Claude Montefiore

A founder of Liberal Judaism in England.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Claude Montefiore was a modernist Jewish theologian and author (1858-1938). A great-nephew of the famous philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore, Claude studied at Balliol College, Oxford, where he came under the influence of the liberal Christian thinker, Benjamin Jowett, the Master of the College.

From Oxford, Montefiore, resolving to increase his Jewish knowledge, went to study Judaism at the Hochschule in Berlin. There he met Solomon Schechter, whom he brought to England to act as his private tutor.

In 1902, Montefiore founded the radical Reform organization the Jewish Religious Union, which led to the establishment, in 1911, of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, of which he became the President. A man of means, Montefiore was active in philanthropic endeavors, Jewish and non-Jewish. He refused, however, to give his support to Zionism, a movement he thought too ‘narrow’ in its aims, and he even tried to prevent the signing of the Balfour Declaration.

Among Montefiore’s many writings are works in which he compared Jewish and Christian thought. Together with Herbert Loewe, an Orthodox Jewish scholar, Montefiore published A Rabbinic Anthology, a collection of Rabbinic teachings to which he and Loewe added notes in which the teachings were assessed, respectively, from the Liberal/Reform and the Orthodox point of view.

Justice & Love

Montefiore accepted the findings of biblical criticism, which, he believed, had demonstrated that the Pentateuch was a composite work, produced at different periods in Israel’s history.

A convinced theist, Montefiore believed that Judaism’s main contribution consisted in keeping pure monotheism alive. In this Judaism was superior to Christianity but, he maintained, Judaism, as a religion based on justice, was in some ways inferior to Christianity, a religion based on love, at least in the ethical sphere.

In Ahad Ha-Am’s attack on Montefiore’s attempt to see the religion of the future as a blend of the Jewish and Christian ethic, the view is put forward that there can be no marriage between a religion of justice and a religion of love. In point of fact, in their characterization of the two religions both thinkers are too facile, since Judaism knows of love as Christianity knows of justice.

Montefiore looked upon Jesus as a great teacher but naturally refused to recognize him as in any way divine. For all his admiration for the Christian ethic and what he saw as an appealing, mystical note in the Gospels, Montefiore was opposed to any attempt at placing the New Testament on a par with the Hebrew Scriptures or at having readings from the New Testament in any act of Jewish worship.

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