Monday, 7 July 2014

Looking Back and Forward - The Rabbi Louis Jacobs Memorial Lecture 2014

I’ve heard this story many times, I’ve lived it. Many of us here today have also.

Want to try and tell is a little differently from the way I’ve ever heard it told before.


Let me start this way.

I don’t think Rabbi Louis Jacobs, of blessed memory – one of the greatest Jewish theologians of modern times - was really a theologian.

His intellectual curiosity came from elsewhere

And his theology was driven by something other than theologising.


Go back 70 years, 1944

13 years before publication of We Have Reason to Believe.

20 years before foundation of New London Synagogue


Louis was recently married and comes into contact with what is known in the trade as Wissenschaft des Judentums – the critical, academic study of Judaism – for the first time.

There are two currents in Manchester Judaism at the time – one ultra-orthodox, typified by Rav Dubov, of the Manchester Yeshiva.

And another cooler, academically literate, though entirely observant, orthodoxy represented by Dr Alexander Altmann (notice, Dr, not Rabbi).

We have the record of Louis’ first meeting with Dr Altman preserved in his diary

(Grateful to Elliot Cosgrove who included this extract in his PhD thesis.)


[Altmann] mentioned that certain writers in America write and advise a “Return to Ghetto Life” - they advocate isolation as far as humanly possible. [Altmann] said that a man like the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva agreed with this view and he admires him for it. He however thinks that for a man with a liberal education this attitude towards life is a sheer impossibility. He asked me to read a paper on Toldot Halakha by C. Chernovitz (sic).


Toldot Halakha demonstrates – as its name suggests – how Halachah passes down through the generations, how it changes (Incidentally Louis misspells the name Tchernovitz in his diary – this is all very new)

Then goes home, and that night shares this in his diary.


I thought a lot about the theory of the development of halakha and have found one or two proofs in Kiddushim and Shabbat. One in tosefot at the beginning of perek sheni about ketana bizman hazeh and also [in the] Rama [Rabbi Moses Isserles] about daluka b’shabbat.


(used to marry off minors, now don’t.

Rama  - don’t have to put the Chanukiyah in the window if it’s dangerous)


You can feel an excitement in the diary entries from the time. Louis’ world-view, his Jew-view is shifting, inspired by the developments of critical thought – Wissenschaft.


The notion that Judaism changes as it evolves to new understandings and new challenges, as opposed to the notion that Judaism should head back into the ghetto in retreat from the contemporary, is the key difference between two schools of Jewish life and thought; one closed to the enquires of science, the other not.


My point is this;

The demonstration of the evolution of Jewish practice is the central driving force of Louis’s work. More important, than theologising.

On this perspective of Louis’ intellectual engagement his most important work is probably Tree of Life with its self-explanatory sub-heading ‘Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law.’

Just look at the Chapter headings.

The Influence of Philosophy on Halakhah
The Influence of Mysticism and Kabbalah on Halakhah
Responses to the Gentile World
Halakhic Responses to Social Changes: General Principles
Halakhic Responses to Social Changes: Further Examples


This is Louis doing Wissenschaft des Judentum, the critical study of Judaism,

This is Louis doing history.

History, of course, is a never-ending education into the notion that ‘things change’, adapt and shift.

This is what history does to one. It takes neat convenient labels and anatomises them.

It messes up neat lines and complicates simple stories.

You can’t be a fundamentalist and a historian.

Louis, the non-fundamentalist, chose history and history inured, yet further, Louis from fundamentalism.

And then the next thing kicks in, a whole series of personal characteristics.

Firstly curiosity.

Louis always had a sort of voracious entirely un-bordered fascination with everything.

In the new collection – available for purchase - Pursuing the Quest, an article on Tobacco. Louis was interested in everything.

Some other emotions folded in as well.

Certainly courage.

Where some felt nervous of applying the rigour of critical academic study to theology, Louis felt he had to face these challenges.

A touch of arrogance, a belief that he could make a contribution.

And pride - a refusal to back down before the bullying of others.


So Louis couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t do the thing so many orthodox scholars of historical development in Judaism do; namely stop being historically curious when it comes to the question of the Torah itself.

