‘Greatest British Jew,’ 85, Synthesized Faith and Modernity

By Elliot Cosgrove

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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Louis Jacobs, the most prolific and controversial rabbi of contemporary British Jewry, died July 1 in London. He was 85.

The cause was esophageal cancer, said his son, Ivor.

Jacobs was trained as an Orthodox rabbi, and his theological profile took on international significance in the 1960s when he was barred from a prominent rabbinical seminary post and pulpit in what became known as the Jacobs Affair. Jacobs’s efforts to synthesize the claims of modernity and traditional faith, of critical scholarship and strict religious observance, came to represent not just his personal struggle but also a critical turning point in 20th-century religious intellectual history.

Jacobs’s presence still looms large in Anglo-Jewish consciousness. A recent poll by the Jewish Chronicle, Britain’s leading Jewish weekly, ranked Jacobs as “The Greatest British Jew,” ahead of such figures as Chaim Weizmann and Sir Moses Montefiore.

Born in 1920 into a working-class Manchester, England, family, Jacobs spent his early years in a nominally observant immigrant household. Faced with the prospect of leaving school to find a job, he was offered a scholarship at the Manchester Yeshiva, an institution that preserved Eastern European Jewish religious traditions in an English setting.

Identified by his teachers as an ilui, a talmudic genius — renowned even then for his prodigious memory and sharp intellect — he went on to study at the Gateshead Kollel, which at that time was considered the Oxford of rabbinical academies. The only native-born student at Gateshead in the late 1930s, Jacobs came of age among Central European rabbinical students and scholars who had fled the growing Nazi threat. The classic German model of rabbi-scholar shaped Jacobs’s rabbinic profile.

After four years as an assistant rabbi and a student at University College London, Jacobs took a pulpit in 1948 at the Central Synagogue Manchester under the mentorship of Rabbi Alexander Altmann. A German refugee and a scholar of great distinction, Altmann served for decades as Manchester’s communal rabbi. Together with Altmann, Jacobs began to preach and teach widely, integrating the findings of modern scholarship into his theological message.

It is difficult to determine the precise point at which Jacobs’s theology began to veer away from his traditional roots. He read broadly, quoting G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and G.B. Shaw and others as easily as he quoted rabbinic literature. His studies at University College immersed him in the methods of critical scholarship and confronted him with the possibility that the Bible was other than divine in origin.

Jacobs’s 1957 book, “We Have Reason To Believe,” sought to combine traditional religious fidelities with fierce intellectual integrity. This was announced bluntly in the opening paragraph: “A true Jewish apologetic, eschewing obscurantism, religious schizophrenia, and intellectual dishonesty, will be based on the conviction that all truth, ‘the seal of the Holy One, Blessed is He,’ is one, and that a synthesis is possible between the permanent values and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day.”

It was in the early 1960s that Jacobs became a national celebrity. Serving at the prestigious New West End Synagogue, he was being courted by various North American Jewish academies. His synagogue’s leadership, perceiving a broader Anglo-Jewish brain drain, sought to win Jacobs a position as a tutor at Jews’ College, then Britain’s primary Orthodox rabbinic training ground. The post put him in line as heir apparent to the principal, I. Epstein , who was due to retire. With Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie’s term of office ending in 1965, some saw the move as a stepping-stone toward the position of chief rabbi itself.

In 1961, the chief rabbi blocked Jacobs’s appointment as principal, declaring Jacobs’s published views on the origins of the Bible beyond the pale of acceptable Orthodoxy. Jacobs resigned from the faculty, and several honorary officers followed in protest.

In 1965, Jacobs sought to return to his pulpit at the New West End, but again the chief rabbi blocked him. The synagogue board appointed Jacobs despite the ruling. The chief rabbi then dismissed the entire board. The dismissed board and much of the membership went on to create the independent New London Synagogue with Jacobs as rabbi, a position he held for the rest of his career.

Given the warm reviews that initially greeted Jacobs’s book, it was widely understood that the subsequent controversy around the rabbi reflected larger cultural concerns in England at the time. The anxiety over the decline in Victorian values, the rise of Eastern European Orthodoxy to prominence in Jewish institutional life, the havoc wrought by the Holocaust as well as other deliberations in mid-20th-century Jewish theology — most famously the “Honest to God Debate” surrounding John Robinson, bishop of Woolich — all served to polarize and popularize a debate that otherwise would have remained strictly parochial. Beyond the Jewish press, the intrigue of the Jacobs Affair was covered in the Times of London, The New York Times, Time magazine and beyond. The furor came to be seen as a tectonic shift in 20th-century theology and Jewish communal life.

Outside his duties at the New London Synagogue, Jacobs taught locally and internationally, maintaining an audience both in academic circles and as a popular educator. Though he continued to be offered prominent positions beyond England, Jacobs remained committed to his own community — ironically, the community that produced him but was unable to house its finest product. Jacobs himself was fond of quoting a Hasidic saying: “He who has no place anywhere has a place everywhere.”

The drama of the Jacobs Affair continues to be viewed as a struggle for the soul of British Jewry. The increasing fragmentation of Anglo-Jewry reflects an inability to give expression to the spirit of “progressive conservatism,” a genteel middle ground that it once held so dear. Jacobs’s legacy will stand both for his remarkable achievements and as a series of “what ifs” pointing to a road not traveled. Historian Geoffrey Alderman once commented that Jacobs is the best chief rabbi Britain never had.

Productive throughout — and this includes four newly published collections of his essays — Jacobs recently had come out of retirement to serve at his New London Synagogue. He is survived by his three children as well by as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His wife of more than 60 years, Shulamit, passed away earlier this year.

Elliot Cosgrove, a Conservative rabbi at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, is writing a doctoral thesis on modern Jewish thought at the University of Chicago.

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