Originally published in Steven T. Katz (ed.), Interpreters of Judaism in the Late Twentieth Century Washington, D.C., 1993), pp. 167-188.
Elliot N. Dorff
Synthesizing Tradition with Modernity
Jews face modernity in a variety of ways. Some embrace it so tightly that they let go of any connection to the Jewish tradition. In most cases, this is simply the end result of a gradual drift away from Judaism, eventually concretized through intermarriage or forms of assimilation; in some, though, it flows from a conscious rejection of the faith on ideological grounds. On the other end of the spectrum, some Jews reject as much-of modernity as they can, closing off their minds, hearts, and sometimes even their bodies from the modern world. The more moderate members of this group study non-Jewish subjects in universities and work among other Jews and Gentiles, albeit with some accommodations in their dress and work schedules; but when it comes to religion, they leave that world behind and think and act as if modernity has nothing worthwhile to say about Judaism. The more extreme members of this group reject the intellectual bifurcation that this requires and create closed communities in an effort to escape the influence of all people and ideas outside their enclave.
Because these positions are extreme, they are easy to formulate and recognize. One therefore may mistakenly get the impression that they are the only alternatives bearing any ideological integrity. You live your life either as a modern or as a Jew; anything else is an inconsistent, intellectually lazy, and perhaps even dishonest compromise. The truth, however, is that in this aspect of life, as in most others, the extremes are neither the only options nor the most intelligent or realistic. Intermediary positions, which take both ends of the spectrum seriously and seek to integrate them, may require more effort to articulate and embody in life, and they certainly demand more tolerance for uncertainty and pluralism; but they have the distinct advantage of facing up to the conflicting truths and values which characterize life as we in fact know it, and they thus are more adequate, honest, and wise.
The interpretation of Judaism espoused by Louis Jacobs is such a position. It is, indeed, a quintessential example of a philosophy of Judaism which combines an ardent commitment to the tradition with an uncompromising quest for truth. He articulates his approach in the very first paragraph of his first book on his own theology in these striking words:
There are three pitfalls to be avoided by Jewish Apologetics in its attempt to grapple with the problems raised by modern thought. It must not refuse to recognize the existence of the problems raised by rejecting, in the name of tradition, modern thought as of the devil. It must not encourage that division of the mind in which incompatible ideas are allowed to exist side by side in water-tight compartments. Nor must it be desperately stampeded into postulating an artificial synthesis, a queer hybrid faith which both the adherents of traditional Judaism and representative modern thinkers would repudiate. A true Jewish Apologetic, eschewing obscurantism, religious schizophrenia, and intellectual dishonesty, will be based on the conviction that all truth, “the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He,” is one, and that a synthesis is possible between the permanent values and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day.
Jacobs forthrightly describes the struggles in being fully a Jew and fully part of the modern world, the strengths and weaknesses of the various ways of doing that, the uncertainties any thinking human being must entertain, and the epistemological status and value of faith. He does this in works which are written clearly, thoughtfully, and passionately, the products of a master teacher. As one reads them, one appreciates not only Jacobs’ broad knowledge of both general and Jewish thought, but also his candor and sense of judgment. Indeed, one gets the sense that one is in the presence of someone who is not only learned and Jewishly committed, but who is also sophisticated, intelligent, feeling, open, and authentic. One may not agree with everything he says, but Jacobs is clearly an attractive model for how to be Jewish in the modern world.
The Man and His Works
Louis Jacobs is an English rabbi, one of the few European rabbis affiliated with the American Conservative Movement. Born in Manchester, Jacobs studied at the yeshivot of Manchester and Gateshead and at London University. After teaching for some time at the Golders Green Beth Hamidrash in London, he served as rabbi of the Central Synagogue in Manchester and, from 1954 to 1959, at the New West End Synagogue in London. From 1959 to 1962 Jacobs was a tutor at Jews’ College in London, but he resigned when Chief Rabbi I. Epstein retired and his replacement, Rabbi I. Brodie, vetoed Jacobs’ appointment as principal of the college because of his allegedly heterodox views. Brodie also blocked Jacobs’ reappointment to his former post as rabbi of the New West End Synagogue. These events led to a violent controversy within British Jewry, with the London Jewish Chronicle strongly supporting Jacobs. Jacobs’ followers seceded in 1964 from the United Synagogue, the organization of British Orthodox synagogues, and appointed Jacobs rabbi of the New London Synagogue which they then founded, a post which he has held ever since. In addition, over the years he has lectured at a variety of universities, most recently as a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School.
Jacobs has published extensively in both theology and rabbinic literature. The theological works which describe his own position are, in chronological order: We Have Reason to Believe (London, 1957, 1962, 1965); Faith (London, New York, 1968); and A Jewish Theology (New York, 1973). In these books he discusses a wide range of topics, including God, creation, evil, revelation, the authorship and nature of the Bible, the authority of Jewish law, sin and repentance, the Chosen People idea, the attitude of Judaism toward other faiths, Jewish statehood, the Messianic hope, and the hereafter.
