Editor’s note: This essay was written by a student in December 1986 – probably as a course paper. The name of the student has been removed, for privacy reasons. The teacher’s notes, handwritten at the end of the essay (and transcribed here), suggest that the piece was subsequently sent to Louis Jacobs for further comments. It came to us as a PDF among some other documents scanned and sent over by the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.
CRITIQUE: LOUIS JACOBS’ A JEWISH THEOLOGY
In order to try to develop my ideas about Jewish theology, I have decided to focus my comments on the Louis Jacobs book. A review/critique is a more concrete approach than the original reflective paper I had in mind to demonstrate my grasp of the course materials. Since this paper is written as a term paper, I am including “content footnotes” in which I will briefly indicate relevant materials from the course for the ideas I am discussing.
The review/critique format allows me to focus my reflections without requiring that I substantiate my views by citing other scholarship to support my statements. My perspective lacks a bit of comparative information because I do not have systematic knowledge about other attempts at developing a Jewish theology or about models of theological treatises for Christian or other faith systems.
My remarks are colored by several personal biases. As a convert to Orthodox Judaism from fundamentalist Christianity 7 years ago at 37 years of age, I have an awareness of and concern for interfaith issues. As a person who has been graced with a life long sense of the presence of God, I have a strong sense of the value of a mystical view of the reality of God’s presence and of the connective processes that bind all to the One. As a sociologist, I have organizing perspectives to try to make sense of social phenomena such as factors in the development of theological systems and their response to the needs of a particular social context. As a scholar in Judaic Studies, I am concerned about the inclusion of 4000 years of development of Jewish tradition, the representation of Jewish faith idea development, and the use of scientifically valid methods applied to theological findings and discussion. As a feminist, I have a deep sense of the problems of religious sexism and of the contributions made by feminist thought, experience and development. And as a person living in the modern world, I have a concern about the clarity, usefulness, inspiration, practicality and fit of theological understandings for guiding spiritual development and enhancing social repair. These concerns will be reflected in the questions I put to Jacobs’ theology and in the evaluations I make.
Louis Jacobs’ self-stated goal in writing A Jewish Theology was to provide a “systematic presentation of the main themes of Jewish theology” (p. v), to develop a Jewish theology, one possible statement (rather than a definitive dogma) (p. v), and to describe what a modern Jew can reasonably believe (p. 1). The primary focus in the book, however, is the first objective. Each topic selected is discussed by period–Biblical, Rabbinical, Medieval and Modern–and, in addition, the mystical (Kabbalah and Hasidic) view is presented. Early on, Jacobs indicates that his stance theologically is Theist (p. vi) where God is understood both in personal terms as well as transcendent ones. He also indicates later on that he sees his theology as compatible with Orthodox views about beliefs and practices except on the question of the development of Torah where Jacobs’ accepts a modern historical critism view. His approach to each topic is one that begins with the tradition, then shows the development of ideas in the tradition, and then addresses modern concerns. This choice of order downplays Jacobs’ third goal of describing the modern Jew’s belief by relegating modern questions and concerns to the last few paragraphs of each section. He also, by his own admission, gives little coverage to modern Jewish religious thinkers.
The reader is best informed that the material in this book is primarily a description of the traditions, a worthwhile endeavor in itself. It is no easy task to clearly and representatively present information which in the original is vast and unsystematic. For organizing this complex information into a coherent, easily followed, concise discussion (a handbook for moderns so to speak) Jacobs is to be commended. In assessing how well he has done his
task, I will discuss four topics–l) The adequacy of selection of major topics, 2) The coverage of relevant sources, 3) the adequacy of the theological vision presented for moderns, and 4) strengths and weaknesses in Jacobs’ approach.
In Table 1 I have presented the topics covered by Jacobs. I have utilized headings to reflect the major issue being addressed by the specific chapters. Jacobs has done a good job of covering the range of topics that consistently reappear in Jewish discussion throughout the ages. Surprisingly however, several common topics are not addressed by Jacobs. There is no discussion of humans as created “in the image of God” (although he does discuss Imitatio Dei), of the role of the people of Israel as a “nation of priests” and as a “light to the nations”, of the concept of covenant, of the meaning and characteristics of the Kingdom of God, and of God’s Love/Grace towards humans (Jews).
