The Reluctant Renegade

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Since its founding, Conservative Judaism in the U.S. has defined itself in sharp contrast to Reform, pursuing a more religiously centrist and Zionist middle course.  Its UK parallel, Masorti ("traditional") Judaism, was born as a secession movement from Orthodoxyinspired by the writings of theologian Louis Jacobs. 

Jacobs, whose fifth yahrzeit is observed this month, was practically "tenure track" to becoming Britain's Chief Rabbi, a post that was and remains under the auspices of the (Orthodox) United Synagogue. Jacobs's ascent was stymied in the early 1960's over his heterodox views on the divine origins of the Pentateuch. He died in 2006, the mostly-unwitting founder of Britain's fledgling Masorti movement. 

He would have preferred a reformation of modern Orthodoxy.  

An only child, described as an "illui [prodigy] and a Gaon," Jacobs was born in Manchester and educated at the Gateshead Talmudic Academy. Once ordained, he held various pulpits before becoming a lecturer at Jews' College (today the London School of Jewish Studies) where he trained rabbinical students. As his reputation soared, his writings, beginning with We Have Reason to Believe (1957), drew critical notice for their deviation from Orthodox norms. Jacobs softly embraced the idea that the Torah was not literally dictated by God and recorded verbatim by Moses at Mt. Sinai; that a "human element" was involved in its composition. In 1961, Jacobs's advancement to college principal, considered a stepping stone to the chief's office, was blocked by then-Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie. 

Thus began what came to be known as the Jacobs Affair. The rabbi was labeled a heretic (epikoros) by the Orthodox establishment, though he had his supporters in the pews. Not a few rank-and-file United Synagogue members were non-practicing Orthodox. Regardless of levels of observance, still more shared Jacobs's progressive theological bent and were not scandalized by historical biblical criticismnotwithstanding its conclusion that the Pentateuch was not the work of a single author. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper, where for many years Jacobs wrote the "Ask the Rabbi" column, championed his elevation at Jews' College and kept the affair in the spotlight. 

In 1963, the grandees at London's New West End Synagogue invited Jacobs to become their "minister." Brodie forbade it, setting the stage for a final schism. By chance, the congregation was already set to relocate, and Jacobs's admirers quietly purchased the current building and gave him the pulpit. Thus was born the New London Synagogue in the St. John's Wood neighborhood, today the flagship of the nine Masorti synagogues in the country.

Jacobs was foremost a scholar, not a rebel.  He devoted himself to his writing, instead of to leveraging his popularity to create an alternative to the United Synagogue.  In his writing, one sees a traditionalist who rejects fundamentalism, a believer seeking a middle course between the anthropomorphized God of the Orthodox and the depersonalized Deity of the progressives.  While holding Revelation to be real, he thought the creed of Torah min ha-shamayim, "Torah from Heaven," needed to be synthesized in order to remain tenable to moderns. The problem wasn't "Torah" or "Heaven" but, rather, the concept of "from." God's authentic voice, speaking through the Torah, "is is in no way affected in that we can only hear that voice through the medium of human beings." 

In Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1999) Jacobs described his approach as "liberal supernaturalism," that is, adhering to traditional ritual practice and belief in revelation, yet open to what secular learning has to teach on the historicity of the Bible. On this point Jacobs parted company with modern Orthodoxy. His research had revealed that normative Judaism was the product of rabbis' astutely adjusting Jewish law to the ages. That is why in Tree of Life (1984) he had earlier promoted "a non-fundamentalist Halakhah" that interpreted rabbinic law as "a living corpus" which had evolved according to the needs of the agenot a code that had emanated in full at Mt. Sinai. 

While Jacobs was foremost a critic of the house from which he came, in Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1999) he described his aversion to Reform Judaism as "partly emotional and partly aesthetic"it lacked soul. A talmudist, he found Reform's attitude toward that great work condescending.  But he also expressed "unease" at modeling Britain's Masorti movement on the American Conservative model because it had become above all a reaction to Reform, while his response was to Orthodoxy. In Beyond Reasonable Doubt he summed up his dilemma with a story about a professor friend who could daven with the Orthodox but not talk to them, and talk to the Reform but not daven with them.  By default, he was most at home with observant Conservatives.

Of course, we can only guess at what Jacobs and his friend would have to say about the left-wing theological drift of U.S. Conservativism today, which has made that stream increasingly hard to differentiate from Reform.

As for Jacobs's lasting impact?  On the ground the results are modest. As Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg noted in his eulogy, "he never wanted to establish a new movement."  According to a 2011 report, 73 percent of British Jewish households (population 300,000) register a synagogue affiliation: 66 percent belong to United Synagogue or still more rigorously Orthodox streams; most of the remainder belong to the Liberal and Reform branches; a minuscule 2.7 percent are Masorti. The best that can be said is that Jacobs's movement has almost doubled its total membership over the past 10 years, and that synagogues like Wittenberg's New North London are vibrant and bustling.

Having been ruled an epikoros, Jacobs was excluded, including by the current Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, from receiving honors on those occasions when he attended Orthodox services. Yet in 2005, readers of the Chronicle voted him "the greatest British Jew of all time." Jonathan Romain, a Reform rabbi, captured the popular sentiment in his eulogy: "Louis Jacobs was often described as the greatest chief rabbi that British Jewry never had." 


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