It’s ten years since our teacher, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, went to his eternal rest, like his beloved wife Shula, on the sacred Sabbath. But the sound of his voice, his Mancunian inflections, the way he told a joke, and above all the endless knowledge and devotion with which he spoke of Torah, still resonate with those who loved and admired him.
His most famous, and controversial, teachings were the result of the encounter of two great intellectual traditions. The first was without doubt the world of the Yeshivah, specifically Manchester Yeshivah, which he entered in his teens and where he was quickly recognised as an illui, a prodigy, with an incisive intellect, a voracious dedication to learning and a memory which retained in every detail the finest of the fine commentary on the margins of the Talmudic page. He loved this world, felt spiritually at home in it, and, although he had to abandon some of its tenets, felt in the end not so much that he had left it but that it had jettisoned him.
The second was the rigorous, scientific discipline of post-enlightenment scholarship. He was a modernist, committed to the empirical method of critical enquiry and the impartiality of reason. Faith could justly claim to transcend reason, but not to ignore it and tread down facts. Dr Stern, his teacher at University College London, where he enrolled after the death of his Rosh Yeshivah, liked to cite the witty aphorism of the great scholar Moritz Steinschneider: ‘The beginning of wisdom is bibliography’. The true quote is of course, ‘The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord’.
Between bibliography and the fear of the Lord, Rabbi Jacobs charted his courageous course. It forced him to reject, in the name of a hundred and fifty years of impartial scholarship, the traditional claim that the Torah was totally the unmediated word of God, in favour of the view, which he held with a passion, that it was the profound revelation of God’s will not just ‘to’ but also ‘through’ the Jewish People. The Torah therefore inevitably reflected, as well as transformed, the history and the legal, social, moral and literary norms of the ages in which it was written. For, as he would often say, no person can avoid being the creature of their time, – and, one might add, no text, not even the most holy, either.
Judaism is thus from the first a dynamic interaction between God and humanity, history and morality, the eternal truths of the spirit and the developing understanding of the times. Judaism is thus the complex path of piety and questioning, practice and protest, spiritual submission and moral challenge, created by the Jewish People through history in obedience to the understanding, always imperfect, of God’s will. To follow it we need both faithfulness and flexibility, both obedience and openness, both commitment to the past and the courage to follow the quest into the unresolved questions of the future.
On this path no power or threat could cow Rabbi Jacobs; he lived in complete fidelity to his truth and his God, for God, as he noted in the very first paragraph of his first truly controversial book We Have Reason To Believe, is the God of truth.
His legacy is manifold; but there is one outstanding concern. Two generations after the most formative period of Rabbi Jacobs’s thought, we no longer live solely in the same vortex of the clash between modernism and faith. A populist brand of post-modernism seems to have scooped up and rescued faith, though not in a way which is necessarily helpful to humanity. There is no truth, it claims; we only know our narratives. They are the great stories which animate our lives, – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, secular, nationalist. They define our identity, tell us who we are, what we are for, and, more disturbingly, who we are not and what we are against.
The frightening concern is that the protagonists of these narratives tend to see them as the truth and the only truth. The world is busy mobilising the soldiers of these stories: we may be on the brink of the age of the clash of the great mythologies.
We have never more urgently needed the voices of those who, while maintaining their devoted love for their faiths, can also step outside and critique them in the name of honesty, humility and humanity and put the question, as the Biblical Prophets did: ‘Is this really God’s will? Is this what the God of truth truly wants of us?’