Undergraduate dissertation, presented by the author to the Department of Theology of the University of Britsol in 1987.
The Theology of Rabbi. Louis Jacobs: a Controversy in British Judaism in the 1960s
A Dissertation presented to the Department of Theology at the University of Bristol
Louis Jacobs was born in 1920 in Manchester, from parents who had been born in England as well. His father was a worker in one of Manchester’s raincoat factories.
Although the parents kept a Kosher home, they were none very orthodox or pious, but then nobody in Manchester really was. To name but an example, the father did not hesitate to take his son to a rugby match on Shabbat (Saturday).
As would have been expected from a child born from Jewish parents Louis Jacobs attended Hebrew classes. And it was whilst attending these that his interest in Judaism and Semitics grew.
Jacobs received his training at Manchester Yeshiva and Gateshead Kolel. At London University he obtained a degree and a Ph.D. So he first did his Jewish studies followed by general studies.
For some time he taught at Golders Green Beth Hamidrash, London. From 1954 to 1959 he served at the fashionable New West End Synagogue as a rabbi. His upbringing in no way influenced his choice of career. On the contrary, his parents were not overwhelmingly pleased to see their son choose a career as a rabbi.
In 1959 Jacobs took up the position of tutor at Jews’ College, London. But in 1961 he resigned when the Chief Rabbi at the time vetoed his appointment as Principal of the College.
This was the start of the most significant event of Post World War II British Jewry. As a result of this controversy Jacobs’ followers created for him the post of director of a specially founded Society for the Study of Jewish Theology, for which he lectured in London and provincial centres.
However, the controversy had not yet come to an end. In 1963 his old position at the New West End Synagogue became vacant, and Louis Jacobs was elected to his former post. But Chief Rabbi Brodie again vetoed his appointment. As a result of this happening a number of the Synagogue’s members stepped out of the United Synagogue and founded the New London Synagogue (1964) with Jacobs as Rabbi. Until today Jacobs is the Rabbi at this synagogue.
Positions previously undertaken by Louis Jacobs are:
- Rabbi of Manchester Central Synagogue
- Tutor at Golders Green Beth Hamidrash, London
- Tutor of Jews’ College, London
- Minister-Preacher at New West End Synagogue, London
- Vice-President of the Union of Anglo-Jewish Preachers
- Director of the Society for the Study of Jewish Theology
- Lecturer in Semitics at University College, London
- Rabbi at the New London Synagogue
In 1963 Jacobs made a successful lecture tour of the United States.
Published works include:
- We have reason to believe (1957, 1962)
- Jewish values (1960)
- Principles of Jewish faith (1964)
- Seeker of Unity; the life and works of Aaron of Starroselje (1966)
- Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology (1961)
- Jewish Prayer (1962)
- A Guide to Yom Kippur (1957. 1960)
- A Guide to Rosh Ha-Shanah (1959, 1962)
- A Jewish Theology (1973)
The Theology of Rabbi Louis Jacobs
One charge brought against Louis Jacobs is that he is trying to make theology a respectable Jewish occupation. There are people like the “pan-halachist” who are of the opinion that there is no such thing as Jewish theology, that it is all a Christian thing. Louis Jacobs does not share that opinion.
Pan-Halachists say: the Halacha is the observance (of the Law). One does not bother about dogma. Jacobs does go along with them this far, but then it is said that one does not bother about dogma, but one must accept that everything is dogma. And Jacobs does not agree with that.
So the contemporary Jewish theologian, like Louis Jacobs, is not just confronted with the problem of defending the existence of God or the significance of revelation. He must first of all persuade Jew and Gentile in believing that Jewish theology does actually exist. He says that after all the great Maimonides was a theologian.
Despite all these hindrances Louis Jacobs has succeeded in his attempts to articulate an organized Jewish Theology. In his books We have reason to believe and Principles of the Jewish faith we can get a quite clear picture of Jacobs’ theology, but his book A Jewish theology (1973) represents the first systematic presentation of the major themes of Jewish religious thought since Kaufmann Kohler’s Jewish theology of 1918.
The most important question that Jacobs seeks to answer is: What can Jews believe today?
“The theologian,” Jacobs says, “must try to present a coherent picture of what Jews can believe without subterfuge and with intellectual honesty”.
