Reason and belief: The world of Louis Jacobs

Louis Jacobs was undoubtedly the greatest Chief Rabbi that British Jewry never had.

Illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
IT IS now some 11 years since Louis Jacobs, one of the finest Jewish theologians of the modern age, passed away. Unfortunately his works are largely unknown in Israel since they were never translated into Hebrew and since theology is an unknown and neglected subject of study in the Jewish State. This is unfortunate and I would like to encourage people who take Judaism seriously to read Jacobs’s books, beginning with his magnum opus, “We Have Reason to Believe,” a book that caused him to be rejected by British Orthodoxy.
I came to know Jacobs well when I served as interim rabbi of New London Synagogue upon his retirement from that pulpit in 2005, one year before his death. That was also the year in which the Jewish Chronicle, British Jewry’s famous weekly, usually known simply as JC, held a contest in which they asked the readers to vote on who was the greatest British Jew of all time. Louis Jacobs won hands down, well ahead of Chief Rabbi Hertz, Disraeli and Montefiore among others. However, when I suggested to the JC that they co-sponsor an event to celebrate his title, they declined saying that it was not the JC that was proclaiming him the greatest British Jew – only their readers.
Evidently Jacobs was still considered too controversial a figure even then.
Jacobs was undoubtedly the greatest Chief Rabbi that British Jewry never had.
Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, he served a United Synagogue (Orthodox) congregation and taught at the flagship school Jews College. He was even slated to become the principal of that institution, but the post was denied him and, in the 1960s, he was denied permission to serve as a congregational rabbi, even though everyone knew that he was the obvious candidate to become the next chief rabbi. There was absolutely no one in the British rabbinate who came close to him in erudition and in the ability to teach and to interpret Jewish tradition and law.
His knowledge both in Jewish and general subjects was phenomenal. He could speak and quote chapter and verse spontaneously without notes on any subject until the very time of his death.
The reason for his rejection was the book he had written in 1956, “We Have Reason to Believe,” in which he explained why he could not believe that every word in the Torah had been written by God. He rejected fundamentalism, although he affirmed that the Torah was written under divine inspiration.
Jacobs did not think that this removed him from the ranks of British Orthodoxy, which was at that time rather liberal. As he used to say, he did not leave Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy left him. As he wrote in the preface to that book: A true Jewish Apologetic, eschewing obscurantism, religious schizophrenia, and intellectual dishonesty, will be based on the conviction that all truth, ‘the seal of the Holy One, blessed is He,’ is one, and that a synthesis is possible between permanent values and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day. If [this book] stimulates its readers to think seriously about their faith and even helps some of them to declare ‘We have reason to believe’ this will be its justification.
IF HIS reason and scholarship convinced him that although inspired by God, the Torah reflected the concepts of the people who wrote it and may have come from more than one author and one time, then this truth had to be accepted and a way had to be found to incorporate that in Jewish belief. Truth could not simply be denied because it was uncomfortable.
When the Chief Rabbinate and the United Synagogue dismissed him, he and his followers founded the New London Synagogue.
Eventually the British Masorti (Conservative) Movement emerged from that act, with Rabbi Dr. Jacobs as its rabbinic authority. To explain the theological position of New London, he wrote a pamphlet entitled “Revelation,” in which he discussed the question of whether New London was Orthodox or not: Orthodoxy is a question-begging term. If orthodoxy is equated with fundamentalism, the New London Synagogue is not and does not wish to be Orthodox. But the New London Synagogue is traditional in its services, in its attitude towards the Sabbath and dietary laws, in its general respect for the values of the past (though it must be said that once the dynamic principle is acceded to it must follow that Jewish law and practice should not be allowed to stagnate)….What it amounts to is that in the Jewish world of today there are large numbers of traditionally minded Jews who love the traditional Jewish way of life and see in it something more than folk-ways. They see the tradition as providing the Jew with his vocabulary of worship, with the road to his God. But they THE PEOPLE & THE BOOK RABBI REUVEN HAMMER cannot in honesty share the fundamentalist view and they believe that modernism within the traditional is today the best way of furthering the tradition.
IT WAS the task of New London and of Rabbi Jacobs to serve such people and to keep them within the Jewish fold. It is not accidental that Jacobs did not give up the pulpit for the world of academia. He had every opportunity to do so in the outstanding universities and seminaries throughout the world, but he always felt that he needed contact with the people and not only the scholars.
Jacobs was quite conservative (with a small ‘c’) when it came to Jewish worship.
He loved what used to be called “minhag Anglia” which was basically a high-church form of worship, very formal. When he officiated he wore what was called “cannonicals,” a robe, high kippah and clerical collar. He was not enthusiastic about feminism, although he permitted separate seating for men and women without a physical mehitza, permitted women to wear a tallit and allowed them to speak from the pulpit and recite certain prayers. On the other hand, he was permissive in many matters of Jewish law. On Passover, for example, he permitted many food items that did not have a Passover hekhsher. He also allowed a mixed choir.
Jacobs wrote some 50 books, some quite scholarly, but many aimed at the inquiring laity. His theological beliefs remained constant.
The two main words in the title of “We Have Reason to Believe” were “reason” and “believe.” He was not interested in denying belief, but it finding a way to believe that did not require one to give up logic, reason and truth. His 1973 book “A Jewish Theology,” attempts to give a systematic guide to what a reasonable person can believe in today’s world. This book may well be his finest theological work. Although well written, it is not always easy to read, but it is well worth the effort. It demonstrates his immense knowledge of Jewish traditional sources as well as his acquaintance with non-Jewish theological and philosophical writings. It is simply astounding to see what he had mastered and the way in which he used his knowledge to arrive at a reasonable and coherent system of belief. Among other things he deals with belief in God, with an approach to Jewish law, observance of mitzvot, the place of prayer. He rejects some modern concepts such as Kaplan’s naturalism, as well as some traditional beliefs, such as medieval ideas of reward and punishment and Maimonides’ concept of the Messiah. “We must be frank enough to admit that we simply do not know what will happen in the Messianic Age” (page 300).
I am certain that some will find it too traditional; others will reject it as too radical.
Above all it is challenging and demanding.
To read his books is to come in contact with one of the most important Jewish thinkers of the modern age. At a time when the Jewish religion is more often the subject of politics and polemics, of minutiae and court decisions, we need to expose ourselves to the real questions of religious belief and to the debates of what Judaism really teaches and what can or cannot be acceptable. British Jewry missed a unique opportunity to be led by an extraordinary individual, who could have led it into a new era of creativity.
We at least can benefit from his genius.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a Jerusalem author and lecturer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly and a founder of the Masorti Movement in Israel.
His most recent book is ‘Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy’ (JPS), now available in a Hebrew edition published by Yedioth Books and the Schechter Institute.