Originally published in Le’ela (December 1999), pp. 67-8.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Louis Jacobs, London, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999, 267 pages, £24.95 cloth.
Perhaps the clearest expression of the tensions and conflicts within Louis Jacobs’ latest book can be found on the front cover, upon which appear various sets of scales under the book’s title: Beyond Reasonable Doubt. These judicial images raise an important question that bothered me throughout my reading of this book: what exactly is it that is being judged here, or, to put it more forcefully, who is it that is on trial? It is unclear whether Jacobs is weighing up the subject, Torah min hashamayim, and attempting to balance the arguments for or against, or whether he is challenging potential readers by urging them to partake in the debate. However, the most striking option seems to be that he is placing himself in the witness box and it is his life since the ‘Jacobs Affair’ that is on trial. This, his latest book, is an attempt to prove his own innocence in these matters—beyond reasonable doubt.
The stated aim of the book is clear: to reformulate the views expressed in his earlier book We Have Reason to Believe in a systematic manner and to reconsider these arguments in the light of subsequent developments. Describing his position as ‘liberal supernaturalism’, Jacobs attempts to carve a niche between these two poles. On the one hand, it is a form of ‘supernaturalism’ since he affirms God as transcendent and ‘personal’, wholly Other, who is also in control of the universe He has created. On the other hand, it is ‘liberal’ in that it accepts the findings of modern scholarship, thus leading to what he calls a ‘non-fundamentalist’ understanding of the composition and formation of the Torah. Thus, in a personal and compelling first chapter, Jacobs posits his original position, namely that the idea of Torah min hashamayim and its possible explanation/interpretation cannot be meaningful unless it is integrated wholeheartedly with the findings of modern scholarship regarding the origins of the biblical text. Again trying to balance his position between these poles, Jacobs maintains that people can and should keep the mitzvot whilst keeping an open mind on their origin. The rest of the book seeks to affirm this position by undermining the possible and various criticisms of this position proffered in his earlier text on the subject.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the book is the personal style in which it is written. The book is positively brought alive by a wealth of personal anecdotes and stories, many of which are designed to present the reader with Jacobs’ view of the events during and since the controversy surrounding his position broke out. Throughout there is a portrayal of Jacobs as the unwitting and tragic victim of events, and the book expresses the upset of an individual who—thirty years after the original event—still feels misunderstood and misrepresented. His account of the story and the surrounding events suggests to the reader that the extent of the subsequent political and social controversy was not only unanticipated then, but still continues to surprise him. Given the fact that he has recently published an autobiography, it may be legitimately questioned whether another such personal account of the issues is needed. However, it seems this personal style reflects a profound shift in Jacobs’ thinking on the issues surrounding the debate. Initially, the cold and removed style of writing found in We Have Reason to Believe suggests the view that this is an academic subject to be viewed objectively and dispassionately. Possibly due to the very real furor surrounding the publication of this first book on the issue, it has now become a subjective and intensely personal issue for Jacobs and cannot be removed from this individual and social context.
Contemporary theology is currently undergoing an exciting period of creative development and growth and one gains the overall feeling that, despite professing to consider such recent developments within this book, Jacobs fails to seriously consider some of these issues. As such, the book seems to rely heavily on the debate as it existed in the 1950s rather than embracing the current terminology. For example, there is no reference as to why the author has chosen to address God in specifically male terms, which is surprising in a ‘new’ theological text. The most striking omission to my mind concerns the lack of any serious discussion of the idea of myth (beyond a short reference on p. 62 where it is simply considered to be another term for ‘liberal supernaturalism’). The subject and topic of myth is more than just ‘truth expressed in non-historical terms’ (ibid.), and has received subtle and substantive treatment in contemporary literature. The full implications of this powerful idea in its current format is not really explored, which is surprising given the particular subject area, namely the historical veracity of the claims of revelation. Jacobs’ provocative writings on these issues may have shown the need for serious theological discussion within this area, and this current book provides a useful summary of his own conclusions. These omissions suggest that there is still room to continue these discussions further, before the issues can be settled ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Emma Conway is an MPhil Student in Theology at Cambridge University.