The following tribute by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the booklet, Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein, 1894-1962 – A Memorial Tribute, published by the Jews’ College Union Society, 1963, to mark Dr Epstein’s first yahrzeit.
The Principal of Jews’ College is in a unique position to influence and guide the religious destinies of the community. The full extent of Isidore Epstein’s achievement in this direction will become clear only with time, but even at this early stage it is evident that if any one man had a decisive hand in the growing traditional trend in Anglo-Jewry, it was he. And this may be seen not only through his writings, which were mostly directed towards strengthening the faith of the perplexed believer, but equally in the kind of corporate spirit which he fostered at Jews’ College and in the important innovations in the College in the post-War period.
“These are the days of the gravest crisis for all religions,” he stated at the very beginning of his “Faith of Judaism”. The cruelties of war, with the resultant tragedies in Jewish and family life, and equally the uncertainty of the peace, led some to question the existence of God and many more to doubt His wisdom and goodness. The proliferation of philosophies, all exercising and many seeming to satisfy the mind, made many think that in comparison religion lacked consistency and appeal to the mature intellect. The growing materialistic temper of the age was accompanied by a drift away from religion and – probably as a result – an alarming process of social disintegration. Yet the post-War years, like all periods of transition, have become also years of vigorous questioning of the bases of conventional morals and ideals. This has been expressed in the increased discussion amongst articulate Jewish youth on the fundamental principles and attitudes of Judaism; a situation to which may well be applied the rabbinic comment on the verse, “And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What do you mean by this service?” (Ex. 12:26) The Mechilta saw this youthful query as both reassuring and alarming. It was alarming because the fact that it was necessary showed an ignorance which carried its own warning for the future; yet it was also reassuring since the existence of a spirit of enquiry was an encouraging sign for the perpetuation of Judaism.
Dr Epstein knew that it was his responsibility, as mentor of the religious leaders of Anglo-Jewry, to see that this new interest could be permanently and constructively utilised. So he proceeded to launch his great series of popular books, and with them he filled in one by one many noticeable gaps in Jewish literature in English. It almost seemed that he had set himself a programme of publications which year by year he brought towards complete fulfilment. His books covered every aspect of Judaism and catered for every age-group and section of the non-Jewish world. Their combination of breadth and depth, of faithfulness to tradition and wide understanding of contemporary problems, earned for them large sales here and in other English-speaking countries, and the compliment of translation into French and Hebrew, amongst other languages. All displayed, as Chief Rabbi Hertz acknowledged in introducing the Soncino Talmud, a “quite extraordinary erudition”, which appeared equally in Dr Epstein’s more specialised academic books and papers.
He fulfilled himself in another, but a similarly important way, through his students. Together with his colleagues on the academic staff he exemplified what he liked to call a “progressive traditional ideal” and endeavoured to mould a type of minister who shared his full adherence to orthodox tradition with his understanding of modern thought and attitudes; his ultimate aim was to see this outlook radiating amongst the wider Jewish community as the result of his students’ spiritual ministrations.
His appointment as Director of Studies, and subsequently as Principal, of Jews’ College gave him the opportunity to institute facilities within the College which would help to achieve his vision of the College as “a veritable focal centre of religious and spiritual life of Anglo-Jewry”. His first great post-War innovation was the introduction of the Rabbinical Diploma Class, aimed at providing the community with ministers who could lead it out of authoritative knowledge. Today the student, almost without exception, regards the crown of the Rabbinate as the logical conclusion of his College training.
With the steady improvement in the Jewish educational system, greatly stimulated by the establishment of the State of Israel, the problem of teacher-training has become more urgent than ever. Dr Epstein’s persistent advocacy and detailed administrative preparations brought about the opening of the Institute for the Training of Teachers, set up in close liaison with the University of London. In the College itself post-graduate courses in education and sociology were instituted as an attempt to broaden the scope of ministerial training. The Chazanut class was established to meet a very important Synagogal need. And the organisation of University Extension Courses on Jewish subjects was a solid contribution to Jewish adult education and one which helped to mould the new trends in Anglo-Jewish religious life.
It is now, when his memory is still so fresh a blessing, that we should gratefully acknowledge the significance of Isidore Epstein in the spiritual history of our community and ensure the vigorous continuation of his ideals.