Extract from Elliot N. Dorf, The Unfolding Tradition: Jewish Law After Sinai (New York: Aviv Press, 2005), pp. 270-276.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs is currently rabbi of the New London Synagogue in London, England; Goldsmid Visiting Professor at University College, London; and Visiting Professor at Lancaster University as well. A product of Orthodox yeshivot at Manchester and Gateshead in England with undergraduate and doctoral degrees from London University, Rabbi Louis Jacobs’s erudition and brilliance made him the obvious candidate to succeed Rabbi Isidor Epstein as Principal of Jews College upon the latter’s retirement in 1962. In 1957, however, Jacobs had written We Have Reason to Believe, in which he affirmed belief in a historical approach to the texts of Judaism, including the Torah. That made him persona non grata within the Orthodox establishment, a painful story he retells in his 1989 autobiography, Helping With Inquiries: An Autobiography. Because of Jacobs’s “heresy,” Chief Rabbi Brodie not only refused him that advancement but also denied him reappointment as rabbi of his former congregation, the New West End Synagogue. After an angry public row, most of the members of that synagogue resigned and formed the New London Synagogue, with Dr. Jacobs as its rabbi. None of this deterred Rabbi Jacobs from maintaining his beliefs; quite to the contrary, he continued to write about them and to teach them in his synagogue, which, with the cooperation of its lay leaders, became the first Conservative/Masorti synagogue in England. Rabbi Jacobs is rightfully, then, known as the founder of the Masorti (Conservative) movement there and is still among its primary spokesmen.
A truly prolific author, Rabbi Jacobs has demonstrated the rare ability to write for widely varying audiences. He has written a number of books on Judaism intended for a popular audience. These are routinely “high popular culture”: they do not assume a strong Jewish education, but they aim high in transmitting the tradition to lay people in a serious way. For example, between 1968 and 1976 he wrote a series of five books for Behrman House (the “Chain of Tradition Series”), designed for teenagers and adults with little Jewish knowledge. In that series he selected, translated, and explained, section by section, primary texts about Jewish law, mysticism, ethics, exegesis, and philosophy. He later wrote for Behrman House three introductory texts to Judaism for adults, The Book of Jewish Belief (1984); The Book of Jewish Practice (1987); and Jewish Personal and Social Ethics (1990).
A second genre of his writings focuses on Jewish theology, in which he not only explains the theologies of others but creates his own theology. This genre began with We Have Reason to Believe and includes Faith (1968); A Jewish Theology (1973); God, Torah, and Israel: Traditionalism without Fundamentalism (1990); and the restatement and reenforcement of his thesis in the first of those in his book, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1999), the book from which our first selection from his writings is taken.
Yet a third genre of his writings, the largest corpus by far, is academic Jewish scholarship, which includes, among many others: Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology (1961); Principles of Jewish Faith: An Analytic Study (1964); Hasidic Prayer (1973); Theology in the Responsa (1975); A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law (1984); and Structure and Form in the Talmud (1991).
The first selection below graphically illustrates Jacobs’s ability to synthesize the traditional with the modern and the philosophical with the religious. He adamantly refuses to let traditional religious claims pass just because they are traditional; on the contrary, he exposes them to the most honest, thoroughgoing, far-reaching, and deep critique possible. At the same time, he is not prepared to ignore the distinctly religious meaning of classical Jewish texts and practices. Human beings may have crafted them all, but they did so, for Jacobs, in response to God. As he says elsewhere, “Revelation is a matter of faith rather than historical scholarship. Scholarly investigation into the authorship of the biblical books cannot by its very nature make any pronouncement on whether the author or authors of a biblical book were inspired.” Yet Jacobs himself clearly believes that the Torah is a divinely inspired book, and he comes to that conclusion on the basis of some reasons for his faith:
It is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to account for the lofty teachings of the Hebrew prophets, the civilizing influence of the great Law of Moses, the history of a small people who found God and brought Him to mankind, the Sinaitic revelation itself and the spiritual power these books continue to exercise over men’s souls, unless Israel really met with God and recorded in immortal language the meaning of that encounter. We can be skeptical of individual details in the Bible. We can dwell on the numerous parallels with Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian mores. We can point out the striking resemblances between Hebrew poetry in the Bible and Canaanite hymns in praise of pagan gods. We are forced to recognize, to a degree quite beyond the imagination of our ancestors, the human element in the Biblical record. What cannot be seriously doubted is the ‘something else’ which has ensured that this and no other collection of books has become the sacred Scripture of a large proportion of mankind; that there are living Jews who regard themselves as the heirs to the Bible and no living Babylonians, Canaanites and Assyrians; that there is a Voice which speaks here in promise of great vision, of dreams of world peace, of holiness, justice, and mercy, of freedom and the unique worth of each individual as a child of God . . . For all our recognition of the dynamic rather than static quality of the tradition, the basic belief that it is all the work of God in co-operation with the humans who sought Him can reasonably be said to be based on experience, the experience of the prophets and law-makers in the first instance and the later experience of sages, thinkers, and undistinguished people who live by the great truths. The existence of the Jews does explain the existence of God. The Jews are the most powerful proof for God’s existence. There is still great power in the appeal to tradition.
