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Moses Gaster

Biography of the Haham Moses Gaster (1856-1939) by Michael Berkowitz, Professor of Modern Jewish History.

The Haham Moses Gaster (1856-1939) is one of the most significant figures in modern Jewish history but has not yet attracted a full-blown biographical study in either English or Hebrew. The title Haham means that he was head of Britain's Spanish and Portugese, or Sephard community, the rabbi of London's Bevis Marks synagogue beginning in 1887. Some maintain that he was Sephardi, while others claim that he was of Ashkenazi descent. In any case, he was born in Bucharest, Romania, and felt himself at home in numerous traditions. He helped to spur and shape Anglo-Jewry's engagement with British government authorities, and the secular world generally, in ways that went well beyond the stadlanut-type of "intercession appeals" as exemplified by Sir Moses Montefiore. Gaster was critical in launching the Zionist movement, assisting substantially to establish it as a formidable force. Had he not been a rabbi, Gaster might have succeeded Theodor Herzl as the leader of the World Zionist Organization upon Herzl's untimely death in 1904. Historian James Renton has argued that Gaster was integral to the 'cumulative efforts and diplomatic strategies' that resulted in the Balfour Declaration (1917). Gaster was, however, profoundly disappointed with the wording of the declaration. It was, he thought, too 'vague, tenuous, and impractical' as a means of advancing the Zionist cause and alleviating the deepening distress of European Jewry in the midst of the Great War.

Along with his political activity on behalf of Jews in Romania and elsewhere, Gaster simultaneously pioneered modern approaches to Jewish pedagogy and scholarship, which were also taken up by one of his sons, Theodor Herzl Gaster (1906-1992). (T.H. Gaster also merits serious scholarly treatment.) Moses Gaster's unusually broad, prolific scholarly output, and the motivation of his fervent curiosity, were related to his view of Jews as a diverse, complex, and multi-faceted people. Compared to many of his contemporaries, a great deal of Gaster's research and insights hold up well even in the twenty-first century. His understanding of Jewry's historical and cultural evolution was grounded in intensive historical, literary, and linguistic research, as well as traditional religious sources. His perspective was, then, distinctly different from that of the office of the Chief Rabbi, the Board of Deputies, and the Jewish Chronicle. All of these august bodies conceived Jews, Judaism, and their interests in a more narrow, mainly "religious" framework. Above all, what distinguished Moses Gaster was his view of Anglo-Jewry, and the Jewish world at large, as an interwoven national-ethnic community. It need not, and should not, he felt, be timid about asserting itself as a "national" entity. This did not, in his mind, conflict with the idea that Jews could remain loyal subjects and citizens of Britain, or whichever nation to which they belonged. All of this is not say that Moses Gaster lacked Jewish faith or conviction. He was a rabbi, and he took his personal piety, congregational and communal duties with the utmost gravity.

Gaster has received only a fraction, if that, of the credit he deserves for his outstanding contributions to, and influence on a number of spheres germane to English and world Jewry. He was on the wrong side, in terms of the "winners" who either wrote or dominated much of the history and Anglo-Jewish polemics. His reputation has no doubt suffered because he became something of an adversary of both Chaim Weizmann, the leader of interwar Zionism, and Leopold Greenberg, the long-time editor of the Jewish Chronicle. He also had a reputation for being difficult to deal with, intimidating, and at times, uncompromising. This often happens with those who have high standards and do not suffer fools. Gaster was, indeed, a man of many layers and perhaps contradictions. This on-line collection may be seen as a step in better situating and appreciating Gaster in history. With these items to be seen and explored, one can gain a sense of how Moses Gaster enjoined the Jewish and non-Jewish world in a particularly formative and tempestuous era of modern history.

Michael Berkowitz

Professor of Modern Jewish History