In his books Principles of the Jewish faith and A Jewish Theology Jacobs goes over all the major problems of Jewish theology, of which some are problems that also face the Christian theologian: for example, the existence of God; the nature of God; providence and free-will; evil; revelation; rationales for observance; Jewish people-hood; prayer; messianism; life after death etc. However, it has often been said that his position is not always made clear altogether. The overwhelming amount of information that Jacobs conveys tends to obscure his own theological perspective. But it must be said that in the issues where Jacobs has his own strong position, he puts down very clearly what his position is. For that reason it has also been said that Jacobs’ discussion of theological issues is uneven. However, the issues he deals with in detail are the ones in which he holds a unique position. The ones he deals with in less detail are the issues in which his position can be identified with other scholars. Therefore I personally do not find this unevenness in Jacobs’ theology a difficulty. His unique views on certain topics are refreshing enough to make all his work interesting to read and reflect on.
Jacobs’ view on the divinity of the Torah and revelation is the topic in which he is unique, because he is/was an orthodox Jew. This view of his caused the controversy in Anglo-Jewry in the 1960s and which is still smouldering on. Because it is impossible to talk about every detail in a theologian’s theology in a relatively short dissertation, and because Jacobs’ view on revelation and the divinity of the Torah are the topics I am most interested in, it is on that part/those parts of his theology that I wish to concentrate.
In order to be able to point out why Louis Jacobs as an orthodox rabbi was unique, I feel that it is important to quote here one of Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith. The one I will quote is the eighth principle which deals with the divinity of the Torah and revelation.
This Eighth Principle of Faith as formulated by Maimonides reads:
That the Torah has been revealed from Heaven. This implies our belief that the whole of the Torah found in our hands this day is the Torah that was handed down by Moses and that is all of divine origin. By this I mean that the whole of the Torah came to him from before God in a manner which is metaphorically called “speaking”; but the real nature of that communication is unknown to everybody except to Moses (peace to him) to whom it came. In handing down the Torah, Moses was like a scribe writing from dictation the whole of it, its chronicles, its narratives, and its precepts. It is in this sense that he is termed MEHOKEK [= copyist]. And there is no difference between a verse like “And the sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim, Phut and Canaan” (Gen. 10:6) or “And his wife’s name was Mehetabel, the daughter of Matred” (Gen. 36:39) or “And Timna was concubine” (Gen. 36:12) and verses like “I am the Lord thy God” (Ex. 20:2) and “Hear, oh Israel” (Deut. 6:4). They are all equally of divine origin and all belong to “the Law of God which is perfect, pure, holy and true”. In the opinion of the Rabbis, Manassah was the most renegade and the greatest of all infidels because he thought that in the Torah there was a kernel and a husk, and that these histories and anecdotes have no value and emanate from Moses. This is the significance of the expression “The Torah does not come from heaven”, which say the Rabbis, is the remark of one who believes that all the Torah is of divine origin, save a certain verse which (says he) was not spoken by God, but by Moses himself. And of such a one the verse says: “For he has despised the word of the Lord” (Num. 15:31). May God be exalted far above and beyond the speech of the Infidels! For truly in every letter of the Torah there reside wise maxims and admirable truths for him to whom God has given understanding. You cannot grasp the uttermost bounds of its wisdom. “It is larger in measure than the earth, and wider than the sea” (Job 11:9). Man has but to follow in the footsteps of the anointed one of the God of Jacob, who prayed “open my eyes and I shall behold wonderful things from Thy Law”. The interpretation of traditional law is in like manner of divine origin. And that which we know today of the nature of Succah, Lulab, Shofar, Fringes and Phylacteries is essentially the same as that which God commanded. Moses, and which the latter told us. In the success of his mission Moses realized the mission of a NE’EMON, “faithful servant of God” (Num. 12:7). The text in which the eighth principle of faith is indicated is: “Hereby ye shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these words; For I have not done them of my own mind” (Num. 16:28).
Although a very lengthy quotation, the Eighth Principle of Faith is very important to every Jew and orthodox Jews certainly take the principle literally. Maimonides said that the doctrine of “Torah from Heaven” is the basic article of the Jewish faith. Louis Jacobs agrees with him on that point, but he then points out that one needs a reinterpretation of the doctrine in the light of new knowledge.
From early Rabbinic times down to the modern period it has been believed that the whole of the Pentateuch was literally dictated by God to Moses. Moreover it was held that the statements contained in the Pentateuch, the word of God, were infallible. It is needless to say that the challenges to the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pentateuch are numerous, from Jewish quarters and non-Jewish quarters. As knowledge grew more difficult questions were asked.
