Address by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
Shula Jacobs – Born Shulamit Lisagorska
Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs – Our Rabbi and Teacher
Family, Ivor and Tirzah, Naomi and Sasson, David,
Grandchildren, Daniel and Paula, Ziva, Noa and Michael, and Abraham,
Great grandchildren, Ella and Hannah, Yonah, and Yarden,
Lisa who cared for Mrs Jacobs and Rabbi Jacobs as if she were family setting out the Shabbes candles and singing Hebrew songs learnt from Shula
We are gathered here on the Yahrzeit of Moshe Rabbenu, the 7th Adar, to consecrate the stone of a Gaon, a masterly scholar and teacher, and his wonderful wife, Shula, a remarkable, vital and warm hearted person.
Reverend George Rothschild spoke unforgettably at the Memorial Service for Rabbi Jacobs of how the family have lost a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, the congregation has lost its beloved rabbi, and how he has lost his closest friend. We are here to reflect on the many dimensions of our relationships with Rabbi Jacobs and Shula and on our loss. But we are also here to remember and celebrate their lives.
I’m indebted to Michael Rose for pointing out to me that Rabbi Jacobs dedicated his book Religion And The Individual ‘For Shula: my individualist and my love’
Theirs was a tremendous partnership, a happy marriage of over 60 years.
They met as a result of Shula’s participation in the the Bachad movement which would visit the Mercaz Limmud in Manchester where Rabbi Jacobs sometimes lectured. There, ‘religious chaluzim could gain a deeper understanding of Judaism while preparing for Aliyah’. But Shula’s destiny was to find depth of a different kind, in love, because it was there that she met Louis.
She described her impressions of their first ‘date’ in her diaries. Louis had a story for everything, he was full of wonderful chassidic tales. Yet he ‘joked and seemed like a normal Manchester, English young man’. How very wrong she would prove to be! But to her it seemed immediately that he was ‘Mr Right’. Shula and Rabbi Jacobs were both romantics. They were soon married; Shula was 21, Louis 23, and the rest is history.
Shula, loved the role of Rebbitzen and relished the progress of Rabbi Jacobs’ career. That’s not to say that everything was always easy. Great expectations were placed upon them. Shula once described to me how she had to ask her family for support when she had to cook for ninety guests over Rosh Hashanah. And it wasn’t the kind of environment in which congregants helped with the washing up afterwards.
On a somewhat less grand scale, many of us have warm memories of speaking with Rabbi Jacobs in his study while Shula brought in tea and biscuits and chatted from the doorway. She was certainly a person who loved a good talk; it’s almost impossible to imagine her ever having been at a loss for words.
Shula was also a great writer, with a warm, lively and compelling style all of her own. Here are her recollections of becoming the Rebbitzen of the The New West End: ‘The ladies around me were all so helpful and wonderful. I shall never forget the welcome given us. One lady sitting next to me was just like a mother…She had so much to tell me…I would feel so embarrassed when she’d say to me in a whisper “Look at your prayer book, I’m going to talk to you quietly. Just listen.” And that is where I picked up so much information.’ Maybe that is how, although Rabbi Jacobs was always the expert on Halakhah, Shula came to know rather more about the oral lore.
In an essay entitled What Happened When she wrote: ‘This typewriter has become my friend…Our trips are seen as only the rabbi’s wife can’. She continued on page six: ‘How can I tell my New London family about days gone by. I love communication anyway, and I like to think that I have the ‘I Thou Relationship’ that Buber talks about with so many at the New London, which makes me feel I’d like to share our ‘life’s highs’, beyond the Synagogue, with you’.
Shula loved her ‘travels with the Rabbi’ (perhaps even more than did Rabbi Jacobs himself). Here is a note home from Denmark where they were warmly welcomed at the home of Rabbi Bent Melchior: ‘We sat at a long table to eat liver and meats of all kinds, beet roots and hot vegetables. After the desert, we drink coffee and that goes on for a long time. I count ten phone calls to our host during the evening.’ (Clearly, Shula knew much about phone calls in the middle of mealtimes.)
Like Rabbi Jacobs himself, Shula had a wonderful sense of humour. I remember her saying at The New North Synagogue, where we had invited them to share their favourite memories after their retirement, ‘I’m happy to talk in front of anyone except that man’, as she pointed squarely at her husband.
