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    Remembering Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, Jewish philosopher and thinker

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 5 January 2021.

    Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein

    Sixty years ago last week, on December 27, 1960, Marian and I stood under the chuppah (wedding canopy) at the Bayswater Synagogue, London, to be married by her father, Rabbi Joseph Unterman. Her unterfuhrers (escorts to the chuppah) were her parents; mine were Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein, principal of Jews’ College, and his wife.

    The first time I met Dr. Epstein was the day I arrived in England, but I had admired him from afar as an author and thinker.

    Ours was the first marriage between two Jews’ College students. I was in the ministerial department and Marian in the teachers’ institute. My father was in Australia and had no money for the fare to London; my mother was deceased. Dr. and Mrs. Epstein stood in for them.

    I had been living in the College dorm for nearly three years and could not afford to phone home. When it came to furnishing our synagogue residence in Bayswater, we bought mostly cheap and nasty secondhand items. After studying arts and law at Melbourne University, I had come to London as a student, though these days it would have been Israel where I would go.

    Dr. Epstein was a diminutive man with a giant mind. Born in Hungary, he had come to England in his youth, and the rabbinic ordinations he earned included one from Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, who had been stranded in London because of World War I. Epstein (the students sometimes called him Eppie) was said to know the whole Talmud by heart. Only a man like that could have edited the 36-volume Soncino Talmud, the first full translation of the Babylonian Talmud into English.

    He was advised by then-chief rabbi Joseph Hertz to get an academic education and he ended up with two doctorates from London University. After some years as the rabbi in Middlesbrough he joined the teaching faculty at Jews’ College, where he remained for the rest of his life, becoming director of studies and, finally, principal.

    He taught whatever was necessary, ranging from Semitic languages to Bible and halachic concepts. When the College started a teachers’ department offering a range of general studies, he could walk into any classroom (psychology, classics, mathematics or whatever) and be at home. Walking in the physical sense was second nature to him; his students – we were nearly fifty years younger than he – had to run to keep up with him.

    He wrote voluminously. When he retired and we wanted to honor him by means of a bibliography of his writings, he couldn’t remember all that he had written.

    The historian Cecil Roth once divided Epstein’s writings into three stages. The first was rabbinic responsa, to which he devoted his first books; he was the pioneer of treating the responsa literature as a facet of Jewish history. He moved onto the Soncino Talmud, where his annotations were added to more or less every page. His third stage was books on Jewish thinking – not just Maimonides and Judah Halevi but the ideas and ideals of Judaism.

    His magnum opus in Jewish philosophy was “The Faith of Judaism: An interpretation for our times,” in which he addressed the critics who objected to religion as a whole, not to speak of those who objected to Judaism and orthodoxy. He insisted that Torah was not the same as Pentateuch. He insisted that everything had to make sense. He objected to anti-intellectual trends in which facing up to problems was avoided by people who thought fake homiletics could provide the answers.

    When Penguin Books wanted him to write a general book about Judaism he produced a history of Judaism and Jewish thought which went through many editions and was translated into a sheaf of languages.

    Scholars can be dry remote figures; Eppie was a warm human being who enjoyed dealing with young people. He would consult students when they didn’t really deserve it. He knew I had a law degree and would discuss with me how to phrase something in his translation of the Talmudic Encyclopedia. It turned out that he knew more law than I did. He would second us to give talks and lectures on his behalf all over the country. I still use his notes. I also stand by his principle that whatever one studies in Judaica the first and best book is the Tanach. His lament and rebuke was, “You don’t know your Bible!”

    See also:
    Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein – a tribute
    Isidore Epstein & the strengthening of faith
    Judaism: A historical presentation

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