The Adlers were an extraordinarily distinguished family, centred on Frankfort for 400 years but with a lineage going back far beyond this. They included among their members and connections Shim’on HaDarshan, compiler of the Yalkut Shim’oni; Nathan Adler the Pious, known as HaNesher HaGadol, the “Great Eagle,” an allusion both to the meaning of the name Adler and his commanding position in the Jewish world; David Tevele Schiff, Chief Rabbi of London; and the Wahls, the Worms, and the Rothschilds.
The Adlers were kohanim. Their original name was Kahn or Kayn, and there are various theories about their assumption of the surname Adler. Marcus Adler’s view was that in the early 17th century the Judengasse in Frankfort was attacked and the Jews fled. Nearly two years later they were allowed to return. They entered the city in triumph with the bands playing. Marcus Adler writes: “At the head of the band, according to family tradition, marched our ancestor, carrying the imperial standard with the Reichsadler, the black eagle, emblazoned thereon. This incident, it is said, led to our family assuming the name of Adler.”
Writing in the Jewish Encyclopedia, Joseph Jacobs offers another theory, that the name derived from “the outstretched hands in the priest’s blessing, resembling the wings of an eagle, the Adlers being of priestly stock.” It is of interest that the bookplates used by various members of the family almost invariably featured the eagle.
Nathan Marcus Adler was the son of Mordecai (Marcus) Baer Adler, Chief Rabbi of Hanover, and was born on 21 Tevet, 5563, equivalent to 15 January, 1803. Other versions of his date of birth are based on miscalculations of the secular equivalent of the Hebrew date. Nathan Marcus himself always observed the Hebrew day.
His early Hebrew education was mostly gained under the direction of his father. He was known from an early age as a rabbinic scholar, and at the age of 17 he was already writing chiddushim or novellae on the Talmudic tractate Chullin. He was given s’michah (rabbinic ordination) by Rabbi Abraham Bing of Wurzburg on 27 March, 1828; Bing in his turn was a disciple of the earlier Nathan Adler (1741-1800).
Nathan Marcus gained a wide secular education at the universities of Gottingen, Erlangen, Wurzburg and Heidelberg. He studied classics and modern languages, including English and French; Wurzburg issued a certificate stating that he had been examined in all branches of the university curriculum, including Chaldaic and Syriac. On 5 June, 1828, he received a doctorate from the University of Erlangen for a dissertation on a philosophical subject.
For a short time he acted as a teacher of “oriental languages, Jewish theology and philosophy”, while seeking a rabbinic post. He wrote to the community in Copenhagen on 27 March, 1828 asking them to forward his application to the king, since there as in other European lands such posts were quasi-govemrnent appointments. We do not know what reply he received. In 1829, however, the Grand Duke appointed him Rabbi of Oldenburg. Leopold Zunz, in his famous work on Jewish preaching, published 1832, finds it noteworthy that Adler was “advanced” enough to give his inaugural sermon at Oldenburg, in German. (German rabbis had been preaching in the vernacular for less than a generation.)
Adler moved to Hanover in 1828. His father was already in office there but did not meet governmental requirements as to academic education, so the son was officially above his father. As his successor in Oldenburg, he recommended Samson Raphael Hirsch; 14 years later they were rivals for the British chief rabbinate.
One of Adler’s first official duties in Hanover was to conduct a memorial service for George IV. His connection with British royalty developed apace in Hanover, with significant consequences. A classical incident involved the Duke of Cambridge, Viceroy of Hanover until Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837, who had quite a respect for the young rabbi. In 1833 the Duchess of Cambridge was very ill, and Dr Adler was asked to summon his flock to the synagogue to pray for her. The Duchess recovered and the Duke sent Adler a letter of thanks and 100 gold Friedrichs, though the rabbi returned the money and asked for it to be given to the poor.
Shortly after taking up office in Hanover, Adler married Henrietta Worms (1800-53), from a prominent Frankfort family. Her aunt was a Rothschild; her cousin S B Worms and his sons were made barons in 1871, one becoming Lord Pirbright. She bore Nathan Marcus three daughters – Sarah (m. Henry Solomon), Jeanette (m. Rabbi Anschel Stem of Hamburg) and Minna (m. Jacob Israel) – and two sons, Marcus and Hermann.
