Joseph Hertz

British Chief Rabbi & Zionist 1872 - 1946

Religious advance without loss of traditional Jewish values

Joseph Hertz

By lending his prestige and support to the Zionist cause Joseph Herman Hertz, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, strengthened the movement among both his coreligionists and government officials. The start of his tenure as the spiritual leader of British Jewry began shortly before WWI and ended just after WWII.


Role in Balfour Declaration

Whilst many in the Orthodox world stood aloof from Zionism, Hertz was a robust champion of the cause. In answer to leaders of the organized community who were opposed, Hertz brought the prestige of his office to bear on the side of Zionism.

On May 28, 1917 he wrote a letter to The Times in which he rejected the notion that the recent attack in the newspaper on Zionism by Claude Montefiore of the Anglo-Jewish Association and David Alexander of the Board of Deputies reflected “the views held by Anglo-Jewry as a whole or by the Jewries of the overseas dominions.”

On October 6, 1917 the War Cabinet led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George decided to send out the ‎draft of a planned government statement about a Jewish homeland in Palestine to eight Jews—four anti-Zionists and four Zionists—for ‎comment.

Chief Rabbi Hertz, along with Lord Walter Rothschild and Zionist statesmen Nahum Sokolow and Chaim Weizmann all submitted supporting letters. ‎

Hertz was associated with the Mizrachi Orthodox stream of Zionism which saw the return of the Jewish people to Palestine as part of a Divine plan. In worldly affairs he criticized the British Government’s Mandatory policies as a reversal of the spirit of the Balfour Declaration.

A frequent visitor to Palestine, Hertz took part in the 1925 opening of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus. He went on to serve on the university’s Board of Governors.


A prolific author, Hertz edited and translated the Authorized Daily Prayer Book (1942–45) which followed his earlier translation and commentary on the Pentateuch (1929–36). In both instances his purpose was to make Scripture and prayer accessible. His Modern Orthodox outlook took cognizance of contemporary Bible criticism while faithfully adhering to Jewish tradition. Within the community he defended Orthodoxy against dissent from Liberal Judaism.

Communal rabbi

He took his first pulpit in upstate Syracuse, N.Y. (1894–96).  Leaving New York he became rabbi of Johannesburg in South Africa. Expelled (1899–1901) by President Paul Kruger for his British sympathies during Boer War, he was later permitted to return.

In 1911, Hertz took the pulpit of Orah Hayyim, an Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

He left for London in 1913 when he was selected as Chief Rabbi.

Early years

Hertz was born in the central European country of Slovakia. In 1884, when he was 12, his family moved to New York City.

He became the first graduate of the Conservative Movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary (1894).

New Yorker Rose Freed became his wife and the couple had two sons and three daughters.

Over the years Hertz became a public intellectual, a sought-after speaker and towering communal presence.

In 1943 he became the first British rabbi to be made a Companion of Honour (C.H.), one of the highest honours the Monarch can bestow upon a British citizen.

'Dauntless courage'

In the wake of the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine—ostensibly ignited over Jews praying at the Western Wall—Hertz delivered on behalf of the English Zionist Federation an address on the significance of the holy place to Jewish civilization.

During World War II Hertz sought to mobilize Christian support on behalf of European Jews suffering Nazi tyranny.

When news of his death in London at the age of 73 reached Palestine, the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency declared that his demise was “a severe blow to Jewish scholarship and a formidable loss to Zionism, for at every critical period in Zionist history he took a leading part with characteristic and dauntless courage, never hesitant to speak frankly and passionately when he believed his people were not getting a fair deal.”