Navigate to Belief section

Louis Jacobs, a Man for Our Time

On the 100th anniversary of his birth, finding new meaning in the work of the great British theologian

Elliot Cosgrove
July 17, 2020
Courtesy of Friends of
Rabbi Dr. Louis JacobsCourtesy of Friends of
Courtesy of Friends of
Rabbi Dr. Louis JacobsCourtesy of Friends of

Judaism has a way of finding meaning in its darkest hours, turning catastrophes into opportunities for contemplation, change, and growth. Just as the emergence of rabbinic Judaism occurred in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem’s Temple and the flowering of Jewish mysticism followed the expulsion of Spanish Jewry, the efflorescence of Jewish theological discourse in the 1950s and ’60s can be traced to the ruptures wrought by the social upheavals of the preceding decades. “Philosophy,” Abraham Joshua Heschel summed up this point neatly, “cannot be the same after Auschwitz and Hiroshima.”

Case in point is Heschel’s British contemporary, Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, who passed away in 2006 and whose 100th birthday would be celebrated this week. Jacobs may be less known to American Jews, but his presence continues to loom large in the Anglo-Jewish consciousness, and his work is one we should reread, especially now that the world is again facing a transformative crisis.

Jacobs is most remembered for his exclusion in the early 1960s from a prominent rabbinical seminary post and pulpit. Often explained as a drama in two acts, the “Jacobs Affair” began when then Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie refused to promote Jacobs to the principalship of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy’s ministerial training institution, Jews College, resulting in Jacobs and like-minded lay leaders to resign in protest. The second act played out two years later, when Brodie refused to certify Jacobs as theologically fit to return to his New West End pulpit, resulting in the resignation of hundreds of members and the eventual establishment of the independent New London Synagogue, a congregation that Jacobs would lead with distinction into the decades to come. The controversy surrounding Jacobs’ persona spilled onto the pages of the Jewish and non-Jewish press, a kulturkampf that continues to be referenced as a major pivot in British Jewry’s self-understanding.

While the ostensible bone of contention between Jacobs and his opponents revolved around Jacobs’ 1957 book, We Have Reason to Believe, which pondered the question of whether the Torah is or isn’t from heaven, with hindsight we know that far more than matters of scriptural authority were at stake. The debates surrounding revelation reflected a shellshocked Jewish community’s grappling with their post-Holocaust condition. Put differently, asking whether God did or did not write the Torah can be understood as another way of asking a much more immediate, thorny, and painful question, namely where was God in Auschwitz. The agitated theological spirit that guided Jacobs was not limited to the Jewish community: Be it Billy Graham’s evangelical revivalist crusades or the “Honest to God” debates of the Church of England, the 1950s and ’60s challenged and divided the full spectrum of religious life.

But it’s not so much for his contributions to theology that we must remember Jacobs today; instead, he leaves us with a shining example of unflinching courage in responding to the challenges of the day, an abiding intellectual honesty, and a steadfast belief that the spiritual vocabulary to meet those challenges can be found within traditional Jewish sources.

All of which begs the question: In the face of a pandemic, what would Louis Jacobs say? It is not Auschwitz or Hiroshima, but we are living through a trauma and transformation the likes of which we have never experienced. In addition to questions of human loss and suffering, COVID-19 has touched on every aspect of our existence—economic, educational, communal, political, interpersonal, and otherwise. The foundations of our very being are being tested and reconsidered. How do we form community given limitations on public assembly? How shall we build and sustain relationships in a time of quarantine? How can we draft life plans in the face of an unknown future?

COVID-19 has brought the fault lines of our society into full relief. What exactly are our obligations to the other and toward forming a more just society? In a rapidly changing landscape marked by a paucity of information and reliable leadership, to whom shall we turn to for authority, ethics, morality, and truth? As humanity stays in place in response to the spread of an unseen and deadly virus, what exactly do conventional borders and boundaries mean, between nations and people alike? How shall our rituals, houses of worship, and communal structures respond to the challenges of the hour? Are our religious identities essential to our being, or discretionary claims that can be waived in times of crisis?

We do not yet have the luxury of looking back in retrospect, hence it is premature to ask how future theology will respond to the present hour. Yet even from the eye of the storm we see the questions emerge on suffering, community, self, and God. As a colleague recently reflected to me: How can over 7 billion people experience a brush with death and not emerge asking new philosophical and theological questions?

Had Louis Jacobs lived to witness our present crisis, I would like to imagine he would draw from his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish law to demonstrate how Jewish practice must transform to meet the needs of the moment. I would like to think that his studies of Jewish ethical literature would provide guidance for a humanity in desperate need of a moral compass. Perhaps his studies of Jewish mysticism could provide the spiritual vocabulary of personal and communal sacrifice that would help ease the daily travails afflicting so many. Jacobs’ studies on the relationship between particularism and universalism, between the individual and the community would offer much needed guidance on clarifying the Jewish obligation to the other and the urgent imperative to establish a just society. As a theologian of first rank, no doubt Jacobs would want to guide a searching humanity as to how to affirm faith in God in the face of suffering—helping us find reason to believe. As a rabbi ministering his flock, I believe that Jacobs would believe his primary responsibility to be demonstrating how, even and perhaps especially in times of crisis, the canon of Jewish literature can respond with relevance to the exigencies of a pandemic.

Let this, then, be this great man’s legacy, the constant seeking of synthesis between the permanent values and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day. If we find a way to bind together a deep love for the Jewish people and a profound respect for our shared humanity, we will be able to, like Louis Jacobs, weather even the most daunting of crises.

Elliot Cosgrove is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, Manhattan. His dissertation, “Teyku: The Insoluble Contradictions in the Life and Thought of Louis Jacobs,” was completed in 2008.