What to read today

By Miriam Shaviv
July 31, 2008

-- Ha’aretz is carrying an excerpt of an interview, which will be published in full over the weekend, with the son of one of the leading Hamas men on the West Bank. He has converted to Christianity, moved to LA, and has some very nice - yes, nice - things to say about Israel.

--  Haim Watzman reveals the best advice he ever received as a soldier - shouted at him by his company commander. It’s not what you might think:

“No matter how little time you have to sleep, no matter how miserable you are, don’t shut your eyes until you’ve washed yourself and changed your underwear. It’s not just hygiene – it’s to remind yourself that you are human being, not an animal.”

I really hate to think what brought on that advice.

--  The Israeli government has charged a family of American olim for towing away their car - which was damaged in a bulldozer terrorist attack last month. Their daughter was also lightly hurt. Was that really necessary?

-- Meanwhile, a factory owner in Sderot is giving pay rises to workers who become more observant.

Since the offer was made, many of the factory's employees have indeed become more religious, organizing groups who break for morning and noon prayers and Torah studies.

Apart from any financial incentive, all these examples involve taking time off work. Is it any wonder “many” employees have taken the bribe? Personally, I think pay rises should be based on merit - not on mitzvah points.

-- What is it with Britney Spears and Jews? First there’s her Kabbalah obsession. Then there was boyfriend Isaac Cohen. Now she is apparently dating her new minder - “a former Israeli soldier”, according to the Sun. I don't know what he did in the army, but I'm guessing that whatever it was, it was easier than dealing with Ms Spears.

-- The Times interviews comedian Josh Howie, who aims to be “the Jewish Woody Allen” - and who has written a piece in this week’s JC.

-- Cute(-ish) Milton Friedman anecdote.

-- Thinking of making aliyah? Read Chayyei Sarah first.

-- And finally, reading material for a (very) long Shabbat: Dr Elliot Cosgrove has just finished his dissertation (University of Chicago), titled “The Insoluble contradictions in the life and thought of Louis Jacobs”. It can be downloaded in two volumes, here and here. Review, anyone?



