Monthly Archives: February 2021

Arthur Green- Judaism for the World

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea. Rabbi Professor Arthur Green, better known by his friends as Art, definitely fits into the first category. He has been working though and reworking his insights in version after version until it feels just right. One can start with his early essays of the 1970’s “The Role of Jewish Mysticism in a Contemporary Theology of Judaism,” Shefa Quarterly, (September 1978) and over the decades see each of his theological books as coming back to the same issues, in the same order, each time grappling from a different mood or venue.  In this volume, we see him breaking the pattern, in that he has reached a mountaintop position of making peace with his view of a God filled universe. This new book Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale UP: 2020) has a heartfelt divine warmth, full of faith and light, not the modernist abyss or struggling of the void of his other works.

I am not sure that Arthur Green needs a biographical introduction, but as a formality. Green is the Irving Brudnick Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Hebrew College and rector of the Rabbinical School, which he founded in 2004. Basically, he is the head of a non-denominational rabbinical school, which has the most students of any liberal rabbinical school, teaching them, davening with them, and offering himself as role model for Jewish spirituality. In this new book Judaism for the World: Reflections on God, Life, and Love (Yale UP: 2020), Art speaks as someone who is now molding others to enter the Rabbinate and Jewish communal life.

The book displays the answers that Art Green finds meaningful after years of calling himself a seeker or a radical. Now, he is the establishment, as the head of one of the America’s rabbinical seminaries offering answers. Beyond that, the book has moved beyond the provincialism of Neo-Hasidism “offering a universal response to the eternal human questions of who we are, why we exist, where we are going, and how to live.” Judaism for the World is a beautiful book giving a direction for finding the divine in life. In many ways, it is the book I would recommend to people as the place where to start with Art Green’s thought.

The book has three parts, homiletically entitled as Soul, Year, and World, corresponding to the Sefer Yetzirah coordinates. The first part, on the inward journey of the soul is where he gives his theological views. We find a presentation of a universal Neo-Hasidism that has moved beyond the Eastern European cultural forms, his views of prayer, love of God, and mitzvot, and excerpts from Green’s forthcoming spiritual commentary on the prayer book. The interview below focuses entirely on the first third of the book. In my opinion, this is where the faith, light, and warmth are located. 

The second part of the book, Year, is a series of essays covering the entire Jewish calendar of holidays. In these, Green reverts to his singsong of his thought process shown in prior books. He starts with the fundamentalism of his teenage years, his leaving it, discovering historic naturalism, in this case Theodore Gaster’s pagan origin of the Jewish holidays, turning to Kabbalah, then Hasidut, then Neo-Hasidut, then moving beyond it to his own contemporary spirituality. He did this at times in the first part also, but overall, the first part gave an impression of Art Green today. Here in section two, however, we must recapitulate his journey as we did in Radical Judaism and his other books. At this point, however, no one thinks Green is 1950’s Orthodoxy, Wissenschaft, or even a literal reading of Hasidism; he does not have to remind us. Green should publish a book just from the material in the first part, without the journey. Just clean pure lines of his current views, which is what I tried to create in this interview.  A book entitled “A Judaism of Love.”

The third part of the book, the largest, does not have the unity of the prior sections, in that it is eleven essays of various strengths. The section opens with two complementary essays on creation theology and the environment. Then, we have several incidental speeches of Green on social issues and American Jewish Life, including one “American Jews after Pittsburgh” and the other an “American Letter to Israel.” These deserve their own discussion on his vision of an ethical liberal Jewish America of values and religiosity, which in his words, runs “countercultural” to political, economic, and ethnic definitions of Judaism.  We are also treated to a twenty-five-page intellectual autobiography, which should be compared to the more direct and detailed sixty-page version that Green gave as testimony to the oral history of the Jewish counter-culture project.

The final essay is a graduation speech to his Rabbinical school (larger incoming class than any other liberal seminary campus), exhorting the new rabbis to have love of God, love of Torah, and love of Israel. It is a speech that should be given to all rabbis. A version of it is available online. This talk shows Arthur Green as a Rabbinic leader and molder of the future of American Jewry.

The rabbi as devotee should begin each day with a prayer of gratitude for the great privilege (and responsibility) of serving as spiritual guide to others. 

Our tradition calls us to a devotional life of great simplicity.  We worship throughout the year by such acts as waving branches, blowing horns, lighting candles, living in huts, eating crackers.  Of course these have to be the right branches, the right horns, the right huts, and the right crackers, each on the proper day of the year.  But they are still acts of utter simplicity, and we must take care that this simplicity not get lost amid the welter of details about how to do them “right.”  They are there to show us how the most ordinary of human deeds may become filled with holiness, invoking God’s presence, causing us to bow down in awe while our hearts fill up with joy.  Openness to this devotional life is essential to the rabbi, as it should be to every Jew, to every human being.

Rabbis are great lovers!  (But I do not recommend that bumper sticker for your synagogue parking lot!)… The Ba ‘al Shem Tov said that his soul had come into the world because of three loves: the love of God, the love of Torah, and the love of all Israel. But the real test of love lies in our ability to generously and unselfishly love people.  Yes, that continues to mean loving Jews in a special way, because that is the community we are here to serve.  There is no being a rabbi without becoming comfortable with that.  We are here to be leaders of the Jewish people.  We are here to stand up for the best of our tradition’s moral teachings, and to guide Jews toward them.  When our community turns away from those values, the failing is ours; we have not succeeded in our role as leaders

For us as Jews, God’s love is manifest in a special way, in the form of teachings.  “You so loved our ancestors,” we say each morning in Ahavah Rabbah, “that You became their Teacher.  Give us that same grace; be our Teacher as well.”  We rabbis, as faithful students of divine teaching, are here to help share it with others, to pass on the teaching – and the love.  God shows us love through the act of teaching.  We spend our lives learning to do the same.  In a sense, love is all we have to offer: our love of God, of Judaism, and of Jews.  The Judaisms motivated by authority, by fear, and by guilt are all gone for most Jews.  All we have is love.  

In sum, this book is an important statement of Green’s theological vision, which at the same time is accessible to the lay reader. Dealing with many themes, the book allows a first time reader of Green to get a solid overview of his thought, his journey, and his personality. As I said above, I would still want a short 65K word book from Green called “A Judaism of Love” with just his current conclusion on divine unity; he would need a strong editor to make it happen.

This interview is part one of two parts. The second part will be on the set of books A New Hasidism discussing his views of Neo-Hasidism, past, present, and future. I will probably give my comments and critiques in a follow-up post.

Rabbi Arthur Green Interview

  1. Can you explain your basic concept of the Oneness of the divine manifest through all things?

From the time I first read (in Hillel Zeitlin) about  a mysterious inner Naught (ayin) that was the substratum of all existence, present  within each extant being, I instinctively knew it to be true.  That is to say that it corresponds to my own inner experience of what reality is, something that has never left me.  If you choose, you may glorify it by such a term as “natural mysticism,” but that feels much too grandiose for me.  I had taken a college course on the pre-Socratics, and had been impressed already then by Thalus’s “All is water.”  When I read just a bit about cosmic origins and the Big Bang, the sense that all matter throughout the universe is “stardust,” all from that same source, moved me deeply. 

