To-day was the 75th. birthday of the Haham Dr. Moses Gaster.
Born in Bucharest on September 16th., 1856, Dr. Gaster took his degree at Bucharest University in his 18th. year. He then proceeded to the Rabbinical Seminary at Breslau, where he obtained the Hattarat Hora’ah in 1881. Two years later he published his famous “History of Roumanian Literature”. For about 10 years he was engaged on his magnum opus, a Roumanian Chrestomathy and Glossary covering the period from the dawn of Roumanian literature down to 1830. From 1881 to 1885 he was Lecturer of Roumanian Language and Literature at the University of Bucharest, Inspector-General of Schools, and a member of the Council for Examining Teachers in Roumania. He also lectured on the Roumanian Apocrypha, the whole of which he had discovered in manuscript. He also made a Roumanian translation of the Hebrew Prayer Book, compiled a short Scripture history and wrote various text books for the Jewish Community of Roumania.
In 1885 he was expelled from Roumania by the Government for agitating against the persecution of the Jews, and he came to England where he was appointed Ilchester Lecturer at Oxford University, his lectures being afterwards published as “Greco-Slavonic Literature”, Before he had been long in England, the Roumanian Government cancelled the decree of expulsion, presented him with the Roumanian Order of Merit of the First Class, and invited him to return, but he declined the invitation. At the request of the Roumanian Government, he wrote a report, however, in 1895 on the British educational system, which was printed as a Blue, and accepted as a basis of education in Roumania. He had meanwhile been appointed in 1887 as Haham or Chief Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation in London, and he was also from 1891 to 1896 Principal of the Judith Montefiore College in Ramsgate.
GREAT JEWISH SCHOLAR
Dr. Gaster is one of the greatest living Jewish scholars. Among his most famous works are “Hebrew Illuminated Bibles of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries”, “A Samaritan Scroll of the Pentatuch”, “The Samaritan Book of Joshau”, “The Samaritans” (Schweich Lectures), “The Hebrew Version of Secretum Secretorum of Aristotle”, various Biblical Apocrypha in the proceedings of the Society for Biblical Archeology, the Memorial Volume on the Bicentenary of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, “A New Edition of the Sephardic Prayer Book with revised English Translation”, “Exampla of the Rabbis”, and many contributions to the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”, “Hasings Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics” and many learned journals and reviews.
He is also a famous authority on folk-lore and a Vice-President of the Folk-lore Society of England. He is, too, a Vice-President of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Mr.s Gaster is the daughter of the late Professor Friedlander, Principal of Jews’ College, and they have 13 children, seven sons and six daughters.
His father, the Chevalier Gaster, was an outstanding figure in Roumanian Jewish life and lived to a great age, dying only a few years ago, and his two brothers, who both died last year, within a few months of each other, were both distinguished men. The elder, Dr. Anghel Gaster, was a prominent, physician, and was Treasurer of the London Jewish Hospital, and the younger, Leon Gaster, was editor of the “Illuminating Engineer”, and Honorary General Secretary of the British International Associational of Journalists and founder of the Illuminating Engineering Society.
DR. GASTER’S ZIONIST WORK
From its earliest days Dr. Gaster was a leading figure in Zionist work, and when Dr. Theodore Herzl first came to London in 1896, he presided at the historic meeting which Herzl addressed at the Jewish Working Men’s Club, in Whitechapel, which became the beginning of the Zionist Organisation. Even at that time Dr. Gaster’s association with Jewish colonisation in Palestine had already been of very long standing. He was a Vice-President of the First Zionist Congress in Basle and he was Vice-President of two subsequent Congresses.
Mr. Paul Goodman, in his “Review of Zionism in England”, published in 1929, in speaking of the opposition between the “political” and “practical” parties in the Zionist world, says that the “politicals” under the leadership of David Wolffsohn, with the support of Max Nordau, had their foremost exponents in England in Mr. Joseph Cowen and Mr. L. J. Greenberg, “while the more powerful personality of the Haham Dr. Moses Gaster projected itself against the ‘political’ leadership, and the ‘practical’ opposition in England was reinforced by Dr. Chaim Weizmann”. In an effort at reconciliation between the two parties, Sir Francis Montefiore, who had been President, was elected Honorary President at the annual Conference of the English Zionist Federation held in 1907, and Dr. Gaster was elected President, with Dr. Weizmann and Mr. Joseph Cowen as Vice – Presidents. At the annual conference in 1909 held under Dr. Gaster’s presidency, a majority of one gave the Vice-Presidency to Mr. Greenberg, against Mr. Herbert Bentwich, a leader of the “practicals”, and Dr. Gaster and his followers refused to recognised the newly constituted federation under Mr. Greenberg’s leadership.
In 1913 the annual conference decided to reorganised the Federation again, with Dr. Gaster taking over the English Zionist Federation and forming a Council from a number of people to be selected by him. He was one of several nominated for the office of President, but when this was intimated to him officially at short notice he had a registered letter addressed to the Secretary of the Federation that “Dr. Gaster declines any such nomination, and he strongly repudiates such tactics whatever the object of it may have been”.
