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Louis Jacobs


Any Anglo Jew from the 1960s will be familiar with the “Jacobs Affair” that divided the Jewish community more than any other religious debate in its history. There were other conflicts, between Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Reform and Traditional. But none as bitter or as lasting as this. I was a teenager when it all began, but it had a profound effect on how I viewed the Jewish religious establishment.

Rabbi Louis (Laibel) Jacobs (1920-2006) studied in Yeshivot in Manchester and Gateshead and embarked on a career in the English rabbinate.  He moved from the Central Synagogue in Manchester to the prestigious New West End Synagogue in Bayswater, London. It was part of the powerful Anglo Jewish establishment, the United Synagogue, that was under the authority of the Chief Rabbi and his Court, the Beth Din.

He was one of the most impressive scholars and thinkers of his time. In an early book  We Have Reason to Believe in 1957, he pointed out that there were different ways of understanding the concept of Divine Revelation, Torah Min Hashamayim. His sources were traditional and nothing he said was really controversial and the book had been positively reviewed even by religious journals. Most United Synagogue rabbis at the time saw no problem with what he wrote. 

He resigned from The New West End In 1960 to become a tutor and lecturer in Jews College the rabbinical training academy of Britain. He was expecting to succeed Rabbi Dr. Isadore Epstein the principal, who was about to retire. He was so highly regarded by students and colleagues that I was encouraged by my father to attend his lectures after I had graduated from school. He was a masterful and inspiring teacher with an intellectually open attitude towards modern scholarship. 

We Have Reason to Believe fell into the hands of Dayan Grunfeld of the London Beth Din, who came from a rather staid Germanic background. He decided that Jacobs’s views were too heterodox for the Principle of Jews College and campaigned accordingly. When the time came to make an appointment, Jacobs was blocked by Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie at the urging of the Beth Din and the newly enthroned lay leader of the United Synagogue, Sir Isaac Wolfson. Jacobs resigned.

The editor of the Jewish Chronicle, William Frankel took up the cudgels and turned the issue into one of the character of Anglo Jewry. Frankel felt that given the reality that most United members were not really practicing Orthodoxy but were loyal to tradition, the United Synagogue could best serve them by being tolerant and non-Judgmental. Louis Jacobs agreed. Even if he did not subscribe to Frankel’s personal agenda to get the organization to join the Conservative Synagogues in the USA. Unfortunately, the conflict turned into a conflict of rival visions.

Having resigned from Jews College, Jacobs was invited to return to head his old synagogue, the New West End. But now, egged on by the Dayanim, Brodie refused to authorize his appointment there too, despite not having objected at all previously when he was the rabbi. Louis was caught in a crisis, not of his own making. He was a modest and sensitive man. But the way he was treated brought out an unexpected combative side to him and he defended himself with vigor.

Before the crisis came to head In 1962, as my father was dying at the young age of 48, Louis came to visit him at Carmel College, and I was present for the nearly two hours that they spoke.  My father begged Louis not to allow Frankel to make an issue of the situation. He felt that Frankel was motivated by a personal grudge because of the way his father had been treated by the United Synagogue. He told him that Frankel did not have Louis’s best interests at heart and was using him to forward his own desire to undercut the US by establishing the Conservative movement in the UK. The project would not prosper simply because of the deeply entrenched, financially powerful United Synagogue itself, as well as the Anglo reluctance to challenge authority and tradition. Unfortunately, Louis was so pained by his treatment that he reacted more aggressively than was wise or indeed in his nature.

After he was blocked from returning to his old pulpit, in 1963 supporters of Jacobs resigned from the New West End and set up an independent synagogue with him as its rabbi. It continued the very same traditions and rules that New West End synagogue followed, including a mixed choir that all but one other otherwise Orthodox synagogue had abandoned. Some rabbis and a few communities wanted to join him. But the power of conformity won out. The community was split between those who supported him and those who ostracized him. Jacobs continued to defend his position both halachically and intellectually. The United Synagogue retaliated by refusing to recognize his marriages and conversions. 

I recall how strongly the younger generation felt about his treatment. The Inter-University Jewish Federation  (IUJF) appointed him their Honorary President. At the IUJF student conference in Leeds in 1963, he was given a standing ovation and I invited him to speak at our annual educational seminar. Beyond Britain, his brilliance won him respect, invitations, and awards, both in secular academic circles and Jewish ones. Including a lectureship at Harvard. Whenever he was challenged as to whether he considered himself a Conservative he categorically denied any affinity. He remained strictly orthodox till his dying day. It was others who established what became the Masorti movement in the UK.  

Chief Rabbi Israel Jakobovits (himself more orthodox than Brodie) even if he disagreed with some of Jacobs’s arguments, tried to heal the breach. He maintained good and respectful relations with Jacobs personally, supported him privately, and persuaded his Beth Din to recognize his marriages. His successor failed to follow up. Perhaps he was too insecure in his position and on several occasions when he wrote to refute Jacobs he did so aggressively as if to curry favor with the Right Wing. 

