Menu

The First Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture - Memorial Tribute by Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove

 

I have long believed that the most telling indicator about a person is to be found by looking at the books that she or he has at the bedside table.  Unlike the coffee table books that come out when the guests arrive, or the dust covered volumes on our

shelves that are impressively displayed but rarely opened, the unglamorous volumes that we go to sleep reading, are, for better or for worse, rather honest portraits of how we occupy our minds.
 
When Rabbi Jacobs passed away one year ago, his children tell me that he did so with a selection of bedside books he requested to have present.  In addition to his siddur and seforim, at his bed sat an anthology of G.K. Chesterton’s writings, a Pelican book of English Essays, and a Penguin selection of the “Metaphysical poets.”   To the degree that one can read into such gestures, I believe it is an instance of the well known pasuk “Sof Ma’aseh, B’Machshava Techila,” “the last action being first in intention.”  What I mean by this is that to come to terms with the intellectual legacy of Rabbi Jacobs, we would do well to consider the rather obvious statement that neither his, nor anyone’s profile, emerges out of a vacuum.  We are all products of our teachers, colleagues, context, time and influences.   At last year’s memorial service I suggested that Rabbi Jacobs’ theology was a product of his biography, and I continue to believe that his struggles between faith and reason, observance and critical scholarship, reflected an effort to reconcile the competing impulses of the Yeshiva, University, his Rosh Yeshiva and his professors, his commitments to the Anglo-Jewish and Eastern European traditions.

This evening, I want to take the conversation a bit further.   In present company of family, friends, colleagues and congregants, I will leave personal reflections to those far better qualified, I only had the honor of knowing Rabbi Jacobs in his final years.  But as I complete my dissertation on him, I want to use my time to discuss the forces that gave rise to his thought, the tools by which he reconciled the tensions of his early years.  A modest effort, if you will, to give life to Chesterton’s maxim:  “Show me a man’s philosophy, and I’ll show you the man.”
This summer, of course, marks not only Rabbi Jacobs’ Yahrzeit, but precisely fifty years since the publication of We Have Reason to Believe.  There has been much written on this slim volume, but I want to turn your attention to a rather unexpected place – the book’s footnotes.  Because like the books at the bedside, if you are doing intellectual history, if you want to know how someone arrived at their conclusions, who they are leaning on, who charted the path, then you look at a book’s footnotes.
 
Who are these names lurking at the bottom of the pages of We Have Reason to Believe? Will Herberg, Ira Eisenstein, Solomon Goldman.  Joseph Abelson, Morris Joseph and Maurice Farbridge.  H.W. Robinson, H.H. Rowley, Coppleston, C.S. Lewis.     It was by way of these names, these thinkers that Rabbi Jacobs marked out his own path.   It is my contention that Rabbi Jacobs’ theology is a reflection of a complex dialectic of assimilation and self-assertion, which, though being fed by many sources came to stand as original and unlike anything in its environment.  To put it more simply, as I imagine the period that Rabbi Jacobs wrote We Have Reason to Believe, I imagine that it was the books penned by these authors that sat by the side of his bed.
 
When Rabbi Jacobs arrived at the New West End in 1954, he became part of a much larger conversation than Anglo-Orthodoxy. It was during these years that he began correspondences with North American Theologians, visits from American colleagues like Rabbis Wolfe Kelman, Seymour Siegel and Chancellor Louis Finkelstein.  His first publications in popular and scholarly journals began to appear.  In short, at the very moment that he entered what was a diminishing slice of Anglo-Orthodox life, he was ironically, and some may say tragically, entering a world of unlimited ideological horizons.  And because of his photographic memory and passion for truth, while others may have advised to accept truth from wherever it came, Rabbi Jacobs really did.  Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Jewish, Non-Jewish, no idea was dismissed because of who said it, or where it was said.  A theological statement was to be evaluated on its merits, pure and simple.
 
The 1950’s and 60’s were extraordinary years for Jewish theology.   These years saw the growth of a generation of theologically minded scholar-rabbis who would leave an extraordinary and enduring imprimatur on the institutional and theological landscape of the Jewish world. Numerous journals — including Judaism, Commentary, Conservative Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis Quarterly Journal and Tradition — were founded, all devoted to explorations in Jewish theology.

This coterie of theologians included luminaries such as Arthur Cohen, Emil Fackenheim, Will Herberg, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jakob Petuchowski, Joseph Soloveitchik, Arnold Jacob Wolf and, here in England, Louis Jacobs. In their journals, institutions and retreats they were gripped by a spirit of theological inquiry remarkable both in its sophistication and cooperative spirit.

