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8 Kislev 5764 - December 3, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Jews for Jacobs 40 Years On

by Martin D. Stern

Shabbos Parshas Pinchas in the coastal holiday resort of Bournemouth on the south coast of England would normally have been a relatively uneventful day, coming as it does during the Bein Hametsorim period before the annual holiday influx.

However this year an incident, or perhaps better a non- incident, occurred which provided the secular Anglo-Jewish press with an opportunity for one of its favorite pastimes: denigration of what it likes to call ultra-Orthodox intolerance. On that Shabbos, a young man from the local community was planning to have his aufruf and wanted to offer aliyos to some members of his kallah's family.

This would not have been unusual except that one of those intended to receive one was her grandfather, Dr. Louis Jacobs who had, forty years previously, been the subject of one of the bitterest controversies ever to have affected the Anglo- Jewish community. In essence it was a battle as to its religious nature but there were many other factors, some social some political, that aggravated the affair. As a result, his followers broke with Torah Judaism and founded the Masorti movement, the British equivalent of the US Conservatives.

As far as Orthodox Jews are concerned, the crucial point at issue was the denial by Dr. Jacobs in his book, We Have Reason to Believe, first published in 1957, of the doctrine of Torah min haShomayim, and his acceptance of the opinion of the so-called Higher Bible critics that the Torah was cobbled together from various sources by some human author who was not even skilled enough to harmonize them sufficiently to prevent modern experts from disentangling them. To put it more picturesquely, it replaced the unitary Torah of Mosaic origin by a mosaic of disparate documents, Rachmono litzlan. In a sense, the only part of Torah min haShomayim remaining to those accepting this view is the middle word!

When I challenged Dr. Jacobs some years ago on his theological stance and claimed someone espousing such views is a mumar lekol haTorah kuloh, a denier of the whole basis of the Torah, his response was that the correct term was meshumad (private letter, 4 Aug. '98), a description I would have hesitated to use in public, but I suppose we must bow to his greater understanding of his own opinions!

In the event last summer, the Bournemouth community consulted their rabbinic authority, the London Beis Din, who ruled that Dr. Jacobs could not be called up. To be fair to the gentleman, he was quite prepared to accept this ruling, to avoid souring the atmosphere at his granddaughter's wedding, and the matter would not have gone any further. However, the Masorti movement did not respect his wishes and allowed the matter to reach the press who were delighted to find something controversial to fill their pages in what is often called the `silly season' when real news is not in great supply.

This attitude of publicity seeking has typified the Masorti movement since its inception and may not be unconnected to its relative stagnation in recent years. It has always tried to portray itself as `Orthodox' and adhering to halochoh in the `enlightened tradition of Minhag Anglia' displaced by `narrow-minded foreign fundamentalists.'

Since UK Jewry is not noted for its theological sophistication, this facade of, on the whole, maintaining the traditional synagogue ritual has tended to be accepted at face value by many members of the United Synagogue, the main modern Orthodox community. Thus the failure to give Dr. Jacobs an aliyah was looked upon as if it were a discourtesy, which went against their whole ethos of Britishness. As it had done for over 45 years, the (London) Jewish Chronicle, the largest Anglo-Jewish newspaper that had always supported the Jacobites, gave prominence to these attitudes. Whether it deliberately slanted its selection of letters in their favor cannot be established, but the majority published were.

The Background to the Jacobs' Affair

To understand how such a situation came about, we must go back over 45 years to a period when Torah Judaism in Britain was much weaker than it is today. In those days, there were very few Jewish schools and most children received their only Jewish education for a few hours on Sunday morning, almost always only up to the age of bar mitzvah.

Most middle-class families were most concerned to be accepted as fully British and, to further this, they would send their children to prestigious private schools and universities; the idea of going to yeshiva was unthinkable. As a result the younger generation were well-educated in Western culture but Jewishly illiterate. The ability to follow the davening on Shabbos, and to say Kaddish when the time came, was considered quite sufficient. Though most still bought kosher meat, other aspects of kashrus observance were minimal. Other important mitzvos were also in need of much strengthening.

Even the clergy were, by and large, modeled on the vicars of the Anglican church rather than rabbonim who could pasken shailos, though with the level of ignorance prevalent the only ones likely to be asked were the date of a yahrtzeit! Their main job was such chesed activities as visiting the sick, burying the dead and attending shiva houses. Their educational activities were restricted to delivering edifying sermons at funerals and on Shabbos mornings. They were trained in an institution called Jews' College and would take a University degree at the same time.

