A selection from Alex Berlyne’s regular “Jerusalem Post” column, published in 1981, displays the following commendation on its dust cover: “This book should appeal to people of all ages, particularly if they were born in the Twenties in Manchester’s Bermuda Triangle, the area bounded by Elizabeth Street, Waterloo Road and Cheetham Hill Road”. You could say much the same thing about Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacob’s autobiography, and the specification of topography and age would rope in Jacobs, Berlyne and the present reviewer. Furthermore, all our fathers worked in the raincoat trade, though Berlyne and Jacobs senior were on the shop floor, whereas my Dad was in the front office. Hence at the age of 14, I was learning Latin and Greek at Manchester Grammar School, whereas young Jacobs’s father was proposing to apprentice his boy to a printer. That is, until it was very civilly represented to him that the lad would do well at yeshivah. And so Louis moved up from the yeshivah’s boys’ class to the yeshivah proper, and from then on never looked back.
Louis Jacobs is, to the best of my knowledge, the only English Jew who has gone to yeshivah and, quite literally, lived to tell the tale. To be precise, he has written, in plain Manchester English, a fascinating account of what life was like in a provincial yeshivah in the 1930s: what they studied, how they studied, and who the “characters” were, both students and staff. Like Proust’s account (lehavdil) of childhood in Combray, this is the best part of the book, at least to old Bermuda Trianglers. And yet there is something missing. Jacobs is interested in people and ideas, but not places. He doesn’t tell us what it was physically like inside the yeshivah, how it was lit, if there was lino on the floor and chromo-lithographs of famous rabbonim on the walls. The only comment of this kind in the entire book occurs in an account of Sunday afternoons at the homes of “Munk’s Shul” congregants in Golders Green, where there is a fleeting reference to being served with “tea poured from silver tea pots and . . . pastries from exquisite china services”.
There are other lacunae. We are not told when the author was married, though the birth of his son Ivor is noted in 1945. In this context, we are startled to find a photograph of the rabbi and his wife reproduced over the terse caption “Manchester wedding, 1947”. Closer scrutiny, however, suggests that they are not sitting at the top table . . . And finally, it is not explained how young Jacobs, presumably bereft of matriculation or Higher School Certificate, got himself into University College, London, to study for an honours B.A. in Semitics; but he did.
This is where his real intellectual adventure began, under the expert guidance of Dr. Siegfried Stein. The Pentateuch, uncritically accepted at Jacobs’s almae matres of Manchester Yeshivah and Gateshead Kollel as a seamless garment, handed down to Moses entire from Heaven, was revealed as a patched quilt, and the very concept of it as a verbatim revelation was seen to have come into existence at a comparatively late period, and to have a history of evolution in itself.
Armed with these notions, Jacobs, now the incumbent of the fashionable New West End Synagogue in London, wrote a book, We have reason to believe, that was published In 1957. This caused no kind of a stir at all, least of all from the Chief Rabbinate, where the late Israel Brodie appears not to have burdened himself with any intellectual pabulum more strenuous than the Thought for the Week. That is, until Dayan Dr. Isidor Grunfeld, who was made of sterner stuff, brought him a copy of the book, and opening it at an offending passage, metaphorically slapped it with the back of his hand and asked “Should a Jewish boy be writing that?”
The fat was then well and truly in the fire, and Jacobs’s candidature for the Principalship of Jews’ College was blocked by Brodie, furious at having been caught napping. It was, in fact, in the confident expectation of succeeding to that post when Epstein retired that Jacobs had left the safe haven of the New West End for a rather nebulous lectureship at the College. He was now left high and dry. His previous congregants invited him back, presuming that if he’d been their rov once, he could be so twice, without further ado. They were mistaken. They had reckoned without the intervention of the Secretary of the United Synagogue, who alerted the Chief Rabbi to the impending danger of heresy slipping in through the back door of Anglo-Jewry, having been turned away from its entrance portals, and the New West End was forbidden to take their former rabbi back. In the end, the congregants voted with their feet, seceded from the United Synagogue and set up the New London Synagogue, with Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs as its first incumbent.
The New London, to all intents and purposes, was an orthodox synagogue, outwardly at least. What went on in the noddle of its spiritual leader, however, was something else again. Rabbi Dr. Jacobs in 1960 had reached the same theological position, vis-a-vis the verbal inspiration of the Bible, that the Anglican Bishop Colenso had reached in 1860 (though his concept of the nature of God seemed still to be that which he had learned in Rebbe Balkind’s cheder). To consider that the creation narrative in Genesis is incompatible with the findings of modern science, however, would not appear to clash too obviously with the notion of “Progressive Conservatism” which (according to the preamble to its bye-laws) is supposed to be the prevailing outlook of the United Synagogue. But the intellectual climate of Anglo-Jewry had changed since the mild and tolerant days when the United Synagogue constitution was framed.
John Aubrey, in his Brief Life of Thomas Wolsey, quotes from a letter that the Cardinal had written (presumably to Henry VIII) which started: “My Lord, I understand that there is a Reformation in Religion intended by the Parliament, and I wish that severall things were reformed; but let me tell you that when you have reformed, that others will come, and refine upon you, and others again upon them; et sic deinceps [and so on and so on]” The New London Synagogue begat the New North London Synagogue, and at the New North London Synagogue there was no mechizah, women gave sermons, were counted in the minyan and (wait for it) served on the Board of Management. Here indeed is the easy descent to Avernus from which a prudent and judicious care has rescued us in Southport. . .
For the last thirty years, until the rise of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs has been virtually the only British writer worth the name in the field of orthodox Jewish theology, a topic admittedly unknown in the world of the yeshivah. What the effect would have been on a whole generation of rabbinical students if he had become Principal of Jews College in the sixties, it is now fruitless to speculate on: the chance was blown. But the kind of critical intelligence he has brought to bear on subjects hitherto through immune from such probing, has illuminated a path that succeeding generations of Jewish thinkers in this country and abroad are certain to explore.
H. A. Meek