Originally published in The Times Literary Supplement 3789 (1974), p. 1169.
LOUS JACOBS: A Jewish Theology. 342pp. Darton, Longman and Todd. £4.75.
Jews traditionally expound their beliefs in the form of interpretation. They furnish the Bible and the classic rabbinic documents, the Mishnah and the Talmud, with an ever-increasing body of exegesis, but seldom offer a systematic exposition of their faith. It is even thought that Judaism is opposed to theology, partly because it seeks to provide a response to concrete situations rather than a comprehensive account of religion itself, and partly because it is concerned with doing, rather than defining, the will of God. The publication of a book entitled A Jewish Theology by one of Anglo-Jewry’s best-known intellectual spokesmen is therefore an event worthy of serious attention.
Although admirably informed about the sources and about the secondary literature which has accumulated around them, Louis Jacobs does not set out to examine the history of Jewish religious ideas, but embarks on “the more difficult, but, if realized, more relevant, task of discovering what it is that a Jew can believe in the present”. So, after tracing Jewish teaching from the Bible and rabbinic literature through the medieval systematizers and the Kabbalistic and Hasidic masters, Dr Jacobs regularly ends by asking whether the given doctrine is acceptable to the modern Jew. It is the essential task of the theologian, he believes, to answer this question.
It should perhaps be remarked that this is a rather restrictive definition of theology which is normally conceived of more positively as an organized exposition of religious concepts and values handed down by tradition.
The pattern according to which the themes are arranged in this volume resembles that of Christian theology, but is adapted to Jewish needs. An outline of the unity, personality and attributes of God is followed by human religious attitudes (love, fear, worship, prayer). The specifically Jewish ingredients are analysed in chapters on revelation, commandments, various matters—of morality, as well as election and statehood. The concluding section discusses eschatological issues, Messianism and the hereafter.
Since Dr Jacobs cannot draw on the experience of a series of predecessors, here and there his work displays the teething troubles inherent in a new genre. He is prone to imitate some of the modish trends of Christian theology and discusses religious questions concerning creation and providence from a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) angle. By contrast, biblical criticism is tackled from an antiquated Wellhausenian position: though it must be added that the solution suggested by him could apply just as well to the problematic of the post-Dead Sea Scrolls era.
Dr Jacobs is by his own confession an Orthodox or traditional Jew. He is also an honest, and academically educated, twentieth-century individual. He would like to cling to old ideas and ways but, being truthful to himself, again and again he cannot. He does not believe in angels and demons. He calls eternal punishment a “monstrous” idea. He expects a Messiah (discarding the impersonal substitutes of general progress or political Zionism) but advocates “religious agnosticism” concerning the details. He is prepared for the unpopularity which his definition of Jewish “chosenness” in non-qualitative terms is bound in generate in certain quarters: election, he reminds his readers, does not mean superiority, hut the assignment and acceptance of a mission. He also hammers home in italicized headings that “God alone is to be worshipped, not the Jewish people”; that “Jewish nationalism is no substitute for religion”; and that “God is the Father of all mankind”.
The most important, and perhaps also the most fascinating, aspects of Dr Jacobs’s book are those which see him confronting the thorniest dilemmas facing the modern Jew: the authority of biblical revelation, and the obligatory nature of the commandments (mitzvot) and of traditional Jewish law (Halakhah).
In regard in the Bible, he unequivocally embraces the modernist attitude: “If we come to the conclusion that Welhausen is right, we must accept his findings.” But he correctly asserts that adherence to the discoveries of biblical criticism is not tantamount to a rejection of the religious significance of Scripture.
The final work, with its contradictions and errors, is the result of a teaching process, frequently unconscious, in which the record was drawn up of Israel’s quest for God, and of God allowing Himself to be found.
However, a non-fundamentalist stand adapted vis-a-vis biblical authority must have formidable repercussions on the Jewish way of life. If we abandon, as Dr Jacobs does, the facile justification of traditional orthodoxy—“Do this because God has so commanded!”—shall we inevitably finish by casting the whole heritage overboard? Here Dr Jacobs rejects the viewpoint of classic Reform Judaism which maintains that only the ethically significant teachings of the Bible are binding, and that the rest, because Judaism is essentially a prophetic morality, are dispensable. He selects, instead, a “theological approach” which asserts that not all the traditional observances were dictated by God to Moses on Sinai. Many of them evolved from Israel’s experience; but this experience itself is a medium through which God speaks.
As a result of such an understanding, Dr Jacobs distinguishes three categories among the non-ethical precepts. There are “significant” commandments, such as the dietary laws and Sabbath rules; these should be continued because they are “powerful vehicles for promoting holiness of life”. There are “meaningless” commandments, such as the ancient ban on shaving with a razor, the original purpose of which was probably associated with idolatry. And there are “harmful” commandments, exemplified by legal injustices affecting certain divorced women and children born of forbidden unions. Having had the courage to come this far, it is surprising that Dr Jacobs backs away from pronouncing against the last two classes of “meaningless” and “harmful” commandments. Instead, his traditionalism gets the upper hand of his logic at this point, and in order to protect “the system as a whole”, he is ready to “try to discover possible meaning in the apparently meaningless, and endeavour to mitigate the effects of the harmful”.
Nevertheless, A Jewish Theology is a learned yet accessible synthesis, and a testimony to the very real spiritual crisis experienced by an enlightened and committed Jew, torn between profound and powerful emotional leanings towards orthodoxy, and the critical imperatives of a doctrinally informed judgment.
Geza Vermes is a Reader in Jewish Studies, and Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford.