Originally published in Judaism Today, Winter 1999-2000.
Ask the Rabbi reveals the true Louis Jacobs, the total Halachist with total faith in God and total intellectual acceptance of the Torah as a prerequisite to understanding all truth. To quote from one of his response, ‘Judaism is rich enough and spiritually and ethically comprehensive to cater to every religious need.’
For devotees of the London Jewish Chronicle newspaper, the weekly ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column was an essential part of Friday night reading for twenty-one years, an excellent spiritual liqueur to wash down the lokshen pudding. The column was anonymous. However, with the publication of the pick of the ‘Ask the Rabbi’ questions all can be revealed and it surprises few people that the man behind the spiritual mask was Louis Jacobs.
What has been produced by Vallentine Mitchell can only be described as the man-in-the-street’s Shulchan Aruch. It provides him with access to the Magen Avraham, the Taz, the Bach and the other Torah sages instantly recognisable in the great academies of the Jewish world. The Magen Avraham, for example, is quoted by Rabbi Jacobs with regard to the fact that eating meat and fish together may now no longer be injurious to health because nature has changed since Talmudic times.
What is most admirable is that every source quoted is given its exact reference so that the reader can look it up for himself. It should also be mentioned that Rabbi Jacobs gives all biographical dates so that one knows exactly the period in which the quoted Halachist lived.
For readers of this review who spent the 1960s-1980s in Alice Springs the ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column contained responsa to questions from the general public on any aspect of Judaism with two or three questions per column. These have been categorised under various topics with some placed in a miscellaneous section. There is a problem, however, as some questions overlap so that the reader is informed twice or even thrice of a particular Halacha.
A severe defect of this publication is the lack of an index so if one wishes to refer to a certain Halachic ruling, one has to comb the book to find it. It is no easy task to find a commentary on a certain Talmudic passage by ploughing through 237 pages.
The extent of Rabbi Jacob’s Halachic knowledge may be observed in the Machlocheth between Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and the Sages as to whether a Cohen can visit a non-Jewish cemetary or come into contact with non-Jewish dead. Not only does he quote Tractate Yevamoth (61a) wherein Rabbi Bar Yochai permits contact but the Sages do not, but he also quotes Maimonides as supporting Rabbi Bar Yochai and the Tosaphists supporting the Sages.
Rabbi Jacobs’s feelings for others can be seen in his responsa on saying Kaddish for parents who have been cremated: ‘Virtually all commandments rule that even with regard to out-and-out sinners, only suspension of observation of rites of mourning apply but not to Kaddish . . . Judaism is a humane religion. The ways of Torah are “ways of pleasantness”. It simply does not demand that the child stifle his natural instinct to pray for the soul of his dead parent’ (p. 290).
In Beyond Reasonable Doubt, as in all his books, Rabbi Jacobs’s writings reflect a combination of humour and modesty. In his criticism of the Artscroll Publications’ description of Torah giants he writes: ‘There is clearly much to admire in the great heroes of Orthodoxy but how we would have liked to have been told of their peccadilloes . . . A larger than life picture tends to produce the sameness and narrowness shown in this kind of work that far from rendering the total personality attractive, makes it remote and unbelievable.’ Lubavicher Hassidim, please note!
In Beyond Reasonable Doubt Rabbi Jacobs describes himself as a Liberal Supernaturalist. This title combines a liberal interpretation of texts with complete faith in the ‘living G-d’. Perhaps the description ‘radical haredi’ might be more apt were it not for his acceptance of biblical criticism. Haredi methodology can be detected in Rabbi Jacobs’s selection of the Degel’s interpretation of Jacobs’s ladder. He quotes from the Degel’s concept of descending the rungs of a ladder as a prerequisite for ascending the ladder and shows how the Degel learned this from the Talmud. For anyone privileged to hear Rabbi Jacobs’s oral discourses, continued references are made to the greatness of the haredim from the Chofetz Chayim to the Satmer Rebbe, whose Hebrew is ‘of the highest possible standard, whether one agrees with his views on the State of Israel or not’. With this book misunderstandings of Rabbi Jacobs’s view of Torah Min Hashomayim will be removed once and for all.
Michael Milston divides his time between reviewing philosophically-based books, radio broadcasting and running a language organisation.