Originally published in The Cambridge Law Journal, 44:3 (1985), pp. 509-10.
A Tree of Life. Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law. By Louis Jacobs. [Oxford: Oxford University Press for The Littman Library. 1984. 248, (Appendices and Bibliography) 45 and (Index) 17 pp. Hardback £18.00.]
Louis Jacobs is perhaps the foremost thinker in the contemporary Anglo-Jewish community. In the 1960s, when he was a lecturer at the orthodox Jews’ College, his writings provoked a storm of protest and outrage from the Orthodox establishment. The “Jacobs affair,” which resulted in the establishment of a new independent Synagogue, has never really died and even now, more than twenty years on, the wounds show little sign of healing. Rabbi Jacobs’ latest book presents a clear analysis of his thesis, whilst at the same time attacking the fundamentalist theory of his traditionalist opponents. Jacobs’ thesis is that the Jewish legal system, the Halakhah, (which covers every one of life’s situations), was influenced by the “attitudes, conscious or unconscious, of its practitioners toward the wider demands and ideals of Judaism and by the social, economic, theological, and political conditions which occur when the ostensibly purely legal norms and methodology are developed.” Jacobs examines the influences on the Halakhists of philosophy, mysticism, ethics, the legal systems of Islam and Christianity, social needs, and psychology. Of particular interest is his chapter on the impact of new inventions and discoveries on the Halakhah. Is it forbidden to switch an electric lamp on or off on the Sabbath? Are autopsies and organ transplants permissible? What is the Halakhist view on A.I.D. and A.I.H.? On this last question, it is of interest that the majority opinion is that A.I.D. is not adultery and the child born as a result is not illegitimate; yet nonetheless all the Halakhists except one forbid A.I.D. on the grounds that the practice may lead to incest and because it is morally dubious for a married woman to have a child from a man who is not her husband. The discussion of A.I.D. and A.I.H. is but one example of the many fascinating analyses of positive Jewish law which appear in the book.
This is a compelling book. Jacobs advances the theory that he is not prepared to compromise his intellectual integrity by accepting traditional theories of a fundamentalist kind. In so doing, he divorces theory from practice. The Traditionalists have denounced the book as another example of unorthodox reformism which cannot be tolerated. Yet Jacobs’ carefully documented treatment of the influences of the Halakhists suggests that they were dynamic and creative, and that he is doing nothing more ordinary than following that tradition. In his terms, he is the orthodox one, he is but a recent branch out of many other recent branches in the “Tree of Life.” All those who take an interest in the religious legal systems of Islam and Christianity will find many parallels; and scholars of these laws, as well as of course scholars of Jewish law, must read this book. They will not be disappointed.