The Ilui Who Couldn’t Reject Biblical Criticism: Louis Jacobs
Two Concepts of Learning
As a young man, Louis Jacobs (1920–2006) was marked out as one of the most promising scholars in the British yeshiva world. In 1941, at the age of 21, Jacobs was the youngest of the 20 members of the Kolel in Gateshead, a remote town in the North of England. The Kolel had recently been established to support refugee scholars who had managed to flee the devastation in Europe.
From its very inception, the Gateshead Kolel had been intended as an elite institution, catering only to the most pious, intellectual, and learned in the rarefied world of yeshivah-style Torah study. Born into a middle-of-the-road, Anglo-Jewish family, Louis Jacobs – or Laib as he was then known – was the only kolel member who had not previously studied in a European yeshiva. He would not have been invited to join had he not been qualified; despite his age and upbringing, he was even considered to be a scholar of outstanding potential.
Learning from Dessler
In its early days, all members of the Kolel were nominally regarded as equal. Nevertheless, the unofficial senior scholar of the group, to whom the others deferred, was Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892–1953), now acclaimed as one of the more important thinkers of mid-twentieth-century Orthodoxy. To the young Jacobs, he was an inspirational teacher:
I would uncritically swallow whole the master’s very erudite and eloquent discourses, in which there was a blend of musar, Kabbalah and Hasidism with an added spice of caustic humour as well as an occasional reference to the theories of Freud and Einstein; the whole constituting a heady mixture that could not fail to intoxicate highly impressionable young men.
Although many years his senior, Dessler had an equally high opinion of Jacobs:
There is one young man, a product of Manchester (he is the only native product), and it is no exaggeration for me to say that hitherto, I have never seen an ilui [Talmudic genius] of such depth together with the other strengths in any one... he is a truly great one... able to plumb the depths of thought.
Despite his potential and high standing in the eyes of his teachers, twenty years later Louis Jacobs found himself ostracised by the Orthodox community in Britain.
Jacobs’ Formative Years
Louis Jacobs inherited his mother’s prodigious memory and passion for English literature. She supplemented his schooling, spending hours with him reciting huge chunks of poetry from memory and reading Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, a popular reference work often found on the bookshelves of educated, early 20th century British families.
Growing up, he devoured books, spending hours in the local library reading whatever he could get his hands on, both fiction and non-fiction. His favourites were the outstanding Edwardian authors, among them George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, H. G. Wells and, overshadowing them all in his mind, G. K. Chesterton, “even though… he was rumoured to be a bit anti-Semitic.”
When he enrolled in Manchester Yeshiva shortly after his bar mitzvah and was introduced to the Talmud, he took to it like a duck to water. But until then, his familiarity with English literature far outstripped his Jewish literacy.
Early Years in the Rabbinate
In 1945, after four years in the Gateshead Kolel, Jacobs took up a post in London’s Golders Green Beth HaMedrash Congregation as assistant rabbi. The synagogue’s senior rabbi was Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Munk (1900–1978), an orthodox rabbi who had studied at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin and had a Ph.D. in the religious poetry of William Wordsworth.
Despite his progressive education, Munk was an old-school rabbi in his beliefs, and Golders Green was a frum congregation, to the right of United Synagogue (the Central Orthodox synagogue movement in Britain). Nevertheless, like Munk himself, the membership was comprised predominantly of cultured, educated German refugees. These were the sort of people who would invite Jacobs and his wife Shula to drink from silver tea services on a Sunday afternoon while discussing philosophy, opera, and the finer points of Rashi’s commentary.
Siegfried Stein Introduces Him to Biblical Criticism
Jacobs was in his element at Golders Green, but it led him to realise how much he had neglected his secular education while studying in yeshiva and kolel. To remedy this, he enrolled in a Semitics course at London University, where much to his delight he found he was the only student, receiving one-to-one instruction from Professor Siegfried Stein (1909–1995).
