Scandal in Bournemouth

Early in August, the octogenarian Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, perhaps the preeminent talmudic scholar in Britain and founder of the Masorti movement [loosely affiliated with the US Conservative movement], attended the aufruf of his granddaughter’s future husband in the coastal resort of Bournemouth.

The synagogue, however, looked to the United Synagogue group, from which Jacobs split some 40 years ago over the interpretation of Torah min hashamayim (Torah from Heaven).

The officiating reverend, who is awaiting his rabbinical ordination, decided to contact the chief rabbi’s office and ask whether his illustrious guest should be called up to recite the blessing prior to the Torah reading, as would be customary on such family occasions. The instruction proffered was that he should not.

Why? No explanation has ever formally been offered. It can only be surmised that Louis Jacobs was regarded as someone who leads others astray. Yet in the past, no discrimination had been made – ex-prisoners, bookmakers, Jews with non-Jewish spouses – all had been honored in Orthodox synagogues regardless of their religiosity.

The tidal wave of anger and disbelief that swept over the United Synagogue led to total silence from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and a hushed embarrassment from its more clear-thinking leaders.

Progressive rabbis pointed out that they had been called up in the past, while officials in other United Synagogue affiliates offered to call up Rabbi Jacobs. Letters to the Jewish press – many from United Synagogue members – were highly condemnatory. While few defended the course of action by trotting out the mantra of heresy, the overwhelming majority of British Jews appeared to have been outraged that one of its much-respected elders should have been treated in such a fashion.

The original dispute in the early 1960s was latterly portrayed by Jacobs’s opponents as a theological heresy of cosmic proportions, following the publication of his book, We Have Reason to Believe which implicitly challenged the conventional interpretation of Torah min hashamayim. Yet no one had taken the slightest bit of notice for several years after the book’s appearance. Jacobs was even cited as a possible future chief rabbi.

Yet the odor of rabbinical politics that wafted from the depths infected the issue. The outcome was that mainstream Orthodoxy was fragmented with its more independent, questioning wing silenced because too many salaries were tied to the United Synagogue. But many others eventually defected to Jacobs’s new movement.

The ordinary members of British Jewry needed a guide for the perplexed – and Jacobs’s congregants were quite bewildered when their mild-mannered rabbi was accused of every heinous sin under the sun.

Jacobs combined a liberal interpretation of texts with a belief in “the living God.” He totally accepted Torah min hashamayim and described himself as “a liberal supernaturalist.” Jacobs’s intellectually rigorous defense of his views and his stout refusal to agree to something in which he did not believe meant that he could not be bullied into submission.

What made it worse for the United Synagogue was Jacobs’s insistence that he was following the path of traditional Judaism and possessed wide-ranging knowledge to back it up. His views, however, coincided historically with a resurgence of ultra-Orthodoxy as a reaction to the inanities of the modern world.

And so Jacobs has had to endure 40 years of ostracism and discrimination, ignorance and distortion of his views by many who do not have his degree of learning.

The Bournemouth fiasco conjures up the enlightening possibility of visitors to United Synagogues being assessed, before they are called up, as to whether they might lead the Jewish people astray.

All this would be a delightful example of Pythonesque English humor if not for the silent agony of the leadership of the United Synagogue, which has endeavored to create a modicum of communal harmony with the Masorti, Reform and Liberal movements.

Their 1998 agreement called for the attendance of a rabbinical figure from each group at several meetings a year designed to avoid communal rancor, but not to discuss theological questions.

Although the agreement was apparently approved by the United Synagogue rabbinate, not one single rabbi was ever present despite the presence of its lay leadership. This reflected the influence of the theologically conservative London Beth Din, and clearly those moderate rabbis who wished to attend declined to raise their heads above the parapets.

The United Synagogue lay leadership is now beginning to suffer the kind of entrapment – through fear of delegitimization from unrepresentative ultra-Orthodoxy – which has brought the chief rabbi to such a low ebb.

Modern Orthodoxy is being systematically eroded without even taking into account this penchant for settling old scores.

For most British Jews who uphold the dignity of difference, who do not demand truth tests before a Jew is called up to a reading of the Torah, Louis Jacobs’s treatment is symbolically shameful. No doubt a majority of British Jews would see a calling to account of those responsible as a timely and moral act.

In the real world, it is unlikely that any elected leader would dare to point out that possessing great religious learning and having good judgement in communal matters is not one and the same. It is a sure recipe for decline and alienation.

Jerusalem Post 14 September 2003

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