The sense that the real work of Judaism, as a spiritual path, was to be “seekers of unity,” dorshey yiḥudekha, immediately linked itself to that sense of discovering and celebrating the underlying oneness of existence.

I believe that there is only One.  Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that there is only One. That One embraces, surrounds, and fills all the infinitely varied forms that existence has taken and ever will take.  We Jews call out that truth twice daily in reciting Shema‘ Yisra’el, “Hear, O Israel.”  “Y-H-W-H is One” means that there is none other. Our daily experience of variety, separate identity, and alienation of self from other renders an incomplete and ultimately misleading picture of reality.

Of course I understood that the personification of that unity, yiḥud, into a God-figure was the work of the collective human mythic imagination, manifest in all its multiple forms.  But is its very animation, the view of that inner One as an active force, also myth?  There I was forced to admit (reading bits of Cassirer, Tillich, Neumann, and others) that the line between the mythic mind and the ancient truth that it seeks to garb in its narrative is quite impossible to draw.  (See #3 below.)

2. Can you explain your ideas of universalizing and de-anthropomorphizing. This is important in that you have moved on from directly accepting Hasidut, even as Neo-hasidut to now a universalizing of the ideas.

From its inception, neo-Hasidism understood the obligation to universalize.  This was present in both of the key founding figures of neo-Hasidism as a religious ideology (as opposed to a literary/artistic trope), Buber and Zeitlin.  It certainly is true of Heschel as well, who (in Zeitlin’s footsteps) is trying to articulate a Jewish phenomenology of what it means to be a religious human being.  I very much stand in their tradition. 

This stands in sharp contrast to the Yitzhak Ginzburgh version of neo-Hasidism, that picks up many of the most awful defensive and chauvinist passages in the Hasidic corpus and extends them into our very different context, where they come out as blatant racism.  Neo-Hasidism, almost by definition, involves selection from within the Hasidic tradition, and the wisdom of that selection process is what makes all the difference.

Regarding de-anthropomorphizing: Living and thinking in our very psychology-soaked era, it was clear to me quite early that all our images of God were human projections.  Discovering that Maimonides already understood this, and that one had to get beyond them in order to establish a pure God-idea (which I then existentially translated into “a true relationship with God”), was liberating to me. 

The little article I did on “The Children in Egypt and the Theophany at the Sea” (1975) was critical in this; there I tried to show that the roots of such an awareness might occasionally be found even in the rabbinic sources.  Once you admit that our images of God depend upon the needs of the hour (“At the sea He appeared to them as a youth; at Sinai as an elder” – בים נראה להם כבחור, בסיני נראה להם כזקן), all the rest follows.The source to which I refer here will be familiar to many readers from its inclusion in the synagogue’s An‘im Zemirot.  Just like the author of that hymn, I have underscored my awareness that this is all “appearance,” I feel free to let my mythic imagination create freely – though I would probably not “re-mythologize” as wildly as he did.

For a long time (some decades, into mid-life), I felt that the projected images were a burden.  In particular, the fixation of Judaism on parental and royal imagery for the divine kept us trapped in an infantile relationship to Y-H-W-H, which I already understood as the breath of all life or the inner spirit of existence itself.  The discovery of that sort of divinity-within-all should be a liberating, exciting, and utterly joyous process/event.  But how can we open ourselves to those emotions, if we are ensconcing that Spirit in the garb of a forbidding, commanding, and guilt-producing father figure?  I look back on my 18 year-old rejection of such a deity as a personal redemption from my own bondage, yetsi’at mitsrayim, and remain ever wary of such religion.

With age, I have becoming more forgiving of the human need to personify, in order to relate in a way that involves heart as well as mind.  I was influenced by my encounter with R. Nahman, who insisted that the spiritual path demands that you burrow through your emotional tangle, in order to uplift and transform that part of you, in contrast to the classic ḤaBaD and Maimonidean position of trying to transcend it and deal directly with the detached contemplative mind. 

I also saw the moral implications of personification (“Just as He is gracious and compassionate, so should you…” etc.) and the need for it in the assertion of Judaism’s core moral claim, that each human being is an image of God.  For that, a degree of personification is required. 

And if one is going to allow for that, do it richly, letting the mythic imagination take its course – as long as you remain aware that that is what you’re doing.  I have found my study of the Zohar tremendously helpful in that.  I can allow the One to manifest as Father and King, as long as it is also manifest as Queen and Mother, as Stream and Lake, as Mountain and Sea, etc. The chapter on the sefirot in my Guide to the Zohar, while written as intellectual history, is also directly tied to my theological project.

The Kabbalist understands the sefirot (read: “symbols”) as a bridge that links and allows for communication between the infinite God and the finite human mind.  So do I.  The seemingly great difference is that they see God as the builder of that bridge, while I think it is a human product.  But when you’re walking across a bridge, the question “Who built this bridge?” is not one you always have to answer.

3. How does divine oneness call us? If God language is personal creation, how to hear the call of the Divine oneness as real?

I do not know a God who speaks in human language.  I recall Heschel, in one of his more Maimonidean moments, saying in class (I am quoting from memory): “What does it mean to say ‘God speaks?’  Does God have a larynx?  Does God have a voice box?”

The essence of revelation, for me, lies in the single word “Where are You?” ayekah, spoken to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, repeated as the “I am,” anokhi, of Sinai.  That word is “spoken,” or “addressed,” to each human being from within, if we open ourselves to hear it.  It is an instinctive call, not unrelated to other instincts, but unique to humans because of the development of the brain, making for the human “soul” as well.  This “voice” says: “Human being! Ben Adam! Who are you?  What are you doing here, for this instant of evolutionary time in which you live?  ‘Whence did you come and where are you going?’  What’s the purpose of it all? Figure it out!”  (For us more complicated and potentially jaded types, that divine command also includes “Defy absurdity!”)

Most human beings spend their lives ignorant of that inner voice, being too busy, struggling for daily bread and psychological survival, to pay it any mind.  Many others live in active flight from it, with its great implied demands.  Religions were created in order to protect us from that voice as well as to make us aware of it, to provide safe and ready-made “answers” to its great question.

All the rest of Torah, both written and oral, ongoing in its evolution to this day, is our Jewish attempt – our version of the great human attempt – to respond to that “Where are you?” and “I am.”

Ah, you will say.  But aren’t you a monist?  Can a monist possibly say that the Torah is human and not divine in origin?  If it is created by the human soul, isn’t that the divine “voice” within the person as well?  How can a monist make such distinctions?

“Yes, you’re right,” I will respond.  There is only One.

4. Can you explain our need for ego transcendence? What is our relationship to the transcendent, awareness-daat?

I remain Heschel’s student, despite my great distance from him on the personhood issue.  Shai Held is right in saying that self-transcendence is a key concept in Heschel, as it is to me. For Heschel, that self-transcendence means submission to the will and moral demand of a personal force.  To me it means submission to a personified oneness and wholeness of Being (Y-H-W-H), of which we are a part.

‘‘Transcendence’’ in the context of my faith does not refer to a God ‘‘out there’’ or ‘‘over there’’ somewhere beyond the universe, since I do not know the existence of such a ‘‘there.’’ Transcendence means rather that Y-H-W-H—or Being—is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the profundity of  that  presence. Transcendence thus dwells within immanence.    Transcendence is first and foremost an epistimological truth, as it mostly is for Maimonides.  I make no ontological claim for it.  There is no ultimate duality here, no ‘‘God and world,’’ no ‘‘God, world, and self,’’ but only one Being and its many faces – including our own.

