Guest Column: Samson Raphael Hirsch: The British connection

The story of his application for the position of Chief Rabbi of the British Empire is recalled.

1603-guest.jpg (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
My maternal grandfather Raphael Hirsch was a prominent dentist in Hamburg, Germany, where his grandfather, Shimshon ben Raphael Hirsch (as Samson Raphael Hirsch originally was known) had studied under the great Haham Isaac Bernays - whose granddaughter later married Sigmund Freud. In England, as a boy, being the direct descendant of Samson Raphael Hirsch was no great shakes, as few Anglo-Jews had heard of him in the '40s and '50s. But things might have been very different if, 100 years earlier, Hirsch had obtained the post of Chief Rabbi of the British Empire. It was a position for which he had applied in 1843 ,and his name appears on the short list dated August 5, 5604 (1844). CHIEF RABBI Solomon Hirschel died on October 31, 1842. In February 1843 a committee of London and provincial synagogues invited candidates to apply for the position, stipulating quite a few conditions. Chief among them were that candidates had to have held senior rabbinic posts for at least six months, possess proficiency in classical and modern (as well as Hebrew) literature, and undertake to give regular sermons in English within two years of their appointment. It appears that 13 candidates, mostly from Germany, presented applications, including S.R. Hirsch, who was then 35. In his application he stated that he had received semicha (ordination) from Rabbi Bernays in 1830, at the age of 22. He had been provincial rabbi in Oldenburg from 1830 to 1841, and from that date on was provincial rabbi of East Friesland at Emden. His application included many letters of recommendation and several certificates showing that he had attended lectures in philosophy, philology, history, Greek literature and logic, and "the theological branches of science" at the universities of Bonn and Hamburg. In addition Hirsch pointed out that he had already published several works, including Horeb on Jewish law and Nineteen Letters on Judaism. He claimed to have studied English literature from his earliest youth, and with his testimonials he presented several letters written in that language. The committee was obviously impressed with his application, and Hirsch made the short list of four: Rev. Dr. Nathan Marcus Adler of Hanover, Rev. Dr. Benjamin Auerbach of Darmstadt, Rev. Dr. Hirsch Hirschfeld of Wollstein, and himself, Rev. Samson Raphael Hirsch of Emden - all rabbis from Germany. All were listed with only the title Reverend. The previous chief rabbis of England had ruled that only the chief rabbi would be allowed to use the title of "rabbi." IN AUGUST an agreed abstract of the four applications was posted to all 135 communities throughout Great Britain, who would each have one vote on the matter. The date for the election was set for Sunday, October 13, 1844. All synagogues were to vote on the same day, and the committee would meet on Wednesday, October 16, to announce the result. The committee had therefore set a period of two months to precede the voting, which enabled a certain amount of electioneering to take place. Nathan Adler already had strong family ties with influential backers in England, and a committee was formed to promote his candidacy. Hirschfeld also had a committee of backers, led by Ellis Davis, who issued leaflets attacking the other candidates. Hirsch was attacked for his polemical writings critical of the Reform movement. His pamphlets were compared unfavourably with the "Halachic Exegesis" of their candidate, which they claimed would long outlast Hirsch's writings. No mention was made of Hirsch's Horeb or The Nineteen Letters, which had received acclaim in Germany seven years previously. Hirsch of course had no committee to back him, but got the support of the weekly Voice of Jacob, whose publisher and editor, Jacob Abraham Franklin, was a strong opponent of the Reform movement. He actually published translations in English of Hirsch's Nineteen Letters under the title The Vocation of Judaism, probably made by one Moses Angel, which were remarkable for appearing years before the first official translation in English by Rabbi Bernard Drachman of New York in 1960. It seems that matters got rather heated and the committee extended the election period by two months in the hope that one candidate acceptable to all sides would emerge. Rabbi Auerbach withdrew his application and a curious proposal was put forward by the Voice of Jacob. This was now the official organ of Anglo-Jewry, as The Jewish Chronicle had ceased publication 18 months earlier. Its proposal was that Nathan Adler and Hirsch Hirschfeld, whose committees were bitter rivals, should both withdraw and allow Samson Raphael Hirsch to proceed as the compromise candidate. Negotiations to this effect could take place during the extended period allowed by the selection committee. The proposal was squashed. The Jewish Chronicle soon came back on the streets and roundly criticized all the candidates. In particular Hirsch was denounced for being "the author of controversial pamphlets that evince more talent than learning, more zeal than charity" - a point of view probably penned by its publisher and editor Joseph Mitchell, who was lukewarm on the matter of Reform. WITH NO compromise in sight, the election finally proceeded on December 1 and the votes cast by the synagogues resulted in 121 votes for Nathan Adler, 12 votes for Hirsch Hirschfeld, and only two for Samson Raphael Hirsch. The two synagogues that voted for him were Glasgow Old Synagogue in Scotland and Penzance in Cornwall - curiously, the most northerly and most southerly in Great Britain. We have no record of Hirsch's reaction to this rather damning result, but we do know that he went on to do great things for Modern Orthodoxy when he accepted the call to Frankfurt-am-Main in 1851, where he set up a thriving community with its own schools and welfare organizations, which have served as models for today's Jewry in Israel and the Diaspora. In England there was no commemoration in 1944 of the centenary of the accession of Nathan Adler to the Chief Rabbinate in 1844 or the fall of Hirsch's candidacy in that year. Hirsch was still a fairly unknown quantity in England, except among the ex-German Jews of Golders Green in North-West London. It was not until the 1960s, when translations of his works into English appeared, such as that by Isaac Levy of Hirsch's commentary on the Pentateuch (some 80 years after its publication in German), that the name of Samson Raphael Hirsch became known throughout Jewry in Great Britain. One final comment remains to be made. The historian of German Jewry, Hermann Schwab, who lived out his later years in Golders Green, remarked that he had heard about a conversation with Hirsch in Frankfurt in 1886, two years before his death. The subject of London had come up and Hirsch had said: "There was a time when I wanted to go to London, but I only received two votes at the election. However, I believe I could have achieved something there..." Indeed, what if? The writer is a fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem