Cosgrove at the Memorial Service
Last week, a dear friend and colleague of Rabbi Jacobs, Dr. Byron Sherwin, shared with me that in generations to come, historians of British Jewry might very well conclude that “Louis Jacobs” could not possibly represent the name of a single individual, but must refer to an entire school of rabbis and scholars. The scope of his scholarly enterprise, the breadth and depth of writing, the massive corpus of published work, would convince future scholars that such legion attainments could not have been produced by a single individual during a single lifetime.
In the spirit of Dr. Sherwin’s comment, I too came to consider the spiritual estate of Rabbi Jacobs, and the inheritance to the Jewish community that he leaves behind. Given the impossible task of trying to distil a lifetime of achievement into a short span of time, I am guided by the belief that the power of Rabbi Jacobs’ spiritual legacy is in the realization that at the source of such massive achievements there is a single and inimitable scholar and theologian.
To appreciate Rabbi Jacobs’ intellectual legacy is to appreciate not just the life of one man but to grasp the outline of 20th century Anglo-Jewish history. Rabbi Jacobs was a product of an extraordinary set of circumstances, by which, whether through a series of accidents or steadily pursued design, his profile was shaped by the major demographic and intellectual shifts of the past century. His work is a rare exchange between the world of the Yeshiva and the University, the ivory tower and the pulpit, contemporary Anglo-philosophy and the medieval Jewish tradition.
“Philosophers,” Heschel reminds us “do not expend their power and passion unless they themselves are affected, originally or vicariously.” Rabbi Jacobs’ scholarly achievements were impelled by quandaries knocking at his own heart as a result of his unique training, and his legacy must be read as such. To know the philosophy of Rabbi Jacobs is more than just to know the man: rather, it is to know the heart and soul of Anglo-Jewry.
Born into a family of Eastern European descent, Leib Jacobs grew up in a community seeking to acculturate to the Anglo-surroundings. He was encouraged to think beyond his Eastern European roots, recalling his mother’s ability to rattle off reams of Browning and Tennyson among others. Jacobs appears to have inherited both his mother’s retentive memory and breadth of reading, which undoubtedly set his life as an autodidact. Even in 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 an idea with clarity, felicitous prose and well placed wit. It also taught him the importance of “telling it like it is,” a truth-telling at all costs, which I dare say, with points of reference of my own, seems to be characteristic of the products of England’s great provincial city.
It was at the Manchester Yeshiva where Laib Jacobs was introduced to the breadth and depth of rabbinic literature. He was immersed into the Eastern European yeshiva world as it was being transplanted onto British soil, a story recorded in many histories of British Jewry. Introduced to the Telzer way (Derekh) of study, the Habad/Lubavitch world, the seeds were being planted for his future inquiries.
At Gateshead, Jacobs once again found himself at the crossroads of history. Gateshead reflected efforts to offer a physical and spiritual sanctuary for those 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 profile of Rabbi Jacobs during these years from a most unobjective source, his wife-to-be Shulamit Lisagorsky, whose memory we are also attentive to today. In a courtship which, from first date to engagement, seems to have taken place over a weekend (quite a “leap of faith”), Shulamit reflects as follows:
During the walk all I can say is I was absolutely enthralled being entertained by my head being filled with magical chasidic tales and the like. I must have appeared quite ignorant in opposition to his brain, but it did not seem to worry him at all… Here was a yeshiva bochur, a Rabbi, and I always thought of Rabbis in terms of dull, pious and old in ways, not knowing anything modern… He was just the opposite. Together with a tale for every question, he joked and seemed like a normal Manchester English young man. He wasn’t pompous; certainly did not parade his religiousness. Talked of literature and poetry and he even liked jazz! (Well, I was not so sure about that). He was refreshing to talk to, and yet he gave me the impression of being the spiritual type, which I admired…and seemed to me right away that he was Mr. Right!
And so a portrait begins to emerge of a young man, just married, the prized pupil of the finest intuitions of eastern and central European rabbinic learning, and yet fully British, modern and altogether refreshing in demeanour.
Perhaps the most important years, however, were yet to come. As assistant to Rabbi Eliyahu Munk at the Golders Green Beit Hamidrash, Jacobs was introduced to Rabbi Munk’s model of a scholar-rabbi, Torah im derekh eretz, combining a commitment to Torah and secular culture. More importantly, it was here that he began his academic degree.
