The 2008 Rabbi LA Falk Memorial Lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple, AO, RFD, at the Great Synagogue, Sydney
The rabbinical department of Jews’ College, London, was headed in my time by Rabbi Kopel Kahana, master of three systems of law, Jewish, Roman and English. A great Talmudist who taught himself English by listening to the BBC, he never succeeded in eradicating certain defects in English pronunciation. When he asked us about Rabbi Brodie, the question would be: “And how is the Tsief Rabbi?” Others, Jews or non-Jews, who had no pronunciation problems, would speak of the Chief Rabbi with like affection but could get their tongues around the word “Chief”. Australians, who continued to regard the Chief Rabbi as one of their own long after he had departed for England, called him Rabbi Brodie as they always had. A few who had been particularly close friends during his Melbourne days even dared to use the nickname Issie, but if they tried it to his face he firmly but gently corrected them. Not that this stopped one or two when they visited him in London putting their feet up like Australians and being quizzed about everyone and everything at home.
Rabbi Brodie presided over the British chief rabbinate for seventeen eventful years. It was not an easy time. The Jewish world had to come to terms with the lingering agony of the Holocaust and the excitement of the emergence of Israel. Anglo-Jewry itself was changing. New situations, challenges and movements constantly arose to ruffle the smooth stability of the community. How he handled the challenges will be addressed later in this paper, but there was never any doubt on the personal level that whilst urbane, august and ecclesiastical, he was also warm, passionate and concerned for people and their feelings. Every segment of the community believed, as did the Australians, that the Chief was one of them. The grand dukes were content to have a real Englishman as Chief Rabbi. The communal power-wielders were relieved to have a Chief who was a gentleman and diplomat. The Zionists felt assured by his love for Zion. The ex-service people remembered how well he had cared for his troops. The ministers had a warm feeling for a good colleague who had always been a good friend. The mighty Dayan Abramsky and Sir Robert Waley Cohen, miles apart in religious standards, were united in their respect and support for the Chief.
No chief rabbi began with such promise. A recent author, Miri J Freud-Kandel, in her Orthodox Judaism in Britain since 1913: An Ideology Forsaken (Vallentine Mitchell, 2006), has decided that as things turned out, Brodie was weak and wavering, browbeaten by the right-wing and unable to maintain the middle-of the-road ethos of Anglo-Jewry. In an editorial on his retirement, the Jewish Chronicle (4 June, 1965) was more tactful, but said that he “was at times misguided”, and referring to the Jacobs controversy, which we will analyse in a few minutes, said, “A man whose every instinct disposed him to tranquillity was… thrown into a raging conflict which tore the community asunder and whose effects have not yet entirely abated. Yet he pursued his course with tenacity and resolution.” How valid these assessments are will be examined later in this paper, but first we need to know the background of the man and the influences that moulded his career.
Born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 4 April, 1895 (though there are other versions of his birthday), he was only the second British-born Chief Rabbi. The first was Solomon Hirschell, who was the subject of a previous Falk Lecture given by me. Hirschell left England when his father, Hirschell Levin, called in England Hart Lyon, accepted a rabbinic post elsewhere, and did not return until he was a grown adult. Though Hirschell spent the next forty years in England, he was, as Cecil Roth put it, “the least English” of all the Chief Rabbis. The Adlers, Hertz and Jakobovits were all born on the Continent but were far more English in style than Hirschell. After Brodie, the third Chief Rabbi to be British-born is the present incumbent, Jonathan Sacks. The Adlers moulded Minhag Anglia, “the English usage”, which remained until very recently the ethos of Anglo-Jewry. Hirschell was probably quite unable even to contemplate a Minhag Anglia; Brodie, its great exemplar, was rather shaken when accused of abandoning the banner and letting Rabbi Louis Jacobs become its champion.
Brodie was a descendant, on his father’s side, of Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Braude of Salant in Lithuania. His mother’s father was the Maggid (preacher) of Kovno, Reb Tzemach Maggid. Brodie himself was the second child of Sheina and Aaron Brodie, a devout couple who struggled to make a living but ensured that Israel would be educated in – as he used to put it – the ways of both Kovno and Oxford. He won few prizes at school, perhaps because of the demands of his extra-curricular Jewish education. Like other youngsters, he had thought of joining the Indian Civil Service but no-one was surprised when he decided upon the rabbinate and in 1912 entered Jews’ College, headed by the stern Dr Adolf Buechler. He gained a BA degree from University College in 1915 and, after a period at Balliol College, a B.Litt from Oxford in 1921. Brodie had two brothers and two sisters, of whom one sister, Minnie, was well known to Australian Jewry. Minnie came to Melbourne to keep house for the bachelor rabbi; she married Emanuel Sheink and eventually made Aliyah when in her nineties. (If I may be permitted a personal note, the Sheinks and my late parents, with whom they were friendly, were somewhat similar in appearance, and when anyone asked my mother how her brother was, she said she had four brothers. The mix-up was always eventually sorted out.)
