The first of a two-part series based on a new biography of the minister, whose search for a synthesis between liberalism and Orthodoxy contributed towards the community’s greatest-ever schism.
Louis Jacobs was appointed Minister of the New West End Synagogue in 1953. His appointment to a quintessentially English congregation in the United Synagogue surprised his friends. Jacobs was regarded as one of the brightest stars of the yeshiva world, a man with a great future in the strictly-Orthodox community. The revered Rav Dessler, with whom Jacobs had studied in the Gateshead kollel, had said: “I have never seen an ilui [Talmudic genius] of such depth.” He believed that Jacobs was destined for great things.
For the past five years Jacobs had been rabbi of Manchester Central Synagogue, where he had preached in Yiddish and English. Previously he had been the assistant to Rabbi Munk at his shul in Golders Green. While at Munk’s he had enrolled for a BA in Semitics at London University where his tutor, Siegfried Stein, introduced him to the academic study of the Bible. Stein, an observant Jew, warned him that he may find the curriculum unsettling, but assured him it need not undermine his belief. Stein maintained that one could academically challenge the view that the Torah had been dictated to Moses and yet not waver in the slightest in one’s beliefs.
But Jacobs was troubled. Stein seemed to believe that it was legitimate to uncritically place one’s religious and scholarly views into separate mental compartments. Jacobs couldn’t accept that this was intellectually honest. He needed to work out where he stood.
Jacobs was offered two jobs in 1953. One in Golders Green, the other at the New West End. His friends assumed he would opt for Golders Green. The New West End, with its mixed choir, its refusal to pray for the restoration of sacrifices and its very English way of doing things was, they believed, contrary to everything he stood for. One friend wrote criticising him for even bothering to preach a trial sermon there.
But Jacobs had other ideas. He discussed his choices with his wife, Shula. They opted for the New West End. They decided that exposure to a congregation like New West End, studded with highly successful, independent minded people, would give him greater opportunity to grow intellectually. It would allow him to show that one could both be an erudite Talmud scholar and a cultured, contemporary-minded Anglo-Jewish rabbi.
The New West End congregation confronted Jacobs with new intellectual challenges. Few congregants asked him to resolve Talmudic conundrums or to determine whether a chicken was kosher. Rather, their dilemmas were about the meaning and relevance of Judaism itself. Much to his delight, Jacobs found himself debating the place of religion in the modern world, the relation of Bible to science, and the nature of Jewish theology.
He discussed these matters with his study group at the synagogue, addressed them from the pulpit and formalised them in lectures aimed at young, intellectually engaged people across London. Time and again he returned to the idea that Judaism was a reasonable faith, that reason dictates that there is a higher purpose to life. He described his approach as a “quest”. His study group members encouraged him to set out his views in a book. One suggested that the book should be called We Have Reason to Believe.
We Have Reason to Believe was published in 1957. Most of it was non-controversial. Only in one chapter did he challenge the traditional view that Moses received the entire Torah at Sinai. He argued for a synthesis between the new and old ways of understanding revelation.
We Have Reason to Believe sank, like a stone, to the bottom of the vast ocean of Jewish religious literature. It received few reviews and hardly any readers. The JC gave it fewer than 300 words.
But Jacobs received attention. His reputation as a modern Jewish thinker was growing, and he began receiving offers of employment from overseas. Despite his affection for the New West End, he was becoming disillusioned with the United Synagogue, his ultimate employer. He began thinking seriously about moving overseas. His congregants, who were convinced he was a future Chief Rabbi, put their heads together to find a way of keeping him in the country.
One of Jacobs’s congregants was William Frankel, editor of the JC. Frankel believed that the community was constrained by the conservatism of the Orthodox rabbinate and that it was time for change. He saw Jacobs as pivotal in bringing about this change. When Dr. Isidore Epstein, Principal of the rabbinic training establishment Jews’ College drew near to retirement, Frankel suggested that Jacobs would be his ideal successor.
It was not an outrageous suggestion. The college council were warmly disposed to Jacobs and he was attracted to the idea of training a generation of academically minded, talmudically literate rabbis. The only problem was that the appointment required the approval of Dr Israel Brodie, the Chief Rabbi. Brodie had now seen a copy of We Have Reason to Believe and was displeased. He was unlikely to appoint him as the new principal. It didn’t help when Frankel published an editorial in the JC championing Jacobs.
Rather than risking everything too soon, his supporters suggested that the college create a new position of Moral Tutor for him. Jacobs would bide his time in that post until Dr Epstein retired, by which time, they believed, the Chief Rabbi would have come round to their view and agree to Jacobs’s promotion.
They were wrong. Dr Brodie assented to Jacobs’ appointment as Moral Tutor and Jacobs resigned from the New West End to take the new position. But when Dr Epstein retired two years later, Brodie would not agree to Jacobs’ appointment as principal. Worse still, he was casting around the world trying to find a scholar of distinction to accept the post. When he realised that nobody wanted the job, Chief Rabbi Brodie appointed himself as interim principal.
Jacobs was frustrated. He sent his resignation to the College Chairman, Sir Alan Mocatta. Sir Alan threatened to resign himself if Jacobs were not appointed. But the Chief Rabbi would not budge. Over the coming days, all bar one of the members of the College Council resigned.
The matter dragged on for over a year. The college was in crisis and the community was up in arms. This wasn’t how things were traditionally done in British Jewry.
The affair hit the national press. The Evening Standard was in no doubt that the Chief Rabbi had been under pressure from Orthodox Jews who considered Jacobs too liberal. The Daily Express declared that it had brought into the open a long-standing rivalry between “liberal and orthodox elements”. The Times caused offence by quoting a “leading member” of the Jewish community who claimed that the rift was due to several Jewish scholars recently arrived “from abroad”.
It was the JC that summed up the situation, at least to their own satisfaction. “It is no secret that in this, as on other issues, the Chief Rabbi allows himself to be guided by the extremists of the right…our extremists have passed to heresy-hunting within Orthodoxy, hence the opposition to Dr Jacobs’s appointment.”
Louis Jacobs, meanwhile, was out of a job.
‘Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ by Harry Freedman is published by Bloomsbury Continuum on 12 November 2020. Available in hardback and ebook at bloomsbury.com and at all good bookshops