Decades ago, I visited Louis Jacobs in his London home in order to meet him and to ask him if he had any understandings of Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin to share. Jacobs, wearing a three-piece tweed suit in June, invited me up to his study, offering me a cup of tea in bone china cup with saucer. We had a long conversation on many topics. He had nothing to proffer regarding my queries concerning Rabbi Zadok or about Hasidism. However, he spent much of the time telling me how he does not understand the American Conservative movement allowing women rabbis, or even an egalitarian service. Jacobs had a ready screed about how his wife, Shula would not want to be part of an egalitarian service and he did not see the need for any egalitarian changes. He emphatically emphasized that the important issues were about a reasonable faith and freedom of thought, not egalitarianism, which he called “wooly”. He presented himself as a traditional rabbi, who liked the high church of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy but felt that not enough attention was given to intellectual matters.
I was pleased, therefore, when a biography of Rabbi Louis Jacobs was published last month by Harry Freedman, Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs (Bloomsbury: Continuum, January 2021). Harry Freedman is Britain’s leading author of popular works of Jewish culture and history. His publications include The Talmud: A Biography, & Kabbalah. He has written for the Guardian, Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Quarterly, and Judaism Today.
The book Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs was well researched and well written. I read the entire book in a single sitting on a long winter Friday night evening. Freedman was given access to the voluminous files, scrapbooks, memorabilia, and newspaper clipping saved by Jacob’s wife Shula. She had attempted to save every program, lecture poster, handout, itinerary, and newspaper mention. In addition, Freedman, a solid researcher did extensive research in archives for letters and memorandum relating to Jacobs. For all this work, Freedman has produced a wonderful biography of Jacobs rich in detail and stories providing the best introduction to Rabbi Jacobs as a Rabbinic figure. No one should write or speak about Jacobs without reading this book first. Even if you think you already know enough about Jacobs, this book gives you the wider angle lens on an important 20th century rabbi.
Freedman presents Jacobs as a young rabbi from Gateshead with great potential who turned down more Eastern European pulpits such as Golders Green for a high church formal synagogue in which he played the role of a traditional Anglo-Jewry rabbi wearing canonicals and officiating over a synagogue with a choir. Here, Louis Jacobs and his wife Shula, became deeply loved by the congregants and in return he loved them. He was an ideal pulpit rabbi dedicated to ministering to his congregation and giving classes on timely issues. Some of these lectures were pushing the limits of conventional United Synagogue Orthodox, especially when they were written up in book form.
Jacobs had a quest for truth, He held traditional attitudes but assumed he had enough intellectual latitude to focus on foundational questions of what can be verified based on 1950’s philosophy as his life’s goal. For example, the 1950’s philosophy of the analytic philosophers, Ayer, Flew, Hick taught that the existence of God cannot be verified. For Jacobs, mysticism, and specific Jewish mysticism, offers an empirical way to ground belief in a theistic God, even if Jacobs himself had no interest in practicing anything associated with Hasidism. (This topic has not been sufficiently discussed in prior scholarship on Jacobs, I may give a talk on it someday).
However, his lectures on the origins of the Bible got Jacobs embroiled in controversy for the rest of his life. Jacobs assumed that being an Orthodox rabbi meant following the Orthodox rite, but it allowed him full intellectual attitude, the way Anglican clergy followed the formal Anglican rite but should have full intellectual latitude. His congregation was a high social class congregation with government officials, financiers, and authors was expected to have latitude and be different than the more working class congregations of Eastern European immigrants in other neighborhoods.
Bear in mind, that at that time in Britain there was never a divide between Orthodox and Conservative movements, and that Jews College had formerly had a graduate of the historical oriented Breslau seminary as its head and that learning in Jews College was generally historical in orientation. United Synagogue observance levels, especially in the wealthier neighborhoods, were similar to 1950’s New York Conservative congregation.
Jacobs’ friend William Frankel, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, suggested to Jacobs that he move from pulpit life to teaching at Jews College, the seminary for British rabbis, as a means of having more intellectual freedom. Life did not go that way. The move generated more controversy and Jacobs could not stay at Jews College, but the United Synagogue under Chief Rabbi Brodie would not let him return to the helm of his prior synagogue. At that point, his congregants broke away and started a new congregation for him, outside of the United Synagogue system, which he presided over for the rest of his career.
