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David Latchman

The Jacobs Affair: A Theological Storm from Within

A photograph of one conference of Orthodox Ministers together with Chief Rabbi Brodie (fifth left), with Louis Jacobs in attendance (standing fourth right).
A photograph of one conference of Orthodox Ministers together with Chief Rabbi Brodie (fifth left), with Louis Jacobs in attendance (standing fourth right).

In the Nineteenth Century, as I wrote in my last piece, both the Adler Chief Rabbis faced challenges from within the United Synagogue, as well as from movements both to the right and to the left. The most serious challenge from within the United Synagogue, however, came in the second half of the Twentieth Century and surprisingly, given the lack of interest by Anglo Jewry in such matters, it involved theological rather than ritual matters. I am referring, of course, to the so-called Jacobs Affair involving Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs (1920-2006).

The young Rabbi Jacobs was of unimpeachable Orthodoxy, serving as Rosh Yeshiva of Shaarei Tzion, of which Rabbi Munk (of the ultra-Orthodox Golders Green Beth Hamedrash) was the principal. At the opening of the Yeshiva, they were joined on the platform by both Dayan Abramsky, head of the London Beth Din and the former rabbi of the Machzike Hadaas community and Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, the presiding rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations (illustrated).

An invitation to the Official Opening Ceremony of the Yeshiva Shaare Zion, of which Louis Jacobs was to serve as its head. The most esteemed rabbinical leaders in London, including Dayan Abramsky and Rabbi Dr Schonfeld addressed the event.

Jacobs subsequently served as the rabbi of the Central Synagogue in Manchester and then of the New West End Synagogue in London, attending conferences of Orthodox Ministers together with Chief Rabbi Brodie (illustrated).

A photograph of one conference of Orthodox Ministers together with Chief Rabbi Brodie (fifth left), with Louis Jacobs in attendance (standing fourth right).

In 1959, Jacobs left the New West End to join Jews’ College, expecting that he would become Principal on the retirement of Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein. However, before this could happen, Chief Rabbi Brodie’s attention was drawn to a book Rabbi Jacobs had published in 1957. In this book, entitled “We have Reason to Believe,” Rabbi Jacobs indicated that he did not believe in the Orthodox religious doctrine that every word of the Torah was given directly by the Almighty to Moses. It was therefore indicated to Jacobs that he would not be appointed as Principal, news which prompted him to resign his appointment at the College.

Coincidentally, his old job at the New West End Synagogue was now vacant and the congregation extended a call for him to return which he accepted. However, Chief Rabbi Brodie had to ratify the appointment which he refused to do on the grounds that Jacobs’ views rendered him unfit to be a  rabbi of a United Synagogue.

An enormous, stormy controversy ensued, as documented in the media of the time and in Rabbi Brodie’s personal archive of the affair. The archive is in my possession and is a key piece within my collection. The Jewish Chronicle and perhaps the majority of United Synagogue Ministers supported Rabbi Jacobs while Chief Rabbi Brodie in his opposition was supported by the Dayanim, the President of the United Synagogue, Sir Isaac Wolfson, and by Rabbi Brodie’s future successor, Rabbi Dr Immanuel Jakobovits, who penned his objections from New York where he was Rabbi of Fifth Avenue Synagogue. Rabbi Jakobovits remarked how he was lobbying the leading Orthodox Rabbis in the USA on Rabbi Brodie’s behalf.

Ultimately, when the lay leaders of the New West End refused to rescind their call to Rabbi Jacobs, the United Synagogue Council dismissed them and replaced them with its own nominees (illustrated). This resulted in a breakaway congregation, with many members of the New West End separating from the United Synagogue and forming their own synagogue, the New London Synagogue (illustrated). The New London was the founding synagogue of the Masorti movement, a new religious movement in  Anglo Jewry serving as an intermediate between Orthodox and Reform. This completed the spectrum of different religions movements, whose controversial origins we have documented in the past.

The Agenda of a Special Council of the United Synagogue, 25th April 1964, to replace the nominees of the New West End Synagogye with its own ones.
The written resolution, 3rd May 1964, of the New West End Synagogue to separate from the United Synagogue and forming its own independent synagogue, the “New London Synagogue”.

It did not however, result in the break-up of the Centrist Orthodox United Synagogue, as was widely expected, mainly because its members had no particular interest in theological disputes on the origins of the Torah.

Prior to the controversy, Rabbi Jacobs was widely regarded as a leading candidate to succeed Rabbi Brodie as Chief Rabbi. It is interesting thus to speculate on how Anglo Jewry would look today if he had published “We have Reason to Believe” after becoming Chief Rabbi rather than a decade before Rabbi Brodie’s projected retirement.

About the Author
Professor David Latchman, CBE, is a leading UK academic, author, and philanthropist, and currently holds the position of Vice-Chancellor of Birkbeck University of London, having led the university since 2003. Latchman holds First-class Honours in Natural Sciences, a MA, and a PhD, and has completed a three-year post-doctoral fellowship at Imperial College London. He also has a DSc (higher doctorate) from the University of London.
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