Louis Jacobs was Britain's most gifted Jewish scholar. A Talmudic genius, outstanding teacher and accomplished author, cultured and easy-going, he was widely expected to become Britain's next Chief Rabbi.
Then controversy struck. The Chief Rabbi refused to appoint him as Principal of Jews' College, the country's premier rabbinic college. He further forbade him from returning as rabbi to his former synagogue. All because of a book Jacobs had written some years earlier, challenging from a rational perspective the traditional belief in the origins of the Torah, the Jewish Bible.
The British Jewish community was torn apart. It was a scandal unlike anything they had ever previously endured. The national media loved it. Jacobs became a cause celebre, a beacon of reason, a humble man who wouldn't be compromised. His congregation resigned en masse and created a new synagogue for him in Abbey Road, the heart of fashionable 1970s London. It became the go-to venue for Jews seeking reasonable answers to questions of faith.
A prolific author of over 50 books and hundreds of articles on every aspect of Judaism, from the basics of religious belief to the complexities of mysticism and law, Louis Jacobs won the heart and affection of the mainstream British Jewish community. When the Jewish Chronicle ran a poll to discover the Greatest British Jew, Jacobs won hands down. He said it made him feel daft.
In Reason To Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2021), Harry Freedman tells the dramatic and touching story of Louis Jacobs's life, and of the human drama lived out by his family, deeply wounded by his rejection.
Harry Freedman is a leading British author of popular works on Jewish culture and history. His publications include The Talmud: A Biography, Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul, The Murderous History of Bible Translations and The Gospels' Veiled Agenda. He has written for the Guardian, Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Quarterly, Judaism Today and contributed to the Encyclopaedia of Modern Jewish Culture.
Schneur Zalman Newfield is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York, and the author of Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Temple University Press, 2020). Visit him online at ZalmanNewfield.com.