Originally published in Jewish Quarterly, Autumn 2006, pp. 23-5.
A VERY BRITISH JEW
Elliot Cosgrove assesses the lifetime achievement of Rabbi Louis Jacobs.
Over a lifetime of achievement, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs juggled the multiple profiles of congregational rabbi, public educator, academic and more. As such, his legacy may be viewed through a variety of lenses, as numerous as the roles in which he attained distinction. The massive corpus of his scholarly achievements alone is of a breadth and depth that one is left bewildered by the realization that such an encyclopedic oeuvre is the work of a single man. His recapitulations of rabbinic theology, studies in Talmudic logic and argumentation, explorations of the content and history of Jewish dogmatics, treatments of Hasidism and Jewish mysticism, inquiries into Jewish law and responsa literature, works of constructive Jewish theology and appropriations of various British philosophic traditions make him a rare, if not sui generis, representative of twentieth-century Jewish thinking. As the Anglo-Jewish community comes to grips with Rabbi Jacobs’s recent passing, it would do well to note that it is through his writing that one gains a comprehensive and sustained insight into its most distinguished iconoclast. Indeed, Chesterton’s adage ‘Show me a man’s philosophy and I’ll show you the man’ finds ready application to the spiritual estate of Louis Jacobs.
To study Rabbi Jacobs’s intellectual legacy is to appreciate not just the life of one man but to grasp the outline of twentieth-century Anglo-Jewish history. Jacobs’s biography is the product of an extraordinary set of circumstances, which, whether through accident or steadily pursued design, was shaped by the major demographic and intellectual shifts of the past century. His work represents a rare interchange between the world of the yeshiva and the university, the ivory tower and the pulpit, contemporary Anglo-Saxon philosophy and the mediaeval Jewish tradition. Jacobs’s scholarly achievements were impelled by quandaries knocking at his own heart as a result of his unique training and context, and his writing must be read as such. To know the philosophy of Rabbi Jacobs is to know more than just the man; it is to know the heart and soul of Anglo-Jewry.
Louis ‘Laib’ Jacobs grew up in a Manchester family of Eastern European descent seeking to acculturate to its British surroundings. He was encouraged to think beyond his roots, recalling his mother’s ability to rattle off reams of Browning and Tennyson among others. Jacobs inherited both her retentive memory and breadth of reading, which undoubtedly shaped his life as an autodidact. Even within the bosom of the yeshiva, he would continue to read widely. Chesterton, Shaw and C. S. Lewis taught Jacobs how to think and how to express his ideas with clarity, felicitous prose and well-placed wit.
It was at the Manchester yeshiva that Jacobs was introduced to the breadth and depth of rabbinic literature. He was immersed in an Eastern European world transplanted on to British soil, a story recorded in many histories of British Jewry and introduced to the analytic study of the Talmud and the allure of Habad Hasidism. Here the seeds were planted for his future inquiries.
At Gateshead Kollel, Jacobs once again found himself at the crossroads of history. Gateshead sought to offer a physical and spiritual sanctuary for scholars who had seen their own yeshivot in Europe destroyed. As an entry in his teacher Rabbi Dessler’s writings makes clear, Jacobs was the only native-born student amongst refugees, a distinction all the more striking in that he was identified as an ilui (genius) and amkan (a person of depth), marked for greatness even amongst his Eastern European colleagues.