The last two topics are prehaps of more interest in Christian theology but have their place in a Jewish understanding. In fact, a discussion of God’s love and Kingdom characteristics might provide a modern Jew with a corrective to Christian views which depict Jews as lacking God’s promise of and participation in these aspects of God’s interactions and world plans. A modern Jewish theology does need to address those issues for which Jews are called to account by other religious thinkers in the modern arena. Love and Grace are not foreign to the ancient traditions as Heschel’s account of the pathos of God represented by the prophets indicates.
TABLE 1. TOPICS COVERED IN JACOBS’ A JEWISH THEOLOGY
Characteristics of Jewish Theological Endeavors
- Attributes of God
- Transcendence and Immanence
- Omnipotence and Omniscience
- Angels and Demons
- Providence and Miracles
- Goodness and Evil
Obligations of Humans (Jews)
- Love of God
- Fear of God
- Worship and Prayer
God-Human (Jew) Interface
- Torah and Mitzvot
Outcomes of Human Action
- Sin and Repentance
- Reward and Punishment
Role of the Jews
- Chosen People
- Vis a vis Other Religions
- Messianic Hope
The first three missing concepts (“image of God”, “light to the nations” and “nation of priests”) are traditional terms associated with being a Chosen People. They are important concepts which convey the role of Jews in God’s plan for the world. As a modern Jew, Jacobs has difficulty concretely addressing the place of Judaism and of Jews in the larger setting of the modern world. Thus his modern theology seems to lack an inspiring purpose, a reason for continuing as a Jew, a sense of where we humans now are in God’s plan of things. Having a sense of God’s ongoing plan of repair and redemption helps one understand the value of a religious life in the modern world. This idea is not well developed in Jacobs’ presentation.
I find this lack of meaning in being a Jew to also be reinforced by Jacobs’ failure to include the concept of covenant. The covenant gives Jews their unique relationship with God, their purpose and their immutable tie to this Chosen People. Yet Jacobs does not use the concept. He speaks of Torah and Mitzvot as the links between the Jew and God and raises the modern question of whether God really gave the Torah directly to be followed as His will or whether humans concocted the whole scheme. But without the concept of covenant, his answer that moderns can accept the traditions as God working through the community and therefore follow them lacks the strength of a covenental view that can address God’s responsibility and commitment to the community.
In addition to these omitted areas of discussion, Jacobs’ discourse is weak on two important topics–1) the relationship of Judaism/Jews to other religions and 2) practical modern applications of Jewish ethics. While Jacobs does have a chapter on Judaism and other religions, he limits his discussion to the Jewish view that all the righteous have a place in God’s Kingdom. This foundational position should have led to a discussion of religiously inspired anti-semitism and intolerance as a factor of Jewish existence in following God’s will; to a discussion of the new dialogue among Christians, Buddhist, Jews and others and of the benefits in self- understanding as well as interfaith relationships from such a dialogue; and to a discussion of cooperative endeavors to bring greater Justice and Peace in the world. Jacobs would probably feel that these issues are not part of modern theology since he limited his discussion of the role of the Jewish people and the State of Israel on those grounds. Those topics like the ones I’ve just listed are ones which focus more pragmatically on the modern scene and call for some vision as to the process and goals God intends for the Jews and the nations. This is a theme Jacobs does not seem comfortable pursuing in his modern theology, but which I feel are crucial to a full Jewish understanding of the modern situation.
