We have a new PhD written on Jacobs by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove. I want to look in some depth at the section on the late 1940s and 50s, Jacobs as a very young man, long before he came to
As a young man Laibl Jacobs, as he was known, wanted more intense Jewish study than he could find in his native
There is one young man, a product of Manchester (he is the only native product) and it is no exaggeration for me to say that hitherto, I have never seen an ilui [genius in Talmud] of such great depth together with other strengths in anyone … he truly is a great one.
It’s clear Jacobs was to be groomed to be a great leader in the classic Lithuanian mold, but something about the all-immersive experience of Lithuanian scholarship failed to move Jacobs. His diary from the time reads as follows
I had a discussion Rabbi Dessler as to how far we are bound to the ideas and outlook of life of the Talmudic Giants of Lithuania and
You can feel Jacobs pulling against the reins of a suffocating system, he leaves Gateshead and heads back to
I certainly enjoyed [the teaching] immensely and I believe they [enjoyed the learning] too, even though I was suspect because I was clean-shaven and worse, wore my hair long in front, which is utterly wrong in Hasidic eyes both because it is said to be evidence of arrogance and vanity and, more especially, because long hair in the place of the head tefillin is said to [present a problem]. Perhaps … they were amazed to find an ordinary boy with a working-class background sufficiently familiar with the Talmud to teach it at a Hasidic synagogue.
You can see, even in the mid 1940s, Jacobs’ non-conformity shining through. As well as teaching in strictly orthodox environments he also teaches at Bnei Akiva, modern orthodox, Zionist, anathema to the Lithuanians. He writes in his diary that one of the local ultra-orthodox leaders expresses concern that he is teaching at Bnei Akiva.
‘I am told [a local] Gadol remarked with severe disapproval of my teaching at the Bnai Akiba. It is so very difficult to be a “Yid” [Jew] with everyone and I see no reason to try to do so. I suppose that according to our Torah every man should do “what is right in his own eyes” and not care for what others ‘think.’ On the other hand I don’t know if it is very wise for me in my present position to awaken the distrust of the ultra-orthodox elements. Perhaps it would be more prudent and far wiser to watch my step especially when people like G.H. are about, but on the other hand I don’t know.’
Jacobs is training himself as a man who will not back down from doing what he feels is right, he is emerging as a man who is seeking for truths wherever they may be found, with a great love of Judaism, but open-minded. He feels something is missing from the Lithuanian approach, and so he applies for a degree, in
Every Sunday afternoon, the congregation’s intelligentsia would meet for philosophical discussions on Judaism … The discussions ranged far and wide. I did not know at what to be more astonished and admiring: their erudition, their faith or their thorough acquaintance with Western mores. It was an experience for Shula and me in beautiful homes to be served tea poured from silver tea-pots and delicious kosher pastries from exquisite china services.
And the sense is of a Rabbi who is becoming increasingly proud of the English nature of his Rabbinate. At UCL Jacobs is exposed to critical methodologies, his mind is trained to see how society and history impact of Jewish life. Even studying Talmud, even without entering into the far more contentious areas of who wrote the Bible Jacobs is developing an eye for Judaism’s history and development, it’s about human beings living in human societies, it’s not a burst of heavenly prophecy.
Jacobs goes back to
A year or two ago a process was discovered by means of which the paintings of the old masters in the National Gallery could be cleaned. At first there were shocked outcries of “sacrilege.” Many of those who protested seem to have considered the very grime that had accumulated through the ages to be an essential part of the pictures. The protest went unheeded, the pictures were cleaned, the grime removed, and new beauties formerly obscured, were revealed to the eye. We should keep this in mind in our approach to the renewal of Jewish life. We must never identify the dust of the ages with the living Jewish faith; but as traditional Jews, while attempting to remove this dust, we must ever be on our guard not to wreak irreparable damage to the picture of Judaism by removing its paint with our too vigorous cleansing.
More than the point Rabbi Jacobs makes, is the idiom he uses to make it. Minhag Anglia, explained with reference to the National Gallery.
Rabbi Jacobs’ Judaism, the Judaism which begat
How little has changed as the decades tick by. We remain, even these years after the passing of our founder, a community dedicated to living our Jewish life here, in
To our founder Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, HaRav haGaon laibl ben
Yehiye Zichrono Livracha
May his memory be a blessing