Moreover, the ongoing meaning and import of those texts and practices depend on the extent that they continue to engage us with God:
Revelation must be understood as a far more complicated and complex process of divine-human encounter and interaction and quite differently from the idea of direct divine communication of infallible laws and propositions, upon which the traditional theory of Halakhah depends. . . . Revelation is now seen as a series of meetings or encounters between God and man. The Bible is seen as the record of these encounters, as is the Torah throughout Israel’s generations. It is not the actual words of the Bible that were revealed. These belong rather to the faltering human attempts at putting down what it signified for men to have felt themselves very near to God and how they reflected on the nearness to God of their ancestors.
Thus the classical texts of the Jewish tradition are of human origin, but they were written in response to experiences of God. In asserting this, Jacobs espouses a view of Jewish scholarship and action that is at once brutally honest and yet fervently religious.
With regard specifically to Jewish law, he asserts, in general, that “The whole of the Halakhah is a mighty attempt at bringing holiness into the detailed affairs of life in this corporeal world.” In the first selection below, he acknowledges that the moral parts of Jewish law recommend themselves to all human beings on the basis of their reason and experience alone. Why, then, are they religious in any sense? Jacobs cites the medieval Jewish thinker, Saadiah Gaon (883-942), in stating that revelation is necessary because reason can only give us the basic principles of ethics, but we need revelation to inform us of the details of how those principles should be applied. Saadiah also maintained that revelation is necessary to ensure that we know what we must do even if our reasoning fails (some people, after all, are not very smart, and even the most intelligent of us make mistakes) or before it is developed (when we are children). Jacobs adds that even “granted the autonomy of ethics [from religion], religion is required to give an added dimension to life. The religious man sees his ethical concern as part of his total relationship with God. . . . By introducing the love of God into the picture, a different quality is imparted to man’s ethical strivings. . . . Man is to live, it can be put, both horizontally and vertically,” focusing both on earthly concerns and the relationship of those to God’s ultimate purposes for our existence. Thus even though morals are open to all human beings to know and debate, Judaism adds a specific religious dimension to moral demands and thus enhances their scope and quality.
Jacobs asserts a similar claim for Judaism’s ritual laws. He goes to some length in this selection to point out the massive human component in determining the exact shape of Judaism’s ritual life, including the synagogue, the Sabbath and festivals, and prayer. Ultimately, as he says elsewhere, “the ultimate authority for determining which observances are binding upon the faithful Jew is the historical experience of the people Israel since, historically perceived, that is ultimately the sanction of Halakhah itself.” As he continues to note there, that might lead one to assert that Jewish law is exclusively the product of human beings and is to be understood, applied, and practiced as such, “that it is possible to have mitzvot (‘commands’) without a metzavveh (‘one who issues the commands’) or with the people Israel being the metzavveh.” Jacobs, though, calls such an approach “a theological monstrosity,” for it amounts to ancestor worship or worship of Jewish history, both forms of idolatry. (Kaplan, who saw Jewish texts and law as purely a human product, was at least honest enough to get rid of the category of Jewish law altogether, replacing it with moral norms built into nature and ritual folkways.) Jacobs instead asserts that for all the human involvement in producing and shaping Jewish law, it remains divine law because it is and always was intended as a response to God: “The religious appeal to history is that, whatever their origins, Jewish observances have come to be the most effective vehicles for the worship of God.” That approach enables us to see that “it is not history that is being worshiped; it is the God who reveals His will through history.” In the first selection below, he explains in some detail how that religious element of Jewish ritual observance can be experienced by non-fundamentalist Jews who acknowledge fully and honestly the human shaping of those rituals. He maintains that any adequate philosophy of Jewish law must take account of that religious element—namely, the ways in which the rituals are our form of encountering and worshiping God.