When Louis was at Jews College, he reports in Beyond Reasonable Doubt, explains that his teachers scholars used critical methodology, but only for history and grammar, Talmud and codes. Never for Torah itself.

But Louis was led inexorably towards not only the classic problems of theology- choseness, evil, the end of time – but also the radioactive question of who wrote the Torah.


But even when writing theology, Louis was really writing as a historian.

See most clearly in his greatest theological work - Principles of the Jewish Faith (1964).

Writes as a historian of theology – different eras, different environments, different external influences lead to different theologies.


I want to share an extract from Beyond Reasonable Doubt (2004, two years before death). Chapter on views on enjoyment and the purpose of the creation of the world and the human.
Surveys both Talmuds, codes, mussar, halachah, hasidut etc. with usual brilliance, and concludes;

I have tried to show that Judaism is not monolithic and that when Jewish thinkers speak of normative Judaism they tend to affix the label to those aspects of the tradition to which they are personally attracted. There is liberation in the thought that there is no alternative for a religious Jew, in his quest for the transcendent, than to try, guided by the tradition, to think some things through for himself.


Louis becomes aware not just of differences over time and space, but also between people.

He has become unable to mono-ise (it’s a word I’m inventing, please excuse me)

To mono-ise is to demand that all people should be the same.

Louis was deeply allergic to mono-isation.

He chose as a title for his personal theological reflection ‘A Jewish Theology’ – note not ‘The Jewish Theology.’


I want to suggest something that perhaps drove this allergy to mono-isation, something beyond an understanding of historical development and unbounded curiosity.

It’s something to do with the most remarkable aspect of Louis’ academic achievement.

He did it all while serving as a congregational Rabbi – a congregational Rabbi of this very congregation.

Let me digress for a few moments.

I read recently of a survey that said that 81% of mothers felt that their being a mother had impacted on their professional success.

And the thought that struck me was this - what on earth were the other 19% possibly thinking?! Let me assume they hadn’t all just checked their children into 24 hour daycare.

How could a person, juggling professional and personal responsibilities not feel the limitations of this impossible balancing act?

I came to this conclusion.

There is something about being a parent that helps, professionally.

There is something about being a parent which helps you realise you are not going to be able to control the life of others by imperious dictates. There is something about having to rehearse arguments, again and again, in a myriad of different ways before you can, for example, persuade a small child to put on their shoes in the morning. And sometimes you have to go along with your small child just not putting on their shoes – and these are all important things to know if you want to be a successful professional. Certainly they are things you find out pretty quickly in the congregational rabbinate. Certainly this is something you find out as Rabbi of a this community.

Louis knew he couldn’t stand up here and insist that the congregants of New London should keep Shabbat because it said so in the good book. Not only did he need to marshal other arguments. Ultimately you need to realise that people are just not going all fall neatly in line, because people are ... people. They are going to behave differently.

In the idiom of a very different kind of a ghetto, being a Rabbi to real people, ensured Louis always ‘kept it real.’


Indeed the writing of We Have Reason to Believe came as a result of a study group with real congregants, held at the New West End Synagogue. It’s a book that owes its origins to the real questions, real concerns and the real beliefs of real people.


Louis’ theology was not forged - as Rambam or Rebbe Nachman, thought theologies should be forged – in intellectual or spiritual retreat, transcending finite human concerns and emotions.

On the contrary it was forged in the rigmarole of competing congregational needs, in living alongside members as they journey through Rabbinic rituals of hatch, match and dispatch that I recognise so well.

I believe that this grounding in congregational life shaped Louis’ of a monopolistic approach to theology – a sort of one-size-should-fit-all approach.


So what do we have? What is the inheritance of Louis’ Torah in this community, the community he served with such distinction, for over four decades?

·         The way in which history anatomises and breaks up simple narratives replacing grand sweeps with rigorous analysis. Replacing a sense that ‘this is the way it has always been’ with an understanding of how things have always been in flux.

·         A combination of curiosity, a breadth of engagement, courage, maybe even the arrogance to believe he could make a contribution.