The 1950’s were an exciting time for Jewish theology for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, Jews were simply doing what their Christian contemporaries were already doing. Herberg, for example, who Rabbi Jacobs would rely on heavily, made no secret of his debt to the great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. And as the evocative writings of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig were translated into English by way of Nahum Glatzers, English speaking Jewish theologians were prompted to formulate their own home-grown response.

Moreover, the horrors of the Holocaust impelled Jews to ask difficult questions on God’s presence or lack thereof. In many ways, the Holocaust revealed the dangers of excessive secularism, and American Jews grew disenchanted by Mordecai Kaplan’s optimism in human achievement and began to turn back to a God-centered Judaism.  If you read We Have Reason To Believe carefully, in many ways it was Rabbi Jacobs’ way of saying to Kaplan and his disciple Eisenstein that he may be right on many counts, but if you leave God out of Judaism, then you are missing an critical piece of the Jewish equation.

Finally, this flourishing of Jewish theology can be traced to the establishment of the State of Israel. For Rabbi Jacobs, it was not so much that Israel was a theological marker (I have found only one early article where Rabbi Jacobs interpreted the state of Israel in theological terms), but for a more subtle reason.  Remember, in spite of the passionate love and philanthropic support for Israel at the New West End, it was the “Englishness” of its membership that was its distinctive characteristic and of inestimable significance.  Put simply, if one were going to be a committed Jew in the fifties and choose not to live in the Jewish State, one needed a thought out response, in other words, a theology, by which to justify a distinctive Diaspora community.  In both America and England, theology would come to play an apologetic function whereby such questions of belief would serve as proxy for the sociological realities of the Jewish world.

And so in retrospect, Rabbi Jacobs’ theology can be understood as a member of this school of New Jewish Theologians – but with a distinctly English inflection.  There were some American or Continental elements that he just couldn’t assimilate into his system.  The theological tropes of Heschel, Buber, Rosenzweig were a bit fuzzy for Rabbi Jacobs’ Mancunian roots.  Rabbi Jacobs shared with me that he grew up during a time when there existed deep suspicion for all things Continental.  For a variety of reasons, he would ultimately return to what he found to be the clear, elegant and honest expression of British Jewish theology.

So what was the condition of English Theology at the time?  Scholars of the subject have long noted that the Anglo religious tradition, even in evangelical circles, had always been rather receptive to the claims of scholarship. From Driver, to Dodd, to Robinson, a steady state of affairs existed whereby the claims of piety and criticism sat cooperatively side by side.  Some have pointed to a cultural dimension, that the presence of strong evangelical student organizations in British universities along with the blurred professional lines between the academic and church communities, collectively served towards creating the easy engagement of critical scholarship with traditional faith in England.  Rabbi Jacobs knew these people, intellectually and some personally.  It is no small matter that had Rabbi Jacobs not come to the New West End, he was planning on taking a degree with H.H. Rowley, an extraordinary Baptist Bible scholar in Manchester, who himself published many books seeking to reconcile scriptural traditionalism and critical scholarship. 

There were, to be sure, precedents to Rabbi Jacobs in Anglo-Jewish theology as well.  While both Solomon Schechter and the former Chief Rabbi J. Hertz would draw a hard line against higher criticism, Rabbi Jacobs was not lacking in predecessors offering alternatives to Hertz’s contention that Judaism “stands or falls on the belief in Revelation.”  For example in 1903, the debarred minister Morris Joseph had expressed an eagerness to reconcile the authority of Scripture with modern critical theory.   So too, if you reread We Have Reason to Believe you will see that Rabbi Jacobs’ own efforts would come by way of J. Abelson’s (1873-1940) study of the subject in the short lived British journal the “Jewish Review.”  Abelson had the goal of creating a “half-way house” between critical findings and traditional faith, offering an array of arguments towards the conclusion that “it is quite possible to hold a modernized view of the Bible without at the same time bartering away those priceless fundamental truths which are the life-essence of historic Judaism.”  Thirty years prior to We Have Reason to Believe, Maurice Farbridge would give expression to a view eerily akin to Rabbi Jacobs’ opening statement in his Judaism and the Modern Mind.  As I read the first paragraph of Farbridge’s book, keep in mind the opening paragraph of We Have Reason to Believe:

