Louis Jacobs: Rabbi Benjamin Elton responds to Harry Freedman

The need to debate the life and legacy of Rabbi Louis Jacobs seems to remain an important part of British institutional life and thought. They seek to replay the events in their minds and ask hypothetical what if’s.  A few weeks ago, I discussed the new book by Harry Freedman Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Today, we have a response from Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton was appointed in June 2015 as the Chief Minister of The Great Synagogue of Sydney, Australia. Born in Manchester, England, Rabbi Elton earned an MA in History at Queens’ College, Cambridge and a PhD in Jewish History at Birkbeck, University of London. He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in New York and in addition has Semicha from Rabbi Chaim Rapoport of London. Elton published Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry, 1880–1970 (2014), and has authored articles on Anglo-Jewish and Australian Jewish religious history and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of London. 

Elton’s response here has several points. The first, and in my mind the strongest, is that while Victorian Anglo Jewry in the first half of the 20th century may have been quite liberal in thought and practice.  Nevertheless, both Chief Rabbi Adler and Chief Rabbi Hertz expected greater adhesion to the tradition in order to be appointed as leader of a congregation. Rabbis Morris Joseph, Joseph Hockman, Herbert Lowe and Joshua Abelson all ran afoul of the Chief Rabbi office.  The records clearly show their censoring and policing of relgious ideas. In this, they followed the Anglican Church model of the era in which the Archbishop keep the clergy within the theological line. So too, did the Chief Rabbi’s office. They may have not had the Jewish Orthodoxy of later decades but they certainly followed general Anglican lines of the role of the chief rabbinate.

Second, Jacobs’ approach to the Bible went beyond earlier British and American Rabbis. Also, a valid point, as I have written

Beyond these points, Elton also draws inferences from the fact his colleagues did not revolt or resignations and that there were no defections within congregations. Elton places much of the continuous support for Jacobs directly at the feet of the persistent encouragement of the Jewish Chronicle. There was also a certain disingenuousness about some of Jacobs’ (or his supporters’) outrage at his treatment. He must have understood why, from an Orthodox perspective, his conversions were not recognised. Finally, Elton offers some observations on Jacob’s personality.

Louis Jacobs: A response to Harry Freedman

Benjamin J. Elton

Louis Jacobs spent his career arguing that intellectual integrity required setting aside cherished myths when they could not be sustained in the face of empirical evidence. Of course, as a scholar who came of age in the 1950s that contention is laced with the heavy modernist idea that ‘truth’ can indeed be established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Jacobs stuck to that position from 1957 when he published We Have Reason to Believe, the book that caused the controversy that followed, to his final lengthy statement of his theology Beyond Reasonable Doubt in 1999 and his death in 2006. It is therefore ironic that his own life is the subject of persistent mythology, which refuses to budge in the light of recent research.

Harry Freedman’s new biography of Jacobs, Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs is important and welcome as the first full-length biography of a fascinating twentieth century Anglo-Jewish figure. Not only is it an interesting read, as was the interview with the author by Alan Brill, but it also gives us an opportunity to return to some of the questions thrown up by Jacobs’ life and career, the way Jacobs has been understood, and to reassess those myths.

My response here is to address aspects of Freedman’s valuable book and interview. I focus on three points: (1) whether Jacobs would indeed have thrived under previous Anglo-Jewish rabbinical regimes (as is sometimes claimed); (2) the exact nature of his theological claims (which I think have been downplayed), and (3) why the myths about Jacobs have endured. It concludes with some general thoughts about Jacobs drawn from two decades of studying the man and his work.

I begin with a few words about my connection to Louis Jacobs. Like Jacobs, I am from Manchester and in my teens in the mid to late 1990s I often visited Manchester Central Library, with its strong Jewish studies section. There I picked up Jacobs’ autobiography Helping with Inquiries (1989). This led to my family telling me about our relationship with Jacobs.

My great uncle Cecil had been to Manchester Yeshiva with Jacobs and because Jacobs’ parents were not observant, whereas my great grandparents were, Jacobs spent a lot of time in their home. Later when Jacobs returned to Manchester as Rabbi of the Central Synagogue, family legend has it that my great grandfather counselled Jacobs’ father to curtail his Saturday activities so as not to embarrass his son.

