Originally published in Conservative Judaism, 52:1 (Fall 1999), pp. 81-2.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt, by Louis Jacobs. London and Portland, Oregon: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999. 267 pages.
Louis Jacob’s new book, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, serves a dual purpose for the pulpit rabbi. First, it shows the dangers of a centralized power structure that, headed by a Chief Rabbi, can limit the powers of the mara d’atra. Secondly, it reveals the struggle of a scholarly and intellectually honest colleague in the UK presenting the case that traditional Jews have no reason to fear the work of the historical critics of the Bible and other classical Jewish sources.
Decades ago, Louis Jacobs argued that the traditional doctrine of Torah Min Hashamayim could only be maintained as long as there is recognition of the human element in the process of revelation and in the construction of sacred texts. God revealed His Will both to and through the Jewish people as they, in turn, reached out to Him. For this “heresy,” the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox hierarchy banned Louis Jacobs from their rabbinic ranks, and they refused to allow him to become the principal of Jews’ College. As a result of their actions, Jacobs shaped the direction of the New London Synagogue where he became a key figure in the Masorti movement in the U.K. The “Jacobs Affair,” as it has been called, also popularized many of his ideas that were first stated in his still-controversial book, We Have Reason to Believe.
Now, looking back at the controversy, Jacobs examines the theological issues that he explored some forty years ago. In his new book, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, he adds some fresh ideas that can be of interest to members of the Masorti movement in the U.K. and to our own closely related Conservative movement in the United States. Jacobs uses the term “Liberal Supernaturalism” to bridge the gap between those who take a fundamentalist view of biblical text and those who accept the documentary hypothesis. Although, at first glance, the term may seem to be contradictory, Jacobs knows exactly where he is heading in his approach to sacred literature which, he believes, contains both a human and a divine element. He notes:
To say that there is both a human and a divine element in the Torah is not to say that one can 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. It is rather that God is behind the whole process, that, from the beginning, there was such a reaching outt to God among the people of Israel that it produced over the ages the multi-faceted glory we call the Torah. . .
Since the Torah was produced by humans, it contains both the ignoble as well as the noble. How then can we distinguish between the two? Jacobs believes that this requires the use of our God-given moral sense and our understanding of Jewish tradition.
For Jacobs, Judaism is not monolithic. He believes that when Jewish thinkers speak about normative Judaism, “they tend to affix the label to those aspects of the tradition to which they are personally attracted.” He feels that “there is liberation in the thought that there is no alternative for a religious Jew in his quest for the transcendent than to try, guided by the tradition, to think things through for himself.”
Although Jacobs was influenced by the philosophical and theological founders of the Historical School of Judaism, he believes that the Conservative Judaism that is practiced in this country is basically an American phenomenon which is not necessarily suitable for Anglo-Jewry. Part of the reason for this stems from the fact that the founding of the Jewish Theological Seminary was to counter radical reform. On the other hand, in the U.K. the conflict has been between Liberal Jews and the Orthodox establishment. In addition, he feels that we in America lack the vision of a universal Jewry which is more in keeping with the perspectives of Anglo-Jewry.
Jacobs believes that a degree of eclecticism is needed to take the best from the different movements in Judaism and to mold them into a philosophy of Jewish life. It is a noble sentiment, but considering what he has personally experienced in the real world of rabbinic politics, and in light of the hardening of denominational lines in the Jewish community, one wonders if such an idea is really feasible.