·         And a grounding in the individual experience of individuals, a grounding that dissipates any possibility of creating a one-size-fits-all approach to Jewish life.


So where are we now, New London, as a community, in this 50th Jubilee Year.


Some things remain vital parts of who we have always been.

A certain pride, a certain arrogance, maybe, that we have something special to offer.

Certainly there is still a breadth in our hearts that is remarkable; the sort of breadth that sees, on most Shabbatot, jewellery designers and journalists, university professors and school principals and barristers and bankers.


But much of what drives this community has been in remarkable flux over the past 50 years, and will continue to be in flux into the future.

I want to share two insights. One based on numbers, the other based on the relationship between theology and change.


When Louis passed away – eight years ago – this was an aging community in decline; leaking members and finances at quite terrifying rates.

When I arrived here, as Rabbi, I brought the average age of Shabbat morning congregants down – sharply.

We were at 330 member units. The Cheder was 15 students and Carmi was the only the child in the non-functioning children’s service.


We are now some 570 member units. The Cheder is bursting with 100 students and growing. This RH/YK season we are going to have to erect a tent in the courtyard outside to accommodate the burgeoning children’s service.

I now bring the average age of Shabbat morning congregants up.

That’s pretty remarkable.


Or is it?

As some of you will know I have a much-loved brother who is Ultra-Orthodox – lives in Har Nof.

And we do, as you do, get involved in conversations about Jewish stuff from time to time.

Usually our arguments go something like this.

He asks about some element of Masorti practice. And we get in an argument about its textual basis and we trade blows, text against text.

And then we move to the sociological realm, where my brother puts this sort of question – and how many people in your community actually keep Shabbat, or actually come to synagogue three times a day, or actually immerse themselves in Rabbinic study on a daily basis.

And there I run out of blows.

When New London Synagogue gets aggrieved by something – maybe I’ve given a particularly inflammatory sermon, or God forbid there has been some terrible atrocity perpetrated against our people – I get two or three emails.

When Har Nof gets aggrieved by something – 400,000 turn out to protest on the streets and the entire capital of Israel can be shut down.


I tweet.

If you tweet also, you should follow me – I’ve 400-and-something followers, which sounds OK.

Lord, Rabbi Sacks, has some 16,000

Rick Warren, the evangelical American Pastor who gave a blessing to President Obama when he took office, has 1.42million twitter followers. Now that’s a twitter presence.

I fight to gain every new member, every child, every soul.

I get upset when members have the temerity to leave the country.

In the meantime 10,000 turn up weekly at the Belzer Synagogue in Jerusalem.

Gevalt, 20,000 turn up weekly at the Church Rick Warren serves in Southern California.


This is the greatest weakness of what we have, or haven’t accomplished, as a community these past 50 years, when viewed critically, through the lens of Wissenschaft. There just aren’t very many of us, at all.

Even across the movement.

We are a blink of an eye.

A good story to tell, but no more than a footnote.


If you are going to be historically rigorous and academically grounded in your analysis of the most important developments in the last 50 years of Anglo-Jewry, the story isn’t about us.

It’s about them.

The answer, from a perspective of cool indifference to emotion, is that the ultra-orthodox were right to crank up the drawbridge and leave anyone with a scintilla of heresy in them on the outside.

Evangelism and theological purity, from the perspective of numbers, looks like the right way to go.

So much for numbers.


What about the intersection of theology and change.

It was my teacher, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, who noted that all theologies come with a price-tag. You pick what you believe – or maybe what you believe picks you – and you have to pay the price.

It’s a testament to his integrity and intellectual honesty, that Rabbi Jacobs was prepared to pay the cost of his theology.

A theology that couldn’t hide from the reality of history and the lived experience of real people.

He did that throughout his life, but perhaps the way he paid the price of his theology in his last years is less well known.

In his last significant work, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, published in 2004. Rabbi Jacobs gives up on calling himself orthodox.

‘It would be ridiculous for someone with my views to lay claim to Othodoxy,’ he admits, ‘Honesty compels me,’ he writes, ‘to define my position as Masorti.’ In part he claims this is because orthodoxy had shifted radically to behind the drawbridge, and that is certainly true, but I think there is something else.


