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Louis Jacobs seen through his library

by César Merchán-Hamann



For somebody trying to understand Louis Jacobs and his works, his library would be a good place to start. It constitutes a record of his unceasing dialogue with the Jewish tradition and with non-Jewish sources. As the library of a working community rabbi and an active scholar, it shows the breadth and depth of his erudition, as well as his engagement with practical matters. It covers the whole gamut of Jewish studies and includes everything a Lithuanian rationalist (mitnaged) rabbi's library would have: Bible and traditional Jewish biblical commentaries; Talmud and talmudic novellae (hidushim), responsa (she’elot uteshuvot), halakhic codes and other legal works; prayer books and commentaries on liturgical works; aggadic midrashim and other rabbinic narrative material; homiletic writings with sermons ranging over the last millennium; Jewish philosophy and theology (including works by Philo, Sa‘adiah Gaon, Maimonides and their successors); biographical material on rabbinical scholars (including a large collection of memorial volumes and Festschriften); and, finally, the main works of the Musar school of ethical rigour which arose among the mitnagdim.

But then it goes on to transcend the confines of the rationalist viewpoint. It includes an extensive collection of books on kabbalah and other aspects of Jewish mysticism; books on Sabbateanism and other messianic movements, together with an unrivalled set of books and booklets by and about the Hasidim – the pietistic sects that started in 18th-century Eastern Europe and were the object of the rationalists' scorn and enmity throughout much of the late 18th and 19th centuries. This was the side of Judaism that the late Gershom Scholem spent his life studying: the irrational aspects of Judaism that had been set aside and ignored by the proponents of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (the scholarly study of Judaism). Louis Jacobs not only devoted a considerable amount of time to studying these aspects of Judaism and making them accessible to the wider public, but he also attempted to reconcile the two facets of Judaism, on the face of it incompatible.

Not content with synthesising these two sides of Judaism, which until then had been considered antithetical, he then went on to examine the modern Jewish movements, i.e. Reform and the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), and then looked outside Judaism at modern philosophy, all the while consistent in his aim of searching for a set of Jewish beliefs which could be solidly substantiated so that contemporary Jews could honestly subscribe to them. He thus came to effect another synthesis which had arguably been the goal of modern Jewish scholars since Mendelssohn – that of traditional Jewish beliefs with modern philosophy, science and scholarship.



To view the list of books written by Louis Jacobs, click here.

To download a file listing all of Louis Jacobs publications, compiled by Michael Fischer, including Jacobs' contributions to books and encyclopedias, as well as his journal articles and reviews, and published pamphlets and sermons, click here.

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Video. Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs speaks about the most important of his own publications.

Source: @2013 www.louisjacobs.org. All rights reserved.


This can be seen from the presence in his library of works on modern philosophy and science, including those by European and American philosophers of religion, Christian thinkers and theologians. On its shelves we can also find the fundamental texts of the Jewish Enlightenment: the works of Mendelssohn, Zunz, Geiger, Frankel, Graetz and their successors.

The constant search for a solid foundation to contemporary Judaism, and a readiness to examine all possible alternatives on their merits, regardless of their origins, is what lies at the root of Louis Jacobs's greatness as a scholar, theologian and thinker. His universality, solidly rooted in the values transplanted from Eastern Europe, and yet incorporating modern secular philosophy, enabled him to create a viable theology for the modern Jew. His search for a solid theology led him to a constant dialogue with the traditional sources as well as with the representatives of secular modernity both within and outside Judaism. This conversation can be seen as it takes place in his library mirroring his origins, development, goals and achievements as a thinker and a rabbi.


The Louis Jacobs Collection is housed at the Leopold Muller Memorial Library at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies in Yarnton, and it contains most if Louis Jacobs' writings and publications. If you would like to access it, please make contact with the Library staff at: muller.library [at] ochjs.ac.uk