Originally published in Joshua O. Haberman, The God I Believe In: What Jews Still Believe (New York, 1994), pp. 63-74.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs combines the qualities of a great rabbi, scholar, preacher and theologian. Born in Manchester, England, he received the best available yeshivah training, earning his Ph.D. at the University of London, and is the author of over twenty books on Jewish theology, law, and mysticism. He is keenly aware of the tension between traditional Jewish law and the changing conditions of Jewish modernity. After a long, bruising struggle with Great Britain’s official religious establishment under its chief rabbi, Jacobs founded the independent New London Synagogue and created the movement of Conservative Judaism in Great Britain.
I have long admired Rabbi Jacobs as one of the most lucid interpreters of Jewish theology and ethics. Having exposed himself fully to modern science, general literature, and biblical criticism, he emerged unscathed in his basic Jewish beliefs.
Disavowing the fundamentalist view of the Bible’s inerrancy and the dogma of the Pentateuch’s Mosaic authorship, he nevertheless upholds belief in divine revelation, not in the simplistic sense of a dictation from on high, but as God’s communication whose meaning must be expounded by rational interpretation. While aiming to strengthen every doctrine of Judaism with the resources of his learning and theologically trained mind, he has the candor to voice reservations or uncertainty about some beliefs to which he can no longer fully subscribe, notably the idea of the chosen people and the Messiah.
Modern Jews in quest of faith may confidently turn to him as an illuminating teacher and guide. His writings reflect the intellectual depth of Jewish philosophy, notably Maimonides, the spirituality of the Bible, Midrash, Kabbalah mysticism and Hasidism, as well as the moral sensitivity of Mussar literature. His more recent books include Religion and the Individual: A Jewish Perspective, Holy Living: Saints and Saintliness, Principles of the Jewish Faith, and Jewish Theology. We spoke at his home in London, August 8, 1991.
Q: How did you arrive at the God concept such as you hold today? Was it primarily learning, speculative reasoning, an experience, or some significant event in your life which contributed most in the development of your belief in God?
Jacobs: I never had anything like a mystical experience. I’ve written on the mystics and I think I can have some glimmer of understanding of what they’re talking about, but that’s about as far as it goes. My belief in God (I do believe in God) has very little to do with experience, certainly not of a mystical nature. I was brought up with a belief in God. My parents believed in God; my teachers did. Although I’ve had my periods of Sturm und Drang and struggled with my beliefs, it’s been chiefly with regard to the meaning of revelation and God’s communication with man. But belief in God—I always had it. Obviously every person has periods of doubt, what the mystics call the dark nights of the soul. It might be evidence of superficiality, but I’ve never had any real, agonizing doubts about the basic belief.
Q: Do the words “encounter with God” and “dialogue with God” mean anything to you?
Jacobs: To be honest, I would say, not much. I could understand Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” and what he’s talking about; I can understand that everyone has experiences where something clicks and makes sense.
Q: When Buber or Rosenzweig speak of an encounter with God, do you find any meaning in it?
Jacobs: I’m not sure that I do. I find this a very Germanic way of thinking and it’s not in the mood of the kind of philosophy I’ve read during my years.
Q: Do you conceive of God as a personal being or as some power or force?
Jacobs: I certainly believe in a personal God with all the qualifications that are required. I subscribe entirely to William Temple’s idea that God is a he and not an it. But He’s more than a he. He is more than personal. I find great difficulty with the naturalistic understanding of God, a la Kaplan and others. This denudes the concept, as I see, of its whole meaning. I know there are difficulties about the notion of a divine mind, but the alternative of God as a “process” or God as a “power” that makes for righteousness, I find theologically inadequate and incomprehensible. It is as difficult to catch that as it is to catch the idea of a personal God. Human personality is the highest form of being that we know. Therefore, we describe God in terms of a person, meaning the incomprehensible One, Who brings the world into being and Who is the One with Whom we can communicate.
Q: Do you, at this point, reject Maimonides’ negative theology?
Jacobs: No, I wouldn’t necessarily. I have difficulties with Maimonides, but I don’t think it’s correct to understand Maimonides, or for that matter the kabbalistic doctrine of ein sof [infinite], the via negativa, as having anything to do with the naturalistic understanding of God. I could go along theologically with Maimonides and agree with him that you can’t really say God is compassionate, but there is a God. Whereas, if you describe God in naturalistic terms, God is just a name you give to some vague something that is “out there”—and this I don’t understand.
Q: The subject of revelation has engaged a great deal of your thought. In what sense would you say the Torah is God’s word or that God’s word is in the Torah?