Though he did not study in a yeshivah, Brodie imbibed his feeling for the Talmud from his teachers, Rabbi Tarshish and Rabbi YM Sandelson, and acquired the traditional sing-song of Talmudical study. Not even far-away Melbourne could dim his ardour for the Talmud; he studied with his rabbinic predecessor, Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams, and with that embodiment of eastern European learning, Rabbi JL Gurewicz, and also found some old-timers at the Montefiore Home whom he engaged in talmudic argument. It should be recorded that Rabbi Gurewicz liked Brodie but not Rabbi Danglow, and never understood why Danglow and not he was made acting head of the Melbourne Beth Din when Brodie left. Danglow was no Talmudist, and Gurewicz questioned the kashrut of Melbourne meat supervised by the Beth Din under Danglow for export to the Holy Land. Brodie was aware of Danglow’s rabbinical limitations, but Danglow had seniority after nearly thirty years on the Melbourne Beth Din.
Brodie’s musical abilities were highly admired. He loved the sung Grace After Meals and the intricate Z’mirot (table hymns), and he produced translations of some of the difficult elegies for Tishah B’Av. His assistant at the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Rev Solomon M Solomon, had no great cantorial capacity, so Brodie was chazan as well as rabbi and sang with the choir (in those days a mixed choir of men and women). It was an anglicised congregation but even some of the more assimilated leadership retained some traditionalism, so that when the ladies presented the rabbi with a ministerial robe it was so long (Brodie was far from tall) that one of the wardens remarked that the rabbi looked like “the long V’Hu Rachum” (one of the lengthy supplicatory prayers). For a while there was a gentile choirmaster, who probably conducted the choir well but shocked the rabbi by telling him on one occasion, “Christ, what a Sh’ma Yisra’el we sang today!’
Brodie shone as a preacher. Our elocution teacher at Jews’ College called Brodie one of the finest preachers in England. His sonorous speaking voice was made for oratory. His language was cultured and classical. No-one can forget his measured way of saying, “Our sages of blessed memory”. No-one could handle a Midrash in the pulpit as could he. Melbourne was his training-ground; it is a pity that his synagogue was not constantly thronged with worshippers able to appreciate his abilities.
He had come to Melbourne as a young man in his 20s after a brief period as a wartime army chaplain from 1917-19 and as a welfare minister in the East End of London, working with Basil Henriques and others. His people skills were soon obvious to the Melbourne community. The young people in particular set their eyes upon him – the girls (and their mothers) because he was unmarried, the boys because they saw him as a role model. Melbourne never before (or probably afterwards) knew anything quite as exciting as “Rabbi Brodie’s boys”, who hiked, debated, camped, and forged fierce friendships. The rabbi also moved into wider fields. He became a well-known Masonic lecturer and developed many friendships outside the Jewish community. However, there was a problem as to who was to be the clerical representative of the Jewish community, a role with which Danglow had been entrusted. The outcome was that the community leadership agreed to leave the status quo until Brodie married and seemed to be more or less permanently settled in Melbourne.
Within the Jewish community, the Zionist movement was in its infancy; Sir John Monash was the honorary president of the Australian Zionist Federation, but Brodie was the active leader from 1927-37 and feared not to step in to protest about the Wailing Wall incident of 1928, in spite of the fears of his colleagues Francis Lyon Cohen and Jacob Danglow and the disapproval of some of the lay leaders, who feared repercussions from demonstrations against the British Government. Brodie’s successor as Zionist Federation president, Rabbi Ephraim M Levy of Sydney, was also outspoken but less diplomatic, and became embroiled in literary combat with Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Samuel Cohen. Levy’s contract with the Great Synagogue was not renewed after an initial three years; Zionism may haved had a role in the board’s decision, but there were many other issues, as the archived correspondence between the parties makes clear.
The Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, to which Brodie came in 1923 to succeed Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams who had held office since the 1880s, had occupied a down-town city site in Bourke Street since the 1840s. The congregants had long since dispersed to the suburbs, and even the personality and talents of a new young rabbi could not guarantee a future for a synagogue on the wrong site. The move to a commanding location in Toorak Road, South Yarra, brought some improvement, but it was still a synagogue without a resident community. Brodie utilised the new opportunities by means, amongst other things, of regular adult lectures, which sometimes attracted such large numbers that they were moved from the hall into the synagogue itself.
All this time both rabbi and congregation knew that Melbourne would not be able to hold Brodie for ever. More than once he resigned with the intention of going back to England to resume an academic career and work for a doctorate. Eventually he did leave, in 1937, taking up a teaching post at Jews’ College, where Buechler was still in office. He also did delicate anti-defamation work at a fragile time for world Jewry, and, on the outbreak of war, rejoined the military chaplaincy. The Chief Rabbi, Dr Hertz, had for many years held high hopes for Brodie and spoke of “the shadows which his future achievements cast before him”. Hertz had a feeling that Brodie would be his successor, but there was no time-table for any eventual hand-over of office. Hertz himself used to say, “Chief Rabbis never retire and only rarely die”.
