Manuscript written by William Frankel, former editor of the Jewish Chronicle, c. 2000.
The tumult and the shouting over, the so-called Jacobs affair, which deeply divided Anglo-Jewry some 40 years ago, have long since died, though the echoes linger on. The affair engendered a good deal of misunderstanding, regrettably much of it maliciously contrived. For a community largely apathetic and Jewishly untutored the affair often produced more heat than light. The Jewish Chronicle, of which I was then editor, whole-heartedly sided with Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs in its editorial stance, at the same time, as a responsible newspaper, giving the issue the fullest objective news coverage by reporting and in its correspondence columns. For this it was subjected to much vilification and abuse, and unwarranted allegations were made that, in its support of Rabbi Jacobs the JC was out to undermine orthodoxy. The time has come to put the record straight, to show that as far as the JC was concerned, every effort was made to present the issues fairly and factually. It was felt that Dr Jacobs, a scholar of international repute, was being pilloried for daring to express in public sentiments which a large section of the community, including a number of his ministerial colleagues, shared but did not have the courage to give utterance to. The paper whole-heartedly concurred with his view, delivered in a sermon after he had been barred from preaching at his synagogue, that it was more important for “men to speak their minds than to mind their speech”.
It will be recalled that the Jacobs’ affair embraced two phases, culminating first in the refusal by Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie to confirm Rabbi Jacobs as principal of Jews’ College, a post he had been promised when encouraged by Dr Brodie and others to relinquish his ministry at the New West End to become moral tutor and lecturer in pastoral theology at the college, and secondly when Dr Brodie refused to issue (rather reissue) his certificate to enable Dr Jacobs to resume his ministry at the New West End Synagogue following the departure of Rabbi Dr Chaim Pearl to take up a post in the USA.
In his statement of explanation, delivered in the Adolph Tuck Hall, Euston, on May 5, 1984, to 134 rabbis and ministers of the Anglo-Jewish Community (a number from the provinces outside the ambit of the United Synagogue) Dr Brodie, as it were preaching to the converted, made some intemperate observations of what he conceived to be the behaviour of the JC regarding the Jacobs’ affair.
“The travesty of our traditional Judaism has been featured in our monopolistic Jewish press for some time. There has been a constant denigration of authentic Judaism and religious authority which has tended to create religious confusion and a spirit of divisiveness within our community and which, in no small measure, has contributed to the present situation. Whilst we believe in the freedom of the press, we should not allow this freedom to be abused and even turned into a tyranny as it attempted by the Jewish Chronicle which, in recent years, no doubt for reasons of its own, has not presented an objective picture of the Anglo-Jewish scene, nor has it reflected the tradition and sentiment of Anglo-Jewry.”
The Chief Rabbi’s statement, which the JC printed in extenso, pointedly refrained from according to Dr Jacobs the appellation of Rabbi, a surprising discourtesy for a graduate of Manchester Yeshiva and Gateshead Kollel and a former minister at the Munk’s Synagogue in Golders Green where, reputedly, the congregants “don’t come any froomer”, and, unlike the doctorate gained by Rabbi Jacobs for a thesis at University College, London, Rabbi Brodie’s scholarly appellation might have been referred to more accurately as “honorary” doctor, rather like the honorary doctorates collected by his leading supporter, Sir Isaac Wolfson, president of the United Synagogue, for his donations to scholarly institutions.
In spite of efforts by some of the ministers present to contribute to the proceedings, no discussion was allowed, presumably to allay the possibility of any criticism of what was clearly an EX CATHEDRA judgement. In fact this refusal to allow discussion was reflected in the voluminous postbag on the affair pouring into the offices of the JC. A number of letters asserted that it was heresy or even a Chilul Hashem (desecration of the Almighty Himself) to take issue with the Chief Rabbi as spiritual director, conferring upon him the status of what amounted to papal infallibility. While some of the correspondence took the paper to task, more in sorrow than in anger, arguing that its support for Rabbi Jacobs was more of a hindrance to him than a help, other letters were far too abusive or of a libellous character to be printed.
In a strongly-worded editorial Dr Brodie’s assertions were firmly rebutted. The editorial stated that the JC reported every expression of opinion. If, at times the Chief Rabbi’s views were not sufficiently enunciated that was because the United Synagogue had repeatedly refused the paper’s offer to comment.
