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).
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 1950s as the outstanding rabbi/scholar of the Anglo Jewish 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 what was then a significant institution, Jews College. When I returned to London after several years in Yeshiva in Israel my late father encouraged me to go to listen to his lectures and in particular his Talmud classes. The greatness of Jews college in those days was that you could study with men like Epstein, Jacobs, Weider and Zimmels and think you were in a traditional yeshiva one moment and then hear them switch a gear and think you were in academia the next (the only places you can do that nowadays is in some Israeli universities). Louis 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 nowadays of whom that can ! be said.
Throughout his life he and his wife kept mitzvoth 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 there 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 synagogual 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 about later on for clarification. 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 o! f 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 practising Jew had to adhere strictly to the Torah as is, regardless of the process of how it came to be what it is today. And indeed when his book was reviewed by the Mizrahi 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 Brody 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. So when the head of Jews College, Rabbi Epstein died and Louis was the natural successor and as head of Jews College he would be the obvious candidate to become Chief Rabbi after Brodie, 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.
Louis was no fighter but 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 Louis where 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. Frankel won. The campaign was fought and lost and Louis was forever cast out of his Garden of Eden.
Unfortunately I believe he then felt free to distance himself from Orthodox theology and 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. Dennet, it became a matter of ‘believing in belief’ rather than trying to make sense of the issues.
With hindsight one could argue that the tactics of Orthodoxy have proved correct from the point of view of protecting and reinforcing a conformist anti rational brand of Orthodoxy that currently dominates the Jewish world. But it was wrong in its near destruction of intellectual Torah and in its alienation and loss of whole swathes in the middle.
Louis 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 1980s to write a review of a book by Louis Jacobs for a magazine called LeEylah published by Jews College in its terminal years. 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 the world is more than 5,700 years can be called a heretic, he was. If the Gemara can claim that alphabet of the Torah today is not that which Moses used then it too must be. 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, 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 Louis. Times have changed. Louis 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. To quote 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.
Visit Rabbi Jeremy Rosen on the web: www.JeremyRosen.com