Originally published on 22 May 2004.
For reasons which will become evident momentarily, this morning I would like to give a different sort of drasha. Today I want to introduce you to an underappreciated Jewish scholar of our time—a Rabbi by the name of Louis Jacobs. The most immediate reason to speak about Rabbi Jacobs is that the trajectory of his career has taken place largely in England, and this morning with the friends and guests of the Rosenblatt family present, it seems like a particularly fitting moment to discuss the significant contributions of Anglo-Jewry—Louis Jacobs being high on the list. For Anshe Emet, there is a personal connection to Rabbi Jacobs. He served as one of the editors of the festschrift volume “Three Score and Ten” in honor of our own late Rabbi Seymour Cohen Z’L. He was also a contemporary and colleague of the grandfather of the present Rabbi-in-Residence, my grandfather, the Reverend Dr. I. K. Cosgrove Z’L, a congregational Rabbi in Glasgow Scotland, a relationship to which we will return in a few minutes. As a rabbinical student, I served a monthly pulpit in London and I have fond memories of sitting for tea with Rabbi Jacobs as we discussed both Jewish thought and memories of my Grandfather, a man I never knew. Slightly more important, however—and here is where we really begin—is that this month marks the 40th anniversary of a major watershed moment in Anglo-Jewry, what is referred to as the “Jacobs Affair.” And, should there be anyone who is not naturally intrigued by British Jewry, nor by Cosgrove family history, nor by the “Jacobs Affair,” then rest easy, for you will soon come to see that to understand the issues surrounding the “Jacobs Affair,” one must come face to face with the real topic of this Pre-Shavuot Shabbat, the topic of revelation and the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai.
Born into a non-religious working class family in Manchester, England in 1920, Rabbi Jacobs became devoutly religious as a boy and studied in a traditional Yeshiva eventually leading up to his ordination at Jews College. Jews College is the training ground for ministers in England, associated with the United Synagogue which is the British association of Orthodox ministers. His erudition, piety, and zeal made him the favorite son of Modern Orthodoxy and at the age of 34 he was called to the pulpit of the very fashionable New West End Synagogue. On the fast track, he was soon called to teach at Jews College with the promise that he was being groomed to be principal of the College. There was even talk that this position itself would serve as a stepping stone for the presumptive next Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. While a lecturer, Rabbi Jacobs published prolifically. The most significant book for our discussion was the best selling We Have Reason to Believe, which expressed certain progressive ideas concerning Revelation, the nature of Torah, and what actually happened at Mount Sinai.
A few years later, when the time came for Jacobs’ promotion to principal of the college, his appointment was blocked by the then Chief Rabbi Sir Israel Brodie. The controversy grew and the stalemate at Jews’ College continued for two years as Brodie would not approve of Jacobs’ appointment and the officers of the college would not appoint anyone else. Finally, Jacobs resigned from his position to return to congregational life, and it should be noted that all the officers of Jews College but one resigned in protest.
The next round of controversy soon began as Jacobs turned to his old pulpit, which had just recently been vacated by the distinguished Rabbi Chaim Pearl who had gone, ironically, to serve a Conservative congregation in Riverdale, New York. In order to understand what happened next, you need to know that in England, in order to take up a United Synagogue pulpit, you must be approved by the Chief Rabbi, and, to make a long story short, Jacobs’ certification process was denied. By this time the story had not only made it into the Jewish press, but also the secular press as well who delighted to record the brouhaha in the Jewish world. The synagogue board of management ignored the Chief Rabbi, and the Chief Rabbi’s office responded by dismissing the board of the rebellious Synagogue. And so, it was in May of 1964, forty years ago this past week that Rabbi Jacobs set up shop in a recently vacated synagogue in St. John’s Wood. His first sermon as a Rabbi was last week’s parasha, Behar-Behukkotai. The subject, appropriately was Freedom.
Strangely, it is a personal element which brings to a close the details of the Jacobs Affair. Upon creating an independent synagogue, he looked around for like-minded progressive Orthodox rabbis. He called on my Grandfather, the issue came up for a vote in his Glasgow synagogue and was passed by the board but rejected by the synagogue membership. Jacobs’ hopes for the creation of a third movement between orthodoxy and liberal Judaism never materialized. In a sense, the Jacobs Affair is not so much a turning point as the story of a road not traveled. The fact that 40 years later, the Conservative movement in England, or Masorti at it is called, is still in the embryonic stage of flying in Rabbinical students for monthly pulpits on a shoestring budget speaks volumes. With very few exceptions, British Jews find themselves caught between the switches of an Orthodoxy lacking intellectual rigor and a liberal Judaism lacking spiritual vigor. And while I applaud the efforts of the Masorti movement, especially those of Chicago’s own Rabbi Carl Wolkin to salvage the legacy of Rabbi Jacobs, from my vantage point, my personal contacts there, and my annual trips to visit my granny—there isn’t all that much to talk about.
