Louis Jacobs: A theology for our day

The Jewish world has recently lost one of its finest scholars and teachers of Judaism, Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, who passed away in London on July 1 at the age of 85.

The Jewish world has recently lost one of its finest scholars and teachers of Judaism, Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, who passed away in London on July 1 at the age of 85. Rabbi Jacobs was the center of great controversy, a controversy that broke out in the 1960s and has been known as "the Jacobs affair." Without going into details, it involved his being denied first the post of head of Jews College and then the post of a congregational rabbi because of his controversial view concerning Torah and revelation. In a sense, he also lost the possibility of becoming Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue because of that. As a result, he founded his own congregation, New London Synagogue, which eventually became the flagship of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in England, a movement that always looked upon him as its religious authority and spiritual mentor. The loss was entirely that of British Jewry, a loss that was finally recognized when a survey by the Jewish Chronicle proclaimed him "the Greatest British Jew." Jacobs was a man of great learning and erudition, much of it self-taught. He devoured books on Jewish thought, mysticism, Jewish law, prayer, including many that were obscure. He then proceeded to write dozens of books on all of those topics, many of which have already become classics and required reading for anyone who wishes to study those subjects. He was also a great popularizer who wrote texts for children, teens and adults. The range of his knowledge and interests was truly amazing. It is as if nothing Jewish was foreign to him. He also was au courant on English literature and on general philosophy and theology, a true man of all seasons. He was, in fact, a great synthesizer who was able to combine mysticism and rationality, law and lore, belief and practice into an integrated system of thought and belief. He was a pursuer of truth and did not consider that his views on Torah were heretical. Rather he felt, as did Maimonides, that truth and Torah had to be one, and if he was convinced, as he was, that both higher and lower criticism of the Bible were correct, then this simply had to be fitted into one's religious beliefs - without diminishing loyalty to the observance of Jewish law. Thus he wrote: The words are human, they have a history, there are contradictions and discrepancies in them... The older view was of the Bible as a precious jewel beyond all price. The new view is that it is rather to be compared to a precious jewel in a setting. If we now have less of the jewel, we need no longer be confused through identification of the jewel with the setting and the true jewel can now be seen to shine in all its splendor. Jacobs stressed at all times the need to investigate all of Jewish tradition freely, be it the Torah or the Talmud, looking at the facts and not prejudging on the basis of tradition. That is what he did in the innumerable books and studies that he published. At the same time, he was not a disinterested scholar whose only concern in reading the text was to discover what the author meant. That is pure scholarship. It reminds me of Prof. Saul Lieberman's famous words when introducing Prof. Gershom Scholem, the world's greatest authority on Jewish mysticism, at a lecture given at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. "Kabbala," he said, "is nonsense. But the study of Kabbala is scholarship." Whether Lieberman was right about mysticism or not, the point is that many scholars are simply enamored of their studies and have no commitment to what they are studying. That was not the case with Louis Jacobs, who studied whatever he studied with an eye toward finding its deeper application and meaning in living a Jewish, religious life. Jacobs was a believer in reason, but not a slave to it. He was equally at home with the mystical sides of Judaism that went beyond reason. He was, however, convinced that there is a difference between going beyond reason and contradicting reason. A sustainable faith will go beyond reason but will utilize it in order to purify faith and distinguish it from superstition. Jacobs condemned the tendency to concentrate only on Jewish observance with no attention paid to the spiritual meaning and intent of these observances. This, he wrote, is "harmful to the religious life." Jacobs was no radical in his beliefs. Unlike Kaplan, let us say, he did not reinterpret or reconstruct Jewish belief in line with a naturalistic approach to the universe. Rather, he reaffirmed belief in a living God and in Israel's role in God's universal plan. His works and his ideas are well worth studying as a synthesis of traditional Judaism with modern thought, a way of accepting Torah and Jewish law without abandoning reason and scholarship. In view of the way in which much of Judaism in our time has lapsed into uncritical acceptance of untenable beliefs and has degenerated into superstition, it is important that we utilize the writings of one who thought otherwise and can provide a guide to those who would be believing and observant and at the same time reasonable and well grounded in modern thought. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.