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Rabbi Louis Jacobs


Accolades have been rightfully heaped upon Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs in death (in stark contrast to the scandalous way most of Anglo-Jewry treated him when he was alive). But his loss will not have much effect on Anglo-Jewry, precisely because his brand of Judaism has become very much a minority interest. Once, ironically, it was that of the more Orthodox of Anglo-Jewry and the majority of its clergy.

Rabbi Jacobs was regarded in the 1950’s as the outstanding rabbi/scholar of the Orthodox world. He had studied in Gateshead where he had a reputation as an “illui”, a genius. He entered the rabbinate and was the rising star of Jews College, which was then a significant institution with a serious academic reputation as well as its role in training Orthodox rabbis. When I returned to London after several years in yeshiva in Israel, my late father encouraged me to go to listen to his lectures—his Talmud classes, in particular. The greatness of Jews College in those days was that you could study with men like Epstein, Jacobs, Wieder and Zimmels and think you were in a traditional yeshiva one moment, then hear them switch a gear and think you were in academia the next (nowadays the only places you can do that is in some Israeli universities). Rabbi Jacobs was brilliant, but no great orator. He didn’t sweep people off their feet. But he was a good, caring, sweet, honest man and I do not know many rabbis today of whom that can be said.

Throughout his life, he and his wife kept mitzvot punctiliously. The only thing I ever heard him say about mitzvot that was heterodox was that people made a fetish out of head-covering. Yet even in that case, where it was halachically required he obeyed. He was also (to my mind wrongly) totally loyal to what was known as Minhag Anglia (English Custom), which was the tendency of the United Synagogue to mimic the cold formality of the Church of England in its synagogue services. When I once recommended that he scrap canonical dress and steer his shul more towards a Carlebach/Shtiebel atmosphere he reacted with horror.

So what was his crime? In his small book published in the early fifties, “We Have Reason to Believe”, he followed a Maimonidean line in trying to make traditional theology make sense rationally. He argued that although he believed in Torah from Sinai, it really depended on how you understood “Torah” and how you understood “Sinai”. By this he meant only to say that he did not take literally or at face value the assertion that every single word and letter of the Torah was dictated by God to Moses on Sinai (something the Midrash itself questions in Shemot Rabba 41.6), because Moses did not come down with a written Torah but just the Tablets of Stone. There were laws he had to ask God for clarification about later on. There were words and letters written one way and pronounced the other. And although it was perfectly possible that the ramifications and implications of the laws were indeed conveyed, we did not know the exact manner of communication or its form. What he did say at that time was that the laws of Judaism originated on Sinai, were sanctified by Divine approval, were hallowed by tradition. Anyone who wanted to claim to be a practicing Jew had to adhere strictly to the Torah as is, regardless of the process of how it came to be what it is today. When his book was reviewed by the Mizrachi weekly press of the time, it was well received without reservation.

In the late 1950’s the Dayanim of the London Beth Din were asserting their power and ideology over the willing but weak Chief Rabbi Brodie who was no match for them (unlike his predecessor Rabbi Hertz who stood for no nonsense). They knew the only person in the Orthodox rabbinate who could put a break, intellectually and religiously, on their march towards the right was Louis Jacobs. When Rabbi Epstein died, and Rabbi Jacobs was his natural successor as head of Jews College, he would then also become the obvious candidate for Chief Rabbi after Brodie. So they set to work to destroy him by claiming that his book made him unfit to be an Orthodox rabbi, and branded him a heretic (the usual tactic of the right when nothing else works). He was ejected from Jews College and his United Synagogue.

Rabbi Jacobs was no fighter. He allowed himself to be used by William Frankel, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle whose agenda was to highlight the hypocrisy of the United Synagogue and win it over to the American Jewish Conservative movement. My late father was terminally ill at the time and I remember a visit from Rabbi Jacobs when my father begged him not to make fight of it, to maintain his dignity and bide his time. Anglo-Jewry was too conformist, too anti-intellectual and too apathetic to rise in revolt or to change. But Frankel won him over. The campaign was fought and lost and Rabbi Jacobs was forever cast out of his Garden of Eden.

Unfortunately, I believe he then felt free to distance himself from Orthodox theology. I did not agree with his idea of “revelation” as being what wise men thought God wanted. Meanwhile, the mainstream turned fundamentalist and refused to think about issues. In the words of Daniel C. Dennett, it became a matter of “believing in belief” rather than trying to make sense of the issues.

With hindsight I might argue that the tactics the conformist, anti-rational brand of Orthodoxy have proved themselves, as that approach currently dominates the Jewish world. But it resulted in the near destruction of intellectual Torah, and the alienation and loss of whole swathes in the middle.

Rabbi Jacobs devoted his life to academia. His break-away synagogue slowly declined, and all that came out of it was the emergence of a small, if vibrant, Masorti movement that the Orthodox tend to put on a par with Reform.

I was asked in the 1980’s to write a review of a book by Louis Jacobs for a magazine called LeEylah published by Jews College in its terminal years. The editor-in-chief was the Chief Rabbi. In my review I said what a shame it was that Orthodoxy was denied Louis’s scholarship and intellectual powers and that it was poorer for it. The assistant editor then told me he was carpeted (he didn’t say by whom) for allowing my review to be published and that he should not ask me to contribute again (sound familiar?). Much later, Louis was disgracefully denied an aliyah in an “Orthodox” synagogue in Bournemouth at a grandson’s bar mitzvah.

Was he a heretic? Well, if Orthodox rabbis who claim that the world is more than 5,700 years can be called heretics, he was. If claiming that the alphabet of the Torah today is not that which Moses used is heretical, then the Gemara must be, too. If we judge him by his actions (and halachically it is this that defines an outcast), on his devotion to Torah, and his honesty and goodness, then I guarantee he will get through those Pearly Gates well ahead of the vast majority of Orthodox rabbis alive today. And, as the Talmud says, “May my lot be with his.”

For years the easiest way to prove your Orthodox credentials was to attack Rabbi Jacobs. Times have changed. Rabbi Jacobs is no longer. And those who once thought that by attacking him they would be safe, have themselves been accused of heresy. The ground is constantly shifting to the right, and to paraphrase Hillel, “Because you drowned him, you too will be drowned.” The only answer is to follow Micah, “Be just, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” That he did. May his memory be a blessing.

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