The Talmud relates the tragic story of an ancient Jewish sage named Elisha ben Abuyah. Initially one of his generation’s leading rabbinic luminaries, Elisha eventually became Judaism’s first unambiguous Epikoros, or theological apostate, earning the sobriquet Akher (“the Other”). Speculation about the cause of his heresy has taken many forms. Perhaps he was too enamoured of Greek philosophy, or perhaps he was disillusioned by God’s apparent silence in the face of evil, or perhaps he suffered the debilitating after-effects of a particularly intense mystical experience. Although the precise nature and provenance of his apostasy remain concealed, the character of Akher provided Jewish tradition with a useful archetype: that of the seditious scholar, the brilliant rabbinic student whose vast learning did not prevent him from abandoning his patrimonial faith. Such notable figures as Shabbetai Tzvi, Baruch Spinoza, Solomon Maimon, and many early Zionist leaders have been accused of being an Akher.
In contemporary Orthodox rabbinic circles, especially in Britain, the name of one twentieth-century Akher looms large: Rabbi Louis Jacobs (1920–2006). This brilliant, pious, genial, widely beloved rabbinic scholar appears at first blush to be an odd candidate for the title of Orthodoxy’s arch-nemesis. Throughout his entire life, Jacobs remained scrupulously faithful to the practices of Halacha (Jewish law), taught Jewish religious texts day and night, and never ceased to identify both himself and his synagogue as fully Orthodox. Yet, when an Orthodox rabbi describes a certain idea or outlook as “worthy of Louis Jacobs,” it is usually code for “a piece of sophisticated yet unconscionable heresy.” How did this come to be?