Commentary Magazine

The Jacobs Affair

The fundamentalist tenet that God actually dictated the whole Torah—including the Talmud—verbatim and in its authorized text to Moses on Mount Sinai would seem an unlikely matter over which the passions of contemporary Jews could be inflamed. Yet the prosperous and relatively urbane Jewish community of England was recently split into two warring camps in a dispute over precisely this tenet. For the offense of having called it into question, Dr. Louis Jacobs, one of the most prominent of the younger Orthodox rabbis in England, was hounded out of the United Synagogue, the country's largest and hitherto most latitudinarian synagogal organization. As a further consequence, the management committee of Jacobs's congregation—made up of some of the most distinguished figures in public and Jewish life—was removed from office by the United Synagogue's governing council. In the course of the struggle this council combined with the Rabbinical establishment (which is composed mainly of recent immigrant stock) to rout the old patrician Anglo-Jewish families who had founded the United Synagogue and previously dominated it.

The Jacobs affair was significant on various levels. As a theological dispute, it involved a clash between fundamentalism and revision, reform, modernization—there seems to be no neutral word for religious change. As an exercise in ecclesiastical politics, it was worthy of a C.P. Snow novel, presenting as it did the spectacle of moderate reformers being out-maneuvered by diehards with greater political zeal and fewer scruples. Finally, and most importantly, it was a symptom of a deep and persistent crisis within the Anglo-Jewish community. For the passions aroused by the Jacobs affair indicated to what a large extent the process of Anglicization is felt by many people to be a threat to Jewish survival itself.


Orthodoxy in England is by no means limited to “Torah-true” Jews, as those who are Orthodox in the American sense frequently call themselves; the latter account for only about 10 per cent of the membership of the United Synagogue.1 A second group within that organization is roughly comparable to the right-wing of American Conservative Judaism, but most members of the United Synagogue do not fall into either of these categories. For them, Orthodoxy simply means residual Jewishness, an unwillingness to break away completely from the religious community, combined with an insufficient concern with religious matters to affiliate with Reform or Liberal Judaism.2 The United Synagogue officiates at bar-mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals; it provides minimal religious instruction and serves as a focus for whatever communal life there is. That is all that most of its members ask. Only about 10 per cent of them regularly attend Sabbath services, and half of those who do drive to synagogue. It is doubtful whether a majority observes kashrut in the home.

Thus Britain's pattern of synagogue affiliation differs considerably from that of the United States, even though the Jews of both countries come from similar backgrounds and enjoy similar levels of economic achievement and acculturation. The difference can be traced to the role of the old patrician Anglo-Jewish families who founded the United Synagogue in 1870 as a Jewish equivalent to the Church of England. These families—the Rothschilds, the Montagues, the Samuels, etc.—were rarely observant Jews, but they gave their names, money, and time—in approximately that order—to the United Synogogue out of a sense of duty: it was the thing to do for any English gentleman who happened to be “of the Jewish faith.” Being more or less indifferent to religious matters, they had no objection to the nominally Orthodox nature of the United Synagogue. Paradoxically enough, therefore, the United Synagogue was for decades led by men who neither believed in its doctrines nor practiced its rituals.

The changes which finally culminated in the Jacobs affair were slow to occur and slower to be noticed. After 1880, masses of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe streamed into England—and into the United Synagogue—coming finally to constitute a majority. However, even after they had found their feet economically and politically, they remained culturally and psychologically far less Anglicized than the old families.

Neither group really understood the other. The patricians considered themselves “Englishmen of the Jewish faith” (an adequate enough description) and expected the immigrants to become more and more like them as they became less and less “foreign.” The immigrants, however, had never been Poles or Russians of the Jewish faith, but always Jews of the Jewish faith. Now, in England, they regarded themselves as the only authentic Jews; the old families simply seemed de-Judaized. (There were, to be sure, many among the newcomers who wished no more than to become Englishmen or Anglicized Jews, but they were by the nature of things the ones least active in communal life.) As their numbers and power increased, the “authentic” Jews came increasingly to resent the domination of communal and synagogue life by the “inauthentic” old families. Meanwhile, the process of Anglicization began to work on the children of the immigrants, eroding religious observance and Jewish identification, and confirming the “authentic” Jews in their suspicion of all aspects of assimilation, as well as in their opposition to patrician rule.

