Review of Harry Freedman, Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2020)
In the preface to his autobiography, Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) voiced strong doubts that the details of his “rather uneventful life would have been worth recording had it not been for the so-called Jacobs Affair” for which he would spend the majority of his life as a divisive figure in the United Kingdom and beyond due to his expressed views on the subject of Divine Revelation. With Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, Harry Freedman seeks to prove Jacobs wrong by presenting the man beneath the scholarship and controversies, chronicling Jacobs’s life and illuminating his personality. In reviewing Freedman’s biography and discussing the implications of Jacobs’s unique theology, I hope to demonstrate that there is much to be gained in revisiting Jacobs’s life and works in light of current discourse within Orthodox communities.
Freedman’s exploration of his biographical subject is remarkably thorough, taking readers on the journey of Jacobs’s life through old files, diaries, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, sermons, lectures, and more. To read this book is to walk alongside Jacobs at each formative stage of his journey: a nominally Orthodox but not-particularly-observant childhood; teenage years spent learning in the Manchester yeshiva and Gateshead kollel; beginning his rabbinic career as assistant at the Golders Green Beth Ha-Medrash (“Munk’s Shul”) while taking university classes in Semitics; serving as rabbi of Manchester’s Central Synagogue; being appointed minister of the prestigious New West End Synagogue while running into his first bouts of trouble with the United Synagogue; serving as Moral Tutor at the Jews’ College rabbinical seminary, where the ‘Jacobs Affair’ took shape.
The Jacobs Affair itself began in 1961 when Jacobs stepped down as Moral Tutor from Jews’ College. Though he had initially taken the position on the assumption that he would be made principal of the seminary within a few years, it became clear that Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie and the London Beth Din that advised him had no intention of making the appointment due to theological views published in Jacobs’s 1957 book, We Have Reason to Believe, which did not accord with traditional understandings of Torah min ha-shamayim – Torah from heaven.
Then, after Jacobs spent some time heading and teaching on behalf of the Society for the Study of Jewish Theology, his former pulpit at the New West End became vacant, and the board unanimously approved him to return as minister of the congregation. But formal approval was needed from the Chief Rabbi, who refused to grant it—again citing Jacobs’s published theological views. When the New West End board opted to appoint Jacobs to the position anyway, they were removed from office and replaced by the United Synagogue. Eventually they, along with Jacobs, founded the independent New London Synagogue which would eventually join the Masorti (Conservative) Movement, where Jacobs would find himself at the intellectual helm.
When recording each step of Jacobs’s life, Freedman makes sure to emphasize that “Jacobs’s choice of path was that of the middle way. Between tradition and modernity, Englishness and Jewishness, reason and belief. It was a path from which he would never deviate.” This exceptionally positive tone toward Jacobs, taking for granted that his way was ideal, betrays Freedman’s own bias as a former chief executive of Masorti UK. As a biographer, he is in fact quite sympathetic to Jacobs’s struggles. As he writes in his introduction:
For the best part of half a century, [Jacobs] had been an outcast from the Orthodox community that had once hailed him as a genius, their brightest and most promising hope for the future. Spurned by those who could not reconcile his theology with the established creed, nor accept his refusal to compromise when it came to matters of the mind. Disparaged by former colleagues and students, who considered the conclusions he reached through intellectual prowess and depth of learning to threaten their traditions and the religious commitment of their congregations. They feared his reputation as a man of reason, a spiritual leader with his feet on the ground, a theologian who spoke the language of ordinary people, a polymath with a depth of knowledge unequaled in the British rabbinate.
Still, for the most part, Freedman does not let his clear sympathies toward Jacobs get in the way of a fair presentation of information. For example, rather than maintaining the popular narrative of Jacobs as a wholly innocent victim who didn’t want to make a fuss, he notes that Jacobs’s fighting spirit when it came to intellectual principles “explains why he had refused to back down in his early battles with Chief Rabbi Brodie and Dayan Swift [of the London Beth Din] . . . As he got older he became less and less inhibited about making his feelings known.” As R. Dr. Benjamin Elton of Sydney’s Great Synagogue recently suggested when writing about why Jacobs opted to stay in England at the height of his controversies instead of relocating to a friendlier environment, “Jacobs, on some level, actually enjoyed the fight. Not all of it, and not all the time, but being a martyr has its benefits, and being an unusual, prominent[,] even notorious figure has its attractions.”
This readiness and willingness to fight had a habit of showing itself in Jacobs’s repeated clashes with the British Chief Rabbinate. As Freedman explains,
Jacobs was always convinced that any serious Jewish scholar who had been educated in Western universities could not deny the reasonableness of biblical criticism, and therefore a critical-historical view of revelation. He thought this of the Chief Rabbis whom he had known, and he forcefully rejected the idea that they had the authority to rule on what could not be believed, while not being specific themselves about what they did believe.
