The grinning cat, the spiritual tinkerer and the legacy of Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Louis Jacobs and the Quest for a Contemporary Jewish Theology, Miri Freud-Kandel, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, £29.95


In the siddur, we talk of “Torat Emet”, “the Torah of truth. But what does “truth” mean?

That question triggered the most famous religious controversy in modern UK Jewry when the scholar Rabbi Louis Jacobs was ostracised by the Orthodox establishment for arguing that the Torah was not dictated word-for-word by God to Moses, as traditional Orthodox doctrine would have it, but composed over time and mediated by human hands.

Some 60 years on, the first book-length study of Jacobs’s thought has appeared, written by Oxford University’s lecturer in modern Judaism, Dr Miri Freud-Kandel. More than an academic analysis of Jacobs’s theology, it makes the case for considering him as a model for those Jews today who seek “religious meaning in the spiritual marketplace”. In what she calls a “post-secular age”, a yearning for the sacred remains but the idea of recognising “absolute truth” is questionable.

She is especially good on how Jacobs’ background shaped his outlook, particularly his youthful entry and immersion into the yeshivah world. He could have opted for an academic role but saw it as his mission to help the “Jew in the pew” find a way to resolve the clash between modern thought and Jewish teaching.

In an early letter to the JC, Jacobs playfully compared the state of the British rabbinate to the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland (which could make itself invisible, leaving just its grin). The worldly minister produced by Jews’ College was like the cat’s grin, he suggested, which needed the love of Torah that was imbued by the yeshivot; the yeshivot, however, were like the cat without the grin.

He wanted to bring the two together — evidence of an impulse towards synthesis for which he strove in his work. Later he sought to harmonise the worlds of the yeshivah and university.

The theologies of Louis Jacobs and Jonathan Sacks are ‘not at all dissimilar’

But rather than synthesis, Freud-Kandel argues his method was more akin to what the American sociologist Robert Wuthnow has characterised as “tinkering” — which she glosses as “a melding together of disparate ideas, from a range of sometimes conflicting resources”; Jacobs’ theology, she says, was more a “patchwork quilt” than a neat tapestry.

His approach to Judaism was “both/and” rather than “either/or”. He found not simply depth but diversity within the religious canon, which could speak to people in different ways at different times. While he understood that there was a flexibility within the halachic tradition, his conservative instincts, nurtured by the yeshivah, prevented him from issuing alternative rulings himself, Freud-Kandel argues. But in presenting Jewish life as a quest for meaning that required engagement with the sources rather than merely following a pre-set course, he laid a path for others to pursue. The spiritual tinkerer “selectively gather[s] those elements that can best sustain a life of faith”.

Few have the compendious knowledge of Jewish religious literature that Jacobs acquired, so we need rabbinic interpreters to help us on the quest.

While he sought to establish the reasonableness of faith — as the title of his most popular book We Have Reason to Believe suggests — he did not only appeal to reason. Freud-Kandel pays welcome attention to a sometimes neglected area of his writing, his appreciation of Chasidism. The mystical strand within Judaism could help cultivate a sense of divine awe.

During the course of this impressive study Freud-Kandel takes us on a short tour of more recent developments within Orthodoxy, such as, which offer a more sophisticated account of revelation than standard doctrine.

But perhaps the most intriguing moment occurs in a footnote when she suggests that the theologies of Jonathan Sacks and Louis Jacobs were “not…at all dissimilar” — a “topic for future study”, she says. And one she is eminently qualified to write.

Miri Freud-Kandel will be speaking on Louis Jacobs’s Quest at Book Week 24 at 10.30 March 5 online:

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