Some twenty-five years after the “affair” I wrote an article in LeEyla, the house journal of Jews College. In it I praised Louis Jacobs as a giant of Jewish religious and rabbinical thought and repeated my father’s reservation about his trying to take on the establishment of Anglo Jewry. I ended by saying that the ostracism of Louis Jacobs was a tragedy both for him and for Anglo Jewish orthodoxy. And that the affair was a watershed in the right-wing shift and intolerance of the community. I heard from Rabbi Abner Weiss, the then Head of Jews College, that the Chief Rabbi had told the editor not to accept any more articles from me for praising Rabbi Jacobs and thereby, by implication, attacking the Dayanim and the Chief Rabbi. 

In 1995 and having retired from the rabbinate, I was asked by the Board of the New London Synagogue to consider succeeding Louis at his synagogue. I was not interested in returning to the rabbinate, but out of respect and a desire to see him again, I welcomed the opportunity of a meeting with him. Beforehand I asked the leading Dayan of the Beth Din whether, if I could persuade the synagogue to rejoin the United Synagogue, he would agree and facilitate rectifying any status issues outstanding. He said he would. On that basis, I went to see Louis. 

Our meeting was a delight and we agreed on almost all issues except for one. He was passionately committed to his Minhag Anglia, the synagogue customs of the English variation of traditional orthodoxy. I had been brought up by my father to enjoy the more informal, musical, and Israel orientation of services at Carmel College and subsequently the Haredi passion of services in Yeshivahs and Hassidic dynasties in Jerusalem. I found the United Synagogue and Louis’s Minhag far too staid and uninspiring. But as I talked about my views I could see him react negatively. I realized that the most rebellious and creative of the rabbis I had met, was far too traditional to change.

The one example of genuine support in the Orthodox world for Louis Jacobs was the respect that Chabad/Lubavitch had for him. He was called as an expert witness in a case in New York about the ownership of the previous Rebbe’s library. Some books were removed and sold by a grandson claiming they were his, as an heir. Lubavitch argued they belonged to the movement. Jacob’s many books about Hassidism enabled him to testify about the nature of property in a Hassidic dynasty, which swayed the judge to decide in favor of the movement

The newly published biography We Have Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs by Harry Freedman, records his life, his writing, and many achievements. It describes a genuinely good, modest, caring, religious human being. He bore the slights he suffered with dignity to his dying day. He was even refused an Aliya in a supposedly Orthodox synagogue by the Court of the Chief Rabbi at his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah.  

The dispute has remained a sore point in Anglo Jewry to this day. It illustrates how the self-protective, inward-looking attitudes of Orthodoxy and its leadership can sometimes do more harm than good. And it reminds me why I have always been so anti-establishment and how religious authority can be abused at a great cost to its own health.

11 thoughts on “Louis Jacobs

  1. Very interesting. I’ve never heard the phrase Minhag Anglia but of course I was brought up practicing it. We call it “Stanmore Sensible.” Years ago in Jerusalem I was describing my Jewish upbringing to someone and he said, “ah yes, Dati Angli.” Also interesting is that Louis Jacobs’ breakaway shul was more similar to the United Synagogue that I remember in the 1960s in regards to religious tollerance, than the US shuls are today. In many repsects, the US changed, not Louis Jacobs. And not for the better imo.

  2. I was a teenager in London at the time of the “Louis Jacobs Affair”. My sole source of information about it was from the Jewish Chronicle. I regret that in his most interesting article, Rabbi Jeremy has avoided saying exactly what Jacob’s position was that so upset orthodox Judaism at the time. I vaguely remember that he had said or written that the Torah was not of Divine Origin. (I would be happy to stand corrected). If so, this would be in direct contradiction to Maimonedes’ Eight Article of the Faith. i.e. that “all the Torah in our hands today was given directly by G-d to Moses”.
    The result of this omission is that it may tell us something about the Man (Jacobs), but nothing about the argument.

  3. Further to the above, it appears that my recollection was correct. Following is an extract from Jacob’s introduction to the 5th edition (2004) of his book “We have reason to Believe”.
    The entire introduction is at

    [quote] The thesis of the book, for which it was attacked from the right and left, each from its own point of view, is that modern knowledge and scholarship have made it impossible to accept the traditional view that God ‘dictated’ to Moses, word for word and letter by letter, the whole of the Pentateuch (the Torah). My argument runs that, while such a doctrine of verbal inspiration is now untenable, the traditional doctrine that the Torah is from Heaven can and should still be maintained. To put this in different words, God is the author of the Torah (conceived of as the sum total not of the Pentateuch alone but of Jewish religious thought through the ages), but, as in His creativity in the world, He cooperated with His creatures in producing the Torah, through human beings reaching out to Hirn. There is thus a human element, as well as a divine element, in what we call the Torah. [unquote]

