Originally published in Pointer: Journal of the Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, 9:3 (Summer 1974).
A Jewish Theology
Louis Jacobs. Darton, Longman & Todd, London, 1973. 332 pp. £7.75.
A modern Maimonides! To compare a contemporary rabbi with Maimonides—the greatest systematiser of Jewish theology (and law) in the Middle Ages—must seem hyperbolic; but if there is one who comes close to meriting such praise, it is surely Louis Jacobs, Minister at the New London Synagogue and Lecturer at Leo Baeck College. The comparison is suggested by his own definition of the task he set himself in this, his latest and greatest book:
‘The contemporary Jewish theologian must endeavour, however inadequately, to do for our age what the great mediaeval theologians sought to do for theirs. He must try to present a coherent picture of what Jews can believe without subterfuge and with intellectual honesty.’
A masterly survey
In one respect Dr Jacobs’ attempt is a great deal more than adequate: as a survey and summary of the ideas concerning God and related subjects that are to be found in the traditional literature. Here Dr Jacobs has achieved a masterpiece astounding in its comprehensiveness, for in addition to the classical sources, he draws extensively on kabbalistic and chasidic writings and even cites works (such as Menachem Meiri’s treatise on repentance) which must be unknown to all but a handful of scholars. All these he expounds with consummate skill, and though his style is more discursive than Kaufmann Kohler’s (whose Jewish Theology, published in 1917 and long out of print, may now be regarded as superseded), the intelligent layman should find him readable enough.
Dr Jacobs’ intellectual honesty, reminiscent of the Church of England’s Bishop Robinson, is also refreshingly apparent throughout the book. He is indeed a traditionalist, and says as much, when it comes to the transcendental God, the reality of revelation and the obligatory character of the Mitzvot (about which more anon). But he is enough of a rationalist to express doubt (in rather gingerly a fashion) about miracles, angels, kabbalistic cosmology, heaven and hell, resurrection and the restoration of the Temple with its sacrificial cult. And he is more universalistic than some of our Liberal Jews, who seem to have sold their souls to Zionism, in warning against ‘he apotheosis of the Jewish nation’. In this context it is pleasing to read that: ‘a Reform Rabbi’s writings in German or English on Judaism are Torah while the secular essays or novels of a brilliant modern writer in Hebrew are not.’
A personal theology
But does Dr Jacobs succeed in presenting ‘a coherent picture of what Jews can believe’ today? To a large extent, yes. Certainly the traditionally minded will go along with most of his conclusions, combining, as they do, reverence for the past with common sense. But at the vital point of transition from theory to practice, there is a measure of confusion.
Dr Jacobs is indeed forthright enough in conceding, in language reminiscent of Claude Montefiore and other exponents of Liberal Judaism, that Judaism is ‘a developing faith, influenced at every step in its growth by the ideas and cultural pattern’ of other civilisations: that, though it must build on the insights of the past, ‘it commits suicide if its abdicates to them completely’; that there is ‘error as well as truth in the in the record’ of revelation: that the Bible is not a book dictated by God, but ‘a collection of books which grew gradually over the centuries and that it contains a human as well as divine element’; that ‘the laws were formulated by human beings in response to human conditions, under the guidance of God to be sure, but subject to error like all other human institutions, etc.
This sounds very much like the classical Reform concepts of “progressive revelation’, which, however, Dr Jacobs dismisses as unduly influenced by evolutionary notions and ‘perilously close to a belief in a God who is constantly changing his mind’. In addition to Fundamentalism and Classical Reform, he also rejects the Historical School and Reconstructionism. Instead, he advocates what he calls ‘The Theological Approach’. But this is so vague that he cannot be said to have made out a case for it to be considered. And the vagueness carries over into the discussion of the Mitzvot. These he classifies into significant, meaningless and harmful, and then summarizes the task as being:
‘to deepen understanding of the significant, try to discover possible meaning in the apparently meaningless, and endeavour to mitigate the effects of the harmful without destroying the system as a whole.’
That may seem fair enough. But what happens is one fails ‘to discover possible meaning in the apparently meaningless’? And how large is the category of the harmful? And is it not necessary to eliminate it rather than merely to mitigate it? And how, when all these modifications have been made, can ‘the system as a whole’ still be considered the same as it was before? With questions like these, Dr Jacobs doesn’t really come to grips. If and when he does so, he will surely come even closer to Liberal Judaism than he is already. Nevertheless, that he has come as far as he has, is extremely encouraging from a Liberal Jewish point of view.
In any case, whatever one may think of Dr Jacobs’ personal views, the real merit of the book (flawed only by an inordinate number of printing error) lies in its masterly summation of the objective historical facts. As such, it will not only commend itself to students of Jewish theology, regardless of their own religious outlook, but they will be dependent on it, as the classic in its field, for years and perhaps generations to come. And that is a stupendous achievement.
John D. Rayner