Originally published in Commentary Magazine, May 1965, pp. 76-80.
Principles of the Jewish Faith. By Louis Jacobs. Basic Books. 467 pp. $9.50.
Reviewed by Chaim Potok
Rabbi Louis Jacobs is troubled by the “obstacles to belief in some of the classic expressions of the Jewish Creed in those areas where facts about the universe, presented by new knowledge, contradict some of the older formulations.” He is convinced that the acceptance of religious doctrines in the face of such evidence constitutes a sacrifice of intellectual integrity which Judaism does not demand. This candid admission has brought down upon his head the wrath of English Jewry’s fundamentalists, but it has also won him the enthusiastic support of progressives who are weary of a Judaism they consider to be unduly influenced by the ghetto tradition of Eastern Europe.
In this book Rabbi Jacobs attempts to spell out what a modern Jew can believe in terms of the thirteen principles of faith formulated by Maimonides in the 12th century. Briefly, these principles are: belief in the existence of God; in God’s unity; in God’s incorporeality; belief that God is eternal; that God alone is to be worshipped; belief in prophecy; in Moses as the greatest of the prophets; belief that the Torah was given by God to Moses; that the Torah is immutable; that God knows the thoughts and deeds of men; that God rewards and punishes; belief in the advent of the Messiah; in the resurrection of the dead. Rabbi Jacobs devotes a separate chapter to each of these doctrines. His method consists of first stating the doctrine, then presenting the treatment accorded to it by the more significant Jewish theologians throughout the ages, as well as by pertinent Christian, Moslem, and secular thinkers. After evaluating these various points of view, Rabbi Jacobs states his own position. His fine scholarship produces a vivid confrontation with the wide spectrum of thought that has characterized Judaism in the past.
A good history of theology, however, does not in itself constitute a theology. As a creative enterprise, theology is not so much born out of scholarship as out of insight into the tension between old doctrines and new realities. The value of a theology depends upon the depth of this insight and the originality of its proposals for resolving that tension. Measured by these criteria, Rabbi Jacobs’s work reveals an archaic quality, which is, I think, a sign of his failure to deal with the genuinely significant issues.
Two aspects of the work are particularly disconcerting. One concerns the author’s methodology. Rabbi Jacobs makes reason the test by which he judges the relevance of the Maimonidean principles for the 20th century; however, he seems to make up the rules of what is reasonable as he goes along, or at least to shift arbitrarily back and forth among various kinds of reason. For example, after admitting that the three classical proofs of God’s existence have no demonstrative power, Rabbi Jacobs goes on to argue that they are nevertheless valuable as “indications” of God’s existence. He thus abandons formal reason in favor of rhetorical utility. At other times he seems to appeal to aesthetic “reasons,” as when he rejects the naturalist position simply because it “fails to satisfy the religious mind.” And sometimes he is capable of abandoning reason altogether in favor of the very faith he is supposedly judging by means of it. Thus he dismisses Samuel Alexander’s concept of emergent Deity because “it is emphatically not the view of Judaism and its rejection is implied in the fourth article of faith we are considering.” That is hardly a fair way to play the game.
The second disconcerting aspect of this work is Rabbi Jacobs’s persistent sidestepping of major issues. In his presentation and defense of the first five Maimonidean principles, for instance, he completely overlooks the focal point of contemporary theological tension. Theology today is confronted with the spectacle of a thousand years of effort that has produced not a single argument that will convince anyone of the existence and nature of God who is not already convinced. What are the implications of this failure and can anything whatsoever be rescued from it? What kind of logical tools, if any, can be utilized by the theologian today? Or is all religious thought to be relegated to the realm of the non-cognitive? When Rabbi Jacobs discusses the damage inflicted on the religious world-view by Darwinism and argues that “the survival of the fittest is itself evidence of a plan and order and there can be no plan without a mind in which it is conceived,” he ignores the main challenge posed by modern thought. For any argument from design to Designer is immediately open to questions concerning the nature of the Designer. It is not an answer but the postponement of an answer; to answer one mystery with another mystery is a most mysterious procedure indeed. Can anything at all be said about the Ultimate Mystery? What is it about this Ultimate Mystery that satisfies the religionist’s quest for meaning? Why is it that the religionist always finds allusions to this Mystery in the reality around him? Is he responding to some psychological, rational, emotive, or aesthetic need inside himself that the secularist does not share? And assuming that a need is involved, how does he make the jump from need to ontological reality? These questions are far more fundamental than the question of whether we can or cannot believe the various doctrinal statements of Maimonides, for they undercut the very basis of all doctrinal statements. Yet Rabbi Jacobs has very little to say about the issues they pose.