Adler remained in Hanover for 15 years, becoming an efficient ecclesiastical administrator and educator and making some small contributions to Jewish literature, such as a German translation of part of Judah HaLevi’s philosophical work, the Kuzari. He was happy in Hanover, but destiny had other things in store. An indication of what was to come is seen in correspondence between Adler and Sir Moses Montefiore in 1841. Adler raised £20 towards Montefiore’s appeal for the Jews of Smyrna, and Montefiore concluded his letter of acknowledgement, dated 12 November, with this postscript: “I feel most anxious to obtain a copy of your sermons. It would be presumptuous in me to express how greatly they would prove serviceable to our brethren in England.” Did Montefiore realise that Anglo-Jewry might soon have to find a new chief rabbi?
In fact it was not long afterwards that Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell died, in 1842. It was a critical period. London Jewry was bitterly divided as a result of the establishment of its first reform congregation, which Hirschell and his Sephardi colleagues had strenuously opposed. For all that he had been born in England while his father Hart Lyon (otherwise called Hirschel Levin) was chief rabbi, Hirschell had never learnt to speak English fluently or to understand the community to which he ministered. A successor was needed who would possess western culture as well as Jewish learning and orthodoxy, be a leader and a man of peace, and not impose any cherem (ban of excommunication). The selection committee was headed by S H Ellis of the Great Synagogue, and Dr Abraham Benisch, later to be editor of the Jewish Chronicle, was official translator of applications from Continental rabbis. Candidates had to be between 30 and 42. The salary of £1,100 p.a. was to include payment of a secretary, plus £100 for life insurance. The successful candidate had to qualify to give English sermons within two years of his appointment.
13 candidates applied. Nine were disqualified owing to “non-compliance with the published requisitions”. Four remained: Nathan Marcus Adler of Hanover, aged 41; Benjamin Auerbach of Darmstadt, 35 (who later withdrew); Hirsch Hirschfeld of Wollstein, 33; and Samson Raphael Hirsch, now of Emden, 36. The selection committee declared: “So highly satisfactory are the testimonials of the selected candidates, and so high a reputation do these reverend gentlemen respectively enjoy, for religion, morality and learning, that on whomsoever the election may fall there can be no doubt as to the competency of the selected applicant to fulfil his sacred and important functions”. When Adler and Hirschfeld seemed to be securing more or less equal support, the Jewish press suggested Hirsch as a compromise candidate, but in the end an election proved necessary.
The election was fixed for Sunday, 13 October, 1844. After a series of private meetings it was agreed that the Great, New and Hambro’ Synagogues would vote for Adler. Congregations throughout the country (with some exceptions) participated, making this the first time that a chief rabbi was selected on a broad basis of communal representation. Each congregation had a number of votes according to its contribution to the Chief Rabbinate Fund, so that the Great, New and Hambro’ mustered a total of 95 votes. In the end, Adler received 121 votes, Hirschfeld 13 and Hirsch 2. Bearing in mind Hirsch’s later fame as the virtual founder of neo-orthodoxy one wonders whether Hirsch would have changed London if he had won – or maybe London would have changed Hirsch.
Adler’s support was due to various factors. He had broad experience and western education and was in favour of preaching in the vernacular. He was an acknowledged rabbinic scholar, who despite his modern approach was staunch in his orthodoxy; he had been one of 77 orthodox rabbis to protest against the Brunswick conference of radical rabbis. He was born in Hanover, ruled by the British Crown. He was known to the Duke of Cambridge, who spoke about him to Lionel de Rothschild, warden of the Great Synagogue. The Illustrated London News said: “Each one would, of course, have had his own man elected; but yet everyone spoke of Dr Adler in terms of kindness. He was said to be a learned man, strongly given to philosophical inquiry, and more deeply affected with the spirituality of religious observances than is usual with the Jews”.
On 31 January, 1845, he received government permission to leave Hanover, in a letter which expressed approval of the way he had carried out his duties. He moved to London in the summer of that year and was officially installed in office at the Great Synagogue on 9 July. The Jewish Chronicle called the day “the most important event in Anglo-Jewish annals, from the days when our fathers first landed on this hospitable shore, even to the present hour”.
