Monthly Archives: March 2021

Rabbi Shai Held Responds to Rabbi Art Green

Rabbi Prof. Art Green wrote in the first part of my interview with him that his thought remains a student of Heschel, despite his great distance from him on the personhood of God. Green wrote: “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.” Green clearly acknowledges that he is different than Rabbi Shai Held’s presentation of Heschel. (Question #4)

However, for Green, ‘Transcendence’ in the context of his faith “does not refer to a God ‘‘out there’’ or ‘‘over there’’ somewhere beyond the universe… 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.”

In this response, Held offers a few paragraphs to let the reader clearly see this distinction between Green’s immanent monistic divine, which offers self-transcendence from Held’s transcendent personal God who loves us has mercy on us, and demands us to take responsibility.

Rabbi Shai Held is President, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Hadar, where he also directs the Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas. Rabbi Held’s first book, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, was published by Indiana University Press in 2013; The Heart of Torah, a collection of essays on the Torah in two volumes, was published by JPS in 2017. (I interviewed Held on his Heschel book -here and on his Torah studies- here and a decade ago as one of my first interviews in 2011.)

Held declares: “I am not God and God is not me, but I am summoned to be God’s servant.”  In addition, “God is personal, but God is not just some version of us.  For one thing, God loves in a way that no human being can comprehend, let alone completely emulate.”  Faith in a personal God lets the believer know that “we are loved regardless of what we do or accomplish in this lifetime.”

On one hand, Held’s response has resonance with the distinction between the prophetic and the mystical in Friedrich Heiler and Karl Barth, on the other hand it pushes us to look at Heschel’s theology more closely. Beyond that it opens a window on the many views of God within Judaism, letting us ask if a personalist Jewish conception of God who loves and shows mercy has more in common with a personalist reader of scripture in other faiths while an immanent view of God in Judaism may have more in common with believers in divine immanence in other traditions. This may be so even if two Jewish perspectives share a common Biblical and Rabbinical canon since readings of the text are capacious and can reflect different relgious imaginations.  Alternately, I can use the Hindu terminology that I used in Part II  of my interview with Green, that Green is an advaitan position looking for self-realization while Held is a dvaitan position looking for a relationship with the Lord in love and responsibility.  

This debate among colleagues provides a clear teaching moment for opening up theological discussion about God, religious language, and the use of religious texts.

Rabbi Shai Held responds to Rabbi Prof. Art Green

Rabbi Art Green gives us glimpses into his theology and spiritual life with admirable lucidity.   I take this opportunity to share some questions and hesitations about Art’s approach.

“It has been clearly shown to you,” says the book of Devarim, “that the Lord alone is God; there is none beside [the Lord]” (Deuteronomy 4:35).  For Devarim, the words ein od milvado are a declaration of monotheism (or of something approaching it).  If other passages focus on God being the only god Israel may worship, this verse seems to insist that God is the only god– period.  God alone is God.  Nothing but God is God.

Some of the mystics Green most admires turned this verse on its head.  What they heard in the Torah’s words is that there is that “The Lord is alone is God; there is nothing besides [the Lord].”  There is nothing that is not God.  It is important to notice what an inversion this represents.  For the Bible, God is God and nothing else is God; for [some of] the mystics, everything is God.  These are two diametrically opposed conceptions of the fundamental reality of the universe: Is God the creator of the World, or is the world in some sense a panentheistic part of God?

Green writes: “I believe that there is only One.  Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that there is only One.”  

Let me contrast my own view: “I believe that there are always two.  Better said: I have glimpses of an inner experience that tells me that I am commanded by, and obligated to, that which is not me.”

Art writes that the question of Ayekah, where are you, is “‘addressed’ to each human being from within.”  This may be so, but for the Bible and the Talmudic Sages, and in my own experience, that question is also addressed to us from without, by the Kadosh Barukh Hu (The Blessed Holy One).

It seems to me that at bottom what we have here are competing intuitions.  Green is convinced that his intuition is correct; since the first time he read Hillel Zeitlin, he tells us, he “knew” the truth of his own intuition of what is ultimate.

I readily admit that I do not share Art’s confidence.  I do not “know” that my intuition of twoness, of commanded-ness, of interpersonal obligation, is true.  I perceive the world as such, move through the world as if it were true, but I do not know it to be so.  Living as I do after Kant, how could I?  

I share with Green his commitment to what he calls “the cultivation of… inwardness,” but I would add, no less (and probably more), the commitment to the cultivation of responsiveness.  I am not you and you are not me, but I am responsible for you and you for me.  I am not God and God is not me, but I am summoned to be God’s servant. 

It is this crucial aspect of what Heschel is doing in the first part of God in Search of Man that Green seems to leave behind: the way that wonder is a path to responsiveness to that which is not us.  Intrinsic to the experience of wonder, Heschel writes, is the sense that we are “being asked the ultimate question… In spite of our pride, in spite of our acquisitiveness, we are driven by an awareness that something is asked of us.”  As he explains in Man is Not Alone, for Heschel wonder is interwoven with a sense of indebtedness: “How shall we ever reciprocate for breathing and thinking, for sight and hearing, for love and achievement?”  Reciprocity, needless to say, involves otherness.  We are grateful to Someone, namely God, who is neither ourselves nor the world as a whole, but a genuine Other.

Art seems to think that believing in a personal God entails being imprisoned by a “forbidding, commanding, and guilt-producing father figure.”  I find this portrayal sad, as it does not reflect my experience of the KBH at all.  Believing in a personal God can mean being liberated by a loving, commanding, and unfathomably forgiving Parent/Lover.   When the prophet Isaiah declares that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are nor our thoughts, Rabbi David Kimchi explains that while human beings struggle to forget what we forgave, God forgives completely and bears no grudges.

Faith in a personal God can mean knowing (feeling, sensing) that we matter, regardless of what we do or accomplish in this lifetime; it can mean knowing (feeling, sensing) that we are loved regardless of what we do or accomplish in this lifetime (haviv adam she-nivra be-tzelem—Avot 3:14).  When Green writes of the personal God, we get no sense of that God’s immense, immeasurable love and compassion (hesed and rahamim).  No biblical verses are quoted more often within Tanakh itself than Exodus 34:6-7, which speaks of God as “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness.”  Instead, we get only the guilt felt as a young adult.

