Orthodoxy, Theology and Louis Jacobs
Dr Miri Freud-Kandel
University of Oxford
What happens when you bring a group of academics to Oxford to study Orthodoxy and Theology in modern and contemporary Judaism? There were certainly more men seen walking around Yarnton Manor and the Oriental Institute wearing kippot (yarmulkes) than usual. Rather more kosher wine was drunk and considerable quantities of supervised bagels and smoked salmon (or lox, as some insisted on calling it) were regularly brought up from London to be consumed. Also, loudly sung Shabbat services cannot often have been heard in the Manor. Yet it wasn’t all about Jewish behaviour. This was a group that came rather to take advantage of a rare opportunity, mostly freed from the duties of home institutions, to focus minds and be open to learning both with and from one another, and thereby to seek to move scholarship forward in understanding Orthodox Judaism.
The group brought together participants from a diverse range of backgrounds, in disciplinary, geographic and personal terms. The fifteen visiting fellows formally appointed as participants in the project, distinct from a number of other prominent academics brought in to present individual papers, ranged in seniority from among the most respected scholars in Jewish Studies, the recipients of numerous awards, to emerging stars. Everyone was there to pursue their own personal projects, but also to meet regularly as a group to share work in progress in a genuinely constructive, collaborative setting. The official title of the research seminar was ‘Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies – Orthodoxy, Theological Debate and Contemporary Judaism: A Critical Exploration of Questions Raised in the Thought of Louis Jacobs’.
Perhaps unsurprisingly this came to be shortened informally, so we tended to refer to ourselves as a group working on ‘Orthodoxy and Theology’. I had the privilege of convening the seminar alongside Dr Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan University, a social and intellectual historian who was a wonderful partner throughout the planning and execution of our project and to whom I am immensely grateful. In our opening symposium he acknowledged that he had not previously been inclined to devote much thought to Jewish theology. In this way he highlighted one of the underlying, recurrent issues that emerged throughout the seminar: what is the role of theology in Orthodox Judaism?
It is clear that theological considerations often have little overt or explicit impact either on the formal processes of halakhic decision-making or on the everyday lives of contemporary Orthodox Jews. My own research includes a consideration of whether Louis Jacobs’s willingness to try to construct a theology of Judaism to address some of the questions posed by modernity and modern scholarship itself demonstrated a certain lack of Orthodoxy. The benefits or otherwise of bifurcation – of separating theological questions from the practical observance of Orthodox Judaism – became an issue to which our group frequently returned as we discussed the wondrously diverse range of topics under our central theme. An indication of this diversity can be gained by reading the summaries that follow. What emerged at a most basic level was an understanding of how much can be lost when theology is marginalized or ignored.
Alongside the weekly internal group meetings at which such questions were considered, a series of weekly seminars open to members of the University was planned across the two terms of the project. These sessions, convened at the Oriental Institute, provided an opportunity to bring in important scholars who had been unable to free themselves for a more extended stay. They also ensured that the work of the Seminar reached wider audiences. The papers presented stimulated lively discussion encompassing legal theory, philosophy, theology, social and intellectual history, Israel studies, sociology, gender and rabbinics. Another forum in which leading scholars were invited to join us for a shorter visit was the previously mentioned symposium and subsequent weekend programme which inaugurated the research seminar in January. The symposium was designed to identify some of the central topics for consideration over the subsequent two terms. A palpable sense of opportunity for important research was generated at this event, and an understanding that the Oxford setting facilitated a much appreciated freedom from religious politics and pressure, fostering a sense of real fellowship. As the project developed there was an intellectual excitement around the group as members became conscious of how their own work contributed to the broader common project.
