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Misplaced Emphases in Present-day Jewish Life and Thought

Misplaced Emphases in Present-day Jewish Life and Thought

Golders Green, May 1953

Some years ago the German-Jewish scholar. Rabbi Judah Bergmann, wrote an interesting article in which he advanced the thesis that the spirit of Judaism expresses itself in Jewish history by bringing many divergent trends under the unity of its ideal. Thus he remarks that though Jews have sought to emulate the habits and manners of their neighbours they have at the same time been loyal to their own basic ideals; though they have shown a propensity for splitting up into parties and sects they have not failed to remain one people, united in their faith, in their memories of their past and their hopes for the future; though a people with nostalgic longings for their past they responded readily to the stirring call of the new; though extremists, ready to die for an idea, they were hard-headed men of the world who knew the value of the middle path; though ardent particularists, they were also universalists; though dreamers and mystics they gave birth to sons who were legalists and admirers of "the supremacy of reason".

Modern Judaism, the heir to all these trends, has inherited all the tensions of the past. The Judaism of our generation is like an intricate machine to which each former generation has contributed some part; its effectiveness is greatly increased by the variety of those parts but it can easily cease to function if the delicate balance among the parts is disturbed. It is against such a background that we must see the problem of misplaced emphases in present-day Jewish life and thought. If we are possessed of a dynamic conception of Jewish life and history we shall not cavil at the rich variety of Jewish expression. But we shall deplore, in the name of the unity of our faith, any emphasis on one aspect of Jewish life and thought which is so one-sided as to cause a shift in emphasis from other equally valid aspects. The mystics refer to the isolation of one important aspect of Jewish living from the totality of Jewish expression as "lopping off the branches", a remarkable metaphor for the failure to see that the value of the part lies in its relation to the whole.

Before going on to examine instances of such attempts at isolation it is, I hope, unnecessary for me to state that what follows is an attempt merely to sketch the problem and not gratuitously to offer wholesale condemnations of this or that Jewish group. There is something altogether ridiculous about a human being attempting to survey a whole people from a lofty eyrie of his own as if he did not belong to the group whose faults he sees so clearly and examines so ruthlessly. Still less can a Jew with sympathy for the great creative strivings of his people's rebirth in the world of today, approach the spiritual problems of that people with the cool detachment of an anthropologist looking in on the Trobriand islanders.

The popular apophthegm, which has its origin in the Zohar (1), 'The Holy One, Blessed be He, Israel, and the Torah are one spiritual unity,' is the true expression of the view-point of historic Judaism. There were, of course, at all times, Jews who laid greater stress on one or the other component. Of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev it was said that he loved God and he loved the Torah but his love of the Jews surpassed them both. There were many who were so 'God-intoxicated' that the love of God was the strongest force in their lives. And the representive lamdan found in the Torah his first and best love. But it was left for Jews in modern times to attempt to break this unity by isolating one component from the others.

Thus today we have Jews, such as many of those belonging to the Reform wing who, while stressing the importance of the God idea of Judaism, have virtually surrendered the concept of Torah and have relegated to the background the concept of Israel as a living people with its own civilisation. There are the groups of the Neturei Karta type who in spite of, or because of, their vociferous protestations of loyalty to God and His Torah have adopted a most unfortunate negative approach to Israel. And, most dangerous of all from the religious point of view, there are the advocates of a 'secular' form of Judaism, who love Israel and who are even prepared to embrace the Torah as the expression of Israel's ideals but who have no room for God in their Weltanschauung.

We need hardly waste time in criticizing the Neturei Karta. Only a minute, unrealistic sect with blinkers on the eyes of its members can fail to see the utter impossibility of a Judaism which does not recognize the State of Israel. Certainly the fears expressed not so long ago that the existence of this group constitutes a real menace because other religious groups in Israel may, in the words of a recent writer (2), 'repudiate the Neturei Karta today, yet use them tomorrow, secretly, to put pressure on the socialists,' appear to be unfounded.