In some part, it was Zalman Schachter who saved Judaism for me, when he said, so simply: “Judaism is a  devotional path,” in his Yiddish original: Yiddishkeyt is a derekh in avoide.  That devotion was precisely what I was looking for: something higher/deeper to which I could dedicate my life.  “I am a servant of the blessed Holy,” ana ‘avda de-kudsha brikh hu, never fails to touch me.

Devotion and service is what it is all about for us ḥasidim and neo-ḥasidim, for us Heschelians and neo-Heschelians.  To say that back in biblical language: “You shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.”  I stand in the awesome presence of the Cosmic One and say to it: “I am here to serve.”  I even feel called upon by the Cosmic One to serve in awe and in love. Avodat ha-shem itself transcends all theological explanations. Note my literal translation of the Zohar line above.  I seek a life of service to “the blessed Holy,” rather than the more conventional “the Holy One, blessed be He” –which then turns out to be yet another version of the Old Fellow in the sky.

This sense of ego-transcendence is tricky, but of special importance, in my sort of religion.  I understand the discovery of Y-H-W-H as a journey inward, rather than upward.  It is in the deepest heart of the person that the One is revealed.  But I am very much aware that this emphasis on inwardness can end up in a solipsism.  Especially in our very self-gratification-oriented culture, this is a constant danger. 

Bookstores too often have a “spirituality and self-help” section.  But “self-help” is the antithesis of what I mean by spirituality!  The journey inward is to take us to a place where the individual ego-self gives way to the cosmic Self that is manifest within each of us.  It forces us to realize the greater truth that the One I discover within is found in all the others as well.  This is how I read “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Y-H-W-H.”  The demand to love your neighbor comes from your discovery that you are both outward manifestations – I would even say “incarnations” – of the same universal spirit.

5. What is faith? What is the role in faith of being aware and self -articulation to the One?

The distinction between “faith” and “belief” is one I originally learned from reading Buber and Tillich.  Unfortunately, Hebrew lacks a distinction between them; both are rendered by emunah.  In Tormented Master, I already contrasted R. Nahman’s emunah with that of Maimonides.  The RaMBaM meant “credence” in emunah.  “I believe in the following propositions.”  I recognize that “belief” is less certain than “knowledge” that can be rationally demonstrated, but I stand by them anyway.  For R. Nahman, emunah is on the greater, rather than lesser, side of rational knowledge; it is an existential stance, something I can express only with my entire self, and for which I would give my life.  Such faith can never be proven, only witnessed.  The way we live our lives is our testament to that faith.  I have tried.

6. How do we “know God” in prayer.

“Know” doesn’t feel like the right word here.  We pay attention to Y-H-W-H in prayer.  We leave behind the bustle of exterior life and open ourselves to the divine presence that is there within-and-around us always (sovev u-memale), but which we’re usually too preoccupied to notice.  I will repeat here my favorite of the many prayer-insights of Hasidism, one that has stayed with me for a long time.  R. Pinhas of Korzec: “People think you pray to God, but that is not the case.  Rather prayer itself is of the divine essence.”  The words of prayer are the occasion for, the background music to, the opening of the heart. 

Maimonides begins his list of commandments with “knowing God.”  Worship only comes after that.  The Introduction to the Zohar switches the order (if I’m remembering rightly).  Love and awe come first; it is they that lead to da‘at.  The Hasidic Me’or ‘Eynayim, which I have loved, taught, and translated for so many years, makes it clear that from the human point of view, as we ascend the sefirotic ladder, that it is indeed the opening of the heart – especially in prayer – that allows one to come to da‘at, in its full biblical sense.

7. What is your concept of mitzvah, or being commanded by the Oneness of the Divine?

I do believe that there is a divine imperative.  It is completely contained in the word ayekah or anokhi, as discussed above.  That inner voice calls out “Know Me!  Be aware!  See yourself as a tiny link in this great evolutionary journey that I have entered, and do your part!”  A second part of that command is “Share that awareness with others!  Help this awareness to spread through the human community, so that we all discover that we are part of the single Soul!”

We can find nice Jewish language for this (you see how important that quest is for me!) in the Talmudic statement that we only heard two commandments directly from God, mi-pi ha-gevurah, “I am” and “I come to liberate you,” and therefore “Worship nothing else!”  They contain the entire teaching.

All the rest are the great blessing that our tradition, beginning with Moses, created for us, a wonderful set of vessels, kelim, to capture and contain the great light of divine presence.  If you like, you may say that I give precedence to the secondary meaning of mitsvah widely found in Hasidic sources, deriving it from the Aramaic tsavta, “togetherness.”  The mitsvah is a place, moment, occasion, where we have the opportunity to be together with that presence.

Mitsvah is carried out through a process called halakhah, which derives from “walking” and should be understood as a “path,” a way to walk through the world.  I very much regret its transposition into “law.” (Already, in the Septuagint’s rendered of torah, “teaching,” as nomos). Since I do not believe that transgressors of halakhah should be punished, either by God or by man, I cannot think of it as legally binding in the way law is binding. (I refer here to ritual, rather than ethical, obligations).  I understand it as a personal discipline that Jews may choose to take upon themselves to one degree or another, without judgment.  I believe such a discipline is valuable in one’s spiritual path, and I follow a good deal of it, quite happily, but out of loving choice, rather than out of legal obligation.

8. How does divine law become ever fashioned anew?

I understand that fashioning to take place within the ongoing evolutionary process.  This includes cultural and religious, as well as biological, evolution.  As a person who has given much of my life to the handing down of tradition, I hope that my students, and theirs, will receive a Judaism that is richer because of my having been here and added to it for this brief moment of my life.  That is the great privilege of engaging in a living oral tradition, torah shebe-‘al peh

The recognition that 611 of the 613 commandments are of Mosaic  (i.e. human) rather than heavenly origin, implies a chance of fallibility.  Even Moses (or “the biblical authors,” if you prefer) was shaped by the values and attitudes of his day. Because I love the set of tools tradition has given us, I am very loyal to them, and choose to live in accord with patterns they provide.  But there are exceptions to this, when my moral conscience demands.  Thus the Torah’s prescriptions regarding the status of women or with regard to the act of love between two men are no longer in effect in my Torah.  I understand them as reflecting the ethos of the ancient Near Eastern world in which the Torah was created.  So too the awful genocidal writ with regard to the Midianites and all the  prescribed slaughter of the seven Canaanite nations.

You will ask, of course, where this “moral conscience” comes from.  Isn’t it just an introjection of contemporary Western values, which you are then placing on a high pedestal than the Torah?  I reject that argument.  Our sages had a notion that Torah stands on an overriding principle, klal gadol.  Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azzai debated what it was.  Akiva proposed “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Ben Azzai objected, preferring “On the day God created humans, He fashioned them in the divine image; male and female he created them.” (TY, Nedarim 6:9; I am assuming he intended the full verse.)  In that case, any other mitsvah needs to pass the test offered by the klal gadol.  Does this practice diminish or degrade the divine image of some group of human beings?  If it does, it simply can’t be Torah.  We are forced to reinterpret those verses, just as Jews have always done.  But I emphasize that this principle must be invoked carefully and conservatively, only when I find no moral alternative.

