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The Portrait of a Renegade British Rabbi Struggling To Maintain Faith and Intellect

Originally published in the Forward October 29, 1999.

By Louis Jacobs
Littman, 272 pages, $39.50

My first encounter with the complexities and occasional hypocrisies of Orthodox Jewish politics took place in London 26 years ago. I was then a pious and rather naive rabbinical student at Jews’ College, England’s establishment Orthodox seminary. While working in the college library one day, I noticed an impeccably dressed, goateed scholar poring over a heap of oversized rabbinical tomes. After inquiring with a fellow student about his identity, I was informed in a somber hush that he was none other than British Jewry’s most notorious heretic, Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the protagonist of the infamous Jacobs Affair.

The Jacobs Affair, I soon learned, was the controversy that surrounded British Orthodoxy in response to Rabbi Jacobs’s book “We Have Reason To Believe.” In it he summarized the classes on Jewish theology that he had offered at his Orthodox congregation, London’s prestigious New West End Synagogue. While in most respects the book reflected traditional Jewish faith in a supernatural and providential God whose will is revealed in the Torah, it deviated from Orthodox dogma by suggesting that modern historical biblical scholarship had to be taken into account in modifying the literal belief in divine revelation. Despite affirming the old faith in a divine creator and lawgiver and not calling for any abrogation of normative Halacha, Rabbi Jacobs insisted that the medieval formulation according to which every word and letter of the extant text of the Torah were precisely those “dictated” by God to Moses on Mount Sinai could not withstand the findings of critical scholarship. Traditional Jews, he argued, could not afford to wave away cavalierly the elaborate work of scholars who meticulously documented the complex history and multiple authorship of the Bible.

As a result of his relaxed attitude toward the dogma of literal revelation, Rabbi Jacobs was destined to be excommunicated by Great Britain’s Orthodox establishment. While at the time of its original publication “We Have Reason To Believe” did not engender any controversy, six years later it was used by his right-wing Orthodox opponents in the United Kingdom to subvert Rabbi Jacobs’s appointment as principal of Jews’ College. No one could deny that Rabbi Jacobs was one of England’s most eminent Judaic scholars and, from a purely academic perspective, worthy of the post. Nonetheless, it was argued that his mitigated belief in God’s literal revelation of the entire Torah rendered him an apikorus, or heretic, unfit to head an Orthodox seminary. England’s chief rabbi at the time, the otherwise moderate Sir Israel Brodie, succumbed to pressures from the fervently Orthodox members of his own beit din, or rabbinical court, by not only preventing Rabbi Jacobs’s academic appointment, but also by ultimately barring his return to the pulpit he had left.

That the treatment of Rabbi Jacobs was both unfair and terribly hypocritical was immediately apparent to me upon learning of the Jacobs Affair, particularly since the degree program at Jews’ College had always included courses in critical biblical scholarship. But like British Orthodoxy itself, Jews’ College was then in the midst of an identity crisis from which it has never quite recovered. Today, renamed the London College of Jewish Studies and transplanted from the West End to an Orthodox neighborhood in the city’s northern suburbs, it barely survives. I suspect that had Rabbi Jacobs been allowed to become its principal more than 30 years ago, the fate of Jews’ College would have been far happier.

Despite being hounded over the years, Rabbi Jacobs has flourished both as a congregational rabbi at the New London synagogue, which was founded by members of the New West End Synagogue who remained loyal to him, as well as England’s most prolific Judaic scholar and leading Jewish theologian. Since the appearance of “We Have Reason To Believe,” he has published more than a dozen important works on Jewish theology, intellectual history, Halacha, kabbala and chasidism, as well as “Helping With Inquiries” (1989), a moving autobiography that offers invaluable insights into the history and singular character of British Judaism as seen through the prism of Rabbi Jacobs’s rich and turbulent life. He has managed to maintain an active teaching career that has included stints at London’s University College, Harvard Divinity School and the Leo Baeck College, the U.K.’s Reform seminary. What is most impressive about Rabbi Jacobs, however, is how he has never allowed his bitter experiences to turn him into a bitter man. Quite the contrary, as is evidenced by the spirit of his most recent book, “Beyond Reasonable Doubt,” Rabbi Jacobs has maintained a healthy, often bemused attitude to his antagonists. Take, for example, the following passage from the chapter titled “Orthodoxy”: “Rabbi Yitshaq Yaakov Weiss was the head of the Manchester Beth Din at the time of the ‘Jacobs affair.’ He said at the time that if I were appointed principal of Jews’ College he would proclaim a public fast! Since I was not appointed, I missed the honour.”

