Originally published in Conservative Judaism, Fall 1962-Winter 1963. Reprinted in The Bulletin of the Anshe Emet, ‘From the Pulpit’ section, p. 2.
A REVIEW OF Jewish Values, by Louis Jacobs, Vallentine, Mitchell, London, 1960.
Great concern has been expressed in recent years for the Anglo-Jewish community, faced with an attrition in leadership due to the migration of many gifted rabbinic leaders to Israel, the United States and elsewhere. One of the more positive elements in an otherwise depressing situation has been the literary creativity of some English rabbis. Among them is Louis Jacobs. Hardly a year has passed recently without a study by the former minister-preacher of the New West End Synagogue in London.
Jewish Values is intended for the lay reader. This work is an attempt to bridge the gap between our tradition, as recorded in classic sources, and our modern society. Jacobs is convinced that contemporaneity can be established for the tradition and that the chasm between letters and life can be forged. Though he realizes that he alone cannot complete the vast task, he contents himself with presenting what he regards to be “a surveyor’s estimate of part of the work to be done.” From an abundance of sources ranging from the Bible, Rabbinic literature, mystic works and Hassidic thought, he has culled his material. This is no easy task, as Jewish values, like Rabbinic ethics, are not the product of philosophical reflections clearly enunciated, but a historically evolved tradition. The tradition expresses itself in direct citations and in indirect allusions. All of the material must be carefully searched out. Jacobs’ references reflect a wide companionship with the sources and great scholarship.
Jacobs includes in his discussion the following values: The Study of the Torah; The Fear of Heaven; The Love of God; The Sanctification of the Name; Trust in God; Holiness; Humility; The Love of Neighbor; Compassion; Truth; Peace. He labels these values as “Jewish” because they are not “remote ideals but vital forces in the lives of Jews.” The role of values in shaping and changing human behavior is well-known. Ideals have a binding character, and are among the elements that give cohesiveness and character to any society. Jewish ethical values emanate from religious experience and are kept alive by our ritual pattern. In every culture, the way of life is shaped and, in turn, helps to shape the values of the group. The basic purpose of Jewish ethical teaching is to make people better, to sensitize them to their own roles as human beings and to assist them in becoming persons.
Jacobs has done a splendid piece of work in collating the materials which stress the deep-rooted character of our ethical system. Judaism appears in a refreshing light as more than a juristic or legislative system. He has helped to gather the material for any who hope to participate in a creative dialogue with the rest of the world. When the query, “What does Judaism stand for?” is posed, we have, in Jacobs’ work, the beginning of an adequate demonstration.
In deeper reflection, as one reads the work, and is grateful for its splendid presentation, the reader is tempted to ask, “Are these historic values, so gracefully treated, the real values of the modern Jewish community? Are they vital forces in the lives of Jews? Are Jews concerned with the ideals as Jacobs presents them, or do we share a host of other values of modern society, both secular and Christian?” Consider the classic value of being content with one’s lot, with its inherent submissiveness and serene acceptance of life, as opposed to the frantic striving for material success, and a share in the world’s ever-growing abundance that have become dominant elements of modern life.
Jacobs has an excellent closing chapter on peace. One wonders if the striving for peace is the same for a Jews who lives in a Jewish state which must, due to Arab aggression, maintain a defense army. Think too of the shift in attitude concerning a peacemaker like Yohanan Ben Zakkai, whose action in choosing “Yabneh and her scholars” was hailed for almost 2,000 years and is now regarded with disdain in some scholarly quarters in Israel!
Values have a history of their own. It would be worthwhile if, some day, there would be a definitive history of Jewish ethics and Jewish values, stressing the varying emphases placed by different generations on these virtues. A full study would document the manner in which ethical values influence Jewish life.
The values selected for discussion have been adequately treated by Louis Jacobs. Obviously, in a work of this character, there are bound to be subject headings which cannot be covered. Yet, the one element I would have preferred to see included would be his treatment of Jewish peoplehood. There has always been, in Jewish ethics, a dynamic tension between nationality and universality. While Jacobs adequately demonstrates that Judaism gives a high sense of purpose to our lives as individuals and as human beings, he does not treat the ethical import of being port of a “holy people.”
A Rabbinic colleague, holding Emil Fackenheim’s Paths to Jewish Belief in one hand and Kaufmann Kohler’s Jewish Theology in the other, observed that one author is concerned with God and Israel, while the other deals with God and Torah, ignoring Israel. My friend hoped that the time would come when a future theologian would write of all three elements—God, Torah and Israel.
Jacobs’ presentation raises another essential question. Ernest van den Haag, in his Fabric of Society, observed that “one may contrast the valued with the valuable, which is what man ought to praise, cherish or desire.” How do we make Jewish values valuable? Our problem is not only to bridge the gap which concerns the author, but to make our people cross the bridge and permit Jewish values to influence their lives. Jacobs has opened the door to the many chambered mansion of Jewish literature which waits to be visited by Jewish scholars, as well as thoughtful laymen, who are concerned with the application of Judaism to modern life.
Dr. Seymour J. Cohen