Jacobs’s animosity was particularly apparent in his interactions with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, whom he rightly or wrongly saw “as something of a protégé, as one of few people who concurred with his position despite never giving any public hint of doing so… it was as if he wondered why Jonathan Sacks had not been prepared to do what he had done, and put his career on the line for the sake of intellectual principle.” When Sacks called Jacobs one erev Yom Kippur to apologize for the tone he expressed in a public critique of the elder thinker, Jacobs publicized the conversation in his sermon the very next day, saying that “while it was nice of the Chief Rabbi to make the call it did not mean very much in practical terms.” For whatever reason, Jacobs seemed to have a preference for applying oil to the fires of his fights with the Chief Rabbinate (regardless of who held the title) rather than water.
Freedman also avoids the popular—but inaccurate—narrative taking for granted that Jacobs would have been offered principalship of Jews’ College after leaving his congregation to take up the position of Moral Tutor if not for the machinations of the London Beth Din and Chief Rabbi Brodie. As Freedman admits, the prospects “did not look very likely” initially, and much of Jacobs’s fellow faculty were “wary” of him from the start, even writing to the Chief Rabbi to express joint concern about his potential appointment as principal of the college due to his problematic views.
Still, at times, and perhaps because of his incomplete objectivity, Freedman tells narratives which have been discounted by others based on a good deal of evidence. Freedman writes, for example, that Jacobs “never had an ambition to be Chief Rabbi. He would have taken the job if they’d appointed him, but it would have been through duty, not desire.” But R. Dr. Elliot Cosgrove points out in his doctoral dissertation on Jacobs, with much support, that Jacobs’s aspirations “in all likelihood extended to the position of Chief Rabbi. Indeed … Jacobs intimates as much in stating his reasons for accepting the Jews’ College post.”
Most egregiously, Freedman uncritically accepts the popular telling of events when discussing the initial reception of We Have Reason to Believe, writing that Jacobs “was already highly regarded within the London Jewish community, and it is unlikely that no United Synagogue rabbis read the book when it came out. It is far more likely that nobody at the time felt that his views were particularly unusual or unpalatable.” Near the end of the biography, Freedman doubles down on this claim, writing that Jacobs “didn’t believe that the dominant rabbinic voices raised against him typified the Anglo-Jewish community.” Put differently, Freedman writes that Jacobs “saw no reason why he should relinquish his identity as an Orthodox rabbi because of what he saw as the inauthentic theology of his opponents.” Indeed, Jacobs himself held onto his claim of Orthodoxy in his autobiography, writing that “after thirty years I still fail to see how the book could have been considered heretical in the tepid Orthodoxy typical of Anglo-Jewry.” After all, “if Orthodoxy meant, as it had in Anglo-Jewry, an adherence to traditional practice [rather than to ideological ‘fundamentalism’], then I could … be Orthodox.”
However, as R. Dr. Benjamin Elton notes, British Orthodoxy was never as accepting of opinions like those espoused by Jacobs as his words would lead one to believe. Regardless of who was serving as Chief Rabbi, “the authorship of the Pentateuch was and had always been a red line in Anglo-Jewry. Those who were traditional on that question were acceptable, and those who were not traditional on that question, were not.” Furthermore, Cosgrove compellingly demonstrates that Jacobs’s own correspondences indicate that “to his ideological right and left, he knew full well the magnitude of his contentions. Jacobs’s later insistence that his theology was consistent with Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy belief must be understood as a rhetorical strategy and not consistent with the facts.” R. Dr. Alan Brill has also posited that “Jacob’s [sic] ideas were not unfairly rejected as un-Orthodox. And if his ideas were accepted it would not have created a more modern Orthodoxy, rather a British United Synagogue closer to the liberal side of the American Conservative movement.” Indeed, a decade after writing his autobiography, even Jacobs came to admit that “I was wrong in imagining that [my] views are compatible with Orthodoxy as this is now understood in fundamentalist terms” and “though labels are often restrictive, and misleading, honesty now compels me, in order to avoid confusion, to describe my position not as Orthodox but as Masorti.”
Freedman’s conclusions on Jacobs’s Orthodoxy may stem from his failure to fully engage with the substance of Jacobs’s theology. While the decision to tell his readers the story of Jacobs’s life rather than teach them his ideas is certainly understandable for a popular biography, it is unfortunate because any mentions of Jacobs’s theology end up scattered throughout the biography, and their full implications ultimately end up uncommunicated.