Notwithstanding Dr Brodie’s assertion of the “monopolistic” position of the Jewish press, the paper was subjected to heated criticism by other Jewish journals. Thus the Jewish Tribune declared that the whole controversy had been unnecessary and had been deliberately provoked by the Jewish Chronicle which “for years has been waging war against Chief Rabbi Brodie and the Beth Din.” The Mizrachi Organ, the Jewish Review, was equally scathing, arguing that the JC had no right to venture its views on matters of theology beyond its ken. It supported Dr Brodie’s view that the affair could better have been thrashed out in private. To this the JC commented: “The press has covered this drama because it was news and covered it so intelligently and responsibly as to have encouraged Jew and Gentile to know more about Judaism”.
One Gentile who knew a great deal about Judaism, more so than many of Rabbi Jacobs’ detractors, was the Rev Dr James Parkes, a Christian Scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish history and a founder of the Council of Christians and Jews in 1942. His published views on TORAH MIN HASHOMAYIM, supporting the Jacobs’ thesis on revelation, were “excused” by the Jewish right-wing as the rantings of a Christian who was out of touch. Wrote the Jewish Review: “If we can forgive Dr Parkes who may not after all be so sensitive to Jewish feelings, the attitude of the Jewish Chronicle is monstrous”. Per contra Mr Frank Davis, a former Mayor of Finchley, wrote to Sir Isaac Wolfson that the United Synagogue, led by the five dayanim, was “retrogressing into a narrow and obscurantist intolerance.”
To Christian eyes the Jacobs affair was paralleled by the Robinson furore. Dr John Robinson, the Bishop of Woolwich, had written a provocative book entitled Honest to God in which he challenged the nature of the Deity and many of the cherished orthodox notions of the New Testament. Dr Jacobs’ views were far removed from those of the Bishop who would have regarded him as an arch-traditionalist, but whereas the then Archbishop of Canterbury, though affronted by the bishop’s attitude, made no attempt to ostracise him by preventing him from speaking his mind at Christian gatherings or instituting a heresy hunt, in marked contrast was the unrighteous behaviour of the United Synagogue and its leadership. Dr Jacobs was not only barred from addressing gatherings in synagogues and halls under United Synagogue jurisdiction but attempts were made to excommunicate those religious and lay figures with courage enough to support his right to be heard in a free society. Thus a Dalston minister was roundly abused for having the temerity of allowing Dr Jacobs to advance his views in his synagogue hall. On the occasions where attempts were made publicly to discuss the issues, at brains trusts, for example, Dr Jacobs’ proponents were often roundly abused or shouted down by United Synagogue rent-a-mobs. Scurrilous and tendentious propaganda was distributed by Dr Jacobs’ opponents casting aspersions on his orthodox rectitude. A leader of the Sheffield Jewish Community, related that he had heard tell that Rabbi Jacobs had attended gatherings at which he had eaten trefa food; others found it reprehensible that he had been seen in public without a hat (the JC countered this by publishing a picture of the Chief Rabbi and his ministerial associates hatless too on one occasion though not on Ilkley Moor.) Families were often divided on the issue. Rabbi Jacobs, in word and speech, was reflecting particularly the views of youth, anxious to learn and understand so that they could equip themselves with a reasoned knowledge of Judaism. It is problematical how much this consideration weighed with establishment thinking.
In view of the fact that the United Synagogue had a virtual stranglehold on the ministerial and lay officiants of its 80 and more synagogues throughout the metropolis, including powers to hire and fire and to control and adjust salaries and pensions, it was not surprising that few pro-Jacobites come forward to air their views in public. A notable exception was the Rev Dr Isaac Levy, of Hampstead Synagogue, which, like the New West End, enjoyed the reputation of being a maverick within the framework of the United Synagogue. In a sermon to his congregation Dr Levy decried the attitude of the Jewish Establishment in its harsh treatment of a leading rabbi and scholar who, he said “is being judged or worse declared guilty… The facts of the case are not known to the majority of those who have condemned him. Such a denial of basic human justice is, to say the least, unworthy of our community, which has prided itself for so long on the support of justice.”
