Herbert Loewe on British Orthodoxy 1915

Herbert Loewe (1882–1940) was a noted scholar of Semitic languages and Jewish culture. Loewe was a graduate of Cambridge, then for most of his life he was a lecturer at Oxford from 1913, In 1931 he accepted an academic position at Cambridge. In addition, he served as Orthodox Jewish adviser at Oxford and had a University following that was similar in outlook to many aspects of the American Yavnah movement of the 1960’s.

He was one of the very few visible Jews teaching in Oxford and on return from war service in India in 1920, he made his house an open house for undergraduate Jewish students on the Sabbath and festivals. Sir Basil Henriques, QC, the famous Jewish social worker and founder of youth clubs, was instrumental in bringing him from Cambridge to Oxford to encourage young men in Judaism and Hebrew, at a very low point in Jewish life in the University. Loewe was noted both for his religious observance and tolerance and he conducted services that were inclusive as far as possible of the different Jewish traditions, as he made a point of including ‘English prayer’ to accommodate the Reformed and Liberal traditions. It may be that Loewe influenced Oxford Synagogue’s later celebrated accommodation of multiple traditions under one roof. – from here.

In 1915, he wrote a small book THE ORTHODOX POSITION that was to be start of a series to deal with contemporary issues. Below are some excerpts, the link has the full text. He argues for a self-evident theism and universal morality that needs Jewish ceremonies to make the ideals concrete. Why keep the ceremonies? They are Divine Will as known through rabbinic apostolic succession and because they consecrate life. His presentation of mizvot is aesthetic and ceremonial in a very British way comparing the Jewish ceremonial rules to British coronations or holiday plum pudding.

Loewe acknowledges that many dont live up to the mandated rituals, but laxity is a private matter. The synagogue as high church transcends the individual. One should not make one’s failings and adjustments to the modern age into changes to the tradition. He says that if you think the ceremonies are obsolete and harmful, that is only your opinion and should not effect the tradition itself. Throughout he appeals to individual conscience and does not seek to be engage in polemics or condemnation of other positions. Loewe avoids the ideological polemics of German Jewry between orthodoxy and reform. Throughout the tract he remains, as a good Victorian Anglican, an advocate of High Church about the Jewish ceremonies combined with a need to follow one’s conscience.

His work also is a fertile text for social historians, in that he documents the widespread British acceptance of carrying on the Sabbath, of playing golf and bicycling, and of taking transportation to see theatrical performances. (For a discussion of British observance that stops in 1850’s see Steven Singer, “Jewish Religious Thought in Early Victorian London.” AJS Review 10:2 (Autumn 1985).

For those interested, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies has an online exhibit on the Loewe family. Some highlights include sermons, pictures, a booklet he wrote in India as part of the Jewish War Services, and his wife’s diary of their time in the Middle East and India.


IN the fateful three years of academic life, most of us subject our religious beliefs and experiences to the same stringent investigation that we apply to other phases of human existence. We seek to discover what relation religious truths bear to the general body of truth, some branch of which our secular studies are striving to elucidate. Confronted with difficulties, we turn to our ecclesiastical authorities and look for guidance. Like Elihu we expect that ” Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom.” But hitherto our Rabbis and teachers in England generally have refrained from issuing any pronouncements. ”

Behold, we waited for their words, they spake not.” To take one striking illustration : the only orthodox contributions to Higher Critical study have been Mr. Wiener’s works, and Mr. Wiener is neither a Rabbi nor a teacher at a Jewish seminary, he is a layman. We wait in vain for some “official” guidance. We cannot nor do we wish to ignore modern difficulties, and we venture to hope that our efforts to arrive at conclusions compatible with our faith, to reconcile our orthodox position with facts and truths that seem to controvert that position, may perhaps be of use to others.
There is another reason, besides humility, that prompts us to write, and that is pride. In Cambridge we are far removed from strife. Questions of orthodoxy and reform that agitate Jewry elsewhere, have aroused our keen interest and discussion, but have stirred no bitterness among us. We may fairly claim to have achieved union without uniformity, and to have built up Jewish tradition without persecution

It will be our endeavour to keep these pamphlets free from the acrimony and uselessness of polemics, and we shall confine ourselves to the defense and justification of orthodoxy. It is not our purpose to attack the opinions of our Reform brothers. A statement of the orthodox attitude to various topics will be our aim. How far we succeed or fail either to convince or to remain faithful to these guiding principles, is a strictly personal matter.


