Originally published in The Jewish Observer and Middle East Review, 23 September 1960.
Jewish Values, by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs; 160 pp.; (Vallentine, Mitchell) 21s.
It seems to me a little anachronistic to publish a book with the title Jewish Values in the sixties of the twentieth century. Dr. Jacobs is a very learned man, and his reading is of books written in other eras. It may be, therefore, that Bachya appeals more to him than Sartre, and the title he has given to this latest publication of his does not strike him as strange.
I remember, many decades ago, Dr. Westermarck of Finland addressing a seminar in London and opening with these words: “Every religion is founded on fear. . . .” When the time for discussion came round, I crossed swords with him and said: “Judaism is founded on love. . . .” It was the love of God, “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might” that was preached in the Bible, and this verse had become the focal point of our prayers. From the book under review, I see that the Professor and I had taken, quite unnecessarily, two extreme points of view. For Dr. Jacobs “the fear of heaven” is as much a Jewish value as “the love of God.”
For those of us familiar with the Zohar, the love of God is something passionate, pulsating—meaning what the man who illustrates the paperbacks means. But the author of this book a rabbi, and he keeps his thoughts and his ideas well under control. For him love of God is something very far from love as understood by the normal reader. For he asks, very logically, how can one command a Jew to love his God? This is a contradiction in terms. Love must be free and uninhibited, or else it is not love. The mystic, like the Hassid, has never felt this dichotomy. And then asks Dr. Jacobs, “Does God need our love? Does He lack something if we withhold it from Him?” I leave you to follow the wise author through these mediaeval alley-ways of thought.
But suppose you want to read further. I presume you will go straight to the last chapter, which deals with peace. For if Judaism has nothing of value to say to the modern reader on this momentous problem, then goodbye to Judaism and to most other “isms” at the same time. So, jumping the chapters on Holiness, Humility, Compassion and Truth, I landed on the last—and short—chapter on Peace. Six pages in all: but then I might find multum in parvo.
The chapter starts suavely, if somewhat irrelevantly, with the fact that Peace is one of the names of God. The blessing of the priests ends with the word Peace. Grace after Meals and the Amidah end with the word Peace. Yes—but . . . the words are “God will give strength to His people. God will bless His people with peace.” To this Ben-Gurion has added the gloss: “So long as Israel is strong and can fight its own battles—only then will God give His people peace!” Dr. Jacobs gives the gloss of the Besht, who is supposed to have said that the words mean, “’peace is the fruit of inner strength.” It cannot be said that, until now, the learned author has thrown much light on the problem of war and peace which faces this sad, war-tossed century.
The author continues: “That war is a great evil is underlined on many pages of Jewish teaching. Although the Bible appears” (why appears?) “to sanction war, it requires little reflection to recognise that the Biblical ideal is the total abolition of war.” This comforting thought, if challenged, would be difficult to defend. I know the all too hackneyed verse, referred to on the same page, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,” but if one reads the context in which it occurs, it is doubtful whether it lends itself to Dr. Jacobs’ broad generalisation. Let that be. There is a happier reference to the Mechilta, one of our oldest commentaries on the Bible, where it is said: “He who makes peace between city and city, between people and people, between government and government, will certainly be spared from suffering.”
We have now reached the penultimate page of the book and found very little in the way of a guiding light, not even a fickering candle. But worse is to come: “. . . in a world from which war has not as yet been abolished, Judaism recognises the realities of the situation. . . . It is clear that Judaism does not call for a policy of passive non-resistance . . . A war of defence is not only permitted but is advocated.” In support of this view he quotes the Talmudic phrase: “If one comes to slay thee, forestall by slaying him.” At this point many a reader will have lost patience. He will see that he has come to the end of the book and the burning question of the day—nuclear weapons or not—has not been touched upon. Let him, if he can, curb his temper, for now, hidden away in a nine line bracket, we are to receive an answer. If we do not know the answer of Judaism, we shall, at least, know that of the author.
Now we come to nuclear weapons, wrapped up, hidden away, in a bracket. “But if this is the justification for a war of defence it would seem”—note the word “seem”—“to rule out the use of nuclear weapons in defence because the probable consequences of the use of these weapons would be to wipe out the larger portion of the whole human race . . .” That is all, dearly beloved brethren, that Judaism, through its interpreter in “Jewish Values,” has to offer us on the outstanding moral question of the day. Here is a matter for tears.
The reader who has the courage to go through this somewhat unrealistic book will find a well-known limerick on p. 114. He will read an amusing “quote” from Betjeman on p. 95, a naughty citation from Lord Birkenhead on p. 67, a wise quip of Dean Inge on p. 62, and a penetrating piece of psychology from Luzzatto on p. 110. And, happily, the last word in the book is “peace.”