Brodie left Melbourne pessimistic about Australian Jewry; on his visit as Chief Rabbi in 1952, he said he was delighted to have been proved wrong. In the meantime the Holocaust and World War II had changed everything. From March, 1940, he was a chaplain again. At Dunkirk he lost his greatcoat and D.Phil notes, though he did later gain honorary doctorates from Yeshiva University in New York and elsewhere. As a chaplain he went everywhere, achieved miracles for his troops and won the respect of gentile colleagues and the love of the Jewish serving personnel. Len Gurwitz wrote, “I was in a terrible situation, I’d been blown up, but he came in and cheered me up. He says, ‘There’s worse things… You could be dead’… He was a lovely fellow and he could crack a joke with the best of them. I was very low at the time and I loved him.” After the war Brodie fought to secure ministerial posts for his chaplains, who also loved him.
Brodie moved from the army to the air force and then back to the army in 1944 to succeed Dayan Gollop as Senior Jewish Chaplain. This latter office he held until his appointment as Chief Rabbi in 1948. Amongst his military activities were moral leadership courses for Jewish personnel, and work to rehabilitate survivors of the camps. No wonder that when he established the Conference of European Rabbis – some say it was his crowning achievement – he opened the first meeting with a memorial prayer for the martyrs of the Holocaust, and neither he nor anyone else could hold back the tears.
On 30 June, 1946, Brodie was married at the Great Synagogue, Dukes Place, to Fanny Levine, a teacher whom he had known for many years. It was a good partnership and she proved to be a remarkable first lady of the community.
Jews’ College had survived the dislocation of the war and on demobilisation Brodie returned to his work there. Buechler had died in 1939 and Hertz, though ageing and ill, was acting principal. Eventually Dr Isidore Epstein was appointed director of studies and then principal. After Epstein’s retirement in 1962 Brodie himself followed Hertz’s precedent as acting principal. The College retained pride of place in his thinking to his last day. He was its president by virtue of his office as Chief Rabbi, but it was never a mere honorific. He would be aghast to know that it is now no longer producing rabbis.
Founded in 1855 as a day school (which later closed down) and ministerial training college, it had a solid record of achievement despite its ups and downs. In the early 1930s it had moved into Woburn House, the communal office block in the West End. The premises were limiting and limited and never quite suitable. The Chief Rabbi insisted that the College needed its own home. His advocacy and energetic fundraising created purpose-built premises at 11 Montagu Place, London W1, and especially under Epstein’s principalship it flourished and added a teachers’ training department. Brodie lived within walking distance at 85 Hamilton Terrace, St John’s Wood, and College students felt honoured to be invited to dinner at the Chief Rabbi’s. The Epsteins were also constantly hospitable, and in the summer Epstein would sometimes walk to the College to spend Shabbat afternoon with the residents. When Epstein was nearing retirement, Brodie allowed the appointment of Dr Louis Jacobs to the staff, but soon came to regret it when Jacobs’ name was strongly touted for the post of principal, which in May, 1962, Brodie vetoed. Thus began the Jacobs Affair which broke Brodie’s heart and clouded his last years in office. We will come to that episode in due course.
Brodie was an almost automatic choice for the short list for the office of Chief Rabbi. In his induction address he confessed to being reluctant to become “Tsief”, but he probably would have been surprised not to be considered for the post. The other main contenders were Rabbi Dr Alexander Altmann, the scholarly and impressive Communal Rabbi of Manchester, but it is said that his German background told against him; and Rabbi Kopul Rosen, young, charismatic and eloquent, but it was thought that he was too young and could wait until next time around. There was no “next time around” for Rosen, who, by then principal of Carmel College, died aged 48 in 1962. Rabbi Dr Louis Rabinowitz would have been a suitable candidate, but he had caused antagonism by aggressively discarding his war medals in protest at British policies in the Holy Land; Rabinowitz, part of the post-war rabbinical exodus to South Africa, remained Chief Rabbi of Jonhannesburg from 1946 until he made Aliyah in 1961, though he was a contender for the British chief rabbinate when Brodie retired in 1965. Brodie, gentle, tactful, urbane, scholarly, experienced and much loved, had so much going for him that the community was delighted at his election. However, after the fiery Dr Hertz it was decided that henceforth Chief Rabbis would retire at 70, to which Brodie agreed, and were to have an advisory committee: Brodie said he would listen to advice but make up his own mind. Like Hermann Adler and Hertz, Brodie assumed the title “The Very Rev” (as did Dr Solomon Gaon, Haham of the Sephardi community), but his successors have dropped it.