To discern God’s will through Jewish history and law requires that we first study those subjects honestly. Jacobs engages in just such a careful and extensive study of Jewish law in his book from which the quotations in the previous paragraph were taken, A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law, and he indicates some of the results of that effort in his discussion in the first selection below in describing how the laws of the synagogue and of the Sabbath and festivals came to be. Beyond such scholarship, though, one must see how those rituals, for all their human origins, function religiously as vehicles for encountering and worshiping God. Furthermore, to enable the ritual laws to fulfill that religious function, one must exercise judgment. Specifically, as he points out in the second passage from his writings included below (an excerpt from his earlier book, A Jewish Theology), one must distinguish between three types of traditional Jewish laws: those that are clearly beneficial, which we must retain and reinforce; those that are morally neutral but identify us as Jews, which we should retain as expressions of our traditional roots and communal identity; and those that are harmful, which we should find ways to change. The last of those include, in his examples, some of the disabilities of women in Jewish marital law, such as the case of an agunah, a woman tied to her first husband because he refuses to authorize a Jewish writ of divorce (a get) even though the couple has been divorced in civil law, in some cases for quite some time. At the time Jacobs wrote that piece (1973), that was precisely what the Conservative movement sought to resolve—and it did eventually succeed in finding halakhic ways to do so. One wonders what aspects of Jewish law Jacobs would classify today in this third category of “harmful” laws that need to be changed.
When studying Jacobs’s writings, one of my students, Adam Naftalin-Kelman, asked a very perceptive question: What is Jacobs saying that is new in Conservative legal theory? After all, in some ways all of the Conservative thinkers that we have considered previously have also asserted in one way or another that we must be intellectually honest in understanding the texts and practices of our tradition and that we have to affirm tradition, on the one hand, and be ready to change it at times, on the other. As a result, I thought seriously about leaving Jacobs out of this collection. And yet I knew that I could not do that, not only because of Jacobs’s importance in spreading Conservative Judaism to Europe, but also because he articulates his stance with a combination and synthesis of philosophical and scholarly depth that far exceeds that of any of the previous thinkers who make the same claims. Some of the earlier Conservative spokesmen have argued for this stance with great philosophical expertise, more have had depth in rabbinic texts, but nobody has argued as cogently for this Conservative stance on the basis of both traditional sources and philosophical acumen.
And yet, there are in Jacobs’s theory, as in everyone else’s, both strengths and weaknesses. In the latter category, Jacobs assumes, but never argues for, rabbinic determination of Jewish law; why should that not be in the hands of individual Jews or the Jewish community as a whole by something like a majority vote? In the first selection below, he acknowledges that some Jews will individually decide to use electricity on the Sabbath while others will not; how far does that flexibility go? And what are the parameters of rabbinic decisions? That is, to what extent is Jacobs willing to support rabbis’ changing of traditional Jewish law in the name of correcting harmful results? He has recently taken a stance against rabbis performing commitment ceremonies for gays and lesbians, despite the harm that that refusal does to such people, and so there are clearly some limits implicit in his approach, but what are they? More broadly, Jacobs’s theory, like that of many other Conservative thinkers, will clearly not satisfy those to the right or the left, for it is much too historical, open, and dynamic for those who require certainty in their belief and practice and much too communal and conservative for those who prize individual autonomy.
On the positive side, Jacobs’s theory is extremely well rooted in traditional sources, as his extensive and thorough scholarship of Jewish law in all ages amply demonstrates. It is also philosophically honest and astute, for it clearly identifies that which scholarship can determine and that which depends ultimately on faith. Even for the latter category, Jacobs’s writings clearly distinguish between a blind faith and a reasoned one. All in all, Jacobs’s theory cogently articulates the grounds for one to be, as he says in another one of his writings, traditional without being fundamentalist—indeed, with being scrupulously honest while yet being firmly traditional.