Underrated 20th Century Jewish Thinkers
INTRODUCTION by Martin S. Cohen
It is a very sobering experience to peruse a list of Nobel Prize winners and to realize how many of these individuals-men and women uniformly considered at the very peak of their fields in their own day-are completely unknown and forgotten today. The fickle nature of fame and influence, however, is not a one-way street; in the history of almost every academic discipline, there are those who were dramatically underrated-or even totally ignored-in their own day, yet who ended up acclaimed as giants a century or two after their deaths. As we look back on the history of Jewish thought in the 20th century, this line of thinking is as challenging as it is unsettling. Will the people we revere as the true giants of Jewish intellectual history be considered that way a century or more from now? Will individuals whose names are known only to the most devoted students of Jewish philosophy eventually be thought of as the greatest minds of the last century? Will our sense of who mattered and who was peripheral in the sphere of Jewish thought seem reasonable or peculiar to people who will have the distance from the 20th century that we have, say, from the 16th? To that end, the editorial board had the idea of including a forum in this issue of Conservative Judaism in which we would ask various individuals to name a single Jewish thinker of the last century who appears to them to be inexplicably-or not inexplicably, but still unfortunately-overlooked. The results follow.
BY NEIL GILLMAN
Of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, one can say what has been frequently said of Mal-1 monides: It is simply inconceivable that one man could have been the master.’ of so many forms of Jewish scholarly expression. Like Maimonides, Rabbi Jacobs has written authoritatively on both aggadah and halakhah. In a publishing career that extends, thus far, over five decades and consists of at least fifty books and countless monographs, he has written on medieval Jewish philosophy, theology, the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of Jewish law, the responsa literature (and theological issues in the responsa), Jewish mysticism, hasidism, prayer, Talmud, and Jewish ethics. He is the author of textbooks used in many Jewish high schools. Until recently, he served as a congregational rabbi and pursued a vigorous teaching career. And in the midst of all these other pursuits, he helped found the Masorti Movement in England and continues to serve as its ideological spokesman.
His theological work takes full advantage of the Excursus form, printed in smaller type and interspersed throughout the main body of his writing, which allows him to incorporate a more technical discussion of the topic at hand and address the more learned reader. He is thus able to write for multiple audiences, both popular and scholarly. The Excursus also allows him to present an exhaustive bibliographical guide for further study, a guide which reveals his awesome mastery of the scholarly literature. I continue to assign his book A Jewish Theology, published a full three decades ago, to my students because it is the single best overview of the entire range of Jewish thought from the Bible to our day.
The issue which forms the centerpiece of all his writings on theology and to which he returns again and again is revelation and its concomitant issues: the authority of Torah in matters of belief and practice, particularly the latter, and the dynamics of halakhic change. For Jacobs, this is not simply an academic issue. It was his attempt to formulate a position which accepted all of the canons of modern, “scientific” and critical biblical and talmudic scholarship while still insisting that the Torah could be viewed as divine revelation, which led, in 1960, to the celebrated “Jacobs affair,” when the Chief Rabbi vetoed his appointment as Principal of Jews College and his subsequent reappointment as rabbi of the New West End Synagogue. That incident rocked British Jewry and left a profound impact on Rabbi Jacobs’ life and thought. He returns to it again and again, both in his writings and in personal conversation.
No other contemporary theologian has explored the issue of revelation as thoroughly or systematically. His book We Have Reason To Believe, which initiated the Jacobs affair, includes a rigorous analysis of the traditionalist position, the reasons why modernity has rendered it untenable (biblical criticism, modern science, the Wissenschaft critique of the Oral Torah), the various options which remain for the contemporary believer (Orthodox apologetics and Reform’s blanket rejection of the tradition), and finally a defense of Jacobs’ own position, his “third way,” which he dubs “liberal supernaturalism.”
This discussion, repeated in his more recent God, Torah, Israel, and Beyond Reasonable Doubt, should be required reading for every Conservative Jew. The issue as a whole remains the Conservative theological issue, the issue on which the entire ideology of Conservative Judaism rests. That delicate balance between viewing Torah as a cultural document and yet insisting oh dm binding quality of halakhah informs every decision the Conservative move ment confronts to this very day. To this writer, Louis Jacobs is the premiere theologian of Conservative Judaism:
It is not only revelation that engages Rabbi Jacobs’ theological impulse His book entitled Faith explores four different pathways to belief in God reason, experience, the existentialist “leap” and tradition, and makes mans references to the contemporary discussion of the issue in British analytic philosophy. Very few of our philosophers have mastered this literature. He also provides us with a systematic review of Jewish thinking on the problem of human suffering and on Jewish eschatology. His discussion of the first is not unusual in contemporary writings, but the second is.
Above all, Rabbi Jacobs embodies in his life and work a passion for rigorous thinking, an unshakable faith in the seriousness of his readers, and the courage to tackle the difficult issues of the day with total objectivity, what ever the outcome. That his writing is so accessible is simply an additional gift In all of these ways, the comparison with Maimonides is not at all outlandish.