Shula also loved to sing and could have had a career in music, were it not felt that this would prove incompatible with the role of rebbetzin. Nevertheless, she retained her love of music hall songs and took part in amateur dramatics, playing, among other roles, Liza Doolittle. All through her life she would go to sing their favourites numbers at old people’s homes. Not long before her death she made her very own CD, of which she was truly proud.
But above all Shula was interested in people. She had an immense curiosity about life, a fascination with everyone and everything connected with the congregation and a tremendous love of life which proved indomitable even in the face of a long and difficult illness. She loved her community, her home, her garden, and her plants.
She was a wonderful granny (with an anachronistic belief in a diet composed of significant quantities of chocolate).
All in all, Shula’s and Louis’ was a marriage, a partnership between Rabbi and Rebbetzin, which truly worked. As Ivor put it, they had the empathic understanding of those who know after many years what each of them had to contribute. Whenever there was a phone call, be it about a shivah or a wedding, each of them understood what had to be done and together they made a perfect team.
Shula, like Rabbi Jacobs, always asked after others. I remember well my last conversation with each of them. I spoke to Shula over the phone not long before she died; I visited Rabbi Jacobs in hospital on the Friday before he passed away. Both of them asked me the identical question: ‘How are your parents?’
That is why we miss them so much, why Rabbi Jacobs would never have attained what he did without Shula, and why he insisted that the inscription on her gravestone should say that she was like a mother to the congregation.
Rabbi Jacobs was the greatest Jewish scholar of his generation, a man of courage and the utmost integrity, a spiritual leader who sought to reconcile tradition, which he loved, with truth, from which he could not swerve, and succeeded, and who taught others how to succeed. Yet these momentous matters fail to say it all.
We miss the ordinary, everyday things about him. I often hear in my mind the sound of Rabbi Jacobs’ voice. I hear him teaching Talmud, see him telling a joke. I was talking to my son about the first verse of last week’s Torah portion when I remembered how Rabbi Jacobs spoke about it at Nicky’s and my wedding: ‘These are the laws you shall set before them’, he quoted, and explained – “Set them before people gently”, – as he himself invariably did. We are here today not only in recognition of Rabbi Jacobs’ extraordinary stature as a scholar and teacher, but also out of affection and appreciation for him as teacher, pastor, friend and man.
Because he bore it so naturally, Rabbi Jacobs made his prodigious learning sound obvious, easy. (researching his papers, Rabbi Cosgrove, currently writing his PhD about Rabbi Jacobs, found not a single sermon note. There were none, because he needed none.) He combined immense erudition, extraordinary powers of memory, natural brilliance, unswerving dedication to the pursuit of truth, and an unceasing love of Torah. He spent only a relatively short period of time at the Gateshead Kolel, (the real Alma Mater of his Torah studies was the Manchester Yeshivah). During that war time period he was the only English born student and had not had the advantage of learning at one the great Lithuanian Yeshivot he so admired (especially that of Tels), yet the famed Rabbi Dessler wrote of him that he never encountered an ilui of such brilliance and insight in Talmudic studies, together with so many other remarkable abilities.
Equally extraordinary is Rabbi Jacobs’ entry into and mastery of the world of academic Jewish studies, a discipline eschewed by those who were his rabbis and teachers at the yeshivah, and not embraced by a Jews’ College where he was denied the role of principal by veto of the then Chief Rabbi on precisely those very grounds. He was first exposed to the critical method of analysing classical Jewish sources, including the whole of the Bible itself, at University College London in the post-war years. On the one hand, this challenged the very foundations of his previous learning; on the other, he experienced it as a breath of cold, invigorating air.
He was unable to adopt the position of those who condemned, ignored or compartmentalised the new knowledge. The challenge of history, that is the challenge posed by the evidence of scholarship concerning the historical development of all Judaism’s canonical sources, including the Torah itself, was to him a challenge which had to be faced.
All Rabbi Jacobs’ writings were based on the credo he set out at the very beginning of We Have Reason To Believe, ‘The conviction that all truth, “the seal of the Holy One, blessed is He”, is one, and that a synthesis is possible between the permanent values and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day’.
Precisely this would have been his agenda, had he been appointed as Principal of Jews College. Reflecting back almost 50 years later, he wrote: ‘What I had fondly hoped to promote was an atmosphere in which the students of the College were encouraged to face the problem courageously and try to deal with it honestly and constructively, out of the conviction that Judaism can meet the challenge of critical scholarship as it met the different challenge of Greek philosophy in the mediaeval period.’
