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July 17: Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Lawrence Bush
July 16, 2016

Brit-and-Pidyon-Haben-Louis-JacobsLouis Jacobs, the founder of Conservative Judaism (Masorti or “traditional” Judaism) in the United Kingdom and author of over fifty Judaic books, was born in Manchester on this date in 1920. Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Jacobs was haunted by the dissonance between Biblical scholarship and Orthodox faith in the Torah text and spent much of his intellectual life trying to reconcile the two. In 1961, after resigning as rabbi at London’s New West End Synagogue in order to succeed the retiring head of the Orthodox movement’s rabbinical seminary, Jacobs was blackballed by British Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie — who blackballed him again from returning to his pulpit. The “Jacobs Affair” was widely noted in the British press and led to the formation of the British Conservative movement (which is, to this day, regularly blasted with critiques by the Orthodox establishment). Among Jacobs’ numerous books is the indispensable The Jewish Religion: A Companion (1995), a reference book in which Jacobs describes his own “bias,” in his introduction, that “the human element discernable in the revelation of the Torah cannot be ignored, although this does not affect loyalty to Jewish practices and observances.” Rabbi Jacobs died in 2006.

“Torah . . . speaks to our age. It is not just that to seek is to find. Rather, in seeking the many-splendoured thing that is Judaism, one has already found it because one is engaged in the process. I have sometimes yielded to the temptation, when challenged that my views are ambiguous, to declare that it is better to be vaguely right than definitely wrong.” --Louis Jacobs

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.