Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.