Dr Cesar Merchan-Hamann, Jane Barlow,
Dr Zsafia Buda, Milena Zeidler
Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, arguably the greatest Anglo-Jewish scholar and rabbi and certainly one of the most popular, was voted by readers of the Jewish Chronicle ‘the greatest British Jew’ in a poll conducted in 2005. He combined an active rabbinical career with tireless activity as a scholar, publishing widely on Jewish thought, history, mysticism and liturgy, focusing particularly on Hasidism and Rabbinics. His contribution was particularly rich in the field of Jewish theology, and it is Rabbi Jacobs as a theologian that we highlighted in two exhibitions this year – one of them at the Muller Library in Yarnton, and the other its virtual and much expanded equivalent on the Centre’s Library website. But we did not neglect his work as a community rabbi, communicating with the ‘Jew in the pew’ in an ongoing conversation about Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Dr Jacobs was in communication with some of the greatest scholars of his time, but could only rarely devote himself fulltime to purely academic activities, such as when he was Visiting Professor at Harvard University or other institutions. In his unusual choice of fields, including some from which more traditional scholars had shied away, he may be compared to pioneers such as Gershom Scholem. It is a great privilege that Rabbi Dr Jacobs generously donated his Library to the Leopold Muller Memorial Library shortly before his death, thanks to the good offices of the former Fellow Librarian, Dr Piet van Boxel.
Rabbi Jacobs defined Jewish theology as ‘an attempt to think through consistently the implications of the Jewish religion’, and believed that this needed to be done anew in each time and place, in accordance with the current state of knowledge. Modern thinkers could not sit in judgment on Judaism, however, but must recognize their own limitations. Jewish theology is therefore invariably provisional and to be constantly reconsidered. There is only one constant: Jewish theology must be consistent, an assumption which led him to re-examine the Orthodox tenet of Torah from Heaven (Torah min hashamayim). His inability to accept it literally would lead to the ‘Jacobs Affair’, which brought him to public attention and gave birth to the Masorti movement – which he did not plan to found, but which has changed the tenor of Anglo-Jewish life.
The aftermath of the Affair produced controversies in several fields, but particularly concerning the validity of marriages conducted in Masorti synagogues or by non-Orthodox rabbis, and over the Jewish status of the children of such marriages. Here the links between Rabbi Jacobs’s scholarly endeavours and rabbinic activities are particularly apparent, showing an ability to bridge fields made possible by the fact that for him Judaism was something both lived and thought. We can follow his activities so closely because we have access to an archive which documents Rabbi Jacobs’s involvement in both scholarly and rabbinic community activities in detail, as will be seen below.
The physical and the extended virtual exhibitions of material from this archive were produced with the unstinting help of the Friends of Louis Jacobs, particularly Rabbi Jacobs’s son, Mr Ivor Jacobs, and the rest of the family. The Exhibition Team is grateful to all who contributed archival material or advice, and who helped and supported us in various ways throughout the process.
The Louis Jacobs Archive
Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs preserved a large archive reflecting his work over many years, and when it was decided to bring together an international team of scholars of Jewish Orthodoxy for the Centre’s Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies (OSAJS) in 2013 (see pages 26–140 above), to discuss the role of Jacobs’s thought in Modern Orthodoxy, his family loaned a significant part of this to the Muller Library, providing material for the exhibition.
For over fifty years Louis Jacobs and his wife Shula collected personal and professional letters, sermons, handwritten notes, newsletters and newspaper cuttings about Jacobs himself, and about what would eventually become the British Masorti movement. This material offers opportunities for researchers not only into early-twentieth-century Jewish culture in the UK, but into Latvia and Lithuania, where Jacobs’s parents lived before settling in Manchester. The archive also contains photographs and memorabilia of the extended family.
The archive includes dozens of boxes of correspondence, with up to 450 items per box, containing letters written by, but also those addressed to Jacobs, with drafts and copies of his replies. The correspondents include personal friends and family, academics, members of his and other congregations, Jewish leaders and leaders from other faiths.
