UK Jews mourn Rabbi Louis Jacobs
by Simon Rocker
British Jews from across the religious spectrum mourned the loss this week of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, the community’s greatest rabbinic scholar, and the subject of its biggest religious controversy.
The founding minister of the New London Synagogue, recently voted by JC readers as “the greatest British Jew,” died in the early hours of Shabbat, aged 85.
Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, who was among the hundreds of mourners at Cheshunt cemetery on Sunday, later paid tribute in a statement. Rabbi Jacobs, he said, “was a fine scholar, a prolific author and a man of great personal integrity.”
Manchester-born and Gateshead-educated, Rabbi Jacobs had been many people’s favourite to become Chief Rabbi nearly half-a-century ago until controversy erupted over his theological views that, in effect, questioned the meaning of Orthodoxy in the 20th century. The so-called “Jacobs Affair” of the early 1960s led to his exile from the United Synagogue and the eventual creation of the Masorti movement.
Board of Deputies president Henry Grunwald saluted “an extraordinary man who will be sorely missed. His profound contribution to British Jewry, about which he cared so deeply, will be long-lasting.”
Before the funeral, hundreds had gathered at the New London Synagogue as the coffin was brought in front of the pulpit where Rabbi Jacobs had delivered his sermons for more than 40 years. They included United Synagogue president Dr Simon Hochhauser and the former minister of Hendon United Synagogue, the Reverend Leslie Hardman.
Giving the eulogy to his teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of the New North London Masorti Synagogue declared: “He never wanted to create a movement… He wanted the Orthodox world to recognize not only the justice of his position but, more importantly, the inevitable necessity of facing up to the issues which he, but not they, had the courage to confront.”
In a statement, Reform movement head Rabbi Tony Bayfield said that he felt “desolate… He was the greatest Jewish scholar whom I have had the privilege of knowing and learning from. I will remember him, of course, for the profundity of his scholarship, but also for his honesty, integrity, personal kindness and sense of humour.”
Liberal Judaism chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich said: “The combination of his incisive mind, traditional upbringing and compassion for every human being made Louis an exemplar. Perhaps it is not too late for the leadership of Anglo-Jewry to follow Rabbi Jacobs’s example: firmness in one’s belief and practices, with respect and understanding of those who seek to practise the same faith differently.”
Among those at the graveside were spiritual head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy and ex-rabbi of the Saatchi Synagogue, Rabbi Pini Dunner.
Rabbi Levy recalled: “I was a pupil of Rabbi Dr Jacobs at Jews’ College where I learned a great deal from him. Although I disagreed with some of his theology, we had a cordial relationship based on mutual respect.”
Rabbi Dunner, whose synagogue was near the New London, said: “We used to borrow books from each other and meet to discuss them. He missed the yeshivah world and he kept in touch with it by talking to people like me.”
The vast literary output which established Rabbi Jacobs’s international reputation included works of talmudic analysis, translations of Chasidic masters, theological inquiries into Maimonides’s principles of faith, popular guides such as “What does Judaism say about?” and reference books such as “The Oxford Companion to the Jewish Religion.” But his most famous book, which sparked off the Jacobs Affair, was “We Have Reason to Believe,” which ran to five editions.
Dr Miri Freud-Kandel, of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and author of a forthcoming study of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy in the 20th century, said the controversy over his views proved to be “a catalyst for those who wished to shift the community’s theology rightwards.”
“This would deprive Jews’ College of an outstanding principal, arguably setting it on the downward spiral that led to its demise, and irredeemably undermining the Chief Rabbinate… Anglo-Jewry’s celebrated middle-path values of minhag Anglia and progressive conservative Judaism, two concepts which Jacobs championed throughout his post-Jacobs Affair ministry, now became marginalized.”