Brodie’s parish was officially the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire, an organisation that existed only on paper. Membership depended on a modest contribution to the so-called Chief Rabbi’s Fund. The annual contributions were often not followed up, but the high-sounding name was useful as a description of where the Chief Rabbi’s writ ran. In the United Synagogue in London, chief rabbinic rulings were binding. Elsewhere they were occasionally or more often ignored. Brodie was usually deferred to because the Provinces and the Commonwealth knew him (and he knew them) and held him in such affection. Yet they gave him anxiety when they expected him to resolve all their problems, arbitrate their disputes and find them ministers. Australia, for instance, constantly passed issues to him as their head office. Examples include the friction between Rabbis Rapaport and Goldman at the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation in the 1950s, with Goldman walking out of the Melbourne Beth Din and threatening to set up his own; and the Sydney rabbis’ challenge to Rabbi Porush‘s hegemony as the public face of the community in the 1960s. Brodie would send rulings from London, but there was no guarantee that his word would be accepted. Nonetheless he remained a beloved figure whose visits and addresses were always highly appreciated, and after his retirement he even toyed with the idea of living in Australia rather than the West End of London.
The Chief Rabbi was chief of the rabbis. As head of the ministry he was held in great esteem. If he and Lady Brodie stayed over Shabbat in any minister’s house, the event remained a highlight in family and communal history. He was the Chief, but the ministers thought of him as a brother. Where necessary he stood up for the ministers against autocratic lay leaders, though in private he could be quite scathing about both. I personally recall him telling me that a certain rabbi was an “old josser” (he liked these colloquial phrases from the past) and a synagogue warden was an azus ponim (“impudent”, though there is a less respectable translation). The ministers enjoyed being with the Chief at the Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers, and his published opening addresses at preachers’ conferences are a good window into his views on the issues of the moment. He consecrated synagogues and officiated at anniversaries, inducted rabbis and made pastoral visits, all with great dignity. (His last induction was mine at Hampstead in May, 1965.) As an after-dinner speaker he was expansive and even spell-binding.
I have already mentioned his creation of the Conference of European Rabbis. As the new Jews’ College was his personal triumph, even more so was the Conference. Whether European Jewry could ever be fully resuscitated was a matter of great doubt, but Europe could not be allowed to slide off the Jewish map. He ploughed all his energies and the facilities of his small staff into finding and contacting those who served the communities of the Continent, though it was not possible for rabbis from Iron Curtain countries to come. 1957 when the first meeting of the Conference was held in Amsterdam, including a meeting with Queen Juliana, was a highlight of his career and an expression of the new reality in which Britain now had the leading role in Jewish Europe. The conference was mostly peaceful, though a Swiss rabbi urged Brodie to fight the sitra achra (“the dark forces”) of Reform.
Two great chief rabbis, Brodie and Dr Isaac Halevi Herzog of the Holy Land, wrought miracles in those post-Holocaust years. Immediately after the Holocaust Herzog had undertaken exhausting missions to trace and save for Judaism the she’erit hap’letah, the remnant of the destruction. Brodie came on the scene later as the virtual shepherd of the European communities. This work had precedents. Chief Rabbi Hertz had lent his name in the years of the gathering storm to his son-in-law Solomon Schonfeld’s herculean efforts to bring refugees, especially children, to Britain, to offer a haven to the rabbis of the disintegrating Continental congregations and to evacuate the Jewish children whose lives in London were threatened by enemy bombing. To Schonfeld, working in Hertz’s name, is due much of the credit for providing the groundwork for the postwar expansion of the community over which Brodie presided. Not that the enlarged community could grow without external threats. Apart from the problems that came with the end of the British mandate for Palestine, antisemitism persisted, Sir Oswald Mosley was not entirely quelled, and Brodie had to remark sadly in his induction address that “hatred and hostility abound… pity is dried up in the hearts of many. To their disappointment and disillusionment our Jewish ex-servicemen are called upon to spend much of their energies in the fight against antisemitism and prejudice which still threaten both the peace of our community – and the stability of the realm.”
Brodie’s chief rabbinate and the State of Israel began at almost the same moment. No wonder one of his first responsibilities was to formulate a Prayer for the State of Israel for synagogue use and for eventual inclusion in the Authorised Daily Prayer Book. A somewhat different prayer was also written by the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the State, Dr Isaac Halevi Herzog. The Herzog prayer openly called Israel reshit tzemichat ge’ulatenu, “the first flowering of our redemption”, though Brodie’s prayer made no messianic claim for the State. Lord Jakobovits told me that Brodie deliberately used more guarded language, but whatever Brodie’s view of the theological status of the State, Israel was highly important in Brodie’s thinking and he constantly pressed its claims upon the Jewish people and the world at large. He regarded the establishment of Israel as “the greatest event in Jewish history in the last two thousand years”. He believed it could become a model nation “fulfilling… God’s purpose not only for the salvation of Israel but also for the redemption of mankind” (address in New Zealand, 12 Feb., 1952). He urged the world’s developing nations to follow the model of Israel as “a new nation that after centuries has been miraculously restored”. He called Israel’s work to assist other nations “a reflection of the higher role of Zion on the international plane” (Israel Independence Day sermon, 1960).