The Reform viewpoint, constituting as it does a breach in the unity of which I have spoken, deserves more careful consideration and more detailed criticism. Classical Reform, with its talk of Germans, Frenchmen, Englishmen and Americans of the 'Mosaic persuasion', with its negative attitude towards the Hebrew language and with its omission of Zion from the liturgy, sought to develop a Judaism without the concept of Israel in its traditional connotation. It is only fair to remark that some Reformers have learnt the error of their ways in this matter. The example of staunch Zionists like the late Stephen Wise springs immediately to mind. But the concept of Torah is still almost totally absent from the Reform programme. Mordecai Kaplan, whose own views on Judaism we shall have occasion to examine shortly, rightly says (3):

"Although Reformism departs radically from the traditional conceptions of God and Israel, it considers these conceptions in their modernised form, and all that they imply in terms of belief and practice as constituting the very substance of Judaism. But with regard to the concept 'Torah' and to all that it implies concerning the form and authority of Judaism's social and cultural institutions, traditional Judaism and Reformism seem to have nothing in common. Reformism practically dispenses with the concept of 'Torah'. In the platform of the Pittsburgh Conference the very mention of Torah is omitted, and all that is remembered of the part it played in Judaism is referred to by the colourless term 'Mosaic Legislation'."

Kaplan further (4) notes the close resemblance which religion bears to law in historic Judaism: "The resemblance to law is borne out by the fact that in Jewish literature, until the medieval period, there was no special term for religion: quite a paradox from the Reformist viewpoint. The term that passed for what now corresponds to religion was Torah, which at once suggests the aspect of law. Even the relatively recent term 'din' specifically reserved for religion, means law."

Here is not the place to dwell in detail on the central position which Torah must occupy in any true interpretation of Judaism but it is perhaps not untimely to refer to a peculiar danger to which any system of Judaism which dispenses with halakhah is prone. The value of the legal mind is that its possessor faces the religious life with the sobriety and sanity without which religion takes on bizarre and unhealthy forms. Jewish law regulates and controls the religious emotions. The Shulkhan Aruch contains laws of martyrdom and charity; even two such natural manifestations of the religious life are carefully controlled by law. Here we have something unique in the history of religion. Every faith has its martyrs who willingly sacrificed their lives in their enthusiasm. Judaism alone demands that its adherents should approach the supreme sacrifice in a calm sober mood.

P. G. Wodehouse has a character who is a hard-boiled, young writer of crime and detective stories to whom a romantic novelist aunt leaves a large legacy on condition that he spends at least six months of the year at the abode in which she concocted her most sentimental plots, Honeysuckle Cottage. The story describes the crippling effect which the aura of the place has on the young man's literary efforts, so that his vigorous, masculine prose is constantly invaded by maudlin sentiment. A Judaism divorced from halakhah must share the fate of the hero of this story. Comparing halakhic Judaism with its non-halakhic rivals one is struck by its masculinity and fundamental sanity.

To the outside observer it often appears that Christianity suffers from a kind of emotional tinge from which Judaism is mercifully free. Love and charity and meekness are very wonderful things but if not controlled the striving after them can produce the narrow, cramping, soul-destroying 'goody-goody' character that has become, perhaps unfairly, the butt of the music-hall joke. There can be little doubt that it is halakhah that has saved Judaism from this type of emotionalism.

The most dangerous of the new trends in Jewish thought is the deliberate attempt to secularize Judaism. Far more alarming than the preaching of God and Torah without Israel and God and Israel without Torah, is the preaching of Torah and Israel without God. Under the influence of the positivists there arose towards the end of the last century, the idea that the characteristically Jewish way of life and the Jewish spiritual and ethical ideals could be effectively preserved and propagated even though the God idea, which, in the past, had been the driving force behind those ideals, had been dispensed with. According to this view the mitzvoth ought to he kept but not as a means of bringing man nearer to God but as 'folk-ways' and for their preservation value.

Ahad Ha'am, one of the most prominent representatives of this school, was the author of the well-known aphorism : 'More than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel.' A profoundly true observation but one which has been only too often interpreted to mean that the sole purpose of the Sabbath is its keeping of Israel. It was Ahad Ha'am who drew a distinction between religious feeling and religious truth: between ani ma'amin and ani margish and who advised an observant Jew who had no religious faith to continue to keep the mitsvot for their pragmatic value. (5)

In our day this trend is strongly represented in the Reconstructionist movement in America, the founder and leading spirit of which is Mordecai Kaplan. Now Kaplan indignantly repudiates the accusation that his movement reduces Judaism to a secular culture. 'Somehow,' he says, (6) 'there has always been a tendency to confuse the deprecation of unimaginative religiosity with the advocacy of secularism.'

