Originally published in Conservative Judaism 45:1 (1992).
God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism, by Louis Jacobs. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1990, 99 pages.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs has established himself as one of the premier spokesmen for a blend of piety, scholarship, and open-mindedness that sets the standard for the rest of us. In this short book—a re-writing of three lectures delivered at HUC-JIR in 1989—Rabbi Jacobs provides abundant evidence of his many gifts of mind and spirit. Deceptively clear and straightforward, there is a remarkable depth of learning and synthetic thinking for which Rabbi Jacobs is so justly celebrated.
In this book, he tackles the classical triad of Rabbinic Judaism. In the first lecture, he addresses the topic of a personal God, asking whether an open-minded modern can still affirm such a belief. He makes a cogent and strong argument in favor of liberal supernaturalism (“an attitude which affirms the being and transcendence of a personal God while remaining open to the fresh insights regarding the manner in which God becomes manifest in the Universe He has created”). His decimation of the Kaplanian position of naturalism is, to my mind, irrefutable, and his arguments against atheism and agnosticism are equally cogent. This chapter is his strongest.
His second chapter asks whether the doctrine of Tor ah as divine revelation is still acceptable. Recognizing that literalism is no longer an intellectual possibility, he seeks to argue against the opposite literalism (that the Torah is solely human) in favor of a Gordis-like position for a Torah that is the result both of mattan Torah and of kabbalat Torah. This position he calls halakhic non-fundamentalism (“it is not a question of discovering what the Halakhah has to say but rather what the Halakhah must be made to say”). He makes the now classic argument for the center of authority residing in the Jewish people, and that God reveals through the people. This position, it seems to me, was possible when most Jews were observant and only willing to accept change slowly. But Jacobs never asks why that authority has stopped. If the people are the center of revelation, then their near-total abandonment of kashrut and Shabbat (to mention just two) should be religiously decisive. I know that Rabbi Jacobs doesn’t concede that conclusion, but he never explains why not. He also never deals with if (and how) a community could become non-halakhic or why an individual should cede authority to a system that is mediated through fallible human beings.
The final chapter, on Israel as the chosen, as well as a potpouri of eschatologjcal questions is also a fine presentation of the derekh ha-beinoni. Again, the brevity and clarity of Jacob’s book might lead a casual reader to mistake those gifts for superficiality. That would be a grave error. This book could have been written only by someone who has read broadly, thought long and hard, and wrestled for many years to be able to present a synthesis of such monumental power and depth.
For a clear and passionate presentation of the foundations of Conservative Judaism—shared by left, right, and center—you can do no better than this book. Don’t read it once, read it twice.