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Louis Jacobs


I shall be delivering a memorial lecture next 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 round. 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”.

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.

6 thoughts on “Louis Jacobs

  1. I think it is worth adding that the extent of Louis Jacobs' open mindedness as an Orthorodox rabbi, can be seen by the fact that for many years after leaving Jews College, he taught at the Leo Baeck College in London, which is a rabbinic seminary that trains mainly Reform and Liberal rabbis. I believe he set and marked the final exams for students who wished to be ordained and his name appears with that of other teachers on the rabbinic diplomas awarded to graduates. He has not been the only Orthodox rabbi to teach at the college. The Orthodox community's loss, was a gain for the Reform community, but both communities loose out if their best teachers are not able to teach in each other's seminaries. The Reform community often turned to and largely accepted guidance given by Rabbi Jacobs on halachic matters.

  2. One can only speculate how Anglo Jewry might have looked today, had Louis Jacabs stayed within Orthodoxy, while keeping his academic integrity.

    Would The Reform movement grown quite so much?, unlikely the Masorti movement would have been formed.

    Steven in UK.

  3. A wonderful inspirational mensch. I have always believed that by ostracising Rabbi Jacobs the United Synagogue lost a great conciliator and that the face of Anglo-Jewry today would be less fragmented.
    It was also a terrible injustice to deprive him of his livelihood by depriving him of his position at the New West End synagogue. For many years my husband and I belonged to both New West End and New London in support of Louis Jacobs and his wife.

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