History & Culture

Chief Rabbi Hertz in Two World Wars
Date Uploaded: 
Thursday 7th May 2015

By Rabbi Dr Ben Elton

As British Jews mark the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the figure of Chief Rabbi Dr Joseph Herman Hertz should loom large. He was appointed in 1913 and died in 1946 and was therefore in office for both the First and Second World Wars. He had to deal with the practical challenges of wartime religious life, the problems of morale, and in World War II, the urgent business of rescue of European Jewry. One of his last major acts as Chief Rabbi was to issue instructions for the United Synagogue to hold services of praise and thanksgiving for the Allied victory in May 1945. The front cover of the Order of Service quoted the al hanisim prayer for Purim and Hannukah: al hagevurot ve’al hateshuot – for the mighty deeds performed by the victors, and the salvations sent by the Almighty. But before that day came, there was a huge amount of work to do.

The Chief Rabbi had to respond to the special demands the World Wars placed upon the Jewish community, particularly those members actually fighting. Hertz was determined that Jews should contribute fully to the war effort and made alterations to practice that he felt war required. In 1914 and 1939 he instructed his ministers that there were no religious grounds for conscientious objection, including for Kohanim, even though they would likely come in contact with the dead. Chief Rabbi Hertz ruled that ‘Jewish law explicitly permits’ combat on the Sabbath.’ From 1915 to 1916, Hertz even permitted soldiers to undertake otherwise prohibited activities when they were only in training.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook, chosen as Chief Rabbi of Jaffa in 1904, later to be the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Jerusalem (1919) and then of the Land of Israel (1921), was stranded in London for much of World War One.  Both Chief Rabbis consulted with each other on issues of the day.  For example, Chief Rabbi Hertz would only allow the consumption of rice on Pesach (contrary to the ban on kitniyot), in the difficult wartime conditions, once he had secured Rav Kook’s agreement.

In another interesting incident, Chief Rabbi Hertz was asked at the end of the First World War to place the banner of the Jewish Regiment inside the Great Synagogue. He would only give his consent if the Jerusalem rabbinate, led by Rav Kook, allowed a standard to be placed in their main synagogue, the Hurvah (which has recently been renovated in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem). There is an important piece of academic work waiting to be done on the relationship between Chief Rabbi Hertz and Rabbi Kook, before and after the First World War.

During the World Wars, Chief Rabbi Hertz recognised that it would be not be possible to provide soldiers with a consistent supply of kosher food, but held that ‘a great deal of …observance would be possible’ for a man in uniform. He sought to maximise the level of possible observance by negotiating with the Government about general policy, and seeking concessions in individual cases, for example regarding leave for Festivals. Requests for such concessions became more intense after 1916, when Jews holding Russian nationality were allowed to enlist and the number of observant Jews in the forces thereby increased. As well as regular kosher food, matzot were sent out on Pesach, services were organised, prayer books and the Chief Rabbi’s Book of Jewish Thoughts were distributed in large numbers. Chaplains were dispatched to the front during both world wars.  In World War Two, these included Rabbi Israel Brodie, later Chief Rabbi, and Rev Dr Isaac Levy and Rev Leslie Hardman, who had distinguished careers in the United Synagogue after the War. The Chief Rabbi visited the troops personally when he could.

On the home front, Chief Rabbi Hertz was eager to comply with war regulations, such as the blackout. As such, he ruled that there should be no Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur 1939 and that the Neilah should be held early to finish before the blackout. As it would end before the close of the fast Chief Rabbi Hertz pointed out that the shofar should not be sounded at the end of the service.

The Chief Rabbi’s pains to work within official demands came from a concern that if Jews were seen not to be contributing to the war effort the resentment felt towards them by the general community would have grown, promoting anti-Semitism and endangering the position of Jews in Britain. There is evidence that such feeling existed among the general population. After the Chief Rabbi visited Flanders in 1914 Sir John French felt the need to issue a dispatch saying ‘anyone who now chooses to question Jewish loyalty and military ardour does so in defiance of the declaration of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army’. Yet in 1915 the Times accused the Jewish community’s response to the call for recruits of being ‘patchy’.

Another pressing reason for Chief Rabbi Hertz’s patriotic stand was the support he was trying to muster to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazis. Together with his son in law, Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, he worked tirelessly before and into the War to rescue whoever he could. He spoke regularly in public, broadcast over the radio and wrote extensively calling attention to the massacre of European Jewry. Alas, his ability to influence official policy remained limited. The services of prayer and intercession could only continue. Some were especially moving, most of all the one that took place inside the ruins of the Great Synagogue after it was bombed in May 1941. The Chief Rabbi vowed ‘the Great Synagogue will rise again’, but sadly it never did. When he offered praise and thanksgiving after VE Day, Chief Rabbi Hertz was an exhausted man. He lived only a few months more, and died in January 1946. He had lived to see the full extent of the Holocaust revealed, but at least he witnessed the defeat of Hitler, and that had to provide some comfort.

Rabbi Elton is rabbinic fellow at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York.  He is a former member of Alei Tzion United Synagogue in Hendon, an editor of its ‘Degel’ journal and the author of ‘Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry 1889-1970’, Manchester University Press, 2009.