Whereas most discussion of the Jacobs controversy globalized the issue into big ideological questions of the entire trajectories of the Orthodox and Conservative movements or big questions about Biblical criticism, this book returns the discussion to a specific man, his teachings, and his relationship to a specific number of colleagues and superiors. Jacobs as man, was a rabbi with a bee in his bonnet about his views of Biblical criticism. One gets to see how Jacobs brought up the topic of Biblical criticism even when teaching Talmud or Hasidut. I was especially struck by his review of Nechama Leibowitz as only good for a devotional study since she does not mention Biblical criticism. On the other hand, his friend Frankel used the power of the paper to float ideas of how Jacobs could spearhead a liberal change to the United Synagogue, especially if he were eventually to become chief rabbi. The contingency of the events comes out in a way prior discussion elides by focusing on big ideological questions.
Most of the book is dedicated to Jacobs the rabbi. We seen him responding to the events of the day, we see him running adult education programs, we see him on multiple speaking tours to the USA, we see him getting job offers for his works on Talmud and Hasidut from multiple American universities such as Dartmouth and Indian, and we see him giving eulogies, for example for the Beatles manager Brian Epstein with the Beatles and various rock stars in attendance. Unfortunately, we also feel his pain when he is unable to formally officiate at weddings after the controversy. Most of all we see Jacobs as a prolific writer with almost twenty academic books and popular articles every week. Interestingly, Freedman find a letter where Rabbi Soloveitchik expressed a not very high opinion of Jacobs.
A few caveats on the book. People and places are not introduced for the uninformed reader. If you do not know who someone is or where a London address is located, you may be a bit disoriented. A reader needs to know about the West End and Golders Green, as well as who William Frankel, Chaim Perl, or Rabbi Dessler are, before reading the book. Epithets needed to be added throughout and even a few short paragraphs of introduction to places, ideas, and people. Topics like Jews College, Anglo-Jewish custom and the United Synagogue needed a few paragraph introductions for those not in the UK. Finally, as a focused biography, Freeman stuck tightly to his subject and did not contextualize Jacobs in his predecessors in Anglo-Jewish life such as Herbert Loewe whom Jacobs quoted approvingly for his definition of Orthodoxy. But do not let these trifles stop you from reading this book.
The book is worth it just for the archives of ephemera about Jacobs life. But Freedman does not stop at that point, he skillfully wove this material together in a very readable narrative for the lay person. A biography highly recommended for a winter’s evening and for furthering discussion of a controversial figure. A well-done achievement, splendid, bully for Freedman.
I have blogged about Anglo-Jewish tradition, the high church Victorian version of a modernized Orthodoxy. I also a number of years ago gave a talk on the topic at LIMMUD-UK comparing it to American patterns. See here on Herbert Loewe’s Anglo Orthodoxy, here on Rev Abraham Cohen, editor of the Soncino Bible, here on Isadore Epstein editor of the Soncino Talmud, here on RabbI JH Hertz on the Aggadah, and here on Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits (I wrote this one up as an article). On Louis Jacobs specifically, here are my thoughts whether Jacobs views on the Bible could have been accepted, especially since his views were close to Jacob Agus.
- How did you come to this project?
I had known Rabbi Louis Jacobs for almost all of my life. He had grown up alongside my father in Manchester and they and their future wives were active together in Torah v’Avodah, a Mizrachi-sponsored youth movement during the 1930s and 1940s. I became particularly close to Rabbi Jacobs when I was appointed Chief Executive of the Masorti movement in Britain, and I regarded him as my rabbi. He had a captivating combination of profound learning and great personal charm.
I have been friendly with his son Ivor Jacobs for many years and we agreed that as his father’s 100th birthday approached it would be appropriate to publish his biography. My publisher at Bloomsbury, who had previously published Jacobs’s A Jewish Theology, was enthusiastic and the project evolved from there.
2. If Jacobs was never really a candidate for Chief Rabbi, and it was not his aspiration, should we retire the canard that he was the best chief rabbi Britain never had?
