On Being a Mentsch: The Legacy of Rabbi Louis Jacobs With a Nod to the Opposite of a Mentsch, Jonathan Sacks

Rabbi Louis Jacobs was a mentsch. The word is Yiddish and conveys the notion of an honorable person. In today’s dialect, one might say that he was a stand-up-guy. I need to say at the outset that Rabbi Jacobs was far more Orthodox than I am comfortable with. I would not consider attending his synagogue because he was adamantly opposed to allowing women to have have the opportunities for public prayer. In Rabbi Jacob’s synagogue women were not called to the Torah, they did not chant the services, and they did not even sit with men.

Louis Jacobs was a thoroughly orthopractic rabbi. He scrupulously kept Jewish dietary law and honored the Sabbath and the festivals. He was consulted far and wide by those who sought to live their lives according to Halakhah, the standards of traditional Jewish practice.

Louis Jacobs was a highly educated man. He earned both the Rabbinic ordination and a secular doctorate at the most rigorous of institutions. He was a faculty member of the Jews College of London and a visiting professor at the Harvard Divinity School. By the end of his life he authored 50 books including one of the standards of modern Jewish scholarship, the Oxford Companion to the Jewish Religion.

In 2005, a Jewish newspaper with the highest circulation in the British Commonwealth conducted a poll to determine who was the greatest British Jew of all time. Rabbi Jacobs handily defeated Moses Montefiore and Benjamin Disraeil. A silly poll to be sure, but still!

Despite these vast accomplishments in both the scholarly and religious realms, Rabbi Jacobs became a target of hostility by the British Orthodox establishment. What was his great sin? In one of this 50 books, We Have Reason to Believe, published in 1957, Rabbi Dr Jacobs expressed his support for scholars who discerned different documents comprising the Torah. This doctrine, known as the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) had been in development for over a century by then and was and still is the accepted theory of the construction of the Torah by every Biblical scholar who is willing to apply to the Bible standard literary and historical analyses to ancient materials.

The DH is even accepted by major Christian denominations and taught, for example, in the seminaries of the Roman Catholic Church. The opposition to the DH is confined to two populations–the Evangelical Protestants who group the DH with Evolution as forbidden doctrines,  and extreme Orthodox Jews. The reason I qualify Orthodox with “extreme” is that there are people who call themselves “Modern Orthodox” who have found various ways to deal with the literary theories of the creation of the Bible without simply denying obvious fact.

Upon publication of We Have Reason to Believe (which has gone through more than five editions), Rabbi Jacobs was branded a heretic by members of the British Orthodox establishment. He was slated to become the Head of the Jews College of London, but that path was now blocked. He was compelled to change congregations–and more than once.

Eventually, a group of Jews coalesced around Rabbi Jacobs who worshiped according to tradition, kept dietary laws and were in almost all respects indistinguishable from Orthodooxy. They took the name Masorti which means “traditional.” This could have become a numerically significant movement in England akin to the Conservative Movement in the United States, except that ironically enough, Rabbi Jacobs was too Orthodox. The Jews interested in the Conservative Movement were pressing for greater reform, particularly with regard to the removal of a barrier between men and women (mehitzah).

When Rabbi Jacobs was 83 years old, he went to an Orthodox synagogue on the occasion of the uphruph of his granddaughter. (Uphruph is a Yiddish word which means a celebration of an upcoming wedding.) He expected, as is the custom, to be called to the Torah. But in a public display of pique, he was denied this opportunity by the order of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was in a position of authority at this synagogue. Rabbi Sacks claimed that he was saving Rabbi Jacobs from the sin of perjury, since he was precluding him from participating in a ceremony which proclaims that the Torah is truth and all its words are truth.

Thus Rabbi Sacks struck a great blow for Orthodoxy. He deprived an old man of the opportunity to honor his granddaughter.

Rabbi Jacobs held to his view of tradition and was surrounded by a loving congregation, the New London Synagogue, from 1964 to his death in 2006. It was in the year before his death that he received news that British Jews viewed him as the most influential Jew who ever lived in England.

Rabbi Sacks will be recalled as vindictive and bitter, spreading disharmony and hostility within the Jewish community. He recently gave a speech before the House of Lords (he was recently named a Baron of the British Empire) which was heard by at least the two or three Lords who turned out in an otherwise empty chamber. He is the very definition of the word “jerk.” I believe that Rabbi Jacobs will be remembered for his humility, piety, dedication to congregants and students, and for his willingness to engage with modernity. That is why, even though I disagree with him on many of the important issues of the times, I say that Rabbi Jacobs will be remembered as a mensch.