Originally published in December 1997.
Louis Jacobs was a universally respected orthodox rabbi until 1959, when the publication of his little book We Have Reason to Believe brought him a notoriety he surely never sought. Outraged fundamentalist Jews proclaimed it heresy—all because Jacobs simply observed that modern textual criticism could demonstrate the different stages in the (human) redaction of the Holy Scripture. Because he had dared to intimate that even a single word in the Pentateuch had not come directly from God to Moses on Mount Sinai, his appointment as Principal of Jews College, the orthodox seminary, was blocked by the Chief Rabbi himself. Yet Jacobs did not recant. Not even when the Chief Rabbi took the further step of denying him permission to return to his own pulpit. Jacobs’s ostracism ultimately proved a blessing of sorts as his followers flocked to build him a congregation of his own. Since then, I have read many of his books. But earlier this year, I discovered an important one which had gone practically unnoticed by most major reviewers (even this journal): The Jewish Religion: A companion (Oxford University Press, 1995). I already owned the new Oxford Dictionary of Jewish Religion (1997), which I took to be definitive. Why, I wondered, would a publisher produce two such essentially similar volumes almost simultaneously? I discovered why when I opened Jacobs’s book. Whereas the Dictionary had more than 100 contributors, the title page of the Companion read only “by Louis Jacobs”. How could he possibly have been the sole author of this vast compendium? The very thought was vertiginous. He had traversed the entire landscape of the Jewish faith. And reported it with total objectivity. Even his discussion of the Torah gives no hint of the persistent attacks on his personal position. There could be one veiled allusion: “Many orthodox scholars still reject all biblical criticism in the belief that its untraditional opinions constitute heresy.” With eloquent lucidity, Jacobs explains even the most complex and abstruse aspects of Judaism, like the mysteries of the Kabbalah or biblical Hermeneutics. One senses Jacobs’s own spirituality in his discussion of “God”, which incorporates both Christian and Muslim articles of faith. Jacobs’s approach is very much up to elate. He deals with Marxism, for example. And even photography, speculating on the problems facing the fundamentalists’ use of the camera. In light of the clear biblical injunction against making graven images, how do some orthodox sects judge photographing their spiritual leader for sale as posters and keyrings? The reader is left to decide. This whole volume is infused with a passion and fulfils the author’s guiding principle, “to present our religion as the challenging, relevant, sublime faith it is”. There is a very special word which has no entry either in the Companion or the Dictionary: illui, literally “genius”, “prodigy”. But, as a rabbi once explained, “A sage may have great wisdom, but an illui lights up the world.” Louis Jacobs is such a man.