Monday, March 01, 2004

Not Only Is It Emes, It's A Fact

Just got back from hearing "The Boundaries of Heresy" panel at Jewish Book Week (or, as we like to call it, Book Week. To go with The Embassy, The Chronicle and The Quarterly. Because when the whole world's Jewish, who needs a signigifier?). The panel was Louis Jacobs, Geoffrey Alderman, David-Hillel Ruben and Clive Lawton, chaired by Joshua Rozenberg.

Without a doubt, the best thing about Louis Jacobs is that despite decades of being away from the Greater Suburban Northwest, he's lost neither his Manchester accent nor northern sensibility, and he's a great racconteur. He's also pushing eighty five, and while totally on the ball, surely not as sharp as he was in 1957. Anglo-Jewry likes nothing more than old men who are well-past scary.

Joshua opened the evening with a short history of the Jacobs Affairs (1961 and 1964), and then posed a series of questions Louis Jacobs; what's his view on Torah min hashamayim (the concept of the five books being straight from heaven - effectively divine revelation), given the chance to look back on the Jacobs Affair, does he now beleive the Israel Salanter view that "not everything that is thought should be expressed, not everything that is expressed verbally should be written, and not everything that is written should be published." Not the question will we have Jewish grandchildren, which Louis Jacobs already has, but will we have the office of the Chief Rabbi in the future, some room for personal reflection, we may or may not get onto the current chief Rabbi, and the future of Anglo-Jewry. Short-order, then.

[Anglo-Jewish history lesson: short form. Louis Jacobs was on track to be Chief Rabbi, he published We Have Reason To Believe in 1957. In 1959, for a host of probably politcal reasons, people read it, and discovered that he wasn't commited to Torah min hashamayim, and beleived in a divinely inspired text. He never made it to Chief Rabbi, head of Jews College, or even back to his original pulpit. This one ran and ran. Two Jews, three opinions? Not even close. Lesson over.]

Geoffrey Alderman, who's a historian and the author of Modern British Jewry, talked us through the pre-history, the history, and the post-history. But it was Jacobs who came out with the gem that about the Maurice Joseph affair at Dennington Park Road, where he was apparently denied a pulpit for admiting that he couldn't honestly pray for the restoration of sacrifices. And this from a shul with a mixed choir. Struck me that Alderman's not so much a professor of Jewish history as a professor of Jewish gossip: while fascinating, his stories took on the timbre of a North London Friday night dinner table and the broiguses that includes. Kinda Suzie Gold with balls and politics.

I was only very slightly surprised that there were probably 700 people in the room, five men on the panel, and of the ten or so questions from the audience, only one from a woman. Quel surprise that that woman was me. I was interested to know what Rabbi Jacobs thought about a post-denominational future for Anglo Jewry (he mentioned in passing the idea of having a "foreman for all the Jews", which I was keen for him to expand on). He took it as an opportunity to "tell tales out of school" with his unique mix of boyish charm and northern humour. Edited highlights:

Isaac Woolfson (then president of the United Synagogue) said to him: "they tell me your aim is to bring the intellectuals nearer to the synagogue. First, you'll never succeed. Secondly, who wants them?"

Talking about Chief Rabbi Adler during the "Joseph Affair" at Dennington Park Road, he said that Adler "inhibited Joseph from serving as minister in an orthodox shul.". "Where did Adler get his inhibitions?" Jacobs asks. "The same place he got his gaiters - from the Anglican church."

"Who am I?" he continued. "My zaide came from Telz in Lithuania. My first community in Manchester was thoroughly heimish, I taught a blatt gemorah in Yiddish. When I came to London, it was different. Ango-Jewry used the word frum, but added meshuggah. Meshuggah frum - gone too far. But a very high level of piety, all the Lords and Ladies and Knights, kneeling on the floor on Yom Kippur. I believe very strongly in minhag Anglia, but that's nothing to do with my theology."

And theology is what still turns Louis Jacobs on. He was much more excited about debating the philosophical nuances than in community politics, or he was tonight. I have no idea what he was like as a thrusting your Rabbi in the early sixties. All I do know is that sometimes, the people of the book turn into the people of the argument, and no-one wins. Clive Lawton said that the tragedy was that we'd trapped Louis Jacobs in a time-warp talking about his first book, and in doing so, had lost out on all the other great work and works he might have produced if things had been otherwise.

Also, we might have had a chief Rabbi from Manchester, and that could have been no bad thing.

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