In addition to these expositions of his own position, Jacobs has written more strictly scholarly works in theology and mysticism, including translations of Moses of Cordovero’s Palm Tree of Deborah (London, 1960) and Dov Baer of Lubavitch’s Tract on Ecstasy (London, 1963); Principles of the Jewish Faith (London, 1964), an analytical study of Maimonides’ Creed; Seeker of Unity: The Life and Words of Aaron of Starosselje (London, 1966); Theology in the Responsa (London, 1975); Hasidic Prayer (New York, 1978); Jewish Mystical Testimonies (New York, 1978); and A Tree of Life (Oxford, 1984), an extensive analysis of how Jewish law adjusted to new circumstances over the centuries, the justifications given for such changes, and how Jewish law should be applied now. His scholarship extends as well to the area of rabbinics, where he has written Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology (London, 1961); TEYKU: The Unsolved Problem in the Babylonian Talmud (New York, 1981); and The Talmudic Argument (Cambridge, 1984).
As one might expect of a person as learned and prolific as this, Jacobs has also written numerous articles in scholarly journals and anthologies on topics in the areas of his expertise—theology, mysticism, and rabbinics. What is more surprising and impressive for a scholar of his rank is the clarity and skill with which he has written a number of books designed for a popular audience, including the five volumes on Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, mysticism, and exegesis in the Behrman House Chain of Tradition Series (1968-1976); Jewish Values (Chappaqua, New York, 1980); and The Book of Jewish Belief (New York, 1984). These demonstrate clearly that Jacobs is as much an educator as he is a scholar. He is, indeed, a rabbi in the fullest sense of the term.
Since the goal of this book is to give the reader a sense of contemporary thinkers’ own views, those works of Jacobs in which he articulates his faith will be the focus of our attention. Even that is too extensive to describe and analyze within the desired length of this essay, and so we shall concentrate on his approach to three topics which especially characterize his thought—God, revelation, and the hereafter—with the hope that the reader will be enticed to learn about these and other topics directly from some of Jacobs’ writings. In the course of this discussion, I shall raise questions about some of his assertions, but they are the questions of one who shares many of his convictions and admires his ability to argue for them.
Conviction Rather Than Proof
The foundation of traditional Judaism is belief in God. As Jacobs points out, during the biblical and rabbinic periods God’s existence was taken for granted; only God’s involvement in human affairs was subject to doubt. It was in the Middle Ages that rational proofs for the existence of God came into vogue, historically because of the influence of Greek philosophy at that time and philosophically because thinkers in each of the Western religions recognized that although they may differ on which revelation is authoritative, all people share the faculty of reason. Reason could therefore function as a common ground for making and proving religious claims. The claims in dispute, however, were generally not the existence of God, but rather secondary beliefs such as God’s providence, attributes, and ability to effecutate miracles. God’s existence was as evident to the medievals as to their predecessors.
Later, however, Hume and Kant demonstrated that no argument constructed by a human being could possibly prove God’s existence, for no human being can demonstrate that which is beyond human senses and intellect. Jacobs accepts that result openly, but says:
To say this is not to surrender reason—this would be suicidal, for unreliable as the human reason may be it is the only instrument we have for testing truth—but a recognition, in the name of reason itself, that we must look beyond it for the apprehension of certain truths. In other words, a distinction must be drawn between proof and conviction—proof is one of the ways to conviction, but there are other ways too. So that the real question is not whether the existence of God can be proven but whether belief in His existence is overwhelmingly convincing.
Other than proof, then, what are the ways to conviction applicable to God? He answers that most fully in his book, Faith, where he devotes a full chapter to each of four of them—specifically, the way of reason, the leap of faith, the way of experience, and the way of revelation-tradition. In discussing these, we shall come to understand not only the grounds for his belief in God, but also what he believes about revelation and its record, the Torah, and how he understands the authority and appropriate methodology of Jewish law. We shall also see a prime characteristic of his thought: rather than argue doggedly for exclusively one way of thinking about an issue, Jacobs learns from the many, varied approaches which Jewish sources and philosophers have suggested in creating his own synthesis.
The Way of Reason
The rational proofs, Jacobs suggests, have value even if they cannot prove God’s existence. They should instead be taken as indications of, or arguments for, God’s existence. Then, although each of them individually is insufficient to prove God, taken together they can provide convincing evidence for God’s existence and nature, in much the same way as scholars in all of the empirical disciplines (including science) amass evidence to support a theory. Invalid proofs do not add credence to each other, but pieces of evidence, while insufficient in themselves, may together produce conviction (although not proof).