Religiously observant, Stein had been educated at the Berlin Hochschule, a pioneering institution in the academic study of Judaism where biblical criticism constituted part of the curriculum. Thus, Stein introduced Jacobs to the critical study of the Bible, warning him that he might find some of its conclusions unsettling, but assuring him that it need not undermine his Jewish belief.
Stein was an ideal mentor for Jacobs, since Jacobs could not accept the compromise of his rabbinic colleagues, who treated the study of biblical criticism as a necessary means to receive a degree in Semitics, while rejecting its tenets entirely.
Stein, however, maintained that it was possible to academically challenge the Orthodox view that the Torah had been dictated word by word to Moses in the wilderness, and yet remain committed to traditional Torah observance and to hold the traditional view of revelation when outside the academy, as Stein’s own lifestyle demonstrated.
Jacobs became increasingly convinced that it was not intellectually honest to compartmentalize scholarship and religion in this way, to act as if there were two truths, one for the academy and one for the synagogue. He called it “double think”. It thus became a priority for him to work out how to reconcile his orthodoxy with the scientific approach to Bible study, what he called his “quest” for a middle way.
Manchester’s Central Synagogue and the Problem of Double-Think
After leaving Golder’s Green, Jacobs was appointed rabbi at Manchester’s Central Synagogue, where he preached in English and Yiddish and delivered a Talmud shiur in Yiddish every evening. Gradually, he began to feel that it was dishonest for him to pursue his quest in a synagogue where he was weighed down by the “burden of double think.”
His beliefs in the value of historical-critical scholarship conflicted with his congregation’s expectations of him. At this early stage in his career, he was not confident enough to express his academic views publicly, particularly in his traditional orthodox synagogue where he was younger than most of his congregants. He longed to find an environment where he could pursue his quest more freely.
The defining moment came for him in 1953. He was offered two rabbinic positions, both in Orthodox congregations. One was at the cultured yet traditional Golders Green Synagogue (also known as Dunstan Road Synagogue). The other was at the New West End an, old-monied, independently-minded Central London community.
Although New West End was an Orthodox congregation, and, like Golders Green, was under the umbrella of the centrist Orthodox United Synagogue, it incorporated several non-traditional elements into its practice. These included the use of a mixed choir, and adjusting the liturgy so as to avoid praying for the restoration of sacrifices.
Jacobs’s friends and colleagues took it for granted that he would prefer the traditionally Orthodox synagogue, being more in line with his yeshiva training and traditional background, but Jacobs had other ideas. After discussing his choices with Shula, with whom he discussed every important matter, they opted for the New West End.
Exposure to a congregation like New West End, studded with highly successful, worldly people, with a more secular outlook than his previous congregations, would give him greater opportunity to develop his thinking and grow intellectually. It would allow him to show that it was possible to both be an erudite Talmud scholar and a cultured, contemporary-minded Anglo-Jewish rabbi. He still hadn’t resolved his dilemma over how to integrate biblical criticism into orthodoxy, but he believed that the ethos of New West End would give him the opportunity to explore this question honestly.
We don’t know what Rav Dessler thought of this decision, but Rabbi Munk expressed his distress in a letter to Jacobs: “I am very stunned regarding your decision. Others are also flabbergasted at what could have happened to bring you to such a state of affairs.”
Rabbi of New West End Synagogue
Jacobs conducted regular classes and study sessions with his congregants at New West End, just as he had done at Munk’s and at Manchester Central Synagogue. But the congregants at New West End had different interests to those at his previous synagogues, and displayed a different sort of intellectualism.
Few congregants asked him to resolve Talmudic conundrums or to determine whether a chicken was kosher. Instead, Jacobs found himself being challenged on the ideas that underpinned Judaism, on the meaning of faith and the complexities of theology. It was a challenge that he relished: This was exactly what he had hoped for when he made his decision to seek a congregation where he could develop his thinking.
