A Tree of Life. Diversity, Flexibility, and Creativity in Jewish Law by Louis Jacobs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984. 310 pages. $29.95.
Reviewed by Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal
There are roughly three or four basic philosophies of Halakhah. The fundamentalist view is that law never changed and never changes; nor is it susceptible to human intrusions or emotions. The more progressive Orthodox view is that Halakhah never changes but it is reinterpreted by great sages of each age The liberal views split into two streams. One maintains that Jewish law is a totally human creation and that only the ethical mitzvot are forever binding. The other insists that while the kernel of Halakhah is of divine origin and is eternally binding, it always grew developed, was reinterpreted and was flexible in meeting the challenges and problems of the times.
It is this last approach which is espoused by Dr. Louis Jacobs in his lucidly written and eruditely researched volume, A Tree of Life. Rabbi Jacobs, spiritual leader of the New London Synagogue in St. Johnswood [sic] and professor of Talmud at Leo Baeck College, is Anglo-Jewry’s top Judaic scholar and taught at Harvard’s Divinity School during 1985-1986. He has a rare knack for digesting huge bodies of intricate legalistic debates and presenting them in eminently readable fashion.
Dr. Jacob’s thesis may be summarized in a few sentences. Halakhah is not a closed system and it responded to wider demands of Judaism and social, economic, theological, and political conditions. Halakhah has developed and halakhists are not dispassionate lawyers. It is wrong to argue that Aggadah never influenced Halakhah; in fact, philosophy and Kabbalah have had a voice in determining Halakhah. Halakhah was guided by spiritual and ethical norms and exemptions and extensions to the law are very ancient. The utilization of takkanot and gezeirot kept the law fluid and dynamic.
Halakhah reflected both philosophical and Kabbalistic insights as is evidenced by the works of Maimonides, Nahmanides, Meiri, and others. Sometimes it reacted to the gentile world; sometimes it responded to sectarian challenges. Changing social and security needs compelled changes in laws (e.g., early Maariv in summer months, restoration of child marriage, etc.). Even psychology affected legal decisions and Jacobs cites numerous examples of hazakah and mego to prove his point. And we must not overlook the role of the customs of the people (folk religion?) as evidenced by the use of a head covering, swaying in prayer, recitation of kaddish for the dead, etc.
In his final chapter, Rabbi Jacobs discusses his theory of revelation which, after is basic to any halakhic philosophy. He views revelation as a “divine-human encounter and interaction and quite different from the idea of direct divine communication of infallible laws and propositions.” It was this thesis that landed Dr. Jacobs in hot water with England’s chief rabbinate some years ago. It will still enrage the fundamentalists. No matter: Louis Jacobs’ book cannot be dismissed because it is a major piece of Jewish scholarship by a solid and sober scholar.