But it is clear from Kaplan's writings that Reconstructionism is far removed from a mere 'deprecation of unimaginative religiosity.' It is clear, for example, that the movement has to all intents and purposes abandoned the idea of a personal God. Thinkers like Kaplan have never been able to appreciate that the rejection of an anthropomorphic conception of God does not necessarily mean the jettisoning of the belief in God as a 'person'. If personality is found in His creatures how can it not be present in Him? Traditional Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides with his doctrine of negative attributes and his rejection of anthropomorphism as heresy cannot be accused of entertaining a crude, unrefined conception of the Deity, but they conceived of Him as more than personality, not less, as, in the words of William Temple, a He, not an It. On every issue of the Reconstructionist, the magazine of the movement, there appears a seal. The symbolism of this seal is thus explained (7):

'The form is that of a wheel. The hub of the wheel is Palestine, the centre of Jewish civilisation from which all the dynamic forces of Judaism radiate. Religion, culture and ethics are the spokes by which the vital influence of Palestine affects and stimulates Jewish life everywhere and enables it to make its contribution to the civilisation of mankind. The wheel has an inner and an outer rim. The inner rim represents the Jewish community that even in the dispersion maintains its contact with the Jewish civilisation rooted in Palestine, by the spiritual bonds of religion, ethics and culture. The outer rim is the general community, for us the community of America, with which the Jewish civilisation as lived by the Jewish community maintains contact at every point. The seal thus symbolises the whole philosophy of the Reconstructionist movement.'

Thus instead of Torah preceding from Zion and 'the word of the Lord' from Jerusalem, it is 'vital influence' (whatever that may mean) and 'Jewish civilisation' which is to proceed from there, and religion is just one of the spokes by which these affect and stimulate Jewish life. A letter writer (8) in the unhappily now defunct 'Jewish Monthly' aptly remarks: 'But the objective fact remains that, while Classical Reform was eating terefa and thinking kasher, the new trends culminating in Reconstructionism teach one to eat kasher but to think terefa.'

There is an interesting statistical study, illustrative of the secular trends in American Jewish life, entitled 'Disciples of the Wise' by Joseph Zeitlin, published by Columbia University in New York in 1945. The author planned the study in order to ascertain what rabbis believe and preach. Several hundred rabbis of the Reform, Orthodox and Conservative wings were issued with a detailed questionnaire on religious problems. From the study the following are among the results which emerge. Only two rabbis in an entire group of 218 define God as a first cause, and only one out of seven as the literal creator of the universe. The remainder believe that the nature of God is best expressed as: 'a) the sum total of forces which make for greater intelligence, beauty, goodness; b) the unitary creative impulse which expresses itself in organic evolution and human progress; c) the symbol of all that we consider good and true.'

On the subject of prayer less than six per cent of the 209 rabbis who registered their opinion find the principal function of prayer to be that of actual bringing about divine aid. The remainder consider prayers to be worthwhile chiefly because they 'a) give the suppliant the feeling of divine support; b) afford psychological relief; c) promote Jewish unity, or d) raise the level of moral life.' Indicative of the naturalistic as against the supernaturalistic view is the belief of the large majority of the group interviewed that the concept of sin which needs greatest emphasis in our age is to be expressed in social terms, either as 'a) harm to neighbours, friends and business associates; b) harm to society; c) support of or acquiescence to accepted institutions which are socially harmful.'

In last year's Luah Ha'aretz, the Israeli annual, there appeared a thoughtful article by Professor Ernst Simon with the provocative title, 'Ha'im od yehudim anahnu?' ('Are We still Jews?') (9). In this article Professor Simon states his concern at the growing secularization of Jewish life. In brilliant fashion he describes the historical reasons for this phenomenon, showing how the Hebrew language, art, love and labour were gradually removed from the domain of the sacred into the secular. He concludes that the only way to redress the balance is by a more intensive religious education in which, for example, the Bible will be presented not only as great Jewish literature but as the source book of our faith.