I have great respect for Art, who first opened the vast treasures of Hassidut to me, and whom I am proud to number among my friends and teachers.  But I do not think it is fair or helpful to juxtapose the best and most sophisticated version of one’s own worldview with a cardboard caricature of others’.  I believe in a personal God, but I do not worship what Art calls “the Old Fellow in the sky.”   God is personal but God is not just some version of us.  For one thing, God loves in a way that no human being can comprehend, let alone completely emulate.  The prophet Hosea draws a stark and breathtaking contrast between God and humanity: whereas we sometimes (understandably) give up on each other, God never gives up on us: “How can I make you like Admah, render you like Zevoiim?  I have had a change of heart; all My tenderness is stirred.  I will not act on my wrath, will not turn to destroy Ephraim.  For I am God, not man…” (Hosea 11:8-9).

It is also unhelpful, I think, to describe a thinker like Heschel as “needing” God to be personal any more than it would be fair to characterize Green as “needing” God to be internal.  Heschel experienced and thought of God in this way, and Green experiences and thinks about God in another.  The interesting question, I think, is just how and whether these two ways of encountering or experiencing God can be brought into fruitful conversation with one another.

The idea of coming between a student and his teacher is not particularly appealing to me, especially when that student (Art) is also my teacher.  But I find myself thinking that Heschel would regard the theology Green offers not as neo-Heschelian but as anti-Heschelian.  For Heschel, loyal student of the Bible that he was, that God is personal was enormously important.  That God loves widows and orphans, that God is appalled by cruelty and injustice, that God is angry at callousness indifference– this was everything to Heschel.  Heschel was committed to covenant, and covenant always includes two partners.  They can love one another, bond with one another– but they always remain separate.  “The culmination of prophetic fellowship with God,” he writes, “is insight and unanimity—not union.”  Heschel explicitly contrasts his own view with the pantheistic approach; for him, “Nature is not a part of God but rather a fulfillment of [God’s] will.”

Heschel was clear that the prophet always experienced two partners (even when he sympathized with God’s pathos).   “Prophecy,” he writes, “is a confrontation.   God is God, and man is man; the two may meet, but never merge.  There is a fellowship, but never a fusion.”  Following Genesis 1, he insisted that the world is not God and God is not the world.  God and Being are not the same.  God is the Source of being, the borei olam.

There is much more to say about the differences between Art’s position and my own.  There is the question of theological method and the extent to which we do or do not regard the biblical and Rabbinic canons as normative for our theological projects; there is the question of what role nostalgia plays for each of us in remaining committed to religious (and liturgical) language that may not reflect our theological worldviews; and, of course, there is the question of how these serious and substantial theological differences do or do not manifest themselves in religious practice.  I hope we can pursue those conversations in due time.

I am grateful to Art for mentioning my work on Heschel, and I am grateful to Alan Brill for giving me a chance to respond to Art’s ideas.  May this mahloket be le-shem shamayim and may it serve lehagdil Torah uleha’adirah.  

Interview Rabbi Art Green Part II- Neo-Hasidism

This is part II of a two-part interview with Art Green, the first part is here.

This part, we look at his new book A New Hasidism: Roots  (JPS, 2019), a volume where we can directly read the essays, which give the antecedents to Green’s thought. This first volume explores the writings of Buber, Heschel, Carlebach, Reb Zalman, and Arthur Green’s early work creating a genealogy of what would become the spiritual path of Neo-Hasidism.

Shai Ish-Horowitz (1861–1922) applied the term Neo-Hasidism to IL Peretz and other literary forms of Hasidism such as Michael Levi Frumkin-Rodkinson (1845–1904), which were creating a romantic glorification of the Jewish peasant and his folk tales. The term was originally about a literary genre applied to dozens of authors in the first half of the twentieth century such as Berdichevsky, Pinchas Sadah, Eliezer Steinman, or J. L. Snitzer. 

In contrast, this book is about a late 20th century American Jewish revival movement. Green defines the prefix neo as a translation of the Hebrew word for newness (hadash). For Green, the original 18th century Hasidism began as a renewal movement in Judaism, a creative spirit against the formulaic and rote, so too the 20th century authors Buber and Zeitlin sought renewal and rebirth. The goal was to rescue Hasidism from the shells of darkness (klippot) into which it fell.  The focus is on seeing the world as filled with divine glory, and as the purpose of human life to raise sparks. As noted by Green, Neo-Hasidism is to awaken a very this worldly Judaism into being God centered – a focus on the mysterious divine presence and oneness of being.

Martin Buber is represented at three stages in his thinking about Hasidism, first as mysticism, second as dialogue, and third as a renewal of spirituality. Green comments that Neo-Hasidism is not about reading original Hasidic texts, but in creating a renewal from it. Hillel Zeitlin envision an elite group dedicated to a spiritual and contemplative life, a reformulation of Hasidism after James, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. For Green, Zeitlin is a core of his thought of a renewed formulation of Hasidism. From Heschel, we get inwardness, serving God and the willingness to critique society. For Green’s debt to Heschel, see questions #3 and #11 in the interview part I. Reb Shlomo Carlebach brings a passionate, emotional, post-Holocaust path dealing with anger, loneliness, and the need for connection.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is credited with calling for Neo-Hasidc rebbes, and the creation of a Neo-Hasidic brotherhood and spiritual community. He is also credited with calling for a radical revamp of the liturgy, and to break down boundaries, seeking for the evolutionary, global, and interreligious. Whereas Green uses a monistic language, Reb Zalman has a more multi-vocal language and looking to many experiences and religions. Reb Zalman is more practice centered, a kalidiscope of relgious experiences.

Art Green includes a selection of his thinking including two essays about his early use of psychedelics and finding God in all things, and his 2003 talk at the seminal Neo-Hasidic conference where he defines Neo-Hasidsm in thought, word, and action. Thought is defined as worldview, word is defined as religious language, and action, Green admits that Neo-hasidism is problematic in the implementation as action. Better than these, is that Volume II open with Green’s Neo-Hasidic credo (which is reproduced here as the last question).

From my frame of reference, I would like to compare Art Green’s Neo-Hasidic approach to the various Neo-Hindu groups that came to be at the same time. The yogic philosophy speaks of three paths: jnana yoga (self-realization), bhakti yoga (devotion), and karma yoga (actions-either ritual or service to others). Green’s approach would be what is called a jnana-yoga path, one about self-realization and then acting in life based on this higher spiritual realization. There were many Neo-Hindu teachers in the US teaching a path of self-realization such as Paramahansa Yogananda, with a focus on realization of our true nature and the true nature of reality. In contrast, most of those attracted to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach were on a bhakti path of devotion, song, storytelling. And Pearle Epstein called Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s books on mizvot as karma yoga. This comparison of Neo-Hasidic to Neo-Hinduism also gives us a sharper understanding of the role of Green’s concept of self-transcendence to a God who is not out-there but inside ourselves as our true nature if we realize it. It is not new age self-worship but similar to the jnana-yoga path of Neo-Hinduism, a realization of the true nature of the self and reality.

