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Portsmouth Jewry - 1730's to 1980's
Laws of the Congregation
Dr Aubrey Weinberg (1985)

The rule books of voluntary organisations, together with their modifications, provide insights into the changing normative structure of both the organisations and the wider society. An examination of the laws governing the conduct of members of the Jewish congregation at Portsmouth reveals a gradual secularisation process and a gradual weakening of the synagogue’s grip over the general behaviour of the members. The several translators of the Portsmouth Pinches reveal some of the early rules which direct attention to personal behaviour and collective responsibilities, with a deep sense of concern being displayed for both religious and civic propriety. Penalties were imposed for a range of offences, supported by a range of sanctions, the most severe of which was severance from all congregational rights. As the full pursuance of Judaic ritual makes association with a congregation pre—requisite, and given the devotional nature of the early period of settlement, the prospect of being deprived of membership must have been a most compelling constraint. Breaking the Sabbath was treated as a cardinal offence, and in the early years of the nineteenth century fines are recorded for ‘going on a boat’ and pursuance of trade on the Sabbath day. It was reported that when the news of the Portsmouth drowning reached London in 1758, one member of the clergy described the deaths as evidence of God’s wrath for disregard of the Sabbath. In 1808, a member was heavily fined for eating forbidden food, albeit in a distant town, and he was required to publicly confess his sin, in the synagogue, on four separate occasions.

A sequence of laws governed communal responsibilities to the sick and the dead, and required all members of the congregation, drawn by lot, to dig graves, watch at the bedside of the ill, and guard against the prevalent practice of body snatching by keeping watch, for two weeks, over the graves of the newly buried. Such ritual practices have contributed to the ‘closedness’ of Jewish communities over the ages, a quality much commented upon, often in a derogatory sense, by non—Jewish observers. Other laws sought to regulate decorum within the synagogue, a perennial task for officials seeking to emphasise the synagogue as a place of worship rather than its alternative function as a place of learning. Early rules forbade talking, leaving one’s seat during religious services, the wearing of coloured handkerchieves or boots on Sabbaths and Holy Days, and having children at members’ sides. Children had to remain in special seats under the charge of the schoolmaster present.1149] A rule of 1769 punished the chewing of tobacco during prayers. A rule of 1834 censured such other ‘irregularities’ of behaviour as singing an accompaniment to the Chazan when not required to do so by the order of the service, or allowing children to run about or slam doors. As with all rules, these obviously record the actual behaviour of members attending the synagogue, for rules only emerge in response to the actual breaking of norms.


In 1835, by which time an obvious Anglicisation of the congregation had taken place, a committee of five was commissioned to translate into English, and codify the accumulated set of laws which randomly stretched through the voluminous pages of the second minute book. The task seemed formidable, for subsequent committees were still engaged in those tasks in 1837 and 1843. The first set of printed laws of the congregation were eventually circulated in 1845. Fines continued to apply to a variety of offences such as failure to visit the sick, although substitutes were allowed. Failure to attend meetings of the Vestry or of the management committee, failure to vote at meetings, non—acceptance of nomination for the committee, refusal to accept a Mitzvah or neglecting to attend the synagogue although summoned to be ‘called up’ to read from the Torah, also attracted fines. The warden who bore the title Parnus, and actually served as President, was responsible for calling up every member, in rotation, the traditional offering on such occasions being a fixed amount. Privileges of membership were still withdrawn if proof was obtained of a member working or keeping open trading premises on the Sabbath. All new members had to gain approval of membership, by ballot, from a general meeting of the Vestry.

Another major revision of the Laws came in 1899, just two years after the healing of the final congregational ‘split’ when, it will be recalled, under the terms of reconciliation, the rules were not to be altered for two years. A considerable simplification of the Laws was introduced, the number of governing clauses being reduced from 154 to 92. All the items involving fines were eliminated, as were the forfeiture clause for Sabbath working and the approval of new members by Vestry decision. These items had obviously been regarded as contentious by the latter day secessionists. Offences against decorum were to be settled by appropriate apology although the threat of suspension was still to apply when such apology was not forthcoming. Gone, also, and perhaps more sadly, were some of the democratic communal practices such as the expectation that every member would be ‘called up’, in rotation, or would share the tasks of caring for those members in need. The Minister/Reader continued to undertake secretarial tasks although the rules allowed for the appointment of another, ex-officio person, for that role. The Correspondence Books of the time testify to the onerous secretarial tasks demanded of the incumbent minister.

Twenty-eight years later, in 1927, and ratified over the course of five lengthy Vestry meetings, a new set of Laws was promulgated. Pogroms in Eastern Europe had led to an influx of new members through which the congregation gained new strength and momentum. It could then afford to support a group of salaried officers, Minister, Chazan, Shammus, Shochet, and a new role of Collector of membership dues and other monies. The Warden could again allocate Mitzvahs by rotation, and privileges were to be withdrawn from those bringing the Jewish community into public discredit. The practice of levying fines for various breaches of the Laws was reimplemented and there was every indication that the congregation had entered, once more, into a period of prosperity and willing devotion. One undemocratic feature of the 1899 Laws was, however, renewed in 1927, that of restricting election rights of members according to their membership rates. In 1927 the Warden was to be elected only by those paying four shillings weekly, the Treasurer by those paying two shillings and six pence weekly, and committee members by all paying at least one shilling and sixpence weekly. The purse continued to be regarded as the measure of a man’s worth. The 1927 Laws, intended to be binding for ‘at least ten years’, were to prevail for half a century. During that period, membership rates ceased to determine voting eligibility.

