One of the complaints made against the Chasidim by their opponents, the Mitnagdim, was that they smoked too much. The movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, reputedly puffed on a lulke, a long pipe, to help his spiritual ruminations. Others made use of “incense of the nose” — snuff.
An essay on Chasidism and tobacco is one of the unexpected pleasures in a new anthology of writings from British Jewry’s greatest religious scholar, Rabbi Louis Jacobs. It is the latest project of a group of supporters, including the book’s editor Dr Harry Freedman, who since Rabbi Jacobs’s death in 2006 have worked to ensure his teaching lives on.
For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre or much of it, this is a taster which demonstrates his extraordinary range. Hardly an aspect of Jewish life escaped his attention. There are extracts from the theological tracts which made him such a controversial figure in his day, reflecting his doctrine of “liberal supernaturalism” and a “non-fundamentalist” approach to the mitzvot.
While his religious thought emphasised the importance of reason, he could appreciate mysticism too, with a particular admiration for early Lubavitch. The literary form and style of the Talmud are explored in a couple of pieces. Then there are articles on ethical issues such as Judaism and human rights or the misuse of halachic concepts in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995. All of which bear the hallmark of a prodigious erudition distilled with exemplary clarity.