In quoting these extracts from his sermons, lectures and statements, one has to marvel at the skill with which he could use Biblical terminology to encapsulate a major thought. Where others might need whole chapters or books to work out a theme, he, who was not one of the most prolific rabbinical authors, could often provide what we today call a sound-bite. He was able to coin memorable sentences such as the wish for “practising Jews who think and thinking Jews who practise”. He could offer a clever slant on a well-known phrase. On visiting a congregation he liked to end a sermon with the prayer, “May you progress mechayil el chayil, ‘from strength to strength’” – but he gave the Biblical phrase from Psalm 84:8 his own interpretation, “May you go from restlessness to restlessness”, suggesting that their hearts and minds should be constantly active, aware, challenged and inspired.
As early as 1923, on his way to Australia, he had seen the Land of Israel. He had, as we have mentioned, led the Australian Zionist movement, worked for the Jewish National Fund, and helped to create Australian WIZO. His air force chaplaincy took him to the Middle East, where he had much to do with Palestinian Jews and he succeeded in persuading the authorities to allow Palestinian Jewish pilots into the RAF. He often found himself in Jerusalem, where he enjoyed the hospitality of Chief Rabbi and Mrs Herzog. (in an obituary tribute he called Herzog “the faithful shepherd who manifested an inexhaustible concern and love for every Jew on whose behalf he was ready to bestride the world to plead their cause”). Whilst Chief Rabbi, Brodie visited Israel often, especially on festivals, and was in constant touch with the Israeli chief rabbinate. He endeavoured to bring spoken Hebrew into the life of British Jewry and whenever he wrote to one of his rabbis it was in Hebrew. He often broadcast Hebrew messages to Israel, the Soviet Union and elsewhere for Rosh HaShanah and other occasions. Both he and Lady Brodie had a warm association with Mizrachi.
He was always on good terms with Christian clergy. In the Council of Christians and Jews, of which he was a joint president, he was valued for his balanced outlook and sound judgment, though he never resiled from his Jewish principles and on at least one major CCJ occasion he declined to attend because the catering was not kosher. He often addressed CCJ annual meetings and stressed joint endeavour on moral and social issues. When his office was asked for a representative to join an inter-faith committee he deputed one of his ministers. I, for example, was appointed to the Social Morality Council. He supported interfaith discussion but not if he felt the Jewish side lacked proper credentials. If I may mention myself again, he phoned me personally to urge me not to speak to the London Society of Jews and Christians because the Jewish side was from non-orthodox quarters.
The Anglo-Jewish community grew considerably from the late 1930s onwards. There are grounds for suggesting that the conventional population figure of over 450,000 was always an exaggeration, perhaps deliberately so in order to gain political clout at a time when Britain needed to be prodded towards more positive attitudes to the Holy Land. The figure today is said to be just under 300,000, but as the strictly orthodox (charedi) component is increasing, there may come a time when the earlier estimate will be closer to the mark. Reference to the haredi group makes it necessary to say that this segment did not officially accept the Chief Rabbi’s jurisdiction, though when the Jacobs Affair developed they became Brodie’s friends and urged him not to retire. One has to say that Brodie, recognising that orthodoxy was the most authentic form of for Judaism, was always close to institutions such as Gateshead Yeshivah and constantly honoured the Talmudic sages of the community.
During his incumbency there were no major arguments with the Reform and Liberal groupings; Brodie was on good terms with their ministers but was firmly convinced that their views were a travesty of Jewish tradition, thoiugh he did not call them sitra achra.
Within the central orthodox community where his own power base lay, the traditional hegemony of the United Synagogue in London remained, though with some tightening up – for example, in the disbanding of the mixed choirs that had existed in major synagogues for many years. Brodie himself was criticised for formerly condoning mixed choirs and actually singing with one in Melbourne, but he knew that such leniencies were never really valid in Jewish law and it was now possible to move away from them.
In the United Synagogue and the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth (the new name that accompanied the end of the Empire), there was much talk of “the Chief Rabbi’s authority”. Rabbinic control on this level was probably unique to Britain. It gave the community stability and identity, but it could be stifling for the local rabbi to find that all decisions had to come from head office. In Brodie’s time the traditional “jurisdiction” of the Chief Rabbi came under fire from several directions. Did the Chief really have to control all that happened in his synagogues? Did every rabbi have to follow the same interpretation of orthodoxy? Brodie was not the first chief rabbi to face such challenges. Hermann Adler had faced a series of such problems in regard to mixed choirs, a confrontation from Dr (later Sir) Hermann Gollancz in relation to the title of “rabbi”, the involvement of a group of United Synagogue ministers in the Jewish Religious Union (which later became the Liberal movement), and the possible appointment to the Hampstead Synagogue of Rev. Morris Joseph, whose theology was not entirely orthodox. Hertz too had his problems; were Rev Dr Joseph Hochman and Rev Joseph F Stern to be allowed to remain in the United Synagogue with their observing an unconventional kind of orthodoxy? Was a Chief Rabbi to certify a Liberal synagogue as a Jewish place of worship for the purpose of conducting marriages? Brodie, however, was a quieter individual than his predecessors. Was he going to be able to face challenge when it came, and handle it quietly?
