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July 10, 2016 4:15 am

Remembering Rabbi Louis Jacobs

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Email a copy of "Remembering Rabbi Louis Jacobs" to a friend
Rabbi Jacobs. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Rabbi Jacobs. Photo: Wiki Commons.

I will be delivering a memorial lecture this week for Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, a very controversial figure in Anglo-Jewry in my youth. He was the Gateshead-educated, academically rigorous senior lecturer at Jews College, now defunct, but then the training ground for British rabbis that combined Torah with academic study.

He was expected to succeed Isadore Epstein as principal, but in 1961, Chief Rabbi Brodie blocked his appointment on the grounds that in his book, We Have Reason to Believe, Jacobs repudiated “Torah from Sinai.” That was not what Jacobs had actually said, but Brodie feared that he was too academic to become the successor.

Rabbi Jacobs attracted a lot of support. His own congregation rallied around him. To make matters worse, Rabbi Brodie then fired him from his New West End Synagogue. Rabbi Jacobs withdrew from the United Synagogue (the established UK umbrella organization of nominally Orthodox Jewry) and set up a new independent community called the New London Synagogue, that he described as “non-fundamentalist Orthodox.”

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The Jacobs Affair divided Orthodoxy, and it resulted in Rabbi Jacobs being ostracized from the mainstream community. The issue on the face of it was fundamentalism. Could one, in addition to living a completely Torah-observant life, pursue academic analysis, raise questions about the process of Revelation, and still be regarded as Orthodox? In other words, was fundamentalism the only paradigm of Orthodoxy? Or could one combine commitment, faith, and indeed mysticism with rationalism? Louis Jacobs believed so. Had that been the only issue, I doubt the result would have been the inhuman, even cruel way he was treated by the Anglo-Jewish religious establishment.

But sadly, there was another aspect to the affair. And that was the campaign of William Frankel, then the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, to get the United Synagogue to join the American Conservative Movement. Although most members of the United Synagogue then probably had much more in common with Conservative Jewry than with what we would now call Orthodoxy, there was no way Anglo-Jewry would make the switch. It would go against the natural tendency to support the Establishment. However badly Louis was treated, I believe it was a mistake to ally himself with Frankel. All the more so since when he was driven out and set up his own independent congregation, he never actually identified it with the Conservative movement.

Why then did I accept the invitation? Because I believe Judaism should be more than conformist Orthodoxy. It should respect differences. I knew Louis Jacobs. He was a good human being. A great, halachically observant Jew. A gentle, caring minister. It hurt me the way he was treated, and it is out of respect for his memory that I was honored to accept this invitation.

There is a personal angle — my late father liked him, too! In 1946, my father was Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues. Together with Israel Brodie, he was one of the two final candidates to succeed Chief Rabbi Hertz, even though he was barely 32 at the time. In 1948 he founded Carmel College and left the rabbinate. Twelve years later, he was being canvassed heavily to succeed Israel Brodie. I well remember his saying at the time that the position was not for him; it was too diplomatic and representative, and he was not interested in playing the political games of the rabbinate he had left behind him. Besides, he loved his life and mission at Carmel too much to give it up. Sadly, the Almighty intervened. In 1961 he contracted the leukemia that would end his life a year later.

My father supported Louis Jacobs on the Jews College appointment and actually wrote a letter published in the Jewish Chronicle saying that if Louis Jacobs was blocked, he would discourage his pupils from attending Jews College. That year I was present when Louis came down to Carmel to visit my father, and I remember the conversation clearly. My father advised Louis strongly not to enter into an alliance with William Frankel. He advised Louis not to react to the Jews College snub and not to challenge the establishment. My father believed that if Louis Jacobs had accepted the decision with quiet dignity, he would in time have become Chief Rabbi after Brodie.

They parted on good terms, and a few months later, my father died. Had he lived, I often fancy he would have steered Louis through the upcoming conflict. Two years later, I was a student at the Inter-university Jewish Federation conference when it was decided to ask Louis Jacobs to become its honorary president in recognition of his fight for academic freedom within Judaism and in the hope that it would strengthen his position. It did not.

The last time I saw him was in 1995. By then, Anglo Orthodoxy was growing exponentially. I had retired from the Anglo rabbinate, but I was asked to come and meet Rabbi Jacobs because he wanted to retire and I was thought by some to be an appropriate successor. I went to meet two senior members of the London Beth Din, upholders of Anglo-Orthodoxy, to ask if they would sanction a reconciliation that would bring the New London Synagogue back into mainstream Orthodoxy if I were to accept the position. They said they would. I took this message with me, and Louis seemed pleased. But our negotiations faltered over one issue.