A second and related weakness occurs in Jacobs’ discussion of Jewish Ethics. His approach is to outline the personal traits a Jew is to develop. His list includes 1) avoiding extremes in responses (p. 233) , 2) developing a good character through performance of good deeds (p. 234), 3) eschewing any semblence of anger and pride (p. 234), 4) cultivating silence (p. 235), 5) being sincere and free of deceit and trickery (p. 235), 6) being of joyous mind and cheerful countenance (p. 235), 7) not being cantankerous, envious, or lustful (p. 235), 8) not seeking fame (p. 235), and 9) being God-oriented. Jacobs further indicates that in Judaism justice, compassion, righteousness, kindliness and the pursuit of holiness are divine imperatives (p. 239). So far so good, but the discussion basically stops with these personal traits. It seems incongruous to speak to moderns and not to address Jewish concerns for world peace, for justice, for care of the poor and exploited, for disengagement from materialism, for ecological balance, for preservation of animal life and so on. Perhaps Jacobs feels the modern person is “me-generation” product who seeks only direct personal rewards for Jewish commitment, yet certainly among Jews (including secular Jews) concern for social issues remains important. Jacobs’ does a disservice in this discussion to the call of the prophets for Jewish responsibility in and to the world. This responsibility has imperative force in the modern situation of war preparedness, exploitation of peoples and of the earth and of excessive individualism, materialism and nationalism. Surely Jacobs could have devoted at least a couple of paragraphs to these modern, practical concerns.
These omissions in Jacobs’ discussion, while important, still must be viewed in light of the very good coverage of topics he has produced. It is always an easier job to point out something missing than it is to develop a comprehensive discussion. Jacobs has done a competent job in this volume and one well worth reading and learning from. Next I will address how well Jacobs has done in summarizing and including the variety of views that characterize Jewish thought.
Coverage of Relevant Sources
Jacobs approaches each topic giving cogent ideas from four major developmental periods (Biblical, Rabbinic, Medieval, and Modern) and from mystical discussions (Kabbalah and Hasidic). While he admits to giving short attention to modern writers, a more serious omission is his lack of distinction among conflicting modern view (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, etc.). Theology is formulated in a social context which Jacobs admits. However, his discussions could use just a bit more inclusion of the social context of ideas and of conflicting perspectives in a given time period especially the modern. His inclusion of social context is uneven. In his discussion of Jewish beliefs about resurrection he acknowledges the influence of other cultures, yet in his discussion of Omnipotence and omniscience, he does not mention the influence of Arabic discourse in the Medieval period. A few sentences here and there to set the social context and the concerns of the period would help clarify the development of Jewish ideas in response to topics posed by non-Jewish thinkers.
A more serious failing, from my point of view, is the total lack of reference to Jewish feminist theological concerns, themes, and understandings. Perhaps in 1973 Jacobs was unaware of feminist concerns about the representation of women in religious understandings (Jacobs consistently uses male-oriented terms–man, men, he–rather than more neutral words—a human, human beings, person(s), one(s)) and the feminine nature of God. The closest Jacobs comes to reflecting on the unfair role of women within traditional Judaism is his discussion of the problem of the agunah and the related issue of mamzer. Otherwise, his theology does not address the needs or contributions of Jewish women. Given these failings, how adequate is Jacobs’ theology for the modern person?
Adequacy of the Vision Presented for Moderns
Jacobs does not present a cogent discussion of his vision for moderns. Here and there throughout the book he raises questions relevant to the modern sense and provides specific answers or suggestions. The book could have used a final focusing chapter addressed to moderns. Had he written such a summary it probably would have contained his views 1) that the understanding of God as person is compatible with modern views, 2) that where clear answers do not present themselves (for example, the existence of angels, miracles, the hereafter, rewards and punishment, the meaning of Messiah, resurrection) the best modern view is one of open-mindedness and a sense that humans don’t know everything and possibly never will, 3) that historical criticism must be incorporated into one’s understanding of the traditions and 4) that God’s will can be seen as coming to us through the traditions of the community instead of through literal dictations by God of ancient laws. While Jacobs hints that a religious view and a scientific one can support each other, he does little to discuss the findings in physics, psychology, sociology or other modern sciences which can be seen as supporting at least some of the views and claims of religion and religious practices. Such a discussion seems plausible for a theologian like Jacobs who includes mystical ideas in support of modern Jewish faith conceptions.
Surprisingly, Jacobs does not provide an explicit rationale to counter the forces of intermarriage, assimilation and divorce which plague the modern Jewish community. Without such explicit applications, Jacobs’ theology seems more useful to the already committed modern Jew who wishes a concise understanding of the foundations of Jewish faith than to the skeptical modern. But in that, this book is still a very helpful contribution.