    1. Avraham נ״י
      Jacobs very clearly says as you quote that “God is the author not only of the Torah but “of religious thought through the ages” and that “the traditional doctrine that the Torah is from Heaven can and should be maintained.”
      You misunderstand what he is saying because he is talking about the mechanism of transmission not the content! Clearly we cannot know how and in what way HaShem communicated with Moshe, whether it was Mouth to Mouth or Eye to Eye or Mind to Mind or indeed ESP! And it is clear that the text we have includes variations such as the Kri Ketiv which may or may not have come about as the result of Moshe writing down the text, as the opinion in the Gemara in Gittin says, over the course of forty years. Or indeed Hashem gave the variations directly but then you have the problem that in the case of humans תרי קולי לא משתמעי
      The human element is simply that Moshe was the vehicle of transmission.
      So I cannot see what your problem is.
      מועדים לשמחה

  4. Shalom Rabbi Jeremy, נ”י
    Your inability to see what my problem is must also prevent you from being able to see what was the problem of orthodox Judaism at the time (early ‘sixties), because I am only talking about that – I have no opinion or comment beyond what was said at the time (by authorities far greater than my own capabilities).
    I don’t see a problem from the orthodox POV of discussing “”the mechanism of transmission” itself, although my own POV is that it contributes little towards understanding of the Torah. (It is my own experience that what was not revealed to us in the Torah – we do not need to know). The problem begins with Jacobs’ conclusions from such study; as I have written previously, his conclusion directly contradicts Maimonides Eighth Article of the Faith.
    I might add that Maimonides conducted no discussion of the “mechanism of transmission”, from which one may assume that he considered irrelevant (if he at all considered it).
    [But see תנחומא כי תשא סימן י”ז ] Incidentally, when Jacobs wrote “… modern knowledge and scholarship have made it impossible to accept the traditional view that God ‘dictated’ to Moses, word for word and letter by letter, the whole of the Pentateuch (the Torah)”. He in no way justifies this claim, nor provides any indications of his “modern knowledge”. This could well be explained by the Talmudic determination “הרוצה לשקר ירחיק עדותו” – “he who wishes to lie will distance his evidence”. I’m not trying to say that he intentionally lied, but he most certainly did not speak the Truth.

    I have lectured (in computer-related subjects) in three universities and a Technical College here in Israel, but never studied in university. I am of the opinion that Judaism – at least the Toranic part, as opposed to History – should be studied in Yeshiva, not in university. The university tenet of Academic Freedom [Wikipedia: Academic freedom is a moral and legal concept expressing the conviction that the freedom of inquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy as well as the principles of academia, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities)] – contradicts the basic tenet of Judaism שבעים פנים לתורה – – and allows for introduction to Judaism of ideas foreign to it. If Jacobs really did have what he claimed to have: “modern knowledge and scholarship” – then for sure he did not obtain it from Gateshead Yeshiva. (He studied up to Phd level in University College London). Until someone proves otherwise, I conclude that it was here that he went astray from the Judaic point of view.
    כל טוב!

    1. I have difficulty understanding the various terms used by Chazal to describe people they disagree with, Apikoros, Min, Cutti, Adam Sheyn Lo Check LeOlam Habah etc etc as opposed to the kind of acts that merit a Cherem. For me, exactly how a person believes is both ephemeral, transient and subjective. That’s why actions count. And he never joined any group outside of Orthodoxy unlike so many others who abandoned Orthodox conventions and identified with other sects.

  5. The terms you have quoted are not defining “people they (Chazal) disagree with”. They are terms given to people who have strayed from the correct path of Judaism in varying and differing ways [except for Cutti, which I have been given to understand are what we know today as “Shomronim”, who are not Jews but do have certain rights regarding bearing witness on documents concerning divorce and release of slaves – see CH. 1 Gittin “כל גט שיש עליו עד כותי פסול חוץ גיטי נשים ושחרורי עבדים]. NONE of the terms you have mentioned are judaically legal matters of difference of opinion” or “disagreement”.
    I don’t think for a moment that I know more about Judaism that you do, so I am perfectly sure that halachically you can determine the differences between Apikoros, Min and Adam she-eyn lo … etc. Just for a brief example, money lenders who charge interest have no chelek in Olam Haba but quite possibly have committed no other sin.
    When you say “”For me, exactly how a person believes is both ephemeral, transient and subjective … ” I have to point (again!) to Maimonedes 13 Principles of the Faith and ask you to explain why they do not contradict your opinion on belief. In actual fact, your opinion is that used by the irreligious in Israel to accept homosexuality in society as a norm, by inventing the term acceptance of the other”” (קבלת האחר). כל טוב!

  6. I am afraid we are looking at Rambam from different perspectives. You are looking only at the Ikkarim and I am looking at the Moreh.

    1. A good – and probably valid – distinction. But the Ikkarim are definite and obliging – מחייבים . But whatever, I don’t see how different perspectives of Rambam can lead to differing conclusions. Are you saying that Rambam wrote differing conclusions in different places? Or cause people to differ depending on which Rambam source they read?

  7. It is not a matter of different conclusions. We can all agree on general principles. Maimonides himself distinguished between a simple list for the ordinary person and the more complex philosophical challenges of thinking deeply about an issue. As he said, the Guide was not for everyone. Some of us prefer Emunah Peshuta and others prefer to delve deeply. And as the Gemara says in Haggiga, this is not for everyone. If you are content with Emunah Peshuta, that is wonderful and your choice, but you can’t impose it on everyone.

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