In the provinces, where the United Synagogue writ did not run, several ministers were known to espouse views similar to those of Rabbi Jacob. Thus influential communities in Leeds, Birmingham and Glasgow came out in support. The leading Glasgow congregation decided only by a narrow majority against publicly aligning itself with Dr Jacobs. A distinguished scholar who had held high ministerial office in Britain before becoming Chief Rabbi of South Africa and whom the JC supported to take over as Chief Rabbi of the UK on Dr Brodie’s impending retirement, was Rabbi Dr Louis Rabinowitz. Rabbi Rabinowitz, who was in Israel at the time of the Jacobs affair and known for his latitudinarian views, was himself sniped at by one of his students, the son of a London Beth Din dayan, for alleged heresy. The young man made representations to the head of the religious establishment where Rabbi Rabinowitz was teaching drawing attention to the fruit of the rabbi’s research that the etrog could not be correctly regarded as one of the four Succot species since it was not grown in Israel in biblical times. This must have raised a few rabbinical eyebrows as, presumably did the expressed views of a leading Talmud rabbi of yore that the biblical Book of Job had never existed (lyov lo haya velo nivra).
The JC could rely on the constant support of the Conservative Jewish movement in America, and in a letter to Wolfe Kelman, professional head of the Rabbinical Assembly in New York, it asked if the assembly could spare a trainee rabbi to come to London to work under Rabbi Jacobs. But the request had to be turned down for financial reasons. Another JC initiative was the suggestion to Dr Raphael Loewe, then director of Jewish studies at University College, London, and other academics who sympathised with Rabbi Jacobs, that a round robin be despatched to Jews on university staffs soliciting their support in the struggle. There were 38 affirmative replies from the academics, 15 of them professors, representing a large variety of disciplines. The round robin enraged not a few of the academics notably Dr Edward Ullendorff, professor Emeritus, Semitic Languages, Manchester University, with whom the JC conducted a particularly acrimonious correspondence. Wrote Dr Ullendorff: “By your ill-judged campaign of canvassing you have done grave harm to Dr Jacobs’ case.” The writer sent a copy of his letter to the then JC Chairman, Mr David Kessler, who replied to Dr Ullendorff supporting the editor. In further correspondence Dr Ullendorff claimed that the Jewish Chronicle, in its reports and comment, had “inflated the difficulties over the appointment to the principalship of Jews’ College to the dimensions of a kulturkampf in Anglo-Jewry.” And he added: “Your role as arbiter of what constitutes ‘original talmudic research’ is as unbecoming as it is unrestrained in its terms.” A subsequent missive from Dr Ullendorff declared that “My colleagues and I regard this matter of suppression and selective reporting in so grave a light that some of us are now considering to bring the whole episode before the General Council of the press. We are also contemplating addressing the Editor of The Times on the subject.”
The idea of airing the controversy in the national press was not one Dr Brodie and his associates would have welcomed. The threat, moreover, was specious inasmuch as the Jewish Chronicle was widely read and respected by the national newspapers and magazines at home and abroad. Clearly the Jacobs affair was of great interest not only to the Jewish community but to much wider circles, not only theological, in many countries. In Britain the nationals handled the case with some delicacy, not wishing to offend Jewish religious susceptibilities and paying due deference to the venerable Jewish Establishment. Nevertheless, the Jacobs side of the case was fairly presented and commented upon. The Daily Express, for example, quoted Dr Levy’s pro-Jacobs sermon extensively and The Yorkshire Post stated: “The Jewish Chronicle, which shows its objectivity and independence, admits it has differing views to Dr Brodie, arguing that he has moved more to the right than any of his predecessors. It claims that its policy has always been to support traditional Judaism, but there can be legitimate differences of opinion on how best to achieve it…” The Yorkshire Post added that of 50 letters to the JC that week only four supported Dr Brodie. And in a statement to The Times the Hon Ewen E S Montagu, Sir Isaac’s predecessor as US president, told the paper that Dr Brodie was “an unhappy and worried man. I’m sure if he had been given a free hand this controversy would not have arisen.” Mr Montagu and others were of the opinion that the dayanim, of whom four out of five were foreign born, had impelled Dr Brodie to take the stand he did. None of the dayanim saw fit to issue any statement on the Jacobs case but it was known that one of them, Dayan Dr I Grunfeld, was a resolute opponent, particularly after the publication of Dr Jacobs’ book We Have Reason to Believe. Bearing in mind that Rabbi Brodie had inducted Rabbi Jacob into office as minister of the New West End Synagogue in 1953, had personally invited him to vacate his pulpit to become a lecturer at Jews’ College, had been fully aware of Dr Jacobs’ sentiments in his book, We Have Reason to Believe, and had resisted the views of Dr Grunfeld and the then principal of the College, Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein, in appointing Dr Jacobs, the inference was clear that he had been “got at” by the right wing. During Dr Brodie’s visit to Israel to take counsel before confirming his decision to reject Rabbi Jacobs he asked, as he later related, for the Gedolei Hatorah’s views. Surprise, surprise, they supported the extreme right, of which they were the leaders.