In the course of time, a number of new synagogues, all belonging to or affiliated with the United Synagogue, were established in Jewish middle-class and lower-middle-class neighborhoods. These congregations, composed almost entirely of new families, were usually run by the more devout among them—the element most hostile to the rule of the old families. The new synagogue officers, however, were not alone in this hostility. They found an ally in the growing class of professional religious functionaries (rabbis, dayyanim, kashrut and shechitah supervisors, beadles, kosher butchers and caterers, Hebrew teachers, etc.) who also strongly favored “the old-time religion,” and who resented their subordination to undevout, unlearned Jews. The alliance was further strengthened by the influx of militantly Orthodox refugees from Central and Eastern Europe in the 30's and 40's, and by a group of newly rich Jews of East European stock who in some cases were a good deal wealthier than many of the old families, without, however, having been socially accepted by them.

It was this coalition which last year proved too much for the then President of the United Synagogue Council, the Hon Ewen Montagu, a judge and the scion of a family which had been ennobled before the First World War. Montagu surrendered his post to Sir Isaac Wolfson, a multi-millionaire of the new class, in the hope that Wolf-son's wealth and standing among the “new men” would allow him to control an increasingly rebellious Council. The Jacobs affair began under Montagu's presidency; with the election of Wolf-son, the stage was set for its culmination.


Dr. Louis Jacobs, the favorite son of modern Orthdoxy, has an unusual background. Though born into a non-religious working-class family in Manchester, he became devoutly religious as a boy, and eventually studied at a yeshiva and then at Jews' College (the seminary jointly maintained by the United Synagogue and other London synagogal organizations). Nor was his education confined to Jewish studies; he also managed to acquire a thorough grounding in philosophy, psychology, and comparative religion. In 1954, at the age of thirty-four, he was called to the pulpit of the New West End Synagogue in London's fashionable Bayswater district, where his erudition, piety, and zeal made an immediate impact. He was especially adept in dealing with the skepticism of the Oxbridge-educated younger generation, being able—unlike many rabbis—to offer them more than admonitions and platitudes. And his success with the young was especially important to an older generation whose main concern was that their children might drift away completely from Judaism and even “marry out.”

This concern is by no means peculiar to the old families, who have generally worked out a viable Identity as English Jews over the years. As a matter of fact, it mainly plagues the second-generation English Jews, who are still in the midst of an exciting but unsettling transition from one identity to another, and for many of whom “Jew” still seems an alternative to “Englishman.” Themselves the products of an Orthodox upbringing by parents who really meant it, they have tried to pass on as much as possible to their children, but they lack the wholehearted belief without which Orthodoxy loses its power. While the diehard Orthodox still hope to bring their sons up to be as strictly Orthodox as they themselves are, the second-generation parents of Bayswater know that only a Judaism that is English and modern, yet able to match Christianity in spiritual fervor, can maintain its hold on the third generation. Under other circumstances they might have turned to Reform or Liberal synagogues, but with Rabbi Jacobs in the pulpit of the New West End Synagogue, they were spared the necessity of breaking with their past affiliations. They could enjoy the best of both worlds: a congregation sedately Anglo-Jewish and yet nominally Orthodox.

Jacobs's writings, especially We Have Reason to Believe and Principles of the Jewish Faith, have as their primary intention an effort to restate traditional Judaism in terms that seem plausible to the 20th-century mind. Operating on the assumption that Judaism is fully consistent with reason, Jacobs raises major objections to only three of Maimonides's thirteen articles of faith. First, he questions the Mosaic authorship, Sinaitic origin, and textual accuracy of the writings after the Pentateuch, though accepting them as works of divine revelation. Second, he rejects the belief in physical resurrection, though affirming the soul's survival after death. And, finally, he disputes the concept of punishment in the world to come. At the same time, he differs from Reform and Liberal Judaism on a number of important questions. For example, he places a high value on consensus, continuity, and the avoidance of abrupt changes which, he says, can serve only to bewilder the faithful; he also lays an almost Jungian stress on the therapeutic importance of ritual, justifying the continued observance of even those practices which in his view are based on a misreading of the Bible (e.g., the prohibition of mixing milk with meat); and he hopes—ironically, as things turned out—for a “Catholic Israel” united under the “broad umbrella” of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy.

