Originally published in Judaism Today 4 (Spring 1996), pp. 42-3.
THE JEWISH RELIGION: A COMPANION
Oxford University Press 1995,
pp 641 , £25.00
Marc B. Shapiro
There are a number of single-volume encyclopedias of Judaism of varying worth, and one might wonder why there is need for anther. Yet only a short glance at Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ latest book will convince all that it differs from other works of this genre. To begin with, the breadth of knowledge Jacobs exhibits is astounding. A reader unaware of Jacobs’ many publications would assume that one author could not have written all the entries. It is an easy task for a scholar to write banal entries on topics of which he knows only very little, but this is not what one finds in Jacobs’ book.
The Jewish Religion: A Companion is a pleasure to read. Each and every entry is a mine of information which scholars and laymen alike will find useful. Only someone with deep knowledge of all fields of Jewish studies could have written such a volume. Yet this will not surprise any of us who are familiar with the many publications of Louis Jacobs. He is, I believe, the only scholar today who can write with equal authority on Talmud, halakhah, Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Hasidism, to mention the areas he specializes in. His knowledge of Bible, Jewish history and other fields which he does not regard as his specialty is still more comprehensive than many so-called experts in these fields. What Jacobs possesses, and what has become so rare in our day of hyper-specialization, is an astonishing breadth of knowledge. To be adept in the intricacies of halakhah and Hasidism, Talmud and philosophy, Bible and history, is something which scholars aspired to in years past, but as with many great ideals has fallen by the wayside. Yet only such a scholar could have produced the impressive volume under consideration.
Each alphabetically arranged entry is written in a lively fashion and many of them are accompanied with short bibliographies of secondary literature in English [excluding periodicals]. At the end of the book there is a more detailed listing of standard reference works. Most impressive is the range of topics which Jacobs discusses. To take the letter ‘A’, for example, the following entries would probably never have occurred to most scholars writing such a book, yet Jacobs succeeds wonderfully in showing their relevance to Judaism: ‘age,’ ‘agnosticism,’ ‘annihilation of selfhood,’ ‘arrogance,’ and ‘as if.’ Other noteworthy entries include ‘chutzpah,’ ‘disinterestedness,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘exorcism,’ ‘joy,’ ‘longevity,’ ‘mountains,’ ‘submission,’ and ‘thirteen.’
Another refreshing feature of this book is the honesty with which it is written. Many works of this genre abound in apologetics and make blanket statements as to what ‘Judaism’ teaches. Jacobs thankfully avoids this simplistic approach and shows that often one cannot speak of ‘Judaism’s’ outlook but rather the views of various Jewish teachers. As Jacobs puts it in concluding his entry on Gentiles, a subject which has always been fertile ground for apologists but which Jacobs discussed honestly, ‘The history of Jewish thought in this and in many other areas, is too rich, too varied, too complex, and often too contradictory, to permit cozy generalizations.’ In short, with Jacobs one can be sure that one is getting an honest discussion of the facts unlike other works of this genre which, while not necessarily saying anything untrue, often neglect to mention a great deal.
It is unavoidable that in a work of this sort there is an element of subjectivity, with the author deciding what is important enough to be included. Yet I cannot help wondering about some of his choices. Why, for example, is Elhanan Wasserman given a quite lengthy entry when his brother-in-law, Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, a much more significant figure, is omitted? Franz Rosenzweig, Hafetz Hayyim, and Milton Steinberg get lengthy entries whereas Mendelssohn gets a short entry and there is no mention at all of Micha Yosef Berdyszewski, Hannah Arendt, and Emanuel Levinas. In his entry on Lubavitch, Jacobs discusses the messianism of this group, yet he does not feel it is important to discuss the fact that many [most?] Lubavitchers believe that the late rebbe will be resurrected as the Messiah. We are currently witnessing the development of both a radical new messianic ideology as well as a movement of false messianism of potentially historic proportions, and I believe this should have been noted.
These comments are not to be taken as criticisms, but rather as expressions of slight frustration at the unavoidable space limitations which constrained our author. Even though Jacobs has given us so much in this book—it is 641 pages long—I, and no doubt many others, wish we could have even more.
Marc B. Shapiro is Konover Visiting Lecturer at the University of Conneticut.