Lecture given on Sunday 13th November 2016 as part of the Honest Theology project.
Many Jews are proud that their Judaism is not exclusivist in the way that some other religions are: non-Jews are not condemned as such; they too are valued by and bonded to God, if not by the Mosaic then by the Noahide covenant. There is also an idea that the righteous among the nations have a place in the world to come. However, there is another less comfortable strand of Jewish thought, which emphasises the difference between the souls of Jews and non-Jews, and sometimes seems to regard non-Jews as made in the likeness but not in the image of God. Some versions of Judaism, far from marginal, are in fact highly exclusivist.
This lecture confronts this line of thinking honestly and openly, and explores whether it might in fact be more nuanced, with some inclusive and universalist ideas emerging alongside the more challenging ones.
Prof. Franks pays particular attention to the thought of Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630), author of the highly influential Shnei Luhot ha-Berit (Two Tables of the Covenant); to Moses Mendelssohn (1729-86), philosopher and author of the controversial Pentateuch translation, Netivot ha-Shalom (Paths of Peace); Naftali Herz Weisel (1725-1805), poet and author of the notorious open letter, Divrei Shalom ve-Emet (Words of Peace and Truth); and Pinhas Eliyahu Horowitz of Vilna (c.1731-1805), author of Sefer ha-Berit (Book of the Covenant), one of the greatest Jewish best-sellers of the last few centuries.
Main lecture followed by Q & AWatch Video ➨
Limmud Conference, December 2015: A panel discussion featuring Elie Jesner, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz (Chair of the Talmud Department at Yeshivah Chovevei Torah) and Rabbi Lila Kagedan (graduate of Yeshivat Maharat) on fundamentalism within the Modern Orthodox community in the United States, Israel, and England. They commented on the phenomena of ‘labels’, boundaries and identity in Modern Orthodoxy, which appear most notably in the debates on women’s issues in Judaism. The conversation then moved on to cover racism and ultranationalism in contemporary religious Zionism. The panel answered questions from the audience in the last few minutes of the session.Watch Video ➨
Limmud Conference, December 2015: A panel discussion with Elie Jesner, Rabbi Norman Solomon, and Ben Crowne discussing the future of Modern Orthodox Judaism in England. The participants offered insightful comments on the United Synagogue and the brand of Orthodoxy it purports to represent, and discussed the potential for future developments within and beyond the boundaries of the United Synagogue.
Apologies for the sound interference from the next door session!Watch Video ➨
Limmud Conference, December 2015: Following short introductions by Ivor Jacobs and Ezra Margulies on the general aims of the Friends of Louis Jacobs project, Simon Eder presented, in this session, a concise and articulate analysis of Rabbi Louis Jacobs’s doctrine of liberal supernaturalism, based on a wide array of primary sources.Watch Video ➨
Annual summer lecture, by Karen Armstrong, in honour of the yahrzeit of Rabbi Louis Jacobs.
Quest were delighted that Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s leading commentators on religious affairs, made a return visit.
She spent seven years as a Roman Catholic nun in the 1960s, and then read English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Her books include “A History of God”, “The Bible: A Biography”, “The Case for God” and most recently, “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate life”.
In 2005 Armstrong was appointed by Kofi Annan to join the Hight Level Group of the United States initiative ‘The Alliance of Civilizations’. In 2008 she was awared the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal and in the same year, won the TED prize. In 2013, she received the British Academy’s inaugural Nayef Al-Rodham Prize for improving Transcultural Understanding.Watch Video ➨
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg held a series of four study sessions to mark the 40th anniversary of the New North London Synagogue. The sessions covered the main theological writings of Rabbi Jacobs. These videos and audio recordings were taken towards the end of 2014 and represent an excellent introduction to Rabbi Jacobs’s thought and his impact on Anglo-Jewry.