…Jews of today can be divided roughly into two sections:  those who are always testing Judaism with an open mind and barely attain conviction and those who are full of convictions but regard it as sacrilege to examine the foundations on which they are based.  The earnest seeker after truth thus often finds himself in the utmost difficulty. He turns to one man and finds no faith, to another and finds no reason.  Is this divorce between faith and reason inevitable? Is it possible for the single heart and open mind to dwell together in unity?  This is the problem which is agitating the mind of many modern Jews, and the author of this volume has attempted to provide a solution in these pages in a manner which he trusts will appeal to the thinking Jew of today.(p. viii)

Farbridge’s preface, like Rabbi Jacobs’, called on his readers to find a “new synthesis” by which the competing truths of the old and new learning can be considered. Farbridge’s chapters on “Bible Difficulties – Moral and Scientific,” “Judaism and the Higher Criticism,” “Is the Bible Inspired,” “Judaism and Miracles,” run parallel both in topic and methodology to Rabbi Jacobs’ own treatment of the subject matter.   While differences abound, the least of which not being Rabbi Jacobs’ engagement with rabbinic precedent for his views (a literature from which Farbridge drew from only infrequently), in Farbridge Abelson and Joseph, Rabbi Jacobs could point to numerous Anglo-Jewish precedents, who, like their non-Jewish counterparts, had sought to maintain scriptural authority but had long discarded the so-called “genetic fallacy.” Indeed, much of the novelty of Rabbi Jacobs’ theology is found not so much in its content, but in the denominational affiliations of the person making them.  M. Joseph after all was debarred for his beliefs and Farbridge never served an Orthodox pulpit.  It would be Rabbi Jacobs who would make the bold claim that such beliefs could be compatible with Orthodoxy and his status as an Orthodox minister.

Two final influences need to be mentioned.  First, philosophical.  In the 1950’s the British school of linguistic analysis dominated all philosophical discussion.  Rabbi Jacobs’ office at University College London was physically next door to that of A.J. Ayer, the spokesman for this school of thought.  Keep We Have Reason to Believe in mind as I read to you this passage from Copleston’s contemporary philosophy from which Jacobs drew heavily:

In the last century people used to talk about a conflict between religion and science.  We see now that there is not, and cannot be any conflict between religion and science in the sense in which that conflict was understood in the last century; for no verified scientific statement can contradict a revealed dogma.  We are no longer troubled by apparent discrepancies between scientific theories and Genesis; for we have a better idea now of the nature of scientific theories and hypothesis on the one hand, while on the other hand every sensible person realizes that the Bible was not designed to be a handbook of astronomy or of any other branch of science.

The argument that Scriptural truths are of a different “kind” than those derived from empirical investigation would very become the philosophic coin by which Rabbi Jacobs would construct his own arguments.
 
Finally, probably the most important British theological voice in the fifties was neither a clergyman nor a Bible Scholar – but C.S. Lewis.   Like Chesterton before him, it is perhaps Lewis’s resistance to easy categorization as a popular author, formal theologian or clerical writer that is precisely the point to consider in the chord he struck in Anglo- religious discourse. Indeed, it was the blurring of lines between Lewis’s faith and scholarship, imagination and social conservativism that would render him “very satisfying to many a young searcher after wisdom.”   With Lewis, as would be the case with Rabbi Jacobs, style and substance were closely related, as theology would seek to strike the balance between being popular and sophisticated, traditional and non conformist, practical and mystical, compelling and critical, traditional in formulation and yet non-dogmatic in expression.

This entire review is roundabout way of explaining that Rabbi Jacobs’ thought was a direct product and reaction to his greater theo-historical moment.  It also helps to clarify why the rather important point of why Rabbi Jacobs chose to write on the subject of Revelation at all?  After all, ever since Spinoza, the challenge of critical scholarship was present, why was it, as we Americans say, such a “big deal” in the 1950’s?  As Religious historians will tell you, the1952 introduction of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible amidst acclaim and criticism drew public attention to matters of biblical language, authority and translation in a very public and heated way.  Here in London, Evangelical efforts such as Billy Graham’s spring 1954 “Great London Crusade” drew not only huge numbers (over 1,300,000) but increased attention to the fault lines between traditional and modern approaches to Scripture.  Graham’s mission, capped by a Wembley Stadium appearance of over 120,000, would be followed by a June 1954 “Times Bible Supplement” on the “Historical, Social and Literary Aspects of the Old and the New Testaments Described by Christian Scholars.”  Rabbi Jacobs himself would respond to the Times piece in the Jewish Chronicle, an article which would provide the basis for his own treatment of the subject in We Have Reason to Believe. 

