When in the early 2000s the entire set of Talmud became available on CD-Rom, someone asked Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs what he thought of this incredible phenomenon. His reply came in his customary dead-pan style, “Who needs it?”
Now almost 14 years since his passing, all of his own published works are available for the very first time online at booksof.louisjacobs.org.The works certainly demonstrate why Jacobs was accorded some years ago the title of the “Greatest British Jew” by readers of the JC, such was his impact on Jewish life and scholarship.
His more than 50 books, which touch on virtually every area of the Jewish tradition, defy any easy categorisation. What is remarkable is the extraordinary consistency that he exhibited in his scholarship, which spanned almost 60 years. In the opening of his most famous book We Have Reason To Believe, he argues for “a synthesis... between the permanent value and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day” and it is this sentence that perhaps best encapsulates the guiding force behind all of his writing.
The main area of contention in We Have Reason To Believe, of course, concerned his attitude to higher biblical criticism and his questioning of Mosaic authorship of Torah. It was Jacobs’s view, however, as displayed throughout his work that truth could not be located in some ancient past but rather in the search for truth itself and with every tried method of investigation as open to us in that quest.
The voices of opinion in this country on the subject of the authorship of Torah may still leave Rabbi Jacobs out in the cold when it comes to whether he is beyond the boundaries of Orthodoxy here. And yet there is an emerging small voice of rabbis and scholars whose work appears on thetorah.com and who are committed both to historical scholarship and the authority of tradition.
The middle course that he charts in his writing may not be popular in an age that prefers certainty and yet time and again Jacobs reminds us that Judaism has often thrived with the competing claims of faith and reason, particularism and universalism or even paradox itself. Jacobs shows for example in his most idiosyncratic book, Tekyu, that contrary to previous scholarship on the subject, this is not an argument to which a solution has yet to be found but in fact an unsolvable problem. His analysis in this book of over 300 instances in rabbinic literature where we are left with unanswered questions teaches us, with humility, to live in paradox.
The manner by which he often set the poles of debate are reminiscent of talmudic discourse as he leads the reader to a middle path on a particular topic. On the subject of God, for example, he argues that the concept of the “God of the Fathers” and the need for religious experience expressed in the notion of “my God” are not contradictory but complementary.
Today, in an age which often likes to impose a certain halachic conformity, Jacobs reminds us against religious behaviourism and that it is not the traditional practices themselves but rather the religious values embedded in the halachic process that brings us closer to God.
As he once said in an article, “Religion has been used to comfort the troubled, now it must be used to trouble the comforted.”
From a 1963 address entitled “The Sanction of the Mitzvot” to one of his final books, Beyond Reasonable Doubt in 1999, he maintained a rather consistent tactic in addressing the authority of mitzvot. Given his entrenchment in scholarly discipline and his insistence on the human element in sacred texts, he set the goal of constructing an approach whereby “it is possible and desirable to be totally committed to Jewish observance and to treat the mitzvot as divine commands without any sacrifice of intellectual integrity”.
His synthesis, which he called halachic non-fundamentalism, may be understood as an extension of and reaction to the finding of the historical school as expressed by Conservative Judaism’s Solomon Schechter and Louis Ginzburg and, indeed, he echoed the latter in his contention that “the evaluation of a law is independent of its origins”. As Jacobs illustrates, “the sanctity of Shabbat rests not on the fact it was proclaimed at Sinai but on the fact that the Shabbat idea found for 1000s of years its expression in Jewish souls”.
Accompanying Jacobs’s encyclopaedic references to the vast gamut of Jewish literature throughout his works, in equal display are anecdotes and a dialogue with the very best of the Western tradition.
Setting out his stall during his very first sermon at the New London Synagogue, Rabbi Jacobs said: “We do not subscribe to the doctrine, ‘Hold what you like as long as you hold your tongue’.” On the contrary his quest for truth and synthesis is what drove him to the very end.
Quoting G.K. Chesterton as he was fond of doing, he once said to me while sitting at the desk in his study that “The good thing about staying in hot water is that you stay clean!”
Simon Eder is director of the Friends of Louis Jacobs. “Judaism Unbound — The Quest for the Future of Judaism” takes place at JW3 from 5pm on Sunday, February 23. Tickets from www.louisjacobs.org