Originally published in The Expository Times, September 1985.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs is well known as a highly distinguished liberal interpreter of Judaism. Many of his works, such as the notable ‘Jewish Theology’ , are immediately accessible to the general reader; but his interpretation is deeply rooted in scholarly study of rabbinic writings; sources which also inspire ‘conservative’ expressions of a Judaism markedly different from his own.
Hence, the excitement of his book A Tree of Life, subtitled Diversity, Flexibility and Creativity in Jewish Law (published for the Littman Library by Oxford University Press , £18.00, pp. 310, ISBN 0-19-710039-2) is its contention that the Halakhah, defined here as the legal side of Judaism, is far from being entirely self-sufficient or self-authenticating; it is influenced, rather, by the wider demands and ideals of Judaism, and by social, economic, theological and political considerations.
The author makes his point in a fascinating way, by gathering concrete examples, from the whole history of rabbinic law, illustrating response to the Gentile world, to divisions within the Jewish community, to new inventions and new social conditions. Vivid light is cast on Jewish-Christian relations, among other issues. All this material, however, subserves the author’s argument ‘towards a non-fundamentalist view of the Pentateuch which intellectual integrity requires’; and he suggests that this position itself accords with the creative spirit of the law, set forth in his earlier chapters.
With this approach, one might perhaps compare the late Geoffrey Lampe’s deployment of traditional patristic learning in the service of a less traditional interpretation of Christianity. Rabbi Jacobs’ book is fund of valuable information, but its argument is also a signal instance of attachment to tradition embraced with a rational integrity.