different sections revealed different degrees of knowledge, faith and culture. This did not diminish the value of the Bible but rather undermined the traditional Jewish understanding of it as perfect and divine. According to Montefiore, the Bible was divine `because of its religious excellence, because of its righteousness and truth, because of its effects for righteousness and truth'. (2) In other words, the Bible's value did not depend upon its divinity, but its divinity depended upon its value and excellence.

Christianity

Early in his career, Montefiore considered the role of Christianity and, in particular, the New Testament. His views were met with dissent within the Jewish community and provoked a great deal of discussion in Christian circles.

Throughout his writings he expressed the view that it was time for Jews to abandon a negative attitude towards Christianity.

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