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    Defenders of the Faith: The History of Jews’ College and the London School of Jewish Studies

    DEFENDERS OF THE FAITH: THE HISTORY OF JEWS’ COLLEGE AND THE LONDON SCHOOL OF JEWISH STUDIES
    Derek Taylor
    Vallentine Mitchell, 2017

    Foreword by Rabbi Raymond Apple that appeared in the book.

    Derek Taylor is a fine historian and an engaging writer. Utilising both talents he has produced a magnificent history of Jews’ College, and I am proud to represent the College graduates in writing this foreword and commendation.

    There were always jokes about JC in Anglo-Jewry. Apart from Jesus Christ, the initials were used for Jews’ College, for the Jewish Chronicle, the newspaper that called itself “the organ of Anglo-Jewry”… and Janus Cohen, a lawyer who once studied at Jews’ College, was also referred to as JC.

    In the late 1950s I enrolled in the College. I lived in its dorm, took the teacher’s, minister’s and rabbinical diplomas, was president of the students’ union, a Council member and casual lecturer in education and youth work, and married another College student. When we left London and came to Sydney, I put FJC (Fellow of Jews’ College) after my name, until people asked if it meant the Australasian Jam Company… yet another JC!

    Over the years I picked up snippets of College folklore, like the student who asked Dr Hermann Adler what blessing to make if he smelled a rat, a students’ strike when Dr Buechler threw open the door of the common room and shouted “Bolsheviks!”, and a Purim when Mrs Epstein wanted the students to mimic her husband, the College Principal…

    Formal histories of the College were written by Isidore Harris and Albert M Hyamson, but the most readable of all is this one, which vividly describes the face and place of the College over 150 years.

    Rabbinic education underwent two metamorphoses in the 19th century. It developed the great yeshivot; it created the modern seminaries. There had been great ancient yeshivot, but they were replaced by small groups of youths who studied under the local rabbi in a largely personal and unstructured fashion. The curriculum was Talmud and codes; the aim was study for its own sake, not vocational training. Rabbis basically happened: nobody set out to mould them.

    Modern yeshivot began in Lithuania in 1802, when Rabbi Chayyim Volozhiner, a wealthy manufacturer, a follower of the Vilna Ga’on, created a large-scale yeshivah which drew outstanding students from far afield. It taught Talmud according to the Ga’on’s system, and resisted adding Russian to the curriculum. Lithuania also saw the rise of mussar yeshivot based on the ethical system of Rabbi Yisra’el Salanter. All the yeshivot produced Talmudists (and some ignoramuses and unbelievers), not rabbis as such, though men from the yeshivot did often find rabbinic posts. It was largely a legend that the whole of eastern Europe was orthodox.

    Jews in lands of Emancipation faced their new cultural and legal situation with a range of responses. Some rejected the ways of the past and were even ashamed of them. Some others felt that the traditional content of Judaism was sound enough but its style needed streamlining. Still others were alarmed at the thought of any compromise or concession, and wanted to go on as before without accommodating to new circumstances of any kind.

    The modernists weighed their rabbis in a notional balance and found them wanting. The rabbis did not behave with urbanity, compete with gentile leaders of opinion, or couch their message in the local idiom. Hence the need for seminaries to mould modern rabbis. Between 1827 and 1886, an array of seminaries came into being. Each combined Jewish with broader culture. The emphasis was not so much on Talmud as the Jewish Humanities and ministerial skills. The teachers were renowned in Jewish Wissenschaft. Each had a firm commitment to Judaism as he saw it. The Continental seminaries had a more intellectual atmosphere than Jews’ College, though this is no denigration of the College faculty. The London ethos was quintessentially British – pragmatic; traditional but not too much so; not expecting the clergy to be too strict or too smart, not too different or “foreign”.

    The seminaries changed the nature of the rabbi. Hitherto, rabbis were not priests; Judaism was a religion of laymen. The rabbi was no closer to God than was any pious person. The seminaries, however, equated the rabbi with the Western clergyman and trained rabbis for a profession. The Jews of England were not entirely sure what they wanted from their College. Though medieval Anglo-Jewry had a record of rabbinic learning, by the 19th century the level of learning was low despite a handful of scholars from the Continent. Synagogue services were generally dreary and unembellished by “lectures”. It was not the rise of Reform in the early 1840s that necessitated a ministerial system and college: that was already being planned.

    On 11 November, 1855, the College opened in Finsbury Square. The chief rabbi called it “a house to work in, teaching power to work with, and minds to work upon… In the course of time, our schools and our pulpits will be filled with well-trained, well-furnished teachers”. The words “our schools and our pulpits” now defined the role of the College for the whole of its 150 years as a seminary. The plan was pragmatic: schools and synagogues would be manned by professionals. Students would gain skills rather than scholarship. The clergy would conduct services and life-cycle events, give urbane (hopefully short) sermons, tend to people’s pastoral needs, and enshrine the ideal of the English gentleman.

    Some alumni engaged in scholarship and became intellectuals and academics; a few were Talmudists and halachists; most were pastors, preachers and precentors, “Reverends” with really only one rabbi, the Chief: “a Chief without Indians”. All very English: a micro-version of the established Church. Newcomers from eastern Europe asked how there could be a community without real rabbis.

    The College faculty had a fine name in Jewish academia. Semitic and Judaic Studies were on the curriculum, enabling students, in association with University College, to gain degrees. By the end of the century there was agitation for them to be able to gain a full rabbinical title. But there was no advanced teaching in rabbinics until the 1940s, when Dr Isidore Epstein became head of the College. He established a rabbinical diploma class conducted by a great Talmudist, Rabbi Kopel Kahana, who introduced analogies from other legal systems. In the 1950s, Dr Epstein spearheaded a cantors’ department; an Institute for the Training of Teachers; and university extension courses. The students’ union arranged lunchtime meetings.

    As time went on, criticism grew of the old ministerial model; many wanted fully qualified rabbis at all synagogues. In the end the “Reverend” system wound down and the old Minhag Anglia lost favour. Pastoral skills are still required, but so are shi’urim and scholarship. The chazzanic profession has almost evaporated, because few congregations can afford two full-time clergy and some have memories of intra-ministerial rivalry.

    The College recently changed its name to London School of Jewish Studies, an example of the adage, “Change of name brings a change of fortune”. To the dismay of many people including myself, the ministerial department closed down, though other adult education programs remained. Thanks to the Montefiore Endowment, the Sephardim set up a rabbinic college which is now the only “establishment” seminary in Britain. The yeshivot are flourishing, and many British students go to Israeli institutes of study, though few become pulpit rabbis. On the other hand, increasing numbers of British Jews now have the background to appreciate rabbinic learning and leadership, and that’s what they want from their rabbis.

    A factor in the changing nature of the British rabbi is the decline of the large cathedral-like synagogues with their stately architecture, pomp and ceremony, in favour of smaller, less structured places of worship which do not need a presiding prelate as much as a sage in residence. The story is fascinating. All credit to Derek Taylor for researching and writing it. I commend his book to a wide reading public.

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