Louis Jacobs therefore does not claim by any means that his theology is original. However, he does admit to it being unusual because of the very fact that he was regarded to belong to the orthodox strand of Judaism. Orthodox Jews were/are not supposed to busy themselves with the topics Jacobs wrote about. What is it that Jacobs says about revelation and the divinity of the Torah:
“Revelation is a meeting or series of meetings with God Himself. Revelation is an event. It has been translated into words by human beings who experienced it and their words are found in the record we know as the Bible. From out of its pages we, too, can hear the voice of God speaking to us, but it is the voice of God speaking through the distortions of the fallible human record. Unless we ourselves are prophets how else could we hear God’s voice? There is nothing in this view basically opposed to the Jewish idea, though it does, of course, involve a thorough reinterpretation of what revelation means” (Jewish Theology, p. 214).
Many a Jew before, either liberal or reform, had expressed thoughts like these but for them it was acceptable to do this, as they were non-orthodox Jews. Jacobs, however, was supposed to be an orthodox Jew and therefore his views like the ones mentioned above were regarded as heresy. But Jacobs felt the need to write on this issue, because although many things had already been said on the topic, so many people were also saying the opposite. He describes the whole issue as a simple equation:
There are people who say that an observant Jew is to believe as Maimonides said; that every single word of the Torah was dictated by God.
But then there is Louis Jacobs who says that modern scholarship shows that this is not how it works.
Jacobs describes himself as belonging to the “Middle Way” of Judaism. According to him there are three ways in Jewish observance.
There is the older view of Jewish observance found among orthodox Jews. They accept the discipline demanded by the Law, because according to them there was no uncertainty about the divine nature of the Law and this served as a powerful stimulus to strict observance. They are convinced that the Halakha is the direct will of God and they do their very best to find a way to strict observance because they are convinced that it is God’s will that they should do so.
Then there are the Reform and Liberal Jews who reject the Halakhic element in Judaism. They argue that Jewish observances grow in a purely natural way, and they emphasize moral conduct and demand justice and righteousness together with prayer and worship. Halakha is not considered as binding upon Jews in any authoritative sense according to the Reform interpretation of Judaism.
And then there is the third Way, described as the Middle Way by Jacobs. People belonging to this Middle Way are convinced that it is possible that one can be perfectly free to investigate the origins of Jewish observances and come to conclusions concerning these which are at variance with tradition, without giving up the concept of the commandments (mitzwoth) as divine commands. In the United States of America this strand of Judaism is chiefly represented by the “Conservative Movement”. In Germany it is known as “Historic Judaism”, represented among others by the “Breslau School”. In Louis Jacobs’ writings, especially in We have reason to believe and Principles of the Jewish faith, we can detect their primary intention as an effort to restate traditional Judaism in terms that seem plausible to the twentieth-century mind.
He questions Mosaic authorship and gives a simple example of why there could be doubt cast on the fact that Moses wrote every single word of the Pentateuch. The last twelve verses of the Pentateuch (Deut. 34:1-12) are a record of Moses’ death. It would have been physically impossible for a dead man to write a record of his own death. So it seems more than likely that somebody else put down these words in writing. Where there can be doubt cast on twelve verses in the Pentateuch, the door gets opened to more questions being asked. Jacobs questions sinaitic origin and textual accuracy of the writings after the Pentateuch, though accepting them as words of divine revelation.
Then he also rejects the belief in physical resurrection as discussed in Maimonides’ Thirteenth Principle of Faith. Also he disputes the concept of punishment in the world to come.
Louis Jacobs has regarded his writings as a necessary reinterpretation of Judaism for the modern believer, whereas people with more fundamentalist views saw them as the beginning of apostasy.
In We have reason to believe Louis Jacobs gives some passages in which it can be demonstrated that long before the rise of modern criticism some of the Jewish teachers had a conception of revelation which leaves room for the idea of human cooperation with the divine. One of these passages reads as follows:
Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rab, when Moses ascended on high, he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in fixing crowns to the letters of the Torah. Moses asked after the meaning of those crowns and God told him that there will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiba ben Joseph by name, who will expound upon each little heaps and heaps of laws. “Lord of the Universe’” said Moses, “permit me to see him.” God replied: “Turn thee round.” Moses went and sat behind eight rows of Akibah’s disciples. Not being able to follow their discussion he was ill at ease, but then they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master: “Whence do you know it?” and the latter replied: “It is a law given to Moses on Sinai”, he was comforted. Thereupon he returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said: “Lord of the Universe, Thou hast such a man and Thou givest the Torah by me!” He replied: “Be silent, for so it has to come to my mind”.