They were headed by the Chief Rabbi and were considered merely his local representatives, not being allowed any independent rabbinic authority. This system had been introduced by Rabbi Nosson Adler, the author of Nesinah leGer, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, mainly to prevent the inroads of the Reform movement which had devastated the Central European kehillos. Unfortunately his successors were of a much lesser rabbinic caliber and tended to be under the control of the lay leadership. They ensured the appointment of Dr. Israel Brodie -- who had been Chief Chaplain to the British Army during World War II -- as Chief Rabbi in 1948.

The only bastion of true Orthodoxy, apart from a few enclaves of recent immigrants, was the London Beis Din which had acquired a worldwide reputation under the leadership of the gaon, Dayan Abramsky, from 1933-1950.

The general community had been under the control of the `Cousinhood,' a group of wealthy assimilated families linked by marriage for some hundred years but this control was being challenged by the children of the East European immigrants who had flooded into Britain fleeing the pogroms from 1882 onwards. The latter were not particularly learned but they were much more Jewishly conscious and less Anglicized than the older establishment. The most significant development in this shift was the replacement of Ewen Montagu by Sir Isaac Woolfson as President of the United Synagogue in 1962. A power struggle developed and the figure of a young rabbi with intellectual pretensions called Louis Jacobs provided a rallying point for the Cousinhood in their struggle to regain control.

The Rise of Dr. Jacobs

Laible Jacobs was born in Manchester in 1920, the only child of Harry and Lena Jacobs, neither of whom, he recalls, were strictly observant. They sent him to the Jews' school whose main aim was to turn the children of immigrants into model Englishmen. Fortunately for him, he also attended the cheder of the legendary Yonah Balkind who recognized his intellectual abilities and persuaded his parents to allow him to attend after-school classes at Manchester Yeshiva after his bar mitzvah, something unusual in those days when most children had to go out to work to supplement the family income. He even progressed to become a member of the Gateshead Kollel in 1940 where he had as his chavrusa HaRav Leib Grosnass who later became a dayan on the London Beis Din, before returning to Manchester to obtain semichoh from the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva and also from Rabbi Rivkin, head of the Manchester Beis Din. He obtained some teaching posts in Manchester and married. His first son was born there in 1945.

Had he continued in Manchester, it is probable that the history of Anglo-Jewry would have been quite different. But shortly afterwards he moved to London to take up a position as a teacher in the Golders Green Beis Hamedrash, a community of Orthodox German Jewish refugees lead by Rabbi Dr. Munk zt"l. While there, he enrolled to do a B.A. in Semitics at University College, London, under the tutorship of Dr. Siegfried Stein, who introduced the young Laible, now known as Louis, to Higher Bible criticism invented by nineteenth century German Protestant scholars.

Not having had a rounded secular education, the young Rabbi Jacobs was impressed by their scholarship and began to see himself as being in the tradition of Zacharias Frankel and Solomon Schechter, founders of the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminaries in Breslau and New York respectively.

These trends, however, were still latent and did not prevent his being appointed in 1948 to the post of rabbi of the Central Synagogue, one of the larger `Litvishe' congregations in Manchester. While there, he came under the influence of Dr. Altman, the town's communal rabbi, who also was sympathetic to Conservative ideas and, as a result, "progressed" further along the path away from Torah Judaism.

In 1953 he received a call to take up the post as minister of the New West End Synagogue in London, the flagship institution of the Anglicized upper class. It was while there that he published his controversial book, We Have Reason to Believe, in 1957. At the time it was little noticed, in a community that preferred to admire its intellectuals rather than understand what they were saying.

In 1959 he left his pulpit to take up the specially created post of Moral Tutor and Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at Jews' College. Perhaps it was thought that these subjects would not provide a forum for spreading heretical ideas but it is more likely that his published views had not as yet been noticed. As he wrote in his autobiography, Helping with Enquiries, this "appointment was, in reality, only a subterfuge to get me into the college without awakening the Chief Rabbi's suspicions of the ambition of (my) becoming Principal" when the then-principal, Dr. Epstein, retired in 1961. This was the aim of its governing council, still controlled by the Cousinhood, who saw this appointment as a first step to the elevation of Dr. Jacobs to the post of Chief Rabbi on Dr. Brodie's expected retirement in 1970 which, they hoped, would lead to their regaining of control of Anglo-Jewry from those it perceived as parvenu Ostjuden. The stage was now set for conflict.

