Incorruptible and widely esteemed scholar whose career was abruptly derailed by the Chief Rabbinate
July 17, 1920 – July 1, 2006
The final drama in the eventful life of Louis Jacobs came last December. He was told by the Jewish Chronicle, the communal weekly, that he had easily come top of a poll that the paper had run to mark the opening of the 350th anniversary year of the return of the Jews to Britain under Cromwell – they had been expelled by King Edward I in 1290.
The aim of the poll was to find “the greatest British Jew of all time”. Jacobs won nearly twice as many votes as the runner-up, the l9th-century philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, and was well ahead of Benjamin Disraeli, who came only sixth. His own immediate reaction was modest and utterly self-depreciatory: “I feel embarrassed,” he said, and lapsing into his native Mancunian lingo, added forcefully, “and daft.”
The drama that changed and overshadowed Jacobs’s entire life, and made Anglo-Jewish history, was his expulsion from the major religious organisation, the United Synagogue.
Jacobs, with his charisma, easy oratory, deep learning and prodigious intellect, was the rising star in its rabbinate. By his mid-thirties he was rabbi of the New West End Synagogue in St Petersburgh Place, Bayswater, one of the United Synagogue’s most prestigious congregations with Lord (Herbert) Samuel, a former Home Secretary and High Commissioner for Palestine, as one of its leading members. In what little spare time he had, Jacobs had also started writing the stream of scholarly books on Judaism that became his life’s oeuvre.
As a result he was nominated to become principal of Jews’ College, a London University satellite, which trained rabbis and teachers for Anglo-Jewry. It was also regarded as the last staging post towards the Chief Rabbinate – a function it performed some two decades later for Sir Jonathan Sacks, the present Chief Rabbi.
At that point Israel Brodie, then Chief Rabbi, whose previous l4 years in the post had attracted little notice, stepped in. Under pressure from the little-known but powerful members of his rabbinic court, the Beth Din, he suddenly declared Jacobs to be unfit for the post and barred him from it.
Brodie gave his official reasons to be Jacobs’s “published views”. He added that he was also “having regard to the standards of outstanding scholarship and other qualifications required for the office of principal”. In the view of every other rabbi and academic of standing within the Anglo-Jewish community, Jacobs’s intellect and scholarship were well above those of recent holders of the post of principal.
The cause of this intervention lay in a little book that Jacobs had published in l956 called We Have Reason to Believe. In that he set out the accepted views of the biblical scholarship of the late 19th and 20th centuries, that the first five books of the Bible, known in Judaism as Torah, were the product of several authors and editors.
In his later and greater work, Principles of the Jewish Faith, Jacobs insisted that he accepted Halakha, Jewish religious law, in all its scope and severity, and as such he remained “orthodox” or “neo-orthodox”.
Although those statements would not raise an eyebrow among the bulk of Anglo-Jewry, they were anathema to Brodie and those around him. Their “orthodoxy” continued to demand that the Five Books of Moses be regarded as having been dictated, word for word, by God to Moses on Mount Sinai around the year 1250BC. For daring to challenge that view with scholarship, Jacobs was deemed by Brodie and the rabbis around him as unfit either to run Jews’ College or to return to his Bayswater pulpit, as he was invited to do. The ban meant that, from the moment in l962 that Brodie pronounced it until Jacobs died, he was barred from preaching or otherwise officiating in any of the 63 congregations of the United Synagogue, and in dozens more that accepted the authority of the Chief Rabbinate.
Overnight the popular preacher had become a pariah. This ban had an unhappy echo three summers ago when Jacobs was visiting the Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation privately one Saturday prior to the marriage of a granddaughter there. According to custom, he was to be invited to say a benediction during the reading of the weekly lesson from the handwritten Torah scroll. The invitation was withdrawn at the last moment on the orders of the London Beth Din, the Court of Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, and its chief executive judge, Rabbi Chanoch Ehrentreu.
That public snub received wide publicity within the Anglo-Jewish community and was met with widespread indignation as “petty” and “vindictive”. For Jacobs was by then 82 and retired, and the occasion had been a family celebration.
It added to his status as a “martyr”, which he never sought and never for one moment enjoyed. Only in his later years did he occasionally betray signs of bitterness at his “excommunication” from orthodoxy, and his exclusion from a mainstream career that had promised to remain as glittering as it had begun.
Louis Jacobs was born in Manchester in 1920. After attending Manchester Central High School and Manchester Talmudical College, he earned his PhD at University College London and was appointed rabbi at Manchester Central Synagogue in 1948. He was appointed to the New West End Synagogue, London, in 1954.
When he was barred from the synagogue in 1962, some of its leading members defected and bought a synagogue which, ironically, the United Synagogue had just vacated, in Abbey Road, St John’s Wood. There they founded an independent congregation, known as the New London Synagogue, with Louis Jacobs as its rabbi. It was less than a mile from the studios from which the Beatles were conquering the pop music world. Jacobs’s standing and popularity were such at the time of his expulsion that many expected him to start a rival movement which, it was thought, could have commanded the allegiance of the majority of Anglo-Jewry. But he was more scholar than evangelist or rebel leader. His failure to start such a movement may be seen with hindsight as a missed opportunity. But it simply was not the nature of the man.
A small movement, named Masorti, did over the following decades grow around him, almost in spite of himself. It hailed him as its “spiritual leader”. Its growth has been hampered by lack of resources, human and financial. And it now consists of only a few thousand members spread over some ten congregations, more than half too small to support a full-time rabbi.
Jacobs, apart from his pastoral, teaching and preaching duties at the New London Synagogue, concentrated on his writing and lecturing.
He was a visiting professor at the University of Lancaster from l987. Among a series of visiting lectureships and professorships he was at Harvard Divinity School during the academic year l985-86.
Books on all aspects of Judaism, its mainstream theology, its mysticism, and on the devout, emotional and mystical movement known as Chassidism, poured from his pen annually. He had a deep love and absolute command of the multivolume Talmud, and knew large tracts of it by heart. His weekly lectures on it, held at Abbey Road on Monday evenings between October and April every year, became a cult event and attracted devotees from all over London. They were spiced with quotations not only from Jewish religious but also from English literature, running through Shakespeare, Shaw and Shelley, for he had an encyclopaedic command of general as well as theological culture.
Although personally kind and approachable, Jacobs was also a loner. Few if any of his chief writings, although crammed with quotations from other scholars, contain acknowledgements for help, inspiration or collaboration to any of his contemporaries. He was utterly his own man, a figure of towering intellect and incorruptible integrity.
In his later years the tide of history seemed to beach him. In his synagogue he maintained strict separation between men and women, as tradition demanded, with women confined to a gallery. But in an increasingly egalitarian society, this lost him support, and the membership of the New London Synagogue began to dwindle.
History may confirm the popular verdict of last December’s poll as Jacobs easily outranking Montefiore and most other contenders, though Disraeli may be another matter.
His place in history is forever secure as the man who sought heroically to bring Anglo-Jewish orthodoxy into the 20th century, and was rewarded with martyrdom. And the pellucid clarity and profound scholarship of his writings on all aspects of Judaism secure his place as a lasting teacher.
Jacobs was appointed CBE in l990. His marriage to Sophie Lisagorska, known as Shula, lasted for 60 years. She predeceased him last autumn, and he is survived by one daughter and two sons.