So the Torah that Akibah was teaching was so different from the Torah given to Moses, because the social, economic, political and religious conditions were completely different in the days of Akibah, from how they were in Moses’ days.
Jacobs feels that there is a need to make the Torah relevant to the spiritual needs of Jews in their age. After all we do have evidence for a convincing picture of the Pentateuch as a work with a human history, influenced by human ideas, including human errors (fossil remains, evidence for the existence of prehistoric man, archaeological evidence). Louis Jacobs identifies his standpoint with that of Zechariah Frankel, a nineteenth-century German, who is regarded as the great pioneer of the “historical school”. According to Frankel there are two kinds of revelation. First of all there is the direct Revelation found in Scripture. Secondly, there is the indirect form of Revelation, through the acceptance of certain observances by the whole Community of Israel. Since it is God who is at work in human history and since He has revealed Himself in a special way in the history of Israel then the forms of religious expression which Israel came gradually to adopt are themselves the Will of God.
Jacobs agrees that the “Middle Way” approach is not without difficulties. In Principles of the Jewish faith he says:
“Psychologically, for example, it is undeniable that a clear recognition of the human element involved in the development of Jewish practice and observance is bound to produce a somewhat weaker sense of the importance of the minutiae of Jewish Law. For the Orthodox Jew, every single detail is a direct expression of the divine will. He will go to the utmost limits to keep every detail of the dietary laws, for instance, since they are part of the divine will. But for the Jew who sees the dietary laws as having evolved, although he, too, will recognise them as divine, it will be difficult to be so scrupulous.” (p. 299)
Jacobs argues further that, if developments once took place in Jewish Law, why should there be no development in Jewish Law today? Of course if all Jews shared the “Middle Way” approach then there would be development in Jewish Law. But, according to Jacobs, the importance of the Community of Israel stressed by the followers of the “Middle Way” demands the recognition that there are Orthodox Jews who reject the idea of development, and whose views have to be taken into account, since they are the staunchest upholders of Jewish Law in their lives. Jacobs says:
“But for all the difficulties, the ‘Middle Way’ approach is the only one possible for the Jew who refuses to fetter the spirit of free, unbiased inquiry into origins but who, at the same time, loves Jewish observance and recognises its tremendous spiritual power.”
The views of Rabbi Louis Jacobs as described above have very much influenced his career, as we will see later on.
The Theological/Social Climate in which the Controversy Occurred
At the time of the controversy around Dr Louis Jacobs, there were about 450,000 Jews in Great Britain, of which more than half lived in the Greater London area.
In 1870, the five leading Ashkenazi synagogues of London founded the United Synagogue as a Jewish equivalent to the Church of England. One of the accepted laws of the United Synagogue was that its constituents should follow the Ashkenazi ritual, and that the Chief Rabbi should have sole and absolute control of their religious affairs.
The Chief Rabbinate’s office was created not imposed by the State but out of usage of the Rabbi at the Great Synagogue of London. For any religious or other advice Jews turned to the Rabbi at the Great Synagogue in London.
In 1845 Nathan Marcus Adler just established himself as the Chief Rabbi and held office until 1890. Adler gave the Chief Rabbinate its modern form. He was strictly orthodox and well trained in Jewish studies but he had also been to a German University and had wide interests. At his death his son Hermann took over. Both the Adlers worked hard to centralize religious authority in a single Chief Rabbi.
In the period 1880-1914 many immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe, which caused friction within the existing system of Anglo-Jewry. The new immigrants almost seemed to come from a different century. Their social and economic circumstances in their countries of origin were totally different from the social and economic circumstances in England. They were not used to a centrally controlled system of the Chief Rabbinate and the United Synagogue. They could not accept that the so-called “reverends” coming out of Jews’ College could not for instance expound the Talmud in Yiddish. They were used to Rabbonim trained at yeshivot. They believed that the whole institution of Anglo-Jewry was against Jewish Law.
There were disputes regarding religious matters. Congregations broke apart.