Battle is Joined

Dr. Epstein retired but Dr. Brodie delayed appointing a replacement, having been alerted to Dr. Jacobs' published rejection of the doctrine of Torah min haShomayim by a leading member of the London Beis Din, Dayan Isidor Grunfeld, one of those rare intellects of the Hirschian school who combined Torah im Derech Eretz in the true meaning of both terms and understood the full implications of Dr. Jacobs' thought.

When Dr. Brodie's prevarication became apparent, Dr. Jacobs resigned his teaching post in the hope that this would force his hand. In this he relied on the backing of the Council, whose chairman formally proposed that it "requests the Chief Rabbi to give his consent to Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs being appointed Principal of the College as from 1 October 1962."

The latter responded: "I want to state it clearly that Dr. Jacobs will not have my consent to becoming the Principal of Jews' College. There are many matters in connection with this but I will not mention them, to avoid creating divisiveness."

In protest the Council resigned and the matter moved to the columns of the Jewish Chronicle which Dr. Jacobs saw as being "solidly on my side" and whose editor, William Frankel "thundered against the Chief Rabbi and the London Beth Din" in his editorials, typical of which is his opening attack (29 Dec. '61):

"It is no secret that in this, as in other issues, the Chief Rabbi allows himself to be guided by the extremists of the right. Our right-wing, like all other sections of the community, is entitled to its own views. But their opinions are neither in theory nor in practice acceptable to the majority of thinking Jews. They are, moreover, opinions at variance with the benevolent Anglo-Jewish traditions of tolerance and reasonableness. From Kulturkampf against Reform, our extremists have passed to heresy-hunting with Orthodoxy, hence the opposition to Dr. Jacobs' appointment."

In his autobiography, Dr. Jacobs commented on this with the words:

"I said repeatedly that if Orthodoxy denotes fundamentalism, I was not Orthodox and did not want to be Orthodox. But if Orthodoxy meant . . . an adherence to traditional practice, then I could claim to be Orthodox . . . [but] for the sake of honesty I have always felt bound to declare [that] in theory I was solidly on the side of Conservative thought."

At least he stated his position clearly, but his followers over the last 40 years have continued to try to depict themselves as the true Orthodox as opposed to their opponents whom they claim have abandoned Orthodoxy for fundamentalism. This parallels the claims of the early Church fathers that the Church was the "New Israel of the spirit" which had replaced the rejected "Old dispensation of the Law." It is no wonder that Dayan Lopian once called the Masorti movement "Neo-Christian."

Unfortunately, the low level of Jewish knowledge then prevalent led to many being taken in by this sort of doublespeak of the proponents of what can only be described as a "Kosher-style" Judaism analogous to a succulent piece of salt beef which looks like the traditional Jewish delicacy but is, in fact, neveiloh.

The New London Synagogue

The Chief Rabbi stood his ground and Dr. Jacobs' supporters decided that, though they may have lost the first battle, they need not despair of eventually winning the war. They set up "The Society for the Study of Jewish Theology," inaugurated in Sep. '62 in order to provide him with a platform. As it turned out, this arrangement was short-lived since his successor at the New West End Synagogue, Chaim Pearl, resigned shortly after to take up a post as minister of a large Conservative congregation in New York and it wanted to re-engage its former minister.

At this point, it is necessary to mention that any such appointment was contingent on the candidate receiving a certificate of fitness from the Chief Rabbi. Since Dr. Jacobs had held one previously, his supporters expected that to be sufficient. However a closer examination of the bylaws of the United Synagogue revealed that, at least formally, a new one was needed, so a request was made. In view of the revelations of Dr. Jacobs' theological aberrations, Dr. Brodie refused to grant one. The synagogue wrote to the President of the United Synagogue, Isaac Woolfson, asking him to pressure the Chief Rabbi which, as someone who respected the dignity of the rabbinate, he refused to do.

In response, an Extraordinary General Meeting was held on 1 March '64 at which the members gave their executive a mandate to contest the Chief Rabbi's ruling. Dr. Jacobs was invited to act as if he were the minister and did so on 11 April, a direct challenge to the Chief Rabbi and the United Synagogue.

Dr. Jacobs' supporters resorted to a vicious campaign of calumny and innuendo against them not only in the Jewish Chronicle but even in the non-Jewish press. This could not remain unchallenged and the Council of the United Synagogue exercised its constitutional right to remove from office the Honorary Officers and Board of Management of the New West End Synagogue and replace them with its own nominees to run its affairs.

