The First Word: A non-fundamentalist approach to revelation

Jacobs wanted the Orthodox world to recognize that the search for Torah is itself part of the Torah

By JONATHAN WETTENBERG
July 13, 2006 14:56
The First Word: A non-fundamentalist approach to revelation

WittenbergJonathan. (photo credit: )

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs was an illui, a prodigy and a gaon - a genius. With immeasurable knowledge, a legendary memory, a capacity for explaining the complex simply, a wonderful sense of humor and an inexhaustible creativity in writing and speaking, he was the outstanding scholar and teacher of generations of students, congregants and colleagues in Anglo-Jewry and far beyond. His books will make him the teacher of many more generations to come. With an utter commitment to truth, he was unbending in his integrity; no amount of communal politics or condemnation could deter him from his quest. Louis Jacobs grew up in Manchester, attending its yeshiva for seven years. The world of Gemara study in the Lithuanian manner, of listening to the great maggidim preach whenever they visited the city, of intellectual and spiritual devotion, was to remain his true inner home all his life. Prevented by the outbreak of war from studying in the yeshiva of Telz (he had already applied for a visa), he joined the Gateshead Kolel before returning to Manchester to receive ordination. His years in London were to prove an intellectual turning point. While serving as minister at the Munk's shul, a bastion of German-style orthodoxy where, as he put it, one had only to whisper the word "discipline" to justify virtually any observance, Rabbi Jacobs began to study at University College. It was here that he first encountered the critical historical method. His teacher, Dr. Stein, was fond of saying "The beginning of wisdom is bibliography" - a dictum which was to clash in more ways than one with the familiar verse from Proverbs: "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord." CONFRONTED by the objective evidence of scholarship, Jacobs soon realized that the usual interpretation of the doctrine of the origin of the Torah required revision. He still believed passionately in "Torah from Heaven." Only, he would say, it depended on what was meant by "from." The Torah "didn't drop from heaven"; its text was composite, it had a history and these facts had to be faced. Others, he acknowledged, may have been able to compartmentalize such knowledge or ignore its implications; to him this was intellectually dishonest, an offense against integrity. His life therefore became a courageous search to reconcile the world of traditional learning with the results of modern scholarship. "My tentative approach," he wrote, "was to see Judaism as a 'quest,' finding solace in the idea that the search for Torah is itself part of the Torah." Indeed, he called his autobiography Helping with Inquiries. When challenged over exchanging a traditional dogma for the uncertainty of the quest for truth, he would reply with the adage that it's better to be partially right than definitely wrong. HE FIRST published his views in 1957 in We Have Reason to Believe when he was rabbi of the prodigious New West End Synagogue in London. The book caused no stir until the then chief rabbi, Dr. Israel Brodie, made it the grounds for vetoing Rabbi Dr. Jacobs' appointment as principal of Jews' College in 1962. He further barred Jacobs' return to his former pulpit. These events became known as "The Jacobs Affair" (he himself would refer to them, with wry good humor, as "my little affair"). It rocked the Anglo-Jewish community and reached the front pages of the British press, where it was compared to the "Honest To God" debate in the Church. Jacobs had too much integrity to be swayed by political pressure. The truth, he maintained, had to be accepted from whichever quarter it came. In this regard, his great role model was Maimonides, who sought to reconcile the teachings of the different disciplines of Torah study and philosophy. Jacobs believed that his views were perfectly compatible with the tolerant and open-minded Orthodoxy of the Anglo-Jewry he loved. He lived an observant life all his days. In his book A Tree of Life he demonstrated that Halacha was not a hermetically sealed system but had always developed in dynamic tension with social, economic, philosophical and, indeed, theological change. Horrified at his treatment by the Orthodox establishment, his followers created the New London Synagogue in 1964. Jacobs served there with love for 40 years, and made its pulpit the mouthpiece of his philosophy. He lectured widely in the United States, was visiting professor in the Divinity School at Harvard, and professor at Lancaster University in England. AS DAUGHTER congregations developed, the British Masorti movement was formed, with Rabbi Dr. Jacobs as its spiritual leader. But it was never his aim to create a new movement. He spoke rather of creating a "mood" in Anglo-Jewry, a mood of traditional practice defined by a compassionate, historically conscious interpretation of Halacha, together with a non-fundamentalist approach to revelation and sacred text. He wanted the Orthodox world to recognize not only the justice of his position but, more importantly, the inevitable necessity of facing up to the issues which he, but not they, had the courage openly to confront. The reasoned critique of fundamentalism from within Orthodoxy has never been as relevant as now, both intellectually and politically. This applies far beyond the borders of the Jewish world. He was the author of some 50 books covering almost every sphere of rabbinic scholarship, including talmudic methodology, the development of Halacha, Hassidism and theology. Even those who thoroughly disagreed with his position recognized his outstanding knowledge. Not a few would come to discuss with him in private issues they could not acknowledge in public. Earlier this year he was voted in a opinion poll held by The Jewish Chronicle to be the greatest British Jew since the return of Jewry to this country 350 years ago. It was only a pity that Shula, his wife of 61 years, who died last November, didn't live to share the joy this brought the community. He himself responded to the honor with customary modesty, calling it, in his Manchester accent, "daft." But it was a moment of vindication for his integrity, and of appreciation of his legendary knowledge of Torah. The writer is rabbi of the New North London synagogue and author of The Three Pillars of Judaism - a Search for Faith and Values.


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