Rabbi Louis Jacobs: Biblical scholar, preacher and sage who became an alternative leader of ‘traditional’ Judaism in Britain
by John Cooper
Louis Jacobs, rabbi: born Manchester 17 July 1920; Rabbi, Central Synagogue, Manchester 1948-54; Rabbi, New West End Synagogue 1954-60; Tutor, Jews’ College 1959-62; Director, Society for Study of Jewish Theology 1962-64; Rabbi, New London Synagogue 1964-2006; CBE 1990; married 1944 Shula Lisagorska (died 2005; two sons, one daughter); died London 1 July 2006.
In December 2005 Rabbi Louis Jacobs headed a poll as the greatest British Jew of all time since the return of the Jews to Britain 350 years ago. It was the final irony in a train of events starting almost half a century earlier, when as a young rabbi, he published a book in 1957 entitled We Have Reason to Believe, which went through five editions. The book proved to be unexpectedly controversial, its views dividing the Orthodox community.
Born in 1920, Louis Jacobs grew up in Manchester, where he attended the local rabbinical school and went for advanced studies to Gateshead. As a young man, he confessed, he was somewhat of a prig, burning a book given to him as a bar mitzvah present because it mentioned evolution. A brilliant orator and teacher, he served as assistant minister at the ultra-Orthodox Munk’s synagogue in Golders Green, and, by his mid-thirties, he occupied the pulpit of the New West End Synagogue, one of the most prestigious United Synagogue congregations.
Meanwhile, he had studied for a part-time Semitics degree at University College London, where he was exposed to modern biblical scholarship and was later awarded his PhD. To Jacobs not every word of the Pentateuch was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, but was a composite work which had evolved over generations, yet which was none the less divinely inspired.
Despite the publication of his book, he was appointed a couple of years later as Moral Tutor at Jews’ College and lecturer in homiletics with the understanding that he would fill the position of Principal on the retirement of Isidore Epstein. When this occurred in 1961, the then Chief Rabbi, Israel Brodie, under pressure from his rabbinical court and the retiring principal, refused to offer the position to Jacobs. He was declared unfit to occupy the vacancy because of his views.
Jacobs promptly resigned with Sir Alan Mocatta, the chairman of the college, setting up the Society for the Study of Jewish Theology, where he served as Director. This gave him a platform for making his ideas known, as he addressed audiences up and down the country. Added to this, he had the invaluable support of the main communal newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, and its influential editor William Frankel.
There was a second round to the “Jacobs Affair”, when the pulpit of his former synagogue, the New West End, fell vacant in 1963. Jacobs was offered the position but the Chief Rabbi would only give his approval to Jacobs’s return if he signed a letter recanting his previous views. This he refused to do. Thereupon a large part of the New West End congregation broke away to form the New London Synagogue in St John’s Wood and the Masorti, or traditional, movement was born. (“Our claim,” states the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues, “is that an authentic engagement with Judaism is only possible when one engages with Jewish observance, study and life, but also when one engages with scientific, social and philosophical truths wherever they may be found.”)
With powerful allies, it looked for a time as if Jacobs would command the allegiance of the overwhelming bulk of the middle ranks of Anglo-Jewry, the new professional class and the rising entrepreneurs, and wrest control of much of traditional Jewry from the United Synagogue. But Jacobs was less a rebel leader than a great scholar and teacher. He remained torn throughout his life by two divergent roles, that of the Hasidic sage, the rebbe who ministered to the spiritual needs of his flock, and that of the defender of the decorous ways of the old United Synagogue. In his Principles of the Jewish Faith (1964), Jacobs accepted the paramountcy of halakhah, Jewish law, adhering to a neo-Orthodox position. He refused to countenance men and women sitting together at services, which in a more egalitarian age caused a loss of congregants.
For all these reasons, the Masorti movement remained small, with a few thousand members belonging to some 10 congregations.
Jacobs devoted his life to teaching and scholarship. He was a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School in 1985-86 and at Lancaster University from 1987. He was lecturer in the Talmud and Zohar at Leo Baeck College, the training centre for Conservative and Reform rabbis, as well as chairman of its academic committee for a number of years.
Despite the demands of pastoral work among his congregants, Jacobs was a prolific author, pouring out many works on Jewish theology, Talmudic analysis, rabbinic law, mysticism and Hasidism which were noteworthy for their lucidity and original insights – lasting contributions to scholarship. He gave an enthralling Monday-evening class on the Talmud for many years, lacing his explanations on the intricacies of the text with quotations from English literature and an endless fund of amusing stories.
Privately Jacobs was consulted by Orthodox rabbis and scholars on Jewish law, but he himself did not issue any legal rulings.
In his role of Hasidic sage, Jacobs found it difficult to retire and abandon his congregation. At one point, when he did step down for a time, he received a further snub. When appearing in a private capacity he was not called up to the Reading of the Law at an Orthodox synagogue in Bournemouth, on an occasion prior to the marriage of his granddaughter, because of the intervention of the court of the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks.
Louis Jacobs had been a child prodigy – his was a colossal talent, vastly under-utilised by his community; and in retrospect the petty slights of his detractors served to diminish their stature rather than his.