David Newman
Views on the Borderline

A Tale of Two Rabbis: On Jonathan Sacks and Louis Jacobs

Rabbis Jonathan Sacks and Louis Jacobs - Photos public access

One week after the untimely passing of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the British Jewish community meets, in what will probably be the first of many such gatherings over the next few months, to celebrate the publication of a new biography of the “other” great Anglo Jewish theologian of the past century, Rabbi Professor Louis Jacobs. A symposium, set to take place this coming Sunday, streamed by ZOOM from the New London Synagogue, will discuss the new book “Reason to Believe: the Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs”.

Despite his recognition as a leading Jewish scholar of his time, there will not be any orthodox Rabbis or leaders taking part. This  reflects the huge theological controversy which emerged out of his writings and teachings in the early 1960’s, and which ultimately prevented Jacobs from becoming the next Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. He founded an independent community known as the New London, which, in turn, eventually became the spiritual center of the British Masorti movement.

When, at the turn of the millenium, the Jewish Chronicle conducted a survey concerning the most influential British Jewish personality of the twentieth century, there was a clear winner – Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs.  Were the same question to be asked today based on the intervening period, it is highly likely that  the winner this time round  would be Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

In many senses, the two were similar. Each grew up in a traditional Anglo Jewish household, each excelled at their academic studies although Jacobs decided at an earlier stage in his life that his vocation was to be a Rabbi. Sacks attributes his own decision to go in that direction to the messages he received from the Lubavitcher Rebbe when he visited New York as a university student and requesting advice on the best choice of profession (a lawyer, an accountant or an academic).

Both were rational thinking Lithuanian Jews in terms of their own personal rituals and practices, but each had a strong affection for Hassidism – with Jacobs writing a book on the topic, and Sacks constantly praising the work of Habad throughout the world.

Both became senior figures in what was then known as Jews College (now the London School of Jewish Studies) where Anglo Jewish Rabbis were trained and received semicha. For each, it was seen as a pathway to establishing their religio-intellectual credentials, of training and ordaining other Rabbis who would perhaps later serve under them, along with their having both served as communal Rabbis in a number of communities throughout London and, in the case of Jacobs, also Manchester. Each had pastoral experience in addition to their intellectual and scholarly pursuits.

It is little known that Jacobs studied at the most orthodox of yeshivot from a  relatively young age,   first in Manchester and then as one of the first group of students recruited by the legendary Rabbi Eliahu Dessler when he founded the Gateshead Kollel in the early 1940’s. Indeed, Dessler was so enamoured by his student that he predicted a future for him as a leader of orthodox Jewry and made the special effort to come especially from Israel to attend his wedding at a time when international travel was far more difficult and tiresome than today. But as Harry Freedman points out in his recently published biography of Jacobs, Louis Jacobs is nowhere to be found in the list of prestigious past students of the Gateshead Kollel institution.

For his part, Lord Sacks attributed his religious teachings to the recently departed Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz – then of Jews College but for the last three decades as the head of the Ma’aleh Adumim yeshiva – and Rabbi Noson Ordman the head of the small Etz Chayim Yeshiva in London.

Both were as much philosophers as they were theologians and both had Ph.D’s from leading British universities.

Public access images

Lord Sacks lived that generation later than Jacobs, when right wing orthodoxy had become a much more powerful element within Anglo Jewry (and World Jewry) and, it would be fair to assume,  was highly conscious of the lessons to be learnt from the Jacobs Affair and was sensitive to the boundaries not to be crossed within the public arena.

It would be fair to say that Lord Sacks sought, as far as possible, to avoid the sort of theological controversy which had resulted in the so called “Jacobs Affair” of the 1960’s, and he trod very carefully when it came to issues which may have offended the more conservative elements within the orthodox community –  be it the withdrawal of some comments from one of his many books  which were found to be unacceptable to the Rabbis of Gateshead and Stamford Hill,  or his  non attendance of the funeral of Rabbi Hugo Grynn, a leading Rabbinical figure in the reform Movement, and his ambivalence towards attending the great Jewish learning festival, Limmud, despite his obvious support of, and warmth towards, the project as such.

Notwithstanding these incidents, he was recognised across the spectrum of the Anglo (and global) Jewish community, as testified by the warm eulogies which poured in last week from the Orthodox to the Reform. Even those who were critical of some of his statements or actions, relegated this to the margins or footnotes of what were unanimous positive acknowledgement  of his global impact on religious and moral thinking.

During the twenty-two years of his incumbency as Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks lived, as did Jacobs, in the St. Johns Wood neighbourhood of London, no more than ten minutes walk from each other. They prayed at the neighbouring synagogues, the old and the new St. Johns Wood Synagogue (located either side of the Beatles crossroads in Abbey Road) and while neither was invited to guest preach at the spiritual home of the other, they maintained a respectful contact with each other as to be expected from two such distinguished scholars.

Where Sacks opened up orthodox Judaism and teachings to a wider global audience, thanks in no small part to his being an avid user of all modern social media and cyberspace technologies, Jacobs was largely limited to the UK audience and only at a later stage, to a scholarly and academic audience throughout the world. Both Rabbis were rightly appointed to Professorial Chairs at leading international universities, and both were awarded numerous academic awards for their scholarship.

Sacks became a global Jewish leader and spokesman well beyond his writings. His advice was  sought  by leaders of other world faiths and political leaders – and this was clearly  seen from the many eulogies last week from Prince Charles (read out at his funeral), to present and former Prime Ministers, and heads of both the Protestant and Catholic Churches. If Jacobs had become Chief Rabbi it is highly probable  that he too would have become a religious statesman of his time, but that remains an unknown.

