Delivered at the Shiva
Ivor, Nomi, David.
Thank you for inviting me to share some words of Torah and appreciation of your father.
I was scheduled to give, this very evening, a lecture on the writings of Rabbi Jacobs and the notion that I instead find myself speaking at this shivah is an honour I far rather would have forgone.
Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs was, and will always remain, my vision of a Rabbi. Learned, kind and completely committed to the life of Torah that inspires me and all my colleagues, in denominations and countries across the world and through time.
As a small child I remember charging down the stairs at the end of the Children’s Services at New London to hear ‘Louis’ sermon.’
Of course my friends and I weren’t allowed to charge into the sanctuary during the sermon, but we could slip unnoticed through the doors at the back of the shul and crouch down, hidden, behind the thick green velvet curtains that stopped any of the adults from seeing us.
I would laugh at jokes we didn’t fully understand and then, on the way home from shul my father would tell me how wonderful the sermon had been, and I would smile, because I knew that everything was alright with the world.
As I grew up I began to understand for myself how wonderful the sermons always were and I would be in awe of the seeming effortless erudition, as Rabbi Jacobs took all of us on a journey, through sources ancient and modern always bringing us gently down to land at the end of his drosh. He was a master of that most difficult of sermonic arts – Rabbi Jacobs knew how to end a sermon perfectly.
As a Bar Mitzvah I stood, just there, and I remember perfectly, the words of Torah he shared with me that day.
“Harchivi makom ohalech – make wide the place of your tent”.
Draw out the guide-ropes, he told me. It’s the greatest brachah he could have given me and it stays with me to this day.
But there are others here who know, better than I, of Rabbi Jacobs’ extraordinary gifts as a congregational Rabbi. I want instead to speak as a religious seeker with a passion for the critical scholarship that Rabbi Jacobs made his own. I have spent seven years living and learning in Israel and America. Among my many teachers were theologians, Talmudists, halakhists, teachers of chasidut and mysticism, pedagogues. And I would always take enormous pleasure from the centrality of Rabbi Jacobs’ teachings for all of them. All these master teachers would refer, or assign, or discuss, again and again Rabbi Jacobs, my teacher, our teacher.
It is possible, though far from clear, to argue that there are greater works of contemporary Jewish theology than ‘We Have Reason to Believe’ or ‘A Jewish Theology’, though for me, both these books are utterly central in allowing me to explain my own relationship with God, revelation and obligation.
It is possible to suggest that there are more important works written on the evolution of halakhah than ‘Tree of Life’ or more significant contributions to the world of academic study than ‘Theology in the Responsa,’ but personally I consider these the very best writings in the field of Jewish law.
It is possible to suggest that there are more important works on chasidut than ‘Hasidic Prayer’ (perhaps my favourite of all of Rabbi Jacobs’ works) or ‘Hasidic Thought,’ but it would take a brave soul to suggest anything that could top these masterful works.
It is also possible, though uncertain, to argue, that there are more important works on Talmud than ‘Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud’ and ‘Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology.’ But these are standard works, decades after their original date of publication.
You could say that there are better guides to Jewish life than The Books of Jewish Practice and Jewish Belief or What does Judaism Say About, but these are the books I recommend to those wanting to know more about our faith and tradition.
One might quibble with any one of these claims, but there is one claim that is unarguable.
There is no-one, no-one in the history of contemporary Jewish scholarship who can match the quality of Rabbi Jacobs’ extraordinary output across the utterly vast range of Jewish thought and practice over which he published.
We are all of us, surely, aware of Rabbi Jacobs’ standing in Anglo-Jewry, but in truth he was world-class. There is simply no one to match him. There never has been, there probably never will be.
But the books alone are only part of it. There are also beautiful translations; Tamar Devorah, Sur Mera. The Tract on Ecstasy, the wonderfully well edited Jewish Mystical Experiences, all of which sit on my shelves, and, at various points on my own journey, permitted me glimpses into a world of Jewish thought that language and esoteric technicalities were preventing me from understanding.
And the occasional articles on the Mussar Movement, Jewish ethics, liturgy and even into the most recent of times, homiletics. The range is dizzying. Not only was Rabbi Jacobs a walking encyclopaedia, he also wrote, single-handed, a one-volume Jewish encyclopaedia, published by the Oxford University Press.
These books are giant achievements; they appear again and again and again in bibliographies, footnotes and acknowledgements of the contemporary academy. They have had an enormous influence on today’s scholars and will continue to influence generations to come.
Just this week I went to buy a new book on Maimonides, and there, over the opening pages of Marc Shapiro’s Limits of Orthodox Theology were scores of references to Rabbi Jacobs’ work.
The fact that this incredible achievement was fitted in around Rabbi Jacob’s commitments as a very full-time congregational Rabbi and loving husband and father, is beyond inspiring, it is, certainly for this newly ordained Rabbi, awesome – ‘nora’ in the true sense of the word, a little terrifying.
