Originally delivered as a session at Limmud Conference 2007.
As I write it’s almost a year since Rabbi Jacobs died. I miss phoning him with my questions on halakhah, philosophy and theology. I miss his teaching, his humour and his anecdotes about Talmud and Hasidut; I even miss the occasional wry remarks about the ‘chief’ rabbi (office, not person) on the one hand and the Masorti movement on the other. I miss the significance of his presence, that bastion of learning and piety which he represented. Jewish life feels more vulnerable in his absence.
His achievements were immense: An illui, a genius, he wrote some fifty books covering the fields of Talmud, Hasidism, Jewish law and theology. He was an outstanding scholar, a brilliant teacher, a wonderful speaker and had a tremendous sense of humour. But above all he was fearless in his pursuit of intellectual truth. His great disappointment was the failure of the orthodox community, his real emotional and spiritual home, to engage with those challenges which he rightly perceived to be the most significant theological issues for Judaism today.
It’s impossible to appreciate Rabbi Jacobs’ teachings without an understanding of his own intellectual development. Rabbi Jacobs was born in Manchester in a traditional, but far from extreme, orthodox home. His father’s parents came from Telz in Lithuania, a town whose Yeshivah was to fascinate him throughout his life. His mother’s family came from Mitau, near Riga, in Latvia. Soon after his Bar Mitzvah, Jacobs went to study at the Manchester Yeshivah, where he stayed for seven years. He greatly admired the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Segal, from whom he later received Semichah. But the teacher he loved most was Rabbi Dubov, who was ‘jovial and always in a good mood, as a true Hasid should be’. (Till the end of his life he had a picture of him outside his study.)
Jacobs wanted to attend the great Yeshivah of Telz, both because his father’s family hailed from the city and because he admired the Lithuanian method of Talmud study. He had already obtained the necessary documents when war broke out. Mercifully, his plans never came to fruition. Instead, he went to the newly established Gateshead Kolel, where he described himself, at the age of twenty as the ‘babe’ of the place. In his autobiography he wrote about the ideals of the Kolel: ‘Every member . . . believed with perfect faith that the Torah (written and oral) is the revealed word of God, therefore to study the Torah is to think God’s thoughts after Him. It is to engage the mind in eternal wisdom and truth; to be wondrously united with the divine Author of the Torah’. Although his views on the question of the direct divine authorship of the Torah were to change, learning remained his passion and the source of his spiritual communion all his life. His engagement in academic scholarship notwithstanding, Jacobs had never entirely wanted to leave the world of the Yeshivah, nor, for all his difficulties with its theology, did it ever leave him. Shortly before he died I asked him about his heroes: ‘The Ragadshover Gaon’, he replied, Rabbi Joseph Rozin of Dvinsk, ‘who knew the whole of Rabbinic literature by heart and of whom Bialik once said that from one Ragadshover two Einsteins could be carved’.
After receiving semichah in Manchester, Jacobs moved to London to serve as assistant rabbi at Munk’s Shul in North London, a bastion of German orthodoxy. Here was a world at once pious and traditional yet open to western values; members of the Munk’s congregation included academics, artists, philosophers and scientists. The German rabbi, whether orthodox or ‘liberal’, was required to have a university education, including a doctorate. Elliot Cosgrove has drawn attention to the key significance Rabbi Dr Alexander Altmann, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was later to hold for the much younger Jacobs, to whom he was a role model of the rabbi scholar, at home both in the world of Jewish and academic learning.
Jacobs enrolled to study Semitics at University College, London. He was Dr Siegfried Stein’s sole student. Dr. Stein, another German Jew, was fond of quoting Steinschneider’s adage ‘The beginning of wisdom is bibliography’. Indeed, this play on the original quotation ‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’ highlighted precisely the tension that soon dominated Jacobs’ thinking and career. Dr. Stein discussed with him the topics he’d studied at the Hochschule in Berlin. These included modern critical methods of text study and their results, which, wrote Jacobs, were not felt to be ‘incompatible with Jewish observance’. He was later to conclude that neither Dr. Stein nor other observant teachers had adequately thought through the consequences of this knowledge. Rabbi Jacobs’ own ability to do so, despite the fact that they overturned the very foundations of his previous learning, is quite remarkable and testifies to his extraordinary intellectual curiosity, courage and tenacity in pursuit of what he believed to be the truth.
In 1954 Rabbi Jacobs returned to London to the pulpit of the prestigious, left-of-centre New West End Synagogue. In 1957 he published We Have Reason To Believe. The book is deeply traditional in its approach to God, faith and such key doctrines as life after death. (Jacobs later described his approach as ‘liberal supernaturalism’; he deplored what he saw as the reductionist tendencies of a Kaplanian approach which made God into the force which makes for goodness and Jewish law into mere ‘folkways’.) The book doesn’t question the validity of halakhah; Rabbi Jacobs was an observant Jew all his life. He never felt emotionally close to Reform Judaism (taking pains to distance himself from it in the relevant chapter of Beyond Reasonable Doubt). The challenge of We Have Reason To Believe lies in Jacobs’ approach to the Torah and his endeavour to reconcile it with orthodoxy. Jacobs argues, as he did for the rest of his life, that in the light of new linguistic, historical and archaeological evidence, the traditional view of revelation must be revised. The Torah can no longer be regarded as having ‘dropped from heaven’; the human element is undeniable. God must therefore be understood to be revealing his will ‘not alone to but through men’. At the same time, he argued passionately that this did not mean that the Torah was no longer to be regarded as divine. Frequently accused of denying the doctrine of Torah min Hashamayim, he would respond that it all depended on what one meant by ‘from’.