Among the examples given by Simon of the secularisation of Jewish life, the following may be quoted. First he notes that there is a widespread tendency, even among religious Jews, to substitute the Jewish people for God-shem ha'am for shem hashem as Simon calls it. The words 'Who can utter the mighty acts of the Lord?' (Psalms 106: 2) have been changed in a popular song to 'Who can utter the mighty acts of Israel?' He notes also the frequent use of the term 'tarbut' for concepts formerly included in the term 'Torah'-a fundamental change in that 'tarbut' refers to the natural origin of the Jewish religious classics whereas 'Torah' underlines their divine aspect. And two examples he gives of this kind of secularisation among the Young show the danger to posterity. A high school boy. when asked for his views on religion said: 'Religion is either for the very foolish or the very wise, but not for us ordinary people.' And a child of nine in a kibbutz when asked 'Who created the world?' answered: 'Hapoalim.'

That Simon's fears were not unfounded is evidenced by the sinister tendencies of the Canaanite movement (10) whose young adherents find their affinity with the ancient Canaanites and repudiate three thousand years of spiritual progress. The Canaanites are at the moment merely a lunatic fringe but they are the logical outcome of a secularist philosophy of Jewish existence.

This must not be construed as a criticism of Israel. Simon is dealing with conditions in Israel but the secularist trend is at least as strong outside Israel as inside it. (11) If we are to combat secularism we must not be afraid of affirming that religion is sui generis an end in itself, not to be used solely as a means to an end, be that end the attainment of 'peace of mind', or of a better society or even the preservation of the Jewish people. This is not, of course, to deny that any real form of Judaism will accomplish these ends as well and must, indeed, be sufficiently wide to include them in its programme.

As a result of a secular-nationalist philosophy of Judaism, its universalistic aspects have been neglected. In the traditional view, God as the Father of Mankind is concerned with the welfare of all his children. True, the universalism of the Prophets was the expression of a longing that the whole world would recognise the God of Israel, but this did not prevent them bringing the word of God to the gentiles as gentiles. There are certain fundamental moral truths Judaism has always taught, certain basic rules of conduct binding on all men and on every form of society. But with the attempt to banish the God idea which alone gave universalism its strength there has been less and less emphasis on the wider ideal.

There is, of course, little we can do at the moment to propagate the universalistic element in our faith. A long time will have to elapse before the despised Jew will be accepted by the outside world as its teacher. A movement, for example, on a large scale to convert non-Jews to Judaism can hardly be considered seriously. A year or two ago, Dr. Litvin, writing in 'The Gates of Zion' (12) advocated the formation of such a missionary movement, but quite apart from the fact that he did great harm to his cause by prefacing his essay with a reference to a 'Jewish World Empire'- a predominately secular concept-his views are too visionary to command even a limited acceptance. But what can be done is to attempt to show the relevance of Jewish teaching to the problems facing mankind. Why should there not be pronouncements by Jewish spiritual leaders-as there have been such pronouncements by the leaders of other faiths-on such problems as the use of atomic energy and the creation of a just social order?

In this connection we may notice a series of sermons, delivered by the Chief Rabbi and other distinguished Anglo-Jewish preachers at the Hampstead Synagogue on 'The Challenge of Historical Judaism to Our Time,' dealing with the general problems with which thinking men and women of all faiths are grappling. Why should we not have more of this kind of teaching? I have often wondered why it is that no one appears to have thought of publishing a work on the Jewish message to the non-Jewish world, on the demands of the Noahide laws for example. It is well known that D. Schapiro argued that these laws as expanded and developed in rabbinic literature could form the basis of a universalistic faith. Why should the idea of a Jewish mission to the world be a Reform monopoly?

The neglect of the universalistic element in Judaism has been accompanied by a corresponding lack of interest in the spiritual welfare of the individual. It is true that in Judaism the individual Jew must not fail to look upon himself as part of K'lal Yisrael but it is also true that he does not exist solely for the 'Kl'al'. Having suffered so much at the hands of those diabolically inspired by totalitarian philosophies, Jews can hardly take kindly to a totalitarian view of religion. Our faith must have an appeal to the individual soul in its search for the divine.

