IN 1961, the United Synagogue’s chief rabbi, Israel Brodie, vetoed the appointment of Rabbi Louis Jacobs as principal of Jews’ College, citing Jacobs’ apparently heretical views on the divine origin of the Torah.
So began the “Jacobs Affair” — or rather the First Jacobs Affair because there were several distinct, though obviously connected, confrontations between Rabbi jacobs and his followers on the one hand, and successive chief rabbis and their cheerleaders on the other.
They culminated in the quite spiteful decision of the United Synagogue’s Beth Din (then headed by the-then Dr Jonathan Sacks) to prohibit Rabbi jacobs from being “called” to the Reading of the Law in Bournemouth (July 26, 2003) prior to his granddaughter’s wedding.
Fear not! The good news is that I’m not going to devote this column to any of the Rabbi jacobs affairs.
I mention them only because they form the essential backcloth to a series of secret and semi-secret dialogues involving Orthodox and Progressive leaderships in the UK that took place at irregular intervals over a period of about a quarter century from the late 1960s to the late 1990s.
These dialogues have now been chronicled by Meir Persoff, whose Middlesex University PhD I had the privilege of supervising. Under the title Closed Doors, Open Minds (Academic Studies Press) and using a breathtaking array of hitherto closed archives, Dr Persoff now offers a fascinating — but at the same time depressing — insight into these clandestine disputations.
Persoff’s story begins not with Brodie but with his successor, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, who succeeded to the office of United Synagogue chief rabbi in 1967 and held the post until his retirement in 1991.
The very public rows between the pro- and anti-Louis Rabbi jacobs camps had led to a schism of sorts, with Rabbi jacobs and his retinue storming out of the United Synagogue to establish their own religious infrastructure, now termed the Masorti movement.
More seriously — from Rabbi (later Lord) Jakobovits’ point of view — adherents of the Reform and Progressive wings had very publicly denounced the very office of chief rabbi.
This was not what Rabbi Jakobovits wanted at all. What he wanted was public deference — a flamboyant doffing of the skullcap — from all sections of British Jewry.
And it was with this objective in mind that he graciously consented to put his official residence — 85 Hamilton Terrace in London’s fashionable St John’s Wood — at the disposal of a group of Orthodox and non-Orthodox leaders, collectively and euphemistically termed “The Consultative Committee on Jewish-Christian Relations”.
What was actually discussed, of course, were not the finer points of interfaith dialogue but rather whether — and, if so, to what extent — there could ever be co-operation between Orthodoxy and “the Reform”.
The price that Sidney Brichto (executive director of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues) and John Rayner (minister of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue) demanded was that, in return for their public acceptance of the suzerainty of the United Synagogue’s chief rabbi, he would publicly acknowledge the legitimacy (or at least the religious authenticity) of non-Orthodox Judaism and would even, from time to time, attend non-Orthodox synagogue services.
There was not the remotest possibility of Rabbi Jakobovits agreeing to any such thing.
Rabbi Jakobovits — as Persoff eloquently demonstrates — squirmed and wriggled and wriggled and squirmed.
But he was never going to jump this fence. I can recall trying to point this out to Brichto at the time.
I told him that, in pursuing a hechsher from the United Synagogue’s rabbinate, he was on a hiding to nothing. And I should add that, at the very same time, Rabbi Jakobovits was launching a charm offensive towards my own Federation of Synagogues.
As I note in my forthcoming new history of the federation, Rabbi Jakobovits desperately wanted public acknowledgment of his office from the federation, and even entered into a written agreement (January, 1967) with the federation’s Rav Rashi, Dr E W Kirzner, to this end.
As Dr Persoff notes (in a previous book, Hats in the Ring), Rabbi Jakobovits had not the slightest intention of honouring this document.
In 1991 Jakobovits retired, to be succeeded by Dr Sacks. Some weeks after he had taken up residence at Hamilton Terrace, Dr Sacks invited me to take tea with him.
He wished, he said, to bring closer together all sections of British Jewry, and suggested that he should host, at his residence, meetings chaired by me with brethren from all sections of the community.
His secretary, he said, would contact me to arrange the details. The call from his secretary never came.
I should have known better, shouldn’t I?