Fourth SessionWatch Video ➨
A dialogue between Rabbi Chaim Weiner, Masorti Av Bet Din and Rabbi Francis Nataf, an Orthodox Jerusalem based educator. This was held in March 2015 and brought up many issues pertinent to the ongoing discussions on the challenges to Centrist Judaism.Watch Video ➨
Limmud 2014 Sons of Controversial Rabbis – Ivor Jacobs, Julian Levy, David Newman, joined by Ian Gold
From the Limmud Catalogue – The son of the subject of the ‘Jacobs Affair’ and the sons of two Rabbis who backed the rebel, in conversation about their fathers, themselves and the community. Ivor Jacobs, David Newman and Julian Levy explore what influenced their fathers and themselves. They are joined by Ian Gold whose father, also a Minister was sympathetic to Rabbi Jacobs predicament but stayed out of the public debate. This session should provide frank insights into their Judaism and the state of Anglo-Jewry.Watch Video ➨
From the Limmud Catalogue – The “Controversy” affected community and family. Ivor, supporting his dad, became a Masorti fanatic. In the year that he died Louis Jacobs was hailed as the “greatest Jew.” Ivor then founded www.louisjacobs.org, an educational resource and a “label” barrier breaker. This illustrated session will cover how the controversy continues to impact us.Watch Video ➨
On the occasion of the New London Synagogue’s 50th anniversary and for the Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture, Rabbi Jeremy Gordon delivers a superb address on the values espoused by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs and which inspired the founding of Masorti Judaism and New London.
Rabbi Gordon goes back to 1944 and Louis Jacobs’s first encounter with Wissenschaft des Judentums through the intermediary of Dr. Alexander Altmann. The realization that halakhah constantly adapts to changing historical circumstances went on to became the central theme in Louis Jacobs’s works. Indeed, one of his most important books, ATree of Life, demonstrates the diversity of influences to which halakhah was subject over the course of history.
Rabbi Jacobs possessed, according to Gordon, numerous, distinct qualities: an unquenchable intellectual curiosity, a sense of courage, a touch of arrogance, and a refusal to bow down to detractors. As a congregational rabbi, he grew deeply aware of the diversity of behaviours and beliefs held by Jews in his community, and injected this consideration in his theological writings. Louis Jacobs repudiated any monolithic conception of Judaism, and indeed, paid a heavy price for his intellectual integrity.
He successfully transmitted these values, however, to Masorti Judaism. The greater sensitivity to historical change may have triggered a weaker sense of allegiance to the minutiae of Jewish law – as Jacobs himself noted in 2004. But, Rabbi Gordon concludes, this should not stop Masorti Jews from celebrating the intellectual passion and diversity which characterizes the New London congregation – those same values which moved Rabbi Jacobs throughout his life.Watch Video ➨
A conversation between Miri Freud-Kandel from the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, renown Bible scholar James Kugel, and former president of the United Synagogue Simon Hochhauser, during Jewish Book Week in 2013.
The discussion starts off with attempts to frame Modern Orthodoxy historically and ideologically. James Kugel makes some helpful observations about the development of Modern Orthodoxy in Germany and in the United States, before allowing Simon Hochhauser to comment on the values which govern the movement: a sense of steadfast allegiance to halakha combined with a commitment to modernism. Miri Freud-Kandel completed these responses with insights into the philosophies of leading figures in the history of Modern Orthodoxy, highlighting the differences between Samson Raphael Hirsch’s torah im derekh erets, 20th century American versions of torah umadah, and Chief Rabbi Sacks’s torah vehokhmah.
The speakers moved on to the issues of the boundaries of Modern Orthodoxy, rabbinic authority versus individual autonomy, and the different advantages and limitations which arise from placing labels on religious ideologies. Finally, they discussed the political context in which debates surrounding Modern Orthodoxy take place.
In the last ten minutes, the panel answered questions from the audience.
