Originally published in Commentary Magazine, 1st April 2000.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt by Louis Jacobs
Littman Library of Jewish Civilization/Vallentine Mitchell. 267 pp. $39.50
Reviewed by David Singer
The “Jacobs affair,” which took place in England 40 years ago, caused a stir in Jewish life that still reverberates today. In immediate terms it involved an institutional struggle within British Orthodoxy. But its true significance was religious, lying in the confrontation between the contending forces of tradition and modernity and going to the very foundation of Jewish belief and practice.
The “affair” began in 1959, when Louis Jacobs, a brilliant and dynamic young Orthodox rabbi, was appointed tutor at Jews’ College, the seminary for modern-Orthodox clergymen in England. Jacobs, in fact, was slated to become head of Jews’ College, but he ran afoul of a campaign of vilification centering on theological heresies he had allegedly committed in his 1957 book, We Have Reason to Believe. In the end, he was forced to depart from Jews’ College and then left the Orthodox rabbinate altogether, entering upon a dual career as a pulpit clergyman (at a breakaway congregation) and a prolific author of books on Jewish law and theology. Today, Jacobs and his congregation are affiliated with Conservative Judaism.
Although Jacobs was accused of heresy, the irony is that We Have Reason to Believe was written as a defense of Orthodoxy in the context of modern thought. Jacobs’s views about God, the chosen people, miracles, and the afterlife passed without a murmur; what got him into trouble was his discussion of revelation. Taking note of modern biblical criticism, which challenges the idea that the Pentateuch, and hence the religious observances mandated by it, are Mosaic in origin, Jacobs urged Orthodox Jews to keep an open mind, arguing that in any case the historical status of the commandments is a separate issue from the question of their binding nature. Even absent a direct revelation of the Torah to Moses, observance of halakhah, religious law, would continue to be obligatory for Jews.
Today, Jacobs acknowledges that he was “naively trusting and optimistic” in imagining that he could put forward a modernist conception of revelation without provoking the wrath of mainstream Orthodox Jews. After all, the Bible itself states that God revealed the Law to Moses, and no lesser a figure than Maimonides includes this idea among the “essentials” of Judaism. Clearly, in enunciating his views, Jacobs was entering a theological minefield.
But now, more than four decades later, Jacobs has returned to the fray in a book that is billed as a direct sequel to We Have Reason to Believe. If in the intervening years he has altered his views about some minor elements in the Jacobs “affair,” he is as insistent as ever on his central contention, namely, that openness to biblical criticism and commitment to Jewish religious law are fully compatible. The difference is that he no longer seeks to validate his position as Orthodox but instead identifies with the “historical school” of Conservative Judaism. From that standpoint, he polemicizes against Orthodox “fundamentalism” and in favor of his own theological stance, which he labels “liberal supernaturalism.”
The heart of Jacobs’s critique of Orthodoxy finds expression in the words, “beyond reasonable doubt.” Modern critical scholarship, he maintains, has authoritatively established that the Pentateuch is a “composite work produced at different periods in the history of ancient Israel.” Yet Orthodox Jews simply ignore this incontrovertible finding, clinging instead to a fundamentalism that is both “unscientific and unhistorical.” Jacobs finds such a position quite incredible, especially when it is embraced by modern-Orthodox Jews who in all other respects “embrace [secular] learning wholeheartedly.”
Pointed as is Jacobs’s critique on this matter, it can hardly be said to break new ground. What is vitally fresh in Beyond Reasonable Doubt is, rather, his attempt to tease out a positive theological program—liberal supernaturalism—centering on a Judaism that moves “beyond fundamentalism” but is at the same time rooted in halakhic commitment. The Jew who is a liberal supernaturalist, Jacobs writes,
is liberal in that his reason compels him to adopt the historical-critical approach and its implications, even though this involves a degree of rejection of the traditional view. He is a supernaturalist because he sees no reason to deny the supernatural elements of his religion. . . . God is for him the living God and the precepts of the Torah divine commands, albeit these are conveyed indirectly and with human cooperation.
But what exactly are “divine commands . . . conveyed indirectly and with human cooperation”? As a theological liberal, Jacobs does not anchor revelation in the text of the Pentateuch. Instead, he anchors it more generally in the historical experience of the Jewish people. For him, the term revelation applies to the “sum total of Jewish teachings, in which our ancestors reached out haltingly to seek God’s will and to be found by Him.” Or, as he puts it in a succinct formulation, “God gives the Torah not only to the Jewish people, but through the Jewish people.”
By placing the historical Jewish people at the center of his theory of revelation, Jacobs is able to present Judaism as an evolving religion, something that clearly makes sense from the modern standpoint. In addition, he is equipped to account for certain inconvenient features of Jewish tradition—like biblical slavery, or the position of women in ancient Judaism—by attributing them to historical contingency. Most crucially, Jacobs’s people-centered perspective enables him to provide a rationale for religious observance that sidesteps the issue of biblical criticism and the direct communication of the commandments to Moses. “Practical observances of Judaism have as their sanction that this is how the Torah has been developed by human beings in response to the divine will,” Jacobs argues, adding, confidently, “God is behind the whole process.”
