A paper delivered by Rabbi Dr. Elliot Cosgrove at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies on Louis Jacobs’s life and thought.
Cosgrove starts by noting that most of Jacobs’s comments on the reconciliation between the authority of Scripture and critical discourse were hardly new. Numerous scholars in the Jewish world, and especially beyond (among Christian circles) in the 1950s, had addressed very similar concerns about divine revelation. What made Louis Jacobs unique was that he also claimed to be an Orthodox rabbi. He demonstrates that Jacobs’s theological outlook, while innovative and surprising in an Orthodox setting, occurred in the midst of far broader developments in the academic world in the 1950s. These included, for example, the philosophical school of logical positivism, the New Jewish theologians in the United States, or the rising popularity of Christian authors such as C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. This background is essential, Cosgrove claims, to a proper understanding of the theology of Rabbi Jacobs.
The speaker then moves on the describe the dynamics at work in Anglo-Jewry, particularly in Manchester, during Jacobs’s childhood years. The successive waves of immigration of Eastern European Jews on the one hand, and the very palpable tendency towards acculturation on the other, shaped Louis Jacobs’s outlook during the formative years of his life. He was described early on as a remarkably gifted student by Eliyahu Dessler, his teacher in yeshivah, where Jacobs was the only native-born student. In parallel, the Zionist movement was at work in England in the 1940s, and represented an additional force at work in the Jewish landscape of the time. Louis Jacobs had a foot in all of these spheres.
Upon moving to London, Jacobs discovered yet new horizons: he took a position as assistant rabbi in Eli Munk’s synagogue, with whom he encountered the world of German neo-Orthodoxy and the Hirschian notion of torah im derekh erets, and enrolled for a doctorate at London University under Dr. Siegfried Stein, a renown German scholar, who introduced him to the critical scholarship on the history of Judaism. Yet in the later stages of his career, Jacobs moved away from the paths set by his former teachers, searching for a synthesis of his own. Finally, Cosgrove notes the influence of Dr. Alexander Altmann, also a German scholar and rabbi, whom Jacobs met in the late 1940s. Altmann also combined traditional erudition and a scholarly approach to Judaism, but in a way that did not satisfy Rabbi Jacobs.
Jacobs was exposed to very different philosophies of Judaism during his upbringing, from which he received the tools to negotiate his own religious outlook as a thinker.