Originally published in The Jewish Advocate, 9th January 1986.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs of London, a noted Talmudic scholar and Orthodox rabbi, doesn’t look like a revolutionary, nor does he sound like one. However, when a controversy with England’s Chief Rabbi led to his founding his own congregation, the New London Synagogue in 1963, he started a movement that made religious history in England, where official Orthodoxy has reigned since the 17th century.
Rabbi Jacobs, 65, is spending the current academic year at Harvard Divinity School. He has just finished his fall semester on “Jewish Law” and will teach “Jewish Mysticism” next semester to primarily non-Jewish students of the Christian ministry.
During a recent wide-ranging conversation with The Advocate, he described his historic move which created the first “left-wing” Orthodox branch of Judaism in England, which is akin to the American Conservative movement. He terms it “Independent Orthodox, with a strong resemblance to the Conservative movement in the U.S.” He also expressed his views on the differences between the Anglo-Jewish rabbinate and the social activism of American rabbis.
As background for the controversy, he referred The Advocate to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, which details his “break” with then-Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie, who vetoed Jacobs appointment as principal of Jews’ College (the rabbinic seminary) because of his “heterodox views.” These views were based on Rabbi Jacobs’ published works: “We have Reason to Believe” (1957, 1962); “Jewish Values” (1960); “Principles of Jewish Faith” (1964), an analytical study of Maimonides’ Creed; and “Faith” (1968), which “accepted Biblical criticism, denied the literal inspiration of the Pentateuch and asserted a human element in the composition of the Bible,” according to the Encyclopaedia. Clearly, Rabbi Jacobs, a believer in religious pluralism who questions the authority of “the establishment,” is not a fundamentalist.
ADVOCATE: Describe your relationship with the Orthodox establishment in England. How would you define yourself religiously?
RABBI JACOBS: Briefly, the majority of Anglo-Jewish communities are Orthodox. But in former years its position bore a strong resemblance to Conservative Judaism in the U.S. It was very traditional, but flexible. So much so, that when Solomon Schechter founded the United Synagogue in America, he was instrumental in using the term “Conservative.” Conservative Judaism here was patterned on the British model of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy, reflecting Jewish life, its love for tradition, its reluctance to engage in change for change’s, sake and, at the same time, its openness to the demands of the modern world, highly traditional but not rigid: That was its position until after the Second World War . . . My quarrel with the Orthodox establishment was not at all on the question of observance of Jewish practice, but on the question of fundamentalism versus the critical approach to the sources, to historical criticism.
ADVOCATE: What happened? What form did your “quarrel” take?
RABBI JACOBS: I was supposed to become the principal of Jews’ College. It’s 130 years old, one of the oldest Jewish seminaries in the world . . . But the Chief Rabbi blocked my appointment on the grounds that I had accepted the findings of Biblical criticism. (He was later knighted afterwards and became Sir Israel Brodie.)
ADVOCATE: Did it create a split within the Jewish com’ munity? Did your-congregants resign en masse?
RABBI JACOBS: Yes, more or less . . . There was also a further episode when my former congregation wanted me back again after I had resigned to go to Jews’ College. But again, the Chief Rabbi blocked my return on the same grounds . . . Given the situation in Anglo-Jewry, that it’s very centralized, he had that power, that authority. It’s not like in America, where every rabbi has autonomy and authority. I had been at New West End Synagogue for six years. So when 300 of my former congregants resigned and came over with me, my present congregation, the New London Synagogue, was founded in 1964. Now we have 1,100 families. Apart from sharing my views, they were very sore that one rabbi could have this power, because he was not only challenging my views: he was challenging their right to make the appointment they wanted.
ADVOCATE: How did you resolve your split and heal the breach with the Chief Rabbi? What do you think of the “Chief Rabbi concept,” which we don’t have here?
RABBI JACOBS: It was conducted in a very gentlemanly Anglo-Jewish way . . . There was never any fighting of any sort. It was all done in a fairly typical, amicable way, in the British fashion, no fisticuffs or duels . . . There is a different Chief Rabbi now and my relations with him are cordial. As for the U.S. not having a Chief Rabbi, how very fortunate you are that you don’t have one!
ADVOCATE: Does Canada have a Chief Rabbi?