As I read more of Jacobs’ theological works, I wrote to him to ask for a meeting. I was about eighteen at the time. He was generous enough to invite me to his home, offer me a cup of tea and a biscuit. He was helpful, charming, and kind. After I moved to London in 2002, I went to his Talmud class at the New London Synagogue, to experience learning Talmud from this tremendous Talmudic scholar, although I must confess, I was disappointed in them at the time.

In any event, I have always been interested in Jacob’s theology, even when I have disagreed with his theology. Indeed, I have written about some of Jacobs’ English intellectual predecessors.

This blog post responding to Freedman’s book is not concerned with who wrote the Pentateuch, rather it is interested in how that belief has played out in Anglo-Jewish religious life. That was the central issue at stake in the Jacobs’ Affair.

Jacobs was Minister of the New West End Synagogue in 1957 when he argued in, We Have Reason to Believe that the Pentateuch could no longer be regarded as the directly revealed word of God, but a document composed over many years and edited. Nevertheless, Jacobs argued that the Torah remained holy and authoritative. The book did not attract much attention when it was published and Jacobs was appointed Moral Tutor at Jews’ College in 1959, with the hope on the part of Jacobs and his supporters that this would lead to him being appointed Principal. However, Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie refused to make that appointment because of Jacobs’ statements on the origin of the Torah. He also refused to allow Jacobs to return to the New West End as Minister for the same reason. Jacobs’ supporters founded a new synagogue, the New London, and Jacobs served as its Rabbi until his death.

The central contention of one school of writers about Louis Jacobs, which includes (writing in different modes, some more popular and others more scholarly) Harry Freedman and the Jewish Chronicle more broadly, is that Jacobs’ only fault was that he promulgated his ideas in the 1950s when Anglo-Jewry had become more Orthodox. Had he expressed his views before the Second World War, they would have been regarded as uncontroversial.  A second school of writers, claim that this analysis is simply inconsistent with the evidence, as shown by my research and by Elliot Cosgrove’s brilliant unpublished 2008 dissertation. 

The second approach sees him as controversial and that the radical nature of these claims is downplayed. In fact, by any measure, they were controversial. It is essential to understanding Jacobs that he never argued for a half-way-house the way some American Conservative thinkers such as Rabbi Jacob Agus have done, for example that there was an event at Sinai but that the record of it was disrupted in some way. For Jacobs, the conclusions of academic bible scholars were persuasive, which means no Exodus, no Moses, no revelation at Sinai. The entire development of the Hebrew bible has to be understood differently. In Orthodox terms that is undeniably controversial. Cosgrove shows in his dissertation that Jacobs understood at the time that they were controversial, which makes his public, apparent, bemusement itself bemusing.

Jacobs is interesting in Jewish terms not because he accepted the finding of biblical criticism but because he argued that notwithstanding that its historical development, the authority of Torah and halacha was not affected. This is because God guided the process of the developing of the Torah, both written and oral, and endorsed the conclusions after the fact. We should note that this position requires an impressive level of faith. Jacobs possessed profound belief in God and in Judaism as God’s will for the Jewish People.

These ideas, as Jacobs himself identified, were not original to Jacobs. We can find them in Anglo-Jewish thinkers from the 1890s to the 1930s, namely Morris Joseph, Joseph Hockman, Herbert Lowe and Joshua Abelson. As I have shown elsewhere, the first three of these figures were penalised by the British Chief Rabbinate for holding and sharing these views. Joseph was denied the pulpit of the Hampstead Synagogue by Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler in 1892. Adler rebuked and imposed sanctions on Hockman after a sermon he gave in 1910 and Chief Rabbi Hertz eased him out of the ministry of the New West End Synagogue when he was still propounding these views in 1915. Lowe felt Hertz was persecuting him, even though Lowe was an academic at Cambridge University and not a serving synagogue minister, and there was an ill-tempered correspondence between the two men. Joshua Abelson escaped censure, perhaps because he expressed his thought as possibilities not as certainties and he did so in the interregnum between Adler and Hertz. The treatment of Jacobs was entirely consistent with these Anglo-Jewish precedents.