When taken in this way, Jacobs finds the reasoning in the cosmological and teleological arguments to be convincing. The cosmological argument, which flows out of the need to find an explanation for why anything exists in the first place, and the teleological argument, which stems from the need to explain the order we encounter in our experience of the world, posit a conscious, benevolent, powerful God as the cause of, respectively, the existence and order of the universe.
Since we can have “no idea of the nature of God” (or, as I would prefer to put it, no adequate idea), to posit God as the source of both the existence and the order of the universe “does not really enable us to understand how the world came into being” or was ordered, but it at least affirms the principle of explanation—that is, that there is some explanation, and that the human quest to seek explanations in the various areas of life is therefore well-founded. In ascribing existence and order to God, according to Jacobs, the theist affirms that Mind is the Ground of the universe and that all aspects of the universe can be explained, even if human beings do not or cannot know all of the explanations. In contrast, the alternative, which Jacobs variously describes as that of the “sceptic” or the “atheist,” denies the existence of any explanation for the existence and order of the universe, and that is “contrary to all our experience, to the way we use our minds, to the constant quest for meaning and the principle of explanation which the sceptic himself shares.” The alternative, in other words, is ultimately self-contradictory.
The Theist does, indeed, declare that he cannot understand how the explanation works but he stakes his life on the conviction that there is an explanation. The atheist can only say that he is prepared to live without any explanation, which only means that [he] belies himself. He offers and seeks for explanations for the individual phenomena of the universe while accepting that there is no explanation for the universe as a whole.
Atheists presumably will want to affirm the ultimate rationality of the universe, either because they see no alternative, or because their experience in using their minds to analyze, predict, and sometimes control their world has often proven to be successful—a fact which would make no sense if the universe were ultimately irrational, if it followed no rules. Jacobs’ argument for the existence of God thus rests on the belief shared by both theist and atheist that the world is rational, a belief which, he claims, is unfounded if one is atheistic. That is, he believes that the phenomenon of rationality itself demands the assumption of a primordial Mind to initiate it.
But why cannot the atheist affirm the rationality of the universe without positing a God (Mind) behind it? Because, says Jacobs, “how can mindless matter have produced [human] mind unless Mind was there from the beginning directing the whole process?” Jacobs thus assumes a rather radical mind/body dualism; that is, for him mind and body are totally disparate entities, and therefore matter cannot, in and of itself, be reasonably expected to produce mind, whether human or divine. In a later work he correctly criticizes Maimonides for building his ethics upon a fundamental dichotomy between body and soul, and he carefully warns against misinterpreting “the evil inclination” in Rabbinic literature as a denigration of the body; on the contrary, as he points out, the Torah was given precisely so that Jews would not need to escape from life but would rather direct their bodily as well as their mental energies toward accomplishing divine purpose. That, of course, is in the ethical sphere, but one wonders why Jacobs does not carry out that view of an integrated body and soul into his metaphysics as well.
If he did, he would see that a similarly minded atheist might strongly assert the rationality of the universe while refusing to affirm the existence of a separate Mind called God. Such a person would claim that the substance of the world was always composed of an integration of material and mental characteristics, from which the material and mental features of the world as we know it sprang. Where that substance came from we do not know, but neither does the theist who simply ascribes creation of the world to God without knowing how it happened; indeed, Jacobs himself argues forcefully (and correctly) against taking the biblical or rabbinic descriptions of creation literally.
None of the above constitutes an argument for atheism. It is rather a claim that what divides a religious perspective from a non-religious one is not their respective positions on the rationality of the universe, but rather their attitudes toward it. Atheists and agnostics deduce from the rationality of the universe the possibility to understand and exploit it; that may engender a profound appreciation for, maybe even a worship of, the ability of the human mind which can accomplish these tasks. Religious people are also interested in analyzing nature and using it for their purposes, but they have an attitude of awe for it and worship its Creator. In other words, the way of reason does not find God by claiming that God is the only explanation for the rationality of the universe, but rather that God is the only reasonable response to it. Indeed, on ray view an important part of what defines a religious person is that he or she acknowledges the awesomeness of the fact of creation and its order and responds by worshipping its Creator. Religious persons are marked not so much by their knowledge as by their piety.
Ironically, Jacobs himself claims something similar in another place, but he does not see this as the outcome of the way of reason:
The significance of the doctrine of God as Creator—and this is unaffected by any modern scientific theories—is that the whole universe is subordinate to Him, that He exercises control over and manages it, and that human beings hold their possessions in a stewardship deriving from Him. The Rabbinic doctrine of man as co-partner with God in the work of creation is relevant here. God gives man the skills with which to master the world (see Gen. 1: 28), but man must not use his powers destructively but to further God’s creative purpose. This of the importance of the sabbath in the Jewish scheme . . . [and] the duty to procreate . . .