The volume A New Hasidism: Roots is specifically those authors and teachers that influenced Art Green’s. Neo-Hasdism and only those. As if a Neo-Hindu teacher explained that his guru approach was built on Swami Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, and Swami Sivananda, but excluded as not part of his path Amma, & Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In a similar manner, the volume is about Rabbi Art Green’s teachers not a comprehensive history. I doubt that if Reb Zalman or Reb Shlomo edited the volume that it would be the same.

On to a more sensitive topic, multiple yoga gurus have been accused of sexual improprieties: including Bikram Choudhury, creator of Bikram Yoga; Swami Satchidananda, Amrit Desai, creator of Kripalu Yoga; Muktananda, founder of Siddha Yoga, and Swami Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute. In a similar manner, several teachers of Neo-Hasidism have histories of sexual impropriety. But just as a visitor to a yoga studio will be told how this studio relates to Kripalu, Birkam, or Sivananda without a long history of the people involved, so too this book walks gently concerning these issues, focusing on the spiritual message. Its goal is not to be a Jewish version of Homegrown Gurus: From Hinduism in America to American Hinduism, by editors Ann Gleig & Lola Williamson (Suny 2013) Specifically, the book is emic and not etic, a resource book not a critical work.

Finally, I teach at various Yoga retreats. This year, due to Covid, I taught by Zoom so I taught in more places than usual. From these experiences, I do not see those Jews at Yoga retreats wanting Rabbi Green’s Neo-Hasidism as their path.  From the opposite direction, and more importantly, all this talk of intentional community, spiritual brotherhood, and relgious language is not aimed at our highly successful Jewish community –litigators, hedge fund managers, and surgeons who are competitive, outer directed, action oriented and not especially inward.

But I like the message. However, I preferred part I of this interview where Art Green showed  “A Judaism of Love” of heartfelt divine warmth, full of faith, and light.

  1. For you, what is Buber’s contribution to Neo-Hasidism?

Buber was the first to present Hasidism as a teaching about how to live in the world, one that might be applicable to people far beyond the traditional Hasidic communities, both westernized Jews and non-Jews.  He instinctively felt the presence of deep and abiding universal wisdom in the Hasidic sources, which he encountered in their “raw” form.  Living long after Buber, we tend to take much of this initial “translation” effort for granted.  But he looked at poorly-written lists of Hasidic practices, hanhagot, and half-transcribed oral teachings, vertlekh, and was able to find gems within them.  These, along with the tales that he loved so much, he distilled into a philosophy of life.  All of us, beginning with Scholem, were led to discover Hasidism through paths he first opened before us.  To appreciate Buber, read his early essay “The Life of the Hasidim,” included in A New Hasidism: Roots.  A romantic re-creation to be sure, but a great gem of Jewish religious literature

2. For you, what is Zeitlin’s contribution to Neo-Hasidism? After all these years, did you realize what you initially found in Zeitlin?

Zeitlin presented Hasidism as a distinctive Jewish mystical theology.  He was brought back to Judaism after much exposure both to Eastern thought and to Western philosophy, especially Spinoza and Nietzsche.  He read the derashot, the fullest teachings of Hasidism, much more seriously than did Buber.  He was able to take the thought of the Maggid of Mezritch and his disciples and shape it into a sort of primitive phenomenology.  His thinking, as reflected in the two key essays presented in the Roots volume, lies at the base of much of my own approach to Judaism.

3. Is Zeitlin’s Bnai Aliyah the same as your vision of the rabbinical school?

No and yes.  Zeitlin was try to create neo-Hasidic groups in Poland of the 1920’s.  The times in which we live, a century later, are very different; the problems we Jews confront are of an entirely different order.  He was addressing primarily Jews like himself, those who had fled the very traditional world from which they had come.  I encounter many who come from the periphery of Jewish life, seeking a way in.  I am also truly a pluralist, one who does not require all the rabbis who study at our institution to share my theology or approach to Jewish living.  I hope they will be exposed to it, and that my thinking will have stimulated them to do and articulate their own.  But that’s all I expect.

Then why the “yes?”   Because I, like Zeitlin a century ago, believe that Judaism is deeply in need of a spiritual revival, and that there is much in the mystical tradition (Zohar and early Hasidism especially – we share those choices) that can inspire it, if properly selected, taught, and universalized. 

The tools needed for such a revival include selected and translated Hasidic sources as well as my (and my students’) reflections on them, along with my own theological writings, deeply shaped by my lifelong engagement with Hasidism.  I am now completing a commentary on the Jewish prayerbook, soon to be published, and am working on a collection of brief teachings, divrey torah, on the weekly Torah portion cycle.  I hope that all of these will be useful to the widest array of future teachers and leaders among Jewish generations to come, both here and in Israel, where I have also developed a serious readership, in Hebrew translation.  Neo-Hasidism can not just be about teaching the old texts, even those I love so much.  We too need to create our own Torah, in the spirit of our generation, to keep Torah vital as a living process.

4. How do you see yourself as different than Reb Zalman?

Zalman was my very dear friend and mentor.  I loved him deeply and learned a great deal from him, on many levels.  But he was not a rebbe to me, as he was to so many others.  I was not  able to permit that, and he understood that and related to me as a younger peer, and eventually as a true friend.  That became important to him; it is not easy for a rebbe to have friends.

In the course of his break with Chabad, which was long and painful, Zalman became attracted to the language and value system of the “New Age.”  I was much more suspicious of it than he was, and did not become a true believer in it.  While we both found experimentation with psychedelics  very significant in our spiritual lives in the late 1960’s (see my two essays in Roots), I left them behind more than Zalman did.  He saw himself as a prophetic figure living on the edge of the Age of Aquarius, wanting to help bring it about and to create a religious outlook appropriate to it.  For him, this would be based in Judaism, since that was such a deep part  of his identity, but he strove to be wide open to learning from everyone, allowing for a significant degree of eclecticism in creating new forms of religious praxis.

