The Controversy Surrounding My Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 13 juli 2018

In memory of Rabbi Emanuel Quint, z"l. A great Teacher in Israel

Several of my Orthodox (rabbinical) friends and opponents have called on me not to accept an invitation by the Friends of Louis to give a lecture next Sunday (July 15) in London on the future of Orthodox Halacha. Similarly, they tell me not to participate the next day, in a panel discussion about my lecture, with Conservative (in England referred to as Masorti) and possibly Reform rabbis. They believe it is wrong, and damaging to Orthodox Judaism, if I participate in this "non-Orthodox" forum, which they see as "enemy territory."

In order to explain why I consider it an honor to deliver this lecture, let me give you some background on the "Louis Jacobs Affair", which shook British Jewry in the 1960s, the effects of which continue to reverberate to this day, and which is the impetus for this invitation.

Education and Careers
Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was born in Manchester, into a traditional but not fully Orthodox Jewish Family. He decided to study at the Manchester Yeshiva and was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at the age of 21. He then studied at the famous ultra-Orthodox Gateshead Kolel, an institute for advanced Talmudic studies. (I studied in Gateshead Yeshiva for eight years.) Following his kolel years, he served as assistant rabbi at the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash (Munk's). In 1948, Rabbi Jacobs was appointed rabbi of Manchester Central Synagogue, and six years later took the pulpit at the New West End Synagogue, London, for a number of years. He resigned to become Moral Tutor and Lecturer at Jews' College, the main rabbinical and teacher-training institute affiliated with the United Synagogue, which is the constitutional authority of almost all Orthodox synagogues in Britain. Due to his outstanding Talmudic and general scholarship, he was a candidate to become principal of Jews' College in the early 1960s. He was also asked to become the chief rabbi of Amsterdam but declined because of the language barrier.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Jacobs had studied part-time at University College London where he received his Ph.D. in 1952, and where he was introduced to Biblical Criticism. He slowly became convinced that the belief in Torah as being entirely divine (often called "Torah min haShamayim”) – in the classical sense of the word – as mainstream Orthodox Judaism claimed, was erroneous.

During his tenure at the New West End Synagogue, and while teaching at Jews' College, he published the book We Have Reason to Believe (1957), in which he discussed topics including: the existence of God; pain; miracles; the afterlife; and the idea of the Chosen People. The book was heralded in Orthodox circles, including Mizrachi, as sound and helpful. While most of the essays were in no way controversial, four years after its publication, chapters 6, 7 and 8 suddenly sparked fierce debate in the Orthodox community and beyond. The debate was centered on blocking the probable appointment of Louis Jacobs as principal of Jews' College in 1961. It was in these chapters that Rabbi Jacobs suggested a synthesis between modern Biblical Criticism and traditional Judaism. He argued that while the word of God was to be found in the biblical text, it was also the result of human intervention. It was composed from many different documents that were influenced by external forces and cultures. He believed that the Orthodox Jew could accept the conclusions of Biblical Criticism while still remaining completely observant, and fully believing in the divinity of the Torah but in a different and non-literal way. In fact, he believed that intellectually honest Orthodox Jews had no other option but to accept the results of these academic studies.

When former British Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie (1895-1979) became embroiled in the conflict and involved in the future of Jews' College, he blocked Rabbi Jacobs' appointment as principal due to his "heretical" views. When Rabbi Jacobs was invited to return to his pulpit at the New West End Synagogue, the chief rabbi vetoed this as well. The United Synagogue Board dismissed the honorary officers of the New West End, who then left the congregation with the majority of members to found the independent New London Synagogue. They appointed Rabbi Jacobs as their rabbinical leader.

The Louis Jacobs affair
In the meantime, the "Louis Jacobs Affair" turned into a fierce national discussion in which not only the famous Jewish Chronicle and the Orthodox Jewish Tribune got involved but also the non-Jewish press and media (including British radio and television), and even some church leaders. As a result, Rabbi Jacobs was unofficially rejected from the Orthodox community and later affiliated himself with the American Conservative movement. In England, a new informal organization was formed in 1995 called the Masorti movement.

Rabbi Jacobs wrote many articles and books on Jewish religious topics, displaying his remarkable erudition, and kept defending himself against his opponents. This is true specifically concerning his views on the divinity of the Torah and the development of Halacha. (See his extraordinary A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law, second edition, Littman Library, 2000.)

Throughout his life, Rabbi Jacobs lived as a fully Orthodox Jew and was a fervent believer. He strongly opposed the ideas of "secular Judaism" as well as the Reform and Reconstructionist movements in the United States.

In December 2005, the Jewish Chronicle proclaimed him the greatest British Jew since the beginning of the 350-year-old Jewish community in Britain. He himself considered this "daft".