To Freedman, the crux of Jacobs’s theological argument is that one must be open to biblical criticism, but not necessarily accepting of all its conclusions, and in this way one “should strive for a synthesis between the new and old ways of understanding revelation.” Freedman notes, for example, that Jacobs would forever insist that his debate on the subject with ‘fundamentalists’ was not about the concept of ‘Torah From Heaven’ itself, but that “the only question regarding the revelation of the Torah was how it reached human hands.”
And yet Freedman does not really articulate how exactly Jacobs thought that the Torah reached human hands in a way that did not necessitate a full acceptance of biblical criticism. Similarly, Freedman does not adequately explain himself when he writes that Jacobs’s position “accepts the binding nature of the commandments, without conceding that the command had to come directly from God in order to be binding. The fact that there is a human element in the Torah does not deprive it of sanctity or authority.”
Thus, Freedman’s readers are left wondering: how much of a human hand, according to Jacobs, is in the composition of the Torah? And how can Torah come ‘from’ Heaven if Heaven has chosen not to directly communicate with humanity? In what sense can a halakhah derived by this sort of theology truly be seen as binding in all of its details? If it cannot, in fact, be said to be binding, then how can it not threaten the established norms of British Orthodoxy? Freedman does not answer any of these questions despite hinting at relatively conservative answers. And perhaps this is the crux of the problem with Freedman’s treatment: when one undertakes a more comprehensive assessment of Jacobs’s theology, it becomes more difficult to deem his approach compatible with Orthodox norms.
A more accurate understanding can be reached by briefly exploring Jacobs’s own writing on these topics in several of his published works: particularly We Have Reason to Believe (1957), Principles of the Jewish Faith (1964), and Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1999).
While Jacobs acknowledged that “Judaism stands or falls on the belief in revelation,” he viewed the traditional doctrine of Torah min ha-shamayim—Torah being dictated in direct language from God to Moses whether on Mount Sinai or throughout Israel’s stay in the wilderness—as unsustainable in the face of the ‘contemporary’ scholarship to which he was exposed while pursuing his university studies. In Principles of the Jewish Faith, Jacobs states that it should be “obvious that the eighth principle of Maimonides [affirming direct revelation] cannot be accepted as it stands by the Jew with even a rudimentary sense of history” and that the doctrine of verbal revelation “is not intellectually respectable today and has been abandoned by all who are aware of the facts.”
At the same time, Jacobs acknowledged that the believing Jew is walking on “dangerous [theological] ground when considering what is now known as the Higher Criticism, in which the traditional views concerning the authorship of the Biblical books is seriously contested.” And while Jacobs believed that a synthesis must be found—for the sake of no less than Judaism’s respectability—the synthesis he had in mind proved to be far more complicated than suggested by only reading Freedman’s biography. According to Jacobs in We Have Reason to Believe, we can only hear the authentic voice of God as mediated by the all too human words of Torah. We only recognize it as the voice of God “because of the uniqueness of its message and the response it awakens in our higher nature—and its truth is in no way affected in that we can only hear that voice through the medium of human beings who, hearing it for the first time, endeavoured to record it for us.”
But how can the Torah represent an authentic voice of God if it only presents God’s voice through fallible human articulations?
Jacobs would not explore the full implications of this approach in detail until the writing of We Have Reason To Believe’s sequel, Beyond Reasonable Doubt. After a discussion where “he sees no reason to deny the supernatural elements of his religion” and the possibility of divine-human cooperation, Jacobs ultimately clarifies that “the mitzvot are not direct commands given by God but the result of human reflection and adaptation over the ages” and that the whole Torah can be seen as a “human reflection on the past.”
In sum, Jacobs views the Torah as being composed entirely by human beings reflecting on an internal relationship with God in their own words and with all the flaws of normal human beings. It is then through a process of historical selection that Judaism becomes defined along with its unique practices and beliefs. Jacobs’s God does not speak in words, but via history. God, who shows His hand through the movement of time, has decided that this Torah would ultimately be what we have and what is accepted by His people—that very fact is what renders it holy. As he writes, “When all is said and done, history has decided, or, better, God has decided through history … that this, therefore, is the admittedly man-made Torah that God wishes us to keep if we wish to be faithful to Judaism as a religion.”
But while this view may provide a reason to see oneself within a halakhic system generally, why should one follow halakhah’s minutiae if they admit that the particular phrasings in the Torah from which halakhah is derived did not come from God?
