Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt. London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999.267pp.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt is intended as a sequel to We Have Reason to Believe, a book written 40 years ago that provoked the well-known Jacobs controversy. In his earlier book, Louis Jacobs presented a theory of revelation that tried to make sense of the fundamental Jewish belief in a divine Torah, but which also took into account the discoveries of biblical criticism and a historicist approach. We Have Reason to Believe cost Jacobs his job at Jews’ College and eventually led to his being forced out of the Anglo-Orthodox community, in which he had previously functioned as a rabbi and teacher.
Although I have some reservations regarding his theology, I am an admirer of Rabbi Jacobs. I believe that he, like other brave souls who have dared to conduct their spiritual housecleaning in public, is a tragic figure. Far too often in today’s Orthodox world, it is regarded as a serious breach of good manners, if not downright chutzpah, to raise honest and urgent questions concerning current Orthodox theology. The “keepers of the gate” can be very harsh in reacting to such lapses, and the degree of severity with which they treat offenders is usually in direct proportion to the establishment’s inability to answer (or even understand) the questions that have been posed. Louis Jacobs deserves respect for his continuing courage in asking such questions.
Notwithstanding, I must confess that I found Beyond Reasonable Doubt a bit of a disappointment. Jacobs begins with a description of how the controversy over his pre- vious book first developed and what were the issues involved. The tone of this first chapter is nobly dispassionate, without recourse to any blatant expressions of rancor. In the remainder of the book, Jacobs counters various arguments against his basic thesis that were made over time from both more conservative and more liberal directions. In these chapters—which appear to be a potpourri of history, biography, various items of scholarship, personal anecdote, and other curious vignettes—I found it difficult to extract anything important in the way of fresh material.
Jacobs does contend with the rather pathetic attempt on the part of some Orthodox authorities to censor Yitzhak Shimshon Lange’s scientific edition of the 13th-century biblical commentary written by Yehudah Hehasid (which unself-consciously admits to interpolations in the Bible after the time of Moses).’ He also demolishes the significance of recent attempts to enlist the technological sophistication of computers to analyze equidistant letter sequences in the Bible in an effort to prove its divine authorship. However, Jacobs does not refer to the work of David Weiss-Halivni or Mordechai Breuer, both of whom have made notable attempts at addressing the theological challenge posed by the historical-critical school of thought (although he does mention the latter’s uncle, Isaac Breuer). I believe that Jacobs’ own views reveal greater theological awareness. Nevertheless, Prof. Weiss-Halivni is a major scholar whose views have a wide readership, and Rabbi Mordechai Breuer’s approach (influenced in part by that of his uncle) has prompted a whole new school of biblical hermeneutics within certain segments of the Israeli yeshiva world. Both scholars deserve to be assessed by Jacobs, even if he ultimately rejects their arguments.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt does offer a few valuable clarifications. For example, Jacobs’ “liberal supernaturalism,” which asserts that there is both a human and divine element in the Torah, is not meant to be interpreted as a license to “go through the Pentateuch or the Psalms or the Mishnah or the Talmud with a pencil ticking the passages which appeal to us as divine and those which do not as human.” Rather, he explains, his belief is that “God is behind the whole process,” and that the Torah, produced by humans, is “eternity expressing itself in time,” as such containing “error as well as truth, the ignoble as well as the noble” (pp. 50-51). Given this, we mortals are still left with the troublesome task of developing valid criteria for distinguishing between more and less noble elements of Torah—a problem that is the implicit leit-motif of Jacobs’ book. For, once the absolute divinity of the religious message is undermined, on what grounds do we select among its various components? Although Jacobs fleetingly offers the criteria of “our moral sense, itself given by God” and “what the Jewish tradition itself declares” (ibid.), these answers are not subsequently developed in any systematic fashion, nor is their definition or adequacy examined from a philosophical point of view. In contrasting liberal supernaturalism with Orthodoxy, Reform, secular Judaism, and mysticism, Jacobs seems to get sidetracked by discussions concerning the history of these movements and by local denominational nitpicking. At other points, he appears to ramble into autobiographical digressions, settling his theological issues on somewhat idiosyncratic grounds of personal predilection.