But the situation was quite complicated. The new immigrants were usually too poor to start their own congregations. So most of them stuck with the United Synagogue and the Chief Rabbinate. The new generation born from the new immigrants found it easier to adapt to the system of Anglo-Jewry, but the older generation resented them for this. Seeing their children fall away from “true” Judaism made them even more aware of the fact that they had to hang on to their old traditions, because in failing to do so, “true” Judaism would fail to exist at the end of their lifetime.
Anglo-Jewry felt that Rabbis should possess secular as well as Talmudic learning; the Orthodox Jewry did not see any need for this at all.
One can obviously see that the Jews with secular training as well as Talmudic learning must have come in contact with studies such as Biblical Criticism, archaeology and geology.
It does not seem surprising that the two lines of thought within the one organisation should at one time clash. The conflict of thoughts came to a climax when Dr Louis Jacobs’ position as principal of Jews’ College was discussed.
In 1959 Louis Jacobs accepted an appointment as Tutor of Jews’ College, London. He took up the position at the College, understanding that he would take over the position of principal at the time of retirement of the present principal, Dr Epstein. Dr Louis Jacobs was admired by many and respected for his scholarship and therefore regarded to be a suitable candidate for the post of principal.
The Chief Rabbi at the time, Dr I. Brodie, was totally aware of the fact that Dr Jacobs was to be the future principal of Jews’’ College, and made no objections whatsoever at the time against Dr Jacobs’ appointment. It was not until the retirement of Dr Epstein drew nearer in 1961 that questions were raised about Dr Jacobs’ appointment. Doubts about his suitability as principal of the college were expressed first of all by Rabbi Grunfelt, a German cultured man. Anglo-Jewry is not normally interested in issues of this kind as it is very pragmatic. Rabbi Grunfelt had read Dr Jacobs’ book We have reason to believe. He was of the opinion that the book contained views of heresy, because of Rabbi Jacobs’ view of revelation. It was this Rabbi Grunfelt, who approached Chief Rabbi Brodie with the question how it would be possible to appoint a man with views as expressed We have reason to believe as principal of Jews’ College. He was backed up in his inquiry by a few people, who had had a German education and who knew something about theology. People who one thought should have been concerned (for example, people involved with Jews’ College) saw apparently no objection to anything written in the book. They seemed to think it was completely compatible with Rabbi Jacobs’ candidateship at Jews’ College.
Although the Chief Rabbi more than likely had had a copy of the book since it was first published, he had never made any comments about it. This either meant that he had never read it, or that he could not find anything wrong with its contents. After all, he had made no objections against Louis Jacobs being moral tutor at Jews’ College. If there were people who had read the book, they did not find anything in it to get too excited about. Jacobs introduced an interesting theology to Anglo-Jewry but they did not seem interested in it. What most people were interested in was Jews’ College and scholarship, but not in the practical consequences for Jewish life.
But Rabbi Brodie was made aware of the contents of Jacobs’ book and he could not just ignore the expressions of doubt and worry of Rabbi Grunfelt and those few German-educated individuals. Brodie was put under a lot of pressure.
At the time of the appointment of Rabbi Louis Jacobs as tutor of Jews’ College the number of students had been going down. It was felt that Rabbi Jacobs, who was regarded as a very capable, well qualified and intelligent man, would attract new students to the college. He very much appealed to the younger generation who would represent the future face of Judaism.
The task of making a decision was not an easy one for Brodie. But Dr Epstein, the principal of Jews’ College, did resign in July 1961 and everything was set for appointing Jacobs to the post. Another candidate was not really thought of. Brodie found it very hard to make up his mind and kept postponing making a decision. Nearer the end of the year he still had not come to a decision and he announced he was going on a lecture tour of Australia for three months or so and in that time he would consider the suitability of Dr Jacobs for the post and come back with an answer. However, he did say that if Dr Jacobs was willing to make an announcement concerning his views expressed in his published works, that they were contrary to the views that he held now, that he had found his way back to traditional orthodox Judaism, then he would be able to make a decision satisfactory for all, much sooner.
Of course, Dr Jacobs did not answer this request and at this stage he put in a letter of resignation to the council of Jews’ College, which read as follows:
Dear Sir Alan,
It is with the deepest feelings of regret that I tender my resignation from the staff of Jews’ College.
