Rabbi Levy's Journey

Article excerpt

Rabbi Levy's Journey "From One End of the Earth to the Other": The London Bet Din, 1805-1855, and the Jewish Convicts Transported to Australia, by Jeremy I. Pfeffer, Sussex Academic Press, 2008, 355 pp.

Reviewed by Gabriel A. Sivan

How often has a mysterious old portrait led someone to investigate its background, thereby shedding light on a neglected chapter of Jewish social and religious history? The central figure in this book, Rabbi Aaron Levy (c. 1795-1876), was a member of the London Bet Din (Jewish tribunal) and his portrait had been found, virtually undamaged, in the ruins of the Great (Duke's Place) Synagogue after a Nazi air raid in 1942. It was then entrusted to Jack and Leah Corman, this author's future in-laws, Leah being a great-grandmece of the man portrayed. They hung it over the sideboard in their dining room, but could tell Pfeffer little about "Reb Aaron," apart from the fact that he had sailed to and from Australia in 1 830 in order to issue a get (bill of divorce) for the wife of a transported Jewish convict.

Having graduated from the Imperial College of Science and Technology at London University, Jeremy Pfeffer worked in his family business and then taught chemistry and physics at Carmel College, British Jewry's elite "public school." After his aliyah (immigration to Israel) in 1969 and further study in Israel, he held an administrative post in the town of Rehovot and served as principal of various high schools. He has published a number of scientific articles and two recent studies in English on the Book of Job.

The work under review started to take shape after Pfeffer 's retirement in 2004, when he and his wife "made the journey of a lifetime to Australi a and New Zealand." That tour revived his curiosity about Aaron Levy, the rabbinical emissary whose own voyage had taken place over 170 years before. Why was this young man picked for such a mission? How many Jewish husbands, tried and convicted in Georgian England, were transported to Australia? What became of them there? And what steps had been taken to prevent the wives of those transportees from remaining agunot - perpetually tied to their menfolk?

A Wealth of Unique Information

In his search for answers to these questions Pfeffer decided to investigate the London Bet Din's minute books (pinkasim) - three handwritten volumes covering the years 1805-1855 - and archives in Britain, Israel, the United States, and Tasmania. This enabled him to piece together the story of those Jewish convicts, their families, and a nascent Australian Jewry. "As my research progressed," the author notes, "I realised that the minute books told another story too: that of the London Bet Din itself...." Established by Rabbi Solomon Hirschel in 1805, "it was the first and for many years the only fully accredited Bet Din in the English-speaking world." No other rabbinical court has left a record of its transactions comparable to the one preserved in its minute books, which (Pfeffer maintains) include a wealth of information largely overlooked by previous researchers.

The author claims, justifiably perhaps, that Hirschel and his achievements are underrated, even if the sick and aged rabbi was unable to halt the erosion of traditional observance in his day. That could also be said of Anglo- Jewry's Sephardi and Reform ministers down to our own time: "Indeed, if success in forestalling disaffection is the criterion by which religious leaders are to be judged, then historically most were failures, including all the biblical prophets from Moses through to Elisha." Pfeffer goes too far, however, when (ignoring the foundation of Jews' College by Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler) he asserts that Hirschel 's Bet Din was "the only truly Jewish institution established in nineteenth-century England."

Various case histories involving marriage, divorce, and proselytes, with the Hebrew names of those concerned, enable one to appreciate the efforts made by Hirschel and his religious-court judges to relieve the plight of long-forsaken wives, and of children threatened with the stigma of mamzerut (bastardy), in order to keep them within the Jewish fold. …

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