The Cousinhood called a meeting on 3 May, attended by about 300 supporters, at which they proposed to secede from the United Synagogue and set up an independent congregation under Dr. Jacobs' spiritual guidance, which was agreed. Premises were sought and, by some obscure dealings, the recently vacated premises of the St. John's Wood Synagogue were acquired. The new congregation called itself the New London Synagogue, or in Hebrew: Bayis Chadash (echoes of a Bris Chadashah?).

Since it was architecturally an Orthodox synagogue and the membership were extremely conservative (with a small c) in liturgical matters, a visitor could easily have thought it still to be so. The few deviations from generally accepted practice, like hoche Kedushoh at Musaf, might have raised doubts but could possibly have been justified in terms of local minhag. The fact that the latter change was for doctrinal reasons, a rejection of the restoration of the Temple and its `sacrificial cult' and therefore leaving out the recitation of the Musaf sacrifices in public, would not have been apparent to the casual observer.

At this time, Dr. Jacobs published his Principles of the Jewish Faith in which he attacked the Rambam's 13 principles, especially the eighth, Torah min haShomayim. Shortly afterwards, he took up the post of lecturer in Talmud at the Leo Baeck College, a seminary for training Reform clergy on whom he later conferred 'semikhah.'

The New London became affiliated to the World Council of Synagogues, the international arm of the US Conservative movement, and in '68 hosted its Seventh International Convention, clearly demonstrating its ideological position.

The Masorti Movement

In '74, Dr. Jacobs' son and some friends opened a branch calling itself The New Highgate and North London Synagogue, later shortened to New North London Synagogue; perhaps a more humorous name would have been the Jacobson Temple after the original Reform institution in Berlin! Its links with Reform were strengthened when it accepted the offer of premises in the latter's Manor House complex.

Unlike the New London, this congregation did not have a ladies' gallery but seated men and women in the main hall separated by an aisle but no mechitzoh. About ten years later, a third congregation was founded by a group of more traditionally-minded members of Edgware Reform who called themselves Edgware Masorti, at whose services seating was completely mixed. This shows the progressive distancing of the Jacobites from accepted halachic norms.

Several smaller congregations were established subsequently, mainly in the Greater London area and combined under the auspices of the Association of Masorti Synagogues. Attempts to expand to the provinces were remarkably unsuccessful, encountering especially strong resistance in the Orthodox bastion of Manchester in '95.

Since then the movement has seen stagnation in the original New London because of its aging membership. Rising levels of general Jewish learning in Britain have made the inner contradictions of their ideology more obvious to the more committed members of Anglo-Jewry, whereas those less so have little interest in anything Jewish at all. What had been seen by its founders as an exciting experiment in revitalizing Judaism has turned out to be a dead end.

By contrast, Orthodoxy is flourishing as never before with young people going to yeshivas and seminaries and returning to spread their knowledge and enthusiasm for Torah learning; something completely unthinkable when the Jews for Jacobs first raised their heads.

The Attack on British Jewry: An Attempt to Pirate England's United Synagogue

by HaRav Nachman Bulman zt"l

The following essay appeared about 40 years ago in the Jewish Observer (May 1964). We have edited out portions that are covered in the main article.


As has been the case so many times in recent years, the dispute over the appointment of Dr. Louis Jacobs to a synagogue which holds membership in Great Britain's Orthodox United Synagogue, has been represented to Jews who have access only to the Anglo-Jewish press in America, as another instance of Orthodoxy's "cruel intransigence and blind medievalism." . . . In brief, the camp of Torah was again portrayed as clericalist -- opportunist -- hidebound. Its adversaries have again been pictured as innocent victims, as seeking nothing more than a breath of modern scholarship, as in fact seeking to save traditional Judaism from being harmed by the policies of the "blind fanatics."

A review of the whole episode is in order. But beyond its intrinsic interest, a proper understanding of the Jacobs episode would yield a necessary insight into the world historic implications with which the entire episode is fraught.


What are the issues involved? In a pamphlet entitled The Sanction of the Mitzvoth, Dr. Jacobs states [very clearly that he believes the Bible is not from G-d but from men.]

