Treasures from the London Library: Claude Montefiore: a cautious revolutionary

The founder of Liberal Judaism in Britain, Claude Montefiore, died a 'disappointed and embittered' man. Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros explores his vast collection of pamphlets bequeathed to the London Library.

Claude Joseph Goldsmid Montefiore (1858-1938), great-nephew of the financier and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore and grandson of one of the founders of University College London, Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, was a member of the Anglo-Jewish elite who broke with Jewish orthodoxy when he founded Liberal Judaism in Britain.

In childhood Claude Montefiore suffered an attack of pneumonia, which left him with a weakened constitution. His delicate health prevented him from attending school and he was privately taught by both anti-Zionist rabbis and Protestant Christian tutors. This eclectic education planted the seeds of liberal thought that would later move Montefiore to formulate a radically new approach to Judaism. He continued his education at Balliol College, Oxford, graduating in 1881 with a first in Classics. As one of the top students he enjoyed a close relationship with the master at Balliol, Benjamin Jowett, a believer in religious liberalism who encouraged his pupil to approach the study of Jewish religious texts with a critical eye.

Montefiore then travelled to Berlin to train for the rabbinate under the Romanian scholar Solomon Schechter. He soon changed his mind about his calling, however, and returned to England bringing Schechter with him: becoming an orthodox rabbi was simply incompatible with Montefiore’s revolutionary views on Judaism. He believed that a modern world needed a modern Judaism that didn’t rely so heavily on Talmudic and rabbinic law or on Jewish customs and traditions. His wealth allowed him to devote his life to Biblical scholarship and he offended many Orthodox Jews and Christians with his writings advocating a new religion that combined elements of Judaism and Christianity: 'My originality is my queer mixture, half Jew and half Christian …'. Despite being attacked by members of both religions he was unshakeable in his beliefs.

The second most defining aspect of Montefiore’s thought was the distinction he made between religion and nationality: 'In Italy, Holland, France, and, above all, and most supremely in England, a fatherland is not denied to the Jews... Their fatherland is Italy, Holland, France and England respectively'. In his view, Zionism only served to further segregate Jews from gentiles and foster anti-Semitism. He even blamed it for the rise of Nazism. He wrote that the possibility of Jews settling in Palestine 'might involve them in the bitterest feuds with their neighbours… and would find deplorable echoes throughout the Orient'.

A qualified lay preacher, Montefiore disseminated his views from the pulpits of both the West London Reform Synagogue and the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. He also delivered a series of lectures, known as the Hibbert Lectures, in Oxford in 1892 and founded the Jewish Quarterly Review, which he co-edited with Israel Abrahams for many years. Still, the man who felt compelled to begin a religious revolution and was instrumental in the foundation of both the League of British Jews and the Jewish Religious Union for the Advancement of Liberal Judaism was a gentle, prudent and self-effacing individual. While his religious enemies saw him as a man of very dangerous ideas, his political enemies criticised his overly cautious presidency of the Anglo-Jewish Association, most particularly his reluctance to help persecuted Jews on the continent, and accused him and his Association of being ineffectual.

But Montefiore's main concern was the welfare and education of English Jews and he undertook a long list of philanthropic works in an effort to improve the lives of his compatriots and coreligionists: he served on the London School Board, was a generous patron of the Froebel Institute of Roehampton and was president of Hartley University College in Southampton for two decades. Montefiore sometimes complained that he was left with little time to devote to his studies; he was nevertheless able to write several books and dozens of pamphlets and articles.

After his death in 1938, the London Library received a bequest of all the pamphlets Montefiore collected during his lifetime. The ca. 5,000 titles, many of which are rare, are bound into 664 volumes. They offer a startling insight into Montefiore’s mind and all the subjects he was interested in, from theology to social welfare, education, and even poetry. More importantly, they also show what he chose to keep, perhaps for future reference.

161 pamphlets in the collection were written by Montefiore himself: Is Judaism a tribal religion? (1882), The dangers of Zionism (1918), Has Judaism a future? (1921), Anti-Semitism in England (1921), What a Jew thinks about Jesus (1935), Liberal Christianity and Liberal Judaism (1937) etc. Other pamphlets are written by members of his family: The arguments advanced against the enfranchisement of the Jews (1831) and A lecture on the history of the Jews in Spain under the Moors (1855) by Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid, Montefiore's maternal uncle, a barrister and politician, and Anglo-Jewry at the crossroads (1914) and The new ghetto (1935) by Montefiore’s only son, Leonard.

Many titles are also written by Montefiore’s numerous friends: On the study of the Talmud (1885) and The Chassidim (1887) by Solomon Schechter; Jewish life under emancipation (1917) and Poetry and religion (1920) by Israel Abrahams; and The German soul and the Great War (1916) and Progress in religion (1917) by the modernist Christian theologian and Montefiore’s great friend, Baron Friedrich von Hügel, for example. Some are even written by his enemies: The racial conception of the world (1936) and The Nazi party, the state and religion (1936) by Adolf Hitler; A land of refuge (1907) and Chosen peoples: the Hebraic ideal versus the Teutonic (1918) by the Zionist writer, and Montefiore’s harsh critic, Israel Zangwill.

The pamphlets are bound in rough chronological order, allowing us to trace both the developments in Jewish religious thought and scholarship and the world events taking place around Montefiore. The earliest pamphlet Kritische Untersuchungen über den menschlichen Geist, oder, Das höhere Erkenntniss- und Willensvermögen (Critical examinations of the human spirit, or, The higher knowledge and volition) by Salomon Maimon dates from 1797; the latest, Public development and slump control by The Next Five Years Group, is dated 1938, proof that Montefiore was actively interested in the welfare of those less fortunate than him until the very end of his life.

This tireless scholar, philanthropist and reformer, described by some as a saint and by others as a class-conscious snob who abhorred socialism and was suspicious of the voice that democracy gave to the uneducated working classes, died, however, 'disappointed and embittered' by the limited success of Liberal Judaism, which he blamed on the rise of Zionism.

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is Head of Bibliographic Services at the London Library.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email