Let us analyse in detail two issues which agitated the community and attempt to assess Brodie’s policies in regard to each. The first issue is the Israeli accent in synagogue services; the second is the so-called Jacobs Affair.
Brodie himself spoke modern Hebrew. He gave addresses in Hebrew at conferences and meetings. He was a leader of the Hebrew-speaking lodge of B’nai B’rith. He cannot be accused of any bias against modern Hebrew. But in regard to changing synagogue services from the Ashkenazi accent, he took a cautious position, though the press and community thought he was too slow in issuing a ruling.
The question seems to have arisen at the Hampstead Synagogue. In 1949 it made a decision to show solidarity with Israel by adopting the Israeli pronunciation. The spiritual and lay leadership of the congregation were united and determined. The minister, Rev Dr Isaac Levy, was a passionate Zionist who, later in his career, became director of the Jewish National Fund in Britain. The lay leaders included equally eminent Zionists. Some members were against altering the traditions in which they had been brought up, but the congregation as a whole favoured the change. The Chief Rabbi was aware of Hampstead’s decision and still attended there from time to time. In August, 1952, however, he ruled “for the present” that the Ashkenazi pronunciation had to be retained. Hampstead loyally accepted his ruling, though the Jewish Chronicle wondered why this was “a specifically religious question such as requires an official ruling from the Chief Rabbi”. Brodie said he used the words “for the present” because he did not yet see a “general familiarity with spoken Hebrew among Jews in this country” (letter of 12 July, 1962 to the United Synagogue). In 1954 he told B’rit Ivrit Olamit (the World Hebrew Union) that he could see no grounds “at the present moment” for changing synagogue services from the Ashkenazi accent. Dr Levy returned to the fray time and again. In December, 1954, he tried again, once more with the support of the JC (issue of 17 Dec., 1964). Hampstead was not the only synagogue to favour the Israeli accent, and at the 1958 Conference of Anglo-Jewish Preachers Brodie promised that he would “reconsider” the question “within the next few months”.
In May, 1959, the Synagogue annual meeting debated the following resolution moved by Joseph C Gilbert, another great Zionist worker: “Recalling the dignity and accuracy wirh which this pronunciation was used in this synagogue prior to its interdiction by the Chief Rabbi in 1952, this meeting of members respectfully requests the Chief Rabbi to implement his decision and to permit the reintroduction of the Israeli pronunciation in the service of this synagogue”. After Gilbert called Brodie’s ban in 1952 “a retrograde and most unfortunate action” and Professor Raphael Powell said that perpetuating “old-type Hebrew” could cause “complete decadence and spiritual death”, the meeting amended the resolution to refer to “the introduction of the Israeli pronunciation in the service of all synagogues”. The Jewish Chronicle in its issue of 8 May, 1959, supported Hampstead and added, “The advocates of the change are not to be blamed for pressing for a decision”. The JC columnist Ben-Azai in the same issue said that the agitation would prevent “a much harassed Chief Rabbi” from “allowing the question to slumber among the pile awaiting his attention”. Ben-Azai himself (probably Chaim Bermant) did not seem to favour a change, which he called “a fetish” and “immature”, and added, “There are a hundred and one shades of pronouncing English, but the language is the same”.
The definitive ruling came in a letter from the Chief Rabbi to the Hon. Ewen Montagu, president of the United Synagogue, dated 12 July, 1962. Whilst appreciating the wish to identify with Israel, Brodie again stated that modern Hebrew was not yet widespread in Anglo-Jewry though a number of schools had adopted it. He therefore ruled that schools and classes were permitted to use the Israeli accent provided the teachers were properly trained, but synagogue services were to continue to use the Ashkenazi accent. The prayer for Israel, however, could be in modern Hebrew, and Bar-Mitzvah boys could use whichever accent they had been taught. He said his view was based on rulings by “our great authorities, amongst whom was the late Rabbi Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Israel”.
He added that “the Din (Jewish law) lays down strict rules for the proper pronunciation of the words in the recitation of such parts of the Service as the Sh’ma, the Amidah and the Reading of the Law. These rules are for the purpose of avoiding misinterpretation of meaning and the disturbance of Kavannah (devotion)”. He “saw no reason for a departure from our traditional Ashkenazi pronunciation, which according to some authorities, is part of the Ashkenazi Minhag (usage), and which cannot be changed lightly”.
