Truth in Faith by Joel Yor
PRINCIPLES OF THE JEWISH FAITH: An Analytical Study. By Louis Jacobs. Basic, N.Y. xii & 473 pp. $9.50.
At the heart of the tempestuous controversy that has been raging within Great Britain’s Jewish community in recent years is the commanding figure of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, whose approach to biblical scholarship and Jewish theology has riven a schism that shows no signs of being healed.
One of British Jewry’s most brilliant luminaries, Rabbi Jacobs was denied the principalship of the prestigious Jews College because of the Chief Rabbi’s reservations about his expressed thoughts on certain aspects of Jewish tradition. He was also denied permission to accept his former congregation’s invitation to return to its pulpit, and as a result the synagogue seceded from England’s (Orthodox) United Synagogue, a new synagogue was organized by some of England’s most prominent Jews, and Rabbi Jacobs now ministers to it.
Accordingly, his Principles of the Jewish Faith offers an opportunity to subject his views to general examination and to judge the criteria against which he has been accused by the religious oligarchy of heretical taint. As text for his thought he chose Maimonides’ own “Principles of the Jewish Faith,” the basis for the terser “I Believe” in which Jews daily enunciate the inexplicable but indisputable basic tenets of Judaism: that God is, is one, is incorporeal, is eternal, and so on through belief in the Torah, the Prophets, the Messiah.
To each of these articles of faith Rabbi Jacobs devotes a chapter, dissecting rationale and credo, expanding meaning and purpose, reconciling modern scholarship with transmitted tradition. To each he brings the fruit of modern scholarship, the imaginative insights of his own analysis, the bred in-the-bone piety of his faith.
The result is a zestful view of a Judaism refreshingly resurrected from dull dormancy, not so much experimental as venturesome, not so much a departure as a rapprochement. Lucid in exposition, cool in erudition but warm in interpretation, traditional in principles but liberal in their application, Rabbi Jacobs’ book is an attractive portrait of a thoroughly Jewish mind at work, inflexible in faith but questing restlessly for broader horizons, for a more perfect framework in which to serve God, ingeniously but ingenuously carving out answers to ancient riddles from the delicate stuff of theology and philosophy.
Gently, persuasively, Jacobs approaches his own affirmation of Judaism by marshalling, without fear or hesitation, the cons as well as the pros, examining each in turn and weighing their comparative values. Moderns, under the influence of the scientific, technological, materialistic disciplines now dominating the world, have accused the religious of ignoring accepted dictates of reason and logic, of arguing circularly to adduce proof in support of premises cited in the proof itself. Jacobs’ bold journey into the question of God’s existence controverts the accusation. Is there a God? Not so baldly does Jacobs ask the question. More softly, he cites a hassidic teacher who once asked his disciples, “Do you believe in God?”
To the question, however formulated, Jacobs cites answers offered by saint and sinner, theologian and atheist, affirmer and denier, over many centuries. His own answer is that belief in God “is, of course, the cornerstone of Judaism,” but that “the differences between the mediaeval and modern approach lie not in the belief itself but in the reasons for holding it.” He continues:
Since Hume and Kant, less emphasis has been placed on the formal proofs and more on the conviction attained through the experiences of the whole man, not his reason alone. But the formal proofs still have potency in helping to produce convictions through powerful pointers to a faith which alone makes sense of human life and endows existence with meaning and purpose.
In his final chapter, entitled “Summary and Conclusions,” Jacobs calls his book an “investigation” whose accomplished purpose was to show that while each one of Maimonides’ thirteen principles gives expression to a permanent Jewish idea, a fresh interpretation of some of the principles is required if justice is to be done to the knowledge which has accrued since Maimonides’ day.
His book, he says, is “an attempt . . . to delineate the nature of this reinterpretation” and, bowing respectfully and anticipatorily in the direction of future scholars and investigators, he terms his conclusions “tentative.” In his Preface he also calls his book “an attempt to discuss what a modern Jew can believe.” This is not to suggest, he warns, that Jewish beliefs must be watered down or made “attractive” in order to win the grudging adherence of a modern Jew.