This may sound as if Jacobs has moved closer to the position of Reform Judaism, but that is emphatically not so. Despite his differences with Orthodoxy, he remains a traditionalist, both intellectually and temperamentally, and continues to place an absolute priority on religious observance. Reform, as Jacobs sees it, has gone too far in its “accommodation to the Zeitgeist,” in its lack of “fixed Jewish ethical standards,” and in its rejection of the halakhah as “essentially binding.” As a lived religion, Jacobs bluntly asserts, Reform lacks “any real appeal from a Jewish point of view.”
Like other books by Jacobs, including Principles of the Jewish Faith (1964),Theology in the Responsa (1973), and A Tree of Life (1984), Beyond Reasonable Doubt brims with scholarship and is powerfully argued. Jacobs’s mastery of the full range of Jewish religious sources—legal, philosophical, and mystical—is apparent on every page, and is well deployed in making his case for liberal supernaturalism as a breakthrough religious synthesis. And that case is a timely one, for Jacobs is hardly alone in hungering for a form of traditionalism that can combine halakhic observance with an open intellectual outlook. Indeed, this is today the shared meeting ground of the right wing of Conservative Judaism and the left wing of the Orthodox movement.
Still, it needs to be recognized that Jacobs’s own working-out of the issues remains highly questionable. At several points in Beyond Reasonable Doubt, he himself notes that “liberal supernaturalism also has its problems.” Truth to tell, they are very severe.
At the level of practice, and also of religious psychology, indirect revelation proves no substitute for direct revelation in generating loyalty to the details of Jewish law. Jacobs himself explains why this is so, although he fails to think through the implications:
Psychologically, it is undeniable that a clear recognition of the human development of Jewish practice . . . is bound to produce a somewhat weaker sense of allegiance to the minutiae of Jewish law. [The Orthodox Jew] will go to the utmost limits . . . to keep every detail . . . since they are part of what God has directly commanded him to do. But the Jew who sees the . . . laws as having evolved, although he too, may acknowledge them, in a sense, to be divinely ordained . . . will find it more difficult to be so scrupulous.
Liberal supernaturalism also opens the door to selective observance. If one believes, with Jacobs, that Jewish law carries the mark of history, is it not reasonable to assume that elements of that law may be deemed out of date or primitive from the standpoint of the present? And if so, should not the observant Jew of today, acting out of sincere religious conviction, feel free to set them aside? Amazingly, Jacobs embraces this very position, arguing that for those not caught in the “fetters of mechanical fundamentalism,” a degree of selectivity is inevitable. (The example he gives is of an individual who will turn on an electric light on the Sabbath but refrain from using electricity to cook.) Although he acknowledges that a Jew who behaves this way is “not operating within the boundaries of the halakhah” his actions should still be deemed legitimate.
It is at the level of theory, though, that liberal supernaturalism is in danger of unraveling completely. The main challenge confronting Jacobs is the secularization of contemporary Jewry. What does this phenomenon mean for his people-centered theory of revelation? If a majority of Jews today reject not this or that particular of Jewish law but the system as a whole, is that, too, to be deemed a species of revelation? And if so, is Jacobs prepared to discard vast sectors of the law that are without meaning for most present-day Jews? Or does he propose, alternatively, to deny these Jews their voice in determining the halakhic consensus?
A similar question arises in considering the wider social and cultural values espoused by many if not most non-Orthodox Jews today. To Jacobs, it is “hard to see how homosexual ‘marriages’ can be condoned if Jewish values are taken into consideration.” Yet the Reform movement is set to endorse just such a step, even as the Conservative movement considers it with increasing sympathy. In both denominations, advocates of this move validate their stance by invoking, precisely, Jewish values, and they appear to be fully sincere in doing so. Is this, too, the voice of revelation speaking through the Jewish people?
Looking back after more than 40 years at the factors that precipitated his “affair,” Jacobs writes that he “found no real difficulty with Orthodox practices. It was only the theory behind fundamentalist Orthodoxy that I could no longer accept.” Alas, his determination to seek a form of robust but nonfundamentalist traditionalism that will fully satisfy “both mind and heart” has led him into a theological no-man’s land.
This is a matter of deep regret. In day-to-day terms, obviously, traditionalist Jews of the nonfundamentalist stripe will continue to work out, with varying degrees of success, their accommodations with modernity. But what their traditionalist endeavor desperately lacks is a conceptual framework that will justify it both intellectually and religiously, establishing its legitimacy within the context of Jewish belief and practice and guiding its future development. If the brilliant and pious Louis Jacobs has been unable to provide such a framework, is there reason to believe that anyone else can?
David Singer is editor of the American Jewish Year Book.