Adier’s inaugural address was in German, little hardship to the many in the congregation who knew Yiddish. In a reference to the emergent reform movement, he said, “The Rabbi is to be the guardian of the Law. It is extremely difficult to guard it at a time when one party seeks its glory in pulling down existing structures of religious theory and practice; the other in preserving everything hallowed by age, though opposed to the foundations of the Law; in which one minister worships progress, the other adores conservatism. He who is an earnest and faithful servant of God and his law must stand upon the wall, defend the precious inheritance, and preserve it in its integrity; judge and advise according to the best of his knowledge and conscience; distinguish between that which is true and that which is false – between light and darkness; stand between the living and the dead, and stay the religious plague”.
The concluding prayer was in English and included an invocation for the Royal Family and the Parliament “with a special reference to the removal of ancient barriers between citizen and citizen” – an allusion to the mounting feeling against the Christian oath which kept Jews out of the House of Commons until 1858.
Adler realised what the community needed, and must have been well briefed both by the Ashkenazi leaders and by eminent Sephardim such as Sir Moses Montefiore, who became his great friend and fellow worker. He entered upon the responsibilities of the chief rabbinate energetically and systematically, making orthodoxy much stronger and more credible. He determined to improve the educational agencies of the community, not only for children but for adults, for whom he established study circles which received priority though little support, and for prospective preachers and ministers, for whom he created a training college and a pattern of activities in the synagogue and beyond it.
Where institutions or facilities were lacking he created or joined with others in creating them. Within a month of his installation, he wrote to the “Presidents and Wardens of the Jewish Congregations in the British Empire”. He said his main aim was “to re-animate, to strengthen and to confirm the love of Judaism by raising and perfecting… those institutions which enjoy the countenance and support of my congregations”. His focus would be education, synagogues, and charitable institutions. He sent out a detailed questionnaire, which enabled him to establish contact with many communities in Britain and the colonies – even American congregations – and to offer advice, guidance and assistance. The range of subjects on which individuals and communities consulted him is amply documented in his correspondence copy books in the Elkan Adler Collection.
Where Hirschell had basically been chief rabbi because he was rabbi of the mother congregation and for long periods had no rival, Adler worked systematically to set up a centralised religious government. The British Empire was consolidating itself under Queen Victoria; in the Jewish community, Adler engaged in religious empire-building. This is indicated by the orders of service which he compiled or authorised. Many reflect the national and economic history of the 19th century – good (or bad) harvests, British victories in India, the birth of Queen Victoria’s children, famine, cholera, the illness of Lady Rothschild, Sir Moses Montefiore’s journeys abroad, the funeral of the Prince Consort, and in latter years, prayers for the Jews of Russia. Up to the mid-40s the orders of service are usually designated for use in synagogues in London, sometimes “in all synagogues throughout the United Kingdom”. Gradually the rubric becomes: “in all the Synagogues of the British Empire in the charge of the Chief Rabbi”, “the Synagogues of the United Congregations” and, finally, “the Synagogues of the United Congregations of the British Empire”.
Adler was in frequent contact with provincial and colonial communities. He dealt with shechitah, marriage and divorce, proselytisation, communal disputes and the appointment of officials. He answered queries on every aspect of Jewish faith and practice. He wrote long letters to congregations in the colonies, for instance giving the community in Melbourne instructions for building a mikvah and specifying which ecclesiastical functions their minister (Moses Rintel) was and was not authorised to perform. Everywhere the standard of Hebrew education was of paramount interest. He exchanged correspondence with rabbinic and lay figures in other lands, using a variety of languages for the purpose. In contrast to his successors, he had hardly any correspondence with non-Jews. Many of the letters were dictated to a secretary, who wrote them in long-hand; some were written by Hermann Adler and a few by the chief rabbi himself, though his handwriting became almost illegible over the years.
He was particularly anxious that his ecclesiastical authority should not be undermined in areas such as the law of marriage and divorce, though he failed to secure official approval for the argument that a Jewish religious divorce should be valid per se in English law, obviating the need for Jews to seek a separate civil divorce. One area in which he was involved, more than once, in litigation, was that of shechitah. He was always scrupulously careful in examining shoch’tim, and if he found it necessary he would insist that a community dismiss its shochet or he would withdraw a butcher’s licence.
