Originally published in Church Times, 13th March 1992.
LOUIS JACOBS is one of our greatest Jewish scholars, and his prolific output is all the more remarkable in view of a lifetime spent as a congregational rabbi.
Rabbi Jacobs’s latest book is a study of the role of the individual in Judaism. Jacobs’s thesis is that today we tend to stress the communal dimension of Judaism, and that it is therefore important to rectify the balance by restating the significance of the individual.
Jacobs pursues his theme through a series of 12 short chapters which reveal the clarity of his thought and his mystery of the sources. Under the heading “Attitudes to Life and Death”, he looks at Jewish attitudes to suicide and to taking risks with one’s own life. He explores the rights of the individual within the family. He spells out the plain meaning of loving one’s neighbour in Leviticus 19.18. He asks about ownership of the body; and, in a masterly chapter, he takes us through two millenia of Jewish thought in pursuit of a resolution of the paradox between foreknowledge and free will.
The wealth of quotations reveals not only the richness of Jewish thought but its relevance to Christian preachers and writers. Who could not find a use for “A single man was at first created in the world to teach that if anyone has caused a single person to perish, scripture imputes it to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish; and if anyone saves the life of a single person, scripture imputes it to him as though he has saved a whole world” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5)?
In his closing chapter, Jacobs points out that there is a distinction between the significance of the individual within the tradition (the subject of his monograph) and the right of the individual to interpret tradition, to choice and to autonomy. On the latter subject he is largely silent. This is a pity, since it represents one of the key issues of modern Jewish thought. What, I was tempted to ask, of the congregant who finds his daily life so regimented by tradition (on page 73 Jacobs records the correct order for cutting one’s fingernails) that he cannot experience his individual significance, however much Jacobs assures him of his importance?