Among the younger Jewish American writers there has been a revolt against a presentation of Judaism in which is found too little of 'eternity' and too much of 'time'. These men reject a religion of accommodation and a too comfortable faith. True, these writers are influenced by Protestant 'crisis theology'. Their viewpoint has not unfairly been caricatured (13) as 'Kierkegaard with a yarmulka'. And in a powerful article in Commentary, (14) Israel Knox speaks, not without justice, in his criticism of these writers of 'the retreat from reason now customary.' Knox is undoubtedly correct when he comments as follows on Barth. Barth says: 'We are not the ones to change this evil world into a good world. God has not resigned his lordship over it into our hands. The salvation of the world, which has already been accomplished, was not our work.' We must agree with Knox when he remarks that Barth's view is thoroughly Pauline and alien to Judaism. All this is true yet one cannot help feeling that Judaism loses as well as gains from a completely this-worldly orientation. I submit for your consideration that we do a great disservice to Judaism if we never allow its other-worldly aspect to come to the fore.

The most striking difference between any modern interpretation of Judaism and the Judaism of Rabbinic or Medieval times is the shift of emphasis from other-worldliness to this-wordliness. From the Mishnah (15) which gave the teacher precedence of the father because the latter brings his child into this world while the former prepares him for eternal life, to the Mesilat Yesharim with its complete other-worldly orientation, the world to come was regarded as the only setting against which the life of man in this world can be understood,

There is an abrupt departure from this in modern Jewish thought, the cause of which we need not go far to seek. As a result of the Emancipation, the Jewish people has had to face a tremendous problem of adjustment. Small wonder that the fate and prospects of Jews in the realm of eternity were forgotten in the grim, practical struggle to find a way for Jews to live as Jews in the world of time. And no sooner had the bubble of Emancipation been rudely pricked than the dream of national revival came to the fore. Once again the best Jewish thinkers were concerned with severely practical problems. The goal of Jewish striving became the assurance of immortality to the soul of the people rather than of the individual.

Side by side with this special reason there was the general decline, in which Jews shared, of faith in an afterlife. The revolt against Victorian indifference to shocking social conditions here on earth because of the promise of future bliss: the widening horizons of science demonstrating for the first time the impossibility of a Heaven literally above us and a Hell gaping beneath our feet; the growth of materialism and the alleged conflict between science and religion; all these contributed to the rejection of the belief in an afterlife. Marx and Lenin who spoke of religion as opium for the people and Shaw who ridiculed the belief in a harp-playing heaven and a 'coal cellar' Hell were voicing the feeling of their age.

Among non-Jewish religious thinkers this century has witnessed a reaction in favour of an other-worldly interpretation of religion. Judaism alone appears to be unaffected by this reaction. Until the State of Israel is firmly established and flourishes both materially and spiritually, Jewish thinkers will be pre-eminently concerned with this life and its problems. But sooner or later the conception of the 'olam haba,' so inextricably woven into the fabric of Judaism, must come into its own and its attainment be a fruitful source of Jewish striving. Any presentation of Judaism without it is bound to be shallow, unsatisfying, unedifying and unspiritual. The Hamlet of Judaism, if it is to be effectively presented, must not only be staged with the princely hero but it must not leave out the ghost.

I hope that I shall not be misunderstood. I believe that we have lost nothing and gained a great deal by banishing the preaching of Hell-fire from our pulpits. We are not Catholics. A saying such as that of Cardinal Newman that it would be better that the sun should fall from heaven, that the earth should be destroyed and that all its inhabitants should perish in agony, than that one person should commit a single venial sin, though no one was injured by it, is repugnant to the Jewish conscience. But this in no way excuses us from viewing life from the aspect of eternity. Only the spiritually insensitive can imagine the doctrine of immortality, in its refined interpretation, to be retrogressive.

What is required is a synthesis of the kind appreciated by the great mystics and expressed in the remarkable paradox in Avot: 'Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the world to come; and better is one hour of blissfulness of spirit in the world to come than the whole of this life' (4.22). Dean Inge (16) has spoken of this kind of synthesis, in which neither this world is given up for the next, nor the next world for this, in words to which Jews need have no hesitation in subscribing. 'Whitehead says boldly that it is possible to spiritualize our religion over much. And on the other hand, a secularized religion has neither savour nor salt. The former error may lead us into a realm of values which have no reality, the latter into a realm of realities which have no value. Philosophy can show us that we must do justice to both claims if either of them is to he established; but to make this truth our own is not the beginning, but the end of wisdom.'

