Originally published in Quest, 1 (September 1965); republished in New North London News (Autumn 2000), pp. 9-11.
On the occasion of Rabbi Jacobs’ retirement after 36 years as minister of New London Synagogue, we reproduce with kind acknowledgement his article from the first edition of Quest, published in September 1965.
The controversy which led to the formation of the New London Synagogue was, somewhat surprisingly, followed all over the world, attracting a leader in The Times, an Osbert Lancaster cartoon, comment on television, snide references in the Israeli press to ‘British hypocrisy’, even a front-page article in the Sunday Minor, to say nothing of notices in the religious papers. No doubt a good deal of the interest shown was in the more sensational aspects of the affair; in the ‘names’ involved—a former Lord Mayor of London, a Rothschild, Sir Isaac Wolfson and others; in the contemplation of staid, unexciting Anglo-Jewry being embroiled in a first-class row; in, as some thought, a repetition on the Jewish scene of the Bishop of Woolwich debate. But over and above this there was a genuine interest in the theological issue. It is with this issue and the points raised in the discussion of it that this article is concerned.
What was all the fuss about? Traditional Judaism is based on the three tremendous ideas of God, Torah and Israel. In the traditional scheme God gives the Torah to Israel and through Israel to the whole of mankind. But what is meant by God giving the Torah? From the days of Philo of Alexandria there has been much discussion around the difficult concept of God ‘speaking’ to man. God does not have vocal organs. However, the problem for modems is not that of communication alone but of content. A mediaeval thinker like Maimonides is quite prepared to acknowledge that the nature of the divine communication is a mystery beyond our grasp, while insisting that the scope of that communication covered the whole of the Pentateuch together with the traditional interpretation of its laws found in the Talmudic literature. On this view, and it was one held virtually without exception throughout the Talmudic and mediaeval periods, God dictated (Maimonides would agree that this is merely an attempt to describe the unfathomable in intelligible human terms) the whole of the five books to Moses, word for word and letter for letter, together with the Oral Torah, that is, the detailed expositions of the Torah laws as found in the teachings of the Rabbis. Modern concepts such as the development of ideas, laws and institutions under social, economic, historical and political influences, are entirely foreign to this way of looking at revelation. The great Rabbis, without doubt, on comparatively rare occasions, introduced new legislation of their own, but their chief role was that of transmitters of laws reaching back without a break to the days of Moses. The idea that King David, Elijah and the great literary prophets, for example, wore tephillin, differing in no basic detail from the tephillin worn by Jews today, may offend as anachronistic the historical sense of modems, but there is little doubt that such was the traditional view as stated clearly in the Talmud and recorded with the same lack of ambiguity by Maimonides.
On this view God imparted to Moses a series of laws, narratives, religious and moral doctrines and sublime mysteries regarding the divine nature in its creative activity, these being in turn imparted to Joshua and, through the ‘chain of tradition’, to the present-day teachers of Judaism. That there is grandeur in the traditional view can hardly be denied. On this view it is hard to know the Torah, albeit the task is never-ending, since the Torah is itself a reflection of the Infinite.
Why have most modems been compelled to reject this conception? The new picture of the Bible, and this includes the Pentateuch, which has emerged as a result of the massive researches of a host of devoted scholars since the sixteenth century, is of a collection of works produced by many hands over a long period, during which the influences of diverse ancient civilizations were brought to bear on the language, style and thought patterns of the authors. The Pentateuch itself is now seen as a composite work, bearing all the marks by which compositeness can be detected, such as different strata, varying historical and geographical backgrounds, changes of style and the like. Though containing much very early material, the Pentateuch is now seen as a work put together at a comparatively late stage in Israel’s history, it is true that many modem scholars are far less confident than those of the nineteenth century in our capacity, after two and a half thousand years, to disentangle in neat sequence the three main streams which have been detected, but there is no Biblical scholar of repute, whether Jew, Catholic or Protestant, who, having studied the evidence of compositeness, is not convinced by it. Moreover, the findings of the physical sciences with regard to such matters as the age of the earth, and anthropology with regard to the age of man upon it make it quite clear that, whatever its marvellous value for religion and ethics, there can no longer be any question of a divinely dictated book, infallible in all the information it conveys. Then again new archaeological discoveries have made us aware of the religion, culture and myths of Egypt, Babylonia, Canaan and Sumeria, demonstrating that many of the Biblical ideas have their roots in these civilizations. This is not, of course, to say that the Biblical narratives, for instance, are the same as the ancient myths. For all its striking parallels in ancient mythology, or rather because of them, the story of Noah’s ark, to quote one example, stands out as a glorious testimony of the power of ethical monotheism to transform a soulless, immoral myth into a vehicle for the transmission of truths by which men may live. For all that, it is now very difficult, to say the least, to believe that the story of the Deluge is historical, still less that it was divinely dictated.