The conversation was highly stimulating, addressing some critical questions raised over the past years in the Orthodox world.Watch Video ➨
The concluding minutes of the Q&A session between Miri Freud-Kandel, James Kugel, and Simon Hochhauser on Modern Orthodoxy at Jewish Book Week.Watch Video ➨
Ivor Jacobs chaired a panel on “Modern Orthodoxy: what’s in a name anyway?” at Limmud, with Daniel Sperber, Yaffa Epstein, and Herzl Hefter as guest speakers. Each member of the panel starts the session off with a short introduction indicating their own views on Modern Orthodoxy. Yaffa Epstein used some personal anecdotes to offer some insights into the tension between authority and individualism. Herzl Hefter followed with some impressions, discussed through the lens of Maimonidean theology, on intellectual honesty on matters which challenge the theological underpinnings of Orthodox beliefs (such as darwinism, biblical criticisim, and so on). Finally, Daniel Sperber outlined two philosophies of Judaism which differ over openess to the surrounding culture and contemporary developments. The conversation which ensued touched on all these themes in great depth, and was followed by a Q&A.Watch Video ➨
What does it mean to believe in divine Torah? How have Jews understood it in the past and what can we make of it today? This video features two leading scholars for a discussion and insights into this central issue on modern Jewish thought.Watch Video ➨
Examining the reasons in the make up of Rabbi Jacobs and his early career that led to the stance he took on his religious understanding and values.Watch Video ➨
Prof. Paul Morris, in this lecture, comments on Louis Jacobs’s lifelong interest in heresy. He focuses particularly on Jacobs’s essay, published in a festschrift in honour of R. Seymour J. Cohen in 1991, on a series of responsa on the topic of heresy written by the late medieval Vilna rabbi Ephraim b. Jacob hakohen (see the essay here).
Prof. Morris reviews extensively the different approaches to heresy espoused by Jewish sages from the late antiquity to the modern period, which often react to contemporary heretics (such as Spinoza or, according to the mitnaggedim, R. Shlomo Zalman of Lyady) and heretical movements (most prominently in Jewish history karaism, sabbateanism, and frankism). He notes, however, that the threat of herem, or excommunication, which accompanied accusations of heresy, was rarely actualized. The speaker then reviews, using sources relating to the “Affair”, the allegations against Jacobs’s heresy and the calls for a formal excommunication issued by certain voices in Anglo-Jewry.
Finally, Prof. Morris examines a sermon entitled ‘Revelation’ delivered by Louis Jacobs at the New London Synagogue in 1964, with the view of considering its content and assessing whether it does constitute heresy or not.Watch Video ➨
A lecture delivered by Prof. Michael Fishbane on 10th March 2013.
Prof. Fishbane starts with a distinction, first suggested by Franz Rosenzweig, between material and formal images of the divine: the former make statements about God’s body, faculties, or actions; while the latter relate to God on a symbolic level. He then lists a number of material images of God present in the Bible, and discusses the ways in which the Sages negotiated such images in a formalistic fashion in midrashic literature. He shows that although late Antiquity Jews felt bound by the commandment against idols to interpret divine imagery figuratively, they nontheless avoided depicting the deity as absolutely transcendent. They did not hesitate to read the biblical text against the grain, in accordance with their theological orientation, in order to maintain their belief in a personal God. In their view, divine images were linguistic devices designed to educate the individual about God’s nature and actions.
The speaker then moves on to medieval Jewish authors, including Maimonides, the Ravad (Abraham b. David of Posquières), and the author of the Zohar, and their respective, conflicting approaches to the subject of anthropomorphisms and divine imagery. He concludes, finally, with Rosenzweig’s insights, turning the question on its head to discuss the modern Jew’s experience of the divine.Watch Video ➨
A presentation by Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel from the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the New London Synagogue in December 2011. Dr. Freud-Kandel offers some insights on the place of theology in Judaism and its relationship to ritual and practice.