My trajectory was different.  I did not come from such a closed place; therefore, I did not have to struggle so hard to be wide open.  I came to see myself as both a scholar and theologian, trying to understand the sources of Kabbalah and Hasidism and also to the separate task of articulating a contemporary Jewish mysticism.  I felt (and continue to feel) a great sense of responsibility both to the sources themselves and to the Jewish people.  Once I became involved in rabbinic training (starting at RRC in 1984), that commitment to providing leadership that would both sustain and revive a distinctively Jewish spirituality became central to me.  A rabbi, as I insist on telling my students, is not just an American clergyman of the Jewish persuasion, there to guide people in their spiritual growth and support them in times of need.  We are heirs to a great tradition and leaders of an ancient community, one that seeks to continue its existence.  Being a rabbi demands that we learn to love Jews, even those who disagree with us, in order to work together toward building that future.

Zalman introduced me to my dear wife Kathy and officiated at our wedding.  He introduced us as two young people interested in joining his envisioned semi-monastic Jewish community, to be called Bnai Or (See his essay in Roots).  That community never happened.  We went on to form Havurat Shalom, which was influenced by the original Bnai Or vision, but was quite different.  The Bnai Or that became Jewish Renewal was founded by Zalman in Philadelphia, in a house around the corner from us that we had found for him and Elana.  After attending the first few meetings, we both sadly realized that our approaches had diverged, and that this rather wildly eclectic and new-age version of Judaism was simply not for us.  In later years, Zalman himself walked back from some of the more extreme aspects of his 1980’s eclecticism, but that is another story

5. The volumes gave little instruction on how to be a Neo-Hasid. Why not?

In general, it is true that the Hasidic sources offer little by way of specific step-by-step instructions in religious enlightenment.  This is one of several reasons why Buddhist pathways have become so attractive and are being integrated within contemporary Jewish life. (I am not opposed to this, if it is done carefully, separating methods and techniques of meditation from the cultural/religious setting in which they were developed.  This is not always an easy task.)  In my EHYEH: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow, I offer a number of meditational practices, but that is not my usual style.  For other sources of Jewish meditational praxis, try the works by the Piasecner rebbe, by Menahem Eckstein, and by Aryeh Kaplan.  All of these are useful.

I think the Hasidic masters felt that Judaism was already filled with “how to’s.”  On the one hand, all of the mitsvot were ways of embodying their spiritual message.  On the other, everything one does and encounters in life should become an occasion for awareness and an object of devotion.  What they wanted to teach was an attitude toward life and toward the existing practice itself; they did not need to offer new means.  As my life has gone on, I have come to realize this truth in a more personal way.

I am proud of the fact that my closest students include a wide array of divergence with regard to religious practice.  The important thing is to remember that devekut, attachment to the One, is the goal; all the rest of religion is a means toward it, not an end in itself.   Praxis is supposed to teach you how to see the rest of life through that lens as well. 

6. Is the future of Neo-hasidism with Entheogen usage?

I am happy to see that psychedelics and their place in spiritual growth are being rediscovered by lots of serious people.  I believe they are a great tool, if used responsibly and integrated to a life of religious discipline.  I came to realize, after my LSD experiences, that finding your way to the mountaintop was not the real struggle in the religious life.  The greater effort was recalling that peak experience on an ordinary dull weekday afternoon,  and trying to live – and to build human community – in the light of it.  No psychedelic drug can do that for you. 

How does one do it?  By the tried-but-true methods of torah u-tefilah.  Study each day a text or an aspect of Torah that excites your soul.  It may be from the Torah text itself or from the widest array of later teachings.  I have tried to share many of those that have worked best for me.  Tefilah, a regular practice of prayer/meditation, ideally twice each day (as close to dawn and dusk as possible, with consciousness of them) is also a great tool for restoring awareness, for climbing back onto the path.

7. What is the future of your Neo-Hasidic ideal?

I am delighted at those among our students and alumni who have chosen to read me seriously and join in this quest.  It is they, among others, serving in the community long after I am gone, who will help to bring about such a revival.  My life is much about providing them the tools. 

I do not need to own the term neo-Hasidism.  It is used to describe a wide spectrum of approaches to Jewish life based on the memory of Hasidism.  What Ariel Mayse and I have tried to do in A New Hasidism is to emphasize those sources and directions that we think will be most useful in creating that future.  But as a pluralist, I am happy to see it develop in other ways as well, including some I would never have considered.

Let me use the example of neo-Hasidic music, where the range of creativity has been very great; new niggunim are constantly being created and performed.  I myself may be an old-fashioned guy, enjoying niggun singing without electronic amplification and all the rest.  But I still appreciate the Hasidic soul that is alive in what is emerging, even though it goes beyond the limits of my own capacity to absorb.

8. What is the future of American Jewry in your opinion?

In the course of my life, I have sadly watched the decimation of the American Jewish community.  I am the Jew I am because of childhood memories.  I was partly raised by grandparents who had immigrated from Eastern Europe before the First World War and still carried within them the richness of Yiddish speech and traditional Jewish culture.  I loved that world and was attracted to it.  But all that is long gone now.  The grandchildren of most of my cousins, on all sides of my family, are no longer Jews in any significant way.  I feel great sadness about that.  Much of it is due, of course, to the inevitable process of assimilation and the positive fact of our acceptance within American society.  (I am aware of the complex racial aspects of that, the acceptance of “white privilege,” etc., but that is not our subject here.)

Will Judaism survive in America?  Orthodoxy has provided one set of answers to that question.  “Yes,” it claims, if we build the walls high enough and strengthen the commitment to observance, in all its details.  Where those walls lie, of course, varies across the wide spectrum of what is now called Orthodoxy, but the strategy is essentially the same.  That will work for a certain minority, those who have deep roots in the tradition and some others who are psychologically attracted to such a fully mapped-out pattern of living.  But for most American Jews, including some who grew up within it, that approach will not suffice.

The whole denominational structure of American Jewish religious life, based on the question: “How much does one have to observe?” has always seemed absurd and trivializing to me.  The Hasidic emphasis, and the neo-Hasidic approach, is all based on the question of inner direction, kavvanah, and how to re-stimulate it.  If we need to measure something, let us invent a thermometer that will measure the degree of love and warmth created by our mitsvot, rather than counting how many of them we observe. That is where the focus of my religious life, and my teaching, lies.  It is all about the heart.

Either by chance or by providence, depending on your point of view, we American Jews wound up in a country where religion continues to play a significant role in human life.  For reasons beyond our scope here, spiritual seeking became a major preoccupation of large numbers of young Americans, beginning in the 1960’s and continuing into our own day.  Many Jews are involved in it, but as part of a much broader American phenomenon.  (Something parallel is now happening in Israel, but that’s another story.)  I believe that a neo-Hasidic approach to Judaism might speak to large numbers of such seekers, including both Jews and others who will find its teachings attractive.  It is for them, and the Jewish teachers who will reach out to them, that I write.  I want to open the doorways to this tradition as a spiritual path, to create a Judaism that welcomes seekers and helps them to feel at home.

