Originally published in The Jewish Quarterly, Summer 1999.
Louis Jacobs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation/Vallentine Mitchell, 1999, £24.95)
It was his expert attack on the fundamentalist view of Sinaitic revelation in particular, and dogmatic Orthodoxy in general, which first landed Rabbi Louis Jacobs in hot water. His seminal We Have Reason To Believe (1957) applied the scholarly methods of modern biblical criticism with such novel force that he was hounded from the Orthodox establishment as a heretic. For those unfamiliar with the episode, its sorry details are recounted with wit and candour by Jacobs in the Introduction to this, his much-publicized sequel to the original casus belli.
In the 40 years since We Have Reason, Jacobs has refined his critique and sought to clarify his own philosophically precarious position as a ‘liberal supernaturalist’, a Jew committed to the findings of modern science and scholarship but nonetheless believing in a transcendent and personal God. Such has been the appeal of Jacobs’s quest for a traditional yet non-fundamentalist Judaism that, under the banner of the Masorti movement, some have argued he has led a (possibly fatal) brain-drain away from a middle-of-the-road United Synagogue.
In Beyond Reasonable Doubt, he continues this refinement and clarification by further close readings of biblical, Talmudic and rabbinic texts, and a rigorous examination of the theological positions which, Orthodoxy purports, they underwrite. Informed by the methods of the nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums movement which studied Judaism in terms of its historical development, Jacobs powerfully repeats his case against notions of the divine authorship and inerrancy of the Written and Oral Torah. This will confirm his place as bogeyman of the haredim and a clap-happy neo-Orthodoxy. Both these camps will, of course, ignore the book.
Jacobs’s principal quarrel is with a fundamentalism which refuses to examine the core axioms of Judaism through the use of modern scholarly methods. This refusal, this reining-in of reason as Jacobs sees it, means that questions of the Torah’s authorship and the history of rabbinic law go unasked in all but the most untraditional circles. By Jacobs’s standards, this resolutely anti-modern stance is ‘intellectually dishonest’ and lacking in ‘intellectual integrity’.
What these terms of condemnation imply about Jacobs’s own position is not at first obvious. Certainly in places Jacobs abandons his hallmark clarity when his thinking gives way to impatience and distinct frustration with his opponents. But we are given an insight into the sense behind his vocabulary when he swipes at the respected J. David Bleich, a representative of a Modern Orthodox movement priding itself on an accommodation of modernity. ‘For Bleich,’ says Jacobs, ‘the question is always what Mamionides means, never whether Maimorudes is right.’ Bleich, then, is the fifth son of the Pesach tale who knows how to ask but who, because of pre-modern ties, just won’t do so.
The philosophical question at the heart of Jacobs’s critique is ‘whether faith can be invoked in matters that can adequately be decided through the application of reason’. The ostensible assumption of this formulation is that faith becomes redundant when reason draws conclusions which accord with basic principles adopted on trust, religious trust. But Jacobs’s deep assumption, revealed in his critique of Orthodoxy and Hasidism, is that, in the event of a conflict between reasoned conclusions and dogma, the former are preferable for the sake of ‘honesty’ or ‘integrity’.
The main doctrinal dispute between Jacobs and his opponents involves the notion of Torah min hashamayim, the belief that the Torah was received by Moses from God. Interpreted literally, it is the basis for traditions of biblical inerrancy and rabbinic authority central to Orthodoxy. While Jacobs accepts the doctrine in a quasi-metaphorical sense, he characterizes the fundamentalist version as the non-rational belief that the Torah ‘simply dropped down, ready packaged, so to speak from Heaven’.
Jacobs’s objection here is that fundamentalists err by basing their interpretation upon a literal understanding of the word min (‘from’): the accepted hypothesis in the academic world, he asserts, is that the Pentateuch is a composite work produced at different periods in the history of ancient Israel. The Torah may have been inspired by Heaven—in the sense of a Buberian encounter, perhaps—but it is not an unmediated and unified gift from on high because, were it so, this would be at odds with the evidence and therefore offend against reason. ‘The scholarly consensus is convincing because it has been arrived at by trial and error. To reject it all as heresy,’ says Jacobs, ‘is to convert Orthodoxy into obscurantism.’
For his part, Jacobs accepts the academic hypothesis and dismisses the view that, as he has remarked elsewhere, Moses received the Torah from God in anything like the way the winner of the football league received the Cup from the Queen. Instead, the Torah has a history which is indistinguishable from Jewish history itself. The human contribution to the Torah’s development does not, in Jacobs’s view, negate or diminish its value; even though the Torah can no longer be seen as an infallible text, for Jacobs it is holy and authentic precisely because it is the product of God’s ‘communication of His will to mankind. If such an approach is not that of Orthodoxy,’ he says defiantly, ‘so be it. There is no such doctrine as “Orthodoxy min hashamayim”.’
Jacobs addresses his arguments to the reader in the first-person singular and in a seamless style, free of jargon and condescension. (The same cannot always be said of his latest sparring partner, the rather professorial Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who, in all other respects, is quite Jacobs’s intellectual equal.) Jacobs’s remarks on contemporary Jewish denominations, for example, are appealing because they are personalized. This reviewer once asked Rabbi Jacobs why, as an acknowledged authority on the subject, he had such a strong interest in Hasidic prayer and whether he felt that his own reformist position was influenced by Hasidic philosophy. The question was given short shrift at the time but is answered, albeit briefly, in this book’s critical commentary on Jewish mysticism.
