Montagu, Lily

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MONTAGU, LILY (18731963), founder of the Liberal Jewish movement in England. Born in London on December 22, 1873, Lily H. Montagu was the sixth child of Ellen Cohen Montagu and Samuel Montagu. Her father was a wealthy banker and leading member of the Orthodox Anglo-Jewish community. Convinced that Orthodoxy offered her, and other women, little room for religious self-expression, she found in the works of Claude Montefiore a vision of Judaism that mirrored her own understanding of true religion as personal in nature, universal in outlook, and best revealed through daily conduct.

In the January 1899 issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review, Montagu published "The Spiritual Possibilities of Judaism Today," an essay in which she asked all religiously committed Jews to help her form an association aimed at strengthening the religious life of the Anglo-Jewish community through the propagation of Liberal Jewish teachings. Membership would not necessarily demonstrate allegiance to what Montefiore identified as Liberal Judaism but simply would demonstrate the recognition of its ability to awaken within many Jews a sense of spirituality and personal responsibility to God. The Jewish Religious Union (JRU), established by Lily Montagu in February 1902, instituted Sabbath afternoon worship services conducted along Liberal Jewish lines and propaganda meetings, led by Montagu, to clarify and spread its teachings. Though Montefiore agreed to serve as the group's official leader, Montagu assumed responsibility for its major activities and daily affairs.

By 1909, acknowledging the failure of its initial, all-inclusive vision, the union declared itself to be a movement specifically committed to the advancement of Liberal Judaism. During the next few decades, Lily Montagu helped form Liberal Jewish synagogues throughout Great Britain, frequently serving as their chairman or president, and became lay minister of the West Central Liberal Jewish Congregation in 1928, a position to which she was formally inducted in November, 1944. Following Montefiore's death, in 1938, she assumed the presidency of the JRU, later renamed the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues. Having conceived of the idea for an international JRU as early as 1925, Montagu also helped found and eventually became president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Montagu was the author of eleven books, including Thoughts on Judaism, a theological treatise published in 1902, and her autobiography, The Faith of a Jewish Woman, published in 1943.


Little has been written either on the history of the Liberal Jewish movement in England or on Lily Montagu herself. The only critical study of Montagu's life and thought published to date is my book Lily Montagu and the Advancement of Liberal Judaism: From Vision to Vocation (Lewiston, N.Y., 1983). A second volume, Lily Montagu: Sermons, Addresses, Letters and Prayers, edited and with introductions by me (Lewiston, N.Y., 1985), includes a fully annotated selection of her unpublished writings. Finally, for a more detailed account of Montagu's contribution to the development of Liberal Judaism, see my essay "The Origins of Liberal Judaism in England: The Contribution of Lily H. Montagu," Hebrew Union College Annual 55 (1984): 309322.

New Sources

Jacobi, Margaret. "Lily MontaguA Pioneer in Religious Leadership." In Hear Our Voice: Women in the British Rabbinate, edited by Sybil Sheridan, pp. 915. Columbia, S.C., 1998.

Ellen M. Umansky (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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