One of the ironies of life is that when one is living through history one does not always realise that it is history and likewise one can be in the presence of a Tsaddik without always realising that one is in the presence of a Tsaddik. One may not know how great a Tsaddik Rabbi Jacobs is but it will be history that will make the true judgement. In my talks with him that constitute the basis of this article he related a story concerning a lenient judgement by one of the supreme Halachists—the Chafetz Chaim. When this was questioned by the more zealous of the community the story of Yonathan ben Uzziel one of the Talmudic Tannaim was recalled in which Yonathan ben Uzziel’s holiness was so powerful that if a bird flew over his head it would be singed. However if the bird flew over Hillel who was the teacher of Yonathan ben Uzziel then the bird would not be singed. Rabbi Jacobs is a Hillel whose holiness is his tolerance.
The atmosphere in the Jacobs’ home is a mixture of spirituality and hospitality against a background of aesthetic elegance and therefore an ideal location to discuss Rabbi Jacobs’ lifetime in Judaism. His latest publication A Tree of Life is in its second edition and contains a fascinating synopsis of the Halachic responsa on the question of Mamzeruth. In absorbing detail Rabbi Jacobs traces the development of the Halacha quoting sources from Maimonides to Vidal Yom Tov of Tolosa after which he looks at proposals to allay the pain of the Mamzer. On the Silberg Proposal in which the two lenient opinions of Maimonides and Nachmanides are combined to annul their two stricter opinions Rabbi Jacobs remarks that this is an example of “having one’s cake and eating it to try and produce a bond which gives the right to both parties in dispute.” This deduction by Rabbi Jacobs is itself based on a ruling in Tractate Pesachim 78a when Rabbi Jose is criticised for ruling in accordance with two conflicting opinions.
One of the central pillars of Jacobean thought is the concept of Torah Min Hashomayim. The absurd misconception that has gnawed at Rabbi Jacobs throughout his life is that he has abandoned it. As Rabbi Jacobs explained to me what he has, in fact abandoned is one particular theory on it. Implicit in Rabbi Jacobs’ theory of Torah Min Hashomayim is the inclusion of the development of the Halacha so that therefore Torah Min Hashomayim is ongoing. “G-D gave the Torah not just to the Jewish people but through the Jewish people.” In the blessing for bread one does not bless the wheat one blesses the bread hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz thus emphasising man’s participation in the process. The evolution of Halacha is participation in the process of Judaism and is therefore Torah Min Hashomayim. Rabbi Jacobs sums it up beautifully and succinctly “the quest for Torah is itself part of Torah.”
For Rabbi Jacobs Judaism’s genius lay in Tolui, the balancing of Judaism’s precepts, and is the basis of many of his memorable discourses. An example of Tolui is the interaction of rationalism and mysticism. Rabbi Jacobs compares it to the interaction of a string and a kite. Rational Judaism without mystical Judaism is like the kite grounded by the string and therefore not flying and mystical Judaism without rational Judaism is like the kite flying aimlessly in the air without the string to regulate it. The wisdom of the sages in demanding a knowledge of Gemara before learning Kabbalah is brilliantly illustrated by this analogy. Rabbi Jacobs’ original Jewish Mystical Testimonies in which “Jewish mystics bared their souls in describing their mystical experiences” is an example of the kite combined with the string.
Remarkably Rabbi Jacobs holds no bitterness towards Chief Rabbi Brodie whose actions thirty-five years ago caused Rabbi Jacobs to fly his own kite in setting up the New London Synagogue. It was Chief Rabbi Brodie’s interpretation of Rabbi Jacobs’ views on Judaism that caused him to take the actions that he took and he therefore acted without malice. This interpretation of the events of the Jacobs Affair by Rabbi Jacobs himself gives us an even greater insight into his inner character than the events themselves.