My argument is that it was Jacobs’ very traditionalism which made it difficult for some observers to understand what was going on in the Jacobs’ Affair. Why was a man who was a Talmudic scholar, upheld halacha, and (perhaps more importantly) the customs of the United Synagogue, excluded from the Anglo-Orthodox community? My contention is that the question of the authorship of the Pentateuch was and had always been a red line in Anglo-Jewry. Those who were traditional on that question were acceptable, and those who were not traditional on that question, were not.

Despite claims that Jacobs had widespread support from his colleagues in the United Synagogue rabbinate in the 1950s, even accounting for concerns about livelihoods, there was no revolt, no widespread resignations, no defections by congregations. Other rabbis and ministers (such as Isaac Levy, Isaac Newman, Kopul Rosen and Leslie Hardman) may have liked Jacobs, felt sorry for his predicament, may even have shared some doubts with him. It is also apparent from the accounts of Jews’ College students in the 1950s, such as Stefan Reif, that Jacobs’ views were not popular there and some felt that Jacobs was deliberately provocative, for example by covering his head as infrequently as possible, albeit within an interpretation of the halacha).

This is not to say that Brodie handled the affair well. But we cannot say that Brodie was led the London Beth Din, especially because Brodie refused to allow Jacobs to return to the New West End, against the advice of the London Beth Din. The role of Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky in establishing a harder line in Anglo-Jewry is often highlighted as a factor, but Abramsky had left London in 1953, some four years before Jacobs published We Have Reason to Believe, so he had no direct impact on the Jacobs Affair.

Why does the Jacobs myth continue? Possibly because of the vocal and persistent support of the Jewish Chronicle, which continues to this day, hence their recent serialisation of Freedman’s biography. There was also Jacobs’ repeated claim that he was Orthodox. It is true that weakened in the last decade of his life, but he never fully embraced the Masorti movement, even though he allowed himself to become associated with it. There was also a certain disingenuousness about some of Jacobs’ (or his supporters’) outrage at his treatment. He must have understood why, from an Orthodox perspective, his conversions and weddings were not recognised, and why some thought fit to deny him an aliyah to the Torah. It was unconvincing naiveite for Jacobs to wonder in amazement about how this could be so.

As we consider Jacobs again, now is a good time to make some further observations about his life, career and thought. First, I think he was a man of deep loves and committemnts. As a boy he became infatuated with Torah, from Balkind’s Cheder to Manchester Yeshiva. He loved Talmud from his teens to the end of his life. Whatever else happened he never lost his devotion to the study of rabbinic texts.

His next deep love was with academic Jewish studies. When he went to the University of London (without the filter that Jews’ College would have provided) he was totally convinced by the academic method and the results that it produced in its analysis of the bible. Interestingly Jacobs did not write very much about the bible as a scholar, in the way he wrote about the Talmud or responsa for example, but he was obsessed by the veracity of the documentary hypothesis. Jacobs would approve of a Winston Churchill quote, and here is an opposite one: ‘a fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject’. Jacobs was a fanatic when it came to higher criticism of the bible, and as Freedman observes, Jacobs brought it up repeatedly, even when it was not necessary.

Finally, Jacobs became totally in love with high Anglo-Orthodoxy: the New West End Synagogue, robes, mixed choirs and top hats. He and his supporters recreated it at the New London Synagogue, and it lasted longer there than in almost any United Synagogue. That is interesting in itself because normally scholars have little time for pomp, but Jacobs was dazzled by the congregation at the New West End Synagogue, as he wrote in his autobiography, to see all the lords and knights kneeling at Aleinu on the High Holidays.

Freedman begins his book by recounting Jacobs being voted the greatest British Jew in a Jewish Chronicle poll. That was in 2005, and even sixteen years later, it seems bizarre that he was considered greater that Moses Montefiore, Isaiah Berlin and others.  The contention that Jacobs was the greatest British Jew, has led to a back projection about his standing in the 1950s and early 1960s. He had his yeshiva and kollel background, a reputation as a brilliant young Talmudist (ilui), and his PhD,  but he had published little by 1959, and even less of scholarly weight. It was unfair of Brodie and others to say that Jacobs lacks scholarly qualifications to be Principal of Jews’ College, but it is interesting that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik did not rate Jacobs highly as a scholar at this stage either.

