- Claude Montefiore: His Life and Thought
Daniel Langton’s book on Claude Montefiore provides the first full-length study of the founder of English Liberal Judaism. Although a number of articles on Montefiore and a collection of his writings have been published since his death in 1938, no detailed treatment of this radical thinker has been made available until now. For these reasons [End Page 167] alone we should be grateful to Langton because Montefiore made a significant contribution to Anglo-Jewry as a communal leader, philanthopist, prolific author, and radical theologian.
Langton has carefully read the primary literature—Montefiore wrote over 20 books and 200 articles as well as countless sermons—as well as the limited secondary literature. He has painstakingly researched correspondence.
Claude Montefiore: His Life and Thought is based on a Ph.D. recently completed at Southampton University. The book reads like a thesis at times, and occasionally the reader is forced to wade through some rather dense texts. Nevertheless, the book fills an important gap in Anglo-Jewish history and should be welcomed, particularly by those interested in the development of Progressive Judaism in the U.K. The book also contains a detailed collection of notes and a thorough bibliography.
Langton correctly points out that much of Montefiore’s work was devoted to responding to a general apathy amongst an ever larger number of Jews who were assimilating into English society and abandoning their religion. For Montefiore, the establishment of the Jewish Religious Union in 1902 (which later became known as Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues) was an attempt to bring back “lost Jews” to Judaism. Montefiore remained an eternal optimist, believing that the future of Judaism depended upon the success of Liberal Judaism.
Langton identifies Liberal Judaism as central to Montefiore’s writings, but the reader is somewhat surprised by an occasional lack of objectivity. One is left bemused, for example, by the discussion about to what extent Montefiore was a “self-hating Jew” or whether he was a “crypto-Jew.” Perhaps this is the reason that Langton does not appear to have examined the archives in or interviewed the senior rabbis at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, which Montefiore founded in 1912.
Another criticism of Langton’s study is that in his desire to criticize his object of study, he fails to give due credit to Montefiore’s pioneering work in the field of Jewish-Christian relations. Montefiore tackled Christian scholars who offered a negative portrayal of rabbinic Judaism and argued against attacks on what was pejoratively viewed as “barren Judaism,” a position which was particularly prevalent in late 19th- century Christian scholarship. Montefiore made a significant contribution to the Christian reassessment of Jews and Judaism, and his criticism of prejudicial Christian scholarship received widespread support from scholars and leaders within both communities. In this sense, he was a man “ahead of the times.”
Somewhat ironically, perhaps, Langton’s most damning criticism of Montefiore derives from the latter’s writings on Christianity. For Langton, Montefiore had been “drawn to Jesus for the differences with the Judaism of his day,” which, Langton suggests, mirrors Montefiore’s differences with Judaism in the first half of the 20th century. Langton acknowledges that Montefiore was a pioneer of modern Jewish-Christian [End Page 168] understanding, yet he sides with Schechter, who described Montefiore’s teaching not so much as Liberal Judaism but as Liberal Christianity.
Yet throughout his life Montefiore attempted to build bridges and emphasize the positive value of the subject of study and rarely the negative. His biblical studies, for example, are based upon the view that the essence of the Bible is most truly shown at its best and not at its worst; its true tendency and issue are displayed, not in Esther but in Jonah. He took the same approach to Christianity, and his writings attempt to bring out its beauty and value rather than its limitations and failings.