9. How can a liberal Jew bring back parashat ha-ketoret, and kiur, even Orthodox Jews rarely say them?

WHAT???  You mean there are Jews who call themselves “Orthodox” and do not say the ketoret every day?  I’m SHOCKED!  How DARE they call themselves “Orthodox!” Or, in other words: “Orthodox, Schmorthodox.”  That nomenclature means nothing to me.  Each of us Jews is an heir to the entire tradition.  As heirs, yorshim, we have a right to decide what to do with the traditions we have inherited.  Which ones each of us chooses to keep and pass on, and which ones we either cast aside or leave for others, is up to us.  I believe that each of us adults must take responsibility for our own spiritual lives.  I have come to find daily saying the ketoret meaningful.  I have not found meaning in having my clothes checked for Shaatnez.  Yes, I know that the former is only a late-instituted custom, the latter is a Torah-written commandment, mitsvah de-oraita.  So sue me.  Tell me I’m not Orthodox; I’ll agree.  But don’t tell that I shouldn’t be saying parashat ha-ketoret,  (or even Pitum ha-ketoret which I don’t say – at least in a Rosenzweigian “not yet”), or can’t, because I’m not Orthodox.  Sure I can.

10. People who are close to you have noticed that you seem more traditional in the last few years? Any thoughts?

Yes, it’s true.  Somewhere around age 65, I said to myself “It’s time to grow up.  Enough of adolescent rebellion.  You’re too old for that.” The truth is that I was very deeply wounded by my neurotic and somewhat obsessive attraction to Judaism between the ages of 12 and 18.  A kid from an avowedly secular home, I discovered a book called The Code of Jewish Law, Kitsur Shulḥan ‘Arukh, and judged myself by its standards.  It took me a very long time, indeed several decades, to recover.  When I did, I said “But this is the way you want to live, isn’t it?”  That allowed me to become a rather consistently observant Jew, though doing things my own way.

As I age, gratitude grows as an essential part of my devotional life.  I have now just about completed a commentary on the siddur that I have been working on for over twenty years, and am preparing it for publication.  Some readers of Radical Judaism will be surprised by its pious tone, and I believe that has to do with a mellowing that is related to the aging process.

11. This book is divine warmth, full of faith and light, not the abyss and the void  You seem to have much less of Rav Nachman’s empty void and much less doubt. Have you moved more to a personal God filled universe to replace Rav Nachman’s paradox and void?

Yes, that’s very perceptive.  I wrote about R. Nahman in my 30’s, but then I mostly left him behind.  He was just too “Tormented” to serve as a spiritual guide for.  I also felt that he was implicated in what became Breslov, where the claim is that by crying out and reciting the 10 Psalms every day, you could redeem yourself from sin.  That would be attractive to a personality that was obsessed with sin.  I found that there was a sense of “wallowing” in guilt and atonement – despite all the calls for joy and the promises of redemption– that was an essential component of Breslov.  I wanted no part of it.  Instead, I turned to the Me’or ‘Eynayim, and through him back to the BeSHT, for a much healthier and more holistic sort of Jewish spirituality. The turn from the Void to the “God filled universe” as you so aptly put it, is directly a part of that.

12. Many falsely seek to connect your thought to that of Mordecai Kaplan or even to a naturalism without a God. How are you more a student of Heschel than of anyone else?

For those who don’t know, I was a student of Abraham Joshua Heschel, not Mordecai Kaplan.  Despite the significant degree to which I move beyond Heschel, that very much remains the case.  For Kaplan, as I understand him, religion is at its core a social phenomenon, a society’s way of articulating and keeping faith with its highest values.  Despite Mel Scult’s impressive efforts to present the seeker and poet in Kaplan, I think this socio-civilizational approach, with Jewish peoplehood at the center of the circle, is bedrock Kaplan. 

Bedrock Heschel, for me, are the first hundred pages of God in Search of Man, describing religion as being about the inner life, “depth theology,” as he calls it.  Religion, in this case Judaism, exists in order to offer a set of tools for the cultivation of that inwardness, rather than serving primarily as a social phenomenon or a projection of communal values.  The essential way-stations in Heschel’s inward journey, and mine, are wonder and mystery, awe and love. The Jewish people is an entity that shares this ancient legacy of spiritual language, one that both Hasidism, Heschel’s  entry-place to Judaism, and mine, neo-Hasidism, seek to revive. 

I share with Heschel a concern about the secularization of consciousness in our modern and post-modern world, a loss of the sense of mysterious profundity of life, the loss of values like reverence and humility that are inspired by an openness to that profundity.  I rejoice in the fact that the questions Heschel raises there are universal, reaching far beyond Judaism into an examination of what it means to be a religious human being, in the broadest sense.  I also share his assertion that our response to the perception of divine presence in the world has to an activist one, working to create a human society in which the divine image is respected in every human being, and where malkhut Shaddai will be realized in a way that means shedai le-khol beriotav, the more equal sharing of wealth and resources among the needy.  This is ever more true today, as we face the potential devastation of our planet’s natural resources, due to human greed and over-consumption on the part of us privileged ones. Seeing inwardness and the individual’s quest as the core of religion does not lean toward a turning aside from social responsibility and religion’s great power to transform the world for good.  Toward this goal, alliance with other such progressive religious forces in the world is a necessity, and Heschel took a lead in that as well.

Although I, like Heschel, ground my theology in the testimony of inner experience, I diverge from him precisely on our question for today, reformulated as “What do you mean when you say Y-H-W-H?”  I turn to the Hebrew rather than the English term because I have no particular investment in defending use of the word “G-O-D,” deriving as it does from the Anglo-Saxon version of ancient Germanic tongues, stemming from the language of European paganism.  But the shem havayah does have ultimate meaning for me. My theology may rightly be described as a mystical and monistic panentheism.  While committed to many elements of traditional religious language, I am ultimately a monist;  I seek to understand the Jewish faith in one God as pointing beyond itself toward the ultimate oneness of all being. 

 Heschel needs there to be a divine voice that comes from beyond the mystery, a transcendent declaration of love and call to action.  For him, the ultimate needs to be personal, and vice versa.  He needed that because he feared the indifference of an abstract God. For me, it is from within the ‘av he-‘anan, rather than from beyond it, that I feel myself called.  To say it differently, I believe that there is a deep monistic stream within Jewish mystical thought, one that lies hidden behind the face of the religious personalism that had been inherited from earlier eras.  Ours is an age, I believe, when that understanding of Judaism needs to be taken “out of the closet.”

Recently an undergraduate at Yeshiva University mentioned me to one of his teachers there, asking whether he should read me, and was told: “Green is nothing but Kaplan with a Shtreimel.”  I rather enjoyed that. Just the thought of it…  I imagine that characterization goes back to Rabbi Daniel Landes’ somewhat nasty review of my Radical Judaism.

Hillel Zeitlin once argued that Spinoza saw the world as a machine immutably governed by the laws of nature, but the Ba‘al Shem Tov saw this same world as an ongoing work of art, with God as the Artist/Creator ever fashioning it anew. I stand within this tradition of my Hasidic and neo-Hasidic forebears.