One is offered a glimpse into the young Jacobs in his first letter to the Jewish Chronicle (28 July 1944), on the subject of England’s institutions of Jewish learning:
It is here that Jews’ College fails; it has succeeded in producing a new type, modeled on the parson and parish priest, but in the process it has robbed us of our Talmudim Chachamim and Lomdim . . . It is not only Jews’ College that is at fault. Our English Yeshivas have been guilty, though in lesser degree. The Yeshivas have refused to recognize the facts that their exclusion of everything except Torah could not possibly succeed in the England of to-day. England is a land where, as Chesterton pointed out, ‘a breach of good manners is looked upon with more abhorrence than a breach of morals’; people are less shocked at the man who doesn’t believe in G-d than at the man who eats peas with his knife. The Yeshivas blind their eyes to this. They go on trying to instill a love of Torah and Yirat Shamayim in their pupils without giving them a practical philosophy of life. They turn out, in modern England, people who have practical education fitting them for a life in a Polish Klain Shtetel. If we can be forgiven the irreverence, we may say that the English Yeshivas provide the Cheshire cat without its cheerful grin. Jews’ College provides the grin without the cat. The time is surely ripe for a new institution, one that will combine the deep piety and love or Torah Lishmoh of the Yeshiva with the polish, the modern methods, and the efficiency of Jews’ College.
Even at this young age, Jacobs sought to synthesize his Mancunian upbringing with his yeshiva training. As his horizons expanded, he would strive to find ways to bridge the varied and often contradictory cultural influences that he came to embody.
As assistant to Rabbi Eliyahu Munk at the Golders Green Beit Hamidrash, Jacobs discovered a model of a scholar-rabbi, Torah Im Derekh Eretz, who combined a commitment to Torah and secular culture. Then, studying under Siegfried Stein at University College London, Jacobs entered the world of critical scholarship at a propitious moment of intellectual ferment. Stein was part of a coterie of scholars, who, like their counterparts in the yeshiva world, had arrived in England seeking safe harbour from the Holocaust. It was during this period that Jacobs actively began to integrate modern scholarship with traditional faith, finding venerable models in the writings of Krochmal, Ginzberg, Frankel, Schechter and other practitioners of Wissenschaft des Judentums (the scientific study of Judaism).
Jacobs characterizes his years at Manchester’s Central Synagogue (1948-53) as ‘a time for searching’. Completing his doctorate, building a community of his own, he sought to construct a path integrating the worlds of the yeshiva and university. In the Communal Rabbi of Manchester, Dr Alexander Altmann, he found an exemplar who showed how one could combine commitment to serious intellectual pursuits and the life force of the Jewish community.
Jacobs’s time at the Central Synagogue coincided with the heyday of Manchester Zionist organizations, which served as the vade mecum for those who sought to revitalize the Jewish spirit and people alongside the establishment of the State of Israel. Altmann, Jacobs and other rising stars of twentieth-century Jewish studies (e.g. J. G. Weiss, R. J. Zwi Werblowsky) were given a forum to interpret Judaism with a sophistication and enthusiasm that were not exclusively beholden either to Orthodox or Liberal conceptions. Rabbi Jacobs began to speak and lecture widely, being warmly received as an extraordinarily bright and promising young voice in the Anglo-Jewish community.
When he arrived at the New West End in 1954, Jacobs was fully formed in his religious beliefs. His ongoing efforts to synthesize the claims of modernity and tradition, the English minister and the Eastern European Rov, biblical criticism and halachic observance, were a reflection of the impulses and influences of the first half of his life. All the views that appeared in We Have Reason to Believe (1957) had been publicly expressed before, as early as his time in Manchester with Altmann. It is the task of sociologists and historians of Anglo-Jewry to explain how a remarkably consistent theological vision, which was at first received so warmly, came to elicit the wrath of so many in the years to come.
So what is the Ariadne’s thread that unites Jacobs’s 40-plus books, countless articles, sermons and lectures? What is the focus of his spiritual legacy and charge for future generations to carry forward? This was actually the final question I asked him this past spring. And his response was: ‘Very simple, intellectual integrity. In other words, I haven’t cooked the books.’
