There was once a talmudic student in Europe who was brilliant scholar, as well as a fervent believer. He practiced religious rules scrupulously, and was moved by a godly spirit too. But when he said that God may not have actually given the Torah to Moses at Mt. Sinai some 4,000 years ago, his colleagues were outraged. "Blasphemy!" they implored, and cast him out of their sight.
This is not the story of Maimonides, or even Spinoza, no, it’s the story of Louis Jacobs, a British rabbi who was deamed a heretic by the UK’s Orthodox movement just fifty years ago. It is hard to believe that Jacobs’ contention–that the Bible was not, in effect, to be taken literally; that it was only inspired by God, but written by man–could be considered a heresy. This in the land of the Beatles, and more importantly, where the overwhelmng majority of Jews, while not praciticing, consider themselves members of the Orthodox movement. Obscure yeshiva politics this was not.
But it happened, and ever since Rabbi Jacobs has become a much beloved, though little understood rabbi. To help clarify his views, Elliot Jager writes a noteworthy eulogy for the rabbi on the fifth anniversary of his death. Briefly, it goes like this: Jacobs was a leading professor at the main Orthodox university in London, the poorly named "Jews’ College" (and later, thankfully, rebranded the "London School of Jewish Studies"). He was poised to become the university’s principal, a move widely seen as a stepping stone to become London’s chief rabbi–a powerful post that nowhere exists in America. But that move was thwarted at the last minute by then current chief rabbi, Israel Brodie. Jacobs’ idea God and the Torah ultimately did him in.
But his career didn’t end there. Supporters named him rabbi of the New West End Synagogue in London in 1963, which became the headquarters the Masorti movement–Britain’s equivalent of America’s Conservative movement. Like America’s version, the Masorti branch straddled the line between modern Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism. As Jager describes it: Jacobs "summed up his dilemma with a story about a professor friend who could daven with the Orthodox but not talk to them, and talk to the Reform but not daven with them."
What that means is that Jacobs believed that the religous practices of Orthodox Judaism must be strictly adhered to. But he also felt that, intellectually, Judaism should put up no barrier to secular knowledge. He accepted the Torah as a religious and even divinely inspired work. But he believed it could be used as a historical document too.
He spent most of his adult life, post-Orthodox banishment, writing books that expounded his views. It’s through those works that he became a beloved figure among British Jews. But that’s not to say he was entirely succesful: the Masorti movement, almost a half-century old, has only 2.7 percent of the UK’s Jews as members. And yet the numbers can be deceiving: even though two-thirds of British Jews are members of the Orthodox movement, many of them are not observant. Moreover, many of them think of Jacobs fondly.
Jacobs’ impact in Britain–intellectually, if not quite as a movement leader (something he shunned, anyway, writes Jager)–is worth noting. Here in America, the Conservative movement often hangs its head over its perpetually dwindling numbers. At last count, by the AJC in 2010, for instance, only 20 percent of America’s Jews were members of a Conservative synagogue; in 1990, it was almost twice that, at 38 percent. The point is that even if membership dwindles, there’s is at least some kind of solace in having people share your views. What the Conservative movement may need then, is not higher numbers–at least not first–but strong leaders whose voices are well heard.