This video features some of the reflections which made Louis Jacobs such a unique thinker in Anglo-Jewry. He tackles some of the issues which led to the original Jacobs Affair, including contemporary historical challenges to traditional Jewish beliefs. He starts by noting that the literal interpretation of the biblical account of Creation has yielded, as a result of scientific discoveries and the theory of evolution, to a more nuanced understanding of the text which celebrates the creative power of God. He goes on to advocate that Jews approach the episode of the exodus from Egypt and the revelation on Mount Sinai in a similar way. Since there is no historical evidence in favour of the biblical account, and indeed, since there are multiple inconsistencies in the text, we should strive to interpret the text in a non-literal manner. For that purpose, Rabbi Jacobs distinguishes between history on the one hand, and saga or poetry on the other. The narrative in the Bible seems to be inspired by true historical events, but records them with a special intent so as to emphasize their importance. It is not necessary, for example, to postulate that 2 million Israelites left Egypt (since that does not seem plausible, historically), to celebrate the fact that our ancestors did, quite plausibly, escape from slavery in Egypt. He also questions the historicity of the Patriarchal narrative, particularly in light of the rabbinic depiction of the patriarchs as paragons of virtue. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacobs are described in the biblical text as humble, ordinary human beings, and should inspire us as such.
Having offered these reflections on particular episodes of the Bible, he moves on to consider the issue from a more general perspective. He concedes that it is not always possible to determine what exactly is historical and what constitutes saga – and claims that the question itself is not necessarily relevant. In his view, the Torah is a Torah of Life by virtue of the human progress to which it testifies. In other words, the profound truths of Judaism did not originate from the Torah; the Torah records (in a poetic way) the truths which were brought into this world by our ancestors. It represents the result of the process by which Jewish people gained an awareness of the divine realm and established a relationship with God – or alternatively, by which God brought the people to Him – and it is for that reason that it is considered holy.
Rabbi Jacobs concludes by referring to Judaism as a ‘developing religion’, which he consciously opposes to the notion of ‘evolving religion’. The latter appellation, he claims, suggests that religion is in constant progress. Instead, he posits that the ‘Jewish spirit’ manifests itself in different ways from age to age. Hence a ‘developing religion’ develops according to the pressure of circumstances of each period. The differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews demonstrate, for example, that Judaism is subject to varying cultural influences. A historical approach proves that our practices have survived through time and space by adapting to their environments, and it is our convictions that in doing so, they will remain alive in the future.