Thursday, June 23, 2011

The incompetent management of the Jacobs Affair - a guest post by Ben Elton.

If I would have been Chief Rabbi the Jacobs Affair would never have happened

Lord Jakobovits to Paul Shaviv, reported on On The Main Line June 2011 (link)

There are two primary aspects to understanding the Jacobs Affair. The first concerns whether it demonstrates a theological movement in Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I have argued elsewhere that it does not.

But there is another aspect, and that is to what extent the Affair was due to communal mismanagement. Any analysis of the Jacobs Affair must come to the conclusion that it was handled extremely badly, from start to finish, by the Orthodox establishment. I suggest this is, for the most part, what Lord Jakobovits meant when he said the Affair would never have happened had he been Chief Rabbi at the time.

To begin at the beginning: In 1957 Louis Jacobs published We have reason to believe in which he argued that despite the truth (a controversial term, but what Jacobs believed) of the Documentary Hypothesis, the Torah remained Divine and halakha remained binding. The book did not attract much attention and no action was taken against Jacobs. Had be been disciplined or sacked in 1957 there would have been some fuss, but nothing on the scale of what followed.

In 1959 Jacobs was appointed Moral Tutor at Jews’ College, of which Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie was the President. This appointment was made despite the public nature of Jacobs’ views, probably in order to ease out the then Principal Isidore Epstein. I do not understand how this could have happened given Brodie’s stated views on the subject of revelation. My best guess is that it was engineered by Jacobs’ supporters in order to prevent him going to the JTS and in order to move Anglo-Jewry towards Conservative Judaism. I suspect that Brodie took his eye off the ball, or was distracted by his wish to replace Epstein.

Had Jacobs not been appointed, and remained at the New West End Synagogue, there would have been no Affair and no controversy. He would have continued very much as he had since 1957 and without attracting much attention. Theology has never been of great interest to English Jews. His scholarly reputation would have risen, but most of his output at this time was not controversial. He may have remained in London, or gone to the United States at some point, either to the JTS or to a Conservative synagogue, as Chaim Pearl, his successor at the New West End did after him. But who has ever heard of the Pearl Affair?

The London Beth Din seemed unconcerned with Jacobs’ initial appointed at Jews’ College. Most of the dayanim had very little time for the College and refused to have anything to do with it. For some reason, though, when it looked in 1961 as though Jacobs’ would be made Principal they took a stand, or at any rate Dayan Grunfeld did. He brought a copy of We have reason to believe to Brodie with all the heresies underlined in red. When Jacobs refused to recant, Brodie barred the appointment because he could not allow the seminary for Anglo-Orthodox ministers to be headed by someone with openly non-Orthodox views. The rest of the Jacobs Affair, until he founded the New London Synagogue in 1964, was a prolonged exercise in shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted.

The implication was that Jacobs was fit to be Moral Tutor but not Principal, which was always a difficult argument, and made the Chief Rabbi look inconsistent, if not foolish. Clearly Brodie could not appoint Jacobs Principal, but the matter should never have been allowed to get that far. Brodie disappearing to Australia in the middle of the Affair and not making firm decisions on dealing with it also did not help matters.

Worse was to follow. When in 1962 Jacobs wished to return to the New West End Brodie vetoed his appointment. At this point Brodie had no choice, but it seemed extraordinary that Jacobs could serve as the Minister of the synagogue quite unmolested even after the publication of We have reason to believe but could not do so now. The dayanim wanted to let Jacobs return. They considered the New West End a lost cause where Jacobs could do little harm. Brodie realised that as the Affair rolled on, positions became more entrenched and statements more hard-line the stakes grew higher. Given a rabbinical position in the United Synagogue (US) Jacobs would be used as the centre of a campaign to turn the US towards Conservative Judaism. It would be argued that if he could be a rabbi in the US he could be Chief Rabbi, and as Chief Rabbi he would introduce a new theological position. That is why, as Lord Jacobovits also said, ‘if Jacobs had got away with it’ he would have made the US a Conservative body, and why Jakobovits supported Brodie’s stance.

The New West End wanted Jacobs back and dug in its heels, which led to the unpleasantness of the US deposing its Honorary Officers, installing new ones in a form of direct rule, banning Jacobs from wearing canonicals (!), preaching and occupying the Minister’s seat. Eventually it resulted in the foundation of a new synagogue. This congregation met initially in the hall of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, Lauderdale Road, until Brodie pressured the Haham, Solomon Gaon, to move it on. When the congregation was firmly established in its own premises Brodie refused to recognised it as a Jewish congregation so it could perform marriages according to English law.

It was all immensely unseemly and harmful. When he became Chief Rabbi in 1967 Jakobovits launched an urgent damage limitation exercise. He recognised the New London Synagogue for the purposes of marriage solemnisation and probably felt that had he been in charge from the start the problems need never have arisen. He could have nipped the Affair in the bud in 1957 by disciplining Jacobs then, or by containing Jacobs at the New West End, or by encouraging him to find a more suitable berth outside the United Synagogue. Chimen Abramsky told me that his father (i.e., R. Chazkel Abramsky – S.) also said that had he still been in London the Jacobs Affair would never have happened, perhaps for the same reasons.