Both were eloquent speakers, and captured their audiences, using the very best of Queens English. However Jacobs was more of a formalist when it came to ritual, insisting on the use of Rabbinical clothing (known in the UK as canonicals) while Sacks was part of a generation which opened up the English community to less formality and greater audience participation.

When Louis Jacobs passed away, both Lord Sacks and the then President of the United Synagogue, Simon Hochauser (brother to Israel’s present Ambassador to Australia  Mark Sofer) attended his funeral, although both made an effort to mention that it was in their private, rather than public, capacity – so as not to offend the ultra-orthodox communities. But equally we should not overlook the fact that last week Sacks also received warm tributes from leading Rabbis of the UK Reform community who had worked with him behind the scenes throughout his period as Chief Rabbi.

Both Jacobs and Sacks have web sites attesting to their scholarship. Sacks’s weekly Covenant and Conversation blog is read by tens of thousands throughout the world.  A major effort has been made in recent years to uploading all of Jacobs writings and teachings, almost all of which appeared before the cyber and digital ages and which had to be dug out of the archives and digitalised.

Both of them were Zionists and supportive of Israel with close relatives – in the case of Sacks two brothers, in the case of Jacobs a daughter – having come on Aliya many years ago. In recent years, especially following his retirement, Sacks has made an effort to reach out to the Israeli world, with some of his books translated into Ivrit and he has appeared to packed out speaking engagements on his many visits to the country. Jacobs is perhaps less well known to the Israeli community, again due to the technological limitations of the period in which he wrote. One can well imagine how his famous weekly Talmud shiur, attended by hundreds from throughout London, would have been broadcasted and streamed throughout the world had he been living and teaching thirty years later.

Had the Jacobs Affair never taken place, had he retracted some of the comments deemed to be inappropriate by the self appointed guardians of the faith at the time (some of whom had little real understanding of what the argument was all about), from the earlier version of his seminal book “We have Reason to Believe”, it is reasonable to assume that Jacobs would eventually have replaced Rabbi Brodie as British Chief Rabbi in the 1960’s. Would he have been a man of his times? Would Anglo Jewry have taken a different turn (as is sometimes argued) – that is one of the “if” questions of history which remains  unanswerable. Clearly, the intervening Chief rabbi, Lord Immanuel Jakobovitz who had much to learn from the Jacobs Affair and who did his utmost to quieten the controversy during his long tenure, must also have played a role in passing on the message to the young Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as he was eventually groomed to replace him in the early 1990’s. Ironically there is a strong likelihood that even if Jacobs had become the Chief Rabbi, it would still have been Jonathan Sacks who would have eventually replaced him, as he would have probably been the closest to Jacobs from an intellectual modern orthodox standpoint.

I was privileged to know both of them, albeit superficially. My father was one of the few orthodox Rabbis who supported Louis Jacobs at the time of the Jacobs Affair, and they often met for brief discussions. My father also agreed, at Jacobs request but with much United Synagogue (his employer) disapproval to teach Talmud to the aspiring Reform Rabbinate in our home in the Barnet neighbourhood of Greater London, where he served as  the community Rabbi. One of my treasured pictures is that of my father with Louis Jacobs in an intense discussion at the garden party which my parents held shortly after their retirement and their coming to live in Jerusalem in 1989.

Rabbbi Louis Jacobs in deep discussion with the authors father Rabbi Isaac Newman, 1989 Picture source – David Newman

During the past decade, travelling a great deal between Israel and the UK, I have also been privileged  to attend many of Lord Sack’s speeches and seminars. I particularly enjoyed the informal and often impromptu discourses which took place on a late Shabat afternoon at the Seudah Shlishit, with a relatively small and intimate audience in attendance, in the St Johns Wood synagogue. I also had the honour of hosting Lord Sacks at Ben-Gurion University in 2011 when he received a prestigious ecumenical award for his theological writings. Sack’s greatest joy of that day, as he often told me,  was his meeting and discussion with foremost Jewish philosopher, Professor Yaakov (Gerry) Blidstein, Israel prize recipient, at the dinner following the event, rather than the award (one of so many) itself.

Lord sacks with Israel Prize Recipient professor Yaakov Blidstein at a dinner honouring him at Ben-Gurion University. Picture source – David Newman

It is not the purpose of this article to suggest one was greater, or somehow more legitimate, than the other. Each was an intellectual giant in their own right and not really that far from each other in terms of their theology. Each was a person of his time, influenced by the social and political challenges and constraints of the ever evolving and dynamic global Jewish community. Anglo Jewry can be proud of having been the heartland from whence they emerged.

May thousands be influenced and inspired by their teachings in the generations to come. And may the Anglo Jewish community throw up a third, as yet unknown, luminary who will take on their mantle into the future.

About the Author
David Newman is professor of Geopolitics in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. BIO: David Newman holds the University Research Chair of Geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University, where he founded the Department of Politics and Government, and the Centre for the Study of European Politics and Society (CSEPS) , and served as Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences from 2010-2016. Professor Newman received the OBE in 2013 for his work in promoting scientific cooperation between Israel and the UK. From 1999-2014 he was chief editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. David Newman moved to Israel from the UK in 1982. In 2017 he was selected as one of the 100 most influential immigrants to Israel from the UK. His work in Geopolitics focuses on the changing functions and roles of borders, and territorial and border issues in Israel / Palestine. For many years Newman was involved in Track II dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians.He has additional research interests in Anglo Jewish history, and is a self declared farbrent Tottenham Yid.
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