Originally published in the Belfast Jewish Record: The Journal of the Jewish Community in Northern Ireland, 16:6 (February 1970).
Louis Jacobs. Faith. Vallentine, Mitchell, 42s.
It’s a great pity that, owing to the vagaries of History, no religious middle-way has developed in Anglo-Jewry between Orthodoxy on the one hand, and Reform/Liberalism on the other. Ben Azai, in the Jewish Chronicle, once wrote that the average British Reform Jew looked upon his faith as “the United Synagogue comes to its senses,” but this hardly corresponds to reality. The United Synagogue would never quite “come” that far. The golden mean one might hope for would be something corresponding to the American Conservative movement, and the only representative of that species on the British Isles is Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs.
What cuts him off from Orthodoxy proper is his attitude to the Bible. By about 1960 Rabbi Jacobs had arrived at a position vis-a-vis the Scriptures comparable to that of Bishop Colenso in 1860, that is, a reverent but moderately critical outlook that wouldn’t make any informed churchman bat an eye-lid nowadays, but is far in advance of the Beth Din’s normative orthodoxy, fossilized somewhere around 1560, when the Shulchan Aruch was nearing completion. Rabbi Jacobs doesn’t labour this point in his latest book; he polishes it off, in fact, quite brusquely. “Historical investigation of the Bible,” he says (p. 99), “has shown (to the satisfaction of most of us) that it contains error as well as truth.” With regard to the revelation at Sinai, his stance is (p. 107) “that what we have in Exodus is not a tradition handed down by two million witnesses, but a tradition that there was a tradition.” Consequently, we cannot regard the will of God, e.g., in respect of the mitzvoth, as being communicated in a direct fashion through the pages of the Chumash. The most we can say is that it has been “conveyed through the historical experiences of the people of Israel.” Hence the mitzvoth themselves are not seen by Dr. Jacobs as divine imperatives, but rather as “tried ways to God.”
Traditionalists, I suppose, will stop reading here. To those who continue, however, I can strongly recommend this little book, which is obviously the fruit of deep though and wide reading. The author looks on Judaism as a religion that is “challenging to mind as well as heart,” but he sees it as “in danger of degenerating into soggy sentimentalism” when practiced by Jews who “while prepared to reason acutely and successfully in every other sphere of life, have come to believe that piety demands a suspension of their critical faculties in the sphere of religion.”
On the other hand no sceptic is likely to be convinced of the existence of God as the result of a logical demonstration, and indeed, Rabbi Jacobs concedes that a watertight proof doesn’t exist. Though numerous attempts to provide one have been made in mediaeval and modern times, none has turned out logically unassailable. But the consensus of so many arguments in the same direction, Rabbi Jacobs suggests, adds up to a formidable body of circumstantial evidence. Theism, he says, is the most reasonable way of explaining the world.
Having expounded the arguments for the existence of God, he considers a number of well-known objections to it as well. The weightiest, of course, is the problem of Evil, never more bitterly confronted than in our own century. To put it in a nutshell: how can the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God be reconciled with the murder of six million Jews? Rabbi Jacobs restates the classical answer: “If the moral status of man be the goal of the evolutionary process, the reign of law is a sine qua non”; that is, if Man is to be allowed to choose between good and evil, the possibility of evil must be permitted. Things must be allowed to take their course on earth, however dreadful; just reward and retribution may follow in the hereafter.
What Rabbi Jacobs passes over in silence however, is the poignant contrast between God’s interventions as reported in the Bible, and his abstentions at Auschwitz and Belsen. This fearful antithesis, furthermore, is to be seen not only at the cosmic level, such as the intervention in history to save two millions from Egypt, compared with the inaction that saw six millions perish. The Bible tells us of God’s direct mediation at what we can only term County Court level, in the personal affairs of obscure Israelites. In the case of the daughters of Zelophebad (Numbers 27), an inheritance claim was referred by Moses directly to the Almighty, who ruled that “The daughters of Zelophehad speak right.” I Do we in fact detect a tinge of Gallic irony in Rashi’s comment ad loc.: “Happy is that mortal whose words are acknowledged to be true by God”? Rabbi Jacobs does not consider this problem. Perhaps different answers would be offered by one who saw the Bible as the word of God, and one who saw it (p. 166) “as in some sense the word of God.”
Dr. Jacobs has better luck with his Freudian objections. God, he says, is not simply a wish-fulfilment figure, a father-image, the projection of a childish need: “men have a hunger for God because there really is a God who is the source of that hunger and who alone can satisfy it.” (If we have read chapter 3 carefully we shall have been taught to recognise this as an ontological argument). The Marxists, too, with their “claim that the Jewish faith is a convenient tool for the exploitation of the poor” are given short shrift, and read a salutary lesson on Jewish social ideals. The highly unpleasant episode is passed over, however, of Joseph selling the starving Egyptians into feudal bondage for the price of a meal (Genesis 47: 20-21). Presumably this incident too is classified as the tradition of a tradition.
Yet nothing that has been said in the present review can detract from Rabbi Jacob’s very real achievement in this book. Not only does he draw on all the classical Jewish sources of Bible, Talmud and Midrash, but a wealth of mediaeval and post-mediaeval writers are cited in illustration of his carefully constructed arguments. So much might, perhaps, be expected of any rabbinical writer worth his salt. This would not be a book by Louis Jacobs, however, if it did not lay all gentile theology to tribute as well, from Kierkegaard, via Rudolf Otto, Bonhoeffer and Tillich, to Van Buren; and the author talks of the Ground of Being with as much easy familiarity as the former Bishop of Woolwich. Virtually every popular theologian of the day is called on for illumination, the only notable absentees being Teilhard de Chardin and Simone Weil.
Despite what has been said, this is not a hard book to read. It is popular in the best sense of the word and can be recommended without reserve to anyone interested in religion at whatever level of commitment. The dedication is “For Ivor and Tirza.”