Rabbi Louis Jacobs: a model for today’s spiritual seekers

The courageous thinker’s quest for traditional alternatives can still inspire us


It is hard not to feel like we are currently living in a world in flames. Amid an ever-growing sense of despair, there is a frantic yearning to discover seeds of hope, albeit with limited expectation of success.

Desperate times often lead to radical responses and the worrying popular descent into simplistic binaries highlights some of the challenges we face. On one level, this often results in a turn to the types of thinking that encourage fundamentalism.

Whatever their starting points, by fighting with a sense of having God on their side religious fundamentalists too often lose sight of the humanity of the other.

Equally, the turn to varied forms of religious or spiritual response helps capture a notable feature of our contemporary context: the abiding quest for some type of meaning to make sense of our world, underscoring a related sense of secularisation’s limits.

Modern thinking was expected, ultimately, to herald the death of religion. Notwithstanding recent debates on whether we are witnessing the demise of Christian Britain, as the widespread appeal of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s efforts to fill the growing moral vacuum indicate, it seems more accurate to characterise our age as “post-secular”.

Turning back the clock to a pre-modern consciousness in which religious truths go unquestioned is not an option.

Yet secularism has also failed, fuelling the contemporary quest— a search to find meaning somehow.

In my new book I argue that Rabbi Louis Jacobs’s thought can help within this framework. Driven by his own quest, Jacobs courageously modelled a Jewish theology that challenges binary either/or approaches.

He critiqued much of Orthodoxy for sidelining available alternative teachings and used his scholarship to emphasise the creativity evident within the sources.

He suggested this was one of theology’s goals: to demonstrate the variety of ideas available within the Jewish corpus, consistently enabling Judaism to provide ladders connecting individuals to heaven through the mitzvot.

In this sense he offers a paradigm for a committed, yet questioning Judaism.

Whatever his intentions, his approach can appear threatening: fomenting challenges that risk undermining the framework of religious authority underpinning Orthodox Judaism.

Nonetheless, although the religious questions and indeed types of answers sought are shifting, the ongoing relevance of his theology is striking.

The critical challenge driving Jacobs’s quest was to defend Judaism against rationalist critiques associated with modernity. If pre-modern worldviews tended to perceive our world as a divine creation, in which God as a transcendent, all-powerful deity retained ultimate control, modernism glorified science and reason. They provided tools to question received ideas, liberating individuals from religious control.

Yet the objectivity of science has itself subsequently been challenged. Channelling some of the kabbalistic ideas that Jacobs addresses, philosopher Richard Kearney warns that “there is no God’s-eye view of things available to us.

"For we are not Gods, and history tells us that attempts to become so lead to intellectual and political catastrophe.”

Capturing how modernism facilitated a descent into totalitarianism, post-secularism recognises the retained yearning for the sacred while acknowledging some of its associated limits.

In this context I believe there is the possibility of fostering new approaches to religious authority. Is its focus on governance, trying to exert control over actions; or is it designed to impart lessons on righteous living, to nurture some form of God-orientated framework?

Shifting notions of authority have influenced views on Jacobs’ cause celebre: biblical scholarship.

Not only is there evidence of a growing acceptance of critical interpretations, but post-secularism has also amplified the appeal of varied forms of New Age spirituality.

Emphasising the individual’s role in seeking divine encounter, Jacobs’s theology can facilitate spiritual ascents that simultaneously remain rooted in Jewish teachings.

Within contemporary Jewish communal life, there is evidence of a growing backlash against established religious institutions and the tyranny of denominational labels. There is a diminishing willingness to be told what to believe, who to include or exclude, and how to be religious.

Rather than posing a threat, I suggest this creates potential opportunities. Through Jacobs’s theology it becomes easier to encourage questioning, embrace a search for alternative interpretations, while remaining anchored to Judaism.

Jacobs’s rejection of narrow either/or approaches, his championing of Jewish theology as the means for engaging with the tradition’s teachings to recognise its lasting power, and his embrace of the quest as the individual’s attempt to seek out meaning all offer valuable building blocks from his thought for contemporary seekers.

His theological method is more relevant here than his personal theology. He offers mechanisms empowering individuals to understand how Judaism can continue to make claims on believers, avoiding the popular turn to self-worship or fundamentalism.

Through ritual, textual study, and fostering a sense of belonging within the covenantal Jewish community, he offers alternative methods for experiencing a sense of divine command to overcome some of the contemporary challenges to faith.

On this reading theology is less about constructing arguments for God’s existence, focusing instead on considering the implications of such belief in a life of faith.

Rather than defining the beliefs that secure insider or outsider status, emphasis rests on the meaningfulness of living a Jewish life, acknowledging how the grounds upon which faith can be built are shifting.

Drawing from Jacobs, my book champions a quest for a contemporary Jewish theology to help counter the descent into despair by identifying the multitude of available paths for experiencing Judaism’s steadfast call to hear God’s command.

Miri Freud-Kandel’s book, Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, £29.95, will be launched in London at 7pm on Sunday, November 26. Details from

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