Distinguished but controversial minister at the centre of a theological dispute that split British Jewry
by Michael Freedland and Rabbi Jonathan Romain
Louis Jacobs, who has died aged 85, should be remembered as an outstanding Jewish theologian, preacher, teacher and communicator. Instead, his memorial will be the fact that around him centred an event that threatened to become the biggest schism in Anglo-Jewish history.
The events in 1964 that came to be known as “the Jacobs Affair” dominated not just the Jewish media but the whole of Fleet Street and the newsrooms of both the BBC and ITN. Not that Jacobs himself was a willing participant in the affair. He was dragged into it by the religious establishment of the day.
It could be said that the reasons behind it all were the results of his own sincerity and honesty. The problem was that in 1957 Jacobs had written We Have Reason to Believe – a book intended to demonstrate his faith as an Orthodox rabbi and as a Jew exposed to biblical study, who had noted the results of theological criticism over the years. For the ultra-Orthodox section of the community, this latter was close to heresy.
Few at the time took much notice of that antagonism to Jacobs or his book. He was minister of the fashionable New West End synagogue in Bayswater, west London. When he had written the book, no one beyond the more extreme groups was much concerned. But four years later, in 1961, Jacobs was invited to become principal of the nation’s number one theological seminary, Jews College. He had previously accepted the post of head of studies, with the understanding that within a short time he would become principal.
This was when the trouble started. Alfred Silverman, secretary of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization in London, decided that Jacobs was far too dangerous a man to occupy such an important position. What Jacobs had questioned, he said, was the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim (“The Law is from Heaven”), a fundamental Jewish belief – and a charge that Jacobs refuted. But Silverman informed the then Chief rabbi, Sir Israel Brodie, who issued a ban on Jacobs taking up the post. It was generally agreed that what he was really trying to do was to prevent Jacobs succeeding him as chief rabbi in 1966.
Indeed, for the past three or four years, Jacobs had been mooted as Brodie’s successor. He had all the right qualifications: he was a young, attractive figure, a family man who was well-spoken but had a distinct Manchester accent (a British accent at the time was regarded as a huge asset – Brodie, who had been educated at Oxford, spoke like a don); he had an enviable academic record and had served with distinction in an important pulpit.
Jacobs had been born in Manchester, the son of a worker in a raincoat factory. He went to the Manchester Central high school for boys and then, when his parents could not meet the fees, to Cheetham senior school. From there, he moved to Manchester Yeshiva (or talmudical college) and on to University College London and Jews College.
His first post was as assistant rabbi at an ultra-Orthodox synagogue in Golders Green, north London. In 1947, he was appointed minister of the prestigious Manchester Central synagogue. He went to the New West End in 1954, which he described as “the Anglicized synagogue par excellence”. He remained there until taking up the post at Jews’ College. Two years after the ban on his going back to Bayswater, the row over We Have Reason to Believe blew up again, this time stronger than before.
The problem was still Jacobs’ book. He had written that he regarded the Bible (or rather the Old Testament) as divinely inspired – hence his acceptance of Torah min hashamayim – but could not accept that it was written by the hand of God. This did not affect the holiness of the book but, as he explained, “The view accepted by Orthodoxy today seems to be that even the words ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses’ were themselves ‘spoken by God’. In We Have Reason to Believe, and in other books, I have tried to show why the majority of well-informed Jews today do not, and cannot, accept this fundamentalist picture, for all its grandeur.”
However, the point made by Jacobs in a later edition was “I ‘reasonably believed’ at the time that the book was fully compatible with the somewhat tepid Orthodoxy then prevailing in Anglo-Jewry. When I presented the book to the chief rabbi, he accepted it without the slightest objection to any of its contents; though I still do not know whether he bothered then to read it.”
Those people who believed everything was written by God also claimed to have seen codes in the Torah, indicating the coming of AIDS and Hitler. They were, Jacobs said, talking “nonsense [that] only succeeds in turning the Torah into a book of magic and reduces Judaism to something like an Old Moore’s Almanac.” This was anathema to fundamentalist Jews, but expressed what most Jews – and, it had to be said, most Orthodox Jews – actually believed.
