WE HAVE REASON TO GO FURTHER
Louis Jacobs’ Progressive Conservatism
John D. Rayner
When in 1957 I first read We Have Reason To Believe, the book that sparked ‘The Jacobs Affair’, I could not see what all the fuss was about. Surely its thesis, that intellectual honesty compels acceptance of Bible Criticism, had been perfectly obvious, especially to readers of Claude Montefiore, for generations. The only question was mai nafka minah, what are the implications? On that, the book seemed curiously reticent, and prompted me to draft a review of it entitled ‘We Have Reason To Go Further’ which was never published. Now, forty-two years later, is my chance.
What I did not know then but have learnt since is that, in the depth and breadth of his Jewish learning, both traditional and modern, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs has stood head and shoulders above all other rabbis in this country, including chief rabbis, for the past forty years. In their number, range and quality, his scholarly writings are astonishing. They include talmudic studies such as Studies in Talmudic Logic and Methodology, Teyku, and The Talmudic Argument; medieval, kabbalistic and chasidic studies such as The Palm Tree of Deborah, Tract on Ecstasy, Seeker of Unity and Hasidic Prayer; theological studies such as Jewish Values, Faith, Principles of the Jewish Faith, A Jewish Theology and Religion and the Individual; halachic studies such as Theology in the Responsa and A Tree of Life; encyclopaedic works such as The Jewish Religion, A Companion; and an autobiography, Helping With Inquiries.
To these we must now add Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999, a kind of sequel to We Have Reason To Believe) and ‘Ask the Rabbi’, Questions and Answers on Judaism (Vallentine Mitchell, 1999, assembling pieces written for an anonymous Jewish Chronicle column between 1964 and 1985) which are the occasion for this review-article.
What I also did not realise in 1957 is that Anglo-Jewry was at the beginning of a sea-change which was about to sweep away the old-style, anglicised, genteel traditionalism that had hitherto characterised the United Synagogue—and defined itself in its Constitution as ‘Progressive Conservatism’—to be booted out by a new, anti-modern, strident fundamentalism.
Thus the connotation of ‘Orthodoxy’ has changed, and in its new sense, as Louis Jacobs wistfully recognises, it no longer describes him. Instead, ‘liberal supernaturalism’ seems to be his preferred label. ‘The liberal supernaturalist,’ he writes, ‘may still claim to be in the tradition. He can no longer lay claim to Orthodoxy’ (Beyond Reasonable Doubt, p. 68). But since many Progressives (myself included) would also consider themselves liberal supernaturalists, it seems preferable to adduce another passage in which Louis Jacobs writes: ‘Honesty now compels me, in order to avoid confusion, to describe my position not as Orthodox but as Masorti’ (p. 14). And since the Masorti movement is part of the (Conservative) World Council of Synagogues, we may as well go back to ‘Progressive Conservatism’.
In what sense then is Louis Jacobs ‘Progressive’? Theoretically, in almost every sense, as the following quotations from his writings will, with striking consistency, illustrate. ‘No reverence for antiquity must make us hesitate to discard an old statement if we have good reason for thinking it is false . . . Revelation is an encounter between the divine and the human, so that there is a human as well as a divine factor in revelation . . . According to this way of looking at the Bible, it is possible to recognise in it higher and lower stages of spiritual development’ (We Have Reason To Believe, 1957).
‘The modern believer, though he subscribes to the ancient doctrine of ‘Torah from Heaven’ . . . recognises the need for a good deal of sustained thinking on what is meant by Torah, by Heaven, and by from. . . . The problem is complicated in that he recognises a human as well as a divine element in the Torah.’ (Jewish Values, 1960).
‘It can no longer be denied that there is a human element in the Bible … that it contains error as well as eternal truth . . . Revelation is now seen as a series of meetings or encounters between God and man. The Bible is seen as the record of these encounters’ (A Tree of Life, 1984).
‘My whole argument has been that faith cannot be invoked in matters that can be determined by investigation . . . Not everything that has come down to us from the past is of equal value. Some of it is of no value at all . . . The problems raised by the implications of modern scholarship will not simply vanish because they are ignored by officialdom’ (Helping With Inquiries, 1989).
‘It has now been established beyond reasonable doubt that the Pentateuch is a heterogeneous or composite work . . . [and that] the multi-faceted glory we call the Torah . . . since it was produced by humans and since it is eternity expressing itself in time, contains higher and lower, error as well as truth, the ignoble as well as the noble’ (Beyond Reasonable Doubt, 1999).