One of the favorite themes of the Jewish press in Britain, and a frequent topic of conversation around many Jewish dinner tables, is the question of who would become the next Chief Rabbi. Jacobs wrote prolifically and lectured widely; he was a consummate communicator. Even as a young man he was widely touted as a prospective Chief Rabbi and the assumption that he would be appointed to the post grew as he matured at the New West End. Jacobs however never expressed any ambition to be chief rabbi. He said that if he had wanted the position, he would have been foolish to resign his pulpit at the New West End in order to take an academic post at Jews’ College, the institution that trained Anglo- Orthodox ministers.
Jews’ College had always been seen as a liberal minded institution within orthodoxy, but its use of the term ‘ministers’ rather than ‘rabbis’ indicate its priorities. It was not particularly concerned with Talmudic erudition, its role was to train pastors who would minister to the spiritual needs of a largely unobservant centrist orthodoxy. Jacobs took the Jews’ College post with the ambition of becoming its Principal. He wanted to widen the curriculum to incorporate more intensive Talmudic study as well as a greater awareness among the student body of academic biblical criticism. His ambition was to train a generation of open minded, secularly educated, Talmudically literate scholars who were both ministers and rabbis, who were able, as he was, to excel in both the yeshiva and the academy.
He was held in very high esteem by the Jewish community at large, including several of his rabbinic colleagues, who supported him and spoke up for him when the Jacobs Affair broke out. Even if he did not have an ambition to become Chief Rabbi, the popular assumption – encouraged by the Jewish Chronicle- was that he would be appointed to the post. He was a man of great personal integrity and deep loyalty to British Jewry; had he been approached he would almost certainly have taken the job, even if it were against his better judgement.
Had Jacobs been appointed to the post, his learning and personality would almost certainly have led to become an outstanding Chief Rabbi, one who would have stood up to the encroaching ultra-orthodox influence on centrist United Synagogue orthodoxy. So, it is probably right to describe as the phrase “Best chief rabbi we never had” as correct, even though it was not an appointment he craved.
3. What role did William Frankel play in creating the controversy?
William Frankel, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, felt that British Jewry was being held back by the conservatism of the United Synagogue rabbinate who, since the war, had fallen ever more deeply under the influence of right wing orthodoxy. He wanted to refresh British Jewry, to introduce new ideas and he saw the rabbi of his synagogue, Louis Jacobs as the man to do it.
Frankel used his newspaper to promote Jacobs in the public eye, getting him to write articles, opinion pieces and the anonymous, weekly Ask the Rabbi column. When it the Principal of Jews’ College neared retirement, Frankel led the campaign to have Jacobs appointed. When it became clear that the Chief Rabbi would not countenance Jacobs’s appointment, Frankel agitated strongly in his newspaper and stirred up public sympathy for Jacobs. He did the same when the Chief Rabbi later refused to allow Jacobs to return to his pulpit at the New West End Synagogue.
Frankel aspired to have Jacobs appointed as Chief Rabbi and it is likely that his campaigns were designed with this in mind. It is often conjectured that Frankel manipulated Jacobs, using him as a pawn in his grand strategy for British Jewry, encouraging him neither to back down in his theological views nor to seek a compromise. This view does justice to neither man. Jacobs was uncompromisingly committed to his theological position, he had plenty of opportunity to back down but refused to, because he prioritized truth over politics.
Frankel may have had a vision for British Jewry but his principal objective was to sell newspapers. Promoting Louis Jacobs had to come second to his commercial priorities.
4. When considering Jacob’s life, should we spend less time on the controversy between Jacobs and Rabbi Brodie? Why was he still in controversy until the end of his life?
The controversy established Jacobs in the public mind, but it distracted attention from his principal work which was to pursue his ‘Quest’; the discovery of Truth based on through scholarship and reason. The controversy pigeonholed Jacobs in the popular imagination as a man whose sole agenda was the question of Revelation. It has a place in the history of British Jewry and was important in framing the boundaries of authority in British orthodoxy, but Jacobs’s true legacy is his published oeuvre, not only theology, but also his other specialist subjects, Talmud, Mysticism and Hasidism.