Rabbi Jacobs’ own Judaism evolved in the spiritual realms of Manchester Yeshiva and Gateshead Kollel among such alumni as the Mussarist Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, the Kabbalist Reb Yitzchak Hamasmid, Rabbi Jacobs’ own teacher Yitzchak Dubov and the head of the Manchester Beth Din Rabbi Rivkin. Rabbi Jacobs relates how he once interrupted Rabbi Rivkin, who Rabbi Jacobs describes as “a gentle soul with a thin, extremely soft voice,” putting on Shimusha Rabba Tephillen in the privacy of his home. This particular Tephillen is put on in secret as one has to be on a certain level to wear them and it would therefore embarrass those who were not able to wear them. It was Rabbi Dubov who influenced Rabbi Jacobs towards mystical Judaism and who introduced him to the great mystic Reb Yitzchak Hamasmid, later murdered in the Holocaust. Rabbi Jacobs recalls that during the sanctification of the New Moon that occurs when the New Moon is visible at night and where the prayers are said in the open “Reb Yitzchak Hamasmid would cry out that the very stones under our feet yearn to be trodden on by the students of G-D’s word.” One legacy of his Gateshead years is that Rabbi Jacobs regularly receives a copy of the Jewish Tribune so he is able to catch up on the comings and goings of his contemporaries and their descendants from those years that influenced him so much. It always strikes me that Rabbi Jacobs would be far happier discussing Torah with these people than having to discuss narishkeit with some of the “Louis” merchants that grab his arm in the Shabbath Kiddush.
One of the legacies that the New London Synagogue has inherited from Rabbi Jacobs is the intellectual calibre of its membership with names such as Lord Finniston, Basil Feldman, Ashe Lincoln and an assortment of countless judges and lawyers. Rabbi Jacobs relates how the Rumpole of British Jewry the late Ashe Lincoln zatsal approached him on Sedrah Korach and remarked “if I am fortunate enough to enter the World-to-come and am able to defend anyone who has lived on this Earth then I would choose Korach.” Whether Ashe Lincoln would win is not certain but Rabbi Jacobs and I both agreed what was certain was that he was practising in the World-to-come!
It is interesting to note that one of those who still refers to Rabbi Jacobs by his Yiddish name Leibel is his dear wife Shula. She can only be described as a selfless partner whose own wisdom understands Rabbi Jacobs’ wisdom. Mrs Jacobs relates that at her engagement she promised his Yeshiva Head Rabbi Moshe Yitzchak Segal of Navardok that she would look after all his needs so that he would be free to study and teach Torah. “Now that he is retired,” Shula jokes “I’ll teach him to make a cup of tea and to boil an egg.” Rabbi Jacobs other partner of thirty-five years is the emeritus Cantor of the New London Synagogue George Rothschild whose knowledge of Nusach, the correlation between the linguistic and musical meaning of the words, is renowned and who is often compared to the other exponent of Nusach Chazan Moshe Dubiner. Added to this his voice, Hebrew pronunciation and knowledge of Yiddishkeit, much of which emanates from his own Yeshiva background, made his partnership with Louis Jacobs resemble Nixon and Kissinger in their heyday and was one of the essential ingredients that contributed to the New London’s particular spiritual ambience. “Have you ever known”, Rabbi Jacobs asks rhetorically “that a rabbi and a chazan should work together for thirty-five years and not have a single argument?” Rabbi Jacobs’ third love, which is not generally known, is that of Chassidus. Not a sermon went by in the halcyon days of Rabbi Jacobs’ tenure in the New London without a reference to one of the great Chassidic Rebbes. The two that frequent most are the Kotske Rebbe and the Muncacher Rebbe Chayim Eliezar Shapira. Of the Muncacher whom he refers to as a “Hasidic master and Kabbalist” Rabbi Jacobs quotes a gentle reprimand given to the Chatham Sopher by the Muncacher concerning the Chatham Sopher’s apparent opposition to Kabbalah influencing Halachah “G-D forbid that this righteous Gaon should accuse those of mixing Halachah and Kabbalah as akin to sowing diverse seeds. It must have been a slip of the pen.” Rabbi Jacobs has produced three translations of Chassidic masters the largest of which is that of the Zhidakover Rebbe Turn away from evil and do good. The other two are of rival contemporaries Dov Baer of Lubavitch and Aaron of Starosselje. It was Rabbi Jacobs’ knowledge of Chassidus that enabled the Lubavitch Movement to retain its library. Rabbi Jacobs relates “I was called as a witness to explain Chassidism to the presiding American judge in the Lubavitch Library Affair and confirmed that Lubavitch, unlike other Chassidic groups, did not uphold the doctrine that the Rebbe had to live in lavish style in order to bring an abundant flow of Divine Grace. It was therefore inconceivable that the Lubavitch Chassidim would transfer to the Rebbe a huge and invaluable library.” It must also be mentioned that Rabbi Jacobs had two opportunities to visit the Rebbes of Belz and Lubavitch but did not take either. Once a Litvak always a Litvak!