Over 50 years, I believe, Louis has been contaminated by his engagement in history, and the interaction with real people with their real problems and honestly held heresies. And it’s seeped into him.

In 2004, Rabbi Jacobs admits something he denied in We Have Reason to Believe, written almost half a century earlier.

In 2004 Louis writes, ‘It is undeniable that a clear recognition of the human development of Jewish practice and observance is bound to produce a somewhat weaker sense of allegiance to the minutiae of Jewish law.’


I would agree, in part; weaker allegiance to the minutiae, but not necessarily weaker in terms of meeting God’s will for us, God’s people.

Here’s a story.

I was speaking to Rabbi Jackie Tabick, the first woman ordained as Rabbi in the United Kingdom. She was at Leo Baek College doing courses without a view towards ordination, when it was Rabbi Louis Jacobs who, she said, encouraged her to become ordained.

I don’t mean to make the claim that Louis wanted to be part of a religious community where female Rabbis worked personally, but he believed in the possibility, in the potential, the ‘kashrut,’ of female Rabbis.


On the one hand one can say, ‘how terrible that he was contaminated by his experiences of modernity to that extent.’

On the other hand one can say, and I do, ‘how wonderful, that Louis’ sensitivity to humanity in its enormous breadth and in the way the narrative of the human story unfolds from one generation to another, opened his eyes to possibilities not known in the books he knew so well.’

I think, there is a place in the evolution of Louis’ thought and that of the community he led for so many years, that finds its justification in the lives of its people, not the edict of its books.

And that has always been the case.

There are many new challenges that face us, the issue of egalitarianism principally. Same-sex marriages is another example.

We need to face them with a courage to hold both a fidelity to God’s will and an understanding of the lived realities of this community.


One last point.

I want to return to the way in which a cool, scientific analysis of the major trend of the last 50 years in world, and certainly Anglo-Jewry, suggests that the right way to go is to draw up the drawbridge, exclude the heretics, and propagate a pure more fundamentalist approach to religion.


And that’s this.

Never give up.

Rabbi Jacobs never gave up. Never stopped teaching what he believed to be true; even as he apologises in the 5th version of the preface to We Have Reason to Believe, for running through this all, one more time.

Even as, especially towards the end of his life, he came to believe that British Jewry just were not going to get the sort of nuanced perspective on Jewish life he offered.

We also need to refuse to give up.

We need to keep banging the drum.


Today, perhaps more than ever.

We live, increasingly, in a world that likes simple truths and clear distinctions.

We live, increasingly, in a world that finds nuance disreputable and contradiction unnerving.

We represent a different approach to the nature of truth; one that understands that extremes are, almost by their very nature, to be untrusted, one that understands that truth lies in a tension between tugs between different polarities.

We dare not yield ground to those who suggest that the way to truth lies by pursuing extremes. That’s horrifyingly dangerous.


Louis loved the tradition, and he loved the way in which tradition evolved and unfolded, and changed. More than anything else he loved that dynamic tension.

I’m going to finish with a Midrash, particularly suitable in this week where atrocities in Israel have so disturbed our hearts.


In the run up to the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, God calls Abraham to offer his son, his only son, the one he loves.

In Bereishit Rabbi Abraham plays dumb.

My son, I’ve two sons – Isaac who goes on to become father of Israel, and Ishmael, father of Arab nations.

My only son, they are both the only sons of their respective mothers,

And then comes this – the one I love?


Eet tachumin b’mai – he responds. Isn’t there the capacity in my heart to love both?

That’s our Torah. Loving and holding both.


Some things change, some stay the same.

We remain a community committed to understanding nuance, celebrating the individuality of its members,

We remain allergic to oversimplification and a sense that all of us should line up, somehow, in identical columns.

These are commitments that are important not only for the future of our own community, but of this poor beaten and bedraggled world.


And in this commitment we remain inspired, motivated and enormously grateful for the work of our founder, our Rabbi, my Rabbi, Louis Jacobs, may his memory always be for a blessing.


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