Borderline Views: A rabbinic aristocracy

None of the East European rabbis really ever trusted the partially assimilated UK Jewish communities.

Jewish tombstone 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Jewish tombstone 370
(photo credit: reuters)
I received an e-mail the other day notifying me that a great-aunt, whom I had barely known, had passed away at the grand old age of 105 in the United States.
Lilly Lavotzkin was born in Edinburgh at the beginning of the 20th century, one of the nine children of Lithuanian rabbi Jacob Rabinowitz.
Rabbi Rabinowitz had come to Scotland from Bialystock or Lomza at the end of the previous century to serve as the Rabbi of Edinburgh.
It was common, at that time, for Lithuanian rabbis to take up positions in English and North American communities, many of them moving on to Israel later in life. Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog (father of president Haim Herzog and grandfather of Buzi Herzog, currently No. 2 on the Labor Party list for the Knesset), who would later be the first chief rabbi of Israel, first served as the Rabbi of Belfast and later of Dublin.
Rabbi Shmuel Yitzchak Hillman became the Rabbi of Glasgow before moving to London to become the head of the Beth Din there, and eventually retired to pre-State Palestine.
Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman was the Rabbi of Liverpool before he became the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in the 1940s, and then Israel’s second chief rabbi after the death of Herzog.
Rabinowitz, the son of a prominent Lithuanian rabbi of the time, Eliezer Simcha Rabinowitz of Lomza, whose incisive commentaries on the Jerusalem Talmud have recently been deciphered and published by the Jerusalem Institute, moved from Edinburgh to London during the First World War, where he remained as rabbi of a small community in the Dalston-Hackney area until his death in the 1930s.
Other notable East European rabbis who made their mark on the UK Jewish community before eventually moving on to Israel, either as active rabbis or as retirees, included such notable figures as Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, a leader of the Mussar movement who, in his seventies, founded the yeshiva in Kfar Hassidim.
His children and grandchildren became the leaders of the Gateshead yeshiva, the leading Lithuanian yeshiva in contemporary Europe, located in the distant northeast of England and remote from the centers of Jewish life in London and Manchester.
Another leading figure in the 20th century Mussar movement, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, preceded by Rabinowitz in Dalston before founding the Gateshead kollel and eventually moving to Israel to become the spiritual mentor of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. He is famous for having spent much of the war traveling the length and breadth of England by train to give lessons to Jewish communities who had been evacuated from London, especially in the small town of Letchworth which had become a center for wartime Jewish life.
Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky, escaping from the clutches of the Soviet regime, spent 20 years as the very influential head of the London Beth Din before retiring to Israel, where he later received the Israel Prize for his monumental work on the Tosefta, Hazon Yehezkel, a 24-volume commentary written over a period of 50 years in Russia, London and Jerusalem.
Rabbi Abraham Hacohen Kook, the guru of contemporary religious Zionism, but who was greatly revered in ultra-Orthodox circles for his immense scholarship, also spent a lengthy period of time in London during the First World War, when he was prevented from returning to Palestine because of the hostilities.
None of the East European rabbis really ever trusted the partially assimilated UK Jewish communities.
They preferred to marry their children off within the “family,” and thus it came about that the Hillman, Herzog and Rabinowitz families, or the Lopian, Gurwitz and Kushelevsky families, were all interrelated.
Hillman’s daughter became the wife of Chief Rabbi Herzog. One of Rabinowitz’s daughters married Hillman’s son, David Hillman, a Talmudic scholar and artist who became known for his synagogue stained-glass windows. Rabinowitz’s son Louis, who became the chief rabbi of South Africa before retiring to Israel, and who served for a short period of time as deputy mayor of Jerusalem, married the daughter of the chief rabbi of Antwerp, Rabbi Amiel. And so on.
It was a generation of strictly Orthodox rabbis, a Lithuanian, non- Hassidic aristocracy, who while they insisted on rigid standards for themselves and their communities did not entirely wall themselves inside ghettos as is so common among the haredi rabbis of today.
While some of them, such as Kook and Herzog (who replaced him as chief rabbi of pre-State Palestine), were overtly Zionist and believed in the essential religious character of the state, others – who were opposed to political Zionism as secular ideology – understood the importance of a Jewish homeland and were more receptive to meetings with its leaders and politicians, even if they did not agree with their ideologies.
At the same time, there were many whose families assimilated into western society within a relatively short period of time. There is hardly a rabbinical family where this did not happen, as many of their children opted for a broader, more universal education than that offered by the yeshivas – becoming doctors, professors and philosophers.
Second-generation Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe sought to integrate within their new communities, which allowed them to achieve a level of equality which they had never previously experienced in Eastern Europe. While some became heads of yeshivot, others left religion behind them. There were also those who, despite the illustrious religious heritage of their grandparents, married out of the faith altogether.
It was a different time, a different generation. These rabbis had a different perspective on life and society than did those who came directly from Eastern Europe to Israel or prestate Palestine. Passing through the free societies of Western Europe as part of their life’s journey exposed them and their families to many opportunities and pitfalls, the two sides of the same coin.
The idea that a strictly Orthodox rabbi from Eastern Europe, such as Rabinowitz, could have three daughters in the first half of the 20th century all of whom became doctors, or that many of them would also write doctoral theses consisting of critical analyses of religious topics at leading European universities, was a phenomenon which was unheard of, even shunned, by those who came directly to pre-State Palestine and Israel.
There were thousands of similar families that, in the space of 100 years, passed from pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, to the safety of Western Europe or North America and from there, within a relatively short period of time, to the challenges of the State of Israel.
It was a generation that left its mark on the UK Jewish community, no less than on the formal institutions such as the Board of Deputies or the United Synagogue. Many of these prominent Orthodox rabbis combined Jewish tradition with the challenges of the modern world, without creating the self-imposed walls of a cultural ghetto. It would behoove the leaders of today’s burgeoning haredi community to learn from their experience if they desire to have a greater impact on contemporary Jewish life, both in Israel and the Diaspora.
The writer is the dean of faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, the views expressed are his own.