Louis Jacobs Collection

Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs' decision shortly before he passed away to donate his library of almost 14,000 volumes to the Oxford Centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies has given the Centre's library a prominent place as a resource for the study of Rabbinic Judaism. This exceptionally rich working library of one of the world's most distinguished rabbinic scholars and authors is an 'Encyclopaedia of Judaism', which may be consulted on all major aspects of Jewish Studies including Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, Responsa, Liturgy, Hasidism, Mysticism, Kabbalah, Philosophy and Theology.

The many publications, for which this prolific writer found the resources in his own library, reveal its superior quality. Titles such as Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology (London 1961), A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law (Oxford 1984), Theology in the Responsa (London 1975), Hasidic Prayer (London 1993), Symbols for the Divine in the Kabbalah (London 1984) and A Jewish Theology (New York 1974) speak for themselves.

Many of Rabbi Jacobs's publications include extensive quotations or consist mainly of texts accompanied by short introductions and concise comments, intended to let the reader share the wealth of source material in his library. A good example is his Jewish Mystical Testimonies (New York 1977), an anthology of mystical texts from the Bible to writings of the twentieth century. In the introduction Louis Jacobs spells out his own role as follows: 'Each text is prefaced by an introduction and is followed by a comment which seeks to elucidate the text. Wherever possible, however, the texts have been allowed to speak for themselves' (p. ix). By placing each author and work in its historical context, explaining the fundamental concepts and if necessary providing 'a skeleton outline' of the text and some concise comments, Louis Jacobs becomes a facilitator, equipping the reader with the indispensable tools for discovering a range of mystical texts, of which his library contains such an admirable collection.

Other text-based publications include The Talmudic Argument: A Study in Talmudic Reasoning and Methodology (Cambridge 1984), Teyku: The Unsolved Problem in the Babylonian Talmud: A Study in the Literary Analysis and Form of the Talmudic Argument (London, New York 1981) and Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud (Cambridge 1991). Generations of students in Rabbinics, both Jews and Christians, have profited immensely from the literary analysis and critical examination of form and redaction of the Babylonian Talmud presented in these studies. By discussing a large number of talmudic passages Louis Jacobs has created a series of hermeneutical keys that give the reader access to the core of Rabbinic literature as contained in his own library.

A considerable number of his publications, however, aims at a readership beyond that of scholars and is meant for a wider, general public. His books on Jewish ethics and faith, such as The Moral Values of Judaism (Community publication, n.d.), Jewish Values (London 1960), The Book of Jewish Values (Chappaqua, NY 1983) and The Book of Jewish Belief (New York 1984), are meant partly to dispel fallacies and to expound the moral values of Judaism. His controversial view on the revelation from Sinai set out in We Have Reason to Believe. Some Aspects of Jewish Theology Examined in the Light of Modern Thought (London 1957; 4th rev. ed. 1995) is widely accepted among scholars in Rabbinics, but was stormily debated within the Jewish community. Though more pastoral and popular in approach, these books reflect equally their provenance: the library of Louis Jacobs. A Guide to Yom Kippur (London 1957) may serve as an example. Not intended as a scholarly exposition on Jewish liturgy, it was written for the Jewish community and, between the lines, for the non-Jew for whom he wanted to provide correct information about his Jewish faith. In the introduction Rabbi Jacobs - convinced that 'there can hardly be a Jew with a soul so dulled that this day has lost its appeal for him' - reveals himself to be a caring pastor, reaching out to all members of his community when explaining the significance of the Day of Atonement: 'The significance of the day lies in its all-embracing character. No man is so good, so pious, so worthy as to be absolved from throwing himself on God's abundant mercies. No man is so depraved as to be incapable of invoking God's mercies. No man is so unlearned that his voice cannot be heard by God even if his knowledge of Hebrew is so slender that the prayers have no meaning for him. There is a lovely Hasidic tale of a poor, untutored lad who brought with him to the Synagogue on Yom Kippur the whistle he used while watching his father's sheep. Unable to follow the prayers, the boy played his whistle in recognition of the glory of God. And all the great Rabbis present said where their prayers had failed, the simple, sincere tune of the shepherd boy had succeeded in opening the gates of Heaven' (p. 3).

After such an introduction one might expect merely a simple explanation of the services for Yom Kippur. However, the analysis of the structure of the services meant to guide the reader through the liturgy is preceded by a theological reflection on fasting and embedded in a historical setting of the festival, which includes an overview of its biblical roots, the development of the liturgy in Rabbinic literature, a sketch of Piyyutim, the Hasidic traditions and the customs and practices in Yeshivot. Here we see a scholar at work who wishes to evoke awareness of the historical development of Jewish liturgy and of the diversity of Jewish traditions. It is the hallmark of Louis Jacobs to use the library of the scholar - in this case the fine liturgy section - for the pastoral aims of the Rabbi, thus backing up his pastoral instructions by an historical approach and critical analysis of the tradition. Rabbi Jacobs's library has enriched the holdings of the Leopold Muller Memorial Library immensely. Particularly noteworthy are the sections on Kabbalah, Mysticism and Hasidism, subjects virtually non-existent in the Centre's Library previously. The section on Halakhah, containing Responsa from early to modern times, is unique, and as such is a most welcome addition to the library resources in Oxford.

For further information on Louis Jacobs, please see www.louisjacobs.org

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