Two public lectures by former winners of the Israel Prize were organized in association with the opening symposium, one by Professor David Weiss Halivni in Oxford, the other by Professor Daniel Sperber in London. Each addressed in different ways the question of the scope for halakhic development within a Judaism retaining fidelity, one way or another, to the established texts of Orthodoxy. The numbers who braved the snow in Oxford to attend were beyond all expectations, as were those who came to the event in London. In view of the relevance of the group’s research to contemporary Jewish debates, these opening lectures were part of an extensive public programme of subsequent events organized to run alongside the academic programme. This series ran under the title of ‘Arguments for Heaven’s Sake: Orthodoxy and Theology’, and provided a rare forum for leading scholars to share their findings with a wider British public. The considerable audiences attending the varied events
appeared to indicate a thirst for engagement outside the academy with the issues addressed in the research seminar. The different sessions offered included a study day in Oxford – a Yom Limmud – offering focused presentations by a number of different fellows and a panel discussion on the relationship between academic scholarship and Orthodox practice and observance. There were also a heavily oversubscribed Jewish Book Week session considering exactly how Modern Orthodox Judaism should be understood, and a number of open public lectures by our visiting fellows, held at a range of venues across London, covering topics encompassing the impact of feminism and biblical criticism on Orthodoxy, approaches to conversion, how to understand Freud on religion, contemporary popular understandings of revelation, and a special Lecture by Professor Michael Fishbane on the nature of God. Further details of these events are listed in the Academic events section in this volume.
It was David Weiss Halivni who famously commented that he could not talk with the people with whom he prayed but equally could not pray with those to whom he was comfortable talking. A frequently noted feature of the research seminar, experienced from the opening Shabbaton that formed part of the January symposium, was how such barriers had to a certain extent been broken down. The number of kippot did signal that many participants were Orthodox of one stripe or another. Yet the religious backgrounds of participants Differed and the group was welcoming to all. Both prayer and research discussions offered a space in which participants could assess critical issues of contemporary Orthodoxy with an academic rigour combined with sensitivity and consciousness of the immediate relevance of the topics being considered. The kippot did also reflect a male bias in the makeup of the group, despite efforts to make the seminar more evenly balanced in gender terms. While women are steadily carving out more of a role in Jewish Studies, it is notable how male the world of the academic study of Judaism continues to be. Also striking was how gender came up as an abiding theme of the seminar, as an issue of fundamental importance in determining the future direction and shape of any type of Orthodox Judaism seeking in some way to be understood as ‘Modern’.
This has been demonstrated in debates over efforts to introduce certain types of Orthodox ordination of women and the often negative responses to socalled Partnership Minyanim, which attempt to conform to halakhic practice while seeking to include women in prayer as much as possible, calling them up to the reading of the Torah and giving them certain roles in leading prayer seminar argued for the influence of social mores over halakhah and theology in determining approaches to such gender issues, as in a number of other areas of conflict between Orthodoxy and issues arising in the modern world. However only one of the fellows was undertaking research that contained a clear gender angle – and even that was within a broader study.
My own research project during the seminar conformed to this profile, since I am in the midst of working on a monograph on the theology of Louis Jacobs, from which the idea for the research seminar had originally burgeoned. The questions of contemporary Orthodox Judaism and the reluctance to pursue theological debate have changed little in the fifty or so years since Louis Jacobs came to prominence in British Jewry, and the issues he raised are by no means faced by British Jewry alone.
One of the research papers I prepared during the seminar involved an examination of the impact of the Holocaust on Jacobs’s theology. As someone renowned for trying to popularize theology and address topical issues of significance to contemporary Jewry, it seems notable that although Jacobs, like so many others, identified both the experience of the Holocaust and the creation of a Jewish State as the two most significant events of twentieth century Judaism, they are treated only marginally in his voluminous writings.
In trying to account for this lacuna I examined Jacobs’s work on some of the themes that are prominent in Holocaust theologies, including the problem of evil, concepts of reward and punishment, and of belief in the Hereafter and Divine Providence. While these topics do all feature in a variety of his publications, and their relevance to the Holocaust is at times acknowledged, there is a marked lack of progression into any more detailed consideration of Jewish theology and faith in light of the Holocaust. Of note in Jacobs’s presentation of his understanding of each of these teachings was the consistent traditionalism of his position. The influence of Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, with whom he had studied at Gateshead Kollel, was also manifest. What becomes apparent was how Jacobs struggled to address the crisis of faith faced by many when considering the evil of the Holocaust and the suffering of God’s chosen people. There were a number of reasons why he felt it was beyond him to try to offer his own formal account of a Holocaust theology. He suggested that it was inappropriate to try to offer any explanation of such evil and suffering. He was also conscious that he had personally been spared the horrors of the Holocaust, so felt limited in the sort of responses he could offer.
