In December 2005, Rabbi Louis Jacobs was voted ‘the greatest British Jew of all time’ in a poll run by the Jewish Chronicle, the communal weekly of UK Jewry. He easily beat such prominent figures of British Jewish history as Sir Moses Montefiore and Benjamin Disraeli. Who was Rabbi Jacobs, and what was the controversy that is always mentioned in connection to his name?
His Life (1920-2006)
Louis Jacobs was born in 1920 in Manchester where he went to high school and talmudical college. One of the brightest students at the yeshiva, he went on to undertake advanced rabbinical studies at the kollel of Gateshead. Having completed a PhD at University College London, he was appointed rabbi at Manchester Central Synagogue in 1948. A few years later, in 1954, he accepted the rabbinic pulpit offered to him by the New West End Synagogue in London.
As William Frankel, former editor of the Jewish Chronicle put it, Louis Jacobs ‘became the darling of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy and greatness was predicted for him. His rabbinic scholarship, wide reading, retentive memory and clarity of expression made him, while still in the very early years of his rabbinical career, talked about as a future Chief Rabbi.’
He published his book ‘We Have Reason to Believe’ in 1957 and this was the work that a few years later became the source of a major controversy within the central organization of British Jewry, the United Synagogue, of which Louis Jacobs was a rabbi.
In 1959 Rabbi Jacobs was offered a senior academic position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America but he eventually accepted an appointment at Jews’ College, London’s Orthodox rabbinical seminary, and resigning his rabbinical post at the New West End Synagogue, he became moral tutor at Jews’ college in 1960. When the principal of the institution retired a year later, many thought Rabbi Jacobs would be the obvious candidate for the position but Chief Rabbi Brodie did not give his approval, naming Jacobs’ above-mentioned book and the views presented therein as his reason. Rabbi Jacobs decided to resign his post at the college and went back to his former community who at that time had a vacancy for a rabbi.
However, he was barred from the synagogue in 1962 by the officials of the United Synagogue; this led to the defection of some of the leading members of New West End who decided to buy a synagogue in Abbey Road, St John’s Wood. There they founded an independent congregation, known as the New London Synagogue, with Louis Jacobs as its rabbi. Over the following decades, a small movement called Masorti [traditional] grew around him, almost in spite of himself, regarding him as its “spiritual leader”.
Apart from his pastoral, teaching and preaching duties at the New London Synagogue, Rabbi Jacobs mainly focused on his writing and lecturing. He was a visiting professor at the University of Lancaster from l987 and at Harvard Divinity School during the academic year l985-86.
A prolific author, Rabbi Jacobs wrote on a vast range of subjects relating to Jewish religious history, philosophy and theology. To get a glimpse of some of the topics he touched on, please visit our Articles page. He was a great Talmudic expert and his weekly Talmud lecture, to quote his obituary in the Times, ‘became a cult event and attracted devotees from all over London. They were spiced with quotations not only from Jewish religious but also from English literature, running through Shakespeare, Shaw and Shelley, for he had an encyclopaedic command of general as well as theological culture.’
Rabbi Jacobs passed away in July 2006, at the age of 85. The Masorti movement continues with a few thousand members and ten communities in and around London.