Rabbi Jacobs offer his person reflections on three leading Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century.
He begins by recounting a public exchange he had with Emmanuel Levinas at a symposium they both attended. Their dispute was about religious tolerance in the pre-modern age and the application of the Talmud to modern philosophy. He then turns to consider traditional doctrines of human and saintly behaviour and their place in Levinas’s philosophy.
Rabbi Jacobs highlights the difficulties that he personally found in Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s method, which he feels is hard reconcile with a historical-critical approach. He takes issue with an underlying premise of Rav Soloveitchik’s keynote publication, Halachic Man, illustrating his concerns by pointing out what he considers to be a revealing error.
Finally Rabbi Jacobs turns to Rav A.I. Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine. Educated at the highly esteemed but narrowly focused yeshiva at Volozhin, Rav Kook wanted to broaden his outlook. He learnt English, studied Rembrandt’s pictures, in which he saw kabbalistic allusions, and embraced modern technology. Rabbi Jacobs considers various aspect of Rav Kook’s thought, particularly his harmonising of the Genesis account of creation with kabbalistic theory and the reasons behind his tolerant attitude to those who did not observe religion, before discussing the dispute with Chief Rabbi Hertz over Rav Kook’s award of semicha to conscientious objectors during World War 1.