Moreover, one of the indications of God listed separately from the way of reason in We Have Reason to Believe is “the urge to worship in the human breast [which] affords evidence of God’s existence.” In Faith, Jacobs includes this in the chapter on the way of reason, but he denotes this as an argument separate from those based on the existence and order of creation, calling it “the argument from religious experience.” If one abandons a mind/body dualism, though, the import of the cosmological and teleological arguments reduces to his argument from religious experience, the one which I think is ultimately convincing.
Jacobs also briefly discusses the moral argument, which finds God in moral experience for lack of any other satisfactory basis for moral obligations which transcend societies. Once again, the explanatory value of theism for Jacobs is based upon a strict mind/body dualism: “On the atheistic view there can be no standards ‘out there’ in the universe apart from man because apart from man there is only soulless, mindless matter.” Atheists often behave morally, but that very fact indicates that the atheist, too, experiences moral standards “grounded in a reality other than and far greater than himself. And unless this Ground is God, it is difficult to see what else it can be.”
For many people, moral experience does indeed afford a road to God, but Jacobs is too quick to write off all of the non-religious attempts to ground morality—particularly because the philosophical problems in religious theories of morality, while somewhat different from those in secular theories, are no less difficult. Jacobs does thoroughly discuss one of the most important of those problems, the existence of evil, but there are others. For example, if God is the source and sanction of morality, moral behavior seems to collapse into pragmatic behavior designed to gain His rewards or avoid His punishments, but we commonly assume a distinction between moral and pragmatic action. Beyond such specific problems of a religious theory of morality, if Jacobs is to affirm the moral argument for the existence of God to the exclusion of all other theories of morality, he must supply a more careful consideration of the alternatives than he has in what he has written so far.
The Leap of Faith
People like William James, Soren Kierkegaard, and, among Jews, Martin Buber underscore the fact that religious faith is never simply a matter of intellectual assent. A living faith involves the totality of one’s being; it is a reaching out to God in trust; it is a continuing relationship with God in which one’s physical, mental, emotional, and conative faculties come to the fore at various times; it is a passionate affirmation of that which is true for me, even if that which is true for me cannot be objectively demonstrated to be true for all. God, for these people, is to be reached not by thinking about Him and His world, but by encountering Him.
These characteristics of faith make it personal. They also make it similar to the relationships which human beings have with each other. To use James’ example, we never know all of the facts about the person we marry at the time of the wedding. The facts are not all in, and they will not be until the moment the marriage is dissolved, either through divorce or death. If we wait until the facts are all in so that we can make an intellectually certain decision, we will have lost the opportunity to have the relationship. Therefore we must take the risk of leaping into a relationship if we are going to have one at all. And, says James, the same applies to God.
Jacobs notes that this “existentialist” approach has the strength of reminding us that reason is not enough, that religious conviction must involve not only “faith that . . .” God exists and has a specific nature, but also “faith in” God. Jacobs emphasizes, however, that the reverse is also true: a leap of faith without rational analysis is blind and can easily lead to credulity, superstition, cultism, and the like. Existentialists to their detriment tend to neglect or even disparage the role of reason in faith; a vibrant, true faith must include both reason and personal commitment.
Jacobs does not explain, however, how reason is to interact with the leap of faith. Is reason primary, or is the leap primary? In other words, if reason finds the object to which one has leaped objectionable, does that make any difference? If so, does it simply raise questions, or does reason have veto power, as it were, over what constitutes an appropriate leap? And what is the role of tradition in making that decision? Or does this all depend upon the individual? Jacobs is certainly correct in arguing for an integration of the ways of reason and existentialism, but we need more guidance in how this should take place.
The Way of Experience
Existentialists are opposed to a systematic, rationalist approach to God, but they use reasoned argument to elucidate their position and convince others of it. In contrast, those who adopt the way of experience, according to Jacobs, see faith as non-rational, based upon a special kind of experience.
In the way of reason God is to be known in the same way as a proposition is known, through ratiocination. In existentialism God is to be known as a person is known, through encounter. In the way of experience God is to be known as beauty is known, through the use of a special faculty peculiar to itself.
Jacobs describes two forms of experiencing God: apprehending God in the overpowering, awesome aspects of the universe, an approach to God described most famously and perhaps most clearly by Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy but anticipated in some measure by the fifteenth century theologian, Joseph Albo; and coming to know God through an inward, mystical contact with Him. The former finds God in the holy, which includes, for Otto, the numinous, the ethical, and the rational. It is an awareness of an objective reality and not a mere feeling. The latter finds God through a variety of techniques of turning inward, away from the allegedly illusory world of concrete objects.