The final catalyst came in 1964, when the then New West End minister left for the United States and Jacobs was invited back to his old pulpit as his successor’s replacement. The chief rabbi withheld Jacobs’ licence to occupy a United Synagogue pulpit. The president of the United Synagogue, Ewen Montagu, resigned, to be followed by numerous members of his board.
The Jewish Chronicle initiated a campaign on Jacobs’ behalf, and the Sunday Times joined in the fun, week after week, treating the story with almost the delight it would have shown had it discovered that the Pope was being excommunicated. Which was precisely what was about to happen to Jacobs. The chief rabbi called a meeting of religious leaders, explaining his reasons for barring the man regarded as the most able and cultured rabbi in Britain. Most other ministers accepted Brodie’s stance, and so did the newly constituted board of the United Synagogue, led by Sir Isaac Wolfson.
There were rabbis who dissented from the official view. There were also members of the organization who now lined up on Jacobs’ behalf, and decided that if he could not get a United Synagogue job, they would establish an independent body to which he could minister.
At that moment, there was a delicious irony at work. The St John’s Wood synagogue, in north-west London, was about to move to a new building, and its old premises were for sale. Without anyone in the United Synagogue realizing it, the former building was bought for Jacobs, where he set up what became known as the New London synagogue, run in every way on the United Synagogue’s Orthodox lines.
The move enabled Jacobs to serve as an Orthodox rabbi, independent of the chief rabbi. His services were the same as the ones at New West End had been; he wore the same canonicals. As was the Orthodox (but not the Reform or Liberal) practice, men and women sat separately. He had a choir.
This arrangement served as a happy compromise, and before long the affair died down. In 1967, after a new chief rabbi, Immanuel (later Lord) Jakobovits, was appointed, he and Jacobs met frequently, though Jacobs never returned to his old fold. He did not need to. The New London synagogue had spawned a new movement. Masorti (Hebrew for “tradition”) synagogues were opened in a number of London suburbs and Manchester. They were loosely based on the American Conservative movement, but were much closer to modern – as distinct from fundamental – Orthodoxy. By 2001, there were seven Masorti congregations.
After the Jacobs Affair, Jacobs also became a visiting professor at Lancaster University and Harvard, and took a doctorate in Hebrew Letters. He was made a CBE in 1990. He stayed in his pulpit until his 81st birthday in 2001; he always said that he was happier in that job than he ever would have been as chief rabbi.
His wife, Shulamit, whom he married in 1947, died last year. He is survived by two sons and a daughter.
Rabbi Jonathan Romain writes: Louis Jacobs was often described as the greatest chief rabbi that British Jewry never had. It reflected the fact that he was the community’s one world-class scholar and a man who lost the chance to be chief rabbi because he put intellectual integrity above religious orthodoxy.
Jacobs’ stand for a mixture of faith and reason inspired thousands of Jews who felt unable to accept religious fundamentalism but still valued their Jewish heritage. It was for this reason that when the Jewish Chronicle conducted a survey to mark the 350th anniversary of the re-admission of the Jews to England in 1656 – and to establish who was “the greatest British Jew” of the last three and a half centuries – Jacobs emerged as the clear winner.
The comments of those who voted for him indicate the power of his appeal: “he combines immense erudition with the ability to inspire … he has shown it is possible to be Orthodox without being superstitious.” They also referred to his humility and grace.
Many described him as important to their own spirituality: his writings “help many of us stay practising believing Jews, where fundamentalist Judaism as expressed by many establishment rabbis would have turned us away from both practice and belief.”
One remarkable testimony declared: “As an Orthodox rabbi, it is a sad state but I have to keep my identity confidential for obvious reasons. Without Rabbi Jacobs’ inspiration I, and I am sure many others, would have lost our sanity having to work within the intellectual boundaries imposed on us. However, I have often recommended Rabbi Jacobs’ books to congregants who share the same doubts as I had. His contribution to Anglo-Jewry is immense and will be recognized for centuries to come. It is good to show my support by a secret ballot.”
Louis Jacobs, rabbi and theologian, born July 17 1920; died July 1 2006.