9) How are you so prolific in writing? What is your discipline and schedule for translation and writing?

I find this hard to answer, as I do not consider it to be true.  I could have done much more.  But one thing I will say.  Turning 70 gave me a much-needed kick in the butt.  The psalmist’s verse “The days of our lives are seventy years” stared at me in the face and demanded “What else do you still want to get done?”  “Lots,” was my answer, and I got to work.  My seventies, just about to conclude, have been the richest and most prolific decade of my life.  As I face eighty, trying to gather my strength (gevurot, as in the following verse), I find the task still incomplete.  I expect I’ll be working on it harder than ever.

My only answer to the mal’akh ha-mavet, the angel of death, who inevitably begins to hover closer at this age, will be “Go away.  I’m too busy.”

10. How does one get started in Neo-Hasidism?

Look at my “Neo-Hasidic Credo” in the Branches volume,



Hasidism is a Judaism based on hesed, meaning love or compassion.  It calls us to a love for God, for Torah or wise teachings, and for one another.  All that we do in this world should be motivated by our pursuit of hesed.   As hesed is an endlessly flowing love, a hasid is one who loves and gives generously, stretching beyond limits, suspending judgment of those who receive that love, and without thought of recompense or reward.

  1. There is only One. All existence began as and forever remains a simple, undifferentiated whole.  Because Y-H-W-H (the Hebrew term for “God,” really “is-was-will be”) is beyond time, the oneness that underlies reality has never changed.  Our evolving, ever-changing cosmos, filled with an endless array of individual creatures and the absolute stasis of that singular Being are two faces of the same One.  Our seeming existence as individuals, like all of physical reality, is the result of tsimtsum, a contraction or de-intensification of the presence of that One, so that our minds can encounter it and yet continue to regard ourselves as separate beings, in order to fulfill our worldly task.  Daily life requires us to live as separate individuals and to recognize both the boundaries between self and other and the great opportunity for communion across those boundaries.  In ultimate reality, however, that separate existence is mostly illusion.  The call of Shema‘ Yisra’el, that “God is one” means that we are all one.  Divine presence (shekhinah) underlies, surrounds, and fills all of existence.  It is not limited to any particular place, nor is awareness of it limited to Jews or Judaism.  Awareness of and encounter with this presence is the purpose of all religious life.  

2.  To be a hasid means to live in loving awareness of God’s presence in all that we encounter, and to act in response to it.   Being part of the One calls upon us to love all that is.  Our pursuit of hesed leads us to find sparks of divine light scattered everywhere, in every human being and throughout the world, but often hidden behind both real and illusory “shells.”  Our task is to seek out and discover those sparks, even in the most unlikely places, in order to raise them up and re-join them to their Source.  This work of redeeming the sparks and restoring wholeness, carried out on spiritual, physical, and social planes, fills the daily life of the true hasid.  It brings joy to shekhinah and to us as we re-affirm the divine and cosmic unity.  “God needs to be served in every way.” All of life is an opportunity for discovering and responding to the divine presence.  The way we relate to every creature is a mirror of our devotion to our Creator, who lives in all of them, the single presence behind every mask. 

3. That joyous service of Y-H-W-H is the purpose of human existence.  The One delights in each creature, in every single distinctive form in which it is garbed.   But we human beings occupy a unique role in the hierarchy of ever-evolving Creation, having the capacity for awareness of the larger picture and an inbuilt striving for meaning-making.  We must shape that awareness so as to make us desire to serve, to fulfill our unique role as denizens of two worlds.  We become most fully human as we stretch to realize the divine image in which we are created.

4. The essence of our religious life lies in the deep inward glance, a commitment to a vision of spiritual intensity and attachment to the One.  Surface appearances do not suffice for us.  This is true with regard to our encounter with humans, both ourselves and others.  It applies also to our view of the world, as we seek the hidden One within the many.  So too is it the key to our encounter with Torah and religious praxis.  We are ever in search for their deeper layers of meaning, bringing us back to awareness of the single truth.

5. Outer deeds are important; the mitsvot are the forms into which we pour our devotion; they call out to us to be fulfilled.  There is no Judaism without ahavat ha-mitsvot, a loving devotion to our forms of religious life. They are the tools our tradition gives us to achieve and maintain awareness.  Each such mitsvah is be seen as a great gift, an opportunity to stand in the divine presence in a unique way.  At the same time, we need to recall that the mitsvot are means rather than ends in themselves.  They are vessels to contain the divine light that floods the soul,  concrete embodiments of the heart’s inward quest.  They also serve as paradigms for the rest of human actions.  To live fully in God’s presence is to do everything as though it were a mitsvah.

6. Our human task begins with the uplifting and transforming of our spiritual and emotional selves to become ever more perfect vehicles for God’s service.  This requires us to demand much of ourselves, setting a high bar for our spiritual aspirations, including the life of prayer. This process begins with the key devotional pair of love and awe, which together lead us to our sense of the holy.  But it also means treating ourselves with kindness, accepting our own human limitations.  Care for both body and spirit, our own and others’, as God’s handiwork, is also a vital part of our worldly task.   Regarding the body, there is much correction needed of a prior imbalance in Judaism.

7. The deeper look at reality should put us at odds with the superficial values of the consumerist and overly self-centered society amid which we live.  Being, unlike our Hasidic ancestors, citizens of a free society, we can and must take a critical stance toward all that we regard as dehumanizing or degrading in our general culture.  Care for each person, including both Jew and non-Jew, as a unique image of God and as our fellow-limb on the single Adamic body or Tree of Life, is the first way we express our love of God.  It is in this that we are tested, both as individuals and societies.  We envision a Jewish community that speaks out with a strong moral voice.  We offer special devotion to the great moral challenge of our age, that of preserving our planet as a livable and verdant home for future generations.

8. The above principles all flow directly from an expansive Hasidic reading of Torah, classical Jewish teachings.  We live in an abiding and covenanted love relationship to Torah.  That means the text, “written Torah,” and the whole of the oral tradition, including our own interpretive voices.  All of these point us to the cosmic and wordless Torah that lies within and beyond them.  We know that our people has mined endless veins of wisdom and holiness from within the Torah text, and we continue in that path, adding new methods of interpretation to the old. The whole process of renewal through constant reinterpretation is sacred to us.       

