THE MODERNISM OF LOUIS JACOBS
by John Rayner
A Jewish Theology, by Louis Jacobs. 322 pages. (Darton, Longman & Todd). £4.75.
A 14th-century Halachist produced a law-code which he called Kol Bo, “Everything is in it”, and was duly rewarded for his presumptuousness by the fact that his identity is no longer known for certain. Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs has entitled his new book, more modestly, A Jewish Theology, but its comprehensiveness is astounding.
Its general conception is similar to that of Kaufmann Kohler’s Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered. I once asked the late Rabbi Dr. Israel Mattuck what he thought of it. His answer was: “It is neither systematic nor historical but you should read it.”
Dr. Jacobs’s book is systematic enough, and the historical perspective is apparent, even though the focus is more on themes than chronology; but above all it is richer in content.
As a survey of Jewish theological doctrines and speculations through the ages, it is a masterpiece, destined to become the classic in its field and probably to remain so for many a year. The learning distilled in it is phenomenal, the clarity of exposition admirable, the common-sense refreshing.
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But Dr. Jacobs’s aim goes further than to expound what has been taught in the past. As he remarks: “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.”
Honest he certainly is: considering his traditionalist background and inclination, almost to the point of bravery. This shows itself in his critique of medieval notions about heaven and hell, angels and demons, miracles and resurrection, the rebuilding of the Temple with its sacrificial cult and the cosmological scheme of the Cabbalah; in his timely warnings against the dangers of elevating Jewish peoplehood above religion and confusing Hebrew culture with Torah; but above all in his unequivocal rejection of fundamentalism.
Whether Dr. Jacobs altogether succeeds in presenting a coherent picture of what modern Jews can believe is another question.
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For example, the Reform doctrine of “Progressive Revelation” is too crudely stated and too lightly dismissed, and to describe the Mitzvot as “the vocabulary of Jewish worship”, though helpful, is not to offer any well thought-out criterion for determining which of them have a claim on the contemporary Jew’s allegiance.
The whole treatment of this topic confirms what I have felt ever since We Have Reason To Believe: that Dr. Jacobs has not yet fully faced and followed through the implications of his modernism for the problematic issues of Jewish practice. Not a word, for instance, about its consequences for the doctrinal content of the liturgy. On the other hand, he is forthright enough about such matters as Agunah, Mamzerut and Gentile wine.
But these are minor blemishes. As a historical survey, the book represents a monumental achievement and as an outline of the kind of theology that deserves serious consideration by modern-minded Jews, it will commend itself to very many—traditionalists and progressives alike.
Rabbi Rayner is senior minister of St. John’s Wood Liberal Synagogue.