Thursday, July 14, 2011

Rabbi Louis Jacobs Reluctant Renegade

Unlike the Conservative movement in the United States which broke away from Reform Judaism to pursue a more religiously centrist and Zionist middle course, the British Masorti branch was born as a secession movement from Orthodoxy, inspired by the writings of theologian Louis Jacobs whose fifth yahrzeit is being marked this month [July 1; 8 Tamuz].

Jacobs 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' ascent was stymied in the early 1960s over his heterodox views about the divine origins of the Pentateuch. At the time of his death in 2006, at age 85 in London, he had been 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, a prodigy and a Gaon," Jacobs was born in Manchester, educated at the Gateshead Talmudic Academy, and once ordained 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' advancement to college principal, considered a stepping stone for the chief's office, was blocked by then-Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie.

That was the beginning of what came to be known as the Jacobs Affair. He was labeled a heretic (apikoras) 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' progressive theological bent and were not scandalized by historical biblical criticism notwithstanding its conclusion that the Five Books of Moses was not the work of one author. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper – where for many years he 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 said no and the stage was set for a final schism. By chance, the congregation was anyway set to relocate, and the building was quietly purchased by Jacobs' admirers and he was given the pulpit. Thus was born the New London Synagogue in the St. John's Wood neighborhood of London, today the flagship of nine Masorti synagogues in the country.

Truth be told, Jacobs failed to exploit his popularity to create an alternative to the United Synagogue. He was foremost a scholar -- not a rebel -- and devoted himself to his writings. These showed him to be a traditionalist who rejected fundamentalism; a believer who sought a middle course between what he saw as Orthodoxy's anthropomorphism of God, and the "de-personalization" of the Deity propagated by the progressives. He believed that "we hear the authentic voice of God speaking to us through the pages of the Bible…and its truth is in no way affected in that we can only hear that voice through the medium of human beings…"

He held Revelation to be real. Still, he thought the creed of Torah Min Ha-Shamayyin (literally from the heavens) needed to be synthesized – not abandoned – so that it could remain tenable to moderns. The problem wasn't "Torah" or "Heaven" but how to understand "from." Even when it came to the After-life Jacobs sought to steer a middle course, opposing atheistic denial while preferring a Judaism that was anchored in worldliness.

In Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1999) he 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 meant there was no basis in believing rabbinic rulings needed to be understood as sacred or that they emanated as Oral Law at Mt Sinai. That is why in Tree of Life (1984) he had earlier promoted "a non-fundamentalist Halakah" that interpreted law as "a living corpus" which had evolved according to the needs of the age.

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 neshama. A Talmudist, he found Reform's attitude toward that great work condescending. He also expressed "unease" at modeling Britain's Masorti movement on the American Conservative model because, as noted, theirs was above all a reaction to Reform and his retort 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; talk to the Reform but not daven with them; and so by default 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 unremitting left-wing theological drift of U.S. Conservatives which has made the stream increasingly hard to differentiate from Reform.

As for Jacobs' lasting impact? On the ground the results are modest. As his chief eulogizer, Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg noted, "He never wanted to establish a new movement." According to a 2011 report by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 73 percent of British Jewish households (population 300,000) register a synagogue affiliation: 66% belong to United Synagogue or still more rigorously Orthodox streams; most of the remainder belongs to the Liberal and Reform branches; a miniscule 2.7% are Masorti. The best that can be said is that Jacobs' 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 apikoras, 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 as "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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