But the real power of Rabbi Jacob’s work is more than their mere breadth and quality. There is a certain tone, a quality of discourse that makes him so beloved.
Academics can be dangerous. A spiritual person reads the work of the academy with a certain trepidation, all one’s love and passion for a subject can be atomised and pulverised into nothingness by the withering critique of a PhD, but that was never Rabbi Jacobs’ way.
In books like Hasidic Prayer there was something about the gentleness of the tone that allowed the spiritual seeker to come in. While Rabbi Jacobs was prepared to make explicit uncomfortable truths about Hasidic practice, or even the nature of revelation, reading the tradition through the eyes of Rabbi Jacobs it always remained beautiful, powerful and warm.
I’m not sure Rabbi Jacobs would ever have considered himself a mystic, but there was something about the way in which he brought scholarship to writing about the secrets and passions of the Jewish soul that left a spiritual seeker undeflected by the scholarship, but rather feeling stronger in their beliefs, now grounded more accurately in historical reality.
Solomon Schechter, the first President of the Jewish Theological Seminary and an inspiration to all who try to fuse the academic and the spiritual quest, wrote about the midrash in which Avaraham avinu, our patriarch Abraham, smashed the wares of his father, the seller of idols. It must have been tempting for Abraham, wrote Schechter, to continue the life of dishonesty of an idol salesman. He could have sat quiet and waited until he entered into his due inheritance, the respectable family business.
But this dishonesty was not the way of our patriarch. Abraham felt the need to smash the idols of the house of his father, because they represented a lie. And dishonesty can never be squared with a true religious quest.
We might all look to religion for comfort but truth, claimed Schechter, truth is more important. Abraham’s great moment of spiritual bravery was the smashing of the idols of dishonesty, pledging himself to truth and the service of the one true God. Adonai eloheichem emet.
Even though telling these truths provoked discomfort.
Even though Abraham himself had to henceforth strike out alone, without the comforts of the cosy religious life that he was born into.
Rabbi Jacobs was a tremendous disciple of Avraham Avinu.
When he saw deceit practiced in the name of religion he spoke out.
When there were uncomfortable truths that many a religious leader feared to utter, he would step forward boldly, coolly and always with tremendous scholarship.
Judaism, for Rabbi Jacobs, could never be dishonest.
Rabbi Jacobs was a great iconoclast in the most holy sense of the term.
This, I think, explains the gentle quality of his writing. He never broke idols for the sake of it, or to show how smart he was, but rather in pursuit of the deep religious quest for truth, a quest that is ultimately holy, even if idols need to be broken on the journey.
And, like Avraham, Rabbi Jacobs’ iconoclasm came at a cost, in this world.
It provoked discomfort.
It cost him his due inheritance and one can only speculate how lonely the journey was for Rabbi Jacobs these past 40 years.
But the rewards for the shattering of idols are not necessarily to be appreciated in this world, they are the rewards of the world to come; rewards Rabbi Jacobs is now free to enjoy.
And what of the rest of us.
We are of course left with the books, but the spirit of Rabbi Jacobs is not to be left on the bookshelf. It is to be lived, it is to be taken forward.
This space, this sacred place of prayer and study must not be allowed to wither.
We have this week lost our Moreh Derekh, the one who led this community for over forty years, but we have not been left without signposts to illuminate the way ahead.
I want to conclude with an extract from one of Rabbi Jacobs’ books. It seems appropriate. In the Tree of Life, Rabbi Jacobs wishes to suggest that a deep-rooted system of values, a spirit, informs the halakhah.
This brief extract encapsulates many of the great virtues of Rabbi Jacobs’ scholarship; a source that makes his point perfectly, the ability to prick the balloon of any suggestion of hyperbole and always, underneath, the love of Torah and pursuit of truth.
“The correct Jewish response to suffering seems to be expressed in the rule that when a mourner rends his garment in grief at the death of a near relative, he should do so while standing, not while sitting. As Dr Hertz puts it, ‘According to ancient Jewish custom, the ceremony of rending our garments when our nearest and dearest on earth is lying dead before us, is to be performed standing up. This teaches, meet all sorrow standing upright. The future may be dark veiled through the eyes of mortals … but hard as life’s terms may be, life never dictates unrighteousness, unholiness, dishonour.’ If this interpretation is considered too homeletical, the rule about standing upright might have been intended to denote a rising to the tragic occasion.”
A rising to the tragic occasion.
Rabbi Jacobs was never bowed, never folded in the face of discomfort. And neither can we, his friends, disciples.
My charge is Rabbi Jacobs’ charge – to rise to the tragic occasion.
It is a charge I pledge myself to, and one I commend to us all.
Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs
Moreinu Harav Hagaon Yehudah Leib ben Tzvi