“Beyond Reasonable Doubt,” an elaborate sequel to “We Have Reason To Believe,” is a learned and compelling argument for an enlightened form of traditional Judaism that Rabbi Jacobs has dubbed “liberal supernaturalism.” The liberal supernaturalist is a Jew who adheres faithfully to Jewish law and tradition in the belief that it is divinely inspired, but who at the same time cannot blithely ignore the findings of historians. His acceptance of those findings does not however render him a cold skeptic who denies all that lies beyond the scope of human research and reason. Despite the challenges of scholarship, the mystery of faith remains:

The liberal supernaturalist cannot bring himself to presume how the Almighty should have revealed his Torah. He believes that revelation is a mystery, the full scope of which is beyond the power of the human mind to grasp. What he says is rather that, if we are to preserve our intellectual integrity, a re-adjustment has of be made in the light of our present knowledge.

At first blush, this might seem to be the working definition of Modern Orthodoxy. Sadly, however, as Rabbi Jacobs powerfully demonstrates in the chapter on Orthodoxy, that is not the case. Indeed, one of the sharpest of his many criticisms of the state of contemporary Judaism is directed not at the fervently Orthodox world, but at the Modern Orthodox, whose ostensible banner has long been Torah U-Madda, Torah fused with science, or secular learning:

It is precisely in this matter of secular learning that the stance of Modern Orthodoxy is inadequate….The Modern Orthodox seem to be saying that you can be a devout Jew even if you read Shakespeare or Kant or Wittgenstein, and if you enjoy classical or modern music, or if you have an appreciation of Picasso…Fair enough. But what of history, especially biblical and rabbinic history, the result of studying which is to call into question some of the postulates of the tradition itself?

In the more than 40 years since Rabbi Jacobs published his controversial views, matters have only gotten worse, as he repeatedly informs us in the course of this sequel. Rabbi Jacobs emerges in “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” as a heroically lonely soul, struggling to maintain faith in the supernatural elements of Judaism without being forced to relinquish his intellectual honesty. Sadly, his quest is as rare in today’s increasingly fundamentalist world as it is noble. He was educated in England’s finest and most fervently Orthodox yeshivas, at Manchester and Gates-head. Throughout the book, his enduring romantic ties to the yeshiva world of his youth are as evident as are his frustrations with its narrowing focus and growing dogmatism. Rabbi Jacobs regards that world’s fundamentalist approach to the doctrine of literal divine revelation as a tragic deviation from the authentic spirit of Judaism. He shows how many of the greatest medieval biblical exegetes — most notably the major 12th-century Sephar-dic poet and biblical scholar, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra — implicitly accepted the complex origins of the written Torah.

As for the “oral Torah,” as rabbinic law is referred to in Jewish tradition, in a chapter titled “The Mitsvot: God-Given or Man-made” Rabbi Jacobs demonstrates that some of the most central and widely practiced elements of normative halachic Judaism were clearly legislated by the rabbis in response to changing historical circumstances, entirely unanticipated in biblical times. Among these “man-made mitsvot” are the lighting of Sabbath and Chanukah candles, the reading of the Sh’ma (Hear O Israel), the observances of the festival of Purim, the Passover Haggada and Seder rituals, and the very institution of the synagogue and all of its services. So, Rabbi Jacobs argues, the traditional formulation that the entire corpus of Torah law, both written and oral, was for eternity ordained to Moses on Mount Sinai was never intended to be taken literally.

Though tackling weighty subjects from the dual perspective of Jewish theology and history, “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” is written in a lucid, accessible style for lay readers, who will benefit enormously from Rabbi Jacobs’s honest and critical assessment of the major tendencies in contemporary Judaism, from chasidism to Jewish secularism. His treatment of the latter unfortunately constitutes the weakest chapter of the book. For all his clarity in critically analyzing Judaism’s religious denominations, Rabbi Jacobs seems able to grasp neither the attractions nor the cogency of a purely secular, nationalist or ethnic conception of Jewish identity. This failing notwithstanding, he has produced a major critique of Jewish fundamentalism and a compelling alternative to it. That the Orthodox will, in all likelihood, simply ignore this book is symptomatic of the dogmatism that has sadly marked Rabbi Jacobs’s turbulent life.

Allan Nadler, a frequent contributor to the Forward, is professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University.


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