Agus, Jacob B.

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AGUS, JACOB B. (1911–1986), U.S. rabbi and philosopher. Agus (Agushewitz) was born into a distinguished rabbinical family in the shtetl of Sislevitch (Swislocz), situated in the Grodno Dubornik region of Poland. After receiving tutoring at home and in the local ḥeder, he joined his older brothers as a student at the Mizrachi-linked Takhemoni yeshivah in Bialystok.

In 1925 the Agushewitzes migrated to Palestine. Unfortunately, the economic conditions and the religious life of the yishuv were not favorable and in 1927 the Agushewitz family moved again, this time to America, where Jacob's father, R. Judah Leib, had relocated a year earlier to fill the position of rabbi in an East Side New York synagogue.

The family settled in Boro Park (Brooklyn) and Jacob attended the high school connected with Yeshiva University. After completing high school, he continued both his rabbinical and secular studies at the newly established Yeshiva University. He received his rabbinical ordination (*semikhah) in 1933. After two further years of intensive rabbinical study, he received the traditional yoreh yoreh yaddin yaddin semikhah in 1935.

In 1935 Agus took his first full-time rabbinical position in Norfolk, Virginia. One year later he left Norfolk for Harvard University, where he enrolled in the graduate program in philosophy. At Harvard, his two main teachers were Professor Harry A. Wolfson and Professor Ernest Hocking. Agus' doctoral dissertation was published in 1940 under the title Modern Philosophies of Judaism. It critically examined the thought of the influential German triumvirate of Hermann *Cohen, Franz *Rosenzweig, and Martin *Buber, as well as the work of Mordecai *Kaplan, who in 1934 had published the classic Judaism as a Civilization.

While in the Boston area, Agus paid his way by taking on a rabbinical position in Cambridge and he continued his rabbinical learning with R. Joseph *Soloveitchik.

At Harvard, for the first time in his life, Agus encountered serious, even intense, criticism of traditional Judaism. In response, he decided to devote much of his energy for the rest of his life to explicating, disseminating, and defending the ethical and humanistic values embodied in the Jewish tradition, and in particular, how these values were interpreted by its intellectual and philosophical elites.

After receiving his doctorate from Harvard, Agus accepted the post of rabbi at the Agudas Achim Congregation in Chicago. Though the congregation permitted mixed seating, it was still considered an Orthodox synagogue. In this freer midwestern environment, removed from the yeshivah world of his student days, the orthodoxy of Yeshiva University, and the intensity of Jewish Boston, Agus began to have doubts about the intellectual claims and dogmatic premises of Orthodox Judaism. In particular, he began to redefine the meaning of halakhah and its relationship to reason and independent ethical norms.

In 1943, disenchanted with his Chicago pulpit, Agus accepted a call to Dayton, Ohio. During this period he also attempted to gather support for an agenda of change and halakhic reform at the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (rca) convention in 1944 and 1945. When this failed he decided to break decisively with the organized Orthodox community and its institutions. He officially broke with the rca in 1946–47 and joined instead the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly. In this new context he became a powerful presence and an agent of change, serving on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards for nearly 40 years, until his death.

In 1950, R. Agus accepted the position of rabbi at the newly formed Conservative congregation Beth El in Baltimore. A small congregation of some 50 families when he arrived, it grew over his three decades as its rabbi into a major congregation. During this period Agus also continued his scholarly work. He was a regular contributor to a variety of Jewish periodicals, such as the Menorah Journal, Judaism, Midstream, and The Reconstructionist, and he served on several of their editorial boards. He also occasionally published in Hebrew journals. At the same time, he began to teach at Johns Hopkins University in an adjunct capacity, to lecture at B'nai B'rith institutes, and to speak at colleges and seminaries around the country. In 1959 he published his well-known study The Evolution of Jewish Thought, an outgrowth of his lectures.

Beginning in 1968 Agus, while continuing his rabbinical duties in Baltimore, accepted a joint appointment as professor of rabbinic civilization at the new Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and at Temple University. In addition, he worked with the American Jewish Committee at both the local and the national level on various communal issues, with the Synagogue Council of America on Jewish-Christian issues, with a host of Jewish communal agencies, and he was active in Jewish-Christian dialogue in the hope of reducing antisemitism and helping to restructure the Christian understanding of Jews and Judaism.

Among Agus' writings are Modern Philosophies of Judaism (1941); Banner of Jerusalem (1946), a study of the life and thought of R. Abraham Isaac *Kook; Guideposts in Modern Judaism (1954); The Meaning of Jewish History (2 vols., 1963); The Vision and the Way (1966); Dialogue and Tradition (1969); and The Jewish Quest (1983). Agus also published a volume on Judaism as part of the Catholic Theological Encyclopedia and served as a consultant to Arnold Toynbee on Jewish matters. Some of his letters to Toynbee are printed in Toynbee's "Reconsiderations," the 12th volume of his Study of History.


S.T. Katz (ed.), American Rabbi: The Life and Thought of Jacob B. Agus (1996).

[Steven T. Katz (2nd ed.)]