Interestingly, when he became Chief Rabbi Jakobovits offered Jacobs a deal. The New London could join the United Synagogue as long as Jacobs accepted the halakhic authority of the London Beth Din. Crucially, Jacobs would not be required to toe an Orthodox theological line. Jakobovits was proposing, in effect, the creation of a grossgemeinde on the German model, in which different synagogues, each with their own rabbi, liturgical practices and theologies, would exist within the same umbrella organisation and would all submit to Orthodox standards on matters of personal status such as conversion, marriage and divorce. Jakobovits father, Joel Jakobovits, had been a grossgemeinde Orthodox rabbi in Konigsberg and Berlin before becoming a dayan on the London Beth Din. When Jakobovits jnr. was appointed Chief Rabbi the dayanim were worried that he would try to introduce the grossgemeinde model to Britain. Had Jacobs accepted the offer he might have done so. Eventually the Reform and even Liberal movements could have been brought into some sort of pan-communal religious body. Alongside the prospect of Chief Rabbi Jacobs, this is one of the great counterfactuals of Anglo-Jewish religious history.


  1. I was going to add this as a little note at the end of the post, but I decided a comment is better.

    Writing in 1999 (Beyond Reasonable Doubt) LJ explains the following:

    "In the present climate of opinion, it would indeed be ridiculous for someone with my views to lay claim to Orthodoxy, which is why I do not now make any such claim. But at the time of the controversy there had long been a tolerant, rather bemused acceptance of unconventional views within Anglo-Orthodoxy. At the time it was not completely hypocritical for me to label myself as Orthodox, meaning, at the time, simply kosher, in the sense of observant of the precepts, and yet wish to be the head of a traditional institution like Jews' College." He goes on to say that honesty now compels him to describe his position not as Orthodox but as Masorti.

    It's interesting to note that Dayan Grunfeld was German, not British. Furthermore, some might suggest that "unconventional views" do not adequately describe his views, the proof being that the customary bemused tolerance did not materialize.

  2. Hmmmm.

    1. I am chuffed at seeing my comment the 'headline' to a post. I don't think I have ever had the pleasure of meeting Ben ELton (I have your book), but thanks!

    2. Oy! not the "Jacobs affair' again! Some comments (not exhaustive): Into the mix of the communal mismanagement must be added the names of Rabbi Dr A Melinek (claimed to have brought the heretical nature of "WHRTB" to the attn of the LBD); Nat Rubin, Sec of the US, who advised both CR Brodie and - more crucially - Sir Isaac Wolfson - of the constitutional issues; Dayan Moshe Swift, who was the driving force of the LBD, and a fierce heresy-hunter; and others.

    3. Note - it was not Lord Jakobovits who was quoted as saying that "If ‘if Jacobs had got away with it he would have made the US a Conservative body" -- but Lord J's son-in-law (I assume - perhaps wrongly -R'Chaim Pearlman). Quite a difference! I don't think Lord J thought that; as recorded, he would have avoided the open confrontation one way or the other, because he recognised the polarizing effect the Jacobs Affair had on the community. He was a bridge-builder, and maintained regular private contact with the leading rabbis of the Reform and Liberal movements (in a certain capacity, I was present at some of those meetings). In shaping his communal policy, he was heavily reliant for some years on the interesting figure of Moshe Davis.

    4. The speculation about what Louis Jacobs might or might not have done had been "allowed" to remain in the US ignores one huge factor: Louis Jacobs was a very shy and humble man. I don't think he ever sought to lead a mass movement; he could have done that at any time, had he wanted to - especially with the huge public profile he had as a result of his ouster from the US. He also did not want to rebel against Orthodoxy, which is why he turned down the invitation to head Leo Baeck College, or to be a full-time member of its faculty. He did not believe in Conservative Judaism, which is why he described himself as 'Masorti' (meaning, I think, the more practically observant Israeli branch of the Conservative movement), and why the synagogues which arose as daughter synagogues of the New London used that title.

    But it is all speculation. The post began with the observation that Anglo-Jewry / the United Synagogue before the Jacobs Affair was a much less halachically stringent community. That is undeniably so. It is also true that many of the 'Ministers/ Reverends' were far from 'lamdanim', although there were many that were (including most European refugees who occupied US and Provincial pulpits in the 50's and 60's). For whatever reason (and it may or may not have been as a result of the affair, although that certainly was a catalyst), all of that changed -as it did in the USA and elsewhere.

  3. Plus .. sorry to be submitting such lengthy comments!

    On the "mismanagement" issue: I am sure that one factor was the extreme paternalistic and arrogant atitude of the United Synagogue, which sincerely believed it was God. At that time and for decades afterwards (I cannot comment on it now, as I have not lived in the UK for some years) it had huge delusions of grandeur; a hangover from its Victorian origins. It did not ever countenance the idea that anyone or anything could sincerely wish or dare to act against its bye-laws, or that any other Jewish institution or -especially - synagogue group - could ever challenge its mighty sway. As was commented, it did not profess to understand or be interested in ideas or philosophy -it was concerned with its pompous claims to authority, and saw the issue as "the authority of the Chief Rabbi". Many US rabbis of the time - even those who did not share Louis Jacobs' views - were deeply resentful of the way he was treated, but were scared to speak out. They were, under the British system, direct employees of the United Synagogue, and depended on the - non-existent, but notional "Chief Rabbi's certificate" - for their livelihood. As was shown by CR Brodie, it could be withheld, even if previously granted.

  4. The lengthier the better when they're substantive!!

  5. why did he want to ease isadore epstein out?

  6. Anonymous:

    The students at Jews' College at the time report a clash of personalities



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