Originally published in the Expository Times.
A Leisurely Journey through Judaism
By Rabbi Fred Morgan, North West Surrey Synagogue and Leo Baeck College Rabbi
Dr Louis Jacobs is not only one of the most erudite of contemporary students of Judaism, he is also one of the most versatile. His writings include highly technical studies of Talmudic logic, articles on ethical and halakhic issues, an impressive range of translations and anthologies covering Rabbinic, philosophical and Hasidic materials, and popular introductions to Jewish beliefs and practices for young adults. Jacobs’s most distinctive work has been in the field of Jewish theology, starting with his controversial We Have Reason to Believe. His approach to theology, it is fair to say, is comprehensive rather than systematic. His very interest in theological issues, which enables him to draw together the many stands of Jewish learning covered in his other writings, has set him apart in the world of Judaic scholarship. Jacobs’s newest book, The Jewish Religion: A Companion (Oxford University Press, 1995, £25.00, pp.641, ISBN 0-19-826463-1) reflects all these qualities, and especially his interest in pursuing a Jewish theology for our time. The book contains hundreds of entries arranged in dictionary form, from ‘Aaron’, ‘Abba’ (the title, not the pop-group) and ‘Abortion’ to ‘Zoroastrianism’, ‘Leopold Zunz’ and ‘Zusya of Hanipol’. If it is popular in appearance, that is only because Jacobs wears his learning so lightly. Those who know Rabbi Jacobs will recognize the sound of his voice in these articles; and not only his voice, but also his arguments, presuppositions and apologetics. The knowledge contained in these entries is so diverse, and their direction often so unexpected (see for example the entry on the ‘Witch of Endor’, which turns into a mini-dissertation on the Geonic debates over scriptural interpretation) that I cannot imagine even the most staid scholar failing to be entertained and enlightened.
Jacobs’s own theological position, in the middle of the path between the progressive and traditionalist camps (pace his remarks on this under ‘Conservative Judaism’), is clear in many of the entries. Such is the evenhandedness of his approach, however, that he is able to present fairly all sides of an argument. Typically, under the entry ‘Preaching’, while discussing the polemical character of the modern sermon he comments, ‘The Reform sermon might attack Orthodox as being too reactionary. The Orthodox sermon might attack Reform heretical or disloyal to Jewish values. Conservative sermons often seek to encourage the advantages of the middle-of-the-road approach.’ There is paradox at the core of this book which results from Jacobs’s position, that is, the vigour and inventiveness of its scholarship are often at odds with the cautious, sometimes nostalgic tenor of its theology.
The reader is continually surprised and delighted by Jacobs’s wry sense of humour. He shows that it is possible to be serious about religion and enjoy it at the same time. This humour takes two forms. Some of it comes from Jewish tradition itself; so, for example, in his entry on ‘Charity’ he includes the well-known Jewish tale: ‘When a rich man excuses the small size of his donation by protesting that he is unable to afford to give more generously because he has been obliged to pay his son’s gambling debts, the poor man retorts: “If your son wants to gamble let him do so with his own money, not with mine!”’ Not surprisingly, there is a similar vein of humour within Jacobs himself. So, under ‘Tobacco’, he comments about the Baal Shem Tov’s pipe, that there is no proof that there was an illegal substance in it!
The main difficulty I found with this book is the choice and organization of its entries. Many of the entry headings are foreign to Judaism, and Jacobs readily acknowledges this in the articles. Considering his interest in theology, it is not surprising to find entries on ‘Eschatology’ and ‘Cosmology’, but why then no entry under, say, ‘Teleology’? Though there is an entry under ‘Preaching’, there is no entry for ‘Sermon’, and at least a reference to the appropriate heading would have been helpful. How is the reader to know that ‘Superstition’ is included under ‘Magic and Superstition’? There is an entry for ‘As If’, but I wonder who would think of looking up such a heading in a book on the Jewish religion. Such idiosyncrasies make this an excellent book for browsing, but not of much use as an encyclopaedia.
I think the reader would also have appreciated fuller bibliographies at the end of some of the entries, more than the one or two items generally listed. The essay on reference works at the end of the volume does not really make up for this. Finally, I was surprised by the number of misprints in a book of this quality.
In summary, this is a wonderful ‘companion’ with which to share a leisurely journey through the Jewish religion. There is something new to learn or some new perspective to gain on every page. Rarely has an author communicated so refreshingly the excitement and fun of Jewish learning.