In the same year, Dayan Isaac J Weiss, head of the Manchester Beth Din, gave in his Minchat Yitzchak (vol. 3, no. 9), three reasons against a change: 1. As each tribe had its own gateway to heaven, an Ashkenazi should not adopt the Sephardi rite or vice-versa; 2. The Ashkenazi pronunciation was superior since it distinguished between the kamatz and patach vowels; 3. Advocates of change were motivated by nationalism and not religion. After the Six-Day War, Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, allowed local option on the issue, stating that there could be “no general ruling… for indiscriminate application” (Newsletter no. 9, Iyyar 5728). Some synagogues decided on a change; some did not. In the case of Hampstead, where by then I was the incumbent, I informed Jakobovits that we were using the Israeli pronunciation and he did not object.
How can we assess Brodie’s involvement in the issue? Halachically he was on firm ground. Today in Israel some daven in the Ashkenazi accent, some use the Israeli accent but refer to the Almighty in the Ashkenazi accent, and some use the Israeli accent at all times. When Brodie kept saying “for the present”, it indicated a preference for evolution rather than revolution. There remains the question of whether he was indecisive and dilatory. I would not use the word “indecisive”: he was being careful on an issue that needed care. Dilatory? He probably should not have allowed the question, in Ben Azai’s words, “to slumber among the pile awaiting his attention”. Ben Azai may have exaggerated, but the community, on either side of the debate, expected more promptness. In his later years in office Brodie was tired and often unwell and perhaps lacked the energy for big problems, but in the early 1950s that could not have been the case.
Now to the Jacobs Affair. It came in several stages. Only Stage 1 and Stage 2 are relevant to the Brodie era, but these were the fiercest and caused the greatest furore. Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, after yeshivah studies and semichah, had been an orthodox rabbi in London as assistant to Rabbi Dr E Munk at the Golders Green Beth HaMedrash and then at the Central Synagogue in Manchester. In London he took degrees at University College and became acquainted with the critical study of the Scriptures, leaving him with increasing doubts as to the validity of the traditional doctrine of Torah Min HaShamayim, the Divine origin of the Torah. Moving to the New West End Synagogue in London in 1954, he gained acclaim as a personality and teacher, and his study circles were a receptive audience for his growing interest in modernist theology. Material from the study circles became his first major book, We Have Reason to Believe, published in 1957 and reprinted several times. It was not entirely orthodox, but until someone (maybe Dr Epstein, maybe Dayan Dr Isidor Grunfeld of the London Beth Din, maybe both) brought it to Brodie’s attention it caused Jacobs no great harm.
In the meantime, in 1959, Jacobs had moved to Jews’ College on the understanding that he would succeed Epstein as principal. The understanding was given by the College executive without telling Brodie. As far as Brodie knew, Jacobs was to be moral tutor and lecturer in pastoral theology. To those appointments Brodie consented, feeling Jacobs was a young man of great promise whom he had even considered for a post on the London Beth Din. I have to say that as one of Jacobs’ students I was impressed with his capacity for rapport, but things he said in class worried us. A ministerial colleague told me that a Rosh Yeshivah had said, “Not all that you think you should say; not all that you say you should print; not all that you print you should publish” – perhaps good advice to Jacobs vis-a-vis the community, but it would not have worked with students.
Before long it became common knowledge that Jacobs was Epstein’s putative successor. Epstein himself was most unhappy at the thought of retirement and felt the executive were in a hurry to get him out in order to put Jacobs into the post. The College staff had their reservations about Jacobs and made this clear to the students. The Jewish Chronicle and many in the community thought that Jacobs would bring a new spirit to the College and the ministry. Brodie, by now fully aware of what was going on, had as president of the College a veto power and made it clear that he would use it. When urged by the executive to agree to Jacobs’ appointment or at least to give a definite ruling so that everyone would know where they were, he said he would consider it. It was 1961 when Epstein retired and in 1962 Brodie was due to be away for an extended visit to Australia. The executive and council of the College were dissatisfied with Brodie’s request to leave the matter in abeyance until his return. In the meantime Jacobs was tired of waiting and sent in his resignation, making it clear that he saw no hope of Brodie approving his appointment. Brodie had oscillated between saying Jacobs’ views were unacceptable and implying that Jacobs lacked the scholarship which the post required. Now the executive resigned, to be replaced by a new more orthodox group who were on Brodie’s side.
The Jewish Chronicle and the community reverberated with the debate. The JC editorials were totally in favour of Jacobs but the letters columns printed the views of both sides. Jacobs subsequently stated that the news reporters of the JC were not bound to any one slant, but that is not my recollection. Each side accused the other of being used by outsiders, and the fact is that there were many sub-texts to the story with every participant having his or her own private reasons to support one side or the other. I believe it is also true that each side pushed the other into a theological corner. Jacobs and his supporters accused Brodie and the London Beth Din of being fundamentalist and closed to modern scholarship, an allegation that cannot be true bearing in mind the historic diversity within orthodoxy, although every orthodox group accepts the Divine authority and status of the Torah. Brodie and his supporters implied that the Jacobites (a communal wit described the controversy as a war between Israelites and Jacobites) were totally beyond the pale and that they would undermine the faith of the community. The media saw an analogy with the conflicts that surrounded the Bishop of Woolwich’s book, Honest to God, but it was a flawed analogy. Honest to God dealt with how to understand God; We Have Reason to Believe had no problems with the Almighty but with the status of Scripture.
