A tribute by Rabbi Raymond Apple on the 10th yahrzeit of Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein (1894-1962).
I first met Dr Epstein face to face on the day I arrived in London in 1958 to study at Jews’ College. I had already come under his influence from afar, as a student at Melbourne University. Some people find that university education brings about a lessening of religious faith. My experience was the opposite. I discovered myself coming closer to traditional Judaism. I began to read very widely – patronising libraries, borrowing books from rabbis and scholars, and ordering innumerable items from booksellers in England, Israel and America. Much of what I read happened to be by Isidore Epstein.
I found in his writings a view of religion which combined faithfulness to tradition with a wide understanding of contemporary problems. And this synthesis, I was later to discover, typified the man. After studying in great yeshivot and obtaining rabbinical diplomas from several outstanding figures, he gained two doctorates of London University. After developing the reputation of knowing the whole Talmud by hear, he made himself at home in a variety of academic disciplines. Hence, when a teachers’ training institute was opened by Jews’ College and a range of course in secular subjects was offered, he would often enter the lecture room and amaze both the lecturer and students by his knowledge of whatever subject was being studied – classical or modern languages, history or mathematics.
In the Jewish sphere he first gained prominence as a scholar of rabbinics. Certainly only a Talmudic prodigy of his kind could have edited the 36-volume Soncino translation of the Talmud with much distinction. But he was also a master of many other aspects of Jewish learning and wrote on them all with a clear mind and lucid English style.
He wrote book after book and with them filled in 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 fulfilment. The historian Cecil Roth once divided Dr Epstein’s writings into three periods. The first period was marked by pioneering works of scholarship, especially in the field of rabbinic responsa as sources of social history. The second brought Dr Epstein to the fore as an editor, notably of the Soncino Talmud. In the third period he produced standard works on Judaism for a variety of age groups, culminating in his Pelican book, Judaism: A Historical Presentation. Apart from his books he wrote a variety of monographs and pamphlets and contributed to various encyclopaedias. He wrote so many articles that he himself could not remember them all when invited to make his writings available for an exhibition when he retired in 1961.
He was a realist. At the very beginning of his brilliant book, The Faith of Judaism, he recognised that “these are days of the gravest crisis for all religions”. Many were claiming that God was dead and religion out of date. Conventional morals and ideals were no longer taken for granted. Everything was being questioned. Yet Dr Epstein was never dismayed by questioning despite the cynicism that went with it. If there was a spirit of enquiry, at least it showed that people were interested enough to ask and argue. If there were no easy answers, it was possible to find an approach to an answer, and this was what motivated so much of his writing.
His literary output was tremendous, but it was Jews’ College which was his life’s work. After a short period as the rabbi of Middlesbrough, he joined the College staff in 1928, becoming in 1945 Director of Studies and subsequently Principal. He was a good administrator with an inventive mind, but above all he gave the College leadership. He was a tolerant man in most ways, but he had no tolerance for those who would pass judgement on Judaism out of ignorance. As a teacher he had great patience, but he could put any of us to shame with his impatient “You don’t know your Bible!”
He felt that ministers were vitally in need of the soundest possible knowledge of Jewish law and tradition: hence – despite some opposition – he introduced a Rabbinical Diploma class within the College. Among other innovations were a Chazanut class, post-graduate courses in education and sociology, a teachers’ training institute, and a network of adult education courses for the general public.
He knew every student, and many enjoyed the hospitality of his and his wife’s home. Students who had problems took it for granted that they should seek his guidance. He had more respect for his students than they always deserved. If he was too busy to take on a speaking engagement, he would often send a student in his place. If a student had any special field of interest Dr Epstein would look for an occasion for consulting him on the subject. Knowing I had a law degree he would sometimes discuss an English legal concept with me, thought it was a bit disconcerting to find that he knew far more about the subject than I did.
His energy was legendary. In his late sixties he could walk much faster than even the most agile of his students, who had almost to run to keep up with him, even though he might have been fifty years their senior.
When he retired from Jews’ College in 1961 the community looked forward to many more literary products coming from his pen. Alas, he died within a year, at a time when Anglo-Jewry was rent by controversy and the academic calm of Jews’ College was rudely shattered. Many of us still feel that the challenge in traditional Judaism might have been more adequately contained had he lived. But that, of course, is crying over spilt milk. Yet therein lies perhaps the greatest tribute to his memory, that we say so sadly: “Thou shalt be missed, for thy place will be empty.”
See also “Isidore Epstein & the strengthening of faith” and “Judaism: A Historical Presentation”.