Torah Min HaShamayim
As I explained in my two-hour lecture on the divinity of the Torah, at the Dan Panorama Hotel in June 2017 and again last December at the Limmud Conference in Birmingham, England, I do not agree with some of Rabbi Jacobs' conclusions. I am well-read in academic Biblical scholarship, yet I have no problem intellectually with the claim that the Torah is entirely divine, although it is impossible to prove this, just as it is impossible to prove that it is not entirely divine.

However, I also believe that the authentic Orthodox view on this topic is very different from what most Orthodox Jews believe. The great Kabbalistic and Chassidic thinkers showed, through their daring ideas, that there is a completely different yet acceptable approach that, without compromising, can maintain belief in the divinity of the entire Torah even without the need to argue with Bible critics.

The Problem of Religious Passion
The biggest problem with Rabbi Jacobs' approach is perhaps the question of religious passion. There is no doubt that ultra-Orthodox Jews show an enormous zeal for Judaism because they are convinced that all of the Torah is divine and all the commandments are the will of God as expressed by Him verbally at Sinai. They are prepared to give their lives for this belief. Any tempering of this conviction often leads to a lukewarm approach to "shemirat ha-mitzvot" (the observance of the commandments). This problem even exists in some sections of Modern Orthodoxy. My understanding is that Rabbi Jacobs was fully aware of this and had no satisfactory solution, but would not compromise his search for what he believed was the truth.

The Future of Orthodox Halacha
At the upcoming Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture next Sunday, I will discuss the question of Halacha and halachic renewal from the perspective of what I understand to be the correct Orthodox position. (I cannot think of a worse word to describe Judaism than "orthodox," which refers to strict, overly dogmatic fundamentalism and completely misrepresents the very foundations on which Judaism stands. There is nothing orthodox about Orthodox Judaism!)

While I stand in awe of Rabbi Jacobs' masterpiece, The Tree of Life, I do not agree with some of his ideas on how or why Halacha should develop in the way he suggests. In fact, I will show that some ultra-Orthodox thinkers were even more radical than Rabbi Jacobs but remained completely committed to Orthodox Halacha and the belief in Torah from Heaven. (These ideas are different from the ones I discuss in my latest book: Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, Urim Publications, 2018).

An Honor
It is therefore a great honor to be able to deliver this lecture at the request of the Friends of Louis As an Orthodox Jew, I feel it is my duty to stand up for what I believe is genuine Orthodox Judaism, without denying that my reading of it is different from what some of my Orthodox colleagues maintain. I remind my readers that there are tens if not hundreds of different readings of Orthodox Judaism, such as those of Maimonides (c. 1135-1204) in his Guide for the Perplexed and Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi (1075-1141) in his famous Kuzari. An even more drastic view of Orthodoxy is described by Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, also known as Gersonides (1288-1344), who denied God's foreknowledge when discussing human free will, and denied that God created the world ex nihilo (Sefer Milchamot HaShem).

Not accepting the invitation is, in my eyes, a form of cowardice. It is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary Orthodoxy when some of its members and leaders call on me to decline to give this lecture, or attack me at other times for what they believe are "non-kosher views and halachic solutions", which in most cases shows that they are not familiar enough with Talmudic and later sources.

The same is true regarding Rabbi Jacobs. To call him a traitor and destroyer of Judaism, as some have done, is entirely missing the point. All he wanted was to give a boost to Orthodox Judaism on an intellectual level. He may have been mistaken in his views, but nobody can accuse him of being dishonest or out to undermine Judaism.

Such views display symptoms of fear, helplessness, and miscalculation. Anyone who believes that by refusing to give the type of lecture for which I was invited, we will convince anyone of the truth of Orthodoxy is terribly misguided. Such ideas have faded into flickering embers that have lost all meaning. It only convinces people that Orthodox Jews are afraid of any confrontation with those who think differently. Throughout my entire life as a teacher of Judaism, I have learned a lot from my opponents, and I'm sure I will continue to do so, even if I don't always agree with their views.

The enormous loss of prestige suffered by Orthodoxy over the past few centuries, due to its failure to understand what was happening with the spiritual condition of our people, and the crisis into which religious faith has plunged, is beyond description. The price that Orthodoxy pays for this failure is one of the saddest chapters in modern Jewish history.

It is our duty to return Orthodoxy to its grandeur, to its astonishing ideas, to its courage to change where change is required, without compromising the word of the living God.

I sometimes get the feeling that I am a stronger believer in genuine Orthodox Judaism than those who oppose my participation and ideas.

Real Orthodox Judaism has infinite courage. It dares and never avoids any obstacle or critique. It enjoys a good fight so that it can enrich itself.

It will be an honor to speak for the Friends of Louis I look forward to giving this lecture and discussing my ideas with those who differ with me. It will be a great joy.

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