It is unfortunate that Jacobs never evaluates these claims. How, for example, does one know that it is God that one is experiencing and not something else? Jacobs says that the fact that mystics of all traditions report the same kind of experience lends credence to their claims. Does that mean that all traditions apprehend the same godhead and only describe it and its implications differently, or is the God of Israel unique? Jacobs asserts that God has revealed Himself to people of other religions and that Jews can learn from the classical texts of other faiths and from secular works, but there is more truth in Judaism. How does he know that? Or does the way of experience ultimately reduce to an existential leap of faith—or, perhaps, a personal decision, in the mode of James, to believe in x rather than y?
In addition to these questions of identifying an experience as one of God, there are questions concerning the character of the experience. For example, since, for Otto, the holy includes the rational, why does Jacobs say that the way of experience is non-rational? More broadly, Jacobs asserts that although it is impossible to comprehend God’s nature, “we do know that it is a nature compatible only with goodness, wisdom and power and totally incompatible with evil, folly and weakness.” How does he know that? And are there not experiences of God other than the ones he describes? The way of experience to God is a crucial one, but one fraught with questions which need to be addressed.
The Way of Revelation-Tradition
The primary way in which Jews traditionally learned about God was through the Torah—i.e., the Pentateuch, and, in the more extended meanings of the word “Torah,” the rest of the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic interpretations and amplifications of those texts throughout the ages. Even those medieval Jewish philosophers who stressed the role of reason in religion often claimed that reason itself demanded that the Jew use the Torah as a source of knowledge, for its crucial events (especially Sinai) were, according to its own account, witnessed by over two million people (600,000 households). Modern biblical criticism, however, has cast severe doubts upon the traditional belief that the text of the Torah is a verbatim and unique record of God’s word at Sinai. Instead, the picture it paints—based upon literary analysis, archaeological evidence, and studies of comparative religion, language, and law—is of a text edited together from a variety of sources from different times and places.
Jacobs’ problems with Chief Rabbi Brodie in England stemmed chiefly from his endorsement of the methods and results of modern biblical (and talmudic) criticism. Fundamentalists like Brodie assume that if the Torah is not believed to be an exact record of the verbal revelation of God, it loses its cognitive and legal authority. Jacobs goes to great lengths to combat this view. He stresses the need to be intellectually honest about the classical texts of the tradition, even if that requires that we alter our understanding of the way in which they were composed and became canonical. At the same time, he emphasizes that classical Jewish texts like the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and codes remain authoritative because Jews and many others continue to hear the word of God in them. The evidence for the divine nature of these texts, then, derives from their ability to engender encounters with God for the people reading and living by them together with the longevity of the Jewish people committed to them:
What guarantee therefore have we that the tradition is reliable even in its basic contention that there is a God who has revealed Himself to man? The answer . . . is not a matter of simply relying on an ancient tradition but of hearing for ourselves the great echoes of the original series of encounters between God and man as recorded in that tradition.
. . . It is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to account for the lofty teachings of the Hebrew prophets, the civilizing influence of the great Law of Moses, the history of a small people who found God and brought Him to mankind, the Sinaitic revelation itself and the spiritual power these books continue to exercise over men’s souls, unless Israel really met with God and recorded in immortal language the meaning of that encounter. We can be skeptical of individual details in the Bible. We can dwell on the numerous parallels with Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian mores. We can point out the striking resemblances between Hebrew poetry in the Bible and Canaanite hymns in praise of the pagan gods. We are forced to recognize, to a degree quite beyond the imagination of our ancestors, the human element in the Biblical record. What cannot be seriously doubted is the ‘something else’, which has ensured that this and no other collection of books has become the sacred Scripture of a large proportion of mankind; that there are living Jews who regard themselves as the heirs to the Bible and no living Babylonians, Canaanites and Assyrians; that there is a Voice which speaks here in promise of great vision, of dreams of world peace, of holiness, justice and mercy, of freedom and the unique worth of each individual as a child of God.
. . . for all our recognition of the dynamic rather than static quality of the tradition, the basic belief that it is all the work of God in co-operation with the humans who sought Him can reasonably be said to be based on experience, the experience of the prophets and law-makers in the first instance and the later experience of sages, thinkers and undistinguished people who live by the great truths. The existence of the Jews does explain the existence of God. The Jews are the most powerful proof for God’s existence. There is still great power in the appeal to tradition.
Just as the Bible remains divine for Jacobs despite literary and historical analysis of it, so too do Jewish observances retain their divine character and authority:
. . . this approach in no way invalidates the observance of Jewish practices. These derive their authority from the undeniable fact that they have provided Jews with “ladders to heaven” and still have the power of sanctifying Jewish life in accordance with the Jewish ideal; because of this we recognize that it was God who gave them and it is His will that we obey when we submit to the Torah discipline.
