Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 10 June 2005.
Judaism and Theology: Essays on the Jewish Religion. Louis Jacobs, Vallentine Mitchell, £17.95 (£39.50 HB).
Rabbinic Thought in the Talmud. Louis Jacobs, Vallentine Mitchell, £17.95 (£39.50 HB).
I was mildly amused when someone wrote a few years back that I had remarked of Louis Jacobs that he had “saved the sanctity of the Anglo-Jewish community:” the reporter evidently thought he heard “sanctity” when what I actually said was “sanity.”
I have never proclaimed Louis Jacobs a saint (may he forgive me!), but I have praised him for maintaining sanity in the face of the increasingly bizarre presentations of Judaism and its teachings that have gained popularity in our communities, ranging from ArtScroll fundamentalism on the one hand to the psycho-babble of degraded Kabbalah on the other.
An essay on “The Relevance and Irrelevance of Chasidism” in the “Judaism and Theology” volume exhibits his sanity of approach in full measure. After setting out the basic world view of Chasidism—real Chasidism, that is, not the watered-down Buberian and neo-Chasidic cults—Jacobs acknowledges that “the kabbalistic system [of Chasidism] in all its complexity is a work of extraordinary genius . . . a mighty product of the human mind, a series of powerful meditations and bold speculations.”
But while fully appreciating its genius and appeal, he recognises the radical incompatibility of its foundations with modern biblical and rabbinic scholarship.
“The jar containing the wine of Chasidism,” he concludes, “is severely cracked, so much so that the wine is in real danger of seeping away. Even if some of the precious liquid is lost in the process, much of it can still be saved if newer and stronger containers are made ready to receive it.”
Jacobs’s range of sources for “Judaism and Theology” is far wider than one would find in most accounts of Jewish thought, since he is able to draw on the work of halachic authorities such as Aryeh Leib Heller, the author of “Shev Shematata” (“Seven Discourses”, and Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, the “Ohr Sameach,” that are beyond the reach of mere theologians.
Few philosophically novel ideas are to be gleaned from such works, but it is fascinating to see how their authors weave their experiences of life and mature outlook on the world into the classical texts.
Other essays in this volume treat of such matters as Jewish cosmology, the Akedah, halachic attitudes towards Christianity and the concept of power in Jewish tradition, to list but a few of a richly diverse collection.
Reading the volume on “Rabbinic Thought in the Talmud,” I often felt that I was in Rabbi Jacobs’s study, listening to his exposition of a page of Gemara. Certainly, one of his major contributions to rabbinic scholarship over the years has been his demonstration of the careful, often dramatic, literary structure of the talmudic sugya (passage), and several chapters of this volume might be regarded as shiurim in which he expounds a text to the reader n such a way as to reveal its dynamic structure.
I particularly enjoyed an essay in which he starts by comparing four versions of a story about the great learning of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, goes on to discuss the dialectics of Abbaye and Rava and proceeds to contrast the approaches of Maimonides and the Kabbalah to talmudic study and the philosophy of creation—a remarkable and highly coherent tour de force.
The last six essays in the collection range widely. There is one contrasting the economic conditions of Jews in Babylonia with that of Jews in Palestine in the talmudic period: I was not entirely convinced by Jacobs’s contention that the Babylonians were wealthier, as it seems to me too generalised.
Another reviews the responsa of the 19th-century Rabbi Joseph Hayyim of Baghdad, noting how rabbis in the Islamic world—it is surely inaccurate to call them “Sephardim” —had greater leeway than their Ashkenazi counterparts in family law, and were able to institute measures to relieve the problem of agunah (the chained wife).
Both volumes are collections of essays, most of which have been previously published. We should be grateful to Vallentine Mitchell for making this feast of illuminating and very readable studies available to the general public.
Rabbi Dr Solomon is a member of Oxford University’s Hebrew and Jewish Studies teaching and research unit.