'Philosophy can show us–there's the rub. For the plain truth is, disguise it as we may. there is far too much emphasis today on the emotional content of Judaism and not enough emphasis on its intellectual content. On the lower level this emotional approach is evident by an unintelligent aping of the very methods of our parents without any attempt to question their validity in the face of totally different conditions. On the higher level it manifests itself in a failure to grapple with the real problems posed by modern thought. Lest we feel too complacent in this matter we should be aware that a prominent rabbinic leader in Israel frowned on the researches of a Cassuto as 'Epikorsus.' If we wish to see the bitter fruits of such an ostrich policy we have only to converse with the average Jewish university student whose domestic piety has rapidly disintegrated under the influence of his university environment and who imagines that he is revolting against real Judaism when he attacks the obscurantist teaching of his youth.

Maimonides, in his famous discussion or the middle path, advises that path to be eschewed where a tendency exists towards one of the extremes. The man prone to greediness will not cure himself of this defect without going, for the time being, to the opposite extreme of over-generosity. Later homilists use in illustration of this the mashal of the bamboo cane. To straighten out a bent bamboo cane it is not sufficient to bend it into a straight position. If it is to remain straight, it has to be bent in the opposite direction.

I am not going to be so foolish as to attempt to give a solution for the problem of misplaced emphases in present-day Jewish life and thought. But it may be permitted to remark that the path towards a solution will be found if we follow the advice of the ancient teachers in counteracting wrong emphasis by stressing and perhaps on occasion even by temporarily over-stressing-those aspects in danger of being forgotten or overlooked. It may well be that if we oppose the secularist interpretation of Judaism by the advocacy of a refined, spiritual approach to our faith from which the other-worldly element is not absent, an approach which is inspired by an imaginative religious spirit but which is prevented from excesses by the stability of its loyalty to the halakhah, which has the breadth of universalism together with the depth of particularism, we shall help to bring into Jewish life and thought greater spirituality and firmer balance.

  1. The actual words are later than the Zohar but the thought can be traced back to it, see Zohar, Beshalah, p.60a, Lublin, 1882. Mishpatim, p.28a and Yithro 87a, cf. Israel Bettan: 'Studies in Jewish Preaching,' Cincinnati, 1939, p.39, n.94.
  2. Alfred Weiner in Commentary, Vol IX, Jan. 1951, pp. 61-67.
  3. 'Judaism as a Civilisation,' New York, 1934, pp,103-4.
  4. op. cit. p. 125.
  5. See 'Ahad Ha'am and Traditional Judaism' (Heb.) in Metzudah, ed. S. Rawidowicz. Lend. 1943, pp. 147-152.
  6. 'Judaism in Transition,' New York, 1936, Introd.
  7. The Reconstructionist, Vol. XI, No. 1 (Feb. 23rd, 1945), p. 15.
  8. Jacob J. Petuchowski in letter in Jewish Monthly, July, 1951. 56
  9. Luah Ha'aretz, Tel Aviv, 1951-2, pp. 97-129.
  10. See B. Kurzweil's article in Luah Ha'aretz, 1952-3, Tel Aviv, pp.107-129.
  11. In a thoughtful article in Commentary, April, 1950, pp. 315-325, entitled 'The Postwar Revival of the Synagogue,' Will Herberg speaks of what he calls the inner decay of the American synagogue resulting in its own kind of secularization. 'To put it plainly,' says Herberg, 'the synagogue in America no longer represents a community of believers. Nothing in the way of belief or practice-not even the belief in God or the practice of the most elementary mitzvot-may be taken for granted among synagogue members.' Herberg calls for the synagogue's return to religious essentials, a return which involves 'the return of the rabbi from his present functions as administrator, political leader, and popular lecturer, to his earlier and more authentic role of religious teacher and counsellor.'
  12. July, 1949, pp. 23-27.
  13. Jacob J. Petuchowski quoted in note 8 above.
  14. 'A Humanist Religion for Modern Man (Judaism as a This-Worldly Way of Life)' by Israel Knox, Commentary, Vol. IX, No. 1, Jan. 1950. pp. 18-28.
  15. B.M.I I, 11.
  16. 'The Modern Outlook in Ethics' in The Modern Churchman, Vol. XX Aug.-Oct., 1930, pp. 265-264.
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