Originally published in The Edinburgh Star, 55 (September 2006), pp. 32-3.
Towards the end of the last year the Jewish Chronicle conducted a poll amongst its readers to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the return of the Jews to England in 1656 at the behest of Oliver Cromwell. The Jews had been expelled in 1290 by Edward I, the “Hammer of the Scots” (and also of the Jews). The JC sought to find the “greatest British Jew of all time” and had I voted, it would probably have been for Benjamin Disraeli. However the illustrious Prime Minister came sixth whilst Rabbi Jacobs easily topped the poll. On hearing the result, Rabbi Jacobs with typical modesty said, “I feel embarrassed . . . and daft”; a fitting end to the career of a Rabbi whose absolute intellectual honesty was the cause of his not getting the top jobs in British Jewry.
I first met Rabbi Jacobs as a teenager in the 1950s. He was then the Minister/Preacher of the New West End Synagogue at that time the “Jewel in the Crown” of the London United Synagogue. He was a great friend of my late father, the minister of Garnethill Synagogue in Glasgow and no visit to London by my father would be complete without a visit to his friend Louis. Actually there was an affinity between the two Synagogues. Not only were they designed by the same architect and looked similar but Rabbi Jacobs’ predecessor at the New West End was the Rev Ephraim Levine a great preacher (with a Glasgow accent) and the son of one of the Ministers at Garnethill. When Levine retired, pressure was brought to bear on my father to take what was then regarded as the top London job in the Jewish Ministry. Ephraim Levine had succeeded the Rev Simeon Singer of Singer’s Prayer Book fame and the congregants of both Synagogues regarded themselves as a “cut above the rest”.
Rabbi Jacobs influenced me and generations of students in the 1960s with his interpretation of what was meant by “Torah Min Hashamiyim”, which literally means that the Torah comes from heaven, but is the term which means that the Torah is Divinely inspired. The fundamentalist (Orthodox) view rejects modern scholarship and believes that the Five Books of Moses (the Chumash or Pentateuch) was dictated word by word by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The logical conclusion to this view is that if you believe that there was any human input, it whittles down the authority of the Mitzvot (the commandments). The Reform and Liberal view is to accept modern scholarship that there was a human element in the writing of the Torah and draw the logical conclusion that there is now no binding obligation for Jews to keep the Mitzvot, although they should still adhere to the lofty ethical standards and principles of justice, righteousness and holiness. Rabbi Jacobs advocated a third way; a quest for a synthesis between modern scholarship and traditional Jewish values. He argued that you had an obligation to keep the mitzvot, not because they were dictated by God to Moses but because through the collective religious experience and history of the Jewish people, they had acquired the force of a divine command. In this way, the modern Jew could readily subscribe to the doctrine of Torah Min Hashamiyim, that the Torah is divinely inspired. He would readily admit that he did not have all the answers and often used to say that it was better to be vaguely right than definitely wrong. This is of course a massive oversimplification of a highly complex topic and I would recommend that you read his books “We Have Reason to Believe” and also “Principles of the Jewish Faith”. It was his publication of the former, which resulted in the Chief Rabbi Brodie under the influence of the London Beth Din preventing him becoming the Principal of Jews College, a position that he had been promised and then refusing to sanction him going back to his previous position as Minister of the New West End Synagogue. Because of his views, he was barred from preaching in any of the United Synagogues and even at the age of 82 he was publicly snubbed by being refused an “Aliyah” when he attended the “Aufruf” of his granddaughter at the Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation on the Shabbat prior to her wedding.
In the 1960s I attended a Jewish Students Summer School near Edinburgh in Newbattle Abbey College organised by the late Maurice Sagman of Edinburgh at which Rabbi Jacobs was one of the lecturers and although we were impressed by his refreshingly modern approach to Judaism, we noticed that in practice, he was as rigorous in his observance as any other orthodox Rabbi; and that was the conundrum about him, because when he went on to become Rabbi of the New London Synagogue, an independent Synagogue set up by his disciples and supporters, he still insisted upon men and women sitting separately.
There was a Scottish dimension to the Jacobs Affair, which the press termed the Garnethill Affair. In 1966, Rabbi Brodie had retired and the new Chief Rabbi had not yet been appointed. There was much dissatisfaction with the Glasgow Beth Din and the London Beth Din over a number of issues including the kashrut in butcher shops and the status of converts and there was the general feeling that British Jewry was moving from what a previous Chief Rabbi Hertz termed “Progressive Conservatism” to right wing rigid orthodoxy. Members of Garnethill saw the absence of a Chief Rabbi as a window of opportunity to break with that organisation and establish a meeting of minds with Rabbi Jacobs and his New London Synagogue. There was much debate and my father was in favour of such a move. There was an exciting Special General Meeting convened to change the constitution. However, although a majority voted in favour of the motion, it failed to get the necessary two thirds majority required to amend the constitution. When the new Chief Rabbi, Immanuel Jakobovits, was eventually appointed, he made it a priority to come to Garnethill to heal wounds and make peace. On a personal level there was no animosity and my father remained friends with Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Jakobovits and Rabbi Brodie officiated at my marriage to Hazel in 1967.
Incidentally, I must take issue with my friend David Kaplan over his article in the last issue of “The Edinburgh Star”. He said that “The Reform/Liberal/Masorti Rabbinate . . . are very keen to promote that they are ideologically different to authentic Orthodox Judaism . . . are simply different religions and not a modern alternative”. This follows a paragraph in which he suggests that Orthodox Judaism, Christianity and Islam take “divine revelation to be true but Reform, Liberal and Conservative Judaism do not”. Rabbi Louis Jacobs was the founder and spiritual leader of the Masorti or Conservative movement in the United Kingdom and, as I have stated earlier, he certainly believed in “Torah Min Hashamiyim”, kept the mitzvot in practice, despite the fact that his logical, honest intellect could not accept the doctrine that God dictated every word of the Torah to Moses who wrote faithfully, wrote every word down including an account of his own death.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs will be remembered for generations to come not because of his views on Divine Revelation, but because “the Jew in the pew” does not really worry too much about these matters and the following example illustrates that even some Rabbis are not too concerned! In his autobiography “Helping With Enquiries”, on page 151 Rabbi Jacobs writes “A prominent Orthodox rabbi was asked by one of my staunch supporters, the Rev Dr I. K. Cosgrove of Glasgow, ‘What would you say if a young man asked you whether Moses wrote the whole of the Pentateuch?’ The rabbi replied, ‘I would tell him to mind his own bloody business!’”. Rabbi Jacobs will be remembered for the clarity of thought and wisdom contained in his many books about Judaism, all of them authoritative and the distillation of his great mind.
His one page obituary in the Times (July 4th 2006) ends thus, “His place in history is forever secure as the man who sought heroically to bring Anglo-Jewry 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”.