These paragraphs are quoted at some length because they articulate the foundation of Jacobs’ philosophy. They speak to some of the critical questions posed earlier concerning the leap of faith and the way of experience. We now see why Jacobs thinks that the Jewish believer has grounds to identify the object of his leap or experience as God: ancient Jews came into contact with God in the ways described in the Bible and Rabbinic literature; the contemporary Jew identifies with their experiences and relives them in praying, thinking, and living as a Jew; and this chain of believing Jews would never have survived if it were based on folly or illusion. We also see how Jacobs differentiates and rank-orders experiences of God in the various philosophical and religious traditions: Judaism is supreme, it appears, because of its widespread influence. Both of these aspects of Jacobs’ thought—his faith that the object of Jewish experience is indeed God, and his belief in the epistemological supremacy of Judaism—are based on his judgment concerning the worth of the content of the Jewish, in contrast to other, traditions and the evidence of Judaism’s longevity and influence. Jewish commitment, for Jacobs, is thus not simply a matter of the accident of birth or individual tastes; it is a function of ultimate value commitments and objective criteria.
One can now also understand that Jacobs is at once committed to the divine authority of Jewish law and to its ongoing development for both historical and theological reasons. Historically, observance of Jewish law has characterized what it has meant to be a Jew perhaps more than anything else, and yet its content has often changed to meet new circumstances and new moral sensitivities—a fact he documents thoroughly in his book, A Tree of Life. Theologically, the experience of God is an ongoing one, and Jews as a people must respond to that experience through continued practice of Jewish law—and adjustment of it when it is occasionally necessary. Jews must seek God through observance and listen for God as they act. Neither behavioristic obedience to the law as formulated in the past nor abandonment of its practice is historically or theologically authentic for a Jew.
Jacobs’ discussion of God illustrates a feature of his thought mentioned earlier as one of his chief strengths: he does not rely on one approach alone but rather learns from many theories in creating his own synthesis. With respect to God, he understands the four ways to Him as not only philosophically complementary, but developmentally so. It is not, as he puts it, “as if the would-be believer goes shopping in the market for ways to God.” Most believers use several or even all of them at various stages of their lives. . In one’s early years, religious faith is generally a matter of family and communal tradition. During one’s teens and twenties, when one questions many things about one’s background, the way of speculation comes to the fore. The existentialist emphasis on involvement and/or the way of experience eventually supplements and moderates the purely intellectual approach, which, even if convincing, leads to a bare assent to God’s existence with little religious vitality and less personal concern. Even so, “the way of reason shows how belief in God affords the most satisfactory explanation of existence. Thus the ways converge to produce complete conviction.”
The aspect of Jacobs’ thought which may be the most surprising to modern readers is his firm conviction that human life has a continuation after death, that there is a hereafter. Contemporary Jews tend to think of Judaism as decidedly this-worldly. Jacobs does not deny Judaism’s strong commitment to this life; on the contrary, he says that “there is something sublime in the persistent refusal of Jews to turn their back on life, to refuse to give up the struggle to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.” He affirms, however, that the doctrine of an After-life is “inextricably woven into the fabric of Judaism,” and “No really spiritual interpretation of Judaism is possible without it.”
He goes further: he says that Jews who affirm immortality only in the sense that one’s thoughts live on in others and/or that one’s life is continued by one’s descendants are engaging in “a complete travesty of any recognizable version of traditional Judaism.” He says this despite the fact that he recognizes that most of the Bible speaks of immortality in those terms. The few biblical sources which do talk about a life after death contradict each other, some affirming it and some denying it. Judaism, however, rests upon the rabbinic interpretation and expansion of the Bible, and the Rabbis (Pharisees) most definitely did believe in a World to Come, and “by no stretch of the imagination can the persistence of our ideas in the lives of those we leave behind on earth be considered as ‘us.’” Consequently, to be a traditional Jew means, in part, to believe in a World to Come in one or both of two, somewhat conflicting senses entertained by the Rabbis: resurrection of the dead person at some future time, or the eternal life of the person’s soul beyond the death of the body. Jacobs believes the latter.
Jacobs is not satisfied, though, with simply citing tradition; consistent with his general methodology, he opens the issue to question and adduces philosophical reasons to believe in life beyond bodily death. This involves, first, removing two objections to the belief, one moral and the other metaphysical.
Those who deny an afterlife on moral grounds worry that concentration on an afterlife will lead to indifference to the needs of this world. Jacobs concedes that that is logically possible and perhaps true of other religions, but he demonstrates that Judaism has maintained an active commitment to this life while believing in a World to Come.
The metaphysical objection concerns the connection between body and soul. In our experience, bodily injury can negatively affect the mind, emotion, and will, but, Jacobs points out, that only indicates that in this life the soul depends upon the body and interacts with it. It does not prove that the soul cannot exist without the body in some other form of human existence, just as human life on the moon requires a special space suit which is inappropriate on earth. Immortality of the soul is therefore at least possible.
