Originally published in The Jerusalem Post, 10 March 2000.
Beyond Reasonable Doubt by Louis Jacobs. London & Portland, Oregon, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. 267pp. No price stated.
A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community by Jeffrey S. Gurock and Jacob J. Schacter. New York, Columbia University Press. 220pp. No price stated.
Is it almost forty years since British Jewry was split by the Jacobs affair? Back then, the headlines in both Jewish and non-Jewish press told of the conflict between Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who was tipped to become the next Chief Rabbi, and the then Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie. In 1957, Jacobs wrote a book We Have Reason to Believe in which his views on the nature of revelation were expounded.
Opponents considered the book heretical and he lost his position as Tutor at Jews’ College and Rabbi at one of London’s leading synagogues. Now, after nine more books on theological subjects, he has returned with a sequel, defending the theological position he calls “liberal supernaturalism.” Jacobs challenges the arguments of the right, with its fundamentalist supernaturalist philosophy, and the liberal naturalists on the left, who criticize him for not going far enough.
The right believes there is no human element in the Torah, whereas the left argues there is no divine element. But Jacobs’s position is that there is no reason to deny that there are supernatural elements in Judaism.
The clear difference, and the only really significant one that emerges from this book between Jacobs and the traditionalists, is the Torah min hashamayim concept. Jacobs’s main postulate is that it is possible to make traditional Judaism compatible with modern research on the origins of Judaism. His thesis is that the Torah has evolved over many years and is not a “ready package” plucked from Mount Sinai.
In Beyond Reasonable Doubt Jacobs surveys the various strands of Jewish belief; he is fair in his approach. Although advocating what he terms the “middle-of-the-way” route of the British Masorti movement, he shows much sympathy and appreciation for the haredi way of life, as well as an understanding of modern Orthodoxy, Reform, and even secular Judaism.
Jacobs confesses that, while he could never become a Kabbalist or Hassid, he is still to some extent attached to the mystical approach to Judaism. One suspects that the British Masorti movement has moved in a more radical direction than has Jacobs.
With the views expressed in this book and with the honesty that goes with it, it is a great pity that Jacobs’s breach with modern Orthodoxy cannot be reconciled. Here is a scholar who, even after all these years, has much to offer British Jewry.
In his book, Jacobs refers to his interest in the philosophy of Mordechai Kaplan, whose Reconstructionism he describes as treife thought.
Mordechai M. Kaplan was an outspoken critique of traditional Judaism and the founder of the Reconstructionist movement in the United States.
Kaplan, who lived to the grand age of 102, followed the Orthodox tradition for his first twenty years. However, he began questioning his faith early in life. Unlike Jacobs, Kaplan received less opposition to his views.
A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community concentrates on the first 20 years of Kaplan’s professional life when he had a meaningful relationship, albeit an uncomfortable one, with Orthodox leaders, lay and professional. His heterdox views were clearly apparent soon after he was appointed to the prestigious new Jewish Center on New York’s Upper West Side.
What is astonishing is that he retained his position there for some years despite his views on Torah min hashamayim and his rejection of the Shulhan Aruch, the handbook of Orthodoxy. It is a pity that the authors fail to explore the reasons for Kaplan’s ability to remain at his post.
The lack of real observance on the part of many supporters of the Center was surely not a major factor in the vacillation of the religious leaders. Gurock and Schacter do, however, show that even after Kaplan’s final break with Orthodoxy which resulted in his forming the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, some abortive negotiations to make peace and get him to return to the Center were made.
Up to the end of his long life there were some in the Orthodox community who still saw Kaplan as a man of ideas from which they could benefit.
This book shows that Kaplan was a major influence on 20th century American Jewish religious life, and was associated with many non-Orthodox plans to counter assimilation, invigorate Jewish identity, and improve education.
Kaplan-believed that modernizing Jewish customs to make them consistent with, and acceptable to, American life was essential for Jewish survival. Orthodoxy, of course, refused to accept this but it is of interest to note that later in his life, eminent Orthodox rabbis such as Emmanuel Rackman and Shlomo Riskin, were happy to work with him despite challenging his doctrine. Riskin commended him as the holder of a unique message of importance to all Jews.
Cecil Bloom, who has written previously in these pages, lives in Leeds, England.