Fri, 08/01/2008 - 12:02

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Dr. Cosgrove deserves our thanks for a momentous piece of work. His ‘intellectual biography’ of Louis Jacobs, showing the clear methodological influence of the ‘Marc Shapiro’ school, is surely one of the finest analyses of an Anglo-Jewish figure ever written. It is based on Louis Jacobs’ own papers, plus extended interviews with him before his passing. The scope of the work covers Louis Jacobs’ life until 1959 – when he joined the faculty of Jews’ College - and skillfully assesses the influence on his developing theology of his career and the personalities he encountered. Dr. Cosgrove highlights two important factors in the ‘Jacobs Affair’ that, as far as I know, have never yet been given their full weight by previous writers – the huge influence on Louis Jacobs of Dr. Alexander Altmann, Communal Rabbi of Manchester for twenty years; and the careful description of Louis Jacobs’ brewing conflicts with the Orthodox establishment for decades before the ‘Jacobs affair’ broke. In the case of the latter, the circumstances of his appointment to Jews’ College as ‘Moral Tutor’ – an appointment forced on Rabbi Brodie by the lay Council – may now be seen as an appointment doomed to conflict from the very beginning. In describing his conflicts with the London Beth Din (after conflicts in Manchester, at the Golders Green Beth Hamidrash and with Dayan Abramsky), Dr. Cosgrove is surely correct in focusing on the central role played by Dayan Moshe (Morris) Swift – as opposed to Miri Freud-Kandel’s recent account, which focuses on Dayan Grunfeld. Of equal fascination is the depiction of the young Louis Jacobs, and his status as perhaps the greatest “illui” ever born in England – a status attested to by no less than Rav Dessler! He came from a working-class Mancunian background, non-Yiddish speaking (he learned it at Yeshivah), and became a world-class scholar. The biographical data is fascinating. [Lehavdil, and I am not suggesting that their beliefs or philosophies are in any way comparable, but no-one should ignore the influence of the Mancunian tradition of blunt-speaking radical empirical-rationalist non-conformism common to both Rabbi Jacobs z’l and Rabbi Natan Slifkin shlita.] Equally, his intellectual struggles are illuminating, reflecting the tensions – pushes and pulls – at every stage in his career, as he was exposed to different dimensions of Jewish life (the yeshivah, Chabad, Zionism, the early Gateshead Kollel, the Hirschian exposure in London, and, almost simultaneously, the academic milieu), and to different personalities. Through it we see a personality blessed with a photographic memory (I can’t remember who told me, but I once heard that on being told of the then new Bar-Ilan digitalized responsa project, he replied, in puzzlement “But why would one need it?”), and stunning intellect. He was also intellectually honest – to a fault, and it was his refusal to subsume knowledge and truth to theology or belief which dictated his career. Dr. Cosgrove explores his theology, but does not hesitate to point out both its strengths and its weaknesses – as the title of the thesis rather poignantly indicates, there were key areas where the problems were not (just) impossible to decide – they were actually insoluble. Criticisms? Perhaps not enough focussed credit is given to a survey of his published works, and their stunning diversity. Rabbi Jacobs was not only impressive in everything that he wrote, but impressive in the sheer span of scholarship which he mastered. He was at home in the most arcane corners of medieval and modern philosophy and theology; was a master of Shass and poskim; of parshanut; and an expert reader of Kabbalah and chasidut. Not just literate – but a master in each. (History and Biblical scholarship seem to be two areas on which he never published any substantial works.) In addition, he was a fluent and felicitous writer, able to write both scholarly and popular works, in a variety of formats. No Anglo-Jewish scholar has ever come close, except possibly Solomon Schechter, who was neither home-grown nor a long-term resident! ‘Principles of the Jewish Faith’, a work of extraordinary scholarship (the bibliographic excurses alone a major academic tour-de-force), and a major philosophical apologia for his thought, is only given occasional mention – albeit it was published after the strict time limit of the thesis. One might also have looked for a more considered treatment of his personality, including his traits of extreme courtesy and humility. (Balancing that is the extensive credit given to the support extended him over the years by his devoted wife, Shula.) While Dr. Cosgrove convincingly shows that Louis Jacobs, the Chief Rabbinate and the Beth Din were already in theological conflict long before even the first stage of the ‘Jacobs Affair’, I think he does underestimate the existence of the ‘liberal’ Anglo-Jewish ‘Ministry’ in the post-War period – although it was already an ‘endangered species’.* There was huge support for Louis Jacobs on personal grounds within the United Synagogue Rabbinate, even among those who did not share his beliefs. They felt he was treated abominably, but they were scared to speak up because they were scared of Dayan Moshe Swift. (I would also have liked to have heard more of the perspective of Dr. Cosgrove’s great-uncle in the thesis…) I cannot dispute Rabbi Jeffrey Cohen’s observation that Rabbi Jacobs was never really accepted at Jews’ College, but it is also a fact that after he left, the College never recovered, and was never again able to attract viable numbers of students. Here and there, minor inaccuracies of Anglo-Judaica creep in – Godol Halpern was the real name of a well-known Anglo-Jewish personality, and ‘Godol’ (possibly Godel) was his name, not a popular title. (His minor place in history is recorded elsewhere!) Given the fact that this was a doctoral thesis, and not a full-length researched biography, the restricted range of papers and archives consulted is understandable. The full story of the ‘Jacobs Affair’ has still to be written; but that was not the intention of this thesis. But these are quibbles. Dr. Cosgrove’s thesis richly deserves a publisher, where it will set a certain standard for the regrettably thin field of Anglo-Jewish intellectual history. And that, perhaps, is the semi-tragic story of Louis Jacobs – he was determined to push the boundaries of philosophy and thought in a community that reveled in philistinism, and that then and now had an Orthodoxy that was wholly Eastern European in character, and was growing in influence in Anglo-Jewry. His lay support came mainly from Jewishly very ignorant ‘gentlemen’ who were outraged on his behalf in a ‘that’s-not-cricket’ sort of way. (William Frankel, who understood the philosophical issues, was the exception, albeit the crucially-placed exception.) His characterization of the New West End community was really a little naïve – as the genteel, but unexciting history of the New London Synagogue subsequently showed. Britain has never been hospitable to the scholar-Rabbi, or to Jewish scholarship altogether; and unlike other communities, has always regarded philosophy and theology – read, philosophers and theologians - with great suspicion. Louis Jacobs, as he himself knew, was not, and probably temperamentally, could not ever be, an American or a Conservative Jew, or either or both. Yet the ‘Minhag Anglia’ that he espoused (a post-facto, retroactive strategy according to Dr. Cosgrove,) – Munkacz and Chesterton, the Rogachover and Wordsworth - was a chimera. Chaval al d’avdin…… --- Paul Shaviv, Toronto


Sun, 08/03/2008 - 11:41

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>> “No matter how little time you have to sleep, no matter how miserable you are, don’t shut your eyes until you’ve washed yourself and changed your underwear. It’s not just hygiene – it’s to remind yourself that you are human being, not an animal.” I really hate to think what brought on that advice. <<

It's easy. If you have only 2 hours to sleep (one hour of which is guard duty) after a hard day's exercising, the temptation is to fall on to your bunk, clothes, socks, boots and all. The commander's advice was sound as well as hygienic.


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