Whereas Jacobs regarded his writings as a necessary reinterpretation of Judaism for the modern believer, the fundamentalists saw them as the beginning of apostasy—and so did the second-generation families in the suburbs, where Orthodoxy faces a different challenge than in Bayswater and other fashionable districts. The young people in these suburban congregations do not go to public schools or to Oxford and Cambridge and hence are in no danger from the intellectual Christianity fashionable in those places; what endangers their Jewish identification is the secularism of English society in general. To their parents, Jacobs seemed just one more threat to the old way of life. More specifically, they feared that his writings would undermine the authority of the Chief Rabbi and of the whole synagogue.


The Jacobs affair proper began in 1959, when Jacobs accepted an appointment as Tutor of Jews' College, with the understanding that he would eventually replace the principal, who was shortly due to retire. At the time, Jews' College was in dire straits, faced with a declining enrollment, and possessing neither the academic resources of a university nor the fervor of a yeshiva. The officers of the college, headed by Sir Alan Mocatta, a judge and a member of an old Sephardic family, hoped that Jacobs could do for Jews' College what he had done for the New West End Synagogue. They had reason to understand that Jacobs's future appointment as principal would secure the Chief Rabbi's consent, as the college's constitution requires, though they did not actually have a commitment from him.

The Chief Rabbi, Dr. Israel Brodie, is today castigated as the villain of the piece by supporters of Jacobs, and hailed as the champion of Orthodoxy by the very fundamentalists who had once scorned him as an “imitation clergyman.” Dr. Brodie was appointed Chief Rabbi in 1948 because he was considered safe, tolerant, and unlikely to cause embarrassment. British-born and Oxford-educated, he is of distinguished appearance and has a good speaking voice and accent. Moreover, he served as chaplain to the armed forces in both World Wars. In the 50's, however, he came increasingly under the influence of the fundamentalists and began to fulminate against Reform and Liberal Judaism, which he described as “no Judaism at all and the greatest danger to Jewish survival.” Previously he had mellifluously pleaded for toleration; now he joined the Orthodox rabbinate in refusing to participate with Reform or Liberal ministers in any function whatsoever, even under the auspices of the Council of Christians and Jews, where he had once pleaded for interfaith harmony. Furthermore, he refused to worship at synagogues which employed mixed choirs, and he forbade microphones and the use of the Sephardit (modern Israeli) accent at services.

Had Brodie either opposed or approved Jacobs's appointment from the start, events would have taken a different course. Instead he sat tight, hoping that the problem would solve itself. (At one point it seemed that Jacobs would accept one of the attractive offers he was getting from Conservative institutions in the United States.) The stalemate at Jews' College continued for two years. Brodie would not approve Jacobs's appointment as principal; the officers of the college would not appoint anyone else. In December 1961, after pressure on Brodie from various sources, including the influential Jewish Chronicle, had proved ineffective, Jacobs relinquished his tutorship, whereupon all the honorary officers of Jews' College but one resigned in protest. The fundamentalists had won the round.

For a time it seemed that the Jacobs affair had run its course and that Brodie's term of office—he was due to retire in 1965—might draw to a peaceful if ineffectual close. But it was not to be. In 1963, Rabbi Pearl, Jacobs's successor at the New West End Synagogue and a man who shared Jacobs's views but was more discreet in expressing them, accepted an appointment in the United States. The management committee acted to return Rabbi Jacobs (then busying himself with the Society for the Study of Jewish Theology, newly founded by his supporters within the United Synagogue) to his old post. According to the United Synagogue constitution, ministers must be certified as proper persons by the Chief Rabbi before they take up an appointment. The management committee, however, argued that this was not an appointment but a re-appointment, and that neither the letter nor the spirit of the constitution required the re-certification of Rabbi Jacobs. Sir Isaac Wolfson held otherwise, and referred the application to Brodie who, predictably enough, refused to certify Jacobs.

Three months later, when the Jacobs affair had caught the attention of the national press, Rabbi Brodie attempted to justify his decision: “Those who are appointed rabbis and teachers of communities must by their very vocations and terms of their ordination as rabbis be the exponents of God's word embodied in the Torah, written and oral, with the sanction and authority attached thereto.” The Chief Rabbi's pronouncement marked the first time that acceptance of fundamentalist tenets was made a condition of appointment in the United Synagogue. The significance of Brodie's dictum becomes clear when one remembers that the constitution describes the United Synagogue spirit as one of “progressive conservatism,” and that three-quarters of its members believe in nothing beyond a vague deism. Since Jacobs's views were already well known in 1959, when he joined Jews' College without any protest by Brodie, this statement was conclusive evidence that a decisive “swing to the right” had taken place.