You will recall that two-and-a-half years ago I was invited by you and your colleagues to come to the College as Tutor. You pointed out at the time that it was the intention of the Hon. Officers that I should be appointed Principal after the retirement of Dr. Epstein, though there could be no definite promise on their part since the appointment depended, under the Constitution, on the Chief Rabbi’s approval.
Since Dr. Epstein’s retirement last July, the Chief Rabbi has been asked to give his approval for the appointment, but has failed to do so on varying grounds, the one recurring most often being that views I have expressed in writing render me unsuitable for the position.
These views are contained in my books “We Have Reason to Believe” and “Jewish Values”. I remain firmly convinced that the approach to traditional Judaism I have sketched in these books is one that must commend itself to all who are aware of modern thought and scholarship. I have tried to show that intense loyalty to Jewish tradition and observance need not be synonymous with reaction and fundamentalism. Furthermore, I would claim that no reputable scholar in the world has an approach that is basically different from mine.
What I had hoped to do at Jews’ College was to help train men able to hold their own in the field of objective scholarship and, at the same time, imbued with the spirit of yirat shamayim; men who would realise, in some measure, at least, the implications of the verse: “For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” (Deut. iv, 6). In this task intelligent Jews everywhere are engaged. It would be sad if Anglo-Jewry, with its traditional breadth of vision, were not to participate in such a presentation of Judaism.
I want to express my thanks to you and your colleagues for your confidence in me.
Attempts were made to persuade Dr Jacobs to withdraw his letter, until Dr Brodie had made a formal decision, but Jacobs would not do so. Thereupon some members of the council of Jews’ College handed in their letters of resignation as well. All the tutors at Jews’ College apart from one part-time lecturer sided with Chief Rabbi Brodie.
However, by this the affair was not brought to an end.
In 1963 the position Jacobs had held at the New West End Synagogue in London became vacant again. The management committee of the Synagogue invited Jacobs back to his old position and thought that his reappointment would be straightforward, because of the very fact that it was a re-appointment. However, things turned out very differently. After Dr Brodie had vetoed Jacobs’ appointment as principal of Jews’ College, how could he approve of his appointment at an orthodox Synagogue, whilst he still held the same views, which according to some people contained traces of heresy? No other option was left open in Brodie’s mind, than to veto this appointment as well. As a result of this action the complete management committee at the New West End Synagogue resigned and backed up Jacobs. They renounced their links with the United Synagogue. Jacobs’ supporters thereupon got together and in 1964 gave him his own pulpit by establishing for him the New London Synagogue in St John’s Wood, which is unaffiliated with the United Synagogue. Until today Dr Jacobs remains Rabbi at this New London Synagogue.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ Analysis of the Controversy
What went on concerning Dr Jacobs’ appointment as principal of Jews’ College and later on his appointment as Rabbi in his old pulpit was given the name “The Jacobs Affair”. Dr Jacobs has said that it is unfortunate that the affair was given this name, because it tended to divert attention from the wider issues.
At the real heart of the controversy were the theological question and the problems of Anglo-Jewry.
What was the theological issue? Dr Jacobs says, in an article in the Jewish Chronicle of 19 December, 1986 (written on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Jacobs affair):
“From the rise of the Judischen Wissenschaft school, in which the classical sources of Judaism have been studied historically, it has become imperative for traditional Jews to rethink (not to abandon) the doctrine that the Torah is from Heaven (TORAH MIN HASHAMAYIM). It is no longer tenable to understand the doctrine in Maimonidean terms – that God conveyed to Moses, in a manner beyond our comprehension, every single word of the Pentateuch and every last detail of the Jewish observances – not because it is impossible for Him to have done so (nothing is impossible for God), but simply because the massive researches of a host of dedicated scholars demonstrate that He did not choose to convey His will in that way . . . To put it as simply as possible, the doctrine ‘The Torah is from Heaven’ did not itself drop down from Heaven, but like all other Jewish doctrines, it has a history. . . . The question to be asked is not what Maimonides said 800 years ago, but what the great sage would say if he were alive today, after the rise and growth of the critical method.”
