Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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

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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.

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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.