Jacobs: After Biblical criticism has done its work, it’s difficult to see the Bible as an infallible text. In view of the human elements in it, it would be rational to say that the Bible, and the whole of the Torah, is a human product, the work of human minds engaging themselves in the quest for the divine. But from another point of view, it would all be part of the divine process of revelation. I do believe in torah min ha-shamayim [Torah from heaven], in what I hope is a sophisticated way; I’m not a fundamentalist. I believe the important word there is not “torah” nor “ha-shamayim,” but “min” [from]. What does it mean, torah min ha-shamayim? Does it mean when “the Lord spoke unto Moses saying” that those words themselves were spoken by God to Moses? Arid what about the whole question of all the evidence that so much of the Pentateuch is post-Mosaic? And what about rabbinical literature and what about the doctrine of torah she b’al peh [orally transmitted Torah] which itself had a history of development? I would go along with those theologians who say that revelation is an event, and then the spelling out of it, is what we call torah she b’al peh.
Q: Are you saying that revelation is a process in which some kind of intellectual message or spiritual impetus comes from God and is filtered through the human mind that translates it into words?
Jacobs: I wouldn’t put it quite as boldly as that because revelation is a mystery. I mean, if you talk about God communicating His will to mankind, since there is a human element to be recognized, it’s not simple transmission; as somebody once said in a controversy in which I was involved, when it says that God gave the Torah to Moses, it was not like the queen giving the football cup to the captain of Chelsea. It’s not that, it is much more interaction. I would put it this way: The Torah is the way in which my people in the past—and it is still going on—have interpreted what it is that God wants them to do. So it is to be understood in dynamic terms. And that’s how we see, even in the most Orthodox view, rabbinic law. Rabbinic law wasn’t given to Moses at Sinai; Hebrew wasn’t given to Moses at Sinai; the synagogue wasn’t; l’cha dodi [Sabbath hymn] wasn’t. So what’s the authority for it? Since it’s part of Jewish worship, it is what God wants me to do.
Q: How do you understand, specifically, such terms as “God says,” “God spoke,” “God commanded?”
Jacobs: I would understand this to mean that various phases in the history of ancient Israel, certain institutions, and certain ideas and laws were seen to be the will of God. Therefore, those who wrote about it or perhaps initially spoke about it, said that this is torat Mosheh [Torah of Moses], this is what God said to Moses, just as you’ll find in the later literature statements that say this is torat Mosheh; they don’t mean literally “it was given by Moses,” but they mean “it was given”—i.e., “it is true.” After all, the whole doctrine of torah min ha-shamayim itself has a history. It is not something that dropped min ha-shamayim [from heaven]. One can see how it developed. It was a way of saying that Judaism is a true religion, a valid religion.
Q: However it is given, whether as fundamentalists would say—actually in writing or conveyed through the minds of those who speak for the Torah—in what sense would you believe that its source is in God?
Jacobs: Yes I would say, of course, everything has its source in God. So what would we mean by something being more sacred? I would interpret this as having a good deal to do with the doctrine of Jewish chosenness. In other words, since I am of the Jewish people and I accept the Jewish faith, I would say that in some special sense there is a meeting between humans and God in Judaism.
Q: You believe there is an essential thought or message from God which was received by the Jewish people gradually, perhaps understood better in the course of time?
Jacobs: I think so, with some qualifications, because it isn’t just something that was conveyed in the past which would be a new kind of fundamentalism. I certainly wouldn’t agree with those who say, “O.K., God did reveal it, but He did it through J, D, and P.”
Q: How do you react to the notion that the sincere pious scholar who studies Torah is thinking the thoughts of God?
Jacobs: He is thinking those thoughts after Him. I would go along with it except I would add, he is attempting to think God’s thoughts after Him. I believe that if you give up the fundamentalist approach, you’ve got to invoke the idea of a quest. The quest for Torah is itself part of Torah.
Q: Is there any way, any criterion, by which to validate conclusions one may draw in this quest, other than that of an inner assurance?
Jacobs: Yes, but the inner assurance is the way in which we validate everything and I would say that there are two tests: one is what you call inner assurance or the conscience or whatever and the other is the total experience of the Jewish people and for that matter, to some extent, of other peoples as well. How do we validate anything? I don’t mean mathematics, but moral questions to which we have to apply what we think is right. I would say that the Torah is marvelous and it works, but there are areas where it just doesn’t work and where the tradition is not in accord with what many reasonable people consider to be justice, and then it has no authority.
Q: On what basis would you reject certain parts of the Torah as not being divine, as erroneous?
Jacobs: The obvious example is the law of mamzer [offspring of forbidden marriage]. This law seems to most reasonable people, and even to most fundamentalists, unjust. I think the fundamentalist Jew would say it isn’t just, but then who says that God has to be just? And I would go on with that as well if I did not believe, on other grounds, that that could not be a divine law. For example, I would have to ask what did the word “mamzer” originally mean in the Torah? I would have to point out that in the whole rabbinic tradition there is the attempt to get rid of this law, as unjust law. So, therefore, if I am pushed into a corner and I have to say that this is what God wants, and I really believe that this is what God wants, I would have to submit. But since I don’t believe God wants it that way, I think the Torah itself would call for a repeal, or at least an avoidance of this law.