9. We are Jews.  We have a special love for our people, past, present, and future, a love that only increases our love for all of humanity, indeed for all of God’s creatures.  We bear within us the pain of Jewish suffering and the joy of Jewish rebirth.  We consider the ingathering of exiles and the renewal of Jewish life that has taken place in the Land of Israel to be among the great miracles of our era.  We fully and joyously embrace the emergence of a free and proud Jewish people in the Holy Land, and at the same time celebrate a rich and creative Jewish existence wherever Jews live. We Jews exist in order to bear witness to our truth.  As bearers of a great spiritual legacy, we survive and carry our traditions forward as embodiments of divine hesed.   

10. Our world suffers from a great imbalance of energy between the typically “male” and “female” energies.  Neo-Hasidism needs to be shaped by the voices of women alongside men, as full participants in every aspect of its emergence.  We welcome devotion to the one God through the channels of shekhinah and binah, Y-H-W-H as saving and protecting Mother, even as we know that all metaphors and symbols point to the elusive One that lies both within and beyond them.

11. Hasidism at its best and worst is built around the figure of the tsaddik, a charismatic holy man blessed by God and capable of transmitting divine blessing. We too recognize that there are gifted spiritual teachers in our world and we thank God for their presence and our ability to learn from them.  But we live in an age that is rightly suspicious of such figures, having seen charisma used in sometimes dangerous ways.  We therefore underscore the Hasidic teaching that each person has his/her own path to walk and sparks of light to discover.  We encourage spiritual independence and responsibility. 

12. Hasidism, like Judaism itself, believes in community.  The sense of hevrayyah or fellowship among followers of a particular path is one of the greatest tools it offers for spiritual growth.  Cultivating spiritual friendships and communities that allow one to work through personal struggles and the obstacles each person finds in the path, as well as developing an ear to listen well to the struggles of others, is one of the great gifts to be learned from the Hasidic tradition.

13. We are heirs to one of the world’s great spiritual traditions.  We recognize that Torah is our people’s unique language for expressing an ancient and universal truth.  For many centuries, persecution and hatred made it the legacy of Jews alone.  While its exclusively inward-looking focus gave it great depth, in our age it needs to breathe deeply the air of freedom, broadening its focus and addressing the great issues that confront all humanity.  As we join with other seekers in the quest for that universal truth, we remain committed to preserving our ancient language and way of life in full richness, limited only by ethical challenges.  We believe that we have much to offer in a spiritual conversation that transcends all borders, as we have much to learn from others.   We enter into that conversation happily, coming together with others who admit in collective humility that none of our languages embodies truth in its fullness.

Louis Jacobs: Rabbi Benjamin Elton responds to Harry Freedman

The need to debate the life and legacy of Rabbi Louis Jacobs seems to remain an important part of British institutional life and thought. They seek to replay the events in their minds and ask hypothetical what if’s.  A few weeks ago, I discussed the new book by Harry Freedman Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Today, we have a response from Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton

Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton was appointed in June 2015 as the Chief Minister of The Great Synagogue of Sydney, Australia. Born in Manchester, England, Rabbi Elton earned an MA in History at Queens’ College, Cambridge and a PhD in Jewish History at Birkbeck, University of London. He was ordained by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in New York and in addition has Semicha from Rabbi Chaim Rapoport of London. Elton published Britain’s Chief Rabbis and the Religious Character of Anglo-Jewry, 1880–1970 (2014), and has authored articles on Anglo-Jewish and Australian Jewish religious history and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society of London. 

Elton’s response here has several points. The first, and in my mind the strongest, is that while Victorian Anglo Jewry in the first half of the 20th century may have been quite liberal in thought and practice.  Nevertheless, both Chief Rabbi Adler and Chief Rabbi Hertz expected greater adhesion to the tradition in order to be appointed as leader of a congregation. Rabbis Morris Joseph, Joseph Hockman, Herbert Lowe and Joshua Abelson all ran afoul of the Chief Rabbi office.  The records clearly show their censoring and policing of relgious ideas. In this, they followed the Anglican Church model of the era in which the Archbishop keep the clergy within the theological line. So too, did the Chief Rabbi’s office. They may have not had the Jewish Orthodoxy of later decades but they certainly followed general Anglican lines of the role of the chief rabbinate.

Second, Jacobs’ approach to the Bible went beyond earlier British and American Rabbis. Also, a valid point, as I have written

Beyond these points, Elton also draws inferences from the fact his colleagues did not revolt or resignations and that there were no defections within congregations. Elton places much of the continuous support for Jacobs directly at the feet of the persistent encouragement of the Jewish Chronicle. There was also a certain disingenuousness about some of Jacobs’ (or his supporters’) outrage at his treatment. He must have understood why, from an Orthodox perspective, his conversions were not recognised. Finally, Elton offers some observations on Jacob’s personality.

Louis Jacobs: A response to Harry Freedman

Benjamin J. Elton

Louis Jacobs spent his career arguing that intellectual integrity required setting aside cherished myths when they could not be sustained in the face of empirical evidence. Of course, as a scholar who came of age in the 1950s that contention is laced with the heavy modernist idea that ‘truth’ can indeed be established ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Jacobs stuck to that position from 1957 when he published We Have Reason to Believe, the book that caused the controversy that followed, to his final lengthy statement of his theology Beyond Reasonable Doubt in 1999 and his death in 2006. It is therefore ironic that his own life is the subject of persistent mythology, which refuses to budge in the light of recent research.

Harry Freedman’s new biography of Jacobs, Reason to Believe: The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs is important and welcome as the first full-length biography of a fascinating twentieth century Anglo-Jewish figure. Not only is it an interesting read, as was the interview with the author by Alan Brill, but it also gives us an opportunity to return to some of the questions thrown up by Jacobs’ life and career, the way Jacobs has been understood, and to reassess those myths.

My response here is to address aspects of Freedman’s valuable book and interview. I focus on three points: (1) whether Jacobs would indeed have thrived under previous Anglo-Jewish rabbinical regimes (as is sometimes claimed); (2) the exact nature of his theological claims (which I think have been downplayed), and (3) why the myths about Jacobs have endured. It concludes with some general thoughts about Jacobs drawn from two decades of studying the man and his work.

I begin with a few words about my connection to Louis Jacobs. Like Jacobs, I am from Manchester and in my teens in the mid to late 1990s I often visited Manchester Central Library, with its strong Jewish studies section. There I picked up Jacobs’ autobiography Helping with Inquiries (1989). This led to my family telling me about our relationship with Jacobs.

