Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 31 December 1993, p. 19.
Does anyone remember the Jacobs Affair?
If people have forgotten, they are likely to be reminded in the coming months. The affair erupted in 1962, when Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs resigned from Jews’ College after the Chief Rabbi refused to implement an understanding that he would be made principal.
Dr Jacobs was the author of a number of works on popular theology, the best known of which, “We Have Reason to Believe,” cast doubt on the divine origins of parts of the Bible. The then Chief Rabbi, the late Dr (later Sir) Israel Brodie, felt such views were not compatible with the office of principal.
The second stage of the affair came two years later, when Dr Jacobs was invited to become rabbi of the New West End Synagogue, a post which he had occupied with distinction from 1955-59, and from which he had been translated to Jews’ College.
Dr Brodie again blocked the appointment, whereupon a large part of the New West End congregation broke away to form the New London Synagogue, with Dr Jacobs as rabbi, and the Masorti movement was born.
When Dr Immanuel Jakobovits became Chief Rabbi, in 1967, he was anxious to end the bitterness and friction which had resulted from the affair and reached a concordat with Dr Jacobs by giving formal recognition to his congregation as part of the Orthodox fold, after Dr Jacobs agreed to perform no marriages which could not be held in an Orthodox synagogue.
Dr Jacobs has kept his part of the agreement religiously, while the other side has, of late, appears to have been trying to wriggle out of it.
Dr Jacobs, as even his opponents would agree, is one of the leading Jewish scholars of our day. He has many friends and admirers in the community and, until recently, he was frequently invited to take part in United Synagogue ceremonies. This has now stopped. There was never any formal declaration that he wasn’t acceptable, only private intimations that he wouldn’t be accepted.
The Sephardi community, too, which had been favourably disposed to Dr Jacobs and his followers, but which is now anxious to show that it is not a whit less holy than anyone else, has imposed a similar ban.
There was a moment of farce about six months ago, when some friends of mine invited Dr Jacobs to participate in their wedding ceremony at the Bevis Marks Synagogue. Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, spiritual head of the Sephardi community, agreed that he could do so. A few weeks later, on pressure from higher—or at least different authority—he said that he couldn’t.
Dr Jacobs is an eloquent speaker, but nothing he could have said was quite as eloquent as his absence. It was a disgraceful episode and made a laughing-stock out of the Sephardi synagogue.
About the same time, a young man, who belonged to Muswell Hill Synagogue, and was about to marry in the Masorti New North London Synagogue, was refused an aliyah on the Shabbat before his wedding.
The rabbi of Muswell Hill is Dr Julian Shindler, director of the Chief Rabbi’s marriage authorisation office. His wardens demurred but did not rebel, which shows what stuff the lay leaders of the United Synagogue are made of.
But more sinister than such incidents is the whispering campaign suggesting that couples who marry in any synagogue under the aegis of Dr Jacobs may face difficulties in later life, as indeed they may, though any such difficulties would be in clear breach of the Jakobovits-Jacobs agreement, and might even be actionable under English law—especially where admission to state-supported Jewish schools is concerned.
The Orthodox establishment is obviously troubled by the growth of the Masorti movement. Where there was one Masorti synagogue in 1965, there are now five, and the New North London—thanks partly to the more bizarre pronouncements emanating from nearby pulpits—could soon find itself one of the most rapidly expanding congregations in the country.
Dr Jacobs has hitherto accepted the erosions of the concordat quietly, but is no longer content to do so. He has demanded a statement from the Chief Rabbi to clarify the situation, and we may be on the brink of the third phase of the Jacobs Affair.
My advice to Dr Jacobs and his followers is to do and say nothing, for the more they are persecuted, the more they will flourish.
The US is in any case on the brink of disintegration. If the Masorti movement plays its cards right, it may inherit the best part of it.