Jacobs corresponded regularly with Rabbi Professor Alexander Altmann, based in North America, over several decades, providing insights into Jacobs’s personal experience. On 19 May 1964, at the time of the ‘Jacobs Affair’, for example, he wrote to Altmann: ‘The dust of the battle has now settled and we are worshipping as a new congregation called the New London Synagogue.
It has possibilities and I am glad to say that my friends are extremely loyal’ (F, 152).
Correspondence with the Office of the Chief Rabbi is preserved, and several personal exchanges with Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, who in 1973 wrote to Jacobs about his methods of biblical criticism. The pair discussed the problems and limitations of language when discussing theological and philosophical issues, such as how words such as ‘empirical’, ‘objective’ and ‘meaning’ may be used in multiple contexts and for a variety of purposes (F, 155–156). Such letters provide the opportunity for a more nuanced understanding of the Jacobs Affair and the growth of the British Masorti movement.
A key component of Jacobs’s archive is his notebooks. We currently have sixteen handwritten volumes containing sermon ideas, theological notes and reflections, as well as the original versions of many of his books. These include Helping with Inquiries, as well as the revised edition of the Tree of Life, in which Jacobs addresses reviews of the previous edition in 1984 and revisits his view of Torah from Heaven (S60,005). They also include unpublished material, such as the plan for a book entitled Belief in Action which was never fully developed (S55, 113–145). Some notes were incorporated in Beyond Reasonable Doubt, 1999, written forty years after the Jacobs Affair, in which he discussed varying biblical interpretations in different strands of modern Judaism.
Another important category of material is contained in his scrapbooks. There are seventy-seven of these, containing newspaper cuttings from around the world about Jacobs and the Jacobs Affair, continuing until just before his death in 2006. They also contain cuttings, reviews and other memorabilia collected and collated meticulously by Jacobs’ wife Shula and himself. Due to the intensity of the Jacobs Affair in 1964, several scrapbooks were filled in this year alone, some covering only a few weeks. A few items they contain are available elsewhere, but assembling a mass of material over an extended period of time makes it possible to analyse shifts in attitude systematically.
The archive provides valuable insight into the way Jacobs’s theology was perceived by others. His most controversial work, We Have Reason to Believe, was published in 1959, but received only minimal attention at the time. It was only in the 1960s, when Jacobs was being considered first for the position of principal of Jews’ College and later as a rabbi at the New West End Synagogue, that Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie’s attention was drawn to the publication and he vetoed the application. The book was subsequently reprinted, revised and expanded five times.
In 1999, more than forty years after its publication, Jacobs wrote Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1999/2000), a systematic defence of the original thesis of We Have Reason to Believe, designed to help the reader ‘decide whether [he has] presented a case beyond reasonable doubt.’
Initial responses were varied. In 1963 an anonymous author wrote in The Jewish Quarterly that Jacobs’s theology ‘is not an original work at all’. Some correspondents and reviewers despised the book and others commented on how it had affected them personally. One wrote that ‘were it not for the controversy it has caused one would scarcely recommend it at all’. These and other examples of reactions to Jacobs’s theology – not all of them negative – are available on the website and in the archive.
Jewish Status: Conversion and Marriage
The archive offers deeper insight into the practical consequences of Jacobs’s Theological views – for himself, his congregation and the wider Jewish community – than his published works. Nowhere are theology and practicality more closely entwined than in the material on marriage and conversion. The emergence of what later became the British Masorti movement from theological differences about the nature of Torah impacted on everyday life.(1) Essential pillars of Jewish communal life – the official registering of birth, marriage and death – became controversial because Orthodox authorities challenged the Jewish status of those belonging to other movements. The Jewish status of the members of those communities, whom they could marry, where they could be buried and whether their offspring could be considered halakhically ‘Jewish’, were opened to question. The archive contains numerous letters written to Louis Jacobs concerning those whose Jewish identity had been challenged by the Orthodox authorities.