Throughout the controversy, to any objective analysis, the JC’s general approach was conciliatory, and up to the very last minute the paper clung to the hope that an accommodation could be achieved honourably to both parties without loss of face. For example, in a leader of February 1964 the paper expressed the view that, with the resignation of Dr Chaim Pearl there had been a golden opportunity to heal the rift “by endorsing the unanimous decision of the New West End board of management inviting Rabbi Jacobs to reoccupy its pulpit.” The synagogue, the leader pointed out, would have had the spiritual guide of its choice and a substantial step would have been taken towards the restoration of Communal Unity. “Moreover, in the last months of his tenure of office the Chief Rabbi, by accepting such an association, would have emerged not merely as an individual possession constitutional power but as one apply it with wisdom and magnanimity.”
The leader went on to state that the views held by Dr Jacobs “do not differ in essence from the opinions voiced by the Chief Rabbi himself in the course of a TV interview: they are identical with the views expressed some 70 years ago in the New West End pulpit by Simeon Singer (compiler of the famous Singer prayer-book used by the United Synagogue’s congregations for Services) and they hardly differ from the opinions held by influential members of the United Synagogue Ministry.”
The leader added that the publication in 1957, of We Have Reason to Believe “raised no hierarchical eyebrows. Can it be said that Dr Jacobs was fit to mould the minds of our future clergy (as a Jews’ College lecturer) but not of the New West End congregants.”
To which in his subsequent statement Rabbi Brodie made the lame rejoinder that he had persevered with the presence of Dr Jacobs as College lecturer in the hope that he would mend his ways and modify his views. His support for Rabbi Jacobs had been “an act of faith”.
At the height of the earlier phase of the controversy, in an effort to heal the rift, Mr Kessler and myself called on the Chief Rabbi at his offices to underline once again the paper’s objectivity in reporting the Jacobs’ case. Dr Brodie was informed the JC had never set itself out to be the mouthpiece of Liberal or Reform Judaism. It stood for “progressive orthodoxy,” which had been typified by the late Chief Rabbi Dr J H Hertz, a product of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, with which, “editorially speaking”, the JC was basically in harmony. However, as a newspaper, it sought to represent the opinions of every section of the community. Dr Brodie responded positively to the exchange: “I think it helped to clear the air somewhat and create the desirability of further meetings with you and the editor,” he wrote to Mr Kessler. However, the JC initiative was thwarted by the eruption of the second phase of the affair which culminated in the refusal of Dr Brodie to issue (reissue) his certificate to Dr Jacobs to resume his ministry at the New West End Synagogue.
The final rupture which resulted in the decision of the New West End membership to break with the United Synagogue and to form its own congregation, the New London, was not of the Jewish Chronicle’s making, though, inevitably, appreciating the justice of the congregation’s action the draconian behaviour of the US leadership and the victimisation of an outstanding rabbinical scholar, it was fully in accord with the New London decision.
The accession of Dr Immanuel Jakobovits to the office of Chief Rabbi, far from healing the communal rift, in fact widened it. For Dr Jakobovits was on record as a committed supporter of Dr Brodie. In a letter of January 1982, when he was spiritual leader of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York, he had written to the JC roundly attacking it for its attitude over the Jacobs’ controversy. As UK Chief Rabbi, therefore, he merely rubber-stamped the views and actions of his predecessor, securing his elevation as Chief Rabbi Emeritus. Under Dr Jakobovits’ spiritual stewardship, Anglo-Jewry lurched even further to the right.
Ultimately the Jacobs affair was a battle for the soul of Anglo-Jewry, between those advocating a free spirit of inquiry as reinforcement to traditionalism and those who shunned reason for blinkered, diehard fundamentalism. Like most internecine battles it generated much acrimony and vehemence. But the controversy did achieve the positive result of freshening the stagnant waters of Anglo-Jewry jolting its complacency and obliging it to face up to the challenge of reconciling modernism with tradition. It was an affair in which the United Synagogue could not be said to have covered itself with glory. To try to force an illustrious congregation like the New West End into a strait-jacket of conformity was an act of wilfulness calculated to undermine communal unity. It led to the formation of the New London Synagogue which flourishes today as the flagship of Masorti, a group of congregations devoted to the pursuance of the Jacobs ethos.