Originally published in Shofar 10:1 (Fall 1991), pp. 153-4.
God, Torah, Israel: Traditionalism Without Fundamentalism, by Louis Jacobs. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1990. 92 pp. $18.00.
This slim volume incorporates the text of three lectures dealing with each of the three cornerstones of classical Jewish theology. Jacobs’ more particular concerns are reflected in the full titles of the lectures: “Belief in a Personal God: The Position of Liberal Supernaturalism,” “Torah as Divine Revelation: Is the Doctrine Still Acceptable to Moderns?”, and “The Concept of Israel as Chosen: The Struggle Between Particularism and Universalism; Related Eschatological Questions.”
On God, Jacobs rejects agnosticism, uncritical atheism, religious naturalism, and fundamentalist supernaturalism in favor of what he calls “liberal” supernaturalism where God is acknowledge to be “personal” (as opposed to a process), but where God’s personhood is understood to be a metaphorical, not a literal claim.
On Revelation, Jacobs insists that the full impact of the modern critical spirit forces us to abandon any simplistic claim that the Torah represents God’s explicit, verbal revelation to Israel. In its place, he propounds the view that Torah was revealed not only “to” Israel, but also “through” Israel and that it hence must be viewed as including not only a divine, but also a substantive human component. This position, Jacobs argues, is yet fully consistent with continued devotion to the Halakha and the mitzvot.
Finally, in the third lecture, Jacobs defends the doctrine of the chosen people as an “associative” rather than a “qualitative” claim, as a statement that Jews have viewed themselves as singled out only to fulfill the commandments. He explores the tension in classical Jewish thought between particularism and universalism, and he concludes with a stance of “reverential agnosticism” toward Jewish eschatological speculation.
In short, Jacobs’ position—familiar to students of his previous writings—is a learned, graceful, but no less passionate defense of liberal Jewish theology. In this age of increasing polarization between uncritical fundamentalism on one side and secularism on the other, there is no questioning the need for a voice of this kind.
Of the three lectures, the second, on revelation, is by far the most richly textured. Jacobs begins with a sympathetic outline of the traditionalist position, deals at length with the decisive impact on that position of higher biblical criticism, and briefly considers more humanistic and and naturalist positions. The chapter catches fire, however, with Jacobs’ own version of the so-called “Jacobs Affair” launched when the Chief Rabbi, Israel Brodie, vetoed Jacobs’ appointment to become principal of Jews’ College, precisely because of the liberal position which Jacobs had espoused on this issue in his published writings.
The last third of the chapter is devoted to a fantasy debate between proponents of the three positions—he dubs them “halakhic fundamentalism,” “nonhalakhic nonfundamentalism,” and “halakhic nonfundamentalism”—on the way each understands the mitzvah of wearing tefillin, the dietary laws, liturgical changes, and the study of Torah. He concludes with the claim that it is the Jewish people who are ‘. . . the ultimate sanction for what does and does not belong to [Torah]” (p. 50). This, he insists, is “. . . a far cry from implying that God is not the creator of the Torah. On the contrary, it is God who makes Himself known through the human process of redaction” (p. 52).
Dr. Jacobs remains a source of wonderment to most of us ordinary mortals. His ability to combine a career as congregational Rabbi, teacher, professor, and scholar whose prodigious output ranges over the entire field of Jewish scholarship including theology, medieval philosophy, Jewish law, Talmud and rabbinics, hasidism, mysticism, and issues in contemporary Jewish life is nothing short of miraculous.
What is most striking about this volume, however, is not only the author’s learning, which is apparent throughout, but rather the sensibility that informs every page. Jacobs subjects each of the issues to a gentle, yet searching analysis. His critique of the alternative options is always even-handed, never strident. His conclusions emerge as reasoned and cautious. His primary concern is for the intellectual integrity of the modern Jew who insists on being at home both with modernity and with Judaism. The result is a wise and caring book that should be required reading for anyone who shares the author’s concerns.
Jewish Theological Seminary