In 1868 he withdrew a licence from a butcher called Schott and declared his meat t’refah. Schott sued him for libel. The case was heard at Guildhall by Baron Martin and a special jury. Schott called as his principal witness Rev D W Marks of the Reform Synagogue, but was disappointed in the result. Marks stated that meat sold without a licence was “forbidden to be eaten by Jews according to Jewish law”. Without hearing the defence counsel, the judge stopped the case and said there was no question to be submitted to the jury, adding that “it was the burden duty of the Chief Rabbi to tell any Jew that such meat was t’refah.”
Early on, Adler visited or enquired about all the Jewish educational establishments and was disappointed at their low standards. The Jews’ Free School, for instance, for all its large enrolments and dedicated leadership, had poor premises and limited staff, and he campaigned vigorously for better amenities. After ten years he was able to claim that half the Jewish child population attended Jewish schools. But what he felt was still needed was a training college for ministers and teachers, and a school for the children of the community’s “middle ranks”; he attempted to do both by founding Jews’ College in 1855 after a fundraising campaign.
He also compiled the Chief Rabbi’s Code, with syllabuses for various age-groups; he recommended textbooks and urged the appointment of competent teachers. He gave evidence before the Education Commission headed by the Duke of Newcastle, and was consulted about the Education Act, 1870, though the final form of the Act disappointed him when it made the basis of education secular and allocated no public funds for denominational education.
As he worked to raise educational standards, so he worked to improve the conduct of synagogue services, which hitherto were often long, indecorous and unintelligible. He stressed vernacular preaching and the appointment of trained ministers; Cecil Roth called him, by reason of his precept and example, “the father of the Anglo-Jewish pulpit”. In 1847 he issued a handbook of regulations for synagogues throughout the Empire. This was based on the contention already expressed in his first pastoral letter in 1845 that synagogues “constitute our miniature sanctuary, and it is necessary that quiet and decorum, dignity and solemnity should prevail there during divine worship, so that it may awaken the fear of the Lord, foster feelings of devotion, and promote brotherly union.” The regulations he drew up made all major aspects of congregational life subject to control by the chief rabbi. There is no reason to suggest that this was in order to aggrandise himself: his aim was to create order out of chaos and to strengthen the institution of the synagogue by means of co-ordinated standards in regard to buildings, officiants and facilities.
The movement which led up to the establishment of the United Synagogue in 1870 was the logical outcome of these policies. There was a conventional story that Adler suggested a congregational union at a gathering hi his sukkah in 1866, but the movement had a long pre-history. Friction between the City synagogues had often created rivalry and disunity which even led to a body being left in the street until the congregations could agree on who would pay for the burial. There were ad-hoc treaties from time to time but no long-lasting harmony. Discussions about synagogal union did not suddenly emerge from the sukkah, though Adler must have given them new impetus; according to Aubrey Newman’s The United Synagogue 1870-1970, 1977, he “was pushing at an opening door” (page 8). Newman does not give Adler as much credit as others do. Even if Newman is right, the chief rabbi must have breathed new life into the discussions and is thus entitled to be called a – or even the – major architect of the United Synagogue. It was entirely consistent with his career and his record to advocate and facilitate centralised religious administration. Granted that he may not have originated the subject of congregational union, it may have floundered without his encouragement and reinforcement.
What was said in the sukkah and by whom, we do not know in detail. Two things are likely; the chief rabbi urged that the United Synagogue movement be pursued more energetically, and he added a new dimension by suggesting that the lay leaders look above and beyond pragmatic considerations limited to management and membership and adopt a loftier, more altruistic concept of congregational union. A Jewish Chronicle obituary speaks of “Dr Adler making a pregnant suggestion to the wardens of the Great Synagogues (sic) at the usual assembly which met round his table in his sukkah…” When Cecil Roth said that the United Synagogue was “perhaps Dr Nathan Adler’s greatest monument”, he realised that Adler had made a “pregnant suggestion”, but we would like to have fuller information as to exactly what Adler said.
The United Synagogue itself took it for granted that he made a noteworthy contribution to the movement, as seen from the preface to the first edition of the US bye-laws, drafted by Dr Asher Asher, the first secretary. When this preface and the “JC” obituary were written, there were still people alive who were at the sukkah breakfast, and if the pro-Adler interpretation was inaccurate, efforts would presumably have been made to correct it. If there was silence, it was not simply a matter of not being seen to criticise the chief rabbi. Respect for Adler had never yet prevented critics from disagreeing with him.
