The Jacob’s Affair

Jewish culture By Rabbi Louis Jacobs 17th Jun 2016

In 1964 the New London Synagogue started as the outcome of Rabbi Jacobs’s ousting from Jew’s College and the United Synagogue for his supposedly anti-orthodox views. The New London initially called itself “Non-fundamentalist Orthodox” and spawned other Synagogues including the New North London, Whetstone and Edgware who all made a loose affiliation in 1984 that they named Masorti (Traditional).

Evidently, it was called the “Jacobs Affair” because it was the simplest way of describing the two sides, rather than in terms of theological subtleties. Few in Anglo-Jewry were willing to consider the abstruse subject of the meaning of Revelation; whereas the severely practical question of my suitability for the position at Jews’ College was perfectly intelligible. It is a pity that the personal aspect of the “Affair” obtruded so blatantly. Theology and the problems of Anglo-Jewry were at the real heart of the controversy and it is to them that, at the invitation of the Jewish Chronicle, this article tries to address itself.

What was the theological issue? Since the early 19th century, it has become imperative for traditional Jews to rethink (not to abandon) the doctrine of Torah from Heaven (Torah min hashamayim). It is no longer tenable to understand the doctrine in Maimonidean terms – that God conveyed to Moses every single word of the Pentateuch and every last detail of the Jewish observances – simply because the massive researches of dedicated scholars demonstrate that He did not choose to do so. Whether or not the Documentary Hypothesis is the last word (patently it is not), the Pentateuch is now seen as a composite work, produced by different hands and at different periods. The doctrine of Torah from Heaven did not itself drop down from Heaven, but, like all other Jewish doctrines, has developed over the millennia, partly in obedience to its inner logic and power, partly in response to external stimuli.

The contemporary mind tends to see Revelation as a series of encounters between God and the people of Israel, which the people, responding to the tremendous events, put, over a long period of time, into the documents and teachings we call the Torah. On this view, God did give the Torah to the Jewish people, but He did so through their historical experiences.

It is quite possible, and it is intellectually honest, to adopt this theory while remaining totally committed to Jewish observances as divinely ordained. That the rabbis find the justification for rabbinic ordinances in the Torah is itself part of the historical process through which the Torah has evolved. To see halacha (Jewish law) in dynamic rather than static terms is in no way a rejection of halacha. On the contrary, historical research has shown, this is the halachic approach; in its later development no less than in its formation.

Many observant, non-fundamentalist Jews still wear tefillin and do so, moreover, in obedience to a divine command. These faithful Jews refuse to accept a situation in which the alternatives are either to reject all Jewish observances as mitzvot (“divine commands”) or to reject all modern scholarship. Such a dichotomy is intellectually intolerable. If the methods are sound, then it is illogical to refuse to apply them to the study of the Torah.

This is the real issue, one to which those on the other side have never seriously addressed themselves, content with hurling denunciations at us for denying the divine origin of the Torah, whatever that expression may denote.

That our views are close to Conservative Judaism in the USA we have never sought to hide. I have long been a member of the Rabbinical Assembly (the Conservative rabbinic organisation in the US), and the New London Synagogue belongs to the Masorti Association in this country (Masorti is the Israeli equivalent of “Conservative”). Hence it might well be asked, why has the New London Synagogue described itself, in its constitution, as “Orthodox”?

The straight answer is that we use the term in the same sense in which it had been understood in Anglo-Jewry, to denote what the late Chief Rabbi Hertz defined as “progressive conservatism”. Before the swing to the Right, Orthodoxy in Anglo-Jewry was Conservative and Rabbi Hertz was the first graduate of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

It is true that Dr. Hertz, in his Chumash, frequently remarks on the evils of the Documentary Hypothesis, but he never attacked such Orthodox scholars as Herbert Loewe, who accepted the Higher Criticism; and Dr. Hertz himself was hospitable to textual criticism (see his comment on the small alef at the beginning of Leviticus).

We were not rebels. The real rebels were the United Synagogue and kindred “establishment” organisations who had moved away from the tolerant, liberal (with a lower-case “l”), non-fundamentalist tradition of Anglo-Jewry in favour of a harsh, rigid, uncompromising – not to say obscurantist – approach, foreign to the mood of the community.

The “Affair” was a catalyst. It compelled the traditional community to face up to problems that will not go away. The United Synagogue itself may yet come to see how far it has gone wrong in jettisoning tried and trustworthy traditions while remaining inhospitable to the changes that are required by the times in which we live.

It is not for me to speak of our side, but I have never believed that our opponents, misguided though they were from our point of view, have been anything but sincere in pursuing the truth as they saw it. In short, it was a “controversy for the sake of Heaven”, of which the rabbis say in Ethics of the Fathers that it is destined to endure.

Abridged version of an article written by Rabbi Louis Jacobs, published in the Jewish Chronicle, 19th December 1986.

Related articles

  • Jewish culture
  • 05th May 2023

A Prayer for the Coronation

  • Jewish culture
  • 29th Nov 2022

Meeting the Israeli Ambassador

  • Texts and beliefs
  • 08th Jul 2022

Rabbi Anthony’s Ordination Address

  • Jewish culture
  • 04th Feb 2022

Rainbow Rabbis, with Rabbis Natasha Mann and Mark Solomon