Originally published in the Jewish Telegraph, 5 September 1980.
Aubrey Rosen examines the split which rocked Anglo-Jewry 20 years ago.
It is about twenty years ago that Louis Jacobs all but succeeded in splitting the Anglo-Jewish community over his book “We have reason to believe.”
His refusal, with the support of his honorary officers, to resign from the position of minister to the New West End Synagogue, brought about his sacking from that shool and the setting up by him of the New London Synagogue.
The dispute was something of a paradox to the layman. It was not about more or less Reform Judaism, as Louis Jacobs admitted to being nothing less than Orthodox in practice.
Indeed, Louis Jacobs’ hero, Louis Finklestein, leading conservative Rabbi of American Jewry, had refused to take part in the inauguration of President Kennedy without his kosher dinner jacket which he had forgotten to pack, and President Kennedy had it flown in from New York.
The dispute was about theology in general and the Mosaic authorship of The Pentateuch in particular. The theological issues centred around the nature of revelation. Louis Jacobs argued that it came through man’s encounter with providence in the form of a struggle with one’s conscience.
Orthodoxy did not deny such a struggle (see Jacob and the Angel, Genesis), but stressed the supernatural element of the experience. Louis Jacobs regarded prophecy as the outcome of hard-won insight.
There were, in the opinion of Louis Jacobs, grave doubts about the Mosaic authorship of the Torah which he expressed in his book—provoking the then Chief Rabbi Brodie to veto his appointment as principal of Jews’ College.
Jewish tradition has always maintained that Moses wrote the Pentateuch under Divine guidance [see Daniel IX v. 13, Chronicles 25 (4), and the Gemara Baba Bathra 14 (b)].
Josephus, in his History of the Jews, writing about 50 AD, records this as the generally accepted view of his day; and Maimonides pronounces it part of the Jewish creed in his famous Thirteen Principles of Faith.
Louis Jacobs’ views involved, inter alia, the rekindling of a much older dispute, albeit in a modern form, concerning the Divine nature of oral law, which had been a crucial issue as early as the Second Temple, between the priestly party known as the Sadducees and the rabbinical party or Pharisees—“protesters,” as their rivals called them.
His thesis proclaimed loudly, through pamphlets and public meetings throughout the country, that rabbinical vision and oral teaching, though impressive, were limited by the boundaries of the times.
Chief Rabbi Brodie and the dayanim of the London Beth Din stressed, as a matter of Orthodox doctrine, that the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, who included such famous names as Hillel and Akiva, were transmitters of an oral interpretation which, with the Pentateuch, had been jointly given on Mount Sinai to Moses and the children of Israel for all time and for all circumstances.
Such revelation could never be irrelevant.
The Divine nature of the Pentateuch first came under scrutiny when a growing number of scholars—mostly Christian Hebraists who had learned the Hebrew language at the feet of rabbis—began to examine the style and content of the sacred document with a view to establishing its authorship, dating, structure and composition.
The laymen is not unfamiliar with this kind of inquiry which frequently hits the Sunday newspapers with the startling revelation that Bacon or Marlowe wrote the bulk of Shakespeare’s works, or that Shakespeare wrote the book of Sir Thomas More (Observer, July 6).
They were able to detect a minimum of four basic moods and kinds of language; though some scholars took themselves a little too seriously and were able to detect as many as twenty; which led them to the conclusion that the Pentateuch was not simply the creative effort of one author, Moses, but a composite document reflecting a minimum of four independent religious traditions dating from King David, 1000 BC, or earlier, to 500 BC.
These four documents, classified as Jahwist, Elokist, Deutro and Priestly, JEDP for short, were grafted on to one another in stages by their successive authors, ending finally with the present composite document, that Jews venerate as the five books of Moses or Torah—in reality the edited work of Ezra.
An interesting example of the length to which some have gone in an attempt to discredit Biblical revelation, is the suggestion that the name of God, Yahweh, was derived from the Kenitic clan to which Jethro, the father in law of Moses, belonged, because Moses introduced the term only after he had met Jethro, a priest of that clan.