The kernel of Jacobs’ argument was that it all depends on what one means by the Torah coming from heaven. “There are many things recorded in the Torah,” he stated, “which God did not say… There is a human as well as a divine factor in revelation, God revealing His Will not alone to men but through men”. A number of orthodox respondents including Rabbi Munk, in whose congregation Jacobs began his career, accused Jacobs of misinterpreting the sources on which he based his argument (see Munk’s critique in Our Kehillah, April, 1962). A claim which antagonised even the moderate orthodox was Jacobs’ statement in his letter of resignation from Jews’ College that “no reputable scholar in the word has an approach that is basically different from mine”, implying that anyone who disagreed with him could not be a reputable scholar. Were Epstein and Grunfeld not reputable scholars?
Stage 2 of the controversy came in 1964. After what has been called two years of uneasy truce with Jacobs as director of the specially created Society for the Study of Jewish Theology, the New West End Synagogue wished to bring him back to his old pulpit which by now was vacant again with the departure of Dr Chaim Pearl for the United States. Jacobs’ supporters and even some of the Brodie camp felt this was fair enough and that Brodie should agree. The United Synagogue asked Brodie if his approval (technically styled “the Chief Rabbi’s certificate”) would be forthcoming. On 23 January Brodie answered in the negative. A number of delegations waited upon the Chief Rabbi to persuade him that Jacobs’ return to the New West End would extricate everyone from the problem, and they pointed out that the congregation had never been one of the more orthodox of orthodox synagogues. Jacobs was even prepared to submit to Brodie’s jurisdiction, but would not recant from his views. The Jewish and general press were full of the affair. Brodie called a meeting of rabbis and ministers on 5 May, at which he read a statement expounding his position, concluding, “I made a decision with a heavy heart but in all conscience”. It may be that had the establishment camp handled their public relations better, the months of uproar would have been prevented or at least contained. It helped nobody for the Secretary of the United Synagogue to tell reporters who wanted a statement to go and ask the gardener at Willesden Cemetery. The general public more or less sided with Jacobs and his view that “the Chief Rabbi and the London Beth Din are… trying to put the clock back”. It probably did not help the Brodie case for one well-known lady congregant of mine to write to the JC to remind everyone what beautiful English the Chief Rabbi spoke, nor for Dr Isaac Levy to say from his Hampstead pulpit, “Let the Chief Rabbi and the Beth Din stew in their own juice”. It is however to Jacobs’ and Brodie’s credit that they remained on reasonably good personal terms throughout.
Before long, Jacobs’ people acquired the former premises of the St John’s Wood Synagogue and created the New London Synagogue, where Jacobs henceforth served for many years and eventually founded the British Masorti movement. There were a few further chapters in the controversy, but they came in the incumbencies of Jakobovits and Jonathan Sacks. In regard to Brodie one must once again ask whether he showed himself too weak and dilatory in this long, unpleasant saga. Answer: he weighed up the situation as he saw it and gave answers that he felt orthodoxy required. It was not a move to the religious right but a refusal to move to the religious left. If the community of the past was more tepid in its orthodoxy, new times needed something more clear-cut and definite. He could, however, have stopped the sore from festering for so long had he faced the challenge head on without delay. The problem was not going to go away.
Mid-1965 saw Brodie’s retirement. This gave him time to study and write. His literary output had not been great. His most solid scholarly effort was a three-volume Hebrew annotated edition of the Etz Chayyim, a medieval English halakhic and liturgical work by Rabbi Jacob of London. Apart from this, he produced booklets and two collections of sermons, speeches and studies – A Word in Season (1959), which contained a number of important statements on the H-bomb and other issues, and The Strength of My Heart (1969), which reads like a commentary on the great events of a dramatic series of years. Brodie spent much time after his retirement in the library of Jews’ College; his own personal library was acquired by purchasers. In 1969 the Queen bestowed a knighthood on him. No longer buffeted by the winds of communal responsibility, he and Lady Brodie were loved and respected everywhere, even in circles that had given him a hard time. At the end of 1978 when I visited him in his West End flat he was recovering from a long illness. He looked frail, but the sharp memory was intact and he asked after many of his Australian friends. He died a few weeks later, on 13 February, 1979.
How do I sum him up? A remarkable speaker: Rabbi Kahana, who called him the Tsief, said he had “lovely dixon”. Everyone remarked on his memory and humanity (in the halachah examination for my minister’s diploma he asked whether one could cross the Yarra on Shabbat in a punt). Service personnel in particular relished his people skills and sense of humour. A quick mind and a good-natured tongue: he wondered whether Rabbi Munk’s congregation worshipped God as much as they worshipped their rabbi. A gentleman: a gentle man. An ambassador. A dignified ecclesiastic. An ornament to Judaism and Jewry.