Originally published in the Journal of Religion, 66:2 (1986), pp. 210-12.
Jacobs, Louis. A Tree of Life: Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. 310 pp. $24.95 (cloth).
Louis Jacobs is certainly the most articulate, learned, and prolific expositor of traditional Judaism for the modern world who is writing in English today. This newest book from his ever-productive pen lucidly demonstrates, with his usual deep and wide erudition, how the master of Halakhah (Jewish law), from the rabbis of the Talmud to present-day rabbinic authorities, is not, as he puts it, “an academic lawyer . . . [who] never knows beforehand what his conclusions will be,” but is, rather, one who “knows full well, before he begins his investigation, that only one conclusion is acceptable . . . because his general approach to Judaism compels him to come up with a conclusion that must not be at variance with Jewish ideas and ideals” (p. 11).
With this seemingly simple empirical generalization, Jacobs is actually engaging here in the most important polemic among contemporary Jewish theologians, namely, in what sense is Halakhah authoritative today? As one who now explicitly endorses the mainline Conservative approach (p. 232), Jacobs is presenting massive empirical evidence for its assertion that the Halakhah is largely a humanly developed historical process, ultimately based upon a nonliteral revelation. In so doing, he is rejecting the Orthodox (and in contemporary Judaism, Orthodoxy is fundamentalism) approach, which asserts that Halakhah consists of literal revelation and deductions therefrom. Much of the thrust of Jacobs’s book is to belie this assertion with example after example, showing that it is a mythological distortion of the halakhic evidence itself. Thus, Jacobs shows how such factors as philosophy, kabbalah, historically changed socioeconomic circumstances, ethics, and psychology played a crucial role in major halakhic decisions throughout the ages. This book, then, is one more important installment in Jacobs’s quarter-century polemic with Orthodoxy, a polemic that has excluded him from the Orthodox community in Britain, whose brightest star he was once considered to be.
Nevertheless, insisting that the Reform rejection of the authority of the Halakhah as law is not the only non-Orthodox alternative, he states, “It is neither illogical nor cowardly for a non-Fundamentalist Jew to be loyal to the Halakhah. The ultimate authority for determining which observances are binding upon the faithful Jew is the historical experience of the people of Israel” (p. 245).
In essence, it seems to me that Jacobs is trimming Orthodoxy’s beard with Ockham’s razor (to borrow from Bertrand Russell), by showing that the Halakhah functioned quite well and even throve without the fundamentalist dogmas about history that Orthodoxy insists are necessary and sufficient conditions for its cogency. Now in terms of what Halakhah was in the premodern world, where it was the only law of indigenous Jewish communities, Jacobs’s theory makes much sense. However, in the modern world there are no indigenous Jewish communities anymore, and even the most Orthodox Jews have had to reconstitute their communities as political power blocks in an overwhelmingly secular environment. During such periods of reconstitution, it is inevitable that the stand of the religious community, coming as it does as a conscious antithesis of secular openness (which it equates with permissiveness), is going to have to be one of the greatest possible rigidity within its own traditional parameters. As a famous rabbinic aphorism puts it, “in a time of too much scatteredness, draw inward” (Tosefta, Berakhot 6.24). It is going to have to affirm its own literal revelation because this is the only objective criterion of what its adherents are to categorically do and categorically not do. This is what these adherents demand of it and this is why Jewish Orthodoxy is becoming more and more inflexible as part of the Zeitgeist. The success of Orthodoxy, whether one likes it or not, in creating the only community of halakhically observant Jews today, makes an empirical sociological point that Jacobs seems to bracket altogether. This sociological reality must be faced, however, if Jacobs’s largely historicist thesis is to have normative value. And, indeed, this is surely what Jacobs wants in that his book is more than a survey.
More than a criticism of this excellent book itself, I am suggesting this as the point that Jacobs must deal with in what will, one hopes, be the sequel to this book. Before that time, A Tree of Life is absolutely indispensible as a source book for anyone working on the problem.
David Novak, Baruch College, City University of New York.