Harry Freedman— Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Decades ago, I visited Louis Jacobs in his London home in order to meet him and to ask him if he had any understandings of Rabbi Zadok Hakohen of Lublin to share. Jacobs, wearing a three-piece tweed suit in June, invited me up to his study, offering me a cup of tea in bone china cup with saucer. We had a long conversation on many topics. He had nothing to proffer regarding my queries concerning Rabbi Zadok or about Hasidism. However, he spent much of the time telling me how he does not understand the American Conservative movement allowing women rabbis, or even an egalitarian service. Jacobs had a ready screed about how his wife, Shula would not want to be part of an egalitarian service and he did not see the need for any egalitarian changes. He emphatically emphasized that the important issues were about a reasonable faith and freedom of thought, not egalitarianism, which he called “wooly”. He presented himself as a traditional rabbi, who liked the high church of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy but felt that not enough attention was given to intellectual matters.

I was pleased, therefore, when a biography of Rabbi Louis Jacobs was published last month by Harry Freedman, Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs (Bloomsbury: Continuum, January 2021). Harry Freedman is Britain’s leading author of popular works of Jewish culture and history. His publications include The Talmud: A Biography, & Kabbalah. He has written for the GuardianJewish Chronicle, Jewish Quarterly, and Judaism Today.

The book Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs was well researched and well written. I read the entire book in a single sitting on a long winter Friday night evening. Freedman was given access to the voluminous files, scrapbooks, memorabilia, and newspaper clipping saved by Jacob’s wife Shula. She had attempted to save every program, lecture poster, handout, itinerary, and newspaper mention. In addition, Freedman, a solid researcher did extensive research in archives for letters and memorandum relating to Jacobs. For all this work, Freedman has produced a wonderful biography of Jacobs rich in detail and stories providing the best introduction to Rabbi Jacobs as a Rabbinic figure. No one should write or speak about Jacobs without reading this book first. Even if you think you already know enough about Jacobs, this book gives you the wider angle lens on an important 20th century rabbi.

Freedman presents Jacobs as a young rabbi from Gateshead with great potential who turned down more Eastern European pulpits such as Golders Green for a high church formal synagogue in which he played the role of a traditional Anglo-Jewry rabbi wearing canonicals and officiating over a synagogue with a choir. Here, Louis Jacobs and his wife Shula, became deeply loved by the congregants and in return he loved them. He was an ideal pulpit rabbi dedicated to ministering to his congregation and giving classes on timely issues. Some of these lectures were pushing the limits of conventional United Synagogue Orthodox, especially when they were written up in book form.

Jacobs had a quest for truth, He held traditional attitudes but assumed he had enough intellectual latitude to focus on foundational questions of what can be verified based on 1950’s philosophy as his life’s goal. For example, the 1950’s philosophy of the analytic philosophers, Ayer, Flew, Hick taught that the existence of God cannot be verified. For Jacobs, mysticism, and specific Jewish mysticism, offers an empirical way to ground belief in a theistic God, even if Jacobs himself had no interest in practicing anything associated with Hasidism. (This topic has not been sufficiently discussed in prior scholarship on Jacobs, I may give a talk on it someday).

However, his lectures on the origins of the Bible got Jacobs embroiled in controversy for the rest of his life. Jacobs assumed that being an Orthodox rabbi meant following the Orthodox rite, but it allowed him full intellectual attitude, the way Anglican clergy followed the formal Anglican rite but should have full intellectual latitude. His congregation was a high social class congregation with government officials, financiers, and authors was expected to have latitude and be different than the more working class congregations of Eastern European immigrants in other neighborhoods.

Bear in mind, that at that time in Britain there was never a divide between Orthodox and Conservative movements, and that Jews College had formerly had a graduate of the historical oriented Breslau seminary as its head and that learning in Jews College was generally historical in orientation. United Synagogue observance levels, especially in the wealthier neighborhoods, were similar to 1950’s New York Conservative congregation.

Jacobs’ friend William Frankel, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, suggested to Jacobs that he move from pulpit life to teaching at Jews College, the seminary for British rabbis, as a means of having more intellectual freedom. Life did not go that way. The move generated more controversy and Jacobs could not stay at Jews College, but the United Synagogue under Chief Rabbi Brodie would not let him return to the helm of his prior synagogue. At that point, his congregants broke away and started a new congregation for him, outside of the United Synagogue system, which he presided over for the rest of his career.

Whereas most discussion of the Jacobs controversy globalized the issue into big ideological questions of the entire trajectories of the Orthodox and Conservative movements or big questions about Biblical criticism, this book returns the discussion to a specific man, his teachings, and his relationship to a specific number of colleagues and superiors. Jacobs as man, was a rabbi with a bee in his bonnet about his views of Biblical criticism. One gets to see how Jacobs brought up the topic of Biblical criticism even when teaching Talmud or Hasidut. I was especially struck by his review of Nechama Leibowitz as only good for a devotional study since she does not mention Biblical criticism. On the other hand, his friend Frankel used the power of the paper to float ideas of how Jacobs could spearhead a liberal change to the United Synagogue, especially if he were eventually to become chief rabbi. The contingency of the events comes out in a way prior discussion elides by focusing on big ideological questions.   

Most of the book is dedicated to Jacobs the rabbi. We seen him responding to the events of the day, we see him running adult education programs, we see him on multiple speaking tours to the USA, we see him getting job offers for his works on Talmud and Hasidut from multiple American universities such as Dartmouth and Indian, and we see him giving eulogies, for example for the Beatles manager Brian Epstein with the Beatles and various rock stars in attendance. Unfortunately, we also feel his pain when he is unable to formally officiate at weddings after the controversy. Most of all we see Jacobs as a prolific writer with almost twenty academic books and popular articles every week.  Interestingly, Freedman find a letter where Rabbi Soloveitchik expressed a not very high opinion of Jacobs.

A few caveats on the book. People and places are not introduced for the uninformed reader.  If you do not know who someone is or where a London address is located, you may be a bit disoriented. A reader needs to know about the West End and Golders Green, as well as who William Frankel, Chaim Perl, or Rabbi Dessler are, before reading the book. Epithets needed to be added throughout and even a few short paragraphs of introduction to places, ideas, and people. Topics like Jews College, Anglo-Jewish custom and the United Synagogue needed a few paragraph introductions for those not in the UK. Finally, as a focused biography, Freeman stuck tightly to his subject and did not contextualize Jacobs in his predecessors in Anglo-Jewish life such as Herbert Loewe whom Jacobs quoted approvingly for his definition of Orthodoxy. But do not let these trifles stop you from reading this book.  

The book is worth it just for the archives of ephemera about Jacobs life. But Freedman does not stop at that point, he skillfully wove this material together in a very readable narrative for the lay person. A biography highly recommended for a winter’s evening and for furthering discussion of a controversial figure. A well-done achievement, splendid, bully for Freedman.

I have blogged about Anglo-Jewish tradition, the high church Victorian version of a modernized Orthodoxy. I also a number of years ago gave a talk on the topic at LIMMUD-UK  comparing it to American patterns. See here on Herbert Loewe’s Anglo Orthodoxy, here on Rev Abraham Cohen, editor of the Soncino Bible, here on Isadore Epstein editor of the Soncino Talmud, here on RabbI JH Hertz on the Aggadah, and here on Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits (I wrote this one up as an article). On Louis Jacobs specifically, here are my thoughts whether Jacobs views on the Bible could have been accepted, especially since his views were close to Jacob Agus.


