Originally published in San Diego Jewish Times, 6th January 2000.
“Jacobs Affair” Is Chronicled in New Book
Beyond Reasonable Doubt, by Louis Jacobs, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London, England, distributed in America by ISBS, Portland, Oregon, 1999, 266 pages, $39.50.
Forty years ago, Rabbi Louis Jacobs wrote a popular book called We Have Reason To Believe. In quieter times, it would have been a book that would not have received very much notice. It simply stated the Conservative position, that the Torah is both God given and man made, and that Judaism can and should reckon with the findings of science, of biblical criticism and of reason. But it turned out that the book was not written in quiet times. It was written at the time when the chief rabbinate in England was coming under the control of the Beth Din, which was far to the right of Orthodoxy as it used to be understood.
As a result of the views expressed in that book, Rabbi Jacobs was barred, first from being a candidate for the presidency of Jews College and then from the pulpit of the New West End Synagogue, which he had previously occupied. “The Jacobs Affair,” as it was called, signaled the triumph of right-wing Orthodoxy in England, a trend that has continued till this day, and the end of respectful dialogue with those who held more modem views. Just as the head of Yeshiva University is a centrist who is allowed to be the official head of the institution while the school itself continues to move to the right, so in England, the chief rabbi is permitted to be a centrist while the Beth Din continues to be militantly right wing and to be a major center of power.
Now, 40 years later, Rabbi Jacobs has returned to the subject of that first book and written a sequel expanding on the views that he articulated then. He defines himself as a “Liberal Supernaturalist,” meaning that he affirms Torah From Heaven, but insists on a different definition of what “from” means.
Most of the book is a polemic against fundamentalism, which has grown more extreme and more insistent in these last 40 years. He insists that it is intellectually dishonest to dismiss biblical studies out of hand. And he insists that it is a distortion to ignore the fact that Judaism has developed down through the centuries.
He laments the sometimes ingenious way in which the rabbis of the “far right” engage in apologetics, and he decries the deification of the “gidolim,” of the present day halachic authorities, in those circles. But then, Rabbi Jacobs turns around and crosses swords with the Reform and with the secularists as well, insisting that the halachah is still the language of Judaism and that we are not biblical Jews but Jews by virtue of the Talmud and all that has been read into and out of the Bible down through the centuries.
He admits that his objections to Reform are not only theological but emotional as well. He is yearning for a Judaism that will have both a Jewish heart and a modern mind, and he finds Reform too rational, too decorous, too universalist, and too relativistic for him. If his polemic against right-wing Orthodoxy is more passionate than his polemic against Reform, it is because he came from that world, and because he has been brutally treated by that world, and because with that world one cannot dialogue on the basis of mutual respect. But his challenges to Reform and to secularism are just as substantive—and perhaps more important—because they will at least be listened to in that community, whereas in far-right Orthodoxy they will only be ignored or banned.
Conservative Judaism, like all middle-of-the-road movements, is in trouble in this climate of extremism in which we live today. Conservative rabbis usually talk about Judaism, rarely about Conservative Judaism, unlike their counterparts on the right or the left. And the very fact that they stress historical development and a combination of faith and reason makes them seem more balanced but less passionate than other groups. There is a great shortage of “passionate moderates.” And therefore this book, which is an articulate espousal of what we in America call Conservative Judaism, is a welcome addition to our resources.
It is perhaps too erudite and too scholarly to attract a mass readership, but for those who want to see how a learned and thoughtful rabbi who has a mastery of Jewish thought, both halachic and philosophical, and a deep knowledge of Western philosophy and ethics, reconciles the two, this is a valuable book. His book is a reminder that the religious groups within Judaism are not just social clubs, and that our synagogues are divided not only by institutional politics. They are, or ought to be, divided by ideas, by understandings of what Judaism is really all about, by principles and concepts.
Forty years after the Jacobs “controversy,” Louis Jacobs still stands firm, insisting that there can and must be a middle position that does not see Torah as an either-or, as either the dictated demands of God or as the product of the human mind, but which insists instead that it is the ever-developing and eternally sacred minutes of the joint efforts of God and man. His message deserves to be heard both here and in England, and wherever people search for the truth in Torah.
Rabbi Jack Riemer of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Boca Raton is the editor of six books’ of modern Jewish thought and the founder of the National Rabbinic Network.