A major flaw in Jacobs’ presentation is the fact that he still frames the question of valid criteria for distinguishing truth from dross in an early 20th-century modernist mode. That is to say, Jacobs is one of those who believe that there is a rock-bottom foundation of objective, neutral truth, and that “getting the right answer” is a matter of somehow ridding ourselves of the prejudices of fundamentalist religion in favor of an approach that takes into account reason and scientific inquiry. In this connection, Jacobs appears to make at least one inexplicable error regarding R. Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook’s philosophy. Jacobs praises R. Kook’s courage in embracing the theory of evolution and incorporating it in his religious belief despite its apparent contradiction to the story of Genesis. Nevertheless, he faults R. Kook for not dealing with the question of Adam and Eve’s being treated in the whole of the Jewish tradition as real historical figures from whom all humans are descended (pp. 82-83). In fact, R. Kook came close to declaring the Adam story a myth when he insisted that “it makes no difference for us if in truth there was in the world an actual golden age, during which time man delighted in an abundance of physical and spiritual good, or if actual existence began from the bottom upwards.”2 important, he is one of the few Orthodox thinkers of the modern age who was prepared to take historicism into account. It is therefore not surprising that the glimmerings of a more sophisticated notion of revelation can be extrapolated from his writings.
Jacobs, for his part, fails to address the postmodernist notion that there is no neutral vantage point from which we may begin to discriminate between divine and human elements in the Torah. What postmodernism has taught us is that every act of observation is also an act of interpretation. The postmodern challenge to the divinity of the Torah is that no written or verbal medium can avoid the limitation of an all-pervasive perspective that both limits and biases its message. A Torah that appears as if it were a composite work that has developed over time can still logically be attributed to a divine author, either by asserting (as Mordechai Breuer does) that God deliberately dictated His message in this manner, or by declaring that the divinity of the Torah is not logically dependent upon its having been dictated completely to Moses. But what can we say about a Torah that reveals a more thoroughgoing perspective (for example, male, agricultural, Middle Eastern, or pagan)? Such a challenge entails a more subtle account of the relationship between revelation and interpretation, between author intent and reader reception, than that which is held by modernist notions of texts with a fixed meaning.
I had hoped that the book’s final chapter, titled “Modernism and Interpretation,” would address these issues. Jacobs, however, focuses in this chapter on a consideration of three significant Jewish themes (the purpose of creation, enjoyment of life, and the doctrine of imitatio dei) in a manner that weds the historical-critical approach to a theological approach, all the while avoiding the pitfalls of anachronism and tendentious readings. In all, Beyond Reasonable Doubt is a summary of Jacobs’ battle against fundamentalism in Orthodox understandings of revelation. The parameters of that battle, however, are by now a little outdated. The supplements Jacobs has supplied will be of interest to those who are particularly interested in the author himself, or in the particular historical background of English Jewry that led up to the controversy surrounding his life’s work. But in terms of theological substance, Jacobs’ update is somewhat anticlimactic.
1. See, for example, R. Moshe Feinstein, IgerotMoshe, yoreh de’ah, vol. 3, nos. 1140-1145
(pp. 358-361); cf. David Weiss Halivni, Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in
Rabbinic Exegesis (New York: 1991), 2)8 (n. 25).
2. R. Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, Igerot haRaa”yah, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: 1985), 163.
See my discussion of this passage in “The Cognitive Value of Religious Truth Statements:
Rabbi A.I. Kook and Postmodernism,” in Haion Nahum: Studies in Jewish Law, Thought and
History Presented to Dr. Norman Lamm on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Yaakov
Elman and Jeffrey Gurock (New York: 1997), 500-501 and n. 45