The controversy may have presented as a battle between Jacobs and Brodie, but in practice it was a political struggle over who held authority over British orthodoxy, and the role of the United Synagogue, its Bet Din and Chief Rabbi as arbiters of what and was not permitted. This meant that United Synagogue rulings had to be acceptable to right wing orthodoxy. The United Synagogue was therefore always more severe in its pronouncements than the community expected.
The question played out primarily in the spheres of conversion and marriage. The London Bet Din refused to accept Jacobs’s conversions as valid and for a long time refused to recognize the halachic legitimacy of weddings carried out in his synagogue. This placed Jacobs, in orthodox eyes, on a par with a Reform rabbi, which was a matter of considerable anguish to his congregation who always regarded themselves as an independent orthodox congregation.
These political matters may have died down in time, had Jacobs not been a well-known public figure. The United Synagogue was always on the back foot regarding Jacobs, as far as the rest of the community concerned. Most members of the United synagogue were, at least in those days, only nominally orthodox. They preferred to attend a synagogue with traditional services because it reminded them of their childhood days, they would probably make kiddush on a Friday night, but they were rarely fully shabbat observant or fully kosher.
Jacobs, whose prolific writings appeared frequently in bookshops and in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle seemed to them to be the epitome of a down-to-earth, levelheaded English rabbi. They did not understand why he was outside the tent as far as their own rabbi and the United Synagogue was concerned. They could not understand why, if a future spouse of their one of children needed to convert, the process could not be led by Rabbi Jacobs, and they did not understand why their children’s weddings should not held in the attractive New London Synagogue with its mixed seating (for weddings only) and mixed choir.
This, together with the continuing objections from Jacobs’s congregation to what they saw as discrimination, had the effect of making the United Synagogue far more critical publicly of Jacobs than they would have been had he just rolled over and gone away. The issue, as far as the United Synagogue rabbinate was concerned was always that of Torah from Heaven, it was Jacobs’s views on this which they presented as unanswerable proof of his illegitimacy. They were not interested in the historical nuances of the question, or whether Jacobs could cite, far better than they could, those significant Talmudic and medieval authorities who seemed to lend some credence to his argument.
The controversy was given fresh wind in the 1990s, after Masorti had been formed. In October 1991 the President of the United Synagogue initiated a review to outline the organization’s priorities in the years ahead. Known as the Kalms Report, the review identified Masorti as far more successful than the United Synagogue in attracting new members. But it began to show cracks when Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks criticized Masorti as intellectual thieves in an ultra-orthodox newspaper, then telephoned Rabbi Jacobs to say he hadn’t meant him.
The struggle over religious authority persists today in British orthodoxy, but the United Synagogue is less dominant than it was and the community more pluralistic, so the tensions are somewhat eased.
5. It seems he was never really part of the British Masorti movement, is that correct? Why did he want to cling to the Orthodox affiliation? Was Rabbi Sacks correct that he was right wing Conservative?
The British Masorti movement was founded by people who wanted to see a Conservative movement in Britain. Two of the three the founders, who included his son, were members of Jacobs’s New London Synagogue and it was clear to them that his theology should be that of the movement they hoped to start. They also believed that his theology and teachings should be promulgated more widely within British Jewry. So, it made sense to them that he be encouraged to head up a new Conservative/Masorti movement.
Rabbi Jacobs however was not enamored of the idea. He had grown up in Orthodoxy, been heavily involved with the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi and studied in elite strictly orthodox circles in the Gateshead kollel, alongside such luminaries as Rabbi Dessler. He considered himself to be an Orthodox rabbi and he did not believe that his theological interest in biblical criticism undermined the centrist orthodoxy then prevalent in Britain. His New London synagogue was founded by a breakaway from the orthodox New West End, and he and the congregation were in no doubt that they were an independent Orthodox synagogue. To his mind it was Orthodoxy which had changed, not he.
However, he did feel isolated in British Jewry and he did try to bring other synagogues into the New London orbit; not as a movement but as ‘like-minded’ communities. For a while it looked as if the Singers Hill synagogue in Birmingham and Garnethill synagogue in Glasgow would ally with the New London, but ultimately the membership of both congregations dissented.