  1. How did you come to this project?

I had known Rabbi Louis Jacobs for almost all of my life. He had grown up alongside my father in Manchester and they and their future wives were active together in Torah v’Avodah, a Mizrachi-sponsored youth movement during the 1930s and 1940s. I became particularly close to Rabbi Jacobs when I was appointed Chief Executive of the Masorti movement in Britain, and I regarded him as my rabbi. He had a captivating combination of profound learning and great personal charm.

I have been friendly with his son Ivor Jacobs for many years and we agreed that as his father’s 100th birthday approached it would be appropriate to publish his biography. My publisher at Bloomsbury, who had previously published Jacobs’s A Jewish Theology, was enthusiastic and the project evolved from there.

2. If Jacobs was never really a candidate for Chief Rabbi, and it was not his aspiration, should we retire the canard that he was the best chief rabbi Britain never had?

One of the favorite themes of the Jewish press in Britain, and a frequent topic of conversation around many Jewish dinner tables, is the question of who would become the next Chief Rabbi. Jacobs wrote prolifically and lectured widely; he was a consummate communicator. Even as a young man he was widely touted as a prospective Chief Rabbi and the assumption that he would be appointed to the post grew as he matured at the New West End. Jacobs however never expressed any ambition to be chief rabbi. He said that if he had wanted the position, he would have been foolish to resign his pulpit at the New West End in order to take an academic post at Jews’ College, the institution that trained Anglo- Orthodox ministers.

Jews’ College had always been seen as a liberal minded institution within orthodoxy, but its use of the term ‘ministers’ rather than ‘rabbis’ indicate its priorities. It was not particularly concerned with Talmudic erudition, its role was to train pastors who would minister to the spiritual needs of a largely unobservant centrist orthodoxy. Jacobs took the Jews’ College post with the ambition of becoming its Principal. He wanted to widen the curriculum to incorporate more intensive Talmudic study as well as a greater awareness among the student body of academic biblical criticism. His ambition was to train a generation of open minded, secularly educated, Talmudically literate scholars who were both ministers and rabbis, who were able, as he was, to excel in both the yeshiva and the academy.

He was held in very high esteem by the Jewish community at large, including several of his rabbinic colleagues, who supported him and spoke up for him when the Jacobs Affair broke out. Even if he did not have an ambition to become Chief Rabbi, the popular assumption – encouraged by the Jewish Chronicle- was that he would be appointed to the post. He was a man of great personal integrity and deep loyalty to British Jewry; had he been approached he would almost certainly have taken the job, even if it were against his better judgement.

Had Jacobs been appointed to the post, his learning and personality would almost certainly have led to become an outstanding Chief Rabbi, one who would have stood up to the encroaching ultra-orthodox influence on centrist United Synagogue orthodoxy. So, it is probably right to describe as the phrase “Best chief rabbi we never had” as correct, even though it was not an appointment he craved.

3. What role did William Frankel play in creating the controversy?

William Frankel, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, felt that British Jewry was being held back by the conservatism of the United Synagogue rabbinate who, since the war, had fallen ever more deeply under the influence of right wing orthodoxy. He wanted to refresh British Jewry, to introduce new ideas and he saw the rabbi of his synagogue, Louis Jacobs as the man to do it.

Frankel used his newspaper to promote Jacobs in the public eye, getting him to write articles, opinion pieces and the anonymous, weekly Ask the Rabbi column. When it the Principal of Jews’ College neared retirement, Frankel led the campaign to have Jacobs appointed. When it became clear that the Chief Rabbi would not countenance Jacobs’s appointment, Frankel agitated strongly in his newspaper and stirred up public sympathy for Jacobs. He did the same when the Chief Rabbi later refused to allow Jacobs to return to his pulpit at the New West End Synagogue.

Frankel aspired to have Jacobs appointed as Chief Rabbi and it is likely that his campaigns were designed with this in mind. It is often conjectured that Frankel manipulated Jacobs, using him as a pawn in his grand strategy for British Jewry, encouraging him neither to back down in his theological views nor to seek a compromise. This view does justice to neither man. Jacobs was uncompromisingly committed to his theological position, he had plenty of opportunity to back down but refused to, because he prioritized truth over politics.

Frankel may have had a vision for British Jewry but his principal objective was to sell newspapers. Promoting Louis Jacobs had to come second to his commercial priorities.

4. When considering Jacob’s life, should we spend less time on the controversy between Jacobs and Rabbi Brodie? Why was he still in controversy until the end of his life?

The controversy established Jacobs in the public mind, but it distracted attention from his principal work which was to pursue his ‘Quest’; the discovery of Truth based on through scholarship and reason. The controversy pigeonholed Jacobs in the popular imagination as a man whose sole agenda was the question of Revelation. It has a place in the history of British Jewry and was important in framing the boundaries of authority in British orthodoxy, but Jacobs’s true legacy is his published oeuvre, not only theology, but also his other specialist subjects, Talmud, Mysticism and Hasidism.

The controversy may have presented as a battle between Jacobs and Brodie, but in practice it was a political struggle over who held authority over British orthodoxy, and the role of the United Synagogue, its Bet Din and Chief Rabbi as arbiters of what and was not permitted. This meant that United Synagogue rulings had to be acceptable to right wing orthodoxy. The United Synagogue was therefore always more severe in its pronouncements than the community expected.

The question played out primarily in the spheres of conversion and marriage. The London Bet Din refused to accept Jacobs’s conversions as valid and for a long time refused to recognize the halachic legitimacy of weddings carried out in his synagogue. This placed Jacobs, in orthodox eyes, on a par with a Reform rabbi, which was a matter of considerable anguish to his congregation who always regarded themselves as an independent orthodox congregation.

These political matters may have died down in time, had Jacobs not been a well-known public figure. The United Synagogue was always on the back foot regarding Jacobs, as far as the rest of the community concerned. Most members of the United synagogue were, at least in those days, only nominally orthodox. They preferred to attend a synagogue with traditional services because it reminded them of their childhood days, they would probably make kiddush on a Friday night, but they were rarely fully shabbat observant or fully kosher.

Jacobs, whose prolific writings appeared frequently in bookshops and in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle seemed to them to be the epitome of a down-to-earth, levelheaded English rabbi. They did not understand why he was outside the tent as far as their own rabbi and the United Synagogue was concerned. They could not understand why, if a future spouse of their one of children needed to convert, the process could not be led by Rabbi Jacobs, and they did not understand why their children’s weddings should not held in the attractive New London Synagogue with its mixed seating (for weddings only) and mixed choir.  

This, together with the continuing objections from Jacobs’s congregation to what they saw as discrimination, had the effect of making the United Synagogue far more critical publicly of Jacobs than they would have been had he just rolled over and gone away. The issue, as far as the United Synagogue rabbinate was concerned was always that of Torah from Heaven, it was Jacobs’s views on this which they presented as unanswerable proof of his illegitimacy. They were not interested in the historical nuances of the question, or whether Jacobs could cite, far better than they could, those significant Talmudic and medieval authorities who seemed to lend some credence to his argument.