Judaism is generally seen as an organic, non-systematic religion in which ritual develops from particular historical circumstances rather than theological debate. The absence of sophsticated reflections on the divine in Jewish sources highlights the problem of theology in the Jewish context. In the modern period, Moses Mendelssohn and Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that Judaism was devoid of dogma, and should be characterized by its emphasis on ritual rather than faith. Similarly, Jewish communities around the world tend to privilege political and social concerns over principles of belief. It is worth asking, therefore, whether theology matters at all in Judaism?
Dr. Freud-Kandel explains that Louis Jacobs viewed theology as the individual’s quest to find meaning in their Judaism. Only a sound system of belief, he argued, could successfully secure the individual’s commitment to ritual and encourage the transmission of Judaism to future generations. Yet while insisting on the critical role of theology, Jacobs also recognized the impossibility to construct a definitive Jewish theology, precisely because of his emphasis on the individual. Hence the performance of ritual implies the beliefs in God, covenant, and revelation, gives these abstract concepts a means for practical implimentation. These therefore need to be discussed and refined in order to sustain Jewish practice.
A Q&A session follows the lecture.Watch Video ➨
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove – The Insoluble Contradictions in the Life and Thought of Louis Jacobs – part 1
A paper delivered by Rabbi Dr. Elliot Cosgrove at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies on Louis Jacobs’s life and thought.
Cosgrove starts by noting that most of Jacobs’s comments on the reconciliation between the authority of Scripture and critical discourse were hardly new. Numerous scholars in the Jewish world, and especially beyond (among Christian circles) in the 1950s, had addressed very similar concerns about divine revelation. What made Louis Jacobs unique was that he also claimed to be an Orthodox rabbi. He demonstrates that Jacobs’s theological outlook, while innovative and surprising in an Orthodox setting, occurred in the midst of far broader developments in the academic world in the 1950s. These included, for example, the philosophical school of logical positivism, the New Jewish theologians in the United States, or the rising popularity of Christian authors such as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. This background is essential, Cosgrove claims, to a proper understanding of the theology of Rabbi Jacobs.
The speaker then moves on the describe the dynamics at work in Anglo-Jewry, particularly in Manchester, during Jacobs’s childhood years. The successive waves of immigration of Eastern European Jews on the one hand, and the very palpable tendency towards acculturation on the other, shaped Louis Jacobs’s outlook during the formative years of his life. He was described early on as a remarkably gifted student by Eliyahu Dessler, his teacher in yeshivah, where Jacobs was the only native-born student. In parallel, the Zionist movement was at work in England in the 1940s, and represented an additional force at work in the Jewish landscape of the time. Louis Jacobs had a foot in all of these spheres.
Upon moving to London, Jacobs discovered yet new horizons: he took a position as assistant rabbi in Eli Munk’s synagogue, with whom he encountered the world of German neo-Orthodoxy and the Hirschian notion of torah im derekh erets, and enrolled for a doctorate at London University under Dr. Siegfried Stein, a renown German scholar, who introduced him to the critical scholarship on the history of Judaism. Yet in the later stages of his career, Jacobs moved away from the paths set by his former teachers, searching for a synthesis of his own. Finally, Cosgrove notes the influence of Dr. Alexander Altmann, also a German scholar and rabbi, whom Jacobs met in the late 1940s. Altmann also combined traditional erudition and a scholarly approach to Judaism, but in a way that did not satisfy Rabbi Jacobs.
