Louis Jacobs - an appreciation; by Dr. Harry Freedman

According to the Talmud, when a sage dies everyone is considered to be his relative. Although this is a legal statement, applicable to the laws of mourning, for members of this Synagogue it also has a personal resonance. Rabbi Jacobs was not just the founder rabbi of the New London Synagogue, a great scholar, the greatest British Jew. He had an intimate connection to every one of his congregants. We all felt we were part of his and Shula’s family.

The fall out from the ‘Jacobs Affair’ meant that he became best known for his theological position, but his contribution to Jewish scholarship extended far wider than theology alone. Those who attended his Monday evening Talmud classes will know that his knowledge of the Talmud and its commentaries was encyclopaedic, and that his academic position on the literary structure of the Talmud was influential, even within orthodox circles. In a series of books and over many years of Talmudic teaching he maintained the view that the Talmud had been written from the outset as a deliberate, literary composition. This conflicted with the traditional, earlier, view that the Talmud as a whole had originally been transmitted orally, and was only set down and edited at a later date.

Like many Jewish rationalists, Abraham Ibn Ezra springs readily to mind; Louis Jacobs had a profound, mystical side to his character. He sought to bring what he considered to be amongst the most important strands of mystical thought to wider scholarly attention. Best known amongst his works in this field were his translation of Moses Cordevero’s 16th century Kabbalistic classic, Palm Tree of Deborah, and his treatment of the 18th century pietist Zvi Hirsh Eisenstien in Turn Aside From Evil. To the lay reader, the most striking element of these books is the straightforward, clear and engaging introduction that they offer to the complexities of Jewish mysticism.

He always had a strong fascination for Hasidism. Indeed, the New London, bastion of the formal Anglo-Jewish tradition, remains the only example in mainstream British Jewry of a Synagogue established for a specific rabbi and his followers, a stately, stylised Hasidic Shtiebel.  Yet, the key to understanding Rabbi Jacobs’ approach lies not within Hasidism but firmly within the formal Anglo-Jewish tradition. For in truth he was far more conservative than radical. His rational approach to Judaism was honed in the critical, scientific method that dominated pre-war Anglo-Jewish scholarship. His roots lay in Maimonides but his immediate antecedents were a long line of English (not necessarily British-born) scholars, including Schechter, Marmorstein, Buchler, Friedlander and Gaster. And his theology of revelation, his insistence that Judaism had a history, was a direct consequence of the erudition of that school.

His approach to Halacha resulted from his position that Judaism had a history. Jewish law developed, responding to changing cultural, social and scientific conditions. For a clear and incisive understanding of his Halachic approach, one can do no better than read his masterly study, A Tree of Life, tellingly subtitled Creativity, Diversity and Flexibility in Jewish Law.

But theology was always his main field and it is here that he both built his reputation, and became embroiled in his most difficult controversies. We should be aware that he did not only subject fundamental orthodox tenets to his incisive reasoning. His small monograph, God, Torah , Israel, which synthesised a lifetime of theological thought, is directed in part against the Reconstructionist views of Mordechai Kaplan, who proposed that, far from being distinct yet ineffable, God is a natural force. Louis Jacobs could not accept this. God is Personal, removed from the world yet acting upon it.

It is poignant that in the half century since Louis Jacobs first wrote We Have Reason to Believe, his views of revelation have tentatively begun to become implicitly absorbed into modern orthodox thinking. That is not to say that orthodox thinkers will admit that the Torah was revealed through human agency, but increasingly there is a tendency to deflect the argument, to skirt the issue as if it were of secondary importance.

In a sense this is what one would expect. It took Maimonides several generations before his opinions were generally accepted, and several more to be acclaimed as the greatest Jewish thinker of all time. One hopes that it will not take Louis Jacobs quite so long to gain the universal acclaim that he deserves.

Service Times

Friday night: 6:30pm
Shabbat morning: 9:15am
Sunday: 9:00am

Rosh Chodesh:

7:15am weekdays
followed by breakfast
or 8:45am Sundays

Minyan Chadash:

9:45am monthly
See calendar.

Candle lighting based on 18 minutes before sundown; Havdalah based on 8.5 degrees below horizon (Shitat HaG'onim).

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New London Synagogue
33 Abbey Road

Tel: 020 7328 1026

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