Originally published in 1974.
A Jewish Theology. By Louis Jacobs. Darton, Longman & Todd, £4.75.
Jewish theology is an awkward subject. There are some deny its very existence, alleging that Judaism is a “way of life” (which religion is not?) or a code of observances, thereby narrowing the wider concept of Torah to halacha (which is part of Torah) only.
Others happily produce Jewish theologies without taking into account the complexity of the subject, its peculiar characteristics, and its historical depth. Jews have always been thinking about things pertaining to God: His actions, His will, His relationship to His creation in general and to His people Israel in particular and sometimes even about His “nature”. They expressed their thinking in a variety of forms, some acquiring more authoritative or “canonical” status than others.
Degrees of authority
In fact, the degree of authority and relevance attributed to earlier formulations and “sources” (Biblical, rabbinic, medieval, philosophical, cabalistic, etc.) is one of the many problems every theologian has to grapple with in his own generation. But whilst Judaism evidently has a theology (or rather ‘theologies,’ in the plural), it has no ecclesiastical government laying down a detailed and closely defined dogmatic theology. Jewish theology is, as Leo Baeck once put it, a theology of teachers.
Rabbi Jacobs is trying to teach—himself and others—how and what a modern Jew can think about his Judaism in this second half of the 20th century. The modest title of his book expresses the high seriousness of his undertaking: not “The Theology of Judaism” but “A Jewish Theology”—and one that reflects the loyalty to tradition as well as the critical faculty, the openness as well as the conscious limitations of a mind that is both Jewish and modern.
The book is written neither for those who, although they physically exist in 1974, still live mentally in a pre-modern world, nor for those who no longer seek any meaning in Judaism. Those to whom the book is addressed will find it rewarding reading.
Rabbi Jacobs deliberately emphasises his continuity with traditional Jewish theology by not constructing a system of his own but organising his material under the familiar headings of the main themes of earlier Jewish thought.
It is, after all, in this manner that the modern enquirer puts his questions to Judaism: What do we mean by “God,” His unity and other attributes? What do we mean by revelation, by Torah and the commandments, by sin and repentance, by prayer and worship? What does messianism or belief in a “hereafter” signify to a modern man? What does Jewishness mean in its historical (peoplehood and statehood, messianism, election), ethical, and intellectual dimensions, as well as in the dimensions of religious inwardness and spiritual life (e.g. the “love of God” and the “fear of God”)?
For those who seek a theological dimension to their Judaism, i.e. for those who are content neither with a secular, “ideological” Judaism—be it ethical progress or nationalism—nor with a simple “gut” Judaism of “belonging” and folklore (honi soit qui mal y pense), Rabbi Jacobs’ latest book is recommended reading.