So although he did not wish to create a movement he was not dismissive of those who did. When it was apparent that the Masorti movement was to be established (initially known as Masorati), he agreed to act as its spiritual guide. But his mantra was always ‘We are a mood, not a movement.’
It was Frankel who brokered the relationship between Jacobs and Wolfe Kelman, and with JTS more generally. Jacobs became close to the Conservative movement in the USA, corresponding regularly with Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, and for a while he was in touch with Professor Finkelstein about taking up a position at JTS. I do not believe that he was particularly exercised by working in an academic Conservative institution; His interest was in truth, wherever it resided.
However, Rabbi Sacks’s categorization of Jacobs as right-wing conservative has to be seen in the context of Sacks’s own journey. As a student Sacks had corresponded with Jacobs, and Jacobs always felt that Sacks was sympathetic to his views. But Sacks would not have achieved his ambition of becoming Chief Rabbi and establishing a voice for himself in word Jewry, had he not distanced himself as far as he could from Jacobs.
6. What do you see as the high points of his illustrious career?
He was continually in the public eye, but other than his academic celebrity and publishing record, the three moments that most stand out as high points were those of public recognition:
a) The 1965 invitation from the San Francisco Council of Churches to represent Judaism, in the presence of President Lyndon B. Johnson and U Thant at the 20th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the United Nations.
b) the award of a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) 1990 by the Queen, marked by a ceremony at Buckingham Place.
c) His victory in the Jewish Chronicle poll to discover the Greatest British Jew- a victory that he found embarrassing.
Jacobs was self-effacing about all these honors, but they demonstrate the extent of his intellectual achievement and his global reputation.
7. What is the tension between the West End Orthodoxy following an Anglo Jewish Tradition and the rest of Orthodoxy, or between minhag Anglia and the new patterns?
Jacobs saw New West End orthodoxy as representing the “Anglo Jewish Tradition”.In the Anglo Jewish Tradition, synagogue services were formal and reminiscent of High Church Anglicanism; top hats, canonicals, a procession of clergy and wardens into synagogue before the Reading of the Law and a recessional at the end of the service, standing on the steps to shake the hands of the congregation as they emerged.
They used Simeon Singer’s Authorized Daily Prayer Book which had a blue cover and red page edges, like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The synagogues had mixed choirs, public prayers for the restoration of sacrifices were not recited, This tradition was mostly to be found in the cathedral synagogues in the city centers; New West End, Hampstead and the Central in London; Princes Road in Liverpool, Singers Hill in Birmingham, Garnethill in Glasgow. The tradition was less prevalent in the poorer areas, where the congregations remained closer Eastern European traditions, but even there, there are echoes of it could be found.
Minhag Anglia is the modern incarnation of this tradition, as reflected in the Sacks-Koren machzorim. It is not a rite that would have been recognized at the New West End. Referring to their tradition using a Hebrew name would have been anathema to the New West End
Theology rarely played a part in British Jewry, but middle of the road orthodoxy, whether or not it considered itself part of the Anglo Jewish Tradition, tended to the ‘progressive conservatism’ of Chief Rabbi Hertz. Hertz had been the first rabbi to graduate from JTS, shortly after the institution’s founding, and although he defended the literal account of Revelation, there was very little visible difference between early 20th century American Conservatism and British, United Synagogue orthodoxy.
This changed after World War II, with the arrival of rabbis from Europe. The more hardline Dayan Chanoch Abramsky was appointed by the barely observant President of the United Synagogue to the London Bet Din, in order to act as a foil to the autocratic Chief Rabbi Hertz. His appointment changed the character of British orthodoxy. United Synagogue orthodoxy became less compromising in terms of Jewish law, but by ditching canonicals, top hats and Anglican-inspired formality, it appeared to be more modern. By the time of the Jacobs Affair the old Anglo Jewish Tradition was on the wane, Louis Jacobs’s New London Synagogue was possibly the only place to retain it. British Jews, who saw the modernization of the services as a positive step, and appeared oblivious to the more rigorous application Jewish law did not seem to mind.
8. Where do you differ from prior discussions of Jacobs?
My book is concentrates Jacobs’s biography without any attempt to analyze his theology or subject his thought to critique. It is intended as a biography, telling his life story, not an academic study. Louis Jacobs wrote an autobiography but it is necessarily subjective and only covers his life until the 1980s.