When we examine the basis of our religious beliefs, we find ourselves at the outset dividing the whole field of inquiry into two parts. The former is of a general nature ” Why do we believe in God and revelation ? ” ; the second, which follows logically, is ” Why, admitting our belief in God and revelation, do we follow that particular form known as Orthodox Judaism ? ”

What we are asking ourselves is, why do we observe the Ceremonial Law The question that presents itself is obvious. ” If it is conceded that Christianity and Theism have the same moral teaching as Judaism, why should I be a Jew when it is so much easier to be a Christian ? I do not merely mean easier in the crude sense of the absence of the physical sacrifices demanded by the Torah, but easier also because, from the point of view of humanity, surely uniformity is preferable to diversity.”

Speaking generally, we certainly do not maintain that Jewish ” morality ” allowing for the moment the possibility of a special ” Jewish ” morality is superior to ” Christian ” morality. But in various aspects of life we claim for Judaism a different and, we believe, a better point of view. Thus we do not share the Christian belief that this world is evil ; we do not hold that the family tie impedes a man’s approximation to God or vitiates his ability to serve his Maker with all his heart, with all his soul and with all his might.

The reason why we remain Jews is because we believe that pure Theism, without that additional matter which makes it Judaism, is too colourless, too weak to influence men’s lives and actions, unequal to survive except perhaps among a few supermen whose strength of character is capable of making them impervious to their surroundings, who are self-sufficient, and who are able to dispense with all the aids to morality that the Mitzvoth provide. Theism teaches the transcendence, Judaism supplies the immanence. Judaism can appeal to every man, Theism only to the scholar and saint, for man cannot live by dogma alone. Further, Theism overlooks the essential fact that man is human. We cannot expect him to continue in the path of virtue fortified merely by general principles and vague rules of conduct. He needs the warmth of ceremonial.

Further, it will be agreed, much, if not all that has been said up to now could apply equally to Liberal Judaism, with possible reservations. We do not wish to base our faith on negative foundations. We do not believe in Judaism because Christianity is untrue.

What, then, is the value of the whole body of practice that belongs to Orthodox Judaism ? Why is it necessary to keep these observances, many of which seem so trivial ? The answer is twofold. We believe that these are divine ordinances, and that they represent the will of God, for Rabbinic interpretation also partakes, in a way, of the nature of ” apostolic succession,” being in strict spiritual and logical continuity with the past; and, further, that the observance of these ceremonies is essential to build up the Jewish life.

Far more ” faith-disturbing,” so to speak, to some of our brethren, are certain of the Mitzvoth which ought, they consider, to be superseded. It has been said that the Almighty does not take pleasure in them, no longer commands their practice, that they are at best, obsolete ; at worst, superstitions and impediments. ” What is the good of wearing Tsitzith ? What is the harm in eating shrimps ? ”

Well, Orthodox Judaism regards all these things as divinely ordained, as necessary, and as irremovable.
Nor had our teachers any material interests for the sake of which they might have been tempted to suppress the truth.. Every age has brought fresh questions for Judaism to face, it has had to adjust itself to every new scientific discovery. That our Rabbis men of learning and probity should regularly have maintained that there is a moral value in not eating shrimps and in wearing Tsitzith, is a convincing argument that we are not acting blindly, nor without due reflection.

The next answer is that all these Mitzvoth are necessary to establish and maintain Jewish life in its perfection. Every secular act of the Orthodox Jew is invested with some reminder, some association with religion in order to consecrate his whole life.

The year is a series of events, as artistically perfect as a Wagnerian cycle. Take, for example,the period from the first solemn call to repentance on the Sabbath eve, when the penitential season opens, until, after Sukkoth, the gaiety dies away peacefully on Sabbath Bereshith, a sober prelude to the coming of winter. In this period how wonderfully does each day fit into the general scheme, how the note of penitence rises in intensity until the consciousness of full pardon is reached in the grand diapason of Kippur, how the relief from the burden of sin gives way to rejoicing, until Tabernacles ends in the merry-making of Simchath Torah and the lengthening evenings invite us to recommence our study of the Law. Just as each sentiment, during these great days has its musical ” Leitmotif ” its canonical colour, so to speak so is the whole range of human feeling covered by the complex body of customs, precepts, prayers and poems which make up what we call the Jewish Life.

