The past few weeks have seen a major rumpus in the Anglo-Jewish community. Internal disputes in the community rarely attract the attention of the general press, but this one has been covered in full by the London Times and Daily Telegraph, and it has had enough picturesque detail to satisfy a Jewish Anthony Trollope, if there were such a thing: a High Court judge interviewed on holiday at Zermatt, the Chief Rabbi embarking on a world tour and saying he doesn’t expect to enjoy the journey, the Jewish press abuzz with correspondence, speeches, resolutions, resignations, and every koch leffel in the community helping to stir the controversy. But although the immediate row only concerns one man and one appointment, the fuss is about more than personalities; questions of the first importance for observant English Jews are at stake.
Three years ago the officers of Jews’ College in London invited Rabbi Louis Jacobs to take up the post of Tutor, on the understanding that he would become Principal of the College when the present Principal retires at the end of this academic year. It was an unofficial understanding, since the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Israel Brodie, has the power of veto on the appointment. Rabbi Jacobs gave up his post at one of the leading synagogues in London, the New West End, to become Tutor, and ever since, the Chief Rabbi has been pressed to give his approval of Rabbi Jacobs’ eventual promotion, but without success. At a stormy meeting of the Jews’ College Council last December there was an attempt to force the issue and get a straight “yes” or “no” from the Chief Rabbi, but he refused to commit himself until his return from a visit to Australia this April. This was generally interpreted as “no”; Rabbi Jacobs promptly handed in his resignation, and so did most members of the Jews’ College Council, headed by their chairman, Mr. Justice Mocatta.
The foundation of Jews’ College by Moses Montefiore and others in 1855 followed a Western European trend of the period which had already led to the establishment of notable Orthodox seminaries in Padua, Metz, and Breslau. The College is affiliated to London University; secular subjects are included in the curriculum, and students take a London degree. On the other hand, the tradition of the College has always been unswervingly Halachic and fundamentalist, under the guidance of such men as the redoubtable Adolph Buechler and the present Principal, Rabbi Isidore Epstein (author of the Penguin handbook on Judaism referred to by Lucy Dawidowicz in a review in the December 1960 number of COMMENTARY). Rabbi Jacobs is opposed as a modernist, although he is certainly sufficiently Orthodox to have been acceptable as a tutor at the College for the past three years, and opponents find it hard to cite evidence in chapter and verse from his published work. As far as I can make out, it is as a potential reformer that he is resisted, rather than on the grounds of anything which he has said so far; the marked respect which he shows modern standards of scholarship and the stress which he places on the Oral Tradition both seem ominous to an older generation. On one thing almost everyone is agreed: that he is a man of complete integrity, an impressive figure in an otherwise pretty barren period.
He is, in other words, an obvious candidate for the position of Chief Rabbi, which is likely to become vacant within the next few years. (Another factor in his favor, unspoken but very much in the air, is that he is completely Anglicized in manner; an incongruous, perhaps an unworthy consideration, but most people undoubtedly want a Chief Rabbi who is “acceptable” to non-Jews on official committees, at Lord Mayors’ banquets, on the BBC, and so forth.) A repetition or intensification of the Jews’ College controversy could only be degrading, whatever the outcome, and there has already been talk of Rabbi Jacobs leaving the country. Yet even if he is not involved himself, it is hard not to see the present dispute erupting again when the time comes to appoint the next Chief Rabbi.
The trouble largely stems from the anomalies of the United Synagogue, the association of synagogues to which most English Jews belong and which nominates the Chief Rabbi. The United Synagogue is a curiously English institution, staunchly Orthodox in theory, almost latitudinarian in practice. A few ultra-Orthodox groups reject the authority of the Chief Rabbi, although even they may approve, say, of an individual member of the Beth Din, since most Orthodox leaders have up till now stayed inside the United Synagogue. On the other hand, a United Synagogue minister has to know when to turn a blind eye; his congregation are less and less likely to be strictly observant in their daily lives. This problem has always existed—one or two of the United Synagogue’s most influential lay leaders have been notoriously flexible in their personal interpretations of Judaism—but as long as at least a substantial minority of ordinary congregants were genuinely Orthodox it could be put to one side. As the older generation (and particularly the foreign-born) pass away, however, the problem grows steadily more acute. Outwardly the United Synagogue is flourishing: synagogues have waiting lists, there are overflow services on the High Holidays, the Jewish Day School movement has at long last found its feet. But over against this, the gulf between the minister and the great bulk of his congregation grows wider every year.
The institutions of organized Jewish life in England are highly centralized, and the community often strikes outside observers as remarkably compact—to an unhealthy degree, according to critics. But the spirit of unity has been kept alive to a large extent by external pressures which have grown much weaker over the past fifteen years.1 There is still a great deal of grumbling golf club anti-Semitism, and lunatic-fringe groups like the British National Party keep themselves amused by chalking slogans and swastikas on posters in the subways, but these are pin-pricks; it may be too good to last, but for the time being prejudice doesn’t present English Jews with any serious problems. They are less on the defensive, then, and certainly less Orthodox; yet there are still few signs of the wholesale assimilation which has been predicted for as long as anyone can remember. The synagogue is still the center of communal life (it has a rival in the fund-raising organization for Israel, but the two often overlap), at a time when religious life is at a low ebb.
Much of this may seem tediously familiar to American readers, but there is one significant difference between the American-Jewish and Anglo-Jewish scenes. Reform has made no real headway in England, and there is no equivalent of the Conservative movement. Louis Jacobs’ supporters claim that unless the United Synagogue is led by a man of his caliber, it is bound to lose ground quickly, probably to breakaway groups. Certainly the bitterness of the present controversy suggests how difficult it is becoming to maintain the compromise on which Jewish religious life in England traditionally rests.
1 For a full discussion of these issues see the two articles by Alan W. Miller and A. V. Sherman on “The Changing Anglo-Jewish Community” (November, 1960).—Ed.