As in the 1847 regulations, the original text of the parliamentary Bill establishing the United Synagogue contained copious references to the powers of the chief rabbi. The House of Lords, however, objected. If the Irish Church had been disestablished, was it reasonable to appear to establish a Jewish Church with a chief rabbi whose powers were guaranteed by the law of the land? In the end these clauses were eliminated, but were embodied in a Deed of Foundation and Trust adopted at the first meeting of the United Synagogue Council on 14 December, 1878.
While dealing with Adler’s religious policy it is important to point out that when faced with challenges to orthodoxy, the he was staunchly traditional. He robustly championed the Oral Law against his Reform critics. He defended the second days of the festivals in a famous controversy in 1868. He encouraged the tightening up of synagogue procedure but would not allow any major change in the liturgy. When in 1879 a conference of synagogues petitioned for changes in the ritual, he sanctioned only the most minor. And yet he may well have stemmed the tide of Reform in England. The Jewish Chronicle said in an editorial after his death: “Had a man of smaller ability and with a less commanding personality occupied the Rabbinical chair, it is probable that the wholesale reform and the undesirable extravagances that characterise American Judaism would have found their way into our community”.
In the same way as he exerted himself to build up the chief rabbinate, education, and the synagogue, he attempted to strengthen the Beth HaMedrash (“House of Study”) and Beth Din (“House of Judgment”). He would preside at the Beth Din on Mondays and Thursdays, frequently saying, “For my sake let there be peace”. He established a Chevra Shass (Talmud study group) at the Beth HaMedrash and attended its study sessions on Monday and Thursday evenings with his sons. The Chevra never became as powerful an instrument of adult education as he had hoped, but it attracted its small group of devotees. His rabbinic discourses on Shabbat HaGadol (the Sabbath before Passover) and Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath before Yom Kippur) were notable occasions; and manuscripts of these, dating more or less from the beginning of his career, survive at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In his last years, he gave his discourses in his study at Brighton.
One of the most fascinating aspects of his public life was his long and cordial connection with the communal lay head, Sir Moses Montefiore. The relationship of personal affection was reflected in their copious correspondence. Among areas of co-operation between them, pride of place must go to their joint involvement in various projects in the Holy Land. In his latter years Sir Moses entrusted various aspects of the administration of these schemes to Adler’s youngest son, Elkan, for whom Montefiore had obtained a position with his own firm of legal advisers. Adler’s last public appearance was, appropriately enough, at a memorial service for Sir Moses at the Brighton Synagogue.
The establishment of the Board of Guardians in 1858 owes a great deal to Adler’s efforts, and he personally always took most seriously the duty of giving charity. Even in the last ten years of his life, when he was a sick old man living in semi-retirement and often hard up, he continued to give tz’dakah often and generously. This illustrates an important side of his character. He took every commandment seriously and imposed strict standards on himself- not only in charity, but in fasting on the appointed days, in prayer thrice daily, and in synagogue attendance. On Sabbaths he had an early service at his home, a tradition which continued when he moved to Brighton. His hospitality was something to be remarked upon. Sabbaths and festivals would see a variety of guests at his table, and on Simchat Torah morning he would entertain those who attended his minyan during the year. Israel Abrahams wrote about Adler’s sukkah: “If the city synagogues had no sukkahs, the Rav’s was an excellent substitute. When I first remember it, it was already large and substantial, with a fire-stove in it and, if I recollect truly, it was lit by gas. Old Dr Adler received his guests with patriarchal courtliness, and the flow of learned discussion and of casual gossip on communal affairs was ceaseless. A fine feature in the late Rav’s character – which his son inherits – was his cheerfulness…”
Adler’s kindliness was also well known. It is typical that he brought into his home – perhaps as house tutor to his children – Henry Berkowitz, a young man from Warsaw, who later became an eminent schoolmaster and mayor – and Berkowitz was not his only protege by any means.