The controversy was given fresh wind in the 1990s, after Masorti had been formed.  In October 1991 the President of the United Synagogue initiated a review to outline the organization’s priorities in the years ahead. Known as the Kalms Report, the review identified Masorti as far more successful than the United Synagogue in attracting new members. But it began to show cracks when Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks criticized Masorti as intellectual thieves in an ultra-orthodox newspaper, then telephoned Rabbi Jacobs to say he hadn’t meant him.

The struggle over religious authority persists today in British orthodoxy, but the United Synagogue is less dominant than it was and the community more pluralistic, so the tensions are somewhat eased.

5. It seems he was never really part of the British Masorti movement, is that correct? Why did he want to cling to the Orthodox affiliation? Was Rabbi Sacks correct that he was right wing Conservative? 

The British Masorti movement was founded by people who wanted to see a Conservative movement in Britain. Two of the three the founders, who included his son, were members of Jacobs’s New London Synagogue and it was clear to them that his theology should be that of the movement they hoped to start. They also believed that his theology and teachings should be promulgated more widely within British Jewry. So, it made sense to them that he be encouraged to head up a new Conservative/Masorti movement.

Rabbi Jacobs however was not enamored of the idea. He had grown up in Orthodoxy, been heavily involved with the religious Zionist movement Mizrachi and studied in elite strictly orthodox circles in the Gateshead kollel, alongside such luminaries as Rabbi Dessler. He considered himself to be an Orthodox rabbi and he did not believe that his theological interest in biblical criticism undermined the centrist orthodoxy then prevalent in Britain. His New London synagogue was founded by a breakaway from the orthodox New West End, and he and the congregation were in no doubt that they were an independent Orthodox synagogue. To his mind it was Orthodoxy which had changed, not he.

However, he did feel isolated in British Jewry and he did try to bring other synagogues into the New London orbit; not as a movement but as ‘like-minded’ communities. For a while it looked as if the Singers Hill synagogue in Birmingham and Garnethill synagogue in Glasgow would ally with the New London, but ultimately the membership of both congregations dissented.

So although he did not wish to create a movement he was not dismissive of those who did. When it was apparent that the Masorti movement was to be established (initially known as Masorati), he agreed to act as its spiritual guide. But his mantra was always ‘We are a mood, not a movement.’

It was Frankel who brokered the relationship between Jacobs and Wolfe Kelman, and with JTS more generally. Jacobs became close to the Conservative  movement in the USA, corresponding regularly with Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, and for a while he was in touch with Professor Finkelstein about taking up a position at JTS. I do not believe that he was particularly exercised by working in an academic Conservative institution; His interest was in truth, wherever it resided.

However, Rabbi Sacks’s categorization of Jacobs as right-wing conservative has to be seen in the context of Sacks’s own journey. As a student Sacks had corresponded with Jacobs, and Jacobs always felt that Sacks was sympathetic to his views. But Sacks would not have achieved his ambition of becoming Chief Rabbi and establishing a voice for himself in word Jewry, had he not distanced himself as far as he could from Jacobs.

6. What do you see as the high points of his illustrious career?

He was continually in the public eye, but other than his academic celebrity and publishing record, the three moments that most stand out as high points were those of public recognition:

a) The 1965 invitation from the San Francisco Council of Churches to represent Judaism, in the presence of President Lyndon B. Johnson and U Thant at the 20th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the United Nations.

b) the award of a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) 1990 by the Queen, marked by a ceremony at Buckingham Place.  

c) His victory in the Jewish Chronicle poll to discover the Greatest British Jew- a victory that he found embarrassing.

Jacobs was self-effacing about all these honors, but they demonstrate the extent of his intellectual achievement and his global reputation.

7. What is the tension between the West End Orthodoxy following an Anglo Jewish Tradition and the rest of Orthodoxy, or between minhag Anglia and the new patterns?

Jacobs saw New West End orthodoxy as representing the “Anglo Jewish Tradition”.In the Anglo Jewish Tradition, synagogue services were formal and reminiscent of High Church Anglicanism; top hats, canonicals, a procession of clergy and wardens into synagogue before the Reading of the Law and a recessional at the end of the service, standing on the steps to shake the hands of the congregation as they emerged.

They used Simeon Singer’s Authorized Daily Prayer Book which had a blue cover and red page edges, like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The synagogues had mixed choirs, public prayers for the restoration of sacrifices were not recited, This tradition was mostly to be found in the cathedral synagogues in the city centers; New West End, Hampstead and the Central in London; Princes Road in Liverpool, Singers Hill in Birmingham, Garnethill in Glasgow. The tradition was less prevalent in the poorer areas, where the congregations remained closer Eastern European traditions, but even there, there are echoes of it could be found.

Minhag Anglia is the modern incarnation of this tradition, as reflected in the Sacks-Koren machzorim. It is not a rite that would have been recognized at the New West End. Referring to their tradition using a Hebrew name would have been anathema to the New West End

Theology rarely played a part in British Jewry, but middle of the road orthodoxy, whether or not it considered itself part of the Anglo Jewish Tradition, tended to the ‘progressive conservatism’ of Chief Rabbi Hertz. Hertz had been the first rabbi to graduate from JTS, shortly after the institution’s founding, and although he defended the literal account of Revelation, there was very little visible difference between early 20th century American Conservatism and British, United Synagogue orthodoxy.

This changed after World War II, with the arrival of rabbis from Europe. The more hardline Dayan Chanoch Abramsky was appointed by the barely observant President of the United Synagogue to the London Bet Din, in order to act as a foil to the autocratic Chief Rabbi Hertz. His appointment changed the character of British orthodoxy. United Synagogue orthodoxy became less compromising in terms of Jewish law, but by ditching canonicals, top hats and Anglican-inspired formality, it appeared to be more modern. By the time of the Jacobs Affair the old Anglo Jewish Tradition was on the wane, Louis Jacobs’s New London Synagogue was possibly the only place to retain it. British Jews, who saw the modernization of the services as a positive step, and appeared oblivious to the more rigorous application Jewish law did not seem to mind.

8. Where do you differ from prior discussions of Jacobs? 

My book is concentrates Jacobs’s biography without any attempt to analyze his theology or subject his thought to critique. It is intended as a biography, telling his life story, not an academic study. Louis Jacobs wrote an autobiography but it is necessarily subjective and only covers his life until the 1980s.

In contrast, an unpublished PhD thesis, presented an intellectual biography of Louis Jacobs illustrated how his theology reflected his life story is academically rigorous, but is not aimed at the popular market. Another scholar, has a forthcoming book in which she examines his theology as a potential model for the evolving shape of British Jewry. I think that it may be somewhat over-optimistic to wonder whether a scholar born more than a century earlier will have significant influence on future generations. Those scholars who have worked on Jacobs have tended to emphasize theology over biography. I broadly share their views on Jacobs, although I tend to attribute a more conservative bias to Jacobs’s approach than they do; I believe that his adherence to the old pre-war ‘Anglo-Jewish tradition’ shows that he was no radical.

Not every scholar has been rigorous in their treatment of Jacobs. Some have been influenced by those with a religiously partisan agenda. One, speaking of former British Chief rabbis, falsely claimed that “Hertz and Brodie were traditional, Jacobs was not.”(!) My book clearly situates him as within a more traditional Anglo Jewish Tradition. 

