Originally published in the Jewish Quarterly, 35.1 (129) (1988), pp. 6-7.
In memoriam Louis Littman
Seest thou a man diligent in his occupation! He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men (Proverbs 22: 29)
My text, surely applicable to the life of Louis Littman, speaks of a man diligent in his occupation. Such a man is worthy to stand before kings because there is dignity and nobility in his make-up. He cannot abide mean men because he is remote from subterfuge and liberal in character. Louis was “diligent in his occupation”; in whatever he undertook he applied himself to it with single-minded dedication, undaunted by obstacles and challenges; refusing to be put off by adverse criticism; seeing his goal with the utmost clarity and pursuing it unceasingly until it had been attained. With this dedication wedded to a highly gifted mind it is small wonder that Louis achieved so much. He was a human dynamo and yet managed to preserve his calmness of spirit. Busy though he was in all sorts of activities he never gave the impression of busyness. When it came to the calls of friendship and conviviality, Louis never pleaded that he had too many other things on his mind. There must have been tensions in the soul of this very shy, sensitive personality, yet they never showed.
Louis had many talents which he exercised to the full. He was a great traveller, a lover of art and music, a man of law, a prominent figure in the world of commerce where he enjoyed a reputation of integrity, and the developer of a dairy farm that has won enviable international renown. But because he was a deeply religious man he claimed little of the credit for himself, attributing his success to God’s blessing. That is why he managed to attain a certain detachment from his successes, almost as if they were not his at all but those of someone else.
That was Louis’s public face. Many friends saw his more private side on the many occasions when they enjoyed his and his wife Collette’s generous hospitality in their beautiful home, where the conversation would range over books, travel, the theatre, religion and politics, including Anglo-Jewish religion and politics; on all these Louis’s contribution came from a well-stocked mind. It was not always easy to share his views, which he held with the strength, not to say rigidity, which comes from a prolonged struggle with the truth—“the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He”, in the language of the rabbis. He rarely budged from his opinions but tried to avoid dogmatism, not always too successfully. But he never failed in his courtesy to his guests, listening carefully to their arguments which, in his calm manner, he proceeded to demolish. A debate with Louis on such matters as ethics, morals and women rabbis, his particular bête noir, was great fun and an exhilarating experience. Opinionated he may have been at times, but any kind of bombast was foreign to his gentle nature.
Louis’s love of literature was phenomenal. As a young boy in America, far from home, he made his home in great libraries, solidly reading through the whole of the Bible, works on ancient, mediaeval and modern history, the classics and, as he said in the remarkable paper he read to the Jewish Historical Society, interrupting his studies to read a novel of Dickens or Thackeray! The paper was published in The Jewish Quarterly (a journal to which he made a noteworthy contribution) with the revealing title: “Get Wisdom. Get Understanding”. Because he wished others, especially young, intelligent Jews, to get wisdom and understanding, he embarked on his scheme for the publication of works, both scholarly and popular, on Jewish life and thought. The Littman Library, which he created single-handedly, now has forty titles and there are more to come. Before he passed away, Louis made arrangements for the work of the Littman Library to continue. He intended it as a memorial to his father. It will now also be a memorial to him, through which his name will go down in history.
For all his worldly achievements, there was what can only be described as a mystical element in Louis’s character, exhibited especially in his love of the country, of nature in all manifestations, in his recognition of, as the Jewish mystics put it, the divine energy by which all things are sustained. I recall walking with him in his beloved Dorset when he would halt in the middle of an argument to admire a tree or a flower or the sun shining on a cornfield. The portion of the Torah to be read in the synagogue this week contains the account of the theophany at Sinai. (Incidentally, whenever he was in town Louis would be there in the synagogue, following the reading in the Hertz Chumash which he perused with a not uncritical eye.) A verse in the account says that when God revealed His will at Sinai the people “saw the sounds” (roim el hakolot). The Midrash comments that at that moment of intense elevation of spirit “they saw that which is normally only heard”; that is to say, the material universe receded and the world of the spirit, hitherto sensed only from afar, became so real that they could sec it. Behind nature there are those who see the God of nature—like the Spanish mystic who composed the Zohar in the opening passage of which there is a poem on the pinkness of the rose as representing the glorious harmony on high between the divine justice and divine mercy.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
Louis’s Hebrew name was Aryeh, meaning “a lion”. In his slight, physical frame there resided the courage of a lion. Throughout his life Louis was a brave fighter for what he held to be right. For the last five years he struggled against a debilitating illness with hardly a word about his sufferings. Only a man of his fortitude could have worked to the last without giving in. His end was peaceful. Surrounded by his dear ones this man of spirit went to meet the God he had sought all his life. More than once he had held Eternity in the palm of his hand. Now he has grasped it never to let it go.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs delivered this address at the memorial service for Louis Littman in the New London Synagogue on 31 January 1988.
Louis was, above all a religious man, a great believer whose faith met on a wider plain the concepts of the other believers like himself, transcending every restriction, every creed subjected to an instinctive need to rationalize and to the passing of time.
He loved God through the Creation like an overwhelmed child bound by admiration and gratitude, marvelling at a flower or a shaft of sunshine layered by mist with the same spontaneity and the joy with which he marvelled at a tractor or a piece of farm machinery. He saw no difference between them; for him they were different aspects of the same thing. He served God in everything he did, in publishing books promoting the learning of philosophy and theology, in creating a harmonious world of peace both in his home and around him, in bringing the land to its full potential, giving a greater dignity to every aspect of life. A voracious reader, he shared in the thoughts of the great thinkers of the past, picking up the living thread which unfolds through history and art in which he saw the unconscious sublimation of mankind’s religious aspirations.
There was in him a peculiar and touching blend of realism, which prompted him to deepen every facet of life, and dreams, which gave his achievements a special dimension. His love of nature was rooted in his instinct for life, in the strong feel for the land, in the sense of responsibility toward it and those it supports; he shared with the builders of empires, those consolidators of the past, a mystical sense of the earth, the symbol of basic life and Divine Creation.
Colette C. Littman