Louis was utterly devoted to Minhag Anglia, the old Anglo-Jewish style of formal synagogue liturgy. I found it cold, boring and unattractive. I always disliked United Synagogue services. At Carmel, our prayers were more like what are now called Carlebach-style. Services were less drawn out, with more community singing. It was in yeshiva in Israel that I experienced for the first time true ecstatic, spiritual prayer. I would have wanted to bring the services more into line with the new Orthodoxy that was, everywhere, making Orthodox prayer much more exciting and meaningful. I do not know if Louis objected because he just preferred his way and would not budge. Or if it was because he fought fundamentalism for so long that this sounded to him like capitulation to the growing trend of “yeshivish” Orthodoxy. I respected his decision and chose not to probe.

Alas, we never met again. But I do want his memory and his legacy to live on. May it be a blessing.

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  • Since sun lights do not equally cover the face surface of our planet in time space rotation, they will be locations on our planet who has less than others, and since lights can not be owned by men, men brain will always be addicted to collect values “substance money” reading texts literally. The question is, what come first “light” or “ matter”, of course lights come first for men to be able to observe matters and texts. Only the genius brain who does reads texts not literally, is able to coordinate the whole entire texts as one unite force which is few men of this kind. Therefore is the reason for corruption within religion, politics, aesthetics, philosophy, psychology, and includes science! Only when goods are reasonably chaired among men on our planet by knowledge and never by manipulated political forces! Will be peace on our planet where men are able to start to read texts not literally. Which are impossible so long men do live in fears? Are the reason for the global political chaos on our planet and the reason for this article to take place.human minds must start to think about solving problem among men than creating them! Give chance to peace among men to be able to solve problems. Fears do not solve problems among men! Fears creates them!

  • Exactly said Dear Rosen,
    You said it! Cold and boring! And yet the books are written from past thoughts. What that means? Means lost spirit of space mind, which force men to move on. The kind space human brains event observation do take place in other life’s situation, in houses or in nature. I remember watching Obama watching a gold roof in Moscow; he was astonished seeing something he never knew about, a Russian cultural architecture of glory, where Russians faces are full of trust at home. This space situation to place not many tears ago, when Russia had good economy. Alas to day the same golden roof has not the same spirit, because of to day childish global politics which could be avoided if men did trust each other. What a pity! We notice that even the Pope can look not happy at the Vatican. Because we went out into politics which did rejects his mind. A good article.

  • Exactly said Dear Rosen,
    You said it! Cold and boring! And yet the books are written from past thoughts. What that means? Means lost spirit of space mind, which force men to move on. The kind space human brains event observation do take place in other life’s situation, in houses or in nature. I remember watching Obama watching a gold roof in Moscow; he was astonished seeing something he never knew about, a Russian cultural architecture of glory, where Russians faces are full of trust at home. This space situation to place not many tears ago, when Russia had god economy. Alas to day the same golden roof has not the same spirit, because of to day childish global politics which could be avoided if men did trust each other. What a pity! We notice that even the Pope can look not happy at the Vatican. Because we went out into politics which did rejects his mind. A good article.

  • Jay Lavine

    We see the kind of divisiveness that labels can have. Perhaps the worst example is the Israeli obsession with the absurd religious/secular dichotomy, which all segments of Israeli society seem to accept. Just being a pashute Yid is not enough.

    If we insist on allowing ourselves to be pigeonholed into categories, perhaps some fuzzy term like “traditional” or “nondenominational observant” would be best for describing those who adhere to the Jewish way of life but don’t take every midrash literally.

    • Steve

      Nu so who is a pushete yid? The answer is simple – someone who observes the halochos of the sulchan aruch and someone who believes in Rambams Ani Maamin.

      Simple uncomplicated.

      Louis Jacobs was an Apikoires its as simple as simple as that, and we had in history already like him – Yochanan Kohen Gadol Sh’shimesh shmoinim shono bekehune gedoile ubasof niyha tzeduki

      As I have said to you Rabbi Rosen many times – you are confused – As the Navi said you cannot dance with one tuches on two weddings at the same time you gotta make a choice, either you with Torahtrue Jews who believe in Torah misinai and its relevance today or you a with the politically correct LBGT jews who claim that the Torah and its observers are a primitive bunch

      Have the guts to choose

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