When the war broke out and efforts were being made to obtain the recognition of the Zionist claims, which later led to the issue of the Balfour Declaration, Mr. Goodman relates, Dr. Weizmann had initiated various efforts for the recognition of Jewish claims in Palestine in influential quarters interested in developments in the Middle East, while, prominent Zionists in London attempted to come to grips with the anti-Zionist leaders of the Conjoint Committee of the Board of Deputies and the Anglo-Jewish Association. Two members of the Zionist Executive, Mr. Sokolov and the late Dr. Tchlenow, who were then in London, associated with themselves in these negotiations Mr. Joseph Cowen, the President of the English Zionist Federation at the time, Mr. Herbert Bentiwich, Grand Commander of the Order of Ancient Maccabeans, and Dr. Moses Gaster. At a Conference convened at the instance of Mr. Joseph Cowen and Dr. Weizmann in 1916, Dr. Weizmann submitted his views as to the manner and scope of Zionist political action in England and a Committee was established to direct the Zionist political activities in England consisting of Mr. Sokolov, Dr. Tchlenow, Dr. Gaster, Dr. Weizmann, Mr. Herbert Bentwich, and Mr. Joseph Cowen.
“In the history of Zionism”, Mr. Goodman concludes, “Many are the claims of having helped to bring about the Balfour Declaration. It may be taken for granted that numerous indeed were the rivulets which contributed to the great stream of public opinion and which impelled all those who during the war and afterwards shaped the political destinies of the world. It would be lack of recognition of the fundamental strength of the Zionist idea were it to be assumed that the Balfour Declaration and the consequent developments were the result of the efforts of a few”.
HIS POSITION ON THE JEWS IN RUSSIA AND HIS INTEREST IN YIDDISH
In recent years Dr. Gaster has not been taking any active part in Zionist work, although he has continued to follow developments with lively interest.
He has watched carefully, however, also the position of the Jewish populations of Soviet Russia, Roumania, Poland and the other great Jewish centres, and he has frequently spoken on their behalf at the Anglo-Jewish Association, of which he is a Vice-President, and at the meetings of other bodies. In one famous speech, at an annual meeting of the Anglo-Jewish Association, when the position of the Jews of Soviet Russia was under discussion, he expressed his opinion that it was not in their best interest to denounce. There was no persecution in Soviet Russia of Jews as Jews, and no pogroms had taken place where the Soviets ruled. He did not care for the Soviet Republic or for Communists, he added, but he only spoke of the actions of the de Jure Government in Russia. The moment Czarism returned, the days of the Jews were numbered.
Dr. Gaster is also keenly interested in Yiddish language and literature, and he is one of the members of the Presidium and Curatorium of the Yiddish Scientific Institute in Vilna, and he is President of its British Section.
DR. GASTER’S ATTITUDE ON JEWISH QUESTION IN HIS NATIVE ROUMANIA AND ON JEWISH MINORITY QUESTION GENERALLY
After many years of absence from Roumania following his expulsion, Dr. Gaster, on the invitation of the Roumanian Government revisited his native country in 1921, and on his return he expressed himself on the position and the outlook of the Jews there, and incidentally on the Jewish minority question generally in a J.T.A. Interview given to the London editor of the J.T.A., Mr. Leftwich. He had not gone to Roumania, he said, on any Jewish mission or on any work connected with Jewry. He was invited to Roumania by the Roumanian Government and the Academic authorities solely in his capacity as a Roumanian scholar whose books on the language and literature are the standard works on the subject and whose text books are the basis of Roumanian education. Wherever he went, however, he had tried to find out the position of the Jews and he had visited every part of the country freely and spoken with representatives of all the Jewish parties, with the Rabbis and with the people themselves. Surrounded on every side by countries in which the Jewish populations were suffering terribly, as in Hungary, Poland and the Ukraine, he had found Roumania the one bright spot for the Jews in Central Europe. The Jews had obtained their full rights. On principle all legal disabilities had been removed and they were on absolutely equal terms with the rest of the Roumanian citizens. There was, however, still a reverse side to the medal. The mentality which had swayed the Roumanians for close upon fifty years could not be eradicated or changed in a day. There was plenty of antisemitism in the country, and the Jews would probably have to complain for years to come of many acts of hardship and oppression. But the difference was that now these acts had become illegal. Previously the Jews had lived outside the law, and it was impossible to get redress for any wrongs done them. These acts would now be illegal and the Jews could fight their case.
It is essential, however, he urged, that the Jews should recognise the fact of now being Roumanian citizens, because the Roumanian Government was anxious to avoid the pitfalls of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its contending nationalities, and was seeking to consolidate all its population into one State. The Jews are ethnologically, culturally and religiously one people, but they belong politically to various nations, are citizens of different states, he said Politically there is no Jewish State now of which they are members. Palestine had no become a Jewish State and also there was not enough room there for all Jews. It was wrong, therefore, for Jews to neglect their vital interests in the countries which were their homes. The million Jews who are in Roumania will have to remain in Roumania, he said, and feel themselves fully at home there. The cry for minority rights’ is opposed to the interests of the Jews, for if these rights were completely acknowledged, they might find the Jews restricted and circumscribed in all their activities according to their percentage of the population and cooped up in a self-made minority ghetto. That policy would be a mistake. The Jews, he said, are not a minority people. Their separateness from the rest of the Roumanian citizens is on cultural and religious grounds and not because of any allegiance to any other State. But in cultural and religious affairs they have a right to autonomy. A doctrine of political minority rights based on an unwarranted interpretation of the Balfour Declaration would only create difficulties. If that was realised he had every reason, he said, to believe that the lot of the Jews in Roumania would become as happy as that of the Jews in Western Europe.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.