It is worth trying to reread We Have Reason to Believe (1957). I did so recently in the hope that the chapters about God might be useful, but I did not find it compelling or helpful. That may be why its reception was muted in 1957, but in my Rabbinic opinion, at the very least, it has not aged well. Without the furore it caused, it might never have been republished. Beyond Reasonable Doubt, the 1999 follow-up book is a much better presentation of Jacobs’ ideas, and all the scholarly works of the 1960s to 1990s rightly established Jacobs’ academic reputation beyond question, and earned him honorary degrees and invitations as a visiting scholar at leading institutions. His congregation was very supportive of his academic and international career, although as a ferociously hard worker he did not short change his synagogue either.

A repeated and important question about Jacobs is why he did not leave Britain. He could have saved himself so much trouble and heartache had he become a professor at the JTS. They would have welcomed him with open arms, and he would have been a respected and celebrated part of the JTS community, in practice on the right of the Conservative Movement and in theology more towards its left, but entirely unmolested. Freedman suggests that he was tied by his loyalty to the Anglo-Jewish community, the community that supported him throughout his troubles and to his family. I am not sure this fully answers the problem, especially when the price of staying was continued conflict and tension.

Without casting aspersions, one answer to this conundrum might be that Jacobs, on some level, actually enjoyed the fight. Not all of it, and not all the time, but being a martyr has its benefits, and being an unusual, prominent even notorious figure has its attractions. I have mentioned how he raised the origin of the Pentateuch as often as possible. Freedman describes how he attacked the institution of the British Chief Rabbinate gratuitously in his The Jewish Religion, A Companion.­ In some cases Jacobs obviously stoked or invited personal conflict. For example, in the mid-1990s when Chief Rabbi Sacks called him before Yom Kippur to apologise for a personal attack earlier in the year, Jacobs repeated that conversation the next day in his sermon. He must have known that would perpetuate a conflict that Sacks was trying to resolve.

Often in Jacobs’ writing we find the rather conceited statement ‘all thinking people would agree’ or ‘no sensible person would argue’, implicitly dismissing those who might disagree with him, whereas many very thoughtful and learned people did, honestly, disagree with him. This tendency has continued among his followers, who in 2016 ran an ‘Honest Theology Project’, implying that other approaches are somehow less honest.

In contrast, Jacobs to a somewhat doctrinaire theology, in halachic matters Jacobs did not like to lay down the law, but still complained that Masorti interpreted his decision not to say ‘no’ as a ‘yes’, whereas it was nothing of the sort. He refused to become the ‘Presiding Rabbi’ of British Masorti (of which Freedman was Chief Executive) because he did not want to make rulings. Jacobs is often hailed as the greatest Chief Rabbi Britain never had, but at least one function of a Chief Rabbi is to say ‘no’ when necessary, and Jacobs found that very difficult.

The ways that Jacobs’ approach is now out of fashion covers not just the formality and pomp of the style of synagogue service that Jacobs favoured, but as Brill noted in his introduction to the interview, his whole approach to egalitarianism. In 1988 Jacobs said he regarded ‘the question of women’s [ritual] participation as relatively trivial’ whereas he merely wanted to perpetuate traditional Anglo-Orthodoxy ‘in a non-fundamentalist way’. All Jacobs wanted was a redefinition of Torah Min Hashamayim and for everything else to remain the same.

Since his retirement and death his old synagogue, the New London, has gone another way and become egalitarian under its English-born but JTS-trained rabbi. Across the denominational divide, the growth of Partnership Minyanim and of Orthodox Rabbis performing same sex marriages implies that the cutting edge of Orthodoxy is more interested in practice than in theology, quite the opposite of the position Jacobs staked out for half a century.

Jacobs was undoubtedly an extraordinary figure, and like all such figures, he lives on beyond his death, and as the real man recedes the myth grows. But in deference to his teachings we should constantly reassess those myths, because whatever else may be said about Louis Jacobs, above all he believed in pursuing and stating the truth as it is honestly understood.

Postscript: Unfortunately, in his blog interview, Freedman took a sentence I have written about his non-traditionalism out of context. In doing so he misrepresented my position. Please look at the original (page 269 of my book) to rectify the unfairness of Freedman’s presentation.

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