Moreover, says Jacobs, belief in a theistic God should induce one to affirm a life after bodily death. An omnipotent, benevolent God would not frustrate human values and hopes by restricting their scope to the brief span of human life:
The strongest argument for immortality is provided for the theist by his basic theistic affirmation. Can it be believed that God has created only to destroy, that all man’s hopes and dreams of a higher life are doomed to frustration? . . . Surely the idea that man’s deeds have eternal significance is not to be treated lightly as a kind of optional belief or pious opinion.
God’s justice also requires life after death so that the just can get their proper reward and the evil their proper punishment. Jacobs therefore believes that the good soul attains a state of Heaven and the bad is punished by falling into a condition we call Hell—although he is careful to state that Heaven and Hell are not places but conditions of the soul.
Jacobs complains about the “dogmatism” and “frightening certainty” of medieval views of life after death. In line with that, when describing his own view he notes that no human being can with reason know what happens in a life after death.
One wonders, though, whether the same must not be said with regard to its very existence. If such a life does exist, God’s benevolence and justice can more easily be reconciled with the fact that in this life sometimes the good suffer and the evil prosper, but is philosophical consistency ever enough to affirm a fact? Jacobs himself believes that the problem of evil can only be solved in small measure, and his grounds for believing in a life after death are tightly woven to the need to keep God good and just despite the existence of evil (which, for these purposes, includes the frustration of worthy human desires).
Therefore, the lack of evidence available to human beings concerning a life after death and the need to let the problem of evil go ultimately unresolved suggest that the more plausible course—and the more consistent one for Jacobs—would be to say the same thing with regard to the existence of a life after death as we must say about its nature: we simply do not know. On the other hand, although we may not share the biblical certainty that reward and punishment will be meted out in this life, at least on a communal level, we do have patent evidence of the other elements of the biblical view of the afterlife—specifically, the ongoing influence of one’s life, even after death, on others, most especially on one’s descendants. The most reasonable position, then, and ironically the one most consistent with some of Jacobs’ own positions would be to affirm these elements of the biblical view and remain agnostic about a personal life after death.
That, of course, would remove much of the assurance we would like to have about the meaningfulness of our efforts for good in a world where we often do not witness their success. It would thus require greater faith, for a Jew would then be called upon to observe God’s law without certainty of reward. Rabbinic comments about a life after death would still be meaningful, for they are minimally a vivid assertion of the importance of Jewish values as a part of the very structure of not only this universe, but the one to come. The existence and nature of a world to come would, however, be kept in abeyance by the modern Jew while he or she remained deeply committed to Judaism for its own inherent worth as a pattern of life and for its ability to link the Jew with God. That could be a very spiritual Judaism, although perhaps not in Jacobs’ sense of “spiritual.”
These reservations notwithstanding, one cannot help but sympathize with the reasons why Jacobs takes the stand he does. Life certainly does have more meaning, and sacrifices make more sense, if not only our efforts and values, but we ourselves in some way last beyond our bodily lifetime. Believing that may also help us to face death—both our own and that of our loved ones. Moreover, the existence of a life after death in which our moral accounts are, as it were, rectified may not explain the persistence of evil in this life, but it does reconcile evil with the theist’s belief in the goodness and justice of God. And finally, one who believes in either resurrection or the eternity of the soul carries on the rabbinic tradition in this matter. Therefore, even if one is too skeptical to affirm a life after death in the literal sense in which Jacobs does, one can readily appreciate Jacobs’ forthright defense of the doctrine and the very fact that he courageously opened up the matter for discussion once again among contemporary Jews.
Tradition and Modernity
Modern philosophers of Judaism often either assume the authority of the tradition and then try to give it a modern cast, or they take the tenets of modernity for granted and adopt whatever parts of the tradition they find to be compatible with that. Jacobs is one of the few who take both tradition and modernity seriously. And he does so with depth of learning in both Jewish and general sources, with clarity of expression, with candor, and with a keen sense of analysis and judgment. His thought is thus a stimulating and wise guide for those who would be both genuinely Jewish and unqualifiedly modern.
Jacobs’ Own Writings
Jewish Prayer, London: Jewish Chronicle Publications, 1955, 1956, 1962.
We Have Reason to Believe, London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1957, 1960, 3rd ed. with Epilogue, 1962.
Principles of the Jewish Faith, New York: Basic Books, 1964.
Faith, New York: Basic Books, 1968.
A Jewish Theology, New York: Behrman House, 1973.
Translation of Moses Cordovero’s Palm Tree of Deborah, London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1960; reprinted, New York: Hermon Press, 1974.
Translation of Dobh Baer of Lubavitch, Tract on Ecstasy, London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1963.
Seeker of Unity: The Life and Works of Aaron of Starosselje, London: Vallentine, Mitchell, and New York: Basic Books, 1966.
Hasidic Prayer, New York: Schocken, 1973.
Jewish Mystical Testimonies, New York: Schocken, 1977.