These views cost Rabbi Jacobs the position of Principal of Jews’ College, promised him upon the retirement of Dr Isidore Epstein in 1961. Chief Rabbi Dr Israel Brodie vetoed the appointment on the grounds of Jacobs’ ‘published views’, and, extraordinarily, his lack of the ‘outstanding scholarship’ required for the post. He further vetoed his return to the pulpit of the New West End. As a result, the New London Synagogue was created out of which the Masorti Movement later grew. The former became Rabbi Jacobs spiritual home for over forty years; towards the latter he always harboured ambivalence, sometimes referring to himself as Masorti, at other times distancing himself from all movements. What he really wanted to create, he said, was ‘a mood, rather than a movement’. What he truly sought was vindication from within the Orthodox world that the challenges of the truth had to be met. That was never o forthcoming and this rejection, together with the failure to meet his arguments in any intellectually coherent manner, remained a source of disappointment all his life.
Jacobs believed in the empirical method. Whereas faith transcended reason, it was irrational and inadmissible to dismiss the evidence of the composite nature of the text of the Torah on grounds of faith. Nor was it intellectually credible to acknowledge the results of the critical method with regard to the Mishnah and Talmud, and indeed to the rest of the Bible, while preserving the Torah alone as an enclave to which scholarship could not be permitted to intrude. He firmly believed that traditional Judaism would be stronger, not weaker, for confronting the challenges of history. Reflecting on what he humorously referred to as his ‘little affair’ almost 50 years later, he recalled: ‘What I had fondly hoped to promote was an atmosphere in which the students of [Jews’] College were encouraged to face the problem courageously and try to deal with it honestly and constructively, out of the conviction that Judaism can meet the challenge of critical scholarship as it met the different challenge of Greek philosophy in the mediaeval period.’
Obviously, and presumably this is why orthodoxy rejected his insights with a such a powerful instinctive reaction, admission of the composite nature of the written Torah required a new understanding of the status of the oral Torah. If the written Torah could no longer be understood as the literal word of God, on what did the authority of halakhah and rabbinic interpretation now rest? And, if that were to be questioned, what would become of the whole bastion of Judaism? Jacobs response was to prove that the halakhah had always been dynamic. In the introduction to the second edition of A Tree Of Life, (significantly subtitled Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law) he wrote:
‘I have tried to show in A Tree Of Life that the great halakhists of the past, for all their espousal of what we would today call fundamentalism (a perfectly respectable position before the rise of the modern critical method), still thought of the halakhah in dynamic terms. Once it is seen that this is the true nature of the halakhic process, the way is open for an even more dynamic approach to the interpretation and application of halakhah. Naturally as I have repeated in this book, dynamism has its limits, and a halt has to be called where it results in an interpretation that tends to read the halakhic system itself out of existence. It is for the emergence of a different mood that non-fundamentalists loyal to halakhah hope.’
It is crucial to note however, that Jacobs would not contemplate ‘read[ing] the halakhic system itself out of existence’. This was as emotionally unimaginable as it was intellectually unthinkable. But the authority behind Jewish law had to be understood in the light of history. In fact, history provided not only the challenge but also the response; the authority of halakhah lay in the historical experiences of the Jewish people in endeavouring to understand and follow the divine will. That is why, Rabbi Jacobs was to say, he put on Tefilin, and considered himself commanded to do so.
The implicit consensus in the orthodox world as that such a reconstruction of the authority of Halakhah, and hence of Judaism itself, is substantially less than compelling. Indeed, its refusal seriously to contemplate the evidence of the composite nature of the Torah, is probably determined by its instinctive rejection of where that evidence might lead. In the same introduction Rabbi Jacobs himself reflects on precisely this dilemma:
At this stage it might be argued that the shift from a fundamentalist perspective to a historical approach is so severe and so far-reaching that the Orthodox will never accept it, and that the future of the halakhah is assured only by Orthodoxy. It may be true that the future can only be guaranteed by Orthodoxy, but then what is the historically-minded Jew to do? Some suggest that he should simply keep quiet, that books like A Tree Of Life should never be written . . . But for the non-fundamentalist, truth is important . . .
The Orthodox world made, and continues to make, the implicit decision that actually, when it comes to something as sacred as the text of the written Torah, empirical evidence is not all that important. More significant is that the myth (though it would never use that word) should continue to function coherently. An Orthodox rabbi once told me over dinner that he couldn’t go along with Rabbi Jacobs’ views about the text of the Torah, because what, then, would become of Judaism? I was left to reflect on the contradiction between the rational incoherence of his argument, and the all too coherent conclusion.
Why, for myself, I definitely do side with Rabbi Jacobs and why I believe it is essential that traditional Jews should do so, is that to strip religious thought of the constraints of empirical investigation is to leave us open to whatever any fundamentalist of any faith or type may claim. And that is precisely where we find ourselves, bereft of Rabbi Jacobs, today.
 Helping With Inquiries, p. 33.
 Helping With Inquiries, p. 48-9.
 Helping With Inquiries, p. 62.
 Helping With Inquiries, p. 78.
 Helping With Inquiries, p. 76.
 Quoted by William Frankel in his Preface to the fifth edition of We Have Reason To Believe, p. xxi.
 Beyond Reasonable Doubt, p. 17.
 A Tree Of Life: Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law, Introduction to the second Edition, p. xiv.
 A Tree Of Life: Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law, Introduction to the second Edition, p. xv.