RABBI JACOBS: Well, as you know, on paper the Chief Rabbi of England is not only Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, but also of the Commonwealth, and has authority over South Africa and other parts of the Commonwealth, but not in Canada, because it looks as if Canada was influenced by the U.S.
ADVOCATE: Is the Chief Rabbinate firmly entrenched and not likely to change?
RABBI JACOBS: It’s entrenched by the Constitution of the various synagogues, and can’t be changed without changing the Constitution, and that’s very difficult.
ADVOCATE: Does that mean it would be difficult to establish Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or other branches of Judaism in England?
RABBI JACOBS: No, because they can be independent of the Chief Rabbinate, and that’s what happened when they formed the Liberal Synagogue. It’s only on the Orthodox pattern that the Chief Rabbi is recognized as the authority.
ADVOCATE: In the event that you retire, what will happen to your congregation? Do you have an assistant rabbi?
RABBI JACOBS: That is a problem! We have some plans afoot for that eventuality.
ADVOCATE: Will you import some American rabbis?
RABBI JACOBS: That’s interesting . . . maybe. There are some American rabbis who are very close to my way of thinking.
ADVOCATE: Describe the relationship of the Jewish community with the Anglican Church. Do you have interfaith activities? I know that Archbishop Robert Runcie is very active. He recently sent his envoy, Terry Waite, to Beirut to obtain the release of hostages there. Do Jewish congregations join forces with similar church groups for social action?
RABBI JACOBS: Yes, there is a Council of Christians and Jews, of which the Chief Rabbi is one of the presidents, together with Runcie. But there’s a point to be noted here. I mentioned before, the Board of Deputies of British Jews. (It is) a lay body of people who do precisely what you call an “outreach.” So it’s not necessary for rabbis to do it, because it’s already being done. We’re already holding hands, you see . . .
ADVOCATE: What about the social issues such as poverty and hunger?
RABBI JACOBS: These kinds of problems would not be tackled on a religious level but on a political level, and on the political level you have Jews divided among the parties. A rabbi would not normally feel he has a need to speak on these issues, although he no doubt has an opinion on them, because they are rarely religious issues. Say, for instance, poverty—or unemployment, which is our greatest problem—What will rabbis say, or what will Runcie say that will solve it in one way or another?
So you have people who agree with Margaret Thatcher, or people who agree with the Labor movement, the opposition who want to solve it another way, and there are Jews who are equally represented in both political parties . . . It’s not like here, as I understand it, where you have a Catholic voice, a Protestant voice and a Jewish voice. But that doesn’t happen in England, and even the Anglican Church is not really a Christian voice. It’s just there. Archbishop Runcie would rarely speak up on political questions because that’s not really his function . . .
ADVOCATE: But here, within the various religions, rabbis, priests, and ministers have assumed leadership roles. They form coalitions to seek solutions to the various social problems the government is not handling—or is mishandling, such as unemployment, affirmative action, separation of church and state, poverty, homelessness and drugs, divestiture from investments in South Africa, and the sanctuary movement.
RABBI JACOBS: I won’t say we don’t have these problems, but we don’t have them in a way in which religious leaders can do anything about it or be helpful, because it a different political system. How is a religious leader going to solve the problem of unemployment, which is our major problem?
ADVOCATE: The religious leaders of old, the prophets, spoke out. . .
RABBI JACOBS: Unemployment is the major issue before Parliament. So what is a religious leader going to contribute, over and above what’s being done, to say that it’s bad? Parliament handles it. The problems are purely political. There is not a serious drug problem in England . . . There is no such thing as “a Jewish voice” in England. It simply doesn’t happen. What can a rabbi say? Jews are represented in both political parties. Religious leaders can’t do anything about it. If there were an issue, Jews would speak up. But we don’t remind the government to do its duty. . .
ADVOCATE: What are you doing now? Are you writing more books?
RABBI JACOBS: I’m working on a few scholarly articles. I may write about my Harvard experience. I’ve visited the U.S. before, but this time it’s different, teaching in an American university. I’ve never taught divinity students before at the university level, or in a professional school.
ADVOCATE: Do you have many Jewish students?
RABBI JACOBS: None of the students are Jewish, as they are studying for the Christian ministry, but some Jewish students do come to hear my lectures, but not for credit.