I remember vividly the late Rabbi Jacobs once paraphrasing GK Chesterton – “the good thing about being in hot water is that you stay clean”. It was certainly in this spirit that “the Quest” – the initiative of The Friends of Louis Jacobs, was begun at JW3 in mid-July! The original term was used by Rabbi Jacobs referring to a journey of truth that he urged every Jew to embark upon. Through lectures, discussion, debates and writing over the months and indeed years ahead it is now an honest theology and an authentic Judaism that FLJ hopes to help incubate. Setting the scene and introducing some important topics essential to embracing the Quest – Elie Jesner’s opening lecture was certainly true to a deep spirit of open enquiry!
He started by discussing the Jacob story and imbuing it with sometimes profound psychological insight – he clearly explained that Jacob is the paradigm par excellence who embodies the search for truth. Part metaphor perhaps for the journey to which all Israel is called, and yet, with his own unique close reading of the text, Elie presented much of Jacob’s life story – his confrontation with his parents, his brother, his uncle and finally the mysterious battle with an Angel (or indeed his inner self) after which he attains the name Israel as a consistent striving, one obstacle after another, in search of truth.
This was then the backdrop to the three all important questions that Elie raised during the rest of his lecture. The first explored the impact of what an historical approach to the Torah text might mean. Central to clearing away the rubble that persists within Orthodoxy today, Elie made a powerful argument to engage with the findings of biblical criticism.
Placing the Torah Min Hashamayim debate firmly back on Anglo-Jewry’s agenda, he rebuked the intellectual dishonesty that is so rife, and showed, through a brief survey of some of the implications of an historical approach to our sources, that it can actually lead to an enhanced sense of faith. The reason for this is that the intricate, nuanced and complex tapestry that Elie showed Judaism to be is in fact far richer than any simplistic approach credits it with.
The second question that Elie asked was whether what we read in the Bible actually happened and whether, if we conclude in the negative, that potentially shatters the edifice on which Judaism is based. Here he appealed to psychology and through a number of examples aptly illustrated that the psychological insight garnered from our biblical stories is the best litmus test for their authenticity and their “truth” for us.
In the most moving section of his address, Elie’s third question asked whether God really intervenes in history. To this he spoke personally about the therapeutic value of prayer, drawing on a particularly traumatic time last year when his son had to undergo brain surgery. It was certainly quite a feat that Elie performed here, recasting God as answering psychological needs, redeeming both Freud and the Bible in the process!
Elie’s approach was certainly refreshing. Drawing in equal measure from both the yeshiva and university worlds, he outlined a living Judaism confident to face, and indeed embrace, the challenges that modernity have thrown up. And, importantly, that it can do so in such a way that casts the standard apologetics to the wind.
He certainly provoked much food for thought and questioning. Whilst his psychological approach was indeed novel, as God and Torah were often presented as being therapeutically useful, one wondered whether there was any space for the ineffable in his thinking. Furthermore, around his thinking as to the reality of biblical events, if they are only there as a paradigm to provoke self-questioning and an emotional response then one might question on that basis if there is any difference between reading Torah and Shakespeare!
One can also certainly reference many biblical episodes that do not evoke a sense of inspiration or lead to a sense of self-development – what on Elie’s approach are we to do with the more troubling texts? There were several people in the audience that also questioned whether starting with an intellectually honest approach is the best way to instil a sense of awe and Jewish values in our children. Perhaps what was also missing from Elie’s lecture was an attempt to grapple with just why there is so much rubble in the first place.
Elie has, however, firmly set the agenda for many further discussions. The nature of revelation, the scope of halachic innovation, the extent to which other religious traditions can lay claim to truth, the politics of translation and just how we educate our children were all hugely fruitful areas that he touched on and require far more probing. All of this, together with the secure knowledge that a space has been created where intellectual integrity is actually venerated, means that the quest on which The Friends Of Louis Jacobs are now embarking is sure to galvanise much needed debate within Anglo-Jewry.
*Simon Eder is a founder of Voxburner – the leading youth research consultancy. He studied at Yeshivat HaMivtar under Rabbi Riskin in Efrat and received an MA in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge University.