This video made available on this site – December 2015
Lecture from 5th February 1995
This video dates from 1995 and records an open lecture at the time of the 30th anniversary of the New London Synagogue. Rabbi Jacobs starts by recalling the background which led to the publication of his controversial book We Have Reason to Believe, and its belated impact in the form of the Jacobs Affair. He then explains the purpose of the lecture: to articulate as clearly as possible his understanding of the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim, in order to refute the widespread accusation held by his opponents that he effectively repudiated the doctrine in his book.
He states from the outset that he doesn’t believe that God dictates every word of the Pentateuch to Moses, and that he does believe in Torah from Heaven.
When defining the terms of the expression Torah min hashamayim, ‘Torah from Heaven’, he notes that nowhere in the Pentateuch is the word ‘Torah’ used to refer to the five books of Moses. Such a designation, as a matter of fact, dates back to the rabbinic period. Similarly, the statement traditionally recited after the reading of the Torah in synagogue – ‘And this is the Torah which Moses placed before the children of Israel, according to the word of God and the hand of Moses’ – is a medieval amalgamation of two biblical verses, which taken separately do not convey such an idea.
Rabbi Jacobs goes on to expand on the notion of Torah in its wider sense: as referring to the whole of Jewish teaching. He develops on the relationship between the Oral and Written Torah, demonstrating that it would be impossible to live by the written word of the Pentateuch without its oral counterpart. In his own words, the Oral Torah ‘creates’ the Written Torah. The Sages therefore understood that the concept of Torah is dynamic, and for that reason, they would not necessarily have condemned the contemporary claim of composite authorship of the Bible as a negation of the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim (M. San. 10:1). The Torah, Jacobs maintains, is an ‘inspired’ work, which originates from God and was mediated through human beings.
He cites some of the scholarly evidence of composite authorship of the Torah to refute the efforts of his opponents, including Chief Rabbi Sacks, who defend the notion that the Pentateuch was revealed in its entirety to Moses on Mount Sinai. According to him, such a belief is untenable in light of biblical scholarship, including the research of Jewish intellectual giants of the modern period such as Heschel or Zunz. In that sense, he claims to formulate the views which the large majority of modern, educated Jews share. Similarly, he insists on contextualizing Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith, arguing that they should not be taken dogmatically. He concludes, finally, by presenting the challenges which emerge from his own approach and should be addressed by his own followers.
Rabbi Jacobs addresses his audience, in this event, with passion, erudition, and humour. The lecture thus represents an excellent introduction to his theological teachings.