Jacobs expressed his views on the status of the marriage ceremony quite clearly. In Jewish Law a marriage between two persons both of whom profess the Jewish faith is valid provided there is no legal impediment […] the marriage is effected by the delivery of the ring, in the presence of two witnesses, attended by the declaration, ‘Be thou betrothed unto me by this ring according to the Law of Moses and Israel’ […]. It follows that provided there is no legal impediment, it is impossible to invalidate a marriage solely on the ground that it took place in a Liberal or a Reform synagogue. This has been acknowledged more than once by the Chief Rabbi.(2)
The right to register marriages has been a central issue in the fight for religious authority within Anglo-Jewry for 150 years. Isaac Goldsmid, one of the founders of the first Reform synagogue (the West London Synagogue), had already in 1845 appealed against the Marriage and Registration Acts of 1836, which took marriage out of clerical and into secular control, rendering the Reform congregation dependent on the Board of Deputies for certifying its activities. The President of the Board at that time, Moses Montefiore, refused to give the new synagogue the necessary certificate for performing marriage ceremonies.(3)
Some decades later, the Liberal movement met the same resistance, as still later did Louis Jacob’s congregation.(4) A communiqu. of the London Bet Din represents the position of the United Synagogue: ‘Marriages performed by Dr Jacobs, even in cases where both parties are eligible for marriage according to Jewish law, have no more halachic validity than marriages contracted in a Register Office in Civil Law. Conversions under the auspices of Dr Jacobs have no validity whatsoever in Jewish law.’(5)
Difficulties around marriage are often intertwined with those of conversion. Matrilineal Jewish descent makes the conversion of women particularly sensitive, and if a woman or a female ancestor were converted in a non-Orthodox synagogue, their Jewish status might not be recognised. In some cases, people who considered themselves practising Jews have been asked to convert because the synagogue in which they wish to be married does not recognize their Jewish status.
The Archive contains numerous letters written to Louis Jacobs requesting his opinion on such problems and asking if he would be willing to perform their wedding. A woman who intended to marry an Orthodox man but did not have the ketubah of her grandparents explained how ‘I turned to the Beth Din for advice and was told that without the necessary documentation I was not to consider myself a Jew and must attempt to obtain a full conversion to Judaism’. A member of the New North London Synagogue related in 1992 how when a mother wished to send her son to a Jewish school, ‘She was asked where she and [her husband] were married and she replied that she was married at New North London and that you [Louis Jacobs] officiated. She was told that the Ketuba from the N. N. L. S. was not acceptable and she would have to prove she was Jewish by producing her parents’ Ketuba although, of course she had done so before the marriage. As I say, you are probably familiar with the situation, but I would be grateful for any comment you have […]’.
The issues surrounding conversion – particularly its difficulty and protracted nature – are complex and contested, and lie at the heart of differences within the community. In an unpublished essay entitled ‘Jewish Approach to Racial Prejudice’ (undated, but written probably in the 1960s), Jacobs indicated that he believed extreme caution over conversion to be misplaced: ‘Judaism it is said does not believe in encouraging converts. There are people in the community who take this too seriously. I have heard people argue that we are in a special kind of race. […] We would not like too many goyim, because their characteristics are so different from our own. We would welcome a few, but not too many. I must say that a careful reading of Jewish tradition gives no support to this view. […] In accepting a proselyte, there must be some evidence of real sincerity. Once the evidence is forthcoming, any forthcoming person can be accepted as a Jew. He becomes a fully-fledged Jew, treated with greater sympathy. You shall love the stranger, for ye were strangers to the land of Egypt.’
The tension between Louis Jacobs and the Orthodoxy represented by the United Synagogue has never been resolved. In 1993 the Chief Rabbi was asked about the United Synagogue’s refusal to accept Louis Jacobs as the officiating rabbi at a wedding, and his office’s response demonstrates how practicalities are intertwined with theological questions. ‘While it is quite true that, in many respects, the Masorti congregations have retained much of traditional practices, they remain, theologically, outside of orthodox traditions. Quite apart from the relatively minor matters of form and substance in which Rabbi Jacobs and his colleagues have deviated from Orthodox practice, there is also the very major axiom of Jewish belief, that the whole Torah is the divinely revealed will of God, is the principal issue that separates Rabbi Jacobs and the Masorti Movement from Orthodoxy.’ (H067a).
