Originally published in The Times, 29th July 1989.
Jack Shamash on the torment of a rabbi exploring the roots of his religious faith
Questioning the scriptures
HELPING WITH INQUIRIES
By Louis Jacobs
Vallentine Mitchell, £19.50
When Rabbi Louis Jacobs acquired a disused synagogue after his split with the Chief Rabbi, some zealot broke into the building and chopped up the Rabbi’s seat with a hatchet. It seemed that a substantial number of Jews were upset that Rabbi Jacobs could sit in a chair that had graced the backsides of two former Chief Rabbis. This incident is a measure of the feeling engendered by the Louis Jacobs affair and also of the crass level of debate between the two parties.
There is a tradition of Jewish theologians standing at their pulpits bad-mouthing each other, but few Jewish ministers can have aroused the anger that Rabbi Jacobs did. As an orthodox minister he rejected the idea that the Bible was dictated directly by God to Moses, and instead tried to subject it to historical analysis.
It was this approach that split the Jewish community in the early 1960s, and pushed Jacobs and his theology into the pages of the national Press. Although in his autobiography, Helping With Inquiries, he expresses the wish that it were otherwise, it is this affair which has to dominate the book.
His book is to some extent a statement of the influences that led him to his almost heretical beliefs. Jacobs was a most unusual rabbi in many ways. He was born into a lax family, and his father would take him to watch cricket at Old Trafford on Saturday—in defiance of Jewish law.
Perhaps the most compelling part of the book is his loving description of his childhood in the Hightown area of Manchester—eating Mars Bars, reading the Beano, listening to Cab Calloway on the gramophone, and watching Donald Bradman take a catch just yards from Jacobs’s seat at a match.
His parents thought him almost mad when he decided to devote himself to religious study, and by his own account he became an “insufferable little prig and religious fanatic, driving my parents frantic with my absurd demands”. He claims: “This had the salutary effect of breeding in me a hatred of extremism itself bordering on the fanatical.”
He took further studies at the Gateshead Kolel—the heartland of British Jewish orthodoxy—and took a degree at University College, London, as well as being ordained as a rabbi.
As a gifted orthodox thinker, with his feet planted firmly in both the religious and secular worlds, great things were expected of him. However he blotted his copy-book in the eyes of the establishment when he published his book We Have Reason to Believe which suggested that Jewish law should be seen as developing over the course of history, rather than as an immutable series of commandments. His views were not new. What was new was his belief that one could hold these beliefs and remain an orthodox traditional Jew. Had he taken a pulpit at a reform or liberal synagogue, no one would have worried overmuch. What irked his opponents was that as an orthodox rabbi he maintained a critical attitude to the scriptures, and particularly to the body of laws codified in the Talmud. He felt that it was up to modern Jews to explore the relevance of these as a sort of “quest”, an adventure for the Jewish mind.
Throughout his philosophical development he never abandoned most elements of traditional Jewish observance. As he says in his book: “I see no reason why investigation into Jewish classical sources need prevent acceptance of the Halakhah (the body of Jewish law), albeit with a sense that Jewish law has a history and did not drop down ready-made from heaven.”
As his book shows, his relatively mild comments led to a crusade against him by opponents in the Court of the Chief Rabbi (the Beth Din), who declared that they would not recognize marriages at which he officiated. Other opponents physically assaulted his associates, made unpleasant telephone calls, insulted him in the Jewish Press, and generally indulged in the sort of behaviour that made much of the Jewish community throw up their hands in despair, and leave all parties to their squabbling.
As a result of the affair he was barred from becoming Principal of Jews College—a position which was seen as a springboard to his becoming Chief Rabbi. Moreover when his old ministry fell vacant, members of his community were prevented by the Chief Rabbi from appointing him as their rabbi—a decision that led to them promptly setting up their own synagogue. The arguments raised by Jacobs—a man of undoubted religious erudition—continue to haunt the Jewish community. Jacobs and his “Masorti” community continue to be regarded as dirty words by much of orthodox Jewry.
It’s difficult not to have some admiration for Jacobs. No matter how one regards his theology, he has never shirked the implications of his beliefs. Admittedly he has never been on the breadline as a result of his views, but he has not exactly gone out of his way to make life easy for himself.
However there seems to be something rather childish about his lengthy refutations and denunciations of his critics. After 25 years the arguments seem like playground wranglings in the world of Jewish theology. But I suppose that is the price one pays for bandying words with silly people.