In contrast, an unpublished PhD thesis, presented an intellectual biography of Louis Jacobs illustrated how his theology reflected his life story is academically rigorous, but is not aimed at the popular market. Another scholar, has a forthcoming book in which she examines his theology as a potential model for the evolving shape of British Jewry. I think that it may be somewhat over-optimistic to wonder whether a scholar born more than a century earlier will have significant influence on future generations. Those scholars who have worked on Jacobs have tended to emphasize theology over biography. I broadly share their views on Jacobs, although I tend to attribute a more conservative bias to Jacobs’s approach than they do; I believe that his adherence to the old pre-war ‘Anglo-Jewish tradition’ shows that he was no radical.
Not every scholar has been rigorous in their treatment of Jacobs. Some have been influenced by those with a religiously partisan agenda. One, speaking of former British Chief rabbis, falsely claimed that “Hertz and Brodie were traditional, Jacobs was not.”(!) My book clearly situates him as within a more traditional Anglo Jewish Tradition.
9. What was his contribution to the modern study of Talmud?
Louis Jacobs was among the first generation of scholars who took an academic interest in the compilation, structure and editing of the Talmud. He had completed his PhD thesis on the economic life of Jews in Babylon, based on information he gleaned form the Talmud. He had a masterly command of Talmud and was able to recall almost any passage and could not only quote it verbatim but identify which page it was on and where it fell on the page.
Many of his early academic articles were on Talmud logic and argument. He explained to his readers how Talmudic logic operated by expressed the Talmudic debate in the form of numbered syllogisms, showing how the argument progressed.
Jacobs maintained that the Talmud was a literary composition. In his books Rabbinic Thought in the Talmud, and The Talmudic Argument he identified the techniques and conventions that its editors used to draw together material originating in various places and times into a work of unitary appearance. In his book Teyku he identified all the Talmudic discussions that concluded with the word teyku, over three hundred in total, indicating that the problem under discussion was incapable of resolution, showing that in most cases they followed a literary pattern and suggested possible explanations of the phenomenon.
In the field of halakha, Jewish law, his best known work in this field is Tree of Life in which he provided case studies showing the flexibility of Jewish Law. He maintained that Jewish Law was dynamic, evolving over time in response to changing circumstances. He concluded the book with a chapter entitled Towards a Non-Fundamentalist Halakha in which he argued that Jewish Law was sufficiently flexible and creative to withstand the challenges of Higher Biblical Criticism.
10. Can you discuss his interest in mysticism?
He took a very strong interest in kabbalah and mysticism, particularly Chabad mysticism, and he does seem to regard it as an essential component of the religious quest, although ancillary to the mainstream Jewish tradition. This I think is because he regarded reason, rather than mysticism, as the path to Truth. When speaking of the Talmud he would however say that behind every rigorous halakhist stands an imaginative aggadist, indicating that he recognized the importance of speculation, or at least the creative imagination, in shaping tradition, and it is possible that in the quietness of his own mind he might have contemplated mystical ideas. But as far as I am aware he never communicated such private thoughts openly.
Miri-Freud Kandel holds that Jacobs’s works on Hasidism- she has in mind Seeker of Unity on the life of R. Aaron of Starosselje- provide an entry point into understanding the role of Hasidism in constructing Jacobs’s theology, and help explain how Jacobs theology can be applied today. R. Aaron’s panentheism, she maintains, enables us to understand the limit of what we can truly understand from our human perspective and emphasizes the purpose of the journey towards truth, which Jacobs refers to as his Quest.
Jacobs was a polymath, he was interested in every field of thought. His granddaughter relates how he learnt calculus just so that he could discuss her schoolwork with her.
11. Any thoughts on his 50 years of interest in Buddhism- including discussing Maharishi and inviting the Dalai Lama- but usually concluding in a somewhat critical way toward it?
Jacobs took an interest all religions and all aspects of Judaism, but there is nothing that either in his published work, or from the conversations I have had with his family in regard to this question, that indicates a greater interest in Buddhism. From what I understand for the family he invited the Dalai Lama at the request of some in his congregation.