By 1880 the Chief Rabbi was no longer well or strong enough to carry his growing burden of public and communal work. According to some, the last straw was the agitation for reform in the synagogue service. Partly because of this, but with increasing infirmity telling upon him, he decided to go into semi-retirement. For many years he had lived at 4 Crosby Square, Bishopsgate, and then at 16 Finsbury Square. Now he took a house at 36 First Avenue, Hove. His son Hermann, minister of the Bayswater Synagogue since 1864, was appointed Delegate Chief Rabbi “to attend at his Office on his behalf, to issue Authorisations of Marriage, to represent him at the Court of the Beth HaMedrash and at the meetings of the Board of Shechita, and generally to take charge of matters of detail requiring immediate attention in his absence.” The Chief Rabbi’s retirement did not mean that he ceased to interest himself in the affairs of the community. Every important question was still submitted to him. His secretary regularly reported on correspondence received at the office, and a bulky collection of letters from the chief rabbi and Mrs Adler to their son Elkan show how the old man reacted to all that went on in Anglo-Jewry. Adler’s letters sometimes refer rather caustically to someone identified in Hebrew with the letters resh shin; not until I found other letters referring to ”Lord resh shin” did I realise mat he meant Lord Rothschild, president of the United Synagogue.
At Brighton Adler continued with his literary work. His magnum opus, N’tinah LaGer, a commentary on the Aramaic Torah translation, Targum Onkelos, had been published in Vilna in 1872. The title is a play on words: N’tinah (“a gift”) is an allusion to his own name Nathan, and LaGer (“to the proselyte”) reflects the tradition that Onkelos was a convert to Judaism. Much of Adler’s correspondence after 1872 concerned this commentary, and up to his death he was he was engaged on a similar work, Ahavat Yehonatan, on the Pseudo-Targum Jonathan. His prolific pen produced many sermons, prayers and discourses; a German translation of the Kuzari with notes; a commentary’ on the Seder Tohorot of Chai Gaon; and responsa on many subjects, frequently in the form of an exchange of correspondence with other rabbis. The head of Jews’ College, Dr Michael Friedlander, analysed Adler’s scholarly work in the Jewish Quarterly Review in 1889.
Nathan Marcus was married twice. His first wife, Henrietta Worms, died in 1853. His second wife, Celestine Lehfeld (1821-91). bore him a son. Elkan, and two daughters, Ida and Rebecca. All the sons, daughters and sons-in-law were noteworthy and sometimes notable figures, but the most famous is Hermann, who succeeded his father as chief rabbi.
Despite continued ill-health, Adler lived to be 87. On 16 January, 1890,his medical attendant, Dr Pocock, summoned his children to his bedside. The rabbi was becoming weaker, though he remained in control of his faculties and prayed and studied regularly. On Tuesday morning, 21 January, he put on his tallit and t’fillin, aided by Joseph Vangelder, his faithful servant for twenty years. He said the Sh’ma with a clear and unhesitating voice and at 8.45 am breathed his last.
The Jewish Chronicle wrote in its editorial the following Friday: “For ten years fading health had made him for most of his flock a memory rather than a reality, but it was the memory of a good old man who practised the Judaism he preached and who loved his community with a truly paternal love. The very bravery with which he clung to his official duties and his literary occupations, in spite of the infirmities of advanced age, had something pathetic about it which still further strengthened the admiration and affection in which he was held.”
As everyone expected, he was followed in office by his son Hermann, whose own son, Solomon Alfred Adler, might have been the third generation to be an Adler chief rabbi had he not predeceased his father (in a sense Solomon Alfred Adler would actually have been the fourth generation, since Nathan Marcus Adler was a nephew of a previous chief rabbi, David Tevele Schiff).
Nathan Marcus and Hermann Adler “gave their name”, as a JC columnist wrote on 21 July, 1891 in a tribute to the latter, “to a regime, to an era… The system of Rabbinate which had long come to be known as ‘Adlerism’, the keynote of which was the close consolidation of religious government and the concentration of ecclesiastical control… If, therefore, ‘Adlerism’ had its faults and its drawbacks… it has formed a basis on which can now be safely laid a system more fitted to Anglo-Jewry as it is”.
This essay owes a great deal to the Adler family papers in the Elkan Adler Collection in the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. See Raymond Apple, Adleriana in Elkan Adler’s Collection: Preliminary Report for the Jewish Memorial Council on Research at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (November, 1970).