Strengths and Weaknesses in Approach
In sum, Jacobs’ A Jewish Theology is a useful addition to an understanding of major Jewish beliefs. It is strongest in clearly presenting ideas from major developmental periods over the 4000 year history of the people of Israel. Jacobs is to be commended for including mystical views as relevant for a modern perspective and for tackling complex issues like God’s omnipotence, the hereafter, angels, miracles, and the like which most moderns eschew. He is to be doubly commended for allowing tension to remain on these difficult topics and for advocating an open mind, a sense of mystery, and a sense of the human inability to fully comprehend God’s ways. Modern people need this kind of open approach to these tough topics so they do not conclude that religious understandings must be false or meaningless if they cannot unequivocally address these concerns and produce scientific or logical proofs. After all, science itself is an open-ended, ongoing process. Faith should be no less so.
The weaknesses in Jacobs’ discussion include failure to address several key concepts, failure to include feminist insights, and a failure to concretely address several crucial problems faced by moderns. However, the book does meet the author’s stated goal of presenting the main themes of Jewish theology systematically (by period) and does so coherently and with respect for modern sensitivities and learnings. It is, in all, a solidly written book worth reading.
“Correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to recall you having chosen another topic than this one.
In any case, the analysis is clear, thoughtful, insightful, and interesting. Seen within the corpus of Jacobs’ total writings, many of the criticisms are not, in my view, fair. Some I find [?]. If Jacobs did all you wanted his book would be 1000 pages. But, all in all, a good analysis. If you want, I’ll give you Jacobs’ address; you can send him a copy and see how he would critique your critique.”
 This information about Jacobs’ perspective and stance implicitly demonstrates that Jacobs possesses the personal qualifications to speak as a Jewish theologian. On 9/24 we were given the definition by McQuarrie that a theologian must participate in and reflect on his/her own faith tradition. In addition, Jacobs through his scholarship throughout the book demonstrates his professional qualifications showing ability 1) to present ideas from the major sources and periods in the development of Jewish traditions, 2) to address the concerns of major philosophers, 3) to represent something of the social and cultural context of idea development and 4) to utilize the scientific method and modern Biblical research including an awareness of other ancient cultures and belief systems. These are minimum qualifications to be a Jewish theologian. In addition, a knowledge of the beliefs of other major modern religions and their theologies would be beneficial. This latter qualification is not clearly demonstrated in Jacobs’ materials.
 The discussion which follows addresses the issue of what topics must be included in the Jewish theology “smorgasbord.” From Sociology, use of content analysis is one way to answer the question. That is, by looking at many writings on the topic from a variety of sources and times one can determine the range of topics and the usual issues included in such discussions. Besides years of reading on this and related topics as one source of my knowledge, the information within the course this term (Heschel, Encyclopedia Judaica, course topics, Sherwin writings and lecture material) permitted further lists to be compiled to compare with Jacobs’ compendium.
 This seems to be a strange omission. The importance of the concept of covenant to a modern Jewish theology is evidenced in David Hartman’s recent Jewish theology which he entitles “A Living Covenant.”
 By failing to include the concept of covenant, Jacobs is also hampered in his discussion of evil. The Sherwin article “Theodicy” offers two understandings of evil and suffering which Jacobs does not address and which the modern person may find helpful. The first is the concept of a “suffering servant”. The idea of a righteous person suffering because of the sins of others makes sense from a covenental view where God’s promise of an ultimate Peaceable Kingdom and use of “front line troops” to help repair the world can offer meaning for understanding suffering situations. Secondly, the idea of covenant is basic to another modern response (reminiscent of Abraham and of Moses calling God to account) in the face of “radical evil”; that is, of calling God to account for His seeming failure to uphold His end of the deal.
 This failing also applies to the course materials and to the writings of the other male writers who currently seek to represent Judaism. A feminist inclusion would likely have to go beyond female Jewish thinkers (such as Susan Heschel, Laura Geller, Blu Greenburg) to include seminal Christian feminists (such as Rosemary Ruether and Mary Daley).