Jacobs’s personal responses to the Reform movement, for instance (as having ‘gone too far in its accommodation with the Zeitgeist’), and secular Judaism (‘What is there in modern thought at its best which makes it dishonest to believe in God? . . . I frankly find the whole notion of secular Judaism so bizarre that even to attack it is to give it a credence it does not deserve’) are interesting in that they show his bias is not only against right-wing Orthodoxy. As part of his overall critique, however, they are not particularly acute and one could turn to Dan Cohn-Sherbok’s Modern Judaism (London: Macmillan, 1996) for a less cursory appraisal of current religious factions. These comments aside, Beyond Reasonable Doubt is a difficult book to judge. Where it will not offend, the book will enlighten because Jacobs is a reliable and lucid authority on the issues discussed. As to whether it will be as influential as its predecessor, this is more questionable for two reasons. The first certainly constituting the major disappointment of the book—is that in thrust, if not in detail, it is very largely a recapitulation of a critique Jacobs has made, and a position he has advocated, elsewhere. (We Have Reason has now been published in four editions by Vallentine Mitchell.)
Those already sympathetic with his position are likely to find it doubly disappointing since the substance of Jacobs’s thinking does not seem, after all this time, to have reached beyond the original conflict with Orthodoxy over Torah min hashamayim. It is still too much of an apologia pro vita sua to be considered a constructive contribution to the Masorti/Conservative movement of which Rabbi Jacobs is in this country at least, very much the spiritual head.
It is known that his attack on the literalists has, or rather should have, significant ramifications for observance. The nitty-gritty of daily Jewish life needs more to sustain it than a philosophy permanently pitched against fundamentalism. Acknowledging this, Jacobs denies that his critique necessarily undermines a commitment to the mitzvot; but arguably it behoves Jacobs to go further and develop a positive, systematic halacha. We are entitled to insist upon the rigour which he expects from J. David Bleich and it will not do for Jacobs to defend his personal preference for orthopraxies such as laying tefillin simply on the basis of ‘aesthetics’, ‘emotion’ or ‘a sense of loyalty to the full tradition’. Of Maimonides, Jacobs says: ‘He believed in reason but seemingly held that it was unreasonable to be too reasonable, so that there is more than a touch of mysticism in his writings.’ Without advocating a radical amendment to religious practice, can this stern judgement not equally be applied to Jacobs himself?
The second reason why the book may not succeed is indicated by its very tide. Jacobs is fixated with the philosophical notion of reason and, on occasion, seems to insist that it and only it can act as the referee of religious truth and, by extension, the entire Jewish tradition. Reason, however, is neither a neutral method of post-Enlightenment enquiry nor a natural category; it is as much an ideological device as any used by his opponents. The very tradition he is scrutinizing intuits this; it does not shy away from the possibility that reason cannot understand the ways of God, that rational investigation alone or even per se is unable to answer the big questions. In a remark that would have appalled the founders of the Wissenschaft movement, H. Chaim Schimmel, in a work not quoted by Jacobs, The Oral Law (Jerusalem/New York: Feldheim, 1982), boasts:
It is fortunate that whatever proof there is for the divine origin of the Torah and the Sinaitic origin of the Oral Law it is never quite sufficient to be altogether conclusive. Otherwise, the Jews would have lost faith and an inner conviction and would have gained a mere science as a substitute.
Yet despite his attachment to reason, Jacobs knows that he must safeguard Judaism against the possibility that a relentless insistence on purely scientific study will lead to a bloodless, overreformed creed. He is thus forced to draw a quite arbitrary and possibly unsustainable distinction between Jewish law and Jewish faith.
Where, in many instances, Jewish law follows the rulings of Maimonides, it is proper to ask what Maimonides actually said and follow the rulings he gave. In matters of faith, the more correct approach is not to ask what Maimonides said eight hundred years ago, but what a teacher with his intellectual integrity would say if he were alive today.
This rather gives the game away. Out of a ‘sense of loyalty to the full tradition’, Jacobs is himself now bound to limit his critique, and beloved reason itself, to abstract matters of faith. In other words, Jacobs does not spell o the practical consequences of his critique because, for him at least, there are none. This reminds us of the story of Herbert Marcuse, critical theorist and mentor of young revolutionaries, whose quiet study was rudely interrupted one afternoon in 1968 by his Californian students inviting him to join them in battle with the state: Marcuse replied by drawing his gun on his unwelcome visitors and demanding he be left in peace—failing which, he said, he would call the police.
All this may be unfair. Jacobs is entitled to be as much in conflict about the problem of Judaism and modernity as the rest of us. Whatever the paradoxes of his own position, Jacobs is an essential contributor to any resolution of the problem. The irony of his latest book, however, is that it hints—but does no more than hint—at such a resolution which is strictly outside the terms of his own confrontation with fundamentalism: ‘I have come increasingly to realize,’ he says, ‘that for better or worse, I and those who think like me occupy a different universe of discourse from that of both the haredim and the Modern Orthodox, at least so far as theological thinking is concerned.’ This throw-away insight in the spirit of Wittgenstein warrants development by Jacobs; as Wittgenstein would have intended, this might solve Jacobs’s question as to why more Orthodox Jews do not abandon a fundamentalist understanding of Torah min hashamayim and adopt his own non-literalist view.
Robert Weissman has a Master’s degree in Modern Jewish Studies from Oxford and is a former student of Louis Jacobs.