Dr John Baillie, in the 1961 and 1962 Gifford Lecture, sums up the modern attitude when he writes: ‘It is now agreed by responsible theologians that for our knowledge of such things as can be perceived by the senses, for our knowledge of ‘things seen’, we are dependent alone on the evidence of those senses and the scientific reflection that builds on such evidence. Needless to say, this does not mean that faith has nothing to say about the corporeal world. It has very much to say.’
In the face of the new evidence which scientific investigation of the classical sources of Judaism yields, three attitudes are possible. The first either ignores the new knowledge altogether, asserting, with a vast contempt for the whole science of the Goyyim, that the world is only five thousand seven hundred and twenty-five years old and that God, for reasons unknown to us, planted the fossils; or, on the more sophisticated level, tries to come to grips with the new knowledge by interpreting Scripture in a non-literal fashion, ‘days’ representing millions of years and the like. The infallibility of Scripture and its divine dictation are preserved with the implication that without these there is neither meaning nor value in the whole concept of Torah. The second attitude draws the conclusion from the new knowledge that the whole concept of revelation must go. The Bible is an all too human work, replete with errors, and, if we are to speak of inspiration at all, we can only say that the Bible is inspired in the sense in which Shakespeare or Beethoven are inspired. The third attitude, held by those who think as I do (though we claim no originality in this matter), is that what is called for is not an abandonment of the concept of revelation but its re-interpretation (in reality, a return to the claims the Bible makes about itself). On this view it can no longer be denied that there is a human element in the Bible, that the whole record is coloured by the human beings who put it down in writing, that it contains error as well as eternal truth, but that it is in this book, or collection of books, that God was first revealed to the world and that here, and in the subsequent Rabbinic commentary, He speaks to us today. Revelation is now seen as a series of meetings or encounters between God and man. The Bible is the record of these meetings. It is not the actual words of the Bible which were revealed. These belong rather to the faltering human attempts to put down what is signified for men to have felt themselves very near to God.
This is to state baldly a very complex position. Attempts at working out in greater detail the new view of revelation and its implications for Jewish practice have been made by a number of distinguished thinkers in the last century and in this. Some of us, in a very small and inadequate way, have been obliged through the controversy to expound this view in books, articles and lectures. We feel strongly that the issue involved is one of accepting or rejecting the facts discovered by modem scholarship and that it cannot be prejudiced by appeals to the question-begging term ‘Orthodoxy’. If the facts are so, then their acceptance is right and therefore orthodox. The then Chief Rabbi thought otherwise and declared that anyone who accepts the opinion that there is a human element in the Bible is thereby precluded from serving as a Rabbi even in an institution of such tepid orthodoxy as the United Synagogue. Reactions to the situation have varied. It is perhaps worthwhile to examine some of them for the light they throw on Jewish attitudes in mid-twentieth century.
Many good people have naturally confessed, in some cases boasted of, their indifference to theological debate. A common view has been: all this is beyond me. For all I know the Chief Rabbi’s opponents may be right, but what is the use of having a Chief Rabbi unless you are prepared to submit unquestioningly to his decisions? If this way of looking at it were to prevail, indifference to theology or disparagement of it on the part of those responsible for the election of the Chief Rabbi would endow him with powers denied even to the Pope. Roman Catholics believe that on the very rare occasions when the Pope speaks ex cathedra he is guided infallibly by the holy spirit to speak what is right and true. It is certainly new that a religious leader (appointed by laymen) must be followed even if he is wrong, in the mistaken belief that institutionalism demands it. Other people have suggested that whether our ideas are right or wrong it was stupid and irresponsible for Rabbis to express them, since they may well have the effect of weakening faith; believing, evidently, that it does not matter what a Rabbi holds as long as he holds his tongue. But what kind of a faith is it that can so easily be shattered? Is traditional Judaism so sickly a plant that it can only wither and die if exposed to the light of free investigation? And, in any event, our young men and women are introduced to the facts about Biblical criticism not later than in their sixth forms. What can be more destructive of faith than a feeling that their Rabbis are engaged in a conspiracy of silence?
A pseudo-sophisticated critique of our position has been put forward by a number of university graduates in science, most of them belonging to an organisation known as the ‘Association of Orthodox Scientists’, some of whom, like Professor Cyril Domb, have won high distinction in the academic world. These men are determined to uphold intact the traditional-mediaeval position on the nature of Scripture. Their argument, so far as I can make it out, appears to run as follows: there are no scientific facts, only scientific hypotheses based on the facts observed. Such hypotheses are in the nature of the case only tentative. They are put forward as an attempt to explain the facts we observe, and are to be tested through further observation. The history of science informs us that all scientific progress is made by abandoning hypotheses which no longer explain the facts in favour of these which do, and these in their turn are abandoned in favour of other hypotheses which explain more than the earlier ones. It follows that all scientific explanation is tentative. All the scientist can be certain of are the basic facts of observation. Any interpretation he places on the facts is subject to revision when new facts are discovered. Newtonian physics, for example, served adequately to explain the fact of gravitation until the more effective hypothesis of Einstein; and this in turn may have its day. It will be seen, therefore, how precarious it is to reject the certain truth of tradition in favour of what is called scientific scholarship. Even the most plausible suggestions as to the authorship and date of the Biblical books are no more than brilliant guesses, which it is folly to prefer to the sure truth of tradition. It is only misguided Rabbis like me, dazzled by the achievements of physical sciences in whose methods they have had no training, and whose nature they do not understand, who swallow Biblical criticism whole in the false belief that they are being ‘scientific’ and up to date.