Perhaps in this exchange we are granted a point of entry into the methodological heart of Jacobs’s work. Blessed with an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish literature, fierce intellectual integrity and a penchant for clarity, Jacobs culled the breadth and depth of our sacred tradition and made it available to the whole Anglophone community. Given his objection to ‘cooking the books’, he discovered something important along the way: Jewish theology comes in a variety of forms, depending on whether you are a Talmudic rabbi, a mediaeval theologian or a Hasid. And because Jewish theology is unsystematic and often contradictory, one must approach it with great humility. Jacobs’s book on Jewish theology was deliberately entitled A Jewish Theology, the indefinite article serving as a rebuke to any past or future writers who dared claim to speak for the entirety of the Jewish theological tradition. Jacobs rebuffed facile solutions to profound questions, well aware that one cannot fit God into a tidy scheme. As such, he saw his task not so much to provide definite answers to theological questions as to ‘encourage a mood’, believing that Jewish literature provided an inexhaustible reservoir for the theologically thirsting Jew.
Jacobs found guidance in the insight of the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Judah Loew) that the quest for Torah is itself part of Torah. A ‘quest’ is prompted by a search for truth and not by the need to justify prior beliefs. Deeply influenced by the historical school, Jacobs knew mat Judaism had evolved over the ages, and was as varied as the number of generations holding fast to it. He may have always begun with the question of what Rashi or Maimonides believed, but only in order to lead to the question of what a Jew may believe today. Authority for practice or belief could never rely solely on claims of divinity or antiquity, what he called the ‘genetic fallacy’. The Torah’s perfection, as the midrash teaches, is not derived from its source, but from its effect on the people of Israel.
And here we arrive at what is rightly understood as the central principle of Jacobs’s spiritual legacy. Over the years he may have called it by different name—liberal supernaturalism, non-fundamentalist Halacha or the theological approach—but the essential message remained remarkably consistent. His oeuvre offers a sustained case that Torah and the quest for Torah contain both a divine and a human component. Jewish theology and practice, belief and observance, are an ongoing exchange and dialogue between God and humanity.
Jacobs demonstrated that such a position is fully sanctioned in traditional sources. His work in mysticism, saintliness and hasidut all reveal a deeply felt religious faith. Any secular or naturalistic formulation of Judaism struck him as hollow and unauthentic. And yet, even with such raw supernaturalism, he fiercely defended the human element in any conceptualization of faith. From his classic book on Halacha, Tree of Life, to his Theology in the Responsa, from his writings on the literary qualities of the Talmud to, most famously, his efforts to reconcile the maculate nature of Torah with a belief in divine revelation, the unifying thread is there for the discerning eye to see. Rabbi Jacobs’s theological achievements represent a comprehensive and cohesive statement in defence of the partnership between God and humanity in the ongoing process of revelation.
Jacobs often cited the great hasidic master Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz, who is said to have declared that before he was born an angel showed him two contradictory lists of rules for the conduct of life. In one list he read that a person must be single-minded towards achieving personal goals, in the other that a person must always put another’s needs before his or her own. One list promoted humility, the other a bold and audacious spirit. One counselled ascetism, the other implicitly castigated those who would deny themselves the pleasures of this world. The Rophstizer went on to describe many further contradictions and said that he recalled being lost in thought, contemplating how hard it was to find a way of life in which these contradictions would be resolved. Suddenly, he heard the words: ‘Mazel tov! A child is born.’ He continued wondering, explaining that his entire life was a sustained attempt to find a way to follow both sets of rules, however contradictory, paradoxes and all.
Perhaps a biographical element lies embedded in this anecdote. Influenced by everyone from the Talmudic rabbis to the Hasidic masters, from Chesterton to Munk, Altmann and the Wissenschaft scholars, the vast corpus of Jacobs’s writing may be understood as an unrelenting effort to bridge the disorienting tensions wrought by modernity on traditional Jewish faith and practice. He represents a model of unflinching intellectual integrity, ongoing spiritual striving and clarity of expression, always guided by a deep love for the Jewish people. Judaism is a quest, and religious debate must begin with the concession that, when it comes to matters divine, what we don’t know far exceeds that which we do. Each of us has the potential to find our own voice in the ongoing dialogue between God and humanity that began on Mount Sinai. This is the inheritance of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, for future generations to consider, critique and, hopefully, seek to emulate.
Elliot Cosgrove is a Rabbi at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago. He is currently writing his doctoral thesis on Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs at the University of Chicago.