In 1955, two members of the congregation made a challenging proposal for the admission of women to full membership rights. The innovativeness of such a suggestion was the occasion for some debate which was eventually solved by the diplomatic decision to include it within the terms of reference of a major revision of the existing Laws. The setting up of a sub—committee to undertake such a task was delayed until 1960, prompted no doubt, in the October of that year by a proposal from the Ladies Benevolent Society for the admission of their members, together with lady synagogue seat holders, as guests to the congregation’s Annual General Meeting. The management committee was advised against acceding to the proposal as it was considered ultra vires’ to the constitution.[50] In the event, it took a further eighteen years before a new set of Laws was finally adopted. By that time, the position of women within the wider society had become radically altered, both by legislation and the influence of the Women's movement. Moreover, the financial and numerical strengths of the congregation were waning. There was little opposition to the eventual law admitting women to fuller participation in the congregation’s decision making processes.

The 1978 clause enabled anyone, of either sex, over the age of eighteen years, to become voting members. Some restrictions remained. Women were not allowed to vote on issues affecting Divine Service or Halacha. They were also debarred from the offices of Warden and Treasurer as Judaic law prevents women from taking part in the officiations involved with such duties. Only two of the nine elected members of committee could be women. Notwithstanding these restrictions, the Portsmouth congregation’s Law reform established it within the vanguard of innovating orthodox communities. Today, the Minister is the sole remaining salaried officiant and as it remains incumbent upon the congregation to have a properly authorised Shomer available to supervise Kashrut the incumbent minister assumes that responsibility.

A general review of the congregation’s changing Laws confirms the persisting, yet adaptive constitutional arrangements for the governance of the congregation’s religious affairs. In 1845 the elected officers constituted two Wardens, two Overseers in charge of burial grounds and dealing with cases of sickness and death, a Treasurer, the Senior Warden retiring, and four Committee Members. In 1899, there were Warden, Ex—Warden, Treasurer and seven Committee Members with a new category of Elders who could be elected to serve for five years as honorary members of the committee. In 1927 it was confirmed that Elders would have voting rights on the committee and a new category of Trustees was created, of whom two would serve on the Commxttee. In 1978, the honorary officers are Warden, immediate Past Warden, Treasurer, a Committee of nine of whom two may be women, two Trustees nominated by the Board of Trustees, up to six Elders, the two senior of whom have voting rights, and the honorary solicitor, without voting rights. With regard to membership, the management committee now makes all decisions governing the admission of members.

The 1899 Laws introduced a set of clauses for the government of religious classes for children. To finance the classes, funds were to be provided from the ordinary revenue of the synagogue, although a ‘small tax’ could be levied, from time to time, if more money was required. A special committee of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ was elected to manage educational affairs, an indication of the services acceptable from women even if they were debarred from wider Vestry responsibility. Government of the classes under the 1927 Laws removed women from that direct schooling function, vesting authority directly within the management committee which was given power to co-opt those prepared to give their time to Hebrew education. Of the women who gave their services to the Hebrew classes, Miss S. Solomon completed an outstanding sixty years as a teacher by the time of her retirement in 1974. A framed picture of Miss Solomon was hung in the Vestry when she had completed fifty years of service to the congregation. Education funds were provided by levying fees on the parents of children in attendance at classes ‘according to their financial circumstances’. In 1978, the management committee was charged with electing a sub—committee for education with specific reference being made to the duties of the Minister as headmaster. A general clause allows the committee to assess charges for Hebrew education ‘where this is deemed necessary'.

The changing position of the salaried officials and the status accorded them may be indicated by the growth in the number of rules pertaining to their duties. In 1845, the only rule affecting the minister was one requiring a public meeting of the Vestry to consider the election and discharge of officers. The congregation retains the right of ‘hire and fire’ over clergy, and management committees can only make recommendations. The unwritten duties of the early ministers were apparently carried out either according to the devoutness and commitment of those called to office or to the diligence and conscientiousness of the elected officers and the Vestry meetings. Although there were exceptional periods of service from some ministers, the sequence of appointments shown in Appendix A suggests frequent terminations of service for whatever reasons. By 1899, eleven additional laws had emerged to establish specific duties and conduct from the clergy, and these continued to be applied in 1927. Under these laws, the Warden as late as 1962, was remonstrating with ministers over the requirement obliging them to wear clerical collars on all official occasions, an obligation obviously resisted by the clergy who were several times censured for their ‘misconduct’. By 1978, twenty-one of the one hundred and forty-four clauses of the new Laws were concerned with the duties and conduct of the minister. Many of the responsibilities earlier assumed by members of the congregation had become obligations for either the minister or the elected officers. The minister had emerged as a dominant figure in sustaining Judaic laws and customs and he is deliberately given the task of advising honorary officers regarding their adequate discharge. The contractual nature of the present office contrasts sharply with the apparent informal arrangements of the past when the ‘word of a devout gentleman’ was probably sufficient to bind a minister to the duties of office. The increasing complexity of modern ‘mass society’ with its secular organisation inevitably impinges upon the carrying out of religious practice. The age of the ‘permissive society’ presents the backcloth against which the orthodoxy of the Portsmouth congregation may be portrayed.