Within Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy there were two camps. On one side stood Dr Jacobs with his supporters who believe(d) that the Bible needs to be interpreted to the spiritual needs of the Jews in their age and that the doctrine “Torah is from Heaven” needs to be rethought. On the other side are these people who can be called fundamentalists, who believe that every single word in the Pentateuch was dictated by God from Heaven. Dr Jacobs says in the above mentioned article that the fact that there was an “Affair” was perhaps inevitable, given the conditions that obtained in the community at the time (see Chapter 3). His line of thinking is very close to what is called Conservative Judaism in the U.S.A. But Dr Jacobs’ New London Synagogue has been called “Orthodox”, to denote what the late Chief Rabbi Hertz defined as “progressive conservatism” and which had been understood as “Orthodoxy” in Anglo-Jewry.
He says in his article:
“We were not the rebels. The real rebels were the United Synagogue and kindred ‘establishment’ organisations who had moved away from the tolerant, liberal (with a lower-case ‘1’) non-fundamentalist tradition of Anglo-Jewry in favour of a harsh, rigid, uncompromising – not to say obscurantist – approach, foreign to the mood of the community.”
Some people had hoped that through the Affair a new movement would rise in Anglo-Jewry – a conservative movement. Although the New London Synagogue was founded and a few others with it, this hope has not been completely realized, because orthodox congregations found it too difficult to have to break away from the United Synagogue.
Dr L. Jacobs has found it and still finds it hard to believe that every orthodox rabbi totally disagrees with his “conservative” ideas. It has only been a few people who were willing to stick their necks out.
The irony of the whole affair is that these so-called fundamentalists stood by the decisions of the Chief Rabbi. The very authority of Chief Rabbi was based on an example in the Anglican Church. Whereas the Anglican Church has an Archbishop, Anglo-Jewry has a Chief Rabbi. In the whole of the Pentateuch a recommendation for a Chief Rabbi can not be found. So where the fundamentalists want to keep to everything the written code says, at the same time they adhere to the “modern” non-Jewish idea of a Chief Rabbi.
Dr Jacobs concludes his article in the Jewish Chronicle as follows:
“At the very least, the ‘Jacobs Affair’ will not have been in vain. It is not for me to speak of our side, but I have never believed that the other side, misguided though they were from our point of view, have been anything but sincere in pursuing the truth as they saw it.
In short, it was ‘a controversy for the sake of Heaven’. Of such a controversy, the rabbis say in Ethics of the Fathers that it is destined to endure.”
Some views from Members of the Jewish Faith around the Country
At the time when the ‘Jacobs Affair’ reached its climax, many people expressed their views on the matter in letters sent to the Jewish Chronicle.
The Jewish Chronicle itself proved to be a faithful Jacobs supporter, although it must be said that the paper, which is called “the guardian of Orthodox Judaism” in this country, tried to put over a picture painted by people coming from the different camps in Anglo-Jewry. Some of these reactions from the different camps are the following:
“Jews’ College was founded to further traditional Judaism. It is also an institution of higher learning affiliated to London University. There is something incongruous in a situation that permits the appointment of the head of such an institution to be subject to an ecclesiastical veto. It is, moreover, absurd that while laymen alone appoint the Chief Rabbi, they should not be able to appoint a principal of Jews College. In this case, the Honorary Officers unanimously recommended Dr. Jacobs as Principal, not in spite of, but because of, his views, for they believe that only an approach such as his can make traditional Judaism intellectually acceptable and provide the College with the leadership it sorely needs . . .” (Jewish Chronicle, 29 Dec. 1961).
“The Chief Rabbi is the custodian of Orthodox Judaism, the time honoured faith. Dr Brodie’s requirements for a Principal of Jews’ College indicate that a teacher of ‘Talmudic distinction, devout, and strictly orthodox’ is needed whereas it is absolutely essential that our future rabbis and ministers should have a true Orthodox training. The views of our chief spiritual leader, which views must have been formed in prayer and meditation, should be respected.” (18 May, 1962).
“. . . it must be obvious to any sensible person that being responsible for Judaism in Britain today, Rabbi Brodie must be in a position of authority and, bearing full responsibility as he does, he must be free to use that authority himself, irrespective of Press campaigns or outside influences . . .” (18 May, 1962).
“. . . If the views of Dr Jacobs were considered heretical, why was he permitted to continue holding the office of Rabbi and remain a lecturer at Jews’ College? The Chief Rabbi cannot surely have it both ways. Also, why is it so obvious that all the professional apologists for Dr Brodie deliberately evade a reply to this simple question? . .” (26 Jan. 1962).
