When Jacobs met Jakobovits

September 23, 2008

In an exclusive extract from his new book, "Faith Against Reason - Religious Reform and the British Chief Rabbinate 1840-1990", the Jewish Chronicle's former Judaism editor Meir Persoff records an historic meeting in 1966 between Lord Jakobovits, then about to become Chief Rabbi, and Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, ousted from the United Synagogue two years before over his views on the origin of the Torah.


Among partners in Immanuel Jakobovits' sights in the months before he became Chief Rabbi was Louis Jacobs, minister of the recently established New London Synagogue. During a visit to London - to "spy out the land," as Jacobs later put it - the two met in Holland Park, "secluded enough for no one to be likely to see us." In a contemporary account, written for his hitherto unreleased private records, Jacobs describes the moves that preceded his meeting with Jakobovits:

"Thursday, July 28, 1966 - At around 7pm there was a telephone call from Captain Myers [personal secretary to United Synagogue president Sir Isaac Wolfson] to say that Rabbi Dr Jakobovits would like to meet me. I said that I would be glad to see Rabbi Jakobovits and we fixed as the time for the meeting Monday, August 1, at 11am. When Captain Myers asked where the meeting should take place, I replied that I would be delighted to see Rabbi Jakobovits at my home, and this was agreed.

"Friday, July 29, 1966 - At around 10 am there was a further telephone call from Captain Myers to say that Rabbi Jakobovits had many engagements on Monday and found it impossible to come to my home. It was suggested that instead I meet him at the same time as originally arranged but at his hotel, the Hilton. I said that I would be prepared to see Rabbi Jakobovits at any time suitable to him, but I had to insist that the meeting took place at my home. Captain Myers then said that he would pursue the matter further.

"At around 11.30 am Captain Myers telephoned again to ask if I would agree to meet Rabbi Jakobovits at the Tottenham Court Road offices of Sir Isaac Wolfson. In any event, he said, Sir Isaac would like me to come to see him because we had not met for some time. I replied that I was always glad to see Sir Isaac, but that this had nothing to do with my meeting with Rabbi Jakobovits, which I felt ought to take place at my home since if I visited New York, I, as the visiting rabbi, would naturally call on Rabbi Jakobovits if I wished to see him. Captain Myers then put the call through to Sir Isaac himself, who repeated the request that I meet Rabbi Jakobovits at his offices (as Sir Isaac put it) ‘to shake hands with him.' I repeated that it seemed to me to be wrong to have the meeting arranged in this way and that I would be glad to welcome Rabbi Jakobovits to my home. Sir Isaac asked me to leave the matter with him for further consideration.

"Monday, August 1, 1966 - At 9.30am Rabbi Cyril Shine, rabbi of the Central Synagogue (Sir Isaac's congregation) telephoned to say that Rabbi Jakobovits, a contemporary of Rabbi Shine at Jews' College, was to have tea with him on Tuesday, August 2, and Rabbi Shine invited me to come along and meet Rabbi Jakobovits. I had to repeat that I did not think that a meeting of this kind should be arranged in this way and that I would be glad to welcome Rabbi Jakobovits to my home. Rabbi Shine thought that I was being unreasonable. When I said that in my opinion it was Rabbi Jakobovits who was being unreasonable, Rabbi Shine said that this may be true but that I should be ‘big enough' not to insist on any rights in this matter. I replied that it seemed wrong for me, with the prestige of the New London Synagogue to be considered, to agree to Rabbi Shine's suggestion.

"Rabbi Dr Solomon Goldman, of the St. John's Wood Synagogue, telephoned to the New London Synagogue office to speak to me at around 10.30 am. Rabbi Goldman said that Rabbi Shine had acquainted him with the situation and he, Rabbi Goldman, begged me in my own interests to meet Rabbi Jakobovits at Rabbi Goldman's home. I had to repeat again that I did not consider this the correct way of arranging the meeting. Rabbi Jakobovits telephoned me at 1.30 pm to say that he had heard that matters were getting out of hand and that he saw the difficulty about my coming to see him but that there were difficulties in his coming to see me. He suggested that we meet on neutral ground, and I suggested a meeting at the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington on August 2 at 11 am. Rabbi Jakobovits agreed.

"Tuesday, August 2, 1966 - At 11 am I met Rabbi Jakobovits at the Commonwealth Institute, Kensington. It being a fine morning, we decided to walk in nearby Holland Park."

In the course of their hour-long discussion, wrote Jacobs, "Rabbi Jakobovits said that he would like us to be good friends if he came to England to be the Chief Rabbi. He did not think that differing views on the nature of Revelation (Torah min hashamayim) were a bar to co-operation, and he felt that I would have a role to play in the Orthodox community.

"In his opinion, the unifying force was that of acceptance of the traditional halachah. He asked me if I had any criticisms of the manner in which the halachah was currently interpreted by the London Beth Din. I told him of the injustices that were being perpetrated in the Beth Din's refusal to accept the children of mixed marriages or adopted children brought up as Jews. He felt that a situation in which the rulings of more liberal-minded rabbis - such as the religious authorities in Israel - were adopted could possibly be arranged in this country. He saw no reason why the enmity and bitterness in the community should not be gradually overcome, but for this to happen there would have to be ‘give and take' on both sides.

"Without Rabbi Jakobovits spelling this out, he seemed to be suggesting that I would be allowed to officiate at funerals, weddings, tombstone consecrations and the like even under the auspices of the United Synagogue, but in return the New London Synagogue would have to recognise the religious authority of the Chief Rabbi with regard to such questions as marriage, divorce and conversion. He felt, however, that all this would have to come about gradually, and the beginning should be that a greater spirit of friendship and co-operation should be fostered.

"My overall impression was that Rabbi Jakobovits was quite sincere in his quest for friendship and co-operation, but that the price he would demand would be complete acceptance of the Shulchan Aruch, at least in its more liberal interpretation. On the personal level, I found him charming and considerate. But his general views on religion strike me as very reactionary, even though he poses as a ‘modern.' For instance, he said that he was convinced that the future of Judaism was with the people in Stamford Hill and that, ultimately, his religious guides must be the gedolei hador - that is, the famous heimische rabbanim.

"I found his attitude here frankly appalling. Our guides are to be Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, etc., and although one may have certain reservations about their attitudes, these must hardly ever be expressed because otherwise Judaism would vanish. He appears to hold that theological questions are not terribly important, but that ‘acceptance of the supremacy of the halachah' is of supreme importance.

"Moreover, there is not really much room for a liberal interpretation of the halachah since the authority of the gedolei hador must never, or hardly ever, be publicly questioned. If this means anything at all, it means that the ultimate religious authorities of Anglo-Jewry will be Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and other famous rabbis of the old school in Israel and the United States. Probably, at first, there will be a semblance of liberalism in thought (quite sincere, I believe), but the fat will be in the fire as soon as practical questions of any significance arise."

Describing their meeting as "cloak-and-dagger stuff," Jacobs was later to write: "Neither of us had any clear idea about the expected outcome of the meeting. [Jakobovits] did make it clear, however, that he distanced himself from my views if not from my person. When he became Chief Rabbi, he did his best to be friendly, and I think I reciprocated."

Last updated: 5:04pm, July 6 2010