It was some 28 years ago in 1961 the year that I first went to University that the “Jacobs affair” first rocked British Jewry. This well written autobiography of Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs reveals to us all the background details surrounding the shabby treatment meted out by the “Anglo Jewish Establishment” to one of the foremost Jewish scholars ever produced by this country. Oddly enough it was in Edinburgh in the early 60s at a Jewish Student Summer School in Newbattle Abbey College where Rabbi Jacobs was the guest lecturer that I first became acquainted with the man and his philosophy. Naturally enough it was fashionable for young students to align themselves to someone who was both charismatic and anti-establishment and I had the advantage in that my late father was a close personal friend of Rabbi Jacobs and fully supported his ideas.
What was the Jacobs’ philosophy which caused him to be branded a heretic, which caused Chief Rabbi Brodie to actively prevent him becoming Principal of Jews’ College and later from preaching and becoming Minister for the second time round of his former congregation, the prestigious, and fashionable but only nominally orthodox New West End Synagogue in London?
The book shows us just how “right wing” the young Jacobs was. Educated at Manchester Yeshiva he was attracted to the Telzer way of learning Talmud and but for the war he would have gone to Telz in Lithuania to study at the famous Yeshiva of Telz. Instead he spent several years studying at the Gateshead Kollel where his colleagues were later to become, almost to a man, his most bitter opponents. Indeed he was so much a part of the orthodox establishment that he was offered the job of Registrar of the London Beth Din and but for his absolute honesty and integrity would most certainly have been a Dayan of the most rigid of all Batei Din.
The cause of his fall from grace in the eyes of the right wing was his postgraduate studies in Biblical criticism at University College London. He explains “on the basis of Jewish dogma it is generally understood that every single word of our present text of the Pentateuch was dictated by God to Moses.” This is what every so called “orthodox” Jewish person is expected to believe. Biblical criticism shows that “the Pentateuch is plainly a composite work produced at different periods in the history of ancient Israel.” Jacobs acknowledges that many observant Jewish scholars “compartmentalise” the two opposing views but he personally cannot accept the “two truths approach” which he calls “lack of approach.” The Jacobs’ philosophy in a nutshell is that the “ideal of critical investigation into Jewish classical sources does not prevent acceptance of the Halachah, albeit with a sense that Jewish law has had a history and did not drop down ready-made from Heaven.” And in the actual practice of religion Jacobs is as punctilious as any other orthodox Rabbi.
In 1964 supporters of Rabbi Jacobs broke away from the Chief Rabbinate and established an independent Orthodox Congregation, called the New London Synagogue. There is a Scottish dimension to the story because in 1966 like-minded members of Garnethill Synagogue in Glasgow sought to become independent of the Chief Rabbi and form a loose association with the New London Synagogue. The move for independence was carried by a majority but failed to obtain the two thirds majority required for an amendment to the constitution. Rabbi Jacobs’ opinion for the failure is clearly coloured by press cuttings from a short-lived, mischievous and sensational Jewish newspaper called the Jewish Times which set up in violent opposition to the well established Jewish Echo whose Editor, Dr. Ezra Golombok together with Lionel Daiches (then Sheriff of Glasgow) and Dr. Jack Miller were leading figures in the Jacobs camp. I can recall vividly that the reason for the failure was not so much due to the opposition of a former President of the Congregation but due to the fact that the Cantor, the late Rev. S. Segal had indicated that he would be forced to resign if the motion were carried.
An outstanding feature of the book is the author’s total lack of personal animosity towards those who sought to discredit him. Total honesty comes through on every page and I am reminded of Rabbi Jacobs’ answer to a student at the Newbattle Summer School who asked him what the Jacobs’ philosophy would achieve. “I would rather be a little right than he definitely wrong” answered the Rabbi.
John A. Cosgrove