“. . . In recent years the most encouraging sign for the revival, let alone survival, of Anglo-Jewry, has been the great following that has attached itself to Dr Jacobs. Old and young have been inspired by his piety and encouraged by his teachings which have made Judaism a modern living faith, rather than an archaic superstition, in their lives. Many, indeed, had looked forward to an era when young ministers, trained by Dr Jacobs, would have revived the old glories of an Anglo-Jewry proud of and practising its ancient faith. This is now shattered. Dr Jacobs’ followers may well decide that they have no use for an institution so hide-bound and bigoted that it apparently allows one man to stultify the first real stirrings of Jewish consciousness that have taken place for many years.” (29 Dec. 1961).
The above quotes are all taken from letters or features on the ‘Jacobs Affair’ in the Jewish Chronicle.
A view shared by many Jews of “authority” in Britain is that the controversy seemed rather distant from the existential realities. Certainly Jacobs’ views had a freshness about them and an openness, particularly his way of bringing together many different ideas from Jewish and general theology. But it was felt that the crux of the controversy was about the dating and authorship of the Bible which appeared a purely theoretical issue, though with many implications. Perhaps the implications were relevant to young people but not to the discussion of Higher Criticism itself. One felt that it was/is obviously a highly sophisticated academic matter which was tangential to many of the participants. Jacobs’ views of the implications seemed to get lost in the religious politics of how revelation was to be understood, and indeed the implications are still not entirely resolved in the Conservative theology. One also felt that the more relevant elements concerned tradition and modernity, the source of religious authority, the opening up of Judaism to the values of the outside world. One thought/thinks that Jacobs actually wanted to pitch his views around the Biblical focus, and this was obviously the sticking point for his Orthodox opponents. It has been said that in retrospect, and perhaps at the time also, this seems to have been a mistake and to have detracted from a whole host of what others regard as existential issues.
Although December 1986-January 1987 marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of what became known as the “Jacobs Affair” in no way can we say that the Affair is something that happened 25 years ago, and that we only look back on, because it is over. In many ways the Affair is still going on now.
Over the past 25 years there have been eruptions over the matter, the most recent one of any size in November 1984, when the present principal of Jews’ College, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, wrote a rabbinical response to the non-fundamentalist views of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, in the Jewish Chronicle. In the article Rabbi Sacks reviews a book by Dr Jacobs, called A tree of life, subtitled ‘Diversity, flexibility and creativity in Jewish Law’.
Dr Jacobs writes a reply on to this article also in the Jewish Chronicle. On the pages where the Jewish Chronicle prints letters from its readers many letters appeared again with comments on the Affair, proving that the Controversy is still very much alive, although much of the acrimony has gone out of it now. But what will happen in the future?
Unfortunately, one day we must say goodbye to this courteous, softly spoken, urbane man of fastidious and exhaustive scholarship. Will the controversy end when Dr Jacobs retires or leaves this world?
Without mentioning names I can say that several Jews connected with Jews’ College have said that the controversy will come to an end.
Dr Jacobs says about the question “Will the ‘Affair’ peter out with his retirement or demise?”:
“The question seems absurd to me. Although I cannot deny that the ‘Affair’ has centred on me personally, I could have achieved nothing without the constant support and encouragement of brave men and women, many of whom who have understood the issues perfectly.”
The question is: who is going to be prepared to raise the issues raised by Dr Jacobs?
Will all Orthodox Rabbis of the future not dare to express their ideas on matters of revelation?
Surely there must be young men brave enough to speak up for themselves even among Orthodox rabbis. Maybe some conservative Jewish rabbis from America will be attracted to serve in Anglo-Jewry.
Where the “Affair” could erupt and centre around one person 25 years ago and still now, there is the hope that one day in the future, somebody will carry on to work as Dr Jacobs has done until today.
When that will be nobody knows.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs: We have reason to believe (1957)
Rabbi Louis Jacobs: Principles of the Jewish faith (1964)
Rabbi Louis Jacobs: A Jewish theology (1973)
Byron L. Sherwin: Louis Jacobs: Man of controversy, scholar of distinction
Ignaz Maybaum: ‘The Jacobs Affair’, Judaism 13 (1964)
Alfred Sherman: ‘The Jacobs Affair’, Commentary 38 (October 1964)
Sefton Temkin: ‘A crisis in Anglo-Jewry’, Conservative Judaism 18 (Fall, 1963)
Copies of the Jewish Chronicle from a period covering summer 1961-summer 1962 and December 1986