In Principles of the Jewish Faith, Jacobs implies that his theology would lead an adherent to view even rabbinic laws as part of an intricate divine plan worthy of fulfillment in the world since there is no true divide between the Torah’s human and divine elements anyway. However, it is one thing to buy into a general concept of divinity expressed in human language and enactments that teaches us to rest on the seventh day; it is quite another for such a belief to bind one to observe 39 melakhot as well as their toldot. Why, then, should one care about halakhic minutiae? As it turns out, one doesn’t necessarily have to. He admits that “psychologically, it is undeniable that a clear recognition of the human development of Jewish practice and observance is bound to produce a somewhat weaker sense of allegiance to the minutiae of Jewish law.” He even goes so far as to say that the non-fundamentalist “might feel free to depart from the halakhah in his personal life” due to their understanding of Torah. This is admitted in even stronger language in Beyond Reasonable Doubt’s conclusion: “Once one acknowledges that all Jewish institutions have had a history, which we can now trace to a large extent, one is entitled—I would say duty-bound—to be selective in determining which practices are binding, because of their value for Jewish religious life today, and which have little or no value.”
It would seem, then, that the initial review of We Have Reason to Believe penned by Isidore Epstein (Principal of Jews’ College immediately preceding the Jacobs Affair) was right on the money: “The fatal and inherent weakness of those who deny the Divine origins of the Bible, even if their personal religious behavior conforms to the highest standard, lies in the lack of any valid objective authority for what they teach or affirm.” This critique is especially sharp when one realizes that despite Jacobs’s attacks on Mordecai Kaplan’s theology in the opening chapters of We Have Reason to Believe, the two share much in common when it comes to an internal framework for the determination of personal religious practice and moral development.
Because of these views, particularly his personal halakhic approach, Jacobs’s theology was a unique accident of his time and biography, not one that is easily replicable in others. Cosgrove notes that “despite Jacobs’s intellectual cognition that Judaism has always been shaped by the conditions in which it existed, his reflexive traditionalism would never permit him to actively reconstruct Jewish practice according to the changing needs of his own lifetime.” And yet, while Jacobs’s New London Synagogue kept all of the traditional practices of its Orthodox predecessor, the New North London Synagogue co-founded by Jacobs’s son “felt itself free to be innovative” by eliminating the mehitzah separating men and women and by allowing women to deliver sermons immediately upon its founding.
Surely then, Jacobs’s theology was far outside of traditional Orthodox assumptions about the Torah’s divinity and authority. And despite Freedman’s attempts to show otherwise, the implications of Jacobs’s theology did indeed threaten the traditions and the religious commitments of the United Synagogue.
Still, Freedman’s biography remains valuable, particularly because the story it tells about exclusion from communal life and the boundaries of legitimate faith discourse resonates today. Ultimately, the United Synagogue decided that Jacobs’s views were problematic enough that he should be barred from returning to his old pulpit even after the congregation’s unanimous vote to rehire him, and even the hareidi London Beth Din made it clear that allowing him to return to his old pulpit would have been a good solution to the controversy—relegating Jacobs to life as a fringe rabbi in a fringe community. Instead, Chief Rabbi Brodie put his foot down, resulting in the Masorti Movement finding its footing in the UK. According to Freedman, this decision directly “alienated a large part of their [United Synagogue] community, enhanced [Jacobs’s] scholarly reputation[,] and guaranteed his popularity.” Yet to Brodie, Jacobs’s theology was so problematic and dangerous to Orthodox behavioral cohesion that he had to be cast out of official Anglo-Orthodoxy, even if such a decision allowed the seeds of his thought to be planted in fertile soil and eventually grow into a forest that continues to challenge the older infrastructure of British Jewry.
Can the lessons of Jacobs’s treatment be applied to the issues American Orthodoxy is currently confronting? Where are the red lines? What is worth schism, and what can be integrated into a big tent with relatively little fuss? Should a distinction be made between innovations in practice alone as opposed to ideological innovations that redefine how we understand the Torah’s very divinity? By what metric can either sort of innovation be judged, and how can issues be dealt with most tactfully? Finally, how far is Modern Orthodoxy willing to go to defend its beliefs and practices against criticism from both our right and left? Exploring the life, thought, and legacy of Louis Jacobs with the aid of Freedman’s thorough biography may be an excellent first step toward answering those questions for ourselves as a community journeying toward (paraphrasing the late Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm) halakhic legitimacy, philosophical persuasiveness, religious inspiration, and personal conviction as well as commitment.
Many thanks to Rabbis Jacob J. Schacter, Gil Student, Aryeh Klapper, Benjamin Elton, and Alan Brill for invaluable feedback throughout the writing of this review as well as to Yosef Lindell for his masterful edits and Ashley Stern-Mintz for copyediting.
