Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle.
FAITH. By Rabbi Louis Jacobs. Vallentine, Mitchell. 42s.
Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav (1772-1811), great-grandson of the founder of Chasidism, answered the question, “Is theology good for the Jews?” with a very definite “No.” He wrote:
“It is essential to avoid reading even those works on the philosophy of religion compiled by Jewish thinkers for these are extremely harmful to faith. The faith we have received from our holy ancestors is sufficient. It is a great principle and foundation in God’s worship to be innocent and wholehearted, to serve God without any philosophical investigation whatsoever.”
Dr. Louis Jacobs refers to this quotation in his latest book; yet, for all his admiration of the Chasidic masters, this is a judgement to which he obviously does not subscribe. If he had accepted it, he would not have written this book.
And in our age, when the greatest challenge to religious faith conies not so much from atheists and agnostics as from those to whom religion is irrelevant or who maintain that its claims are meaningless, Dr. Jacobs is surely right in his rejection of Rabbi Nahman, even apart from the illustrious support that he adduces from the giants of the past like Saadya, Maimonides, Bahya and Gersonides.
Gift of reason
“Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord” (Isaiah 1, 18). If we are to communicate our convictions, to attempt to convince others, to encourage and support the faithful and to meet their doubts and difficulties, to answer the many challenges of faith and to understand its tensions, we have to use the one weapon available to us, the God-given gift of reason.
Not that reason will in itself achieve faith; for that we need as well trust and commitment and surrender. But, among other gains, reason “enables us to see that our faith is not entirely blind and helps us to distinguish between valid indications and invalid attempts at a solution” (page 124).
This book will do much to strengthen the weak hands and fortify the tottering knees of believers and, one hopes, of nonbelievers alike.
Dr. Jacobs shirks none of the challenges that modern thought has presented to religious faith. He meets on their own ground the modern logicians who have argued that statements about God are essentially meaningless and refuses to side-step the issue by questioning the validity of their logical systems.
He faces the challenges of Marxism and Freudianism. He grapples with the problem of evil and the inevitable tensions of the life of faith. And he accepts the valuable insights of all thinkers, ancient, medieval and modern, Jewish and Gentile, philosopher, mystic, saint and existentialist.
The book is immensely rich in learning and thought, the product of a mind phenomenally well-stocked and acutely analytic. Rabbi Jacobs is obviously an omnivorous reader and his memory must be prodigious. He writes on the whole with a remarkable clarity, but there are a few places where the thought is so compressed that understanding becomes difficult.
It is precisely because this book can be of tremendous value in encouraging and strengthening faith that one must express regret that Dr. Jacobs has jeopardised its universal acceptance by virtually inviting opposition through stirring up old controversies.
He states the hope that “this book has been written to express the Jewish ideal of faith as represented among the majority of believers,” yet, in describing the Sabbath as a typical example of faith in action, he distinguishes three attitudes, the fundamentalist, the naturalistic and the theological, and renews his attack on fundamentalism.
One wonders whether Dr. Jacobs’s dislike of fundamentalism is not in danger of becoming obsessive with him, for in this context it is all so unnecessary. If he had been content to stale his own (theological) approach according to which the Sabbath is accepted as a day on which God is acknowledged as Creator, even the fundamentalist would have been happy.
The pity of it all is that his critics are likely to seize on this one small passage and that the great worth of the book might become obscured in the cloud of controversy.