Originally published in The Month, July 1974, p. 652.
A Jewish Theology by Louis Jacobs. (Darton, Longman and Todd, pp. 342, £4.75).
Rabbi Dr Jacob’s book deserves the highest praise. It contains a full, almost encyclopaedic survey of Jewish beliefs and theological concepts. The ability of a single author to present, with first-hand source material, biblical, talmudic, medieval and modern interpretations of the Jewish faith is a proof of a lifetime of study and personal reflection. Rabbi Jacobs is by no means merely repeating his many predecessors. He does not hesitate to state divergent views, for instance, on the origin of the Pentateuch and the prophetic books. Modern scholarship is as familiar to him as the Bible, Midrash and Jewish mysticism. His quotations range from Genesis to Sartre and Karl Rahner. The book is a mine of information and the Index makes it a valuable work of reference if one needs rapid yet extensive information on some particular point.
A Jewish Theology is not a work of apologetics. The author stresses the dynamic development of Israel reformulating its faith in the Bible itself and in the writings of early and late scholars and rabbis down to our own time. He writes for modern man in the world of today, yet takes care to present with respect the views of earlier writers in Talmud and Midrash. However, he possesses the courage to criticise and correct their views in the light of twentieth-century scholarship and our present-day view of man in the universe. Though up-to-date in modern philosophical and theological research, Rabbi Jacobs holds firmly to the essentials of the Jewish faith as valid for all times. God is not some sort of ‘cosmic power’ but a personal being who enters into a living relationship with man. The Bible is the blue-print of this relationship.
His impressively balanced views on the state of Israel, on life after death, on angels, on heaven and hell, on the final incomprehensibility of evil in the world, are valid for Jews and non-Jews alike. He does not fear to admit that there are many questions to which neither former rabbis nor he himself can give a satisfactory answer.
His chapters on ‘Worship and Prayer,’ and on ‘Revelation’ are little masterpieces. All difficulties are pointed out, not at all resolved, because man’s understanding is limited and both the Bible and tradition are often ambiguous. One sentence in ‘Revelation’ is so apt that it ought to be quoted: ‘The Bible is the record of how men were confronted with God’ (p.203). With this one sentence he establishes the perennial relevance of the Bible for men at all times. For him, the Jew today is confronted with God and his demands as he was thousands of years ago. Where Judaism had been influence by its environment he does not hesitate to say so, for instance, in ‘Sin and Repentance’. This reviewer has found little here that differs basically from Christian views on the same topics. Rabbi Jacobs always stresses the idea of God’s mercy, not that of man’s deserts.
Though this is a profoundly scholarly book its style is so lucid that the average educated reader will not be put off by it. It was an excellent device to print the more specialised, lengthy quotations in small letters, which the non-specialist can easily skip without losing the thread of the argument. The result of the author’s careful investigation is that nothing has occurred in the realm of theology and exegesis to make it impossible for the modern Jew to believe in and to practise the faith of his ancestors, even if the old fundamentalist attitude has had to be replaced by a more refined and critical view of former interpretations. The introductory chapter ‘What is Jewish Theology?’ may be read last: the author is not aiming at converting the non-believing Jew but wishes ‘to give to the believer an account of what it is that he believes’ (p. 16). In this Rabbi Louis Jacobs has fully succeeded.
CHARLOTTE KLEIN, O.L.S.