 Harry Freedman, Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021), 45.
 Ibid., 2.
 A myth dispelled by R. Dr. Elliot Cosgrove’s unpublished doctoral dissertation, “Teyku: The Insoluble Contradictions in the Life and Thought of Louis Jacobs” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2006).
 Ibid., 239-240.
 Ibid., 202.
 Ibid., 242.
 In the case of Sacks, Freedman immediately goes on to note that “it is equally possible that Jacobs was completely wrong, and that Sacks no more agreed with him than did any other mainstream Orthodox thinker in England” (202).
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 264.
 Ibid., 173.
 Ibid., 137.
 Ibid., 14. However, so prevalent is the myth of Jacobs’s continued identification with Orthodoxy that even Orthodox Rabbi Jeremy Rosen invoked it in his own review of Freedman’s biography, writing that Jacobs “remained strictly orthodox till his dying day. It was others who established what became the Masorti movement in the UK.”
 Ibid., 233.
 Ibid., 223.
 Ibid., 59.
 Jacobs would later accuse the teacher who initially exposed him to such views as being “religiously schizophrenic” (though never using such explicit language) when said teacher signed a petition against his public stances. See Cosgrove, “Teyku,” 63-64.
 Ibid., 475.
 Ibid., 80-81.
 Ibid., 106.
 Ibid., 51.
 Here Jacobs has aligned himself with Solomon Schechter (whom he was fond of referencing throughout his works), who wrote that “when Revelation or the Written Word is reduced to the level of history, there is no difficulty in elevating Tradition to the rank of Scripture, for both have then the same human or divine origin.” Excerpted in Mordecai Waxman’s Tradition and Change: The Development of the Conservative Movement (New York: Burning Bush Press, 1958), 90.
 As he articulates elsewhere, “The question of how the halakhah can function in the contemporary world, is, when all is said and done, a theological question.” Louis Jacobs, A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1984), 231.
 Ibid., 128-129.
 Ibid., 240. It should be noted that there is some debate as to whether Jacobs’s views on this particular subject evolved over time or were always a part of his theology. While this writer and others find it hard to believe that one such as Jacobs would be oblivious to the full implications of his theology during its initial conception and articulation, others have argued that he became more progressive in this regard over time (ultimately dropping the notion that his views should not impact one’s religious practice) as he moved farther away from institutional Orthodoxy.
 As cited in Benjamin Elton’s Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the religious character of Anglo–Jewry, 1880–1970 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), 242.
 In addition to all that was said above, it should be noted that Jacobs’s theology is not particularly consistent. Why believe in a personal God, afterlife, etc, but not believe in a direct revelation of ideas from that God to prophets?
 In his autobiography, Jacobs recounts being
“told on good authority that even the members of the London Beth Din had urged the Chief Rabbi to accept the situation [or reappointment to the New West End], arguing that, whatever my views, they would be capable of doing no harm in a pulpit long recognised as being somewhat outside the normal United Synagogue in it’s ‘reformist’ tendencies.” Jacobs, Helping with Inquiries, 159.
 Some have argued that a similar state of affairs led to the complete break between American Orthodox and Conservative Judaism. As Professor Michael Cohen has written:
Though [Solomon] Schechter’s disciples sought unity in the image of Catholic Israel, they were nevertheless resoundingly rejected by the rest of the American Jewish world—particularly by rabbis in the OU and Agudath ha-Rabbanim. These rabbis cast aside the United Synagogue [of America] as an organization hostile to Orthodoxy precisely because it sought unity and welcomed anyone who wished to join—even if they did not follow Orthodox practices… in their quest for unity, Schechter’s disciples were ironically forced by the right into a movement of their own. Michael Cohen, The Birth of Conservative Judaism: Solomon Schechter’s Disciples and the Creation of an American Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 11.
 These questions are applicable even as recently as June 11, 2021, when England’s Jewish Chronicle (Issue 7938) reported that Dr. Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz would be unable to continue teaching as a London School of Jewish Studies Research Fellow following her ordination from Yeshivat Maharat. Indeed, Maharat and its brother institution, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, have been seen as both practically and theologically suspect by the greater Orthodox communities in North America and Europe for some time. Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has been understood to believe that they “[encourage] practices which run contrary to our normative United Synagogue approach.” The LSJS, under the presidency of Rabbi Mirvis and vice presidency of S&P Senior Rabbi Joseph Dweck, made clear that it followed the Chief Rabbi’s opinion on the matter. Parallels between this situation and Jacobs’s treatment by then Chief Rabbi Brodie should be obvious. The question remains: in both cases, was theirs the appropriate response?