Reason To Believe
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.
In 2005 the Jewish Chronicle conducted a poll of its readers to mark 350 years since Oliver Cromwell allowed the Jews to return to England. The newspaper aimed to highlight the contribution made by the Jewish community to national life, by asking its readers to decide whom they thought had been the “Greatest British Jew”.
An initial field of nearly 100 names was whittled down to a short list of eight, from whom readers were asked to make a final choice. When Louis Jacobs won the competition, winning nearly twice as many votes as the nearest runner up, he said with characteristic modesty that he felt “both embarrassed and daft”.
Contributors to the Jewish Chronicle’s letters page were not so reticent. One naysayer described Jacobs as a “pariah” and “highly destructive”, whose victory was “bizarre and irrelevant”. Another correspondent thought that the poll results had made a “mockery of Anglo-Jewish history”. These remarks were condemned in a letter the following week as illustrative of “the festering tumour that is infecting Anglo-Jewry today”. But by far the largest number of letters simply celebrated his victory, correspondents writing of the “tears of joy” they had shed when they’d heard the news, praising his intellect and condemning the “obscurantists” who opposed him. Not for the first time in his career Louis Jacobs had unwittingly divided the community.
For his opponents, his victory was a reminder, if they cared, that by ostracising him all those years ago they had alienated a large part of their community, enhanced his scholarly reputation and guaranteed his popularity. But in the main they did not care. Religious certitude brooks no compromises.
For his supporters, Louis Jacobs’s victory was a vindication. For the best part of half a century he had been an outcast from the Orthodox community that had once hailed him as a genius, their brightest and most promising hope for the future. Spurned by those who could not reconcile his theology with the established creed, nor accept his refusal to compromise when it came to matters of the mind. Disparaged by former colleagues and students, who considered the conclusions he reached, through intellectual prowess and depth of learning, to threaten their traditions and the religious commitment of their congregations. They feared his reputation as a man of reason, a spiritual leader with his feet on the ground, a theologian who spoke the language of ordinary people, a polymath with a depth of knowledge unequalled in the British rabbinate. And perhaps most of all, since we are talking about Britain, an underdog who had been unfairly treated and who was, in words echoed by a Jewish Chronicle columnist, “the best Chief Rabbi we never had.”