We’ve had quite a few additions to the website over the past month, as some of you will have noticed. As an editor, I get to discover new pieces written by Rabbi Louis Jacobs nearly on a daily basis. And each time, it’s a new facet of his personality that somehow emerges. This experience can at time be truly fascinating, hence my enthusiasm about sharing it with you today.
One often hears people referring to Rabbi Jacobs as a talmid hakham, in other words, a talmudic scholar, or someone whose grasp of Jewish law reaches soaring heights. In a certain sense of the word, it seems clear that his knowledge of the responsa literature was vast. Among the pieces most recently added to the website are short reviews, written for the Jewish Law Annual (ed. Bernard S. Jackson), of important modern halakhic works such as the Tsits Eliezer, the Piske Uziel, or the Divre Yoel. It is worth noting, moreover, the appreciation for diversity which appears in just these three titles (many more are online): the first, Rabbi Waldinberg, was a traditional Orthodox authority from the Lithuanian world; the second, Rabbi Uziel, was Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Mandatory Palestine and Israel; and finally, the third, Rabbi Yoel Teitlebaum, was the first Rebbe of Satmar. My only regret is that Rabbi Jacobs was not able to write more substantial reviews of these works.
Beyond traditional learning, however, my impression is that he saw himself first and foremost as a scholar, in the academic sense of the term. Rabbi Jacobs was not content with absorbing Jewish knowledge, he also felt the need to digest it, and when necessary, criticize it. This could occur in a number of fields. In theology, for example, he argued with a prominent Reform thinker while at the same time waging a battle against fundamentalist Orthodoxy, as attested by two more recently uploaded pieces: ‘We Still have Reason to Believe’ and ‘Two Ways into the Jewish Faith’.
Another field he explored in great depth was hasidism, or mysticism more generally. And I’m sure it is fair to say that his interest in these was not purely academic. It was part and parcel of his religious outlook which, while inclined towards rationalism, acknowledged the supernatural element which inheres in faith. For some hints of this, I point you towards reviews written about his own books by Bradley Artson, Harry Rabinowicz, and Kenneth Cohen, all recent additions to our collection.
I recall once asking my tutor in university a question about Louis Jacobs, to which she responded: ‘The significance of his Britishness is absolutely central to understand Jacobs’s thought.’ This came back to my mind recently, while editing the following piece, which was published in 1983: ‘Jewish National Identity in Britain’ (see also ‘Jewish National Consciousness in Anglo-Jewry’ for an earlier draft of that same paper, with additional comments). Indeed, Rabbi Jacobs was deeply invested within Anglo-Jewry, and ‘Britishness’, however one may define it, shaped his entire world view.
As a concluding note, I am pleased to let you know that the recording of last week’s ‘Honest Theology’ session with Prof. Paul Franks is now available online for (re)viewing!
Wishing all our friends a shavua tov,
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