Possibly the most misunderstood of all our ordinances are those which regulate carrying and travelling on Sabbath. It seems a little thing to ride on a tram, to carry a parcel, or to make an Erub. Yet what is the object of all these rules? Simply and solely to prevent travel and keep people in their houses. Sabbath is the home festival, it is the strength and glorification of home life, home worship and home rest. Jews are to stay at home and thus create a love of home. Theatre-going, golfing, cycling and sight-seeing, harmless and even desirable though they be, are alien to the Sabbath spirit. If the “fence” is broken in the slightest degree, the Sabbath is entirely destroyed. The moment that ‘bus riding is tolerated, golfing is possible, and the whole Sabbath spirit is changed; it becomes something absolutely different

When then our dinim and minhagim go back, some of them, to the earliest dawn of history, shall we let them lapse while remaining faithful to others of modern date that we have adopted in England ? Shall we then go to the stake for ceremonies like the Lord Mayor’s show, or the picturesque but alas ! expensive function of taking a Degree, or the gorgeous displays of a Coronation, the peculiar customs of a regiment or a College, and at the same time be indifferent to our own usages, immeasurably older and more precious ?… Is a Christmas tree more significant, more elevating more interesting archaeologically or historically than a Hanuca lamp? Are ” Haman’s ears” less tasty than plum pudding?
We may have, some of us, our private “laxities,” but we have no right to “pasken” for others: our own faults are our affair.

” But what about an orthodox Jew who breaks the Law ? ” Every individual is free in his actions, for which he has to render account. But this account is a private affair in which no one has any call to interfere. Unless a Jew has publicly abjured his faith by embracing another religion, no one has the right to assume that he may not have repented for any former breach of the Law. To cast the first stone is no Jewish practice.
If then, a man breaks the Law, it is his business; but it is quite a different matter for an individual to declare that he regards the Law as obsolete, and therefore sees no harm in violating it. By so doing the Law disappears, and with its disappearance the unity and continuity of Judaism is destroyed.

” Ought I then to teach my son that which I myself do not observe, nay that which I believe to be obsolete and even harmful ?… If we are ” slack,” it is our own business, but we have no right to lead others astray. This is not hypocrisy, it is the “respect which vice pays to virtue.” Naturally, we do not like to admit ourselves wrong. It is more satisfying to our self-respect to say ” I do not believe in it,” rather than ” I ought to do it, but I am afraid I don’t ” ; the latter answer shews at any rate, that the speaker is not ashamed of his convictions. No one is morally entitled to call us hypocrites because we try to hand on Judaism unimpaired, irrespective of our own personal fidelity. We cannot take upon ourselves the responsibility of stereotyping our idiosyncracies, of committing the future irrevocably to the passing vagaries of the present…As custodians of a sacred legacy, we may only invest in “Trustee Stock,” even if we feel dissatisfied with the low rate of interest.

That Orthodox Judaism is beset with many problems no one will deny. They are designed to test our faith and to make us examine our beliefs. It is for each man to choose for himself what course he honestly feels to be right. We do not seek to force our views on others. Those who conscientiously differ from us are, in the highest sense, entitled to our respect and regard. But we speak for ourselves.
Read the Rest Here

One response to “Herbert Loewe on British Orthodoxy 1915

  1. Speaking of his “high church” sentiments, Loewe quotes without attribution a poem from John Keble, one of the leaders of High Church, Anglo-Catholic Oxford Movement. On pg. 14, Loewe writes: “Nothing is “trivial.” Life is made up of the ‘common round and trivial task,’ which the
    Mitzvah brightens and hallows.” He uses Anglican forms to promote the performance of the commandments. This was not uncommon in Anglo-Jewish life: the Adlers, Schechter, among others, represented Judaism to Jews through distinctly Anglican categories.

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