Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs by Harry Freedman

Jewish culture By Masorti Judaism 02nd Nov 2020

Masorti’s roots in Britain lie in a dispute which split the Jewish community in the early 1960s.  The issue was the refusal of the Chief Rabbi first to appoint Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs as principal of Jews’ College and subsequently to forbid him to return to his former position as Minister of the New West End Synagogue.

Louis Jacobs was acknowledged as British Jewry’s outstanding scholar, a man with an encyclopaedic command of Talmud, Bible and Halacha. As a young man he had studied in the Gateshead Kollel, where Rabbi Dessler, one of the leading Jewish intellects of the 20th century had described him as an ilui, a Talmudic genius. He had been regarded within the ultra-orthodox community as their brightest hope for the future.  But Louis Jacobs’ interests ranged far wider than the yeshiva world.  He read voraciously and studied continually, with a curiosity that led him to soak up knowledge from wherever he could.

When he enrolled on a course in Semitics at London University he was introduced to the academic study of the Bible. Among other things this approach challenged the traditional belief that the Torah was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Academic scholars believed that the Torah was a composite document written by different authors over a period of time.

Jacobs understood that they had reached this view by using their critical faculties and the analytical tools of modern science. It made sense to him, and it didn’t conflict in any way with his lifestyle as an observant Jew. He still regarded the Torah as sacred and divine, all that had changed in his mind was the method of its transmission to humanity. He rejected the accusation that he did not believe in Torah min ashamayim (Torah from Heaven), arguing that it all depends on what one means by the word ‘from’. He called the book he wrote We Have Reason to Believe, because he was convinced that Judaism was a religion of the mind, which had developed and evolved throughout history as human knowledge advanced.

The Chief Rabbi controversially refused to appoint Jacobs to head up Jews’ College because of his views. When he forbade him from returning to the New West End Synagogue the controversy turned into a full-blown dispute. The vast majority of the members of the New West End resigned and established the New London Synagogue with Louis Jacobs as their rabbi. Gradually new synagogues were established, loosely placing themselves under his banner. Eventually these synagogues joined together into the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues.

Louis Jacobs was always regarded as the religious inspiration behind Masorti although he was somewhat ambivalent about it. He regarded himself as an orthodox rabbi and the New London as an independent orthodox synagogue. He believed that it was orthodoxy which had changed, it had become fundamentalist in its outlook and he maintained that he and his followers represented authentic orthodox thinking. He used to say of Masorti ‘We are a mood, not a movement.’

Louis Jacobs was born 100 years ago this year. He remains the greatest intellect and most accomplished scholar British Jewry has ever produced. He wrote dozens of books and hundreds of articles, on Theology, Talmud, Halacha, Kabbalah, Hasidism, Prayer and Jewish life. But times change and even the greatest characters become forgotten. I have written his biography, called Reason to Believe, so that those who do not remember him can gain some appreciation of his scholarship, his outlook and his significance, not just to future generations of Masorti communities but to the whole of British Jewry.

Harry Freedman was Chief Executive of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues from 1994-2001.

Harry Freedman’s book, Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs is published by Bloomsbury Continuum on 12th November 2020.

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