Claude Montefiore: defender of rabbinic Judaism?*

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Surprisingly few works have been published about Claude Montefiore, although he was the founder of Liberal Judaism in Britain as well as a renowned and controversial figure in Jewish and Christian circles. This is presumably due to the fact that he was an eclectic rather than an original writer. However, his importance to both Jewish and Christian scholarship should not be underestim? ated, for it derives from his role as an interpreter of Jews and Judaism to Christi? ans and as an interpreter of Christians and Christianity to Jews. Montefiore was in the unusual position of being respected by Christians1 and, at the same time, his views were well known among Jews. His writings, both published and unpublished, could have been produced only by someone steeped in the Jewish tradition and with a profound knowledge of Christianity. Montefiore was able to inform Jews and Christians about scholarly and religious developments affecting a wide variety of subjects.

The paucity of writings on Montefiore is heavily outweighed by the large number of his own publications - he was a prolific writer.2 His works cover many aspects of Jewish life, including biblical studies, rabbinic, Hellenistic and modern Judaism. He also examined significant aspects of Christian teaching, including the New Testament and Christian theology.

Montefiore's writings in general, and his writings on rabbinic Judaism in par? ticular, have been heavily criticized for two reasons. Firstly, he has been accused of being overly influenced by Christianity. Solomon Schechter, for instance, stated that 'what the whole thing means, is not liberal Judaism, but liberal Chris? tianity'.3 Ahad Ha'am also made clear his disapproval of Montefiore's 'infatu? ation' with Christianity.4 Secondly, Montefiore was viewed as denigrating rabbinic Judaism and rejecting Jewish legalism. His writings on the rabbis have been described by Joshua Stein as wholly tendentious5 and by Louis Jacobs as condescending.6

This paper offers an alternative view and argues that Montefiore's role as an interpreter allowed him to defend the rabbis before a Christian audience far more often than to criticize them. Far from negating rabbinic Judaism, Montefiore emphasized its importance in the face of Christian denigration. My thesis is that Montefiore was a defender, albeit a critical defender, of the rabbis.

His early years illustrate how he was able to obtain an understanding of both Judaism and Christianity. At Oxford he was trained by liberal Christians such as Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, and was able to quote Classical poets and dramatists freely. Jowett's influence on Montefiore at this stage was well known.7 After receiving a first-class degree he travelled to the Hochschule f?r die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin with the intention of becoming a rabbi. There he was assigned to a young tutor, by the name of Solomon Schechter, who was already an outstanding scholar of Bible and Talmud. The person and teaching methods of Schechter contrasted with those in Oxford, but had a similarly significant impact on him. This is particularly important with regard to Montefiore's attitude towards rabbinic Judaism. Montefiore made clear his debt

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