A passing glance at books published immediately surrounding the publication of We Have Reason to Believe makes it abundantly clear that Rabbi Jacobs’ effort, though distinct in its Jewishness, was far from isolated in English theology.  Beginning with John Baillie’s The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (1956), to J.K.S. Reid’s The Authority of Scripture (1957), to H.H. Rowley’s Faith of Israel (1957), to Raymond Abba’s The Nature and Authority of the Bible (1958), these years would produce a series of like-minded efforts towards constructing a theology which, while conservative in its leanings, was capable of withstanding an honest and open engagement with modernity and critical scholarship. 

The importance of all this is not so much an insistence in establishing a causal relationship leading up to We Have Reason to Believe, or the suggestion that any one single incident prompted Rabbi Jacobs’ own theological ventures.   Rather, I simply want to draw attention to the national and international theological mood in which Rabbi Jacobs functioned and the tools by which Rabbi Jacobs would come to respond in the way in which he would.   Indeed, a full appreciation of We Have Reason to Believe comes by way of recognizing the manner by which Rabbi Jacobs assimilated the tactics and topics of his predecessors and contemporaries, in order to address what must ultimately be understood as deeply personal questions stirring his own soul.

To conclude, I would ask your indulgence to shift from intellectual historian to a young Rabbi, because however interesting the question of what prompted Rabbi Jacobs’ theological vision may be, I actually don’t think it is the question with which he would want us to occupy our time today. The most important question is not what Rabbi Jacobs’ believed and why, but what we believe today.  The reason why theology matters — both then and now — is because while Judaism may be a religion of deed and not creed, a generation that does not invest its energy into the question of Jewish belief is a generation that will find itself without the life-sustaining aquifers necessary to keep it vital.

When kashrut is practiced without a theological matrix in place, it is a form of dietary cliquishness, not a distinguishing and distinctive expression of commandedness. When circumcision is practiced without an understanding of covenant, it is not a sign of a sacrosanct relationship with God, but a primitive if not objectionable rite. If commitment to Israel is framed solely in political terms, the argument for a modern state becomes less and less compelling for American Jews, Israelis and, for that matter, gentiles.
At every critical juncture in Jewish history, Jews have understood that a dynamic theology is the sine qua non to a vital Jewish community. From Mount Sinai to the prophets of the Exile, to Maimonides’s “Guide to the Perplexed,” to Kabbalah, to Hassidism, to mid-20th century thinkers, theological inquiry has sustained our people. Without it, Judaism becomes a dry, brittle and lifeless artifact.

Rabbi Jacobs once told me of Bialik’s image of the Sofer, the scribe who, as he approached the final passages of writing a Sefer Torah would allow it to be finished by another hand. This image is very much our charge today and in the years ahead.  How shall we come to embody the fulfillment of Rabbi Jacobs’ theological legacy?  How shall we complete his “ Torah .” I suspect it will not come by parroting his efforts, but by creating a Jewish theology that reflects the needs, conditions and aspirations of our own moment.  As Rabbi Jacobs would say and write so many times, the question is not what Rashi or Rambam believed.  The question is what we, given the best thought of the day and the riches of our tradition, believe in today.
 
This past month, as the weather turned pleasant in Chicago, I took my son outside and we played a game of catch.  And in the midst of it all, it struck me that this activity that involves throwing a ball is called, strangely, catch.  I can’t think of a simpler and more powerful way to frame the call of the day.  To do honor to the memory of Rabbi Jacobs is to recognise that as Jews, though we celebrate the giving of the Torah , the real trick, the real measure of the Jewish people, is how well we catch Torah .  What does it mean to be commanded as a modern Jew?    How can a Jew stand simultaneously at the base of Sinai and firmly in modernity?  What is the process by which a Jew determines which mitzvot are binding and which are not? These are difficult questions and there are no easy answers, but a community that is not asking them, is a community that will not get very far in its journey.  Rabbi Jacobs knew full well that it is incumbent on every generation to formulate its own theology that makes Judaism compelling to the Jews of its age.  The time is ours. My question is who is willing to be part of the conversation.

 

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
(Egalitarian)
See calendar.


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

Connect With Us

New London Synagogue
33 Abbey Road
London
NW8 0AT

E-mail: office@newlondon.org.uk
Tel: 020 7328 1026

Go to top