Sunday, 28 June 2009

In Memory of Rabbi Jacobs - on the occasion of his third Yartzheit

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 London, long before the Jacobs Affair is even a glimmer in the eye, long long before the foundation of this very special community. I’m very grateful to Rabbi Cosgrove for the opportunity to rely on his researches.


As a young man Laibl Jacobs, as he was known, wanted more intense Jewish study than he could find in his native Manchester. He thought of travelling to Lithuania, home of the most intense Yeshivot, in the 1930s, thankfully these plans were cancelled and instead Jacobs made the shorter trip to Gateshead, the closest thing in England to a classic Lithuanian Yeshiva. Despite the fact that the young Laibl had never studied in an environment like this he excelled almost instantly. The Yeshiva director, the famed Eliyahu Dessler, wrote of the young Jacobs;


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.[1]


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 Poland. It seemed to me that although they were the great scholars, many of their ideas are rather unpleasant and unsatisfactory. For example their attitude to secular studies…I know from personal experience that one can get a great deal of sound common sense, a more vivid outlook on life and a greater appreciation of the depth and wonder of life from secular studies. The outlook of many of the [Lithuanian masters] as expressed to me is altogether too na├»ve and unsophisticated for the twentieth century world. The term “narrow minded” has been much abused but I cannot help feeling that their outlook fails to enhance every aspect of life and it seems to narrow everything down to the four cubits of halakha. I know [Jacobs continues] the Talmudic saying of the rabbis “God only has the four cubits of Halakha,” but I feel that this has some other, wider interpretation than even that of Rabbi Dessler.[2]


You can feel Jacobs pulling against the reins of a suffocating system, he leaves Gateshead and heads back to Manchester where, one gets the sense that he enjoyed being someone who refused to fit simply into a pigeon hole. Too frum to be considered secular, but too secular to be considered frum. In his autobiography Jacobs writes of this time that he used to teach a regular Talmud shiur in a Hassdic shul.


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.[3]


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.’[4]


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 London, and moves to this great city. Here he finds culture, the like of which he hadn’t found in Manchester. He takes a position as assistant to Rabbi Eli Munk in a shul where, according to the autobiography,


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 Manchester to finish his PhD and finds himself caught in the middle of a power struggle between the Lithuanian style ultra-orthodox Dayan JJ Weiss and the more cosmopolitan Head of the Rabbinic Court, Alexander Altmann. Altmann, educated in Berlin, wanted to set up a series of steps to improve the decorum of High Holyday services in Manchester, nothing too obviously controversial; fixing the number of people to be called to the Torah, an allowance to read the Prayer for the Royal Family in English and the like. Weiss responded by forming ‘The Committee to Fight Reform’ and attacking these changes as harbingers of a Reform agenda. And Jacobs comes to the support of Altmann with an article entitled ‘Organic Growth vs Petrification,’ it doesn’t take much imagination to work out which side of his argument Jacobs comes out in favour of. And he takes up the cudgels on behalf of Judaism as an evolving, developing religion, he even writes in support of reciting Hallel on Israel Independence Day – it’s 1952. Judaism needs to change to keep up to date, says Jacobs, indeed it has always been thus. It’s a remarkable paper, and it ends with a truly remarkable analogy.


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.[5]


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 New London was a Judaism of its time and of this place. It was a Judaism which demanded a sensitivity to our tradition and the evolution of Judaism in dialogue with the societies in which Jews found themselves. It was a Judaism which required one to distance themselves from the great Torah scholars of the Lithuanian mould, blind as they were to anything outside the four cubits of halachah. And it was a Judaism that was dangerous, in the eyes of the Ultra-Orthodox. And it was a Judaism that Rabbi Jacobs defended with pride.


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 England, not Lithuania. We remain a community dedicated to living our life in dialogue with the broader society which surrounds us, inspired and grounded in our faith, but open-minded to learn from our surroundings. And we remain a community perceived as dangerous by the Ultra-orthodox. And we remain fiercely proud of our take on Judaism and fiercely proud of the legacy we have learnt from our founder Rabbi. This is our narrative, this is the story we seek to continue to tell and ketanti – small as I am – this is the story I commit myself to continuing to tell into the future.


To our founder Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, HaRav haGaon laibl ben


Yehiye Zichrono Livracha

May his memory be a blessing



[1] Miktav Eliyahu (1963) p. 166

[2] Teyku, PhD Dissertation of Elliot Cosgrove, p. 41 (slightly reworded)

[3] Helping With Enuqiries p.77

[4] Teyku p. 44

[5] Teyku p.79

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