Originally published in The Times.
The issues behind a bitter row 50 years ago are still crucial today, says Jonathan Wittenberg.
“When I was having my little affair,” my teacher Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs liked to joke. But the Jacobs Affair, as it was known when it hit the national headlines 50 years ago, was a deeply serious matter. And so it remains today.
The issues raised concern the basic relationships between faith and truth, belief and power. In a time when religion is re-emerging forcefully in the public square, these matters should engage not just Jews but also anyone troubled about the future of society.
Rabbi Jacobs was born in 1920 into a moderately observant family. He spent his formative years at the Manchester Yeshivah, an intense environment of piety and learning. A brilliant student, he had a prodigious capacity to master the Talmud, a superb memory and an insatiable appetite for wide reading.
Having gained his rabbinic diploma in 1943, he moved to London where, alongside his clerical duties he enrolled at University College. Here he first encountered the world of critical scholarship, “the science of Judaism” developed primarily in 19th-century Germany—an approach partly summarized by Moritz Steinschneider’s witty misquotation of Proverbs, “the beginning of wisdom is bibliography.” Throughout Jacobs’ career, in which he wrote some 50 books and which culminated in his being voted the most important Jew since their return to this country under Cromwell, the fear of the Lord and bibliography, unshakable traditional faith and open acceptance of the results of critical scholarship, were to feature as an integrated whole.
Here lie both his originality and his challenge to toe Orthodox establishment. In We Have Reason to Believe, described 45 years later as “that small book that detonated modern British Jewry’s biggest religious crisis”, he declared that modern scholarly insights could neither simply be demonised nor conveniently compartmentalised into a safe mental corner where they had no effect on a person’s faith. Quoting the Talmudic maxim that “the seal of toe Holy One is truth”, he argued that the disciplines of archaeology, ancient history and literary analysis require the believer to rethink the nature of revelation.
The Torah, Judaism’s most sacred text, could no longer be understood as literally “from heaven”, as Maimonides had regarded its every word. In the 12th century such a doctrine could be held with intellectual integrity, but not now. Rather, revelation had to be seen as not only to but also through human beings. The human element was present in Torah from the first, filtering and interpreting divine inspiration.
These views led to toe rejection by the Chief Rabbi then, Israel Brodie, of Jacobs’ anticipated appointment as principal of Jews’ College, Anglo-Jewry’s primary institution for training Orthodox rabbis, and the vetoing of his reinstatement at the prestigious New West End Synagogue. The argument reached the national press then, and its embers have not entirely cooled now.
Unbowed, Jacobs responded with courage, creativity and wit. Truth had to be accepted; the results of empirical investigation could not be ignored. But this, he argued, did not undermine the authority of traditional, observant Judaism that depended not on the origins of its practices but on how they were developed and observed, on how Jews had lived, and died, by them throughout history.
Thus Jewish law was not the unfolding of a homogeneous system, but the product of the “diversity, flexibility and creativity” of the rabbis and communities who developed it in response to the economic, cultural and philosophical environments in which they lived.
Why was Orthodoxy’s rejection of Jacobs’ position so categorical? Perhaps it felt betrayed that one from its midst could adopt such views. Perhaps it instinctively sensed that to break down the simple paradigm “God said it; we do it” was to invite the collapse of the authority of the Commandments. Better therefore the sustaining fiction than historical truth.
Since the affair the intellectual tide has not flowed in Jacobs’ favour. The speed of change, the erosion of family and community life, the absence of agreed moral standards, make many long for clear, categorical codes.
Modernity and the idea of progress, especially for Jews since the Holocaust, seem less compelling. Many people want the protective clarity of being told who they are, what to do, who they are for and whom against. Hence, perhaps, the revival of Islamic, Christian and Jewish fundamentalism.
But Post-Modernism has also played its part. “Isn’t all ‘truth’ subjective? it is claimed. “Don’t we all ‘construct’ our narratives, so why is my version any less ‘objective’ than yours?” “And if there is no ‘truth’, what relevance has critical inquiry?” Thus the empirical method is marginalised and dogma trumps honest investigation.
As the American sociologist of religion Peter Berger, who once predicted the demise of religion, implies in his book The Desecularisation of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, there are series dangers here.
Where religious establishments use power to oust those who pursue their ideas with intellectual integrity, the precious space of open discourse, so deeply and so rightly valued, becomes imperilles.
The attempt to suppress dissonant voices can verge on intellectual totalitarianism, which in turn lights the road to political totalitarianism.
Further, as any analysis of religious, or for that matter nationalist, discourse makes clear, the stories we tell to authenticate our worldviews are more powerful than weapons. It is our narratives that arm us. It is therefore essential to contextualise them, to read them historically and critically, as well as with the heart of faith, and sometimes to qualify their claim to speak eternally in God’s name.
Here, it might be argued, lies the enduring value of Rabbi Jacobs’ thought. The world pressingly needs the voice of moderate, self-critical, truth-seeking, open-minded religions, both as protection against the corrosive effects of the unchecked materialism and opportunism which partially characterise the current era, and equally to counteract the religious extremism which could threaten to undermine the free, inquiring discourse of a tolerant and pluralist society.
Jonathan Wittenberg is Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue and Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Syangogues.