And, now that you all know what the Jacob’s affair is, we have one final question to answer, namely, just what exactly did Rabbi Jacobs write that began the controversy in the first place. So, with an eye towards Shavuot (“Sof ma’aseh b’mahshava tehila—the final act, the first in intention”), let’s get into it. The dispute between Jacobs and the British Chief Rabbi centered around two irreconcilable views concerning “Torah min Hashamayim,” the doctrine of “Torah from Heaven”. Jacobs refused to embrace the fundamentalist position of those who believe the Torah to have been literally dictated by God and Jewish law to be the revealed word of God. With this view, Jewish religious commitment becomes an either/or proposition, either one accepts Torah as dictated by God, or one may as well give up on Judaism all together. Such a view, argues Jacobs, dismisses the findings of critical scholarship, geology, zoology, anthropology, archeology, biblical criticism, critical reasoning and the basics of intellectual integrity to name just a few concessions. It should be noted that in his book “We Have Reason to Believe,” Jacobs is critical of liberal Jews as well. You may find it interesting that the contemporary he picks on to show the deficiencies of liberal Judaism, was our own Rabbi Ira Eisenstein Z’L. Liberals, he claims, believe that if the Torah is truly just a human document, then its laws and precepts are no more binding than the back of a cereal box. For Jacobs, both Orthodox and Liberal Judaism commit what is known as the “genetic fallacy,” namely that the merit of an idea or institution is to be judged by its origin. The world for Jacobs was divided into two options: If you believe in Torah from Heaven, then you must follow it scrupulously as it is the expressed will of God, if not, then there is no reason to follow it at all.
The contribution of Jacobs is his proposition that there is another way: namely, there is a way to acknowledge that revelation contains both a human and a divine element, and that it can still be compelling and commanding. He suggests the metaphor of a person listening to a gramophone record of the great opera singer Caruso. We cannot hear Caruso sing, but we can do the next best thing by buying a recording of the great master’s voice. There will inevitably be distortions and imperfections, it is far from perfect, but at the end of the day, it is still the voice of Caruso, it is a record of a real moment. As this metaphor unfolds, and please note that I am merely giving a thumbnail sketch of his thought, Jacobs’ view does not insist on Torah being the verbatim word of God, but a record of revelation, and, as such, open to critical analysis. Revelation for Jacobs was not a one-time event at Mount Sinai, but is a continuous engagement with the word of God. Authority is not to be found in the sages of antiquity, nor in the innovations of modernity, but in the persistent and consistent interface between the community of Israel and the Torah. Or as Jacobs quotes Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, “The search for Torah is itself Torah.”
And, you would be correct, if you are thinking that there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between what Jacobs is suggesting and what is preached by most Conservative Rabbis. Like our Bar-Mitzvah Elias today who chanted the haftorah in the British trope, it could be said that the accomplishment is the same but the community is grateful for the added elegance in getting the task done. The controversy of the “Jacobs Affair,” the accusations of heresy seem to be derived not so much by what he said, but by his historical moment and context. Jacobs’ views approximate the views of the founding fathers of Conservative Judaism: the Zechariah Frankels, the Solomon Schechters and the Louis Ginzbergs of the world who held that the source of Jewish authority is not simply in the Torah, but in the experience of the people of Israel. And, like Conservative Judaism, there are problems with taking the middle position. How exactly does Jacobs’ balancing act play out? How does one know if a certain verse is the authentic voice of God and another one is a scratch on the record? How exactly does one gauge the collective will of the people of Israel? If the Jewish population survey found that only 10% percent of the Jewish world kept kosher, does that mean that Kashrut is no longer binding? Who decides when a modern ethic or a personal sensibility wins out over the authority of the Torah? It is far easier being a good liberal or Orthodox Jew than trying to find some sort of middle ground that dignifies the authority of revelation and the integrity of your intellect. Jacobs had those options before him, and at great sacrifice, chose to maintain a religious posture which was spiritually uplifting and intellectually grounded. The fact that he was able to do so in a way which was lucid and engaging is remarkable indeed.
With Shavuot in mind, let me leave you, with the final words that Louis Jacobs said to me as I left his home on one visit. He had been sharing his views on revelation, what really happened at Mount Sinai. Specifically, we had been discussing the doctrine of “Torah min Hashmayim,” literally translated as Torah, “min” the preposition meaning “from” and “Hashamayim” “the heavens.” He said: “Elliot, the whole controversy, surrounding me, the controversy facing Judaism, is based on what those words mean, “Torah min Hashamayim.” Does the word “Torah” mean just the oral law, the written law, the five books, the whole Hebrew Bible? And then Shamayim, “the heavens.” Does it mean God? Does it mean a human hand? Did God actually dictate it with the divine voice? Everyone is so concerned where exactly this document of Torah comes from. But you know what Elliot, you know what word really concerns me and should concern you, the word that nobody pays attention to, the word “Min,” the word “from.” Because this is the word which signals the transmission of Torah, this is the word of tradition being passed on and studied from one generation to another. The word “min” is the lynchpin, for without this little word, there is no Torah, without this word, there is no Shamayim.
We in this room may all hold very different views of the nature of Torah and the nature of “Shamayim.” Our estimations of the legacy of Louis Jacobs may range from a negative dismissal, to profound admiration, to disappointment that he was not bold enough. In these days before Shavuot, I would ask that we all join in common cause and direct our attention to that overlooked but essential word signifying the transmission, learning and diffusion of Torah. It is my hope that we allow ourselves to hear the voice of Sinai not just this week, but every day of the year as we engage in the sacred texts of our tradition, an Israel attuned and attentive to the living word of God.