Louis Jacobs’ archive provides vivid insights into inter-denominational relations and delineates shifts and changes in religious trends over almost six decades. The selections displayed in the physical and virtual exhibitions illustrate the research potential of the archive, which awaits the attention of researchers into Jewish theology and the history – and present – of Anglo-Jewry in particular.
About the Exhibition
The exhibition entitled ‘We Have Reason to Inquire: The Life and Works of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs’ – in both its physical and the virtual form – was arranged by the library staff during the autumn and winter of 2012. Each item in the archive was described and allocated a shelfmark, before about 6500 out of the 7000 pages were scanned for preservation on the Centre’s server. The remaining 500 images were completed early in the 2013–2014 academic year. The digitizing and exhibitions complement the work begun on the ‘Friends of Louis Jacobs’ website, which also displays scans of parts of the archive, especially scrapbooks and manuscripts, as well as transcripts of key texts and sermons, and some video recordings.
While digitizing the items we selected 50 to be displayed physically at the library, and some 150 for the virtual exhibition, now available permanently online.(7) The physical exhibition was launched on 23 January 2013 and the virtual one in July.
Both exhibitions are divided into three sections:
- Jacobs’s understanding of revelation and the concept of Torah min hashamayim (‘Torah from heaven’),
- Jacobs as part of a wider community of scholars (including Salo Wittmayer Baron and Abraham J. Heschel),
- Jacobs’s approach to issues of conversion and marriage.
- We use the term Masorti movement, although it is important to clarify that Louis Jacobs had no intention of founding a new movement. He considered himself Orthodox, and wished to stay within the framework of Orthodox Judaism.
- Louis Jacobs, Helping with Inquiries (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1989) 215.
- Anne J. Kershen and Jonathan A. Romain (eds) Tradition and Change. A History of Reform Judaism in Britain, 1840–1995 (London, 1995) 13–14, 39.
- Ibid, 210–11.
- Jewish Chronicle, 30 September 1983; see Louis Jacobs, Helping with Inquiries (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1989) 219.
Jacobs’s notes for Belief in Action.
Jacobs’s response in 1958 to a reader’s comments on We Have Reason to Believe.
The manuscript of ‘Jewish approach to racial prejudice’, an unpublished essay probably from the 1960s.
Timeline from the virtual exhibition.
Panoramic image of the physical exhibition.
The virtual exhibition was made possible by the cooperation and support of the following individuals, institutions and organizations, to whom we are particularly grateful:
Zachary M. Baker Curator, Judaica & Hebraica Collections, Stanford University
Richard Burton Chief Operating Officer, Jewish Chronicle
Rabbi Dr Elliot Cosgrove Park Avenue Synagogue
Anne Cowen New London Synagogue
Friends of Louis Jacobs
Tobey B. Gitelle Salo W. Baron Family
Rabbi Jeremy Gordon New London Synagogue
The Herald & Times Group
Professor Susannah Heschel
Toni Hyams South Manchester Synagogue
Ivor Jacobs and Family
The Jewish Quarterly
Thena Kendall Abraham Y. Heschel Family
Roger S. Kohn and the Association of Jewish Libraries
Lancaster University and the Lancaster University Archivist
Anthony J. Leon Felix Carlebach Family
Anna M. Levia Assistant Curator, Judaica & Hebraica Collections,
Rabbi Rodney Mariner Belsize Square Synagogue
Professor Antony Polonsky
Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert
Simon Rocker Journalist, Jewish Chronicle
Dr Jeremy Schonfield
Rabbi Dr Norman Solomon
Elisabeth Talbot Raphael Loewe Family
Shoshana B. Tancer Salo W. Baron Family
Vallentine Mitchell Publishers
Jo Velleman New London Synagogue
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg New North London Synagogue