Now it takes no great scholarship to know that the above is incompatible with the fundamental principle on which the whole structure of Torah-true Judaism has stood through all the ages of Jewish history. That a man holding such a view should insist on his right to function as an Orthodox Rabbi, and should vilify the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of an Orthodox Synagogue body for denying his right to do so, would in itself be more deserving of contempt and derision than even of anger. We live, however, in such tragically confused Jewish times, that even such madness can be vehemently defended.

Let it therefore be repeated again and again; the issue is not Dr. Jacobs' right or freedom to espouse the views he holds. . . . For what Dr. Jacobs wants is not merely to be `right' or to be free to espouse his views. What he wants is to function as an Orthodox rabbi and to leach those views as valid Orthodox views, which means that he wants Orthodoxy to accord legitimacy to his views.

Stated simply, Dr. Jacobs wants to eat his cake and have it too. He wants to be free to accept the conjectures of the Bible critics as having been definitively proven, but at the same time he wants to be free to serve as an Orthodox rabbi. . . . But Dr. Jacobs is not only innocently unaware that his views disqualify him from serving in the Orthodox Rabbinate. In an interview in the London Jewish Chronicle, Dr. Jacobs exhibits even greater innocence. The Jewish Chronicle reporter writes:

" `I wish I knew,' said Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs when I asked him why the Chief Rabbi opposed his reinstatement as minister of the New West End Synagogue in London. In an interview with the Jewish Chronicle, Dr. Jacobs stated that the Chief Rabbi himself had not specified `those views of mine to which he takes exception,' nor had he given the reasons why they ought to be condemned . . . ' "

What diabolical innocence that is!

The Chief Rabbi Speaks

It remains for us to quote several of the most salient paragraphs of the Chief Rabbi's statement before the British Rabbinate:

"Why are we so concerned to safeguard the observances of our faith against attack? Why have Jews throughout the ages been prepared to suffer opprobrium and even to give their lives rather than violate the laws of the Torah?

"The answer is obvious. Those laws of the Torah are of Divine origin with binding authority on all who are sons of the covenant. They are not observed for their hygienic or prudential benefits, nor even for reasons associated with the preservation of Jewish customs and national folkways. They are mandatory upon us as being Divine commands explicit and implicit in the Torah as interpreted by teachers whose authority derived from the Torah itself and who enjoyed the complete trust of their respective generations.

". . . Those who are appointed rabbis and teachers of communities must by their very vocations and by the terms of their ordination as rabbis be the exponents of the Revelation of G-d's Word embodied in the Torah, written and oral, with the sanction and authority attached thereto . . . But Dr. Jacobs repeats the well-known thesis that parts of the Torah are not Divine, but are man-made, . . . (Quotations follow from Dr. Jacobs' writings.) . . . An attitude to the Torah such as this, which denies its Divine source and unity (Torah min haShomayim), is directly opposed to Orthodox Jewish teaching and no person holding such views can expect to obtain the approval of the Orthodox ecclesiastical authority."

The Lesson to Be Learned

When Jews turn away from the religion of their fathers, and they become rooted in their deviation, they will sooner or later seek to turn their rejection of Judaism into a separate ideology within Judaism, one which is purportedly an alternate, legitimate Jewish viewpoint. But they will not be content to stop there, because those remaining "behind" serve as a living challenge to their consciences.

In time they will seek to vanquish, to overcome, to destroy the "old Judaism." But they will not rest content with such efforts either. A time comes when they find that they cannot overcome the "old Judaism;" that it not only persists in surviving, but that it constantly threatens to turn the tables on its would-be heirs.

A time comes when they decide that they must force the "old Judaism" to allow them to speak in its name; not only to grant them separate legitimacy, but also to grant them the right to function as representatives of the "old Judaism." . . . A time comes when they cannot rest content unless Torah- true Judaism admits, not only that Conservatism and Reform are not distortions of Judaism, but that Conservatism and Reform are themselves identifiable with Torah-true Judaism.

When Orthodox rabbis, Orthodox Jewish institutions, individual Orthodox Jews grant legitimacy to Conservatism and Reform, they themselves lead to such events as the Jacobs affair in England, and the furor over the Conservative get in the State of Israel, both of which are instances of a worldwide Conservative effort to completely supplant Orthodoxy by transforming us from within.

Let us finally be warned. The Jewish people cannot enduringly remain a house divided. Our non-Orthodox brethren know it in their bones. We need to know it too. In an age in which we are divided, they will not stop "pulling" until the whole of our people becomes like them. The only course open for us is to "pull" with all our might, until the whole of our people becomes again the "people of Torah."


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