Moses Montefiore, Abigail Green
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
He towered over his contemporaries at an imposing height of 6 foot, 3 inches.
He made a massive fortune on the London Stock Exchange and retired in his early 40’s.
He was a self-made man but benefited from being the brother-in-law of Nathan Mayer Rothschild.
He traveled tens of thousands of miles in a specially equipped carriage visiting cities such as Alexandria, Constantinople, Livorno, St. Petersburg, Paris and his beloved Jerusalem.
He was adored by Jews worldwide for his outstanding philanthropy and political activism.
His 100th birthday was a gala global celebration with accolades pouring in from thousands, Christians and Jews alike, including the Queen, Empress of Germany and other international dignitaries.
That man was Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) one of the most outstanding non-rabbinic Jewish personalities of the 19th century. In Moses Montefiore, Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, Abigail Green, a direct descendant of Montefiore, and tutor / fellow in history at Oxford University, has written a researched, detailed, enlightening, and nuanced study of this great man. It is a richly sourced work not only of the Montefiore the man, but importantly and engagingly, Green takes us into the Jewish and non-Jewish world of 19th century Victorian England. At a time when British Jewry took measured steps towards full emancipation, Montefiore was a major British and international figure, and a unique one at that. According to Green, “outside Jewish circles, Moses Montefiore is now a forgotten figure”. But Green attempts to rectify that and her work amply demonstrates the important historical role Montefiore played on the global scene. Take the Damascus Affair of 1840 that rocked the Jewish world.
Leading Jewish figures in Damascus were convicted of murdering Father Tommaso as part of a wider episode of Jewish human sacrifice. This blood libel accusation was buttressed by (supposed) evidence provided by the local French consul in Syria. In a related event, the British consul in Rhodes brought blood libel charges against innocent Jews on that island. Green describes the organized efforts to free the accused and to smash the historic antecedents that continued to lend credence to the very notion of blood libels. With Montefiore the unanimous choice to represent British Jewry vis-a-vis the Ottoman rulers, Green provides, in detail, the international backdrop, politics at play, and court intrigues of that mission. And she makes the case that this and other efforts, created a new paradigm for Jewish global activism in combatting anti-Semitism in all of its ugly manifestations. In this particular case and when warranted, Green does not pull any punches in describing the (unfortunate) intra-Jewish disputes and rivalries. She does not hold back in assessing Montefiore’s weaknesses and failures. Unlike many of his associates Montefiore eschewed assimilation as the answer to the “Jewish problem”. He was immensely proud to be e Jew, even if he was not an especially learned one, and wore his religion openly and demonstrably. Like his British western contemporaries, he might have believed that secular education was the key to lifting up Jewish masses in the Land of Israel and elsewhere, but this never prevented him from aiding and contributing from his fortune to those immersed in the traditional study of Torah. One clearly understands from Green’s work, that Montefiore simply loved Jews and wanted to help them when he saw the need. As the great and Jewish writer and prolific thinker, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan tackles the “simple” yet “sublime” question of, “Why did God create the world” (Aryeh Kaplan Anthology I, pages 221- 251). Rabbi Kaplan explains that creation was the “most perfect possible act of love”. He sources the Baal Shem Tov who further teaches that it was “God’s love of all the generations yet unborn that brought God to create the universe”. The Rambam, Maimonides, writes in the Guide to The Perplexed, Morah Nevuchim, chapter 54: “The chief aim of man should be to make himself, as far as possible, similar to God: that is to say, to make his acts similar to the acts of God, or as our Sages expressed it in explaining the verse, “You shall be holy” (Va-yikra 21:2): “He is gracious, so you shall likewise be gracious: He is merciful, so you shall likewise be merciful.” Abigail Green’s work provides us with a realistic assessment of this fascinating figure. But it is one that should also leave us inspired by a man whose acts of Chesed – righteous good deeds, - was a monumental example of imitating God, Imitatio Dei.