In December 2005 Rabbi Louis Jacobs headed a poll as the greatest British Jew of all time since the return of the Jews to Britain 350 years ago. It was the final irony in a train of events starting almost half a century earlier, when as a young rabbi, he published a book in 1957 entitled We Have Reason to Believe, which went through five editions. The book proved to be unexpectedly controversial, its views dividing the Orthodox community.
Born in 1920, Louis Jacobs grew up in Manchester, where he attended the local rabbinical school and went for advanced studies to Gateshead. As a young man, he confessed, he was somewhat of a prig, burning a book given to him as abar mitzvah present because it mentioned evolution. A brilliant orator and teacher, he served as assistant minister at the ultra-Orthodox Munk's synagogue in Golders Green, and, by his mid-thirties, he occupied the pulpit of the New West End Synagogue, one of the most prestigious United Synagogue congregations.
Meanwhile he had studied for a part-time Semitics degree at University College London, where he was exposed to modern biblical scholarship and was later awarded his PhD. To Jacobs not every word of the Pentateuch was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, but was a composite work which had evolved over generations, yet which was none the less divinely inspired.
Despite the publication of his book, he was appointed a couple of years later as Moral Tutor at Jews' College and lecturer in homiletics with the understanding that he would fill the position of Principal on the retirement of Isidore Epstein. When this occurred in 1961, the then Chief Rabbi, Israel Brodie, under pressure from his rabbinical court and the retiring principal, refused to offer the position to Jacobs. He was declared unfit to occupy the vacancy because of his views.
Jacobs promptly resigned with Sir Alan Mocatta, the chairman of the college, setting up the Society for the Study of Jewish Theology, where he served as Director. This gave him a platform for making his ideas known, as he addressed audiences up and down the country. Added to this, he had the invaluable support of the main communal newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, and its influential editor William Frankel.
There was a second round to the "Jacobs Affair", when the pulpit of his former synagogue, the New West End, fell vacant in 1963. Jacobs was offered the position but the Chief Rabbi would only give his approval to Jacobs's return if he signedaletter recanting hisprevious views. This he refused to do. Thereupon a large part of the New West End congregation broke away to form the New London Synagogue in St John's Wood and the Masorti, or traditional, movement was born. ("Our claim," states the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues, "is that an authentic engagement with Judaism is only possible when one engages with Jewish observance, study and life, but also when one engages with scientific, social and philosophical truths wherever they may be found. …