He wrote an article about Transcendental Meditation after conducting the Memorial Service for Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, after the event brough him into contact with the guru’s prominent follower. He concluded that article with the words: Only a bigot would suggest that we have nothing to learn from Eastern serenity … For all that, it is Judaism and those influenced by her which have heard the cry of the poor and the distressed. Both Buddha and Moses cannot remain at ease in the king’s palace when suffering humanity groans outside its doors, but when Moses leaves it is to go out to his brethren.
12. My take away from reading your book was that his congregants deeply loved him and he loved them. Can you describe this relationship?
Jacob’s appointment to the New West End Synagogue was the first time he had ministered to a cultured, wealthy, religiously middle-of -the-road community, other than a very short period at Munks in Golders Green, The New West End was very different both from the working-class Manchester he had had grown up in and the strictly orthodox world where Jacob’s had studied. It included several distinguished businessmen, professionals and diplomats. The congregation were culturally erudite, and their self-image was that of the British upper classes. For Louis and Shula Jacobs it felt like social advancement and they enjoyed it.
His congregation was drawn to him because he was young and enthusiastic, with young children and a wife who could make friends with anyone. Their previous rabbi had been very personable but was older, had been in post for some time, and Jacobs represented a breath of fresh air. He introduced study programs, brought fresh faces into the congregation and had the ability of talking seriously and informatively about Judaism at their level, rather than speaking over their heads.
The defining point in the relationship came when the Jacobs Affair broke out and he was not allowed to return to the New West End. Few in the congregation appreciated all the theological nuances but they saw themselves as thoroughly British and therefore duty bound to support an underdog. They were the old-money of the English community, their families had been running Anglo Jewry since the 19th century, and the United Synagogue that was thwarting them was led by nouveau-riche upstarts, self-made businessmen who had muscled their way into communal leadership but had none of the refinement which the old families believed they had. The New West End community saw themselves as paternalistically supporting a bright and charismatic young man whose career was being impeded by people not born to communal leadership.
Jacobs was deeply touched by the support the congregation showed him when they resigned en-masse to set up the New London. He and the congregation became allies in a battle that was attracting considerable media interest and in which they all felt emotionally invested.
The relationship revolved around Louis and Shula Jacobs’s charisma and a deep personal interest in the congregation that made them all feel as if they were friends. They all called him Louis to his face, which may have seemed disrespectful to their rabbi but was indicative of the closeness they felt for him. Toward the end of his life, when the Jewish Chronicle ran its competition to find the Greatest British Jew, the congregation made sure that they sent in enough votes between them for him to win. It embarrassed him, but secretly he was touched.
13. Why did he never take any of the academic positions offered him, especially after his several American tours?
Jacobs heart was in the synagogue not the academy. He preferred to teach Judaism in a religious environment, a rabbinic college or a synagogue, rather than in a secular university. Had he been appointed Principal of Jews’ College and able to train a new generation of open-minded British rabbis, he would have had the best of both worlds. But that was not to be.
Louis Jacobs was an English Jew; it was part of his DNA. It is one of the reasons why he was so wedded to the Anglo Jewish Tradition, and why he never used the term minhag Anglia. Although there were periods in his career when it looked as if Britain held out no hope for him, he was reluctant to leave the country, for America or anywhere else, if he could possibly find a way of remaining.
There were also practical impediments to his leaving the country. He was an only child and felt a responsibility to his parents. His wife Shula felt similarly about her family. Her moth lived with them. When Jacobs’s mother died and his father was left alone he became even more determined to stay. And his children also resisted the possibility of a move, they were growing up as teenagers in London in the 1960s, nowhere else in the world held out the same appeal at that time.
If he had gone to America he would have worked in the Conservative movement. And although he was comfortable with Conservative theology, the day to day social issues that the American rabbinate dealt with were not those that interested him. He saw no reason for the relaxation of Jewish law that the Conservative movement was currently engaged in, e.g. granting permission to drive on Shabbat as long as it was only to synagogue. In Britain congregants had been driving to synagogue for years and parking around the corner, knowing that nobody would say a word. He very much preferred the understated British fudge when it came to matters of observance, to the American preference for openness and clarity.