Religion and the Individual: A Jewish Perspective, Louis Jacobs (Cambridge University Press 1992) xii +163pp, £27.95 hbk
One of the series of Cambridge Studies in Religious Traditions, this monograph examines the significance of the individual in the Jewish tradition. Jacobs quotes extensively from the Mishnah, Talmud and rabbinic literature in order to demonstrate that, in addition to the tradition’s obvious and continuing concern with the Jewish people, there has also been a continuing emphasis on the individual. It would, of course, be wrong to set the one against the other. Rather, it is a matter of balance. ‘When, for good and natural reasons, the contemporary thrust of Jewish thought is more in the direction of the group, it is perhaps useful to see the other side. If it should happen that, in some future time, the significance of the individual in Judaism would be so stretched as to endanger group loyalties, it would be necessary to redress the balance by pointing out that there can be no Judaism without the Jewish people’ (p. 120). The author’s own point of view, he confesses in passing, is that ‘it is the ultimate fate of the individual for all eternity that is Judaism’s chief concern’ (p. 117).
Jacobs divides his study into a number of distinct but related themes: self-realization as a religious value, attitudes to life and death, family relationships, love of neighbour, communal obligations, God and the soul, ownership of one’s body, divine omnipotence and human responsibility, and immortality.
Although it contains a helpful glossary, this book is more suited to the professional than to the general reader. Only rarely does Jacobs allow his personal convictions to interrupt the detachment of his scholarship. In concluding his survey of rabbinic teaching on God and human freedom, he remarks: ‘In this area, as in others, it is very hard to believe in God but it is harder still not to believe in him’ (p. 93). One would like to hear more.