Talmud and Jewish Law
Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology, London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1961.
Theology in the Responsa, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.
TEKYU: The Unsolved Problem in the Babylonian Talmud, London and New York: Cornwall Books, 1981.
The Talmudic Argument, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
A Living Tree, London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Books Designed for Educational Settings
Jewish Values, 1960; Hartford, Connecticut: Hartmore House, 1969; Chappaqua, New York: Rossel Books, 1980.
Jewish Law, New York: Behrman House, 1968.
Jewish Ethics, Philosophy, and Mysticism, New York: Behrman House, 1969.
Jewish Thought Today, New York: Behrman House, 1970.
Jewish Biblical Exegesis, New York: Behrman House, 1973.
What Does Judaism Say About . . .?, New York: Quandrangle Press, 1976.
Hasidic Thought, New York: Behrman House, 1976.
The Book of Jewish Belief, New York: Behrman House 1984.
Writings about Jacobs
On His Rift with the British Chief Rabbi
Sefton Temkin, Conservative Judaism 18: 1 (Fall, 1963), pp. 18-34.
Ignaz Maybaum, Judaism 13: 4 (Fall, 1964), pp. 471-477.
Alfred Sherman, Commentary 38: 4 (October, 1964), pp. 60-64.
Encyclopaedia Judaica, 9: 1236-1237.
On Jacobs’ Philosophy
Steven T. Katz, Jewish Philosophers, New York: Bloch, 1975, p. 249.
Elliot N. Dorff, Conservative Judaism: On Ancestors to Our Descendants, New York: United Synagogue of America, 1977, pp. 114-115, 136-143.
 Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1957, 1965) [hereinafter Reason to Believe], p. 9.
 Jacobs makes this point in his book, Faith (New York: Basic Books, 1968), p. 45.
 Reason to Believe, p. 26; cf. pp. 23ff.
 In We Have Reason to Believe, Jacobs lists these and also briefly alludes to the urge to worship, the evidence of heroic people motivated by their belief in God, and the existence of Jews as evidence for God; cf. pp. 28, 29, 34.
 Reason to Believe, p. 28; Faith, pp. 46, 60. Jacobs, on the first page cited, seems to object to this normal usage of the word “evidence”: “Granted that the proofs carry no weight as evidence, ther are indications and as such have the power of supplementing each other.”
 He does not, however, put much store in the ontological proof, even as an argument. Cf. Faith, pp. 46-48.
 Jacobs, Faith, pp. 49-50; cf. p. 60.
 Ibid., p. 50.
 Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology (New York: Behrman House, 1973), pp. 238, 244-246.
 Jacobs, Reason to Believe, pp. 82-86; A Jewish Theology, Ch. 7, esp. pp. 91-98.
 Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, p. 97.
 Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, p. 28.
 Jacobs, Faith, pp. 61-62.
 Jacobs, Faith, p. 61.
 Jacobs, Reason to Believe, Ch. 5; Faith, Ch. 7; A Jewish Theology, Ch. 9.
 James is not usually classified as an existentialist for lack of sufficient personalism and individualism, but his essay is perhaps the most articulate exposition of the individual’s right to believe, as Jacobs notes; cf. Faith, p. 66.
 He discusses this distinction at length in Ch. 1 of Faith.
 Jacobs, Faith, pp. 72-73, 75.
 Jacobs, Faith, p. 80.
 Jacobs, Reason to Believe, p. 27.
 Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, pp. 289-291.
 Jacobs, Faith, p. 35.
 Jacobs, Faith, pp. 107-109. Cf. also Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, Ch. 14.
 Jacobs, Reason to Believe, p. 73.
 I discuss Jacobs’ approach to Jewish law at greater length and in comparison to that of others in my Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants (New York: United Synagogue Youth, 1977), pp. 110-157, especially pp. 114-115 and 136-143.
 Jacobs, Faith, p. 109.
 Jacobs, Reason to Believe, p. 118.
 He understands the biblical view as a conscious reaction against the other-worldly emphasis of all other Near Eastern religions, but it may also be motivated by the biblical expectation that reward and punishment would come in this life—at least on a communal level.
 Jacobs, Faith, pp. 191-193; A Jewish Theology, pp. 307, 319-322, and cf. the rest of Ch. 23 for an excellent description of the various forms of Jewish belief in an afterlife through the ages.
 Jacobs, Reason to Believe, p. 120; Faith, pp. 126-134.
 Jacobs, Faith, pp. 192-193; cf. Reason to Believe, p. 123, where he uses instead an analogy of electricity.
 Jacobs, A Jewish Theology, p. 318.
 Ibid., pp. 318-322.
 Ibid., p. 312.
 Ibid., p. 321; Reason to Believe, pp. 120-121.
 A Jewish Theology, Ch. 9; Faith, Ch. 7.