It was this ‘mood’ which he fought to promote in Anglo-Jewry all his days. And Rabbi Jacobs loved Anglo-Jewry, from top hat to canonicals, from the choir loft down to every facet of minhag Anglia. But he loved as it used to be, tolerant, progressive and orthodox at the same time.
While appreciating Rabbi Jacobs’ extraordinary achievements we shouldn’t at the same time forget that his position brought him much suffering. Many spoke with him in private, who would not acknowledge their relationship in public. He yearned for true dialogue, a genuine debate about the nature of truth and Torah. He loved a good argument for the sake of Heaven and was afraid neither of criticism nor of being critical. But his opponents hid behind the facade that all was well with tradition. His soul was still part of the Yeshivah world which had nurtured it, but that world interacted with him only to condemn and exclude him. The Anglo-Jewish community did not treat Rabbi Jacobs well, and he, and it, have both paid the price. The rejection he encountered did hurt him. Rabbi Jacobs transcended that pain in a life of remarkable creativity, but he felt it and so did his family. It’s a terrible pity that Shula never lived to see his vindication in the results of the popular Jewish Chronicle poll which voted him the most significant British Jew since the return of Jewry to this country 350 years ago. He called the enterprise ‘daft’; but to Shula it would have come as a balm.
The Jewish Chronicle published some of the reasons their voters gave for choosing Rabbi Jacobs. One of them is especially telling: ‘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’s books to congregants who share the same doubts as I had. His contribution to Anglo-Jewry is immense and will be recognised for centuries to come. It is good to show my support by a secret ballot.’ Summing up voters’ reasons, Rabbi Jonathan Romain came to this conclusion: People chose Rabbi Jacobs because he helped other Jews to be better Jews.
Over the last twenty years the religious world has not gone Rabbi Jacobs’ way; largely for social and political reasons, it has followed different currents. Fear and insecurity have strengthened the fundamentalist constituency in all faiths and in none. Post-modernism has returned us to the embrace of myths, sometimes at the expense of facing facts, and has implicitly questioned the methodological values of the enlightenment, empirical enquiry and rational analysis which formed the backbone of Rabbi Jacobs’ intellectual approach.
Yet for precisely these reasons Rabbi Jacobs’ message and teachings are even more important for us today: to recognise the divine in Torah and creation, to have an attitude of yirat shamayim, awe and respect before Heaven; to abide by Halakhah as the beaten path by which the Jewish people has understood and interpreted God’s will; to heed truth from wherever it comes; to be honest and tolerant; to struggle with genuine theological difficulties, and to follow the quest for understanding in the faith that the search for Torah is itself Torah.
Though Rabbi Jacobs did not publish many of his own Responsa, whoever approached him with a question quickly came to understand and value his tolerant and liberal approach. He had an abhorrence of rejection and always sought to include and reassure. He used to say that when a person tells you that he or she is Jewish you should believe it, unless there is very good reason not to do so. He hated the current climate of distrust and exclusion. He hated it intellectually and strove to welcome truth from wherever it came; he hated it on a human level and sought to include people and think the best of them. His was not only an outstandingly knowledgeable, but an exceptionally humane, Judaism.
There is simply no other teacher like Rabbi Jacobs to whom we can now turn. When we were talking before Shabbat, Noami said: ‘I now have no one from whom to ask advice’. To the family, this has, of course, a unique depth of meaning. But, at a different remove, many of us feel the same. Who is there of whom one can ask anything and everything connected with Talmud, Halakhah, or the intellectual history of any facet of Judaism we might care to name? Who is there capable of being so immensely well-informed, clear, accurate, penetrating – and outspoken?
Is it not, alas, one of the signs of a degraded society, when encouragement is given to the ‘espionage’ of one’s own neighbour, and when one sees displayed in an open thoroughfare the invitation to ‘inform against local Huns?’
Yet it is not this alone that we mourn.
What we miss most is very simple: Rabbi Jacobs’ and Shula’s presence. As rabbi and Rebbitzen within the community for sixty years, they taught, challenged, guided, hosted, listened to and shared their humour and humanity with generations of devoted followers who now miss and mourn for them