To the extent that he suggested any position could be adopted, he argued that traditional accounts of suffering offered pre-existing paths for addressing this issue. This stance pointed both to his traditionalism and to his sense that no innovative theology was required here. More than that, though, it seems that Jacobs’s personal crisis of faith lay elsewhere. Since he seems to have felt that he had little to contribute to Holocaust theology, and the nagging questions that bothered him concerned other doctrinal problems, no matter how significant he was willing to acknowledge the Holocaust to have been in contemporary consciousness, it was understandings of divine revelation that became his focus and represented what he felt was an issue of pivotal significance.
The question of how to construct an approach to revelation that could both maintain and conform to tradition, while allowing for acknowledgement of modern scholarship’s critique of traditional understandings of the origins of Torah, was a central concern of Jacobs’s theology, and the one which had transformed him into something of a cause celebre. In the context of the research seminar as a whole, if the place of theology in Orthodoxy was an underlying issue, its manifestation in approaches to revelation exercised several fellows in the group. The focus of my research during the seminar was an analysis of Jacobs’s theology of revelation and an effort to understand how this had come to be constructed. Once broken down, it becomes evident how particular Jacobs’s theology was to him and the specific experiences and learning environments on
which he drew.
Jacobs forcefully rejected the type of bifurcation he felt was required if traditional accounts of Torah min Hashamayim, ‘Torah from heaven’, were to be maintained. Bifurcation in this context involves ignoring the conflict between the findings of scholarship on the one hand and Jewish life and practice on the other hand, and not necessarily even identifying the differences between the two approaches to Judaism. Jacobs was inclined to characterize such posturing as ‘compartmentalization’, and his oft-cited and oft-sought solution to the question of how to construct and practise a synthesis of what seem to be two seemingly incompatible approaches to revelation revolved around an effort to reinterpret the ‘from’ in concepts of ‘Torah from Heaven’. For Jacobs, belief in God’s divine revelation to Moses at Sinai could be understood in more flexible terms than Orthodox Judaism had so far countenanced.
While Moses Maimonides’s eighth principle on revelation has become established as Orthodox doctrine, Jacobs was at pains to demonstrate the variety of views that could be found within the rabbinic tradition on this issue. In this way he hoped to demonstrate the scope that existed within Orthodoxy to accommodate contemporary approaches to the Torah. Jacobs nonetheless had to acknowledge that the questions raised by modern scholarship differed somewhat from the rabbinic discussions about the origins and development of the biblical text. Biblical scholarship examines matters like the composite nature of the Bible, its multiple authors, the social and cultural influences that can be identified, and the extended historical period of its development. Traditional debate focused sections could be attributed to Joshua or possibly Ezra. It contains discussion concerning whether Moses could have composed part of the Torah himself rather than having relied entirely on some process of divine dictation. Analysis of the form of divine dictation also occurred, in recognition of the difficulties of between a transcendent God and human beings.
Although Jacobs spent a good portion of his career arguing that his theology could in many respects be viewed as Orthodox, depending on how Orthodoxy was being defined, he did later identify his position with Conservative Judaism. It is not entirely clear that his theology fits this characterization. Regardless of whether this was the case or not, within British Jewry, once Jacobs was defined as outside the confines of Orthodoxy, a clear boundary marker was nonetheless set. As time has moved on from the ‘Jacobs Affair’, and as a number of the scholars involved in the research seminar demonstrated through their own work, increasing engagement with the issue of revelation can be identified in contemporary Israeli and American Orthodoxy.
