Borderline Views: Remembering Louis Jacobs

My father was one of three Orthodox rabbis of the time who openly supported Jacobs as a colleague and a teacher, bringing much of the communal strife into the family home.

The author's father and Louis Jacobs and his wife at the former’s retirement party in 1989. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The author's father and Louis Jacobs and his wife at the former’s retirement party in 1989.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In 2005, the Jewish Chronicle in Britain asked its readers to choose the most influential Jewish personality of the twentieth century in the UK. One person stood out, head and shoulders above any other name.
Rabbi Professor Louis Jacobs, whose ninth yartzheit is to be commemorated next week with a lecture at the New London Synagogue on the topic of Religion and the History of Violence.
Louis Jacobs is seen as having been the founder of Masorti Judaism (in some ways parallel to Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and theologian. He was also the focus of what has become known as “The Jacobs Affair” that took place in the British Jewish community in the early 1960s.
Jacobs studied at the most orthodox of yeshivot in both Manchester and Gateshead. Unlike most yeshiva students he then studied at University College London where he wrote his PhD. Following a stint as a rabbi in Manchester, he was appointed to one of Anglo Jewry’s larger and more prestigious communities, the New West End Synagogue in London in 1954.
This synagogue remains to this day one of the few large synagogues in Central London, renowned for is beauty and unique architecture, a listed heritage site and worth a visit when in London, even if it is not for the purpose of prayer.
At the same time as being the minister of the New West End, Jacobs also became a tutor at Jews’ College, London, where he taught Talmud and homiletics. He was, by the early 1960s, considered to be the obvious candidate to take over from Dr. Isidore Epstein when the latter retired as principal of the Rabbinical College.
This was seen as the obvious stepping stone on the path to eventually succeeding Sir Israel Brodie as the next chief rabbi when the position would become vacant in the mid 1960s.
But the Orthodox community took him to task over his critical and more academic approach to Orthodox teachings, particularly as they were expressed in one of his many books, entitled We Have Reason to Believe.
The bottom line of the book, based on his weekly lectures at the time, was the argument that Torah texts derive from multiple sources, rather than having been given verbatim and complete in their present form by God to Moses at Mount Sinai.
Chief rabbi Brodie, under pressure from the more Orthodox elements within the community, and without whose approval no such appointment could be made, opposed the invitation of Jacobs to take over as principal of Jews’ College.
Brodie then went further and prevented Jacobs from returning to his original synagogue as minister (from where he had stepped down in lieu of his new appointment as college principal), resulting in the establishment of a breakaway independent synagogue, the New London Synagogue located in Abbey Road (of Beatles fame) on the site of the old St Johns Wood Synagogue which, at that very time, was moving to newer and more modern premises.
This resulted in what became known throughout Britain and the Jewish world as the “Jacobs Affair.”
It made the front page of the national newspapers, including the Times, was a subject of debate on national radio and the BBC. It threw Anglo Jewry into much public turmoil and, to a large extent, determined the development of the community during the subsequent half-century, until the present time.
One of the more perverse incidents to occur at the time was the ripping out of the official seat of the chief rabbi from the old synagogue (which was purchased secretly and without the knowledge of the United Synagogue concerning the identity of the purchasers) so that it would not, God forbid, be used by Jacobs.
He remained minister of this synagogue until 2000, just a few years prior to his death. The New London became the “parent” of the Masorti movement in the United Kingdom, which now numbers several congregations, although Jacobs himself was not an institution builder and was never eager to establish a separate synagogue movement as such.
For a long period, and despite Jacobs’ impeccable personal Orthodox credentials, the New London synagogue under his leadership was subject to hostility.
He continued as an eminent scholar, the writer of many books on Judaism and theology, including some authoritative works on Hassidism despite his own rigid Lithuanian background and practices. His weekly talks and lessons attracted hundreds of people from throughout London – ranging from Orthodox to Reform – who came for one purpose only: to be educated by the person who had become, without a shadow of doubt, the pre-eminent Jewish scholar of the Anglo Jewish community.
Ironically, at the time of the Jacobs Affair, the United Synagogue, self defined as an Orthodox institution, was far less Orthodox in its make up than it is today. Many of the lay leaders of the time, who blindly followed the rulings of the then chief rabbi and were largely responsible for forcing Jacobs out, were not themselves Orthodox and rarely studied Jewish theology or religion, and were largely ignorant of what the theological debate was actually about. But this became transformed into the cause celebre of the Anglo Jewish community of the second half of the twentieth century, affecting the later development of the community.
Since that time, there have been only three chief rabbis: Lord Emanuel Jakobovitz, Lord Jonathan Sacks and the present incumbent Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. Both Jakobovitz and Sacks were scholars in their own right and each attempted, as best as possible, to put the Jacobs affair to one side, as they respected his great scholarship, were in private contact with him (they only lived five minutes away as the official home of the British chief rabbi until two years ago remained in the St Johns Wood neighborhood) but never going as far as publicly accepting his theology, for fear of upsetting the right-wing and Orthodox elements within the community.