They admit there is no hard evidence that the clan worshipped a Yahweh, and agree in any case that in its grandeur the Jewish Yahweh is universal, certainly not tribal, in its message to the world.
“The honest truth,” admits Bernard J. Anderson, a respected critic, in his book The Living World of the Old Testament, “is that we do not know for sure the source from which Moses received the name Yahweh. It may have come from Midian Arabia or elsewhere.”
Orthodox Jews understandably react with hostility to a view that does not even consider direct Divine revelation as a possibility, yet claims to represent of all Biblical inquiry.
The Swedish School of Semitics in the University of Uppsala has dismissed the documentary hypothesis altogether, and indeed none of the early versions of the documents has ever been discovered or handed down.
Surely they would have been preserved as noteworthy first editions, or unrevised versions, had they ever existed. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls confirms that such writings can last and survive the elements.
Then, too, the story that Ezra, when he produced his glossy master-copy, omitted to iron out these contradictory statements, is very surprising. Here was a man who invented a new style of Alphabet, a prominent scribe and great scholar, and yet he overlooked the problem of obvious contradictory statements.
The better explanation is that he was not an editor but a transmitter of an ancient Divine document and that to him, these so-called contradictions presented no problem because he could solve them applying an equally ancient oral interpretation.
In fact, our confidence in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch surprisingly comes down in the last resort to our confidence in our rabbis as faithful transmitters of just such an oral law.
The very sacredness of this had been called into question by the Sadducees about 100 BC and later on the Karaites in the 9th century AD, who maintained the literal interpretation of the Pentateuch and regarded the rabbis as interlopers and distorters.
This scepticism has been revived by modern Jewish critics who argue that the triumph of rabbinic Judaism over their early opponents was a shallow victory which arguably went to the wrong party.
Of course, our modern Jewish Bible critics, in saying that victory arguably went to the wrong party, do so tongue in cheek. What they mean is that it went to the right party, the Pharisees, who they claim were the reforming party of those times. The insinuation is clear and menacing to orthodox attitudes and beliefs.
Reform’s pedigree stretches back to the rabbis, while contemporary orthodoxy represents the rigid, unyielding, unimaginative Sadducees to be consigned eternally to the dustbin of history. It is quite obvious that historical analysis of this description conveniently makes kosher, modern breakaway movements in Judaism.
Louis Jacobs’ brand of Judaism takes in the new theology and critical thinking of the Liberal and Reform schools, while claiming to remain orthodox. This novel form of religious acrobatics is achieved by the application of Jewish conservatism.
For him, the prohibition on eating milk and meat together stems from the fact that the Jewish world hag abstained for 2,000 years originally because the cooking of milk and meat together was a fertility rite against which practice Jews were prohibited.
But now, because such disciplines have become Holy by association, it follows that general dietary laws relating to shellfish and pork—though not based on the prohibition on heathen practice—would still apply, even though the original reason has been forgotten.
All such ancient customs have become bound up in Jewish consciousness, and to transgress them would be to inflict heavy damage on Jewish identity. Such considerations are more relevant to the needs of thinking Jewish people than a religious creed that demands blind faith.
Elokim and Jahweh may have been the names of old Canaanite deities, but they have become sacred through their development by Israel into attributes of the one universal God.
One can contemplate with a sense of the tragically absurd the thinking Jew walking into the gas chambers chanting: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is an old Kenite deity purified by Jews to express Divine unity.”
Jewish survival needs more than rationalism. It needs heart, that conservatism singularly lacks. How ironic that conservatism is becoming discredited because it is unreasonable.
Louis Jacobs’ motive in purveying his brand of Judaism to Anglo-Jewry was to haul it up by its boot straps into the twentieth century. His fierce encounters with the Beth Din and Chief Rabbi resulted in the setting up of the New London Synagogue with a subsequent branch at Highgate.
But on the whole he failed to achieve the revolution he sought. There has, if is true, been a drift towards the opposite ends of the spectrum; larger Reform and ADAS communities, but there is no evidence that these changes can be attributed to his efforts.