On January 21, 1890, Nathan Marcus Adler, who had served as Orthodox chief rabbi of the British Empire for the preceding 45 years, died at 87.
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Adler was the first chief rabbi of England to have had a university education, and as the founder of the United Synagogue movement he went a long way to modernize traditional Ashkenazi Judaism there.
Adler was born on January 13, 1803, in Hanover, Prussia (later, Germany), where his father, Marcus Baer Adler, served as chief rabbi. At the time of Nathan’s birth, Hanover was ruled by the British monarch, King George III, by virtue of his being a scion of the House of Hanover.
Nathan was ordained in 1828 by Rabbi Abraham Bing, who in turn had studied with the elder Rabbi Adler. The same year, the younger Adler also completed a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Erlangen.
His secular education also included the study of modern languages and classics and included time at the universities of Goettingen, Wurzburg and Heidelberg, in addition to Erlangen.
After a year as rabbi of the town of Oldenburg, Rabbi Adler in 1830 followed in his father’s footsteps to become chief rabbi of Hanover. He also was married that year, to Henrietta Worms, with whom he had five children.
Reform Judaism arises
Rabbi Adler was skilled at ingratiating himself with the rich and the powerful.
A tale credits Rabbi Adler, by way of Montefiore, with advising an expectant Queen Victoria, during a royal visit to Hanover, to deliver her baby offshore on a British ship, so that her child would not be born on German soil. Such a birth might have disqualified him from succeeding Victoria on the British throne. But the story is apparently apocryphal, having been debunked by several commentators.
What is apparently true is that his good relations with the philanthropist Moses Montefiore, a leading figure in British Jewry for much of the 19th century, contributed to the encouragement Montefiore gave him to become a candidate for the chief rabbi’s job, after Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell died in 1842.
It took more than two years to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Rabbi Hirschell, and his successor faced the challenge of a growing schism within the community due to the recent appearance of Reform Judaism in the country.
According to a long biographical essay about Adler by Raymond Apple, the lay leaders of Ashkenazi Jewry wanted a chief rabbi who was comfortable in English, who possessed a secular education, and who would give traditional Judaism a steadfast but friendly face, rather than a confrontational one that responded to dissent or change with threats and bans.
Initially, 13 rabbis vied for the position, which despite the grand name basically meant being the senior rabbinical figure for London’s three Ashkenazi congregations - the Great, London and Hambro synagogues - plus a few smaller provincial shuls.
When the final vote took place, three candidates were left, all of them German-born, and Adler won by an overwhelming majority.
Apple quotes the London Illustrated News from the time, which noted that “everyone spoke of Dr. Adler in terms of kindness. He was said to be a learned man, strongly given to philosophical inquiry, and more deeply affected with the spirituality of religious observances than is usual with the Jews.”
Under Adler’s leadership, the United Synagogue, the governing organization of Orthodox Ashkenazi Jewry in the U.K., was established in 1870 by an act of parliament.
The United Synagogue, in turn, gave its chief rabbi the authority to decide all relevant spiritual, legal and ritual matters, including kashrut supervision or issues of marriage and divorce. The chief rabbi also served as a rabbinical authority for Jewish communities in other parts of the British Empire.
British Jewry came into its own during Adler’s tenure: Legal limits on their ability to serve in either the House of Lords or Commons were removed. Adler established a teaching college for Jewish educators, called Jews’ College, and was its first president.
Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler was succeeded in his position by his son, Rabbi Hermann Adler (1839-1911).