My great uncle Cecil had been to Manchester Yeshiva with Jacobs and because Jacobs’ parents were not observant, whereas my great grandparents were, Jacobs spent a lot of time in their home. Later when Jacobs returned to Manchester as Rabbi of the Central Synagogue, family legend has it that my great grandfather counselled Jacobs’ father to curtail his Saturday activities so as not to embarrass his son.

As I read more of Jacobs’ theological works, I wrote to him to ask for a meeting. I was about eighteen at the time. He was generous enough to invite me to his home, offer me a cup of tea and a biscuit. He was helpful, charming, and kind. After I moved to London in 2002, I went to his Talmud class at the New London Synagogue, to experience learning Talmud from this tremendous Talmudic scholar, although I must confess, I was disappointed in them at the time.

In any event, I have always been interested in Jacob’s theology, even when I have disagreed with his theology. Indeed, I have written about some of Jacobs’ English intellectual predecessors.

This blog post responding to Freedman’s book is not concerned with who wrote the Pentateuch, rather it is interested in how that belief has played out in Anglo-Jewish religious life. That was the central issue at stake in the Jacobs’ Affair.

Jacobs was Minister of the New West End Synagogue in 1957 when he argued in, We Have Reason to Believe that the Pentateuch could no longer be regarded as the directly revealed word of God, but a document composed over many years and edited. Nevertheless, Jacobs argued that the Torah remained holy and authoritative. The book did not attract much attention when it was published and Jacobs was appointed Moral Tutor at Jews’ College in 1959, with the hope on the part of Jacobs and his supporters that this would lead to him being appointed Principal. However, Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie refused to make that appointment because of Jacobs’ statements on the origin of the Torah. He also refused to allow Jacobs to return to the New West End as Minister for the same reason. Jacobs’ supporters founded a new synagogue, the New London, and Jacobs served as its Rabbi until his death.

The central contention of one school of writers about Louis Jacobs, which includes (writing in different modes, some more popular and others more scholarly) Harry Freedman and the Jewish Chronicle more broadly, is that Jacobs’ only fault was that he promulgated his ideas in the 1950s when Anglo-Jewry had become more Orthodox. Had he expressed his views before the Second World War, they would have been regarded as uncontroversial.  A second school of writers, claim that this analysis is simply inconsistent with the evidence, as shown by my research and by Elliot Cosgrove’s brilliant unpublished 2008 dissertation. 

The second approach sees him as controversial and that the radical nature of these claims is downplayed. In fact, by any measure, they were controversial. It is essential to understanding Jacobs that he never argued for a half-way-house the way some American Conservative thinkers such as Rabbi Jacob Agus have done, for example that there was an event at Sinai but that the record of it was disrupted in some way. For Jacobs, the conclusions of academic bible scholars were persuasive, which means no Exodus, no Moses, no revelation at Sinai. The entire development of the Hebrew bible has to be understood differently. In Orthodox terms that is undeniably controversial. Cosgrove shows in his dissertation that Jacobs understood at the time that they were controversial, which makes his public, apparent, bemusement itself bemusing.

Jacobs is interesting in Jewish terms not because he accepted the finding of biblical criticism but because he argued that notwithstanding that its historical development, the authority of Torah and halacha was not affected. This is because God guided the process of the developing of the Torah, both written and oral, and endorsed the conclusions after the fact. We should note that this position requires an impressive level of faith. Jacobs possessed profound belief in God and in Judaism as God’s will for the Jewish People.

These ideas, as Jacobs himself identified, were not original to Jacobs. We can find them in Anglo-Jewish thinkers from the 1890s to the 1930s, namely Morris Joseph, Joseph Hockman, Herbert Lowe and Joshua Abelson. As I have shown elsewhere, the first three of these figures were penalised by the British Chief Rabbinate for holding and sharing these views. Joseph was denied the pulpit of the Hampstead Synagogue by Chief Rabbi Hermann Adler in 1892. Adler rebuked and imposed sanctions on Hockman after a sermon he gave in 1910 and Chief Rabbi Hertz eased him out of the ministry of the New West End Synagogue when he was still propounding these views in 1915. Lowe felt Hertz was persecuting him, even though Lowe was an academic at Cambridge University and not a serving synagogue minister, and there was an ill-tempered correspondence between the two men. Joshua Abelson escaped censure, perhaps because he expressed his thought as possibilities not as certainties and he did so in the interregnum between Adler and Hertz. The treatment of Jacobs was entirely consistent with these Anglo-Jewish precedents.

My argument is that it was Jacobs’ very traditionalism which made it difficult for some observers to understand what was going on in the Jacobs’ Affair. Why was a man who was a Talmudic scholar, upheld halacha, and (perhaps more importantly) the customs of the United Synagogue, excluded from the Anglo-Orthodox community? My contention is that the question of the authorship of the Pentateuch was and had always been a red line in Anglo-Jewry. Those who were traditional on that question were acceptable, and those who were not traditional on that question, were not.

Despite claims that Jacobs had widespread support from his colleagues in the United Synagogue rabbinate in the 1950s, even accounting for concerns about livelihoods, there was no revolt, no widespread resignations, no defections by congregations. Other rabbis and ministers (such as Isaac Levy, Isaac Newman, Kopul Rosen and Leslie Hardman) may have liked Jacobs, felt sorry for his predicament, may even have shared some doubts with him. It is also apparent from the accounts of Jews’ College students in the 1950s, such as Stefan Reif, that Jacobs’ views were not popular there and some felt that Jacobs was deliberately provocative, for example by covering his head as infrequently as possible, albeit within an interpretation of the halacha).

This is not to say that Brodie handled the affair well. But we cannot say that Brodie was led the London Beth Din, especially because Brodie refused to allow Jacobs to return to the New West End, against the advice of the London Beth Din. The role of Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky in establishing a harder line in Anglo-Jewry is often highlighted as a factor, but Abramsky had left London in 1953, some four years before Jacobs published We Have Reason to Believe, so he had no direct impact on the Jacobs Affair.

Why does the Jacobs myth continue? Possibly because of the vocal and persistent support of the Jewish Chronicle, which continues to this day, hence their recent serialisation of Freedman’s biography. There was also Jacobs’ repeated claim that he was Orthodox. It is true that weakened in the last decade of his life, but he never fully embraced the Masorti movement, even though he allowed himself to become associated with it. There was also a certain disingenuousness about some of Jacobs’ (or his supporters’) outrage at his treatment. He must have understood why, from an Orthodox perspective, his conversions and weddings were not recognised, and why some thought fit to deny him an aliyah to the Torah. It was unconvincing naiveite for Jacobs to wonder in amazement about how this could be so.

