Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

Remembering Rabbi Dr Irving Jacobs

Credit: Neve Shalom Synagogue's Website

Rabbi Dr Irving Jacobs, who passed away this week, was arguably British Jewry’s most inspirational academic teacher, a man who deserved far greater recognition than he received. His talent lay in a unique blend of easy-going humour, the enthusiasm that he showed for whatever topic he was teaching and an innate sense of how to connect with his students. Whether he was teaching a class of MA students or a group of casual learners in somebody’s house, he always left his audience feeling that they had learnt something of value, impatient for his next session, waiting to come back for more.

Irving Jacobs’s specialist subject was Midrash, a topic that seized his imagination long before it became popular. He wrote his PhD thesis on the Book of Job in Rabbinic Thought and spent thirty seven years teaching biblical interpretation at Jews’ College. He was appointed Principal in 1991, unfortunately retiring due to ill health three years later. He spent the rest of his career preaching at the David Ishag synagogue in Wembley and giving informal classes in communities and private homes in London. He published two books, The Midrashic Process in 2008 and the Impact of Midrash nine years later. Constrained by dyslexia, he said that he found it hard to write; had he been able to publish more he would almost certainly have been more widely recognised.

Of all the topics he taught, the one his former students most often recall is his analysis of the treatment of the Akedah in the midrashic work Bereshit Rabbah, the earliest commentary on the book of Genesis. Referring to Shalom Spiegel’s book The Last Trial he demonstrated how the midrash reworked the story to make Isaac complicit in his binding, a willing participant in his own near-sacrifice. He showed that the rabbis whose views are attested in the Midrash were aware that the early Christians had made use of elements of the Akedah story for their own purposes. And he demonstrated how this particular chapter of the Midrash sided with those rabbis who placed the Akedah at Rosh Hashana and not Pesach. And although all this is contained in just one of the 99 chapters of Bereshit Rabbah and therefore it may seem heavy and complicated, he taught it with a lightness that made it engaging and memorable.

I first met Irving Jacobs at St Johns Wood synagogue in the late 1960s. The synagogue was very formal in those days, when the choir sang the congregation was expected to stop praying and listen. Irving didn’t listen. He joined in; it was the kedushah, he was supposed to join in. The senior warden leant forward in his box and motioned him to be quiet.

Irving Jacobs would pepper his teaching with anecdotes. A favourite of his, possibly a little apocryphal, was when he was once sent to collect the cholent for shabbat lunch. As he told it, the local baker’s oven stayed warm throughout shabbat and local families would cook their cholents in it. Because there was no eruv the parents could not collect the cholent at lunch time, so they sent the kids who were not yet barmitzvah. Irving was carrying the cholent when he slipped, dropping it all over the street. He bent down, scooped it up off the pavement, placed it back in the pot and took it home. Nobody noticed. It tasted just fine.

Although he was an orthodox rabbi schooled in the contemporary academic tradition Irving Jacobs would insist that he was not a pluralist. As principal of Jews’ College he would teach anyone, but he would not train those who might take their learning into a non-orthodox community. But his was a tolerant, non-pluralistic orthodoxy. When he published his first book, The Midrashic Process, he could have followed the traditional route and sought approbations from other orthodox rabbis. But there are only two testimonials on the back cover of the book. One from Rabbi Louis Jacobs (no relation). The other from Hyam Maccoby, orthodox himself but the librarian of the Reform seminary, Leo Baeck College.

Irving Jacobs belonged to that small band of scholars who had the ability to teach Judaism in a way that was both interesting and fun. His name may not appear on the rather short list of high profile British rabbis. But in his long career he inspired, enthused and entertained hundreds, perhaps thousands. May his memory be for a blessing.

Harry Freedman’s latest book is Reason to believe, a biography of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs. His next book, Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius will be published by Bloomsbury in October 2021.

About the Author
My latest book, Reason to Believe is the authorised biography of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs. Louis Jacobs was Britain’s most gifted Jewish scholar. A Talmudic genius, outstanding teacher and accomplished author, cultured and easy-going, he was widely expected to become Britain’s next Chief Rabbi. Then controversy struck. The Chief Rabbi refused to appoint him as Principal of Jews’ College, the country’s premier rabbinic college. He further forbade him from returning as rabbi to his former synagogue. All because of a book Jacobs had written some years earlier, challenging from a rational perspective the traditional belief in the origins of the Torah. The British Jewish community was torn apart. It was a scandal unlike anything they had ever previously endured. The national media loved it. Jacobs became a cause celebre, a beacon of reason, a humble man who wouldn’t be compromised. His congregation resigned en masse and created a new synagogue for him in Abbey Road, the heart of fashionable 1970s London. It became the go-to venue for Jews seeking reasonable answers to questions of faith. A prolific author of over 50 books and hundreds of articles on every aspect of Judaism, from the basics of religious belief to the complexities of mysticism and law, Louis Jacobs won the heart and affection of the mainstream British Jewish community. When the Jewish Chronicle ran a poll to discover the Greatest British Jew, Jacobs won hands down. He said it made him feel daft. Reason To Believe tells the dramatic and touching story of Louis Jacobs’s life, and of the human drama lived out by his family, deeply wounded by his rejection. Reason to Believe was published by Bloomsbury Continuum in November 2020 in the UK and will be published on 12 January 2021 in the USA. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at www.harryfreedmanbooks.com
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