The forthrightness with which Louis Jacobs asks and answers these fundamental questions of the origins and authority of Scripture contrasts strangely with the fact that until a generation ago the rabbinic leadership of the RSGB (as distinct from the ULPS) notoriously used to dodge these very issues.
But if Louis Jacobs is Progressive in theory, he is Conservative in practice. Not altogether, to be sure. Thus he admits that some of the laws of the Torah, far from being morally elevating, have the opposite effect, but alleges that they are ‘very few in number’, and fails to specify them (Beyond Reasonable Doubt, p. 53). Similarly, he remarks that ‘a ritual should be observed if its observance enhances the spiritual life of the Jew’ and that ‘the modern way of looking at the whole question of observance involves a strong degree of selectivity’ (p. 118).
More explicit is the following: ‘It is all very well to argue, as I do in this book, that the mitsvot provide the Jew with a vocabulary of worship, but some of our values are those of Western society, and when the mitsvot are assessed against these values they do, not very often but certainly at times, come into conflict with the informed Jewish conscience. One thinks in this connection of attitudes towards women, or non-Jews, or the law of the mamzer’ (p. 119).
On practical details, Louis Jacobs considers it ‘all right to answer the telephone on Shabbat’ (‘Ask the Rabbi’, p. xii), advises a questioner ‘to discontinue the practice, as many of us in fact do’, of reciting the imprecation Shefoch Chamatcha (‘Pour out Your wrath’) during the Seder (p. 140), and concedes to another that a revision of the liturgy is advisable but ‘should be undertaken by Jewish scholars with a keen sense of how the liturgy developed and of what is and what is not important’ (p. 160).
More commonly, however, Louis Jacobs insists, in typical Conservative fashion, that his historical understanding of Judaism has little bearing on traditional Jewish practice but leaves it virtually intact. ‘Where views such as mine deviate from fundamentalism is not on whether the precepts are commanded by God . . . but on how the command was conveyed’ (Beyond Reasonable Doubt, p. 112). ‘Our approach is, indeed, new, and a departure from tradition, but does not involve any rejection of the mitsvot as the word of God’ (p. 114).
These blanket statements, implying that all the precepts of the Torah are divinely commanded, are clearly at variance with the exceptions already noted and compel us to ask how such glaring inconsistency on the part of so meticulous a thinker is to be explained.
The answer seems to be biographical and psychological. Thus Louis Jacobs clearly identifies himself with the ‘devout Jew’ who, even if unable to believe all that Orthodoxy teaches, nevertheless ‘wishes to follow the Orthodox way of life because it is warm and homely and demanding and is followed by people whose company he finds congenial’ (pp. 51f). Similarly he writes: ‘Even when I felt obliged to give up fundamentalist Orthodoxy, I was never tempted to go over to Reform. I found no real difficulty with Orthodox practices. It was only the theory behind fundamentalist Orthodoxy that I could no longer accept’ (p. 160). And again: ‘I find myself . . . applauding Reform and Liberal positions on many issues in theory, but unable to accept them in practice, partly because of the Orthodox tradition in which I have been raised, partly because they do not have any real appeal from a Jewish point of view’ (p. 167). (But is not the Progressives’ point of view also a Jewish one?)
Considering his background, Louis Jacobs’ personal preference for ‘the Orthodox way of life’ is very understandable and entirely to be respected. But it does not resolve the inconsistency. If not everything that has come down to us from the past is of value; if we should not hesitate to discard old statements when we have good reason for thinking they are false; if the Torah contains both human and divine elements, higher and lower, error and truth, ignoble and noble; if some of its laws are not morally elevating but the reverse; if there is a need to discriminate between observances which enhance the spiritual life and those which conflict with the informed Jewish conscience; if it is necessary to reconsider traditional attitudes towards women, non-Jews and mamzerim; and if it is advisable to revise the liturgy; then what is clearly indicated is a pretty extensive programme of reform. Just these are the problems—and there are more—which the leaders of Progressive Judaism have been wrestling with for nearly 200 years. They have not always, or indeed ever, got it exactly right. Often they have paid too little regard to tradition, sometimes too much. There is plenty of unfinished business, and there is ample room for diversity. To quote Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs once more: ‘If it be acknowledged that Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, and Reform all share essentially the same aim of preserving the past while being open to the demands of the present and the future, the differences between the three groups lie mainly in how far one should go in this worthy endeavour’ (Beyond Reasonable Doubt, p. 160). Quite so.