Within Orthodox Judaism in Britain the scope to do so continues to appear somewhat limited, seemingly scars of the earlier conflict. Many types of ‘Modern Orthodoxy’, understood in terms of an engaged Orthodox Judaism, perceive an importance in defining boundaries so as clearly to distinguish them from alternative forms of integrated Judaism. Religious observance can achieve this in certain respects, and the role of theology in determining how and why Jews act and perform certain rituals is often marginal or unclear. Jacobs acknowledged that many Jews neither have a comprehensible theology of revelation nor seek one. Approaches to revelation have, though, often formed a central component of the beliefs that define a Jew as either inside or outside any given sect, and thisis by no means merely a feature of modern Judaism. Beyond the shores of Britain it is possible to identify at least the beginnings of a more developed debate on this doctrine within the parameters of Orthodoxy. In an American context, it may be that among other factors this is a consequence of theological shifts that can be identified in a Conservative Judaism that is increasingly focused on more topical questions such as sexuality and intermarriage. In recent months there has been a dramatic growth in often informed internet debates on the issue of revelation. The launch of TheTorah.com website with the express intention of addressing the question of modern scholarship’s critique of traditional accounts of revelation, followed by a predictable backlash from those opposing the site’s goals, has contributed to the growing engagement with this issue. A question to consider is whether the use of the internet could lead to a globalisation of sorts of this debate which could enable British reticence to engage with this topic to be overcome in certain respects.
The revised interpretation of Torah min Hashamayim that Jacobs constructed fitted within a theological approach that he characterized as ‘liberal supernaturalism’. This term reflected Jacobs’s attempt to blend the traditional the world of the yeshivah, with the more modernist, reason-driven approach he later appeared to adopt following his encounter with modern scholarship at university. As Jacobs and others noted, this liberal supernaturalism can be seen to represent an effort to have it both ways. Jacobs’s engagement with academic scholarship, which he discovered at university following years in yeshivah that left him unprepared for the ideas he would have to confront, left him enthralled to the values of reason. He would try to introduce rationalism to his Judaism, but his starting point was a trusting faith in both God and divine teachings. This prevented him from genuinely questioning the supernatural beliefs in a personal God that functioned as the bedrock of his theology. He had lived with the teachings of the yeshivah since the age of thirteen, and these had shaped him through his formative years. However, Jacobs experienced a type of bifurcation from his earliest days at the yeshivah. His family background was traditional rather than strictly Orthodox, and his success in the yeshivah world was a product of his immense intellectual abilities rather than of familial expectations. While in the yeshivah he was conscious that his identification with Litvak practices (Yiddish for ‘Lithuanian’ and indicating an intellectual orientation) was not built on an experience of Lithuanian yeshivot. When he moved to Gateshead Kollel he was the only native-born member. He was in certain respects always slightly separate from those with whom he mixed; this sense of dissonance did not leave him when he Orthodoxy of British Jewry.
Jacobs sought to construct a theology of revelation that could bring together the two worlds he inhabited. He did not accept, or even particularly acknowledge, the postmodern critique of the type of modernism that underpinned his liberal supernaturalism, though this could offer a strategy for defending the authority of revelation by viewing it in relativized terms. Jacobs instead retained an attachment to the idea that there is an objectively rational means of assessing the text of Scripture and uncovering the divinity that lies at its heart. Hence in his retrospective Beyond Reasonable Doubt he could still write of the importance of uncovering ‘the reasonable conclusions that result from “scientific” investigation origins of the Bible and of Judaism itself’. (25)
In his writings Jacobs recognized how his revised account of revelation diminished in certain ways the grandeur of the traditional image of Torah min Hashamayim. He suggested that a certain ‘spiritual sensitivity’ was required in order to ensure that mitsvot retain their commandedness. In his A Jewish Theology he explained how ‘The whole point of the Jewish emphasis on Torah and mitzvot is that there is a splendour in the idea of submission to the will of God … Either one sees power in the idea of submission to God’s will or My research during the seminar sought to demonstrate how this empowered Jacobs to construct the theology of revelation that he propounded, although its use as a means of avoiding bifurcation is questionable. Jacobs constructed theories to underpin his overall theology of liberal supernaturalism, but his acceptance of supernatural elements in his belief system was deeply influenced by personal inclination and experience. This position represents something more than Orthopraxy. It points to a conflict in his theology. So while Jacobs sought to avoid bifurcation, a degree of dissonance nonetheless appears to be present in the application of his theology.