Originally published in The Jewish Quarterly Review, 67:2/3 (1976/7), pp. 168-71.
CHARTING THE MAP OF JEWISH THEOLOGY
Jacobs, Louis, A Jewish Theology. New York: Behrman House Inc., 1973. Pp. 342 $12.50.
This is a stimulating work, written by an erudite and brilliant rabbi. It charts the map of Jewish theology and directs attention to the problem-areas which require further exploration.
In the opening chapter, entitled “What is Jewish Theology,” the author points out that a first-hand mastery of all the fields of study subsumed by the term, Jewish theology, is beyond the attainment of any one person. He then adds, “The inescapable conclusion appears to be that work on theology by Jews should be encouraged but that those foolhardy enough to undertake it should declare their incompetence, not out of false modesty but because the subject demands nothing less. They should present their views as an invitation to others to consider, to criticize, to improve on, to challenge. At present the important thing is to get theology on the move once again in Jewish circles.” (p. 6).
The author performs admirably this limited task that he set for himself. Generally speaking, he follows the arrangement of beliefs in Maimonides’ “Principles of Faith.” Indeed, the author’s previously published commentary on these principles is assumed in this volume. The additional themes, herein treated are “The Chosen People,” “Peoplehood and Statehood,” “Judaism and other Religions.”
In the discussion of all issues, the author takes account of traditional opinions, without seeking to be exhaustive. Reference is made to the various views in ancient and medieval, sometimes modern, literature. Some of these views are dismissed as “hard to believe” (p. 299), or “because we cannot believe that Judaism wishes us to be obscurantist” (p. 225). His decisions, for all their reasonableness, never acquire the rigor and thrust of truth.
In theology, there are objective truths and subjective convictions, accepted on the basis of maintaining the unity of the ecclesia. Maimonides distinguishes between the two kinds of truth, “true ideas” and “necessary beliefs”—that is necessary for the maintenance of the community (Guide, III, 28). But he does not commingle both sets of ideas, blurring the distinctions between them. Pragmatic considerations belong to the “necessary” category, but in respect of objective truth, it does not matter whether ideas are hard or easy to believe.
In respect of the central doctrine, the concept of revelation, the author rejects the idea that any specific propositions are conveyed in the glow of prophetic experience. God reveals only Himself—that is all.
“The rules and regulations, the Torah and precepts, provide the vocabulary by which the God who is disclosed is to be worshipped, in the broad sense of the term” (p. 205).
The question remains—why one particular “vocabulary of worship”?
The author writes,
“If God is, then He is to be found in the biblical record; nowhere else in human literature is He told of so clearly” (p. 204).
For us, Jews—yes; also for Christians—yes, but, this is a subjective judgment. There is room for and need of collective subjectivity in religious life. But, we must keep the two kinds of belief separate. The author, it must be said, courageously goes on to classify some mizvot of the Torah as “meaningless” and “harmful” (pp. 227, 228). Yet, in his preface, he expresses the hope that “the book might even qualify as ‘orthodox’” (p. XI).
Rosenzweig’s idea, adopted by the author, that God reveals Himself, is deceptively self-evident. In my judgment, it runs contrary to basic Jewish teaching. God never reveals Himself, only His Will. Moses asks to see “His Glory,” not His Being (Exodus XXXIII, 18). In Christian mystical philosophy, God or His surrogate, is revealed. (So, Paul in Galatians 1, 6, “to reveal his Son in me”) To the biblical prophets, God is revealed audibly, not visibly, with the visual appearances being regarded only as metaphors. A Presence might be grasped in feeling, as in Schleiermacher’s philosophy, but a verbal message reflects a Command, “Thou Shalt.” This point is particularly stressed by Leo Baeck.
The author, rejecting literal revelation, and in my view rightly so, fails to take note at this point of several alternatives in modern Jewish theology, such as God demanding “His Nearness”’—i.e. “to follow Him.” In that case, as I have pointed out elsewhere, revelation issues in the quest of God’s nearness, so that saints constantly long for more of the same. Conversely, all who seek “His Nearness” have been touched by his power.
The author bases his doctrine of revelation on Buber’s theory of the “I-Thou” encounter. But, the essence of Buber’s notion is spontaneity; how can it be used as the basis of a religion of laws?—The author then shifts his ground to Rosenzweig and quotes the familiar passages about the meaning of Torah, when it is read in the Synagogue. But, then, Rosenzweig’s belief in Jewish law was based on a Hegelian conception of the self-revelation of the World-Spirit in a State—the Jewish case being an eternal, a-historical, non-spatial, holy state. Can a concept be simply plucked out of a tightly structured system of thought and still retain its meaning and persuasiveness?
Perhaps, the most fundamental critique of the author’s theologizing is that he does not begin with the rock-bottom reality of man seeking God, in this World. A deep-thinking theologian must decide whether, like Halevi, he begins with the couplet the Israelite and his God, or with the polarity, man and God. If there is a triad in his thought, it is the Zoharic one—“God, Israel and Torah are one.” Indeed, he acknowledges in general terms the influence of Kabbalah, though he disavows the notion of a “Jewish race,” or a “Jewish genius” for “the Divine Influence” (Ha-inyan Ho-elohi).
Maimonides establishes his basic principles on the basis of man’s reasoning. And mankind is the goal and purpose of all revelation. So, too, does Rosenzweig in his well-known image of the six-pointed star. The rabbis too assume that derech eretz is prior to Torah.
This reviewer takes issue with the limited concept of Jewish theology, propounded in the first sentence of this book—“Jewish theology is an attempt to think through consistently the implications of the Jewish religion.” If it be deep and systematic, it must rather be an examination of the Jewish religious tradition in the light of human experience and reflection.
An illustration of the difference between these two approaches can be found in the author’s analysis of “Judaism and other Religions.”
His discussion runs on the plane of gentle reasonableness—“The position one ought to adopt is that there is more truth in Judaism than in other religions” (p. 289). Mendelssohn would have added—for me, for us, in respect of certain principles, thereby separating an objective approach to truth from the subjective life of faith. To say, “The Christian concept of God is false from the Jewish point of view” is neither true nor false but far too sweeping to be meaningful. Which Christian concept of God?—Is it the doctrine that “God is love?”; is it this or that concept of the Trinity?—Is it Jesus’ concept of God?—The phrase, “from the Jewish point of view,” makes the sentence subjective. Yet, in the context, objective truths are discussed.
In spite of his usual forthrightness, the author does not fully face up to the central issues of contemporary Judaism—the meaning of Jewish “peoplehood,” Zionism, the Holy Land, Chosenness, Messianism.
In each case, the author is clearer in his rejections than in his affirmations, and no one can doubt that he wants to be on the side of the angels. But where lucidity and prophetic ardor are most needed, we get, at most, certain counsels and warnings. The author admits that in relation to these themes, the task of a critical examination remains to be done.
Perhaps, his most incisive sentence in this connection is the one which concludes his discussion of “The Chosen People”—
“It may be that the Jew never comes closer to the truth in the doctrine of chosenness than when he is severely critical of why and how God can choose the Jewish people” (p. 275).
In sum, this work is an arduous effort; it assembles some of the material which must be included in “A Jewish Theology.” Hopefully, the author and others will continue to wrestle with the problems which he describes.
Jacob B. Agus