Sacks himself was subject to Orthodox critique from the direction of Gateshead when he, too, published a book, as recently as 2000, with the most minor of comments that were perceived as critical.
He was forced to withdraw these comments from the second edition in what could easily have become new Jacobs Affair-type saga, if not for the fact that he was already the chief rabbi.
It is hard to imagine the immense reverberations of this theological conflict which took place in Anglo Jewry of the 1960s – a community which, until Sacks, had not played a major role in the development of Jewish theology and alternative religious ways of life and belief when compared with either Israel or the United States. Since his retirement two years ago, Sacks has developed a new lease of life as, without the constraints of the United Synagogue, he is able to bring the full impact of his eloquence and teachings to a wider Jewish public well beyond the shores of Albion.
But it was Jacobs, the individual, who gained international status as the pre-eminent Jewish theologian of the period, bringing in its wake many academic honors in both North America and Israel. He became associated with the Oxford Postgraduate Centre for Hebrew Studies where, eventually, following his death, his immense library was donated, and which now has well attended occasional seminars and conferences in his memory.
My father was one of three Orthodox rabbis of the time who openly supported Jacobs as a colleague and a teacher, bringing much of the communal strife into the family home. There were Orthodox families in the schools we attended (in Stamford Hill) who refused to let their children play with us or come to our homes because of the fact that our father was sympathetic to the “heretical” beliefs of Jacobs. They were prevented from attending family bar mitzvah celebrations, although it did not go as far as being expelled from the strictly Agudat Israel Avigdor school which we attended.
Going through my father’s papers following his death, I came across letters which were written to him by the honorary officers of the United Synagogue at the time (1964-65) expressly forbidding him from holding any discussions of Louis Jacobs’ theology, even for educational purposes, on the premises of his own synagogue. And when, at a later stage, my father joined Jacobs in teaching Talmud to rabbinical students at the Leo Baeck college, he received a strict reprimand from the then chief rabbi, Lord Jakobovitz, asking him, at the very least, to teach at home rather than on the premises of the college itself, as this would be interpreted as breaking the discipline of British Jewish orthodoxy.
At the most recent Limmud conference, which took place in the UK last December, a symposium including the children of the three Orthodox rabbis who supported Jacobs publicly, Rabbis Sidney Gold, Isaac Levy and Isaac Newman (many supported him privately but were too afraid to openly declare their views of this great teacher and scholar), reminisced on the Jacobs Affair and the many ramifications it had at that time, and for the subsequent development of the community until today – a community which has undergone huge change in all directions.
Some attended the symposium for nostalgia reasons, remembering the Jacobs Affair as part of their own growing up experience, while the younger attendants (of whom there were many) were gobsmacked to think that such repression of Jewish teaching could have taken place such a short time ago and in such an enlightened society as the UK.
Without in any way denigrating two impressive and outstanding chief rabbis – Jakobovitz and Sacks – who have led the community in the interim period, it is the view of many that Anglo Jewry lost its most eminent leader of the time. His yartzheit this coming week serves to remind us of what happens when we, in the Jewish community, seek to boycott or excommunicate others for their beliefs (and in this particular case it was all the more surprising given Jacobs own impeccable Orthodox way of life).
For a community which is so opposed to any form of boycotts when they are practiced against us (witness the recent hysteria about BDS), we are, unfortunately, pretty good at practicing them within the community, be it Orthodox against secular (as in the case of the Jacobs Affair) or Right against Left (as in the most recent case of Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev against theater which doesn’t share her own political views). A sad case of double standards, within which religion plays a major role.
It is perhaps a lesson which should be learned by the present narrow-minded and highly political Chief Rabbinate in Israel when it seeks to prevent those rabbis, such as Shlomo Riskin, who have a broader approach to Jewish life, from practicing within the community because his views are deemed too “liberal” (whether Riskin desires to be labeled a “liberal” is another matter altogether).
Jacobs and Riskin were two entirely different people; one was an eminent scholar, the other a highly successful community rabbi. They lived in different societies (UK and US-Israel) and in completely different time periods in terms of the development of Jewish thought. There are opportunities and avenues of religious practice and ritual open today which could not have been dreamed of by Jacobs 50 years ago, and I am not convinced that given his highly formal and “high church” approach to Jewish ritual, he would have been personally sympathetic to every contemporary mode and every style.
But Jacobs and Riskin serve as examples of the obstacles faced by pre-eminent teachers who seek to challenge and make Judaism relevant and significant to a rapidly changing world, who seek to preserve their religious and traditional lifestyles as something meaningful, while at the same time moving beyond the strict and rigid confines of the ultra-Orthodox “thought ghetto.”
It is only fitting that Louis Jacobs should be remembered for the scholar and the teacher that he was.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.