As we consider Jacobs again, now is a good time to make some further observations about his life, career and thought. First, I think he was a man of deep loves and committemnts. As a boy he became infatuated with Torah, from Balkind’s Cheder to Manchester Yeshiva. He loved Talmud from his teens to the end of his life. Whatever else happened he never lost his devotion to the study of rabbinic texts.

His next deep love was with academic Jewish studies. When he went to the University of London (without the filter that Jews’ College would have provided) he was totally convinced by the academic method and the results that it produced in its analysis of the bible. Interestingly Jacobs did not write very much about the bible as a scholar, in the way he wrote about the Talmud or responsa for example, but he was obsessed by the veracity of the documentary hypothesis. Jacobs would approve of a Winston Churchill quote, and here is an opposite one: ‘a fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject’. Jacobs was a fanatic when it came to higher criticism of the bible, and as Freedman observes, Jacobs brought it up repeatedly, even when it was not necessary.

Finally, Jacobs became totally in love with high Anglo-Orthodoxy: the New West End Synagogue, robes, mixed choirs and top hats. He and his supporters recreated it at the New London Synagogue, and it lasted longer there than in almost any United Synagogue. That is interesting in itself because normally scholars have little time for pomp, but Jacobs was dazzled by the congregation at the New West End Synagogue, as he wrote in his autobiography, to see all the lords and knights kneeling at Aleinu on the High Holidays.

Freedman begins his book by recounting Jacobs being voted the greatest British Jew in a Jewish Chronicle poll. That was in 2005, and even sixteen years later, it seems bizarre that he was considered greater that Moses Montefiore, Isaiah Berlin and others.  The contention that Jacobs was the greatest British Jew, has led to a back projection about his standing in the 1950s and early 1960s. He had his yeshiva and kollel background, a reputation as a brilliant young Talmudist (ilui), and his PhD,  but he had published little by 1959, and even less of scholarly weight. It was unfair of Brodie and others to say that Jacobs lacks scholarly qualifications to be Principal of Jews’ College, but it is interesting that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik did not rate Jacobs highly as a scholar at this stage either.

It is worth trying to reread We Have Reason to Believe (1957). I did so recently in the hope that the chapters about God might be useful, but I did not find it compelling or helpful. That may be why its reception was muted in 1957, but in my Rabbinic opinion, at the very least, it has not aged well. Without the furore it caused, it might never have been republished. Beyond Reasonable Doubt, the 1999 follow-up book is a much better presentation of Jacobs’ ideas, and all the scholarly works of the 1960s to 1990s rightly established Jacobs’ academic reputation beyond question, and earned him honorary degrees and invitations as a visiting scholar at leading institutions. His congregation was very supportive of his academic and international career, although as a ferociously hard worker he did not short change his synagogue either.

A repeated and important question about Jacobs is why he did not leave Britain. He could have saved himself so much trouble and heartache had he become a professor at the JTS. They would have welcomed him with open arms, and he would have been a respected and celebrated part of the JTS community, in practice on the right of the Conservative Movement and in theology more towards its left, but entirely unmolested. Freedman suggests that he was tied by his loyalty to the Anglo-Jewish community, the community that supported him throughout his troubles and to his family. I am not sure this fully answers the problem, especially when the price of staying was continued conflict and tension.

Without casting aspersions, one answer to this conundrum might be that Jacobs, on some level, actually enjoyed the fight. Not all of it, and not all the time, but being a martyr has its benefits, and being an unusual, prominent even notorious figure has its attractions. I have mentioned how he raised the origin of the Pentateuch as often as possible. Freedman describes how he attacked the institution of the British Chief Rabbinate gratuitously in his The Jewish Religion, A Companion.­ In some cases Jacobs obviously stoked or invited personal conflict. For example, in the mid-1990s when Chief Rabbi Sacks called him before Yom Kippur to apologise for a personal attack earlier in the year, Jacobs repeated that conversation the next day in his sermon. He must have known that would perpetuate a conflict that Sacks was trying to resolve.

Often in Jacobs’ writing we find the rather conceited statement ‘all thinking people would agree’ or ‘no sensible person would argue’, implicitly dismissing those who might disagree with him, whereas many very thoughtful and learned people did, honestly, disagree with him. This tendency has continued among his followers, who in 2016 ran an ‘Honest Theology Project’, implying that other approaches are somehow less honest.

In contrast, Jacobs to a somewhat doctrinaire theology, in halachic matters Jacobs did not like to lay down the law, but still complained that Masorti interpreted his decision not to say ‘no’ as a ‘yes’, whereas it was nothing of the sort. He refused to become the ‘Presiding Rabbi’ of British Masorti (of which Freedman was Chief Executive) because he did not want to make rulings. Jacobs is often hailed as the greatest Chief Rabbi Britain never had, but at least one function of a Chief Rabbi is to say ‘no’ when necessary, and Jacobs found that very difficult.

The ways that Jacobs’ approach is now out of fashion covers not just the formality and pomp of the style of synagogue service that Jacobs favoured, but as Brill noted in his introduction to the interview, his whole approach to egalitarianism. In 1988 Jacobs said he regarded ‘the question of women’s [ritual] participation as relatively trivial’ whereas he merely wanted to perpetuate traditional Anglo-Orthodoxy ‘in a non-fundamentalist way’. All Jacobs wanted was a redefinition of Torah Min Hashamayim and for everything else to remain the same.

Since his retirement and death his old synagogue, the New London, has gone another way and become egalitarian under its English-born but JTS-trained rabbi. Across the denominational divide, the growth of Partnership Minyanim and of Orthodox Rabbis performing same sex marriages implies that the cutting edge of Orthodoxy is more interested in practice than in theology, quite the opposite of the position Jacobs staked out for half a century.

Jacobs was undoubtedly an extraordinary figure, and like all such figures, he lives on beyond his death, and as the real man recedes the myth grows. But in deference to his teachings we should constantly reassess those myths, because whatever else may be said about Louis Jacobs, above all he believed in pursuing and stating the truth as it is honestly understood.

Postscript: Unfortunately, in his blog interview, Freedman took a sentence I have written about his non-traditionalism out of context. In doing so he misrepresented my position. Please look at the original (page 269 of my book) to rectify the unfairness of Freedman’s presentation.