Jacobs was exposed to very different philosophies of Judaism during his upbringing, from which he received the tools to negotiate his own religious outlook as a thinker.Watch Video ➨
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove – The Insoluble Contradictions in the Life and Thought of Louis Jacobs – part 2
The second part of Rabbi Cosgrove’s lecture, with Q&A, at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.Watch Video ➨
6th Annual Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture – Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg – An Agenda for the Masorti Movement
6th Annual Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture, delivered by Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg at the New London Synagogue in 2012. Rabbi Wittenberg presents an agenda for Masorti, through which adherents, originating within a modern outlook, could recreate and re-envisage traditional Judaism. He tackles this through for angles:
- learning and knowledge: intellectual integrity in relation to matters of dogma, with the firm conviction that historical inquiry on the origins of sacrd texts or on the evolution of Jewish practice do not in and of themselves undermine contemporary religious commitment. Since the divine will manifests itself in human history, it is accessible precisely through historical consciousness. Masorti Jews must therefore endeavour to educate themselves in Jewish texts, but with a mind to negotiate these texts in light of modern values.
- piety and spirituality: an intellectual orientation is insufficient when devoid of yirat shamayim, fear of Heaven. Judaism places a strong emphasis, particularly in the domains of prayer and worship, on the experience of a personal, spiritual connection with the divine, on a sense of awe and humility in the presence of God. The individual must occasionally suspend reason in order to further what Heschel calls the ‘mutual allegiance’ between human beings and God.
- values: unlike modern society, which tends to measure the individual in utilitarian terms, Judaism grants primacy to such values as justice, generosity, humility, commitment to the community, or piety. In spite of the enthusiasm many contemporary Jews have demonstrated, particularly in Masorti, towards social justice, too many fail to acknowledge the traditional values of selflessness and loving-kindness as part of Jewish spirituality.
- practice and commitment: Masorti regrettably neglect religious observance on too wide a scale. Our lives should be guided wholly, not just partially, by our Judaism.
A Q&A session follows the lecture.Watch Video ➨
An evening of lively debate on the legacy of Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs and the impact of the Jacobs Affair at Avenue House in Finchley, organized by B’nai B’rith First Lodge on 5th October 2011, with Judge Kenneth Zucker, QC, Dr. Jonathan Wolfson, Rabbi Chaim Weiner, and Dr. Lionel Kopelowitz.
In this video, the former President of the Lodge, Martin Aaron, offers some introductory comments to the evening’s debate. Judge Zucker then offers some historical and biographical comments on the subject. His presentation covers the Affair, starting with the publication of Rabbi Jacobs’s controversial book, We Have Reason to Believe, and includes some personal comments on the missed opportunity in Anglo-Jewry to appoint an outstanding scholar and theologian at its head. He offers some remarks on the actual content of Rabbi Jacobs’s book, presenting it as an apologetic work written for a religiously committed readership, following in the vein of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.Watch Video ➨
Part 2 of the debate on the Jacobs Affair organized by B’nai B’rith First Lodge on 5th October 2011 at Avenue House in Finchley, with Dr. Lionel Kopelowitz, former President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
Dr. Kopelowitz comments on Rabbi Jacobs’s involvement in the New West End Synagogue. He mentions the doubts held by many congregants at the prospect of hiring a rabbi trained at the Gateshead yeshiva instead of Jews’ College, and then recalls the few changes that Louis Jacobs introduced to the local schedule: Mincha prayers on shabbat and a weekly shiur, the first of a kind in the United Synagogue. The topics discussed during those weekly classes formed the basis of his book We Have Reason to Believe. Rabbi Jacobs’s main weakness, according to Dr. Kopelowitz, was as a politician. He, and many of his followers, failed to understand the politics at work in Anglo-Jewry and the United Synagogue.Watch Video ➨
Part 3 of the debate on the Jacobs Affair organized by B’nai B’rith First Lodge on 5th October 2011 at Avenue House in Finchley, with Dr. Jonathan Wolfson, lecturer at the London School of Jewish Studies.
Dr. Wolfson reviews the Orthodox position on the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim and the various efforts made by modern and contemporary Orthodox thinkers to come to terms with the challenge of biblical criticism. He notes that Rabbi Jacobs was the first British rabbi to attempt a synthesis of academic biblical studies and Orthodoxy, first in We Have Reason to Believe and subsequently in numerous other publications.
