Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Scholar and leader known for his prolific writing and intellectual integrity.

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In December 2005, Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was voted the greatest British Jew of all time by the readers of the London Jewish Chronicle--easily beating heavyweights like Moses Montefiore and Benjamin Disraeli. Over the course of his life, Jacobs published over 50 books, taught at the Harvard Divinity School, represented the Jewish religion at the 20th anniversary celebrations of the United Nations, and was once touted as a candidate to become Chief Rabbi of Great Britain.

Yet as a result of theological controversy, Jacobs was prevented from taking up positions of leadership in the community and was eventually expelled from the mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue. The so called "Jacobs Affair" not only marked a watershed in Jacobs' career, but signalled a seismic shift in the religious make-up of Anglo-Jewry.

Early Life

Louis Jacobs was born in Manchester into a working class Jewish family of Lithuanian stock. His father made sure Louis went to synagogue--even if he did not attend himself--but as a child, Shabbat afternoons were dedicated to following the local rugby and cricket teams. Louis received his Jewish education at the Manchester Yeshiva where he, eventually, spent seven years immersed in the study of Talmud. From Manchester, he progressed to the Gateshead Kolel, an institute for advanced Talmudic study. Jacobs then returned to Manchester where he completed his studies for semicha (rabbinic ordination).

As Anglo-Jewish rabbis were expected to have academic training, Jacobs moved to London and registered for an honors degree in Semitics at London University. His tutor, Dr. Siegfried Stein, warned him that as an observant Jew he was bound to be disturbed by the findings of academic biblical criticism: that the Pentateuch is a composite, human document, written and edited over an extended historical period. Traditionally, this notion was considered heretical, as it contradicts the doctrine that the Torah was revealed in its entirety to Moses at Mount Sinai and threatens to undermine the authority of Jewish law. But Jacobs continued his studies. His faith that intellectual integrity and observant Judaism could be reconciled became the linchpin of his religious life.

Books, Books, More Books

This was the issue addressed by Jacobs in his prolific output of books. In his works on the Talmud (Studies in Talmudic Logic; The Talmudic Argument), he explored the relationship between traditional and academic methods of textual analysis. In A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law, he analysed the impact of social, economic, theological, and political factors on Jewish Law, arguing that the halakha is an evolving, dynamic phenomenon. Jacobs' books on mystical themes and translations of Hasidic texts (Seeker of Unity; Hasidic Prayer) reflect his interest in traditional, pre-modern religiosity.

Jacobs' more popular books (What Does Judaism Say About...?; The Book of Jewish Belief; The Book of Jewish Practice) sought to communicate Jewish teachings in a way that could be meaningful to intelligent laypeople. And in his works of theology (We Have Reason to Believe; Principles of the Jewish Faith; A Jewish Theology) Jacobs dealt directly with the tension between tradition and modern values.

Yet despite this goal of reconciling tradition and modernity, the publication of one of these books was the catalyst for the so-called "Jacobs Affair" and Louis Jacobs' break with Orthodox Judaism.

Photo: Courtesy of
The New London Synagogue

The Jacobs Affair

In We Have Reason to Believe (1957), Jacobs accepted the findings of modern biblical scholarship, which contradicts the traditional view that God dictated the Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai. But, according to Jacobs, traditional conceptions of revelation were not redundant. Instead, Jacobs re-interpreted the idea of Torah min hashamayim--"Torah from Heaven"--using the analogy of recorded music. Despite the distortion inevitably imparted by the medium, when listening to a record, we can still clearly hear the voice of the artist. So too, "we hear the authentic voice of God speaking to us through the pages of the Bible...and its truth is in no way affected in that we can only hear that voice through the medium of human beings who, hearing it for the first time, endeavoured to record it for us."

To Jacobs, this approach--which he later termed "halachic non-fundamentalism"--made it possible for modern Jews to remain committed to the tradition and to religious observance without sacrificing their intellectually honesty.

At the time of the book's publication, Louis Jacobs was serving as the minister of the New West End Synagogue, a prestigious congregation in the heart of London. When the Principal of Jews College--the Orthodox United Synagogue's rabbinical seminary--announced his decision to retire, Jacobs was seen by many, including the College's executive committee, as an ideal candidate to replace him. But the appointment as Principal depended on the agreement of the Chief Rabbi, Israel Brodie. Jacobs agreed to leave the New West End Synagogue and accept the position of Moral Tutor, on the understanding that he would become Principal as soon as the Chief Rabbi gave the go-ahead. But by 1961, Brodie had decided to veto the appointment on the grounds of the candidate's unorthodox theological views. Jacobs resigned from the College.

Three years later, the pulpit of the New West End synagogue once again became vacant, and the congregation invited Jacobs to return as its minister. But under the bye-laws of the United Synagogue, all rabbinic appointments had to be approved by the Chief Rabbi. Once again, Israel Brodie vetoed the move. In protest, the majority of New West End members resigned from the congregation and in May 1964 formed a new, independent community: the New London Synagogue.

The acrimony, accusations and counter-accusations surrounding the Jacobs Affair filled the news and letters pages of the Jewish Chronicle, and the dispute was reported extensively in the non-Jewish press.

The Jacobs Affair had erupted along two critical fault lines running through British Jewry. In terms of theology, Jacobs and his followers believed they were fighting for the survival of the open, tolerant Anglo-Orthodox heritage in the face of their opponents' desire to impose a more insular and stringent type of religiosity. On the level of communal authority, the creation of the New London synagogue represented a revolt against the centralized power of the Chief Rabbi and the United Synagogue and a call for the empowerment of individual communities and their rabbis.

The Legacy

The Jacobs Affair has left its mark on Anglo-Jewry. In time, the New London Synagogue spawned daughter communities, and these congregations united in the 1980s to create the Assembly of Masorti ("traditional") Synagogues--the British branch of Conservative Judaism.

The debates also continued. In the 1980s, the Orthodox London Beth Din (rabbinical court) warned the public that conversions and marriages conducted by Louis Jacobs were invalid in the eyes of Jewish law. Jacobs responded that he carried out these ceremonies according to the letter of the halakha and that the Jewish status of all those involved was unimpeachable. He counter-claimed that his involvement in the field had been prompted by the Beth Din's own unprecedented intransigence and inhumane treatment of candidates who wished to convert to Judaism.

In 1995, Jacobs was once more under attack. In an article for the right wing Orthodox Jewish Tribune, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks accused him of "intellectual thievery," alleging that Masorti's claim to represent authentic Judaism was a subterfuge aimed at the destruction of the tradition. The article prompted intense debate in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle and brought tremendous publicity to the previously little-known Masorti movement.

The accusation of intellectual thievery was nothing if not ironic. In the words of his London Times obituary, Jacobs was a "widely esteemed scholar whose career was abruptly derailed by the Chief Rabbinate...He was utterly his own man, a figure of towering intellect and incorruptible integrity."

Louis Jacobs' legacy is the idea of Judaism as a sincere intellectual quest for the "Torah that speaks to our age."

It is not just that to seek is to find. Rather, in seeking the many-splendoured thing that is Judaism one has already found it because one is engaged in the process. I have sometimes yielded to the temptation, when challenged that my views are ambiguous, to declare that it is better to be vaguely right than definitely wrong.

- Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason To Believe (4th edition)

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Matt Plen

Matt Plen is the Chief Executive of Masorti Judaism in the UK. He has taught and trained educators in diverse institutions in Israel, the UK and the USA and is currently researching his doctorate on Critical Pedagogy and Jewish Ideologies of Social Justice.