Originally published in the Jewish Chronicle, 17 December 2004.
Jewish Preaching—Homilies and Sermons, £16.95,
Their Heads in Heaven—Unfamiliar Aspects of Hasidism, £17.95
Louis Jacobs, Vallentine Mitchell
It was with a sense of ambivalence that, as an Orthodox rabbi, I agreed to review the writing of Rabbi Louis Jacobs (still so prolific in his 80’s), viewed for so many decades and by some of my own teachers at Jews’ College as the bête noire of the religious establishment. Indeed, the last time I addressed his views was in 1963, in a critical pamphlet, which, with typical student conceit, I entitled “In defence of Tradition.”’
I accepted, firstly, because, in the Orthodox community’s present multi-faceted, denominational structure, there seems to have emerged a greater tolerance of those who embrace variant philosophies. Not only hunting, but also heresy-hunting, is fortunately out of fashion. The example of the Chief Rabbi leaving it to the individual rabbi whether or not to attend Limmud is possibly a manifestation of this attitude.
Perhaps naively, I now take it for granted that the encyclopaedic knowledge and profoundly inspirational insights that Rabbi Jacobs offers on every page can be appreciated and acclaimed even by those of us who part company with him over Torah min Hashamayim (Torah from Heaven).
A second reason for accepting this assignment is that I have reached the age when nostalgia is no longer a thing of the past! I myself determined to become a rabbi when, as a child in Manchester, I was mesmerised by the scintillating sermons delivered by such scholars as Rabbi Jacobs and the late Rabbi Alexander Altmann, who is referred to with awe in the introduction to this book.
Many of Dr Jacobs’s sermons must have gone over my young head, so here was an opportunity, eagerly grasped, to glean the missed sheaves. He was also my teacher for a year at Jews’ College, so the debt I owe him is considerable. I deeply regret the fact that “the Jacobs affair” permanently deprived the United Synagogue membership of access to his erudition, spirituality and oratory. This volume of some of his finest sermons provides a welcome opportunity to compensate for that loss.
The Jews’ College of my day—before the powers-that-be colluded in its demise—taught homiletics and voice production. The sermon was still regarded as an art form, a means of communicating powerfully, poetically, grammatically and spiritually the word of God on every issue of life. These days, one regularly hears the lament that standards of homiletics have dropped, and that too many sermons are uninspiring, ill-constructed and largely irrelevant to the burning contemporary concerns of members. In the absence of any training opportunity, I would strongly commend this book of homilies and sermons as essential reading for rabbis.
Not only will it provide guidance on how to construct a sermon, bow to select, apply and balance traditional sources, and utilise external sources as means of illustration, but it is also, independently, a rich collection of countless gems mined from Midrash, philosophy, mysticism, Chasidic lore, musar (ethics), responsa, Bible commentary, psychology, general literature and the author’s own experiences.
Unlike most books of sermons by retired rabbis, this does not deal with long-outdated historical events, personalities and issues of interest only to the author’s peer generation. His preoccupations are with faith and spirituality; Israel as the Chosen People; knowledge and doubt; how justice, righteousness, holiness and compassion can be generated; and how to propagate a Judaism of love, joy and tolerance. The messages that he draws out from each sidrah are distinctive, profound, persuasive and beautifully composed. They represent a veritable modern-day philosophy of Judaism.
In a lengthy and most informative introduction, he surveys the development of preaching from the medieval period until the present day, the different homiletical genres, the towering personalities of past and recent ages who were true masters of the art. He observes that there are many “hungry souls who are merely irritated by appeals to Jewish pride or loyalty but who have an intense desire to know what Judaism is, who are well aware of what it would have them do, but are puzzled as to what it is that Judaism would have them believe.”
Elsewhere, he refers to “the hostility in which theology is held in some quarters.” Whether one agrees with all his theological views or not, it has to be admitted that few contemporary writers, and even fewer congregational rabbis, have succeeded in making theology as enlightening, challenging and absorbing as has Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs.
“Their Heads in Heaven” is a fascinating read for those interested in an academic treatment of Chasidism, a three-centuries-old movement that has moved from the fringes to the very centre of Orthodox life since the Holocaust. To what extent that national trauma was responsible for this may be debated, but its warmth, vibrancy, spirit, colour and the powerful sense of spiritual brotherhood that binds its members certainly provides an antidote to a general society that is increasingly cold-hearted and a world where violence and immorality are rampant. Its esoteric lore may also be viewed as refuge from the de-personalisation that is a by-product of our technological age.
When man is under siege, and reduced in his own estimation, when tire pressures of life are intensified and life’s purpose elusive, he inevitably turns in on himself, searching desperately for a sense of identity. This frequently triggers an attempt to explore his own deepest spiritual resources and creative energy, and to seek to engage with the Higher Power that alone can heal tire madness of the world. For the Chasid, his Rebbe is an indispensable guide in this pursuit and in helping him negotiate life’s moral maze.
The title of this book may seem curious to those familiar with the modern manifestation of Chasidism that is benignly imposing its mores and complexion on most of the ultra-Orthodox community. The Chabad (Lubavitch) Chasidim certainly do not have their “heads in heaven,” but are a high-profile presence on the streets of our communities, who avail themselves of state-of-the-art media and the most sophisticated public relations techniques.
So those laymen seeking to understand the modern Chasidic phenomenon will be more perplexed than helped by this volume. This is a caution, not a criticism. “Their Heads” is a scholarly study of classical Chasidic thought and practice, not of the mystical “spirituality” that passes as Chasidut in many quartets, or of the pseudo-mysticism peddled by some charlatans.
Rabbi Jacobs reveals something of the intimate personal, psychological and spiritual relationship of the Chasid and his Rebbe, and the former’s readiness to accept his spiritual mentor’s guidance on absolutely all matters as tantamount to a divine fiat. The truism that the Chasid goes to his Rebbe not to learn Torah but to see how he ties his shoelaces is quoted and exemplified. Associated with this is the chapter on eating as an act of worship, or how every physical act can be elevated to the realm of the spiritual. In an age of gross physicality, one can appreciate further the pull of Chasidism.
The final, chapter describes a most uncharacteristic Chasidic treatment of Christianity in the works of the illustrious Rebbe of Munkac, Hayyim Eleazar Shapira (1872-1917). He justifies his interest in the subject on the basis of a talmudic tradition that the members of the Sanhedrin had to be an fair with witchcraft and idolatry in order to be able to render informed decisions in those areas. There is a salient message here to our yeshivah-educated rabbis, that to become an effective communicator one needs to broaden one’s intellectual horizons.