He also offers some historical context regarding the Jacobs Affair, mentioning the dynamics at work in Anglo-Jewry in the second half of the twentieth century: the impact of the Holocaust; the tumultuous relationship between Chief Rabbi Hertz and Robert Wayley Cohen, President of the United Synagogue; the growth of the power of the Beth Din under the leadership of Dayan Ambramsky; and the appointment of Chief Rabbi Brody, whose schoalrly credentials were somewhat inferior to his predecessor’s. All these factors, Dr. Wolfson explains, combined to create a ‘perfect storm’ at the centre of which stood Louis Jacobs.
The speaker concludes by offering a more nuanced judgment on the Jacobs Affair, noting that while the United Synagogue’s behaviour towards Louis Jacobs was condemnable, their decision not to appoint him at the head of Jews’ College and future Chief Rabbi was justifiable in light of his beliefs. He argues that it would be inappropriate for someone to hold the highest position in the community while publically holding views which diverge from the mainstream Orthodox position.Watch Video ➨
Part 4 of the debate on the Jacobs Affair organized by B’nai B’rith First Lodge on 5th October 2011 at Avenue House in Finchley, with Rabbi Chaim Weiner, Av beth din of the European Masorti Beth Din and former rabbi of the New London Synagogue (between 2000-2005).
Rabbi Weiner comments on his personal relationship with Louis Jacobs, and uses this experience to underscore the fact that the main question Jacobs addressed was not necessarily on what to believe in, but how to establish our beliefs. He would always rely on the evidence at hand, and it is on the basis of the evidence put forward by Bible scholars that he came to question the traditional belief in Torah min hashamayim espoused by the United Synagogue. He would always let the facts guide his religious convictions.
Rabbi Weiner also offers some comments on Jacobs’s legacy. He notes that Masorti Judaism is one of the only movements experiencing growth in European Jewry. He also comments on the number of grassroots initiatives taking place in Anglo-Jewry outside the confines of established movements such as the United Synagoge, the Chief Rabbinate, or Reform, all of which were probably influenced by the Jacobs Affair. The common element between these emerging actors on the Jewish scene is their desire to transcend denominational differences and establishment politics.Watch Video ➨
4th Annual Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture – Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon – Making Talmud Make Sense – part 1
4th Annual Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture, delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon at the New London Synagogue in 2010. Rabbi Solomon starts his lecture by sharing some personal memories about Louis Jacobs and the Affair, before delving into the nature of the Talmud.
He explains that the Talmud was, in many ways, an attempt to navigate Jewish life in a society which was predominantly non-Jewish. The Mishnah was compiled in Palestine under Roman rule; the Babylonian Talmud was formed under Sassonian rule in Babylonia; both works also betray Hellenistic influences. This contrasts with the traditionalists’ understanding of the Talmud as a self-contained work, which inculcates values and lessons far removed from those preached by the non-Jewish world in the late Antiquity.
Who wrote the Talmud? The 10th century Sage Sherira Gaon was the first person to respond to this question, thereby introducing the traditional historiography, according to which the Mishnah and Talmud were Oral traditions, laid out successively by Tana’im, Amora’im, and Savora’im. This conception of the formation of the Talmud was challenged only in 1968 by David Weiss-Halivni, who proclaimed the existence of Stama’im, the anonymous writers who quote the discussions of former sages.
Rabbi Solomon also noted the fact that numerous cultures (Zoroastrians, Franks, and so on) were, in the late Antiquity, committing their own traditions and laws to writing, which might explain why the Jews also compiled the Talmud during that period.
These were a few of the many questions raised by Rabbi Solomon during this session. A Q&A followed the lecture.Watch Video ➨
4th Annual Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture – Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon – Making Talmud Make Sense – part 2
The concluding minutes and closing remarks of the 4th Annual Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture delivered by Rabbi Dr. Norman Solomon.Watch Video ➨