Being a Litvak Rabbi Jacobs is inexorably linked to the Mussar movement which he describes “as often underrated in Judaism.” Mussar is rooted in ethical Judaism and is concerned in subjugating the evil force in order to do good. Rabbi Jacobs, himself, came under the influence of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, the great grandson of the founder of the Mussar movement Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. “He, in fact, preceded Freud as he believed that it was futile to try to engage in self-improvement on the surface level. Unless the unconscious mind were involved the character would remain unchanged.” A delightful story is told concening a bottle of perfume always kept in Rabbi Dessier’s room. After he passed away his Gabbai was asked why he kept it there “When he lost his wife he used her perfume to spray on his clothes so as the person who was washing his clothes wouldn’t smell a strange body odour. After her perfume ran out he kept on replacing it.” One doesn’t get more Mussardik than this.
For Rabbi Jacobs the Holocaust and the Ninth of Av are totally intertwined and each year would be totally immersed in deep thought on a low stool with the Tallis over his head contemplating “the greatest tragedy to ever befall World Jewry.” In 1939 Rabbi Jacobs was accepted for Telz Yeshiva. “I went to the rather shabby Lithuanian Consulate in Manchester to make the necessary arrangements and was all set to realise my dream when War broke out. Many years later when I was in Lithuania I visited the site of Telz Yeshiva and reflected what might have been.” Very little difference, one suspects, as it is the mark of a genius to be above the influence of his environment.
Well over thirty books have been written by the hand of Rabbi Jacobs and one of the most original and my personal favourite is Teyku which is an examination of all unresolved Talmudic arguments. Teyku is an acronym of Elijah the Prophet who in the days preceding the Messianic era will resolve all these arguments. By explaining why an argument is unresolved Rabbi Jacobs begins the process of solving it. Rabbi Jacobs explains why one of his masterpieces which won the Jewish Chronicle Book Award of 1974 began with an indefinite article. “I put an indefinite article in the book on Jewish Theology because on such a topic as Jewish Theology it seemed absurd to me for a writer to claim that his is the definitive work. As theology is bound to be vague by its very nature it is therefore better to be vaguely right than definitely wrong.” In a similar vein Rabbi Jacobs relates the background on an article about the nature of G-D that he wrote for the Dictionary of Jewish Theology. “I wrote to Arthur Cohen, the editor, telling him that he is asking me to do the impossible so that therefore the basis of my article will be why it is impossible to write this article!”
Rabbi Jacobs almost singlehandedly is attempting to retain what he sees as an essential ingredient of Judaism as a whole and which he defines as Minhag Anglia. The New London Synagogue with its genuine spiritual understatement, absorbing dialogue, beautiful renderings of the familiar Ashkenazic melodies and derech eretz influenced by British bonhomie was under Rabbi Jacobs the epitome of Minhag Anglia. The concern of Rabbi Jacobs is the creeping erosion of Minhag Anglia now that he is no longer at the helm. What generally accompanies the erosion of any established custom is a dumbing-down process as the motus-operandi is to increase popularity by simplification. A Minhag is like a fragile flower and it needs very little to destroy it. The New London Synagogue had an extra dimension given to it solely by Rabbi Jacobs and was based on Rabbi Jacobs’ undoubted sense of humour. No New London sermon was complete without at least one humorous anecdote. There was the one about the anti-Chassidic father of the Chassidic son who forbade his son to add the words wayitzmah purqonei meshihei to the mourner’s Kaddish after his passing away. As it was the Chassidic custom to add these words he was very troubled by this and on the passing-away of his father he went to his Rebbe for advice. “No problem”, said the Rebbe. “In the next world he will know the truth so you can say it the Chassidishe way.”
In the past three months the Chassidic Rebbes of Zutshke, Bobov, and Slonim have passed away. I ask Rabbi Jacobs how his Chassidim will manage without him. He tells me the story of the Kotske Rebbe who when he chastised his Chassidim for being too reverential found that they were then not reverential enough! There is no possibility of this happening with Rabbi Jacobs—he has got it just right.