The second of a two-part series based on a new biography of the minister. This week, the events that led to the community’s greatest-ever schism.
In 1962, Louis Jacobs was out of a job. Two years earlier he had given up his pulpit at the New West End Synagogue to take up a lectureship at Jews’ College. He had been informally advised that he would become College Principal when Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein retired. When Dr Epstein did retire the Chief Rabbi, Dr Israel Brodie, made it clear that he would not promote Jacobs because of his views on the authorship of the Torah, expressed in his book We Have Reason to Believe. Jacobs handed in his resignation to Jews’ College.
The JC looked forward to Dr Brodie’s forthcoming retirement after which “his successor… could reflect more closely on the type of Orthodoxy which this community wants to have.” The JC was hinting that it expected Louis Jacobs to become the next Chief Rabbi.
Jacobs never gave any indication that he wanted to be Chief Rabbi. Years later he said if that had been his ambition, it would have been wiser to remain the Minister of the New West End rather than take up a Jews’ College position.
Jacobs kept a low profile as he worked his notice at Jews’ College. But with argument continuing to rage all around him, his friends worried that his silence might be misinterpreted as an admission that he was wrong. They encouraged him to address a public meeting.
Over 1,000 people squeezed into the meeting at the Herbert Samuel Hall. Many more were turned away. Jacobs spoke for an hour and a half, without notes, arguing that Judaism had always accommodated diverse views. When he concluded, to prolonged applause, the chairman Ellis Franklin said: “Dr Jacobs stuck to his faith and he lost his job.”
Jacobs’s supporters were worried about his career prospects. Ellis Franklin and JC editor William Frankel proposed that an independent scholarly organisation be created, to pay him a salary so he could lecture and write. It would be called the Society for the Study of Jewish Theology. They hoped it would be a short term measure, until something better turned up.
Jacobs ran the Society for the next two years. He delivered lectures and brought in outside speakers, including several United Synagogue ministers sympathetic to his point of view. They included Rev Dr. Isaac Levy of Hampstead, Dalston Synagogue’s Rabbi Isaac Newman, Rev Leslie Hardman from Hendon, Rabbi Dr S Lehrman of the New Synagogue, Rev Dr Chaim Pearl, who had succeeded Jacobs at the New West End, and St Johns Wood’s Rabbi Dr Solomon Goldman.
Shortly after the Society’s launch, Dr Pearl was due to deliver a lecture for the Society at Edgware Synagogue, where Dayan Swift of the London Bet Din worshipped. Swift told the Synagogue’s honorary officers that if the meeting went ahead, he would in future worship elsewhere. They banned Dr Pearl’s lecture. In Dalston, members of the synagogue’s Board of Management kicked down the door of the room in which Rabbi Isaac Newman was conducting a study group on Rabbi Jacobs’s book Reason to Believe. Anglo-Jewry was fractious. And it was about to get worse.
Towards the end of 1963, Dr Chaim Pearl announced that he was leaving the New West End for America. The New West End Board unanimously agreed that Louis Jacobs should be invited to return. They advised the United Synagogue accordingly. The secretary of the United Synagogue said that Jacobs needed a ministerial certificate from the Chief Rabbi; the New West End said his certificate from his previous appointment at the synagogue was still valid. The matter was referred to the Chief Rabbi, who declared that Jacobs’s certificate had lapsed and that he would not grant a new one.
The New West End Council wrote to the President of the United Synagogue, Sir Isaac Wolfson, informing him that they were resolute about appointing Jacobs as their minister. They wanted to maintain the Chief Rabbi’s authority and hoped that reason and moderation would prevail. Otherwise, they would take “whatever steps may be necessary”. Wolfson stood by the Chief Rabbi, dismissing the implied threat in the New West End letter.
The New West End convened an Extraordinary General Meeting at which all but five members supported the synagogue’s position. The senior warden, Oscar Davis, expressed his appreciation to the JC which had remained uncharacteristically silent for several weeks while a resolution to the dispute was sought. The following week the JC published the story in full, including all the correspondence between the Synagogue Officers and Sir Isaac Wolfson.
The national press picked up the story. TheSunday Times splashed it across the front page. They published photos of as many prominent New West End members as they could fit into five columns. Headshots of Lord Swaythling, Lord Marks, Ewan Montagu and Barnet Janner MP all appeared alongside those of Chief Rabbi Brodie and Sir Isaac Wolfson. The only photo missing was that of Louis Jacobs.
Unable to resolve matters with the United Synagogue, the New West End Synagogue Council decided to unilaterally appoint Jacobs as their minister. The United Synagogue declared their action “unconstitutional”. The JC proclaimed the United Synagogue’s position “morally unjustifiable” and contrary to the organisation’s “constitution, by-laws and traditions”. The paper’s letters page had groaned for weeks under the weight of correspondence, almost entirely supporting Jacobs.
As Louis Jacobs and his sons walked to the New West End the following Shabbat, a Sunday Times photographer leapt out of the bushes. Their picture appeared at the top of the front page, headlined ‘The Rabbi Marches Into Battle’.
The following week at a meeting of the United Synagogue Council, the entire New West End Board of Management were removed from office. The JC said that the meeting had been “conducted with all the thoughtlessness and harshness of panic.” Sir Bernard Waley-Cohen told the Daily Telegraph that he was very unhappy about the way in which the matter had been handled. Edmund de Rothschild expressed similar sentiments to the Daily Express. The next day, Jacobs told the press that for the first time in its history, the United Synagogue had adopted an official position of fundamentalism, denying the right of freedom of inquiry into the sources of Judaism and Jewish thought.
On May 3, 1964 the 350 members of the New West End Synagogue met at the Rembrandt Hotel in Kensington. They were asked to pass a resolution to form a new congregation. It would be called the New London Synagogue. The congregation would follow the traditions of the New West End, under the guidance of Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs.
The resolution was passed overwhelmingly but it was agreed that further efforts towards reconciliation should first be made. Jacobs met with Sir Isaac Wolfson a few days later. Although they both believed it would be futile, the two men drafted a letter to the Chief Rabbi, begging him to have second thoughts. It had no effect.
In its May 8 edition, the JC carried an advertisement announcing that the “New London Synagogue, an independent Orthodox congregation under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs” was now holding Sabbath Services.
Jacobs’s supporters had wasted no time.
‘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