Q: You would, in other words, find inconsistencies between the law of mamzerut [illegitimacy] and standards of justice as they are pronounced and upheld elsewhere in the Torah?
Jacobs: Elsewhere in the Torah and also elsewhere in the human brain and conscience.
Q: To you, the human conscience, then, is the authoritative source of moral judgments?
Jacobs: I don’t see how that can be avoided.
Q: Is your sense of morality, of what is right or wrong, shaped by what you know to be the mitzvot or does your conscience have its autonomous source in something else, justice or right?
Jacobs: I think it is autonomous. I don’t think there is any such thing as a Jewish ethic. Ethic is universal. There may be Jewish emphases. I’m not even sure about that, but I would put it this way: Judaism wants us to lead an ethical life. Or, God wants us to lead an ethical life. But I don’t go to the Torah to find out what is an ethical life. I don’t go to the Torah in order to say that I have to be just. I would say it is in the Torah because it’s right.
Q: How do you relate what you consider to be the principles of justice to God himself? Do you think God cares whether you do one thing or the other?
Jacobs: Well, “cares” is a loaded word. From one point of view, the Kabbalists in their doctrine of ein sof [the limitless God] say that there is a level where you can’t say about God that He cares. But that level is of no concern to us. Our concern is with the God of religion. The God of religion cares. That’s the only way in which humans can express their belief that to be in tune with the universe, one has to be just and compassionate.
Q: Do you say then that your caring and your sense of mandate in certain moral situations is directly related to the will of God?
Jacobs: It would be absurd to say that my conscience is my supreme guide, I really don’t want to say that. But one can say that human reasoning is the angel between God and man. And, this is really why I take issue with the rationalistic view because the rationalistic view has to explain how moral consciousness arose. Ultimately, unless you have the idea of transcendence in which the moral sense is grounded, you come up with the idea, that, as Bertrand Russell said, in terms of logic there’s no real reason for condemning Hitler for killing the Jews. Where, then, is this moral sense of duty grounded?
Q: And you feel that grounding is in God?
Q: Probably the most imperiled, most jeopardized doctrine today relates to God’s justice, especially divine retribution. In the light of the Holocaust, how would you respond to a person who says eyn din v’eyn dayyan [no justice and no judge], “I see no evidence of God’s justice”?
Jacobs: But that expectation of justice must also come from somewhere. The very fact that we protest means there is something that cries out that this isn’t as it should be.
Q: You see in the protest against injustice the rehabilitation of the force of justice?
Jacobs: Right, I could not put it better myself.
Q: Can we still speak of Jews as a chosen people?
Jacobs: I certainly don’t go along with what I would call a qualitative basis of the doctrine by Jews like Judah Halevi and Chabad [Lubavitch Hasidim]. Yet there is something special about a Jewish soul: dos pintele Yid [the point of Jewishness]. There is something there which is different. Another view treats chosenness as a historical fact. It’s interesting that Maimonides, because of his logic and his metaphysical approach, has very little use for the doctrine of the chosen people. He does not mention it as one of the thirteen principles of his faith. And when he talks about it in a little reference, he says, that he does not know why God chose the Jewish people. There are antecedents in Jewish thought for the view that chosenness is to be understood as noblesse oblige and sheer loyalty. I am not sure that I would want to make too much of a theological doctrine about it. I would say that it’s part of our loyalty to the people to which we belong and I certainly wouldn’t interpret the doctrine to exclude others from God’s special care.
Q: Could you do without the doctrine or tradition of the chosen people?
Jacobs: I think I could do without it, and I think I would feel better without it. On the other hand, it’s so deeply rooted that I’ll probably keep it like every Jew, whether he likes it or not. So, what one has to do is to make something of it, I mean, to see it not in aggressive terms, but in terms of noblesse oblige.
Q: Are you more inclined to the concept of a drafted people, a people on whom a task has been placed?
Jacobs: Yes, it is often said that the choice is not for privilege but for service. But I think there is a point in Kaplan’s retort that that in itself is a privilege. Also Geiger; you see even Geiger has the idea of a special Jewish genius. This is not my tendency. I’ve just written a book Religion and the Individual. The doctrine of the chosen people may well be stressed at the expense of the individual. Judaism is also a religion for the individual soul. It’s not just for the people.
Q: Are you looking toward Messianic times? Do you expect the Messiah?