The fallacy here is so blatant that it barely needs pointing out. From Hume and Kant onwards (and reaching back earlier to Greek thought in its late period) there have been advanced subtle theories regarding the tentativeness of all human knowledge but these offer cold comfort to the traditionalist. On their own showing these theories are themselves only tentative. If, as may well be the case, the most we can hope for from hypotheses based on an examination of the observable facts is a high degree of plausibility, never certainty, this would apply a fortiori to theories found in the traditional literature. If, for example, the verdict of modern scholarship is that the book of Ecclesiastes could not have been written by King Solomon, a verdict based on philological, stylistic and historical evidence, it will not do to assert as true the traditional view, that it was composed by Solomon, on the grounds that all evidence amounts to no more than a hypothesis, which, by definition, is tentative. For if there is no certainty in any human knowledge, there is surely no certainty in pre-scientific traditions which are themselves part of human knowledge. The only reply to this is that traditional knowledge is not human at all but divine and therefore immune from error. But, apart from the absurdity and untraditionalism of the view that not only the Pentateuch but everything in the traditional sources is divine and therefore infallible, the human recognition that this is so is surely a part of human knowledge and hence subject to the same objections put forward against the verdict of scholarship.
A variation of the critique we are considering is to admit, by implication at least, that the verdict of scholarship is to be preferred to tradition, but to deny that views such as mine are based on the verdict of the best modem scholarship. This argument holds that I have embraced the Documentary Hypothesis—that there are four documents of diverse ages to be detected in the Pentateuch, put together by a series of Redactors—expounded at length by the anti-Semitic Wellhausen, whose views are rejected by present-day Bible scholars. Now none of us has ever claimed that Wellhausen’s is the final word in Biblical scholarship. Our contention is that whether Wellhausen is to be accepted or rejected is a matter not of faith but of scholarship. Present-day scholars who believe Wellhausen to be wrong arrive at their conclusions by the exercise of scholarly methods, not by an appeal to dogma. Moreover, modifications of the Documentary Hypothesis, or even its complete overthrow, in present-day scholarship take place in favour of other hypotheses equally untraditional. The conclusion that the Pentateuch is, in part at least, post-Mosaic, and that it is a composite work, is accepted by every Bible scholar of note today who ‘plays the game’, that is who does not dismiss the scholarly enterprise itself as erroneous. This is based on the strongest evidence and is extremely unlikely to be overthrown. It is a conclusion which is, of course, only tentative’, in the sense in which all human knowledge is tentative, but to invoke the principle of tentativeness in defence of tradition leads, as we have seen, to illogicality.
All this is in the realm of theory. In the realm of Jewish practice, traditionally based on the belief that Jewish observances were ordained directly by God in communication with Moses, there are specific problems arising out of the view that there is a human element in both Scripture and its traditional interpretation. We have declared our loyalty to Jewish observance and our critics have not been slow to spurn this attitude as at best illogical at worst cowardice. We have replied, as others have done before us, that the historical experiences of the people of Israel determine which observances are binding upon faithful Jews. But this requires some elaboration. It is, of course, possible to take the view that traditional practices are binding in themselves. ‘Believe what you like as long as you keep the mitzvoth’ is the slogan of some even today. This is very far, however, from our position, which sees ancestor worship as a form of idolatry. As we see it the religious justification of Jewish observances is that they have come to be, whatever their origin, vehicles of worship.
An obvious example is Yom Kippur. If scholarship is to be trusted at all, it is clear that this institution did not fall from Heaven in its entirety, but is the product of gradual growth from early, even primitive, beginnings, reaching its Biblical development late in Biblical history and receiving fresh embellishments through the ages. This is at variance with the traditional view, but an acceptance of how Yom Kippur came to be is really irrelevant to the question of its religious value and consequent binding force for Jews today. In theological language God did command Jews to keep Yom Kippur, but the command is now seen as conveyed through the divine-human encounter in Jewish history. But it is not history which is being worshipped but the God who reveals Himself in history.
It can all be summed up in this way. There are many religious Jews who see supreme value in the vocabulary of worship provided by traditional observances and who, for this reason, do not wish to embrace Reform Judaism. But these same Jews cannot bring themselves to compromise their intellectual integrity by accepting traditional theories which seem to them untenable. In the United States of America they can join the Conservative Movement. In Israel they are searching desperately for a sense of identity. In this country, until recent events, they could have joined the United Synagogue, an organisation which has always lacked a clear religious position, but which for that very reason was an ideal spiritual home for those who wished to work out for themselves a new philosophy of Jewish observance. The fact that this is no longer possible led to the formation of the New London Synagogue.