Originally published in Masorti Matters, Summer 1998.
40 years ago William Frankel published Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ most controversial work. It led to The Jacobs Affair and gave birth to the Masorti movement in Britain.
In 1954 Rabbi Louis Jacobs left Manchester for London to become the Minister of the prestigious New West End Synagogue of which I was then a member. The following year I became General Manager of the Jewish Chronicle which also published books under the imprints of Jewish Chronicle Publications and Vallentine, Mitchell. Much impressed by the Rabbi’s first series of sermons on Jewish Prayer, I suggested to him that they ought to be published and they duly were by Jewish Chronicle Publications under that title. It was a slim, paper-bound volume, now, I would imagine, a collector’s item.
Not long after that, Rabbi Jacobs invited me to read the manuscript of a book he had written which, at the suggestion of the late Or Tan Gordon, was entitled We Have Reason to Believe. Its sub-title was “some aspects of Jewish Theology in the light of modem thought” and its thrust was summarised by a passage in the author’s introduction which read, “A true Jewish Apologetic, eschewing obscurantism, religious schizophrenia and intellectual dishonesty will be based on the conviction that . . . a synthesis is possible between the permanent values and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day”.
After I had read the manuscript, I talked to Rabbi Jacobs about it. I told him that we (Vallentine, Mitchell) would be happy to publish it but then offered a personal, presumptuous and unsolicited piece of advice. We both knew at the time that he was being seriously considered by the powers at the United Synagogue as a possible successor to the decent but weak Chief Rabbi, Dr Israel Brodie. It’s a fine book, I said, but somewhat controversial in its discussion of biblical criticism and open to attack by the diehards. Why not wait until after the Chief Rabbinate issue had been decided and publish it then? Rabbi Jacobs would have none of it. He had no ambition to become Chief Rabbi but, if he were ever to be considered, he thought it right that his views should be known earlier rather than later. That was that and the book was published in 1957.
It was well reviewed and, despite my forebodings, received a warm welcome even from some orthodox circles. At any rate, no overt criticism appeared at the time as far as I know though I would guess there may have been some murmurings in Stamford Hill. At the time a journal called Jewish Review was appearing under the auspices of the Mizrachi, the religious Zionist movement. It reviewed We Have Reason to Believe most favourably and recommended it as a valuable guide to Jewish belief. It was only later, during the course of the Jacobs Affair Part I, that the Jewish Review changed its mind and condemned it as heretical. At the time, the publishers sought to buy advertising space in the journal quoting its own review, but the advertisement was not accepted.
It was only after Rabbi Jacobs joined the teaching staff at Jews’ College with the promise by its lay leadership that he would be appointed Principal in succession to Dr Isidore Epstein that the book was used to block his appointment. The ultras feared that if this came about, it would make his candidature for the Chief Rabbinate unstoppable and Chief Rabbi Brodie who, as President of the College could veto the appointment of a Principal, was persuaded to exercise it.
Anglo-Jewish orthodoxy, as exemplified by the United Synagogue, had been defined by Chief Rabbi Hertz and, indeed in the preface to the bye-laws of the institution, as “progressive conservatism.”
But from the 1950s, the rigid orthodoxy of Frankfurt, Lubavitch and the like, began to make headway in the community and became increasingly assertive. Chief Rabbi Brodie who, during his service as Senior Chaplain to the Forces was himself the very model of a moderate, succumbed to the pressure tactics of the zealots and, I believe against his own inclinations, decided that he could not afford to support Rabbi Jacobs. In addition to the pressure from the outside, he also had to contend with a strongly right-wing and forceful Beth Din.
The “heretical” book became the pretext for his action. It is more than likely that he would not have promoted the advancement of Rabbi Jacobs even if the book had not been written, for the ministry of the “liberal” New West End Synagogue would have been enough to arouse the hostility of the ultras. But Dr Brodie chose to make the book the text for his ban and all that followed. The publicity given to it led to its frequent reprinting (to the satisfaction both of its author and publishers) and it is still in print.
We Have Reason to Believe sparked the, still continuing, religious controversy which is effectively bringing about the decline of the United Synagogue, has produced the New London Synagogue and now the Masorti movement. Few books can be credited with similar impact.
A member of the New London Synagogue, William Frankel, CBE, was formerly editor, then Chairman, of the Jewish Chronicle and is vice-President of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.