Britain has had a chief rabbi, the recognised spiritual head of the community, since the early 19th century, though the office has a long pre-history. Prior to the expulsion from England in 1290 there was an Episcopus Judaeorum, who was possibly a chief rabbi, and King John acknowledged a certain Rabbi Jacob of London as “Presbyter of the Jews of all England”.
After the resettlement in 1656, the dominant group was the Sephardim whose spiritual leader was generally styled Haham. Later in the 17th century the first Ashkenazi congregation was founded, with several brief rabbinic incumbencies until the appointment as rabbi of the Great Synagogue of Aaron Hart, who held office 1709-1756, supported by wealthy members of his family. Hart’s brother Moses was largely responsible for erecting the Great Synagogue and Moses’ daughter gave a large amount to enlarge the synagogue. Aaron Hart had a halachic controversy with the rabbi of a rival synagogue, and both published Hebrew tracts stating their case – probably the first post-resettlement Hebrew works to appear in England, though there were significant pre-Expulsion Hebrew scholars.
Hart was succeeded as rabbi of the Great Synagogue by Hart Lyon (Hirschel Levin), 1756-1764; some lists of chief rabbis include his son Saul Berlin, who never actually held office and was the author of forged responsa, “Besamim Rosh”, which created great controversy. After an incumbency by David Tevele Schiff from 1765-1792 there was an interregnum until 1802 when the position was given to Solomon Hirschel, born in England, another son of Hirschel Levin. At that period there were no significant rabbinic rivals to Hirschel, who by default became acknowledged as rabbinic head of the whole community (the gentile population generally called him “High Priest of the Jews”).
Unlike his brother Saul, Hirschel was highly traditional in his views and barely acquainted with modern intellectual movements, though he was not without some general education. He could speak English but when he preached it was generally in Yiddish. His long incumbency saw the community lose its essentially “foreign” character and become increasingly anglicised. Hirschel found it hard to come to terms with the growing religious laxity of his constituents, especially when, late in his career, the reform movement came to England, even though here it was less radical than in Germany and later in the USA. To Hirschel any type of reform was scandalous and he placed a ban (cherem) on the “Seceders”. Not only did he oppose the movement and its policies, but it offended him that the minister appointed by the reform congregation, which became known as the West London Synagogue of British Jews (“British” because it rejected the existing demarcation between “Portuguese” and “German” Jews) was his former student David W Marks, who, though he had no university degree, became professor of Hebrew at University College, London.
Hirschel died in 1842. It was clear that the Hirschel model would no longer suffice in the changed circumstances of British Jewry and his successor would need to be not merely a Rav but a Rabbiner. The community chose Nathan Marcus Adler, university-trained with a broad general education and wide experience of ecclesiastical administration in Germany. Adler had family connections with the chief rabbinate: his grandmother was the sister of David Tevele Schiff. A competing candidate was Samson Raphael Hirsch, later the pioneer of neo-orthodoxy on the European continent. Cecil Roth wrote that where “the office of chief rabbi had as it were come into being spontaneously, de facto, (now) it was necessary to recognise it de jure”. Hence Adler was appointed on the basis of a communal electoral process. His rabbinical authority extended from the beginning to the provinces, the colonies and parts of the United States. Adler reorganised the synagogue system, encouraged regular vernacular preaching, and took part in Jewish and also national debates. He was close to the lay head of the community, Sir Moses Montefiore. His scholarly works were headed by his “Netinah LaGer”, a commentary on the Targum Onkelos. In order to reinforce his rabbinic authority, Adler endorsed the title “Reverend” for all the ministers under his jurisdiction with only one – i.e. himself – bearing the title Rabbi. His system, dubbed Adlerism by its critics, became increasingly controversial with the arrival of eastern European immigrants who included learned rabbinic figures.
Adler’s son Hermann, preacher of the Bayswater Synagogue, was Delegate Chief Rabbi in the final years of Adler’s life, and succeeded his father in 1891. Called by some “the willing captive of the gilded gentry”, Hermann Adler held office for 20 years but found it difficult to reconcile both the strictly orthodox and the liberal factions to his rule. He was firm in his orthodoxy but had a congenial relationship with the reform section; indeed suggestions were made that the reform as well as the orthodox should join in the election of a new chief rabbi. Hermann’s son Solomon Alfred Adler might have continued the Adler dynasty, but he died in his father’s lifetime, and in 1913 Joseph Herman Hertz, the first graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was appointed chief rabbi after holding posts in South Africa and New York.
Hertz was a strong character (his secretary called him “decisive and incisive”), at home with all sections of the orthodox community and respected though not automatically followed by the reform and liberal elements. He was a fighter, not only for his fellow Jews, especially at the time of the Nazi onslaught, but also for the retention of the seventh-day Sabbath against the proponents of calendar reform. He had a troubled relationship with Sir Robert Waley Cohen, president of the United Synagogue, and on his death Waley Cohen and others determined that the new chief rabbi had to be quieter and more amenable. Hertz was a prolific writer, and his Book of Jewish Thoughts as well as his popular “pew” editions of the Pentateuch and prayer book reinforced the chief rabbinate as the embodiment of establishment Judaism. Hertz died in 1946. Since Britain had just emerged from the Second World War the community wanted the new chief rabbi to have had military chaplaincy experience.
The chosen successor was Israel Brodie, later knighted, who combined chaplaincy experience in both World Wars with a distinguished period of ministry in Australia and some years on the academic staff of Jews’ College, the rabbinic seminary. A mellifluous preacher and gentle personality, Brodie worked through the Conference of European Rabbis to re-establish Jewish life on the Continent of Europe. Like Hertz but not Hermann Adler, he was a firm Zionist and he rejoiced to hold office at the creation of Israel. At the end of his incumbency he vetoed Rabbi Louis Jacobs as principal of Jews’ College on the basis of untraditional views on Revelation. In the ensuing controversy the community split into what were called Israelites and Jacobites. Brodie was not a prolific writer; his works included a three-volume edited version of the “Etz Chayyim”, written by a medieval London scholar.
Brodie retired in 1965 and the appointment was offered to Jacob Herzog, an Israeli diplomat, the son of Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog. When Herzog withdrew for health reasons the choice fell on Immanuel Jakobovits, scion of a rabbinic family, a former chief rabbi of Ireland and a rabbi in New York, who was a pioneering scholar in Jewish medical ethics. Jakobovits, inducted in 1967, became the leading voice for traditional morality in Britain, consulted by political leaders in preference to Christian prelates; he was knighted and then raised to the peerage for his services to Britain. Highly regarded in all sections of the community, his status was sporadically called into question by the progressive groups, who resented the power of establishment orthodoxy.
Jakobovits was succeeded by Jonathan Sacks, an elegant writer and speaker whose philosophical writings have brought him wide acclaim, though some strictly orthodox rabbis object that his theology of other faiths is too accommodating. Sacks has received a knighthood.
The British Jewish community is now less homogeneous than before and some groups refuse to recognise the chief rabbi as the spokesman for all British Jews to the general community. In the Council of Christians and Jews, the chief rabbi had long been the one Jewish co-president, though acknowledgment of the progressive groups has now been conceded. Beyond Britain the congregations that formerly regarded themselves as coming under the chief rabbi’s jurisdiction now mostly insist on their own independence; the chief rabbinate can no longer claim jurisdiction over the Jews of the Commonwealth as a whole, though there is great respect for the chief rabbi and his views are frequently sought but not always adopted.