At the Memorial Service
There is a beautiful midrash that when Moses died, Joshua wept and mourned over him – saying “My father, my father, my master, my master. My father who raised me, my master who taught me Torah” – mourning so long and so excessively that the Holy One finally said to him, “Did his death affect only you? Did it not affect Me most of all? For from the day of his death there has been great mourning before Me. He has been assured that he has a place is the world to come” (Sifre Deuteronomy305).
The death of Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs affects not only his family and not only his students, but all of us – and is surely a cause of mourning before the Holy One who has lost one of His most trusted servants. But his works and his influence will live on long after him.
Rabbi Jacobs was a man of niggudim – a word that can be translated as contradictions, opposites or – as I prefer – contrasts. If it is true that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then the ability to hold contrasting views and opinions at the same time and to make them harmonize beautifully is the talent of great minds. It is the embodiment of the rabbinic saying, eilu ve’eilu divrei elohim chayim – both these and those are the word of the living God.
Rabbi Jacobs was the epitome of rational thought – and yet imbued with the feelings of a mystic. He was the epitome of a Litvak misnaged in his Talmudic studies – and a chasid in his understanding of prayer.
He was the epitome of modern scholarship in his approach to Biblical criticism – and a devoted lover of Torah in his teachings.
He was the epitome of a scholar in his single-minded devotion to the acquisition of knowledge – and involved in the everyday needs of his family, friends and the community. He was the epitome of an academic in his approach to knowledge – and a popular teacher who wrote books for children, youth and the general audience.
He was the epitome of the professor – and the epitome of the congregational – pulpit rabbi.
He was radical in his thinking – and conservative in his practice.
He was devoted to the halakhah – and aware of the need to be flexible in applying it.
He was a raconteur of renown – and a pedant in his scholarly writings.
He was devoted to ‘minhag anglia’ – and prepared to innovate.
He was a fervent Zionist – and totally immersed in Anglo-Jewish life.
He devoted his life to Torah learning – and found time to read everything important in literature and general thought.
He was sharp and caustic in dealing with those whose opinions he scorned – and he was kind and gentle with those who needed him.
He considered himself completely traditional – and taught at a school where Reform rabbis were ordained.
He was proud of his accomplishments – and always self-deprecating.
Of him it could be said, nothing Jewish was foreign to him. Of him it could be said, nothing human was foreign to him.
In these days when scholarship tends to be centred around the specialist, who devotes his life to knowing more and more about less and less, Rabbi Jacobs was unusual if not unique in that he was an expert is so many different fields. He was an authority in Talmud, in Midrash, in Responsa Literature, in Mysticism, in Hasidut, in Jewish philosophy and Jewish Theology. In addition he succeeded in doing that which is almost impossible – converting scientific study of Judaism – Wissenschaft – into Torah.
In Orthodox institutions of learning there is much Torah but little scientific knowledge. In the Seminaries of our own movement all too often we have professors who teach Jewish subjects from the scientific point of view, but who do not know how to transform them into Torah. He could. And I think that is the key to understanding the man. He had a thirst for knowledge and therefore undertook the rigours of scholarship, but it was not knowledge for knowledge’s sake but rather in order to use that knowledge to enhance religious life – lehagdil Torah – to make the Torah great. I believe that is also the key to understanding another mystery about his life – his continued functioning as a congregational rabbi when so many other options were open before him.
I often wondered why he chose to be a congregational rabbi throughout his career, why he was willing to submit to the rigours, the demands, and the difficulties of pulpit life. Surely it took time away from his study and writing. With his eminance, learning and erudition, he was universally acknowledged as one of the outstanding scholars of his time. He could easily have had an appointment to any one of a number of prestigious academies here or abroad. The Jewish Theological Seminary would have been delighted to welcome him to its permanent faculty. I am certain that there were many other institutions that would have been thrilled to have him. Why then New London Synagogue all those years? Not out of necessity or need – out of choice.
I am convinced that he believed that it was important for the future of Judaism and for the spread of Torah that Torah scholars not be isolated in ivory towers, but that the learned be part of the masses and be involved with what we might call for want of a better term “the common man” – poshete yiddin. That may be why he always insisted that everyone call him Louis. He earned respect, love and devotion not by titles, but by actions. He avoided the hubris of most scholars who placed themselves above others and scorned the contact with amcha – plain people. He was not just the scholar or just the rabbi – he was the scholar-rabbi and as such he set an important model for all scholars and all rabbis. After Rabbi Jacobs no scholar could say, ‘I have no time to bother with people’ and no rabbi could say, ‘I have no time to study.’
Speaking to the congregation shortly after his death I pointed out that we should not let the Jacobs affair with its controversy about the origins of the Torah overwhelm his legacy. His main concern was not with what we cannot accept but with finding a faith by which we can live. As I said then, his book is not entitled “We Have Reason Not To Believe,” but ‘We Have Reason To Believe’. It is not insignificant that we have just sung the words “Ani Ma-amin” – “I believe” – the piece was chosen because it was one of his favourites.
His mission was not to negate but to affirm, to find the truth and give us a faith in which we could believe. In the preface he concluded: If [this book] stimulates its readers to think seriously about their faith and even helps some of them to declare ‘We have reason to believe’ this will be its justification.
In his last conversation with me we were talking about plans to republish some of his books. He said to me, “I have published fifty books” – and then he added with a smile – “of course that’s cheating a little because some of them are just new editions.”
Cheating or not, that is an amazing accomplishment, not because of the quantity but because of the quality of his work. He has left behind an enduring legacy of the written word that will certainly enter the category of classical Jewish works to be mined and quoted for years to come. That is his Torah shebikhtav – written Torah. Rabbi Wittenberg and I are now working on a program to be called “Reading Rabbi Jacobs” which will involve people throughout the world in a guided program of reading Rabbi Jacobs’ most significant books during this year of mourning. All the details will be forthcoming shortly.
But there is also a Torah she-b’al peh – oral Torah – and that is the way he lived and the example that he set for us. That too is his legacy.
Of our father Jacob – Yaakov – whose other name was Israel – Yisrael – the midrash elaborates the Biblical story of his words on his deathbed to his children. It says that Jacob called his children together and after his blessings, he asked them a simple question- something that had bothered him throughout his life, ‘Do you have any doubts in your hearts concerning He who spoke and the world came into being?’
They answered: ‘Listen Israel our father – just as you have no doubts in your heart concerning He who spoke and the world came into being, so we have no doubts – rather “The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” To which he replied: ‘Blessed be the name of His glorious majesty forever and ever!’ (Sifre Deuteronomy 31).
When all is said and done, the question that Rabbi Jacobs asks is, “Are you willing to continue my way? Are you willing to find the way to believe in He who spoke and the world came into being and living a Jewish life, to loyalty to Jewish tradition through honest inquiry, through the search for the truth and devotion to study and practice? And to this we can reply: Just as you devoted yourself to that, so shall we continue in your way of honesty and devotion – Torat Emet – the Torah of truth. And in reply we can hear his voice saying, Blessed be the name of His glorious majesty forever and ever!
May the memory and the teachings of Rabbi Jacobs continue to inspire and instruct us and bring us blessing in the years ahead.