The interests of his congregants and his own developing maturity meant that Jacobs was growing ever more comfortable with what he had previously perceived as a conflict between traditional Judaism and the pursuit of historical-critical scholarship. He discussed his ideas with his regular study group at the synagogue, spoke about them from the pulpit and formalized them in lectures aimed at young, intellectually engaged people from across London. His fellow study-group members encouraged him to set out his views in a book, which he did in We Have Reason to Believe, published in 1957.
A Synthesis of Thought
Writing his book obliged Jacobs to address the conflict between critical scholarship and orthodoxy explicitly. In it (p. 9), he warned against three trends that he saw as destructive:
Obscurantism—The rejection of “modern thought and all its ways as of the devil.”
Religious schizophrenia—The allowance of “incompatible ideas to exist side by side in water-tight compartments.”
Intellectual dishonesty—The postulating of “an artificial synthesis,” a queer hybrid faith which both the adherents of traditional Judaism and representative modern thinkers would repudiate.
These pitfalls, he alleged, typified contemporary orthodox scholarship. He thus obliged himself to state an orthodox theological position that avoided all three. Admitting that Judaism stands or falls on the belief in revelation, Jacobs argued that Judaism has no “official” interpretation of the manner in which God spoke to man.
While contemporary Orthodoxy unanimously held the belief that the whole of the Torah, as we have it today, was dictated to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness, Jewish texts throughout the ages, Jacobs argued, expressed no single, universally accepted view on the manner of revelation. Thus, he claimed, Jews can still have a religiously acceptable faith in revelation even after dropping the model of Moses receiving the entire Torah through divine dictation which, he argued, was no longer sustainable.
In support of this view, he quoted the former British Chief Rabbi, Joseph Hertz (1872–1946). Hertz had said that the exact manner of supernatural communication between God and man:
will be conceived differently by different groups of believers. Some will follow the biblical accounts of Revelation in the literal sense; others will accept interpretation of these biblical accounts by rabbis of Talmudic days, Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages, or Jewish thinkers of modern times.
In Jacobs’ view, the whole question of how we understand revelation had evolved in line with the development of our critical facilities. Therefore, nothing forces us to reject new critical tools and techniques, including those provided by historical-critical Bible study, as they emerge. The goal was to strive for a synthesis between the new and old ways of understanding revelation.
In 1950s America, with its strong Conservative movement, statements like those of Jacobs would have been unremarkable. In England, where the mainstream rabbinate was orthodox (even if their congregations were not), these views were unacceptable. But Jacobs was satisfied that he had finally reached a theological position that he believed to be both orthodox and scientific.
The only reason why there was no outcry when the book was published was because very few in Britain’s Orthodox hierarchy bothered to read it. But several years later, when Jacobs was expected to be appointed Principal of Jews’ College, Britain’s premier (Orthodox) Rabbinic training college, the book was shown to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie (1895–1979), with the contentious passages underlined in red. The Chief Rabbi read it and refused to confirm Jacobs’s appointment as Principal of Jews’ College. Nor would he allow him to take up another position in the orthodox rabbinate.
Reflecting on the Split
Jacobs once explained that the rift came about because of what he referred to as “two concepts of learning.” By this he meant the contrasting intellectual approaches of the academy and the yeshiva. Or more specifically, the impermeable compartments into which he believed his orthodox colleagues separately deposited their critical faculties and theological beliefs.
The Jacobs Affair became the most controversial religious dispute in the history of the British community and continued to reverberate for decades after. Jacobs’ refusal to compartmentalize captured the imagination of British Jewry, and the meaning of his legacy remains a matter of dispute until today.
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Dr. Harry Freedman is a British author of popular works of Jewish culture and history. His publications include Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs; The Talmud: A Biography (Bloomsbury, 2021); Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul and The Murderous History of Bible Translations. His forthcoming book is Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius. Freedman holds an M.A. in Jewish Studies and a Ph.D. in Targum, both from London University. He lives in London with his wife Karen and has two children, two step-children, and a growing number of grandchildren.
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