Originally published in The Jewish Review, 5th January 1964.
The bewildered Anglo-Jew whose mind has been assaulted in the popular Jewish press with reports of meetings, protests and angry editorials on the subject of the Communal controversy may well ask “Where does Jacobs differ from .the Beth Din?” A careful perusal of this small pamphlet will go a long way to providing the answer.
Rabbi Jacobs begins by stating what he considers to be the problem, namely the challenge to Judaism of Higher Criticism. It is postulated that Higher Criticism in one form or another is a proven fact; in support it is stated that no scholar of any reputation at all in the field of Bible Scholarship accepts “the fundamentalist position, the doctrine that every word of the Pentateuch was dictated by G-d to Moses.” A word must first be said about the term “fundamentalist.” It is interesting to note why after over a century of adjectival Judaism a new adjective is needed. Its use was a subtle purpose. It enables the author and his supporters to obtain for their own use the term “orthodox,” and serves to brand the opposition as “backwoodsmen.” The term “Fundamentalists” hitherto used with reference to dour puritannical Evangelists, breathing fire and brim stone, serves to lend colour to the controversy.
The layman must not be deceived by these techniques nor by the “no scholar of any reputation” challenge. Unless a scholar loses his reputation by disagreeing with Rabbi Jacobs, the proposition is just untrue. Cursory references to the supplementary notes to the edition of the Pentateuch edited by the late Chief Rabbi will immediately confirm the existence of a wealth of learned opinion which valuates the so-called “fact of Higher Criticism” as pure hypothesis lacking sound foundation. The works of the late Rabbi Dr. Epstein, one of Anglo-Jewry’s foremost scholars, add further confutation. If the impartial layman wishes to read the judgement of informed lay opinion he need but turn to a clear evaluation of Higher Criticism by Herman Wouk in “This is My G-d.” Finally, the scholarly editors of the Soncino edition of the Books of the Bible are, in the vast majority, equally unimpressed by the “Findings of Higher Criticism.” But of course they are all “scholars of no reputation at all.”
The reader will, however, agree with the author that “once it is recognised that there is a human element in the Torah it must be seen that there is no easy method by means of which this can be disentangled from the divine element.” In answer to the question of the sanction of the Mitzvoth in the light of this, Rabbi Jacobs takes the reader on a tour of the answers that have been propounded, before we are permitted to emerge into the glaring light of the “True Answer.” Of course the answer “Fundamentalism” is the first to be dismissed. For this purpose, Fundamentalism is represented by the views of Samson Raphael Hirsch, although the author is well aware that Hirsch’s views are but one stream of modern Orthodox thought. A supporter of Hirsch is represented as saying: “If I believed as you do, I would not keep the Mitzvoth.” Rabbi Jacobs interprets this as a confession that Mitzvoth are, to this anonymous Hirschan, an irksome burden with no value in themselves. The author’s own personal experience, in his early years, of the affection and love with which the performance of the Mitzvoth is surrounded by truly observant Jews should be sufficient to dispose of “confession.”
In further criticism of the Torah im Derech Eretz School the author states that the theme of studies preferred by the members of this school belongs to “the realm of the safe,” and that “scientific study of the Jewish sacred works” is shunned. The works of David Hoffman and in general of the Hildersheimer Institute discredit this criticism. Finally, it must be recognised that many modern Orthodox Jews are critical of Nineteenth Century German Orthodoxy but it does not shatter their belief in Torah min Hashamayim.
In the last three pages of his pamphlet, Rabbi Jacobs expounds the “Theological Approach,” which is the name he gives his answer to the problem. He states that the whole Torah of Israel is minhag, growing through the experiences of human beings and interpreted by them in response to particular conditions in human history. He goes on to say that “since this happened, since this is how G-d revealed Himself, then the minhag of Israel is Torah.” He statez, that it is irrelevant that a Jew has the exact opinion of a German Protestant professor as to how the Sabbath came into Jewish life and is binding upon him because it can bring him nearer to G-d. This may sound sensible when a mitzva, for which rational explanations are easily at hand, is given as the example. But the argument is nonsense when a mitzva like Shaatnez is given as the example where the primary reason for observance can only be obedience to Divine Command.
Rabbi Jacobs claims to have found Rabbinic support for his idea in the blessing pronounced before the fulfillment of a Mitzva D’Rabbanan. The sanction for these mitzvoth, says Rabbi Jacobs, is the minhag of Israel, yet we say “Blessed be G-d . . . who commanded.” But in fact the sanction is not the minhag of Israel but the mandate given by the Divine Lawgiver in the Torah to the Rabbis for the purpose of making enactments.
At the end of the pamphlet, the reader is permitted a glimpse into the far reaching practical implications of the Controversy. Rabbi Jacobs states:
“If your history is rigid, if it is dinned into you day after day that you must believe that every detail was dictated by G-d to Moses on Sinai, you will be rigid in your practice. If, on the other hand your theory is flexible, allowing for the concept of development, is broader and wider and more liberal, is soundly in accord with the idea of historical growth and change, then your practice will be less fiercely intolerant, more amenable to reason without degenerating into superficial lack of concern.”
This is an admission that once the belief of Torah min Hashamayim goes, there is an open fiat for altering the Torah to suit Israel. Rabbi Jacobs himself gives as an example the use or microphone on Shabbat and says:
“Because if you have a fundamentalist point of view you are always afraid of infringing God’s law. You do not see Judaism in terms of God revealing Himself to the people of Israel as it works out its own salvation. You tend to see everything in the most unbending terms and are in a constant state of apprehension.”
The established rules of how a p’sak Halacha is reached are gone as is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries. Israel is to work out its own salvation. Accepting Rabbi Jacob’s view of the “minhag of Israel” to ride on Shabbat and to eat Treifah? Rabbi Jacob’s own concluding comments serve only to vindicate the published statement of the London Beth Din.
“An attitude to the Torah such as adopted by Dr. Jacobs implies the tentative nature of the mitzvot and must, because of the absence of the sanction of the Sinaitic revelation, as the ultimate basis of observance of the mitzvot, finally lead to their abrogation.”