9. What was his contribution to the modern study of Talmud?

Louis Jacobs was among the first generation of scholars who took an academic interest in the compilation, structure and editing of the Talmud. He had completed his PhD thesis on the economic life of Jews in Babylon, based on information he gleaned form the Talmud. He had a masterly command of Talmud and was able to recall almost any passage and could not only quote it verbatim but identify which page it was on and where it fell on the page.

Many of his early academic articles were on Talmud logic and argument. He explained to his readers how Talmudic logic operated by expressed the Talmudic debate in the form of numbered syllogisms, showing how the argument progressed.

Jacobs maintained that the Talmud was a literary composition. In his books Rabbinic Thought in the Talmud, and The Talmudic Argument he identified the techniques and conventions that its editors used to draw together material originating in various places and times into a work of unitary appearance. In his book Teyku he identified all the Talmudic discussions that concluded with the word teyku, over three hundred in total,  indicating that the problem under discussion was incapable of resolution, showing that in most cases they followed a literary pattern and suggested possible explanations of the phenomenon.

In the field of halakha, Jewish law, his best known work in this field is Tree of Life in which he provided case studies showing the flexibility of Jewish Law. He maintained that Jewish Law was dynamic, evolving over time in response to changing circumstances. He concluded the book with a chapter entitled Towards a Non-Fundamentalist Halakha in which he argued that Jewish Law was sufficiently flexible and creative to withstand the challenges of Higher Biblical Criticism.

10. Can you discuss his interest in mysticism?

He took a very strong interest in kabbalah and mysticism, particularly Chabad mysticism, and he does  seem to regard it as an essential component of the religious quest, although ancillary to the mainstream Jewish tradition. This I think is because he regarded reason, rather than mysticism, as the path to Truth. When speaking of the Talmud he would however say that behind every rigorous halakhist stands an imaginative aggadist, indicating that he recognized the importance of speculation, or at least the creative imagination, in shaping tradition, and it is possible that in the quietness of his own mind he might have contemplated mystical ideas. But as far as I am aware he never communicated such private thoughts openly.

Miri-Freud Kandel holds that Jacobs’s works on Hasidism- she has in mind Seeker of Unity on the life of R. Aaron of Starosselje- provide an entry point into understanding the role of Hasidism in constructing Jacobs’s theology, and help explain how Jacobs theology can be applied today. R. Aaron’s panentheism, she maintains, enables us to understand the limit of what we can truly understand from our human perspective and emphasizes the purpose of the journey towards truth, which Jacobs refers to as his Quest. 

Jacobs was a polymath, he was interested in every field of thought. His granddaughter relates how he learnt calculus just so that he could discuss her schoolwork with her.

11. Any thoughts on his 50 years of interest in Buddhism- including discussing Maharishi and inviting the Dalai Lama- but usually concluding in a somewhat critical way toward it?

Jacobs took an interest all religions and all aspects of Judaism, but there is nothing that either in his published work, or from the conversations I have had with his family in regard to this question, that indicates a greater interest in Buddhism. From what I understand for the family he invited the Dalai Lama at the request of some in his congregation.

He wrote an article about Transcendental Meditation after conducting the Memorial Service for Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, after the event brough him into contact with the guru’s prominent follower. He concluded that article with the words: Only a bigot would suggest that we have nothing to learn from Eastern serenity … For all that, it is Judaism and those influenced by her which have heard the cry of the poor and the distressed. Both Buddha and Moses cannot remain at ease in the king’s palace when suffering humanity groans outside its doors, but when Moses leaves it is to go out to his brethren.

12. My take away from reading your book was that his congregants deeply loved him and he loved them. Can you describe this relationship? 

Jacob’s appointment to the New West End Synagogue was the first time he had ministered to a cultured, wealthy, religiously middle-of -the-road community, other than a very short period at Munks in Golders Green, The New West End was very different both from the working-class Manchester he had had grown up in and the strictly orthodox world where Jacob’s had studied. It included several distinguished businessmen, professionals and diplomats. The congregation were culturally erudite, and their self-image was that of the British upper classes. For Louis and Shula Jacobs it felt like social advancement and they enjoyed it.

His congregation was drawn to him because he was young and enthusiastic, with young children and a wife who could make friends with anyone. Their previous rabbi had been very personable but was older, had been in post for some time, and Jacobs represented a breath of fresh air. He introduced study programs, brought fresh faces into the congregation and had the ability of talking seriously and informatively about Judaism at their level, rather than speaking over their heads.

The defining point in the relationship came when the Jacobs Affair broke out and he was not allowed to return to the New West End. Few in the congregation appreciated all the theological nuances but they saw themselves as thoroughly British and therefore duty bound to support an underdog. They were the old-money of the English community, their families had been running Anglo Jewry since the 19th century, and the United Synagogue that was thwarting them was led by nouveau-riche upstarts, self-made businessmen who had muscled their way into communal leadership but had none of the refinement which the old families believed they had.  The New West End community saw themselves as paternalistically supporting a bright and charismatic young man whose career was being impeded by people not born to communal leadership.

Jacobs was deeply touched by the support the congregation showed him when they resigned en-masse to set up the New London. He and the congregation became allies in a battle that was attracting considerable media interest and in which they all felt emotionally invested.

The relationship revolved around Louis and Shula Jacobs’s charisma and a deep personal interest in the congregation that made them all feel as if they were friends. They all called him Louis to his face, which may have seemed disrespectful to their rabbi but was indicative of the closeness they felt for him. Toward the end of his life, when the Jewish Chronicle ran its competition to find the Greatest British Jew, the congregation made sure that they sent in enough votes between them for him to win. It embarrassed him, but secretly he was touched.

13. Why did he never take any of the academic positions offered him, especially after his several American tours?

Jacobs heart was in the synagogue not the academy. He preferred to teach Judaism in a religious environment, a rabbinic college or a synagogue, rather than in a secular university. Had he been appointed Principal of Jews’ College and able to train a new generation of open-minded British rabbis, he would have had the best of both worlds. But that was not to be.

Louis Jacobs was an English Jew; it was part of his DNA. It is one of the reasons why he was so wedded to the Anglo Jewish Tradition, and why he never used the term minhag Anglia. Although there were periods in his career when it looked as if Britain held out no hope for him, he was reluctant to leave the country, for America or anywhere else, if he could possibly find a way of remaining.

There were also practical impediments to his leaving the country. He was an only child and felt a responsibility to his parents. His wife Shula felt similarly about her family. Her moth lived with them. When Jacobs’s mother died and his father was left alone he became even more determined to stay. And his children also resisted the possibility of a move, they were growing up as teenagers in London in the 1960s, nowhere else in the world held out the same appeal at that time.

If he had gone to America he would have worked in the Conservative movement. And although he was comfortable with Conservative theology, the day to day social issues that the American rabbinate dealt with were not those that interested him. He saw no reason for the relaxation of Jewish law that the Conservative movement was currently engaged in, e.g. granting permission to drive on Shabbat as long as it was only to synagogue. In Britain congregants had been driving to synagogue for years and parking around the corner, knowing that nobody would say a word. He very much preferred the understated British fudge when it came to matters of observance, to the American preference for openness and clarity.