Jacobs: I don’t know. There again, I could do without both doctrines. I would be agnostic about it. I know it’s a doctrine that has kept the Jewish people in existence. I also know that there were false Messiahs and that it could be a very dangerous doctrine. So I think it would be presumptuous for anyone to say, “I’m sure there’s not going to be a personal Messiah.” I don’t know. This is one of the things that I would leave to God. Why do I have to decide this? Speaking personally, it doesn’t have enough impact on my life that I’ve got to defend the doctrine. I can be agnostic about it, but I would not be agnostic about the doctrine of the hereafter. In other words, I would say that I would be agnostic only about t’chiat ha-metim [revival of the dead], bodily resurrection. But that the individual soul is immortal seems to me to be an essential part of religion.
Q: This is part of the eschatology of Judaism. Is that the part you would appropriate?
Jacobs: Yes—because the strongest argument to me for immortality, if I believe in God, is that otherwise the God Who creates and destroys is a wastrel! I don’t believe in God Who is a wastrel. But how to understand it is something I don’t know. Maimonides said it is like a man born blind trying to explain the nature of color. But it seems to be so much of the essence of Judaism that I couldn’t believe in God and not accept the idea of immortality. Otherwise, what’s it all for?
Q: You said something beforehand which I think goes to the core of the Jewish faith posture. You said, “This is something I would just as soon leave to God.” Jews have been more than willing to leave many things open-ended. In their quest, they have not always pushed for the final answer. When you say, I’ll leave this to God, are you not implying that God is involved in our history, in the events of this earth and in our lives? Can we still believe that God acts to help and save us?
Jacobs: That belief would have particular difficulties after the Holocaust. The question of divine providence is a very difficult thing because we can’t trace it. It’s impossible to say here is God and here He’s not, since God is involved in everything. So, I don’t know the answer to that. If, as I believe, the real heart of religion is the individual soul and God, then whatever salvation God’ is bringing relates to the individual soul. In this respect, I don’t think there is much difference between Christianity and Judaism except that we don’t need Jesus to carry out this role. Historically, yeshua [salvation] refers to the salvation of the Jewish people, but as a means to an end, I would say. It is not an end in itself. The Jewish people are midway between the individual and mankind as a whole. So, I think of the tensions between Jewish peoplehood and universalism and, on the other hand, Jewish people and the individual. Somehow, we have to live with these tensions. We can’t get rid of any of the three parts of it.
Q: Are we back to the question of Job, God, where are you? Why don’t you help us? Are we letting God off the hook for not performing in the present by giving Him a chance to come to the rescue?
Jacobs: I don’t agree that God is not working in the present in human souls.
Q: How about such catastrophes as the Holocaust?
Jacobs: That would be the terrible question of evil. Why is there evil in God’s universe? Nobody knows the answer to that. We can only see some glimmer of an answer. I would favor the free will defense. You have to have freedom for human beings to develop. You have to have an arena where there is a struggle between good and evil, in which people make their own souls, so to speak. Think of Keats’s idea that this world is a vale of soul-making.
Q: Maybe God has done enough for us by giving us the will to overcome evil.
Jacobs: Or perhaps, one may say, God wants us to be God-like; but how can we be God-like unless we struggle with evil? However, this is like saying that God makes people sick so the nurses should be able to do their work of salvation. According to Leibniz, this is the best possible world.
Q: You don’t believe that?
Jacobs: Could any other world realize the same goods? That’s what is really involved here.
Q: What do you see ahead for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel?
Jacobs: I’ve no idea. I can only pray that it is going to be a good future.
Q: You have no question about the survival of the Jewish people in the coming decades?
Jacobs: Well, I’m not sure about the survival of the human race, but if the human race survives, the Jewish people will survive.
 Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and founder of the Reconstructionist movement, defined Judaism as an evolving religious civilization. Identifying theologically with religious naturalism and philosophically a pragmatist, Kaplan viewed God in nonpersonal terms as a “process” or “the power that makes for salvation.” He repudiated supernaturalism, negated historic revelation, and rejected the idea of a divinely chosen people.
 In keeping with the doctrine of God’s total otherness, Maimonides—and Christian scholastics following him—developed a method of suggesting the transcendent nature of God by negations rather than stating God’s attributes in positive terms. This method of suggesting what God is not, e.g., God is not mortal, or God is not limited, etc., rather than what God is, came to be known as “Negative Theology” or by the Latin term, via negativa (the negative way).
 J, D, P refer to various sources of the Bible according to the so-called Documentary Theory: J, Yahwist (spelled Jahwist in German); D, Deuteronomist; P, Priestly Code.
 A mamzer, worse than a bastard born out of wedlock, can never be legitimized since his parents are unmarriageable, such as adulterers or incestuous partners. Although the child itself is innocent of wrongdoing, it is afflicted with severe penalties on account of its parents (see Deut. 23.3). This fact already jarred the sense of justice of rabbis long ago who tried to mitigate the harshness of the law.