Studying primarily under Siegfried Stein at University College London, Rabbi Jacobs was introduced to 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 Shoah. And so surrounded by great teachers, by colleagues who would go on to be great leaders of 20th-century Jewry, it was during these years that he first considered the human element in revelation, it was here that he first was faced with the question of integrating modern findings with traditional faith. He first read Krochmal, Ginzberg, Frankel, Schechter and others. It was also during these years, working for Munk, doing his BA, beginning his PhD and teaching with Stein that he began his family. As many have noted, there is perhaps a reason why there is an “s” at the end of “Jacobs”. From these early years and throughout his life, Jacobs juggled multiple profiles, academic, rabbinic and beyond.
Rabbi Jacobs characterized the years in Manchester at the Central Synagogue, from 1948 to 1953 as “a time for searching”. Working on his doctorate, building a community of his own, he sought to construct a path that integrated the Yeshiva and the University world. In the communal Rabbi of Manchester, Dr. Alexander Altmann, he found a lifetime model, a rabbi and scholar who offered the possibility of being intellectually engaged and religiously dynamic, of being committed to the life of the mind and the life force of the Jewish community. Rabbi Jacobs began to speak and lecture widely, being warmly received as an extraordinarily bright and promising young voice in the Anglo-Jewish community.
Laib Jacobs became Louis Jacobs upon his arrival at the New West End – the change of name perhaps signalling a cultural transformation as he assumed a pulpit of distinction. Nevertheless, in examining his writing it is evident to me that when he arrived at the New West End in 1954, he was fully formed in his religious beliefs. The New West End and the Jewish Chronicle may have given him a platform, but whatever views he put to print in “We Have Reason to Believe” in 1957 had been said before, perhaps as early as his years in Manchester with Dr. Altmann.
This point is not inconsequential. There are those who claim that Rabbi Jacobs was somehow bullied into beliefs which were not naturally his own, or that some heterodox beliefs emerged in the sixties as his profile grew public and polemic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rabbi Jacobs’ theological quest was present before he stepped foot in the New West End, it was a reflection of the impulses and influences of the first half of his life. Rabbi Jacobs’ lifetime efforts to synthesize the claims of modernity and traditional faith, biblical criticism and halakhic observance are not merely theological but biographical and sociological as well.
So what is the thread that unites his forty-plus books, countless articles, sermons and lectures? What is the focus of his spiritual legacy and his charge for future generations to carry forward? This was actually the final question which I asked of him this past spring. And his response to me was “Very simple, intellectual integrity. In other words, Elliot, I haven’t cooked the books.”
And I think that in this one final exchange, the methodological heart of Rabbi Jacobs’ work comes into focus. Blessed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Jewish literature, intellectual integrity and a penchant for clarity, Rabbi Jacobs culled the breadth and depth of our sacred tradition and presented it to the English-speaking community linguistically and culturally. And given his objection to “cooking the books,” he discovered something along the way: Jewish theology comes in a variety of expressions, depending on whether you are a Talmudic rabbi, a medieval theologian or a Hasid.
And, it is because Jewish theology is unsystematic, pluralistic, complex or even at times contradictory, that one must approach it with great humility. Many times, Rabbi Jacobs reminded me that his book on Jewish theology was called “A Jewish Theology,” the indefinite article serving as a rebuke to any past or future theologian who dared claim to speak for the entirety of Jewish theological expression. One of his most idiosyncratic books is his study of the rabbinic concept of “teiku”, a study of every instance in which the rabbis were faced with an insolvable issue, and like a stalemate in soccer or chess, teiku/tie is declared and one moves on.
This book, a masterpiece of critical scholarship, is also an insight into what animated Rabbi Jacobs. Never before has there been a scholar who knew so much but would rather admit to that which he did not know and call a tie than seek a victory lacking integrity. He wrote an entire monograph on “confessions of ignorance.” What an odd choice of subject matter, unless one sought to demonstrate that the ability to admit to not having an answer is a sign of strength, not weakness.
With this in mind, it becomes evident why the concept of the quest is so integral to understanding Rabbi Jacobs. If certainty and absolutes necessarily lie beyond the human horizon, then Jewish theology must always be phrased tentatively. Rabbi Jacobs found strength and guidance in the insight of the Maharal that the quest for Torah is itself part of Torah.