The key to the controversy swirling about him in Britain is also touched on in the Preface. In his own words:
Nowhere is the conflict between the facts and the older formulation seen more clearly than with regard to Maimonides’ eighth principle of faith—that the Torah is divine. To give up this principle is to abandon Judaism as a religion. But to accept it in the way it is formulated by the great mediaeval sage of Cordova is to tie Judaism down to fundamentalism and obscurantism.
Maimonides, Jacobs feels, far from being an obscurantist, grappled courageously with the intellectual problems of his day and strove passionately “for a viable synthesis between what was then the new knowledge and the old,” and if Maimonides were alive today, he speculates, and familiar with present-day Bible studies, he would face the issues with the same fearlessness.
Controversy cannot be far distant when Jacobs embarks on the distinctions between what he terms “interpretive beliefs” and “factual beliefs.” Among the former he categorizes those basic beliefs “which cannot by their nature be contradicted by new knowledge” and which, although known to us through tradition, “are accepted by believing Jews not because they are traditional but because they are true.” They cannot possibly be contradicted by new knowledge or the discovery of new facts because they supply information not about the structure of the material universe but about the meaning of human life. Jacobs writes:
No amount of fresh investigation into the facts can either prove or disprove the existence of God, for example. The man who believes in God does so not because any particular facts or set of facts lead to this belief but because it seems to him to be the only possible explanation of the facts as a whole.
But “factual beliefs,” he suggests, which can be contradicted by new knowledge, are based on traditional opinions about the facts of the material universe, and must” “obviously” be abandoned if new knowledge of the facts demonstrates that tradition is in error. Yet he dismisses as “fatuous” the specious and sophomoric question, If tradition can be mistaken with regard to factual beliefs, what guarantee have we that it is not mistaken with regard to interpretive beliefs? His answer is:
Since tradition can be mistaken it is, indeed, never in itself an adequate guide to belief. The Jew who only holds fast to the [interpretive] beliefs . . . because his tradition tells him to do so is, indeed, in a sorry plight. He is obliged to defend every detail of traditional lore, for the slightest error in any detail of the tradition causes a question mark to be placed against the tradition as a whole. But the thinking Jew accepts the [interpretive] beliefs … as being in the tradition because they are true, and not “true because they are in the tradition.”
Within the wide spectrum of Jewish thought, ranging through countless gradations and variations from extremist literal fundamentalism to outright atheism and denial, it is difficult to find an exact pigeonhole for Rabbi Jacobs. There are those who will say he has gone too far, betraying his tradition. There are those who will say he has not gone far enough, betraying his reasoned scholarship. For himself, the religious position he has adopted is one of “modernism within traditional Judaism.” In phrases whose burden is familiar to students of the literature of Conservative Judaism, he writes:
The fundamental principles of the Jewish faith have always received fresh interpretations so that the picture of a completely static system of beliefs handed down from age to age reaching back to Sinai is . . . false to the facts of history. Judaism … is, if seen with a historical perspective, a dynamic, not a static, faith.
Nevertheless, Jacobs points out, continuity between past and present must be preserved, the eternal values of the faith must be expressed. How to do this, he observes, is one of the major theological issues in Jewish religious thought. His book is not the complete answer. As he himself knows, and says, complete agreement is not likely to be forthcoming in the near future.
But this book, with its courageous, free-hearted and free-minded approach to troubling metaphysical enigmas, with its evocatively fresh presentation of theological and philosophical ideas basic to Jewish beliefs, with its bright and undeviating faith shining loyally from every page, with its boundless love for Judaism as a religion rather than merely as a way of life, more than amply lives up to his modest hope that it will serve “as some minute contribution to the aim all faithful Jews have at heart—the increasing power of Judaism in bringing men to God.”