Jewish author Harry Freedman discusses the first ever in-depth biogreeaphy of the enfant terrible of British Jewry, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, exploring one of the biggest crises the community has ever known.
Louis Jacobs was Britain’s most gifted Jewish scholar. A Talmudic genius, outstanding teacher and accomplished author, cultured and easy-going, he was widely expected to become Britain’s next Chief Rabbi. Then controversy struck. The Chief Rabbi refused to appoint him as Principal of Jews’ College, because of a book Jacobs had written some years earlier, challenging from a rational perspective the traditional belief in the origins of the Torah.
The Jacobs affairs was a seminal moment in British Jewry which tore the community apart. Now 100 years since his birth, historical author and personal friend Harry Freedman felt it was time to tell his story: “My father grew up with Jacobs during the great depression of the 1920s in an impoverished community in Cheetham Hill. As second-generation immigrants, it was a very difficult time, but like many of the great Jewish businessmen of the era, they were determined to succeed. These are people who dragged themselves out of poverty – some did it through business, some did it through professions, but Jacobs did it through the Rabbinate.”
Like kings and mafia bosses, Harry notes that Rabbis have traditionally been the products of dynasties: “That’s what made him unusual, he came from an ordinary working-class background. His dad worked in a raincoat factory and lined him up with a printer’s apprenticeship. But Yonah Balkind, who ran a famous cheder for over 70 years in Cheetham Hill, noticed that Jacobs was unusually bright and encouraged him to pursue rabbihood. His parents weren’t happy because they didn’t come from that world, but Jacobs wanted to learn and he did.”
Jacobs proceeded to Gateshead, Europe’s largest and most prestigious Yeshiva, and after being ordained in Manchester, he settled in London, where he taught at the Golders Green Beis Hamedrash and his generation saw him as a bright hope for the future: “Jacobs had already showed that he had an independent mind. He had been the Rabbi of Manchester Central Synagogue and an assistant Rabbi at Munk’s Synagogue in Golders Green, but he took the deliberate choice of pursuing a different kind of work at the New West End Synagogue (NWES) – a very upper-class English shul full of lords and ladies. He took an academic approach to Judaism and here he wanted to further his academic thought, but it was that move which got him into trouble.”
In his writings, most notably We Have Reason to Believe published in 1957, Jacobs was beginning to question orthodoxies about the authorship of the Torah: “The question was: did the Torah come from heaven? As he used to say, it all depends on what you mean by the word ‘from’. In his view the Torah came from heaven, but it was inspired and written down by man, but in the orthodoxy, it was dictated by G-d. As he put it, he was trying to disabuse people of the notion that Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai in the same way as the captain of the winning team receives the FA Cup at Wembley. It was a school of thought that had taken off in the 19th century in Reform sects and Conservative Judaism across the pond. If he lived a generation later, it wouldn’t have been so contentious because these days, quite a few Orthodox scholars, certainly in the US and Israel, see things that way.”
In spite of Jacobs holding the favour of a sizeable section of the community, Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie was beginning to wonder how straight down the line his views were: “This book was the evidence that he didn’t think in a strictly Orthodox way. Dayan Isidor Grunfeld, a lovely man who tried very hard to talk Jacobs into apologising, took his book, underlined the passages he wasn’t happy with and brought it to the Chief Rabbi.”
Once Brodie had been alerted to Jacobs’s views, he had no choice but to deem Jacobs an apikoras – the Talmudic term effectively meaning ‘heretic’: “Jacobs and his supporters had hoped he would become the head of Jews’ College, a prestigious London institution where English rabbis trained. The Chief Rabbi came up with the idea to give him a newly-created job entitled ‘moral tutor’. Jacobs was led to believe this would be a stepping stone into the principal’s job once the incumbent, Dr Isidore Epstein retired, but the chief rabbi simply put his foot down, sparking the great row that was ‘the Jacobs affair.’”
Brodie declined to appoint Jacobs as principal, and with the backing of the college council, Jacobs resigned his post in the hope of forcing the Chief Rabbi’s hand: “He had retired his post at NWES for a shot at Jews’ College. And when he found out he couldn’t get the job, he wanted to return, but the Chief Rabbi wouldn’t allow it.”
NWES decided to defy Brodie and invited Jacobs back into the post, yet the Chief Rabbi duly retaliated by withholding Jacobs’ licence to occupy a United Synagogue pulpit: “I believe the fuel for the fire was the disappointment of the Orthodox institutions. They felt he had abandoned them, and I think that made them react more strongly than they might otherwise have.”
In many ways, the affair boosted his reputation – his plight was picked up by the national press and he could often be seen on the front pages of The Sunday Times and The Guardian: “The controversy pushed him into the media spotlight – there’s this very British notion of supporting the underdog, and many thought he’d been treated unjustly and wanted to take his side.”
The Jewish Chronicle ran a competition in 2005, a year before Jacobs’ death, to mark the anniversary of the resettlement of Jews in England to discover who was the greatest Jew: “Jacobs didn’t win because he was the greatest theologian or scholar, he won because he was the person who touched the hearts of the community – he was the Rabbi who people could most identify with. He was a likeable, easy-going guy – you could talk to him about literature, the movies, even football. He was one of these people who remembers everything they read and he read very, very widely.”
Although Jacobs moved to London in the 1940s, he returned to his birthplace of Manchester in the 1950s to assume the position as Rabbi of Manchester Central Synagogue: “Many Mancunians will still remember him, whether they like him or not is a different story, but he was very much part of the community. Everybody you talk to of a certain age has got something to say – ‘he did my son’s wedding or my grandfather’s funeral’ – everyone has a story about him, and that’s quite interesting in itself.”
Jacobs penned his autobiography in the late 1980s, Helping with Inquiries, but despite a wealth of archival research and mentions in historical literature, a complete biography has never been written until now: “I was very fortunate in two respects, one that I know the family well and they made themselves completely available to me, but also because his wife Shula kept everything, she had all the press cuttings, letters, notes on his 50 or 60 books and hundreds of articles – all at my disposal. I spoke to a lot of people who knew him, colleagues, members of his synagogue, students at Jews’ College and although some criticised his views, no-one had a bad word to say about him.”
Harry’s father worked alongside Jacobs within the Mizrachi Zionist movement, helping to establish three kibbutzim across England to prepare Jews for settlements in Israel: “He and my father both settled in London, and as members of the same shul, I got to know him from an early age. Many years later, I became the chief executive of Masorti, the organisation which was founded to further his teachings. He would quote German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Simon: ‘If I go to the Orthodox shul I can pray with them but I can’t talk to them; if I go to a full shul I can talk to them but I can’t pray with them; but if I go to a Masorti shul, I can talk to them and pray with them.”
Prior to the controversy which mired his career, many believed Jacobs to be firmly in line to become the next Chief Rabbi: “He could have been, though I don’t think he ever really wanted to be. He was badly damaged by this row which broke out around him, but he was never prepared to back down. Many of his friends said to him: ‘if you apologise and say you made a mistake, everything will work out.’ He was a fighter, and refused comprise his beliefs, even if they damaged his career.
“Perhaps his biggest legacy is his attitude that Judaism has to be reasonable – it’s not about superstition, it’s not about magic – G-d gave us a brain, and we should use it to think about our religion.”
Reason to Believe by Harry Freedman will be published by Bloomsbury on 12th November.
All photographs reproduced by kind permission of the Jacobs family.