The management committee reacted to Dr. Brodie's rebuff by calling a members' meeting of the New West End Synagogue in the course of which an overwhelming majority of members voted to invite Jacobs back over the Chief Rabbi's ban. In response to this, Wolfson hurriedly summoned the United Synagogue Council to consider a motion removing the management committee from office. The meeting was a triumph for Wolfson and Brodie, particularly the former. Though they encountered intense opposition—led by Edmund de Rothschild, scion of the United Synagogue's founders and past presidents, and by some of the most famous names in Anglo-Jewry, including Sir Bernard Waley-Cohen, a former Lord Mayor of London—the victory went to Wolfson, the self-made millionaire who declared himself a “traditional” Jew acting for all “traditional” Jews.

It has been said that Wolfson's insistence on a show of hands as against a closed ballot was decisive for the outcome of the vote (120 to 90 in favor of the motion). A number of delegates either work for Wolfson, do business with him—particularly his chain-stores—or hope to in the future, and perhaps voted against their convictions rather than incur his displeasure. This may well be true, but it does not detract from Wolfson's victory. On the contrary, it shows how far the balance of power in the community has changed, with the new money overtaking the old, or with wealth now counting for more than the social distinction of the old families.


While it is clear that Wolfson, Brodie, and their supporters won a great victory—shaking all of Anglo-Jewry in the process—one might nevertheless question the long-run value of their triumph, for their control of the United Synagogue may well result in a decline in its power and usefulness. Since being removed, the management committee of the New West End Synagogue and a majority of the congregants have founded their own independent New London Synagogue, headed by Rabbi Jacobs. The new congregation is attracting wide support and has just acquired permanent buildings. Some who for years had been on the brink of defecting from Orthodoxy have been shocked by the Jacobs affair into joining Reform or Liberal synagogues. Others admit frankly that all that keeps them in the United Synagogue is the fear of losing the right to be buried in its cemeteries. Most English Jews do not believe in the doctrine of complete Sinaitic revelation, but many were quite happy to share the “broad umbrella” of the United Synagogue with those who did. Now that the Chief Rabbi has declared the doctrine compulsory, he has forced large numbers of these people to examine their own beliefs and to draw the necessary conclusions.

It is, of course, conceivable that Rabbi Brodie's successor will reverse this trend and effect a reconciliation, but there are two factors that make such an outcome improbable. First, the next Chief Rabbi will be chosen by Sir Isaac Wolfson, and secondly, the fundamentalists, having tasted blood, are not likely to become more conciliatory. Nevertheless, time is working against the fundamentalists. The security and prosperity which the younger generation has known from birth is not conducive to religious fervor, obsessive devotion to ritual, and intolerance toward other Jews. These youths, who will eventually constitute a majority, are likely to ask for a Judaism which does not unduly separate them from their Gentile compatriots, which makes use of ritual but is not dominated by it, and which provides moral and intellectual edification that is relevant to life in 20th-century Britain. Before the Jacobs affair, it was thought that such a Judaism was obtainable under the “broad umbrella” of the United Synagogue. If, however, this body becomes increasingly indistinguishable from an ultra-Orthodox organization, it will lose a great many of its members.

If the younger generation should follow in the footsteps of the substantial number of professional men and patricians who have already made their way into Reform and Liberal synagogues, the Jacobs affair will have contributed to the “Americanization” of English synagogue organzation by creating a division along the lines of Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform. Unfortunately, however, there is no certainty that Jews who find the United Synagogue uncongenial will join another organization. Even now, some half of all Jewish families are unaffiliated with any synagogue; had it not been for the past structure of the United Synagogue, that number would almost certainly be greater. Thus the Jacobs affair may bring about a general decline in the religious affiliation of England's Jews, and the fundamentalists will then have won a pyrrhic victory indeed.


1 As many again belong to purely Orthodox—“Torah-true”—synagogal groupings which have never recognized the Chief Rabbi's authority.

2 The English equivalent of American Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism. What the English call Reform is comparable to left-wing Conservatism in America. Reform and Liberal Judaism together account for some 10 per cent of synagogue membership in Greater London, and even less in the provinces.

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