Originally published in The Jewish News, 6th March 2014.
Fifty years ago, in February 1964, the Board of the New West End wrote to the president of the United Synagogue to protest the decision of the Chief Rabbi “to withhold consent to the recall of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs to the pulpit of this synagogue”. This signalled round two of the so-called Jacobs Affair, the first round of which had concerned the Chief Rabbi’s refusal to ratify Rabbi Jacobs’ appointment as principal of Jews’ College.
That May, Chief Rabbi Dr Israel Brodie issued a statement explaining his position. “Dr Jacobs,” he maintained, “has travelled far from the accepted norms of Judaism. [He] repeats the well-worn thesis that parts of the Torah are not divine but are man-made.” The latter claim was true. In 1957, Rabbi Jacobs published We Have Reason To Believe, later described as “the book that detonated modem British Jewry’s biggest religious crisis”.
In it, he argued that archaeological, historical and literary research required us to rethink the nature of revelation. The Torah could no longer be understood literally as “from heaven” but constituted God’s revelation not just to, but also through, human beings and reflected the conditions of its times. These insights could not be set aside on grounds of faith because they were based on fact and reason. Faith might transcend reason but never flout it Traditional, observant Judaism had to work with this new knowledge.
To Chief Rabbi Brodie, this was “directly opposed to Orthodox Jewish teaching” and no one holding such views would “obtain the approval of the Orthodox Ecclesiastical authority”. Rabbi Jacobs was not allowed to return to his former pulpit and the row reached the national press.
Angry with the decision, many New West End congregants chose to follow their rabbi and created the New London Synagogue, today a flourishing community celebrating its jubilee year under the leadership of Rabbi Jeremy Gordon.
Rabbi Jacobs devoted the rest of his life and extraordinary scholarship to “the Quest”, the formulation of a philosophy of Judaism open to truth, from whatever source, yet strictly observant and faithful to tradition. He never bowed to pressure and refused to depart from the path of faith coupled with integrity and reason. Shortly before he died, he was voted Anglo-Jewry’s greatest figure.
In 1974 came a second community, the New North London. With the advent of a third, an assembly of synagogues created what is today’s Masorti Judaism UK. With a dozen congregations, youth movement, its own Bet Din and kashrut licence, it is a strong presence in Anglo-Jewry and an important voice on Jewish learning, pluralism, egalitarianism and social justice. This shows the Jacobs Affair had creative, practical results.
But what is its theological significance today? The climate of ideas has changed. On one side is the New Atheism led by Richard Dawkins, and ever more complex scientific explanations of life from the micro-organism to the nature of the universe. On the other is the resurgence of fundamentalism, of religion seeking political power.
Rabbi Brodie condemned Rabbi Jacobs for saying the issue for many wasn’t “Why did God tell us to keep certain mitzvot?” but rather “Did God tell us to keep certain mitzvot?” Time has proved Rabbi Jacobs right. We need a discourse honest to truth, open to the most radical questions, yet rooted in Jewish law, values and spirituality.
We also need as many doorways into Judaism as possible. We should be proud to have thriving liberal, Reform, Masorti, Orthodox and Chasidic congregations in Britain. They should talk to each other about the real issues. The Jacobs Affair has helped make this debate possible.
Yet the core issue remains: what is the relationship between truth and holy scripture? This is key, not just for Judaism but for Christianity and Islam. We must read our holy texts within their contexts, historical, legal and moral, challenging as that is. We must do so with both humility and integrity. If we don’t, we risk misrepresenting as God’s eternal will what may be passing claims of power. Misusing God’s name is as dangerous for the world as closing our hearts to God altogether.
Rabbi Jacobs had the courage to be honest and the moral, intellectual and spiritual discipline to be faithful to Judaism. We need the same.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
New North London Synagogue