Originally published in NorthWest Magazine, July 2000, pp. 16-17.
A Man of Reason
On the eve of his retirement from the New London Synagogue, Maggie Currey talks to Rabbi Louis Jacobs about his controversial career.
For many in St John’s Wood’s Jewish community, 22 July 2000 will mark the end of an era. For on that Saturday, a few days after his 80th birthday, Rabbi Louis Jacobs is to retire from the New London Synagogue on Abbey Road, where he has presided for more than 35 years following one of the most turbulent episodes in the history of his faith in London.
Louis Jacobs is a professor and scholar of repute with a PhD in Jewish Historical Studies. He has written more than 40 books, worked at Harvard and lectured widely in America. For his services to British education and Jewish scholarship, he was made a CBE in 1990. But though this long and fruitful career has made him a revered figure in the world of Anglo-Jewry, it has scant resonance for those outside it.
What many older readers of all faiths are likely to remember, however, is the “Jacobs Affair”, which began quietly in the late 1950s with the publication of his book, We Have Reason to Believe. It was to cause great controversy because it expressed his belief that the Torah (Jewish laws) comes from God, but develops through the dynamism of the people, and reached crisis-point in the 1960s, prompting the great cartoonist Osbert Lancaster to picture the Archbishop of Canterbury saying to the Chief Rabbi: “You must be glad that the Bishop of Woolwich is a goy (non-Jew).” (The bishop had recently written Honest to God, creating a similar furore for the Anglican Church).
Such was the charismatic scholar’s impact in the media that he subsequently found himself much in demand as a speaker and sage, and even technical adviser to Barbara Streisand on her 1982 movie, Yentl. At the same time, he was once again headline news when he clashed with the Jewish establishment over matters of orthodoxy, but he rode the storm and support for him remained undiminished.
I went along to the rabbi’s home on Clifton Hill, and later to his imposing, Byzantine-style synagogue, to learn about him and the controversy that has pursued him down the years, and provides the key to his outlook. He expresses it this way: “I am an Englishman as well as a Jew and although my faith is traditional, it is not fundamentalist. It is tolerant, the type of Anglo-Jewish orthodoxy that strikes a compromise—muddles through, if you like—and possesses an inherent liberalism that the right-wing fundamentalists of the 1950s and 1960s found intolerable.” What simple example can he give of this compromise approach to his faith? He shrugs. “In the New London, I have mixed choirs but not mixed seating, and we do not pray for the restoration of sacrifices.” (In more strictly orthodox synagogues, these are part of prayers for the restoration of the Temple of Israel.)
His is a pragmatic approach that was influenced by his background as the only child of Harry Jacobs, a Manchester factory manager. “We were orthodox, but no more than the average Jewish working-class family and my father thought I should have my head examined when I said that I wanted to go to theological college.” He was rabbi by his early 20s. After six years in Manchester, he was appointed to the prestigious New West End Synagogue at St Petersburgh Place, Bayswater— “the anglicised synagogue par excellence” —where he led a devoted congregation. But ready to move on, he was offered the job of tutor at Jews’ College, on the understanding that he would take over as head when the principal retired.
By this time, We Have Reason to Believe was out, and Jacobs’ beliefs had caused dismay among right wingers m the Jewish establishment. It was this, he believes, that provoked such resistance to his widely supported accession to the leadership of the college, opposition that the then Chief Rabbi (later Sir) Israel Brodie could not counter. In the face of this politicising of the dispute, Jacobs resigned in 1961. He was deeply hurt by the establishment’s rejection of him and resolved to return to St Petersburgh Place. “But that, too, was opposed—again, the issue had become political.”
It had also become widely publicised by the media, delighted to find yet another thundering row in the realms of the faithful. This one took a dramatic turn when Rabbi Jacobs, banned from the Bayswater Synagogue, was appointed to the old ‘cathedral’ synagogue building in Abbey Road and the Bayswater congregation moved there en masse. “Rift Empties Synagogue Seats” clamoured the front page headline of The Observer on 26 July 1964 and other papers followed suit, though the Jewish Chronicle remained the robust supporter of the rabbi that it has been since the 1950s.
Thus came the Bayswater congregation to the synagogue that became the flagship of the Masorti (traditional) movement. Today, its members number about 1000, which sounds like a lot of worshippers in the Third Millennium—but how many of them are the younger generation? “Not as many as we would like, but my son, Ivor, established a group in Finchley and many of the younger ones and their families are now there.”
Which brings him to the joy of his life: his family. The rabbi, whose piercing eyes belie a wry sense of humour, smiles whenever he mentions them and particularly when he talks about Shula, his wife of nearly 55 years. Both their sons, Ivor and David, are in London with their families, but their daughter Naomi, is married to an Israeli, and there is anxiety there. For both those granddaughters have served in the Israeli army and soon the grandson must do so. “But we are ‘dove-ish’ and optimistic about the future; there must be a compromise solution,” says this most moderate of Englishmen.
And the work goes on. Earlier this year he presented two of the main lectures at the annual Limmud, a scholarly symposium on the Jewish faith that attracted 2000 people to Nottingham University. Last year, more books were published, including Beyond Reasonable Doubt; Jacobs’ update on We Have Reason to Believe, and the OUP’s Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion.
His successor has a hard act to follow. Anne Cowen, chairman of the New London Synagogue, who will be hosting the farewell lunch after Rabbi Jacobs’ final service, praises his leadership, inspired teaching, scholarship, commitment and unstinting service to his congregation, the Masorti movement and Anglo-Jewry. “He is a unique Rabbi, a wonderful human being—and above all, a mensch,” she says.