For Rabbi Jacobs, any foray into Jewish theology involved not just a discussion of God, but of the human being asked to believe in God. He often reminded me of Ginzberg’s insight that “Judaism is the religion of Jews.” When one asked Rabbi Jacobs what he believed about X, he would answer you by saying, well what do you believe?! What do you think happened at Mount Sinai? This was not merely a rhetorical ploy, rather it points to a key methodological crux, that belief is as much to do with the believer as it does with what is believed. The question is not what Rashi or Maimonides believed; the question is what you believe today!
I have met many people who were given the privilege of learning from Rabbi Jacobs; some agreed with his theology, others inevitably did not. But without exception, all emerged from an exchange with Rabbi Jacobs thinking more seriously about his or her faith. For Rabbi Jacobs, theology was decidedly not a theoretical exercise: if you want to Judaism to be vital, then you must stake your claim in it and make it your own. I also think, incidentally, that this is why Rabbi Jacobs always remained in the pulpit and wrote as a public educator. With all the sophistication in the world at his disposal, and academic posts offered throughout, he always wrote for “The Jew in the Pew.”
And here we must arrive at what is rightfully understood as the centering principle of Rabbi Jacobs’ spiritual legacy. Over the years he may have called it by different names, liberal supernaturalism, non-fundamentalist halakhah and the theological approach, but the essential message has remained remarkably consistent. His writing is a sustained case that Torah and the quest for Torah contain both a divine and human component. Jewish theology and practice, belief and observance, is an ongoing exchange and dialogue between God and humanity.
Rabbi Jacobs demonstrated that such a position is fully embedded throughout traditional sources. His work in mysticism, saintliness and chasidut all reveal a deeply felt religious faith. Any notion of a secular or naturalistic formulation of Judaism struck him as hollow and inauthentic. And yet, even with such raw supernaturalism, he fiercely defended the human element in any conceptualization of faith. “God could not have made a Stradivarius violin without Stradivari.” The Torah’s perfection, as the Midrash teaches, is not contingent on its source, but rather on its effect on the people of Israel.
And with this in mind, so many of his writings come into focus. From his classic book on halakhah, “Tree of Life,” to his “Theology in the Responsa” to his writings on the contrived literary quality of the Talmud, to, most famously, his efforts towards reconciling the maculate nature of Torah with a belief in Divine revelation. However wide and varied Rabbi Jacobs’ subject matter, the unifying thread is there for the discerning eye to see. Rabbi Jacobs’ theological achievements represent a comprehensive and cohesive statement in defence of the ongoing partnership between God and humanity in the ongoing process of revelation.
When considering Rabbi Jacobs’ achievements, one confronts both what is forever lost with his death and what remains for generations to follow. The breadth of Rabbi Jacobs’ knowledge, his erudition, makes him a figure unique for both his gifts and the historical moment which produced him, and I dare say will never be reproduced. And yet it is clear to me that the inheritance of Louis Jacobs stands for all of us to embrace no matter what your station in life or denominational stripe. Because apart from the intrinsic merits of Rabbi Jacobs’ theology, he represents a model of unflinching intellectual integrity, of ongoing spiritual striving, of clarity of expression, all guided by a deep love for the Jewish people.
Judaism is a quest, and as such, religious debate must begin with the concession that when it comes to matters Divine, what we don’t know far exceeds that which we know. Jews must be challenged and forced to think about their Judaism, not pandered to. The task of Jewish educators must be to help Jews find their own voice, not merely parrot others. Each of us bears the potential to participate in the ongoing dialogue between God and humanity that began at Mount Sinai. This is the inheritance of Rabbi Jacobs.
“The world to come”, “Olam Haba”, was one area of Jewish thought which Rabbi Jacobs believed was neglected by contemporary theologians, and he worked hard to rectify this oversight. In the weeks since his death, it has brought me comfort to know that to Rabbi Jacobs it was inconceivable that God does not continue to extend care and compassion to humanity even as we depart from this world. I am further consoled that our tradition teaches that as a soul ascends to heaven to enter the world to come, each of us are asked a series of questions. And I smile, thinking that perhaps Rabbi Jacobs lingered a bit there at the Gates of Heaven, enjoying the divine human dialogue that he enjoyed so, and perhaps even had the courage to ask a few questions of his own. Maybe he got the answers he wanted, but I suspect that he would be just as happy to be given the opportunity to refine his questions for future inquiry.
May the memory of Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs be for a blessing and may the questions that guided his life, and the manner in which he asked them, continue to be our quest for generations to come.