His preoccupation with old problems is well illustrated by his treatment of Maimonides’s eighth principle, which asserts the fundamentalist position that the Torah was dictated by God to Moses and that all of it is of divine origin. Rabbi Jacobs emphatically rejects this version of revelation on the grounds that the incontrovertible evidence of archaeology, anthropology, and Bible criticism is opposed, to it. He explains his own concept of revelation as follows:
Revelation . . . is not the communication of words to man, not a divine dictation to a passive human recipient, but a meeting of God and man in history, a meeting producing results of eternal significance. . . . That the record is humanly mediated, that it is colored by its human background and the minds of its human authors, that it contains error as well as truth, does not affect its claim, or the claim made for it in Jewish tradition, to contain the word of God. We must stress the word “contain” for the new view of revelation—of “Torah from heaven”—is that it is contained in the Bible, not that the Bible itself is revelation. The words are human, they have a history, there are contradictions and discrepancies in them . . . but, for all that, in this collection of books, as in no other, the account is there for all to read how man found God and how God helped man to find him.
Such a position has grave implications for the status of the Biblical commandments and the oral law. How can laws conditioned in and by time serve as divine commands that possess eternal validity? Rabbi Jacobs replies to this question by adopting the Middle Way approach of Zechariah Frankel, the 19th-century founder of Historical Judaism:
. . . the mitzwoth are divine commandments for me because they have come to be such through the long history of my people and because they speak to my own situation as a human being in need of God. I keep the Sabbath, irrespective of its origins, because it is a fundamental religious institution of my people, as a people dedicated to God’s service, because of the wealth of meaning the prophets and the poets, the saints and the sages of Israel, have read into it, and because my personal religious life is enriched immeasurably by the weekly reminder that God is my Maker and Creator of all there is.
That may answer the question but it also entails new problems. In the first place, any non-fundamentalist interpretation of revelation necessarily makes it impossible to determine which commandment is grounded in God and which is not. Accordingly, the non-fundamentalist who still adheres to Halakhah must have recourse to expressions like “the long history of my people,” “a fundamental religious institution of my people,” “my personal religious life is enriched immeasurably,” in order to explain his religious behavior. When such expressions have no mooring in direct revelation, however, they are by nature subjective; they are grounded in one’s own concepts of God, Torah, and the peoplehood of Israel—that is to say, in a personal sense of loyalty to one’s culture and traditions.
It is at this point that the real implications of Rabbi Jacobs’s Middle Way become all too clear. For what has happened is that we have suddenly entered into the realm of personal aesthetics, the realm where one chooses a pattern of observance on the basis of one’s personal tastes. Precisely the same thing holds true in the matter of creed. On Rabbi Jacobs’s own terms, one can make out a good case for the claim that principles of faith are basic religio-aesthetic constructs of the universe through which reality is filtered and reshaped. When the religious mind begins to boggle at a traditionally accepted principle, the latter is cast aside and another takes its place. These constructs are as varied as are human beings: Job’s religious model of the universe is not the same as that of Ecclesiastes. And there are no eternal absolutes by which to judge the ultimate validity of these constructs; at best there are only provisional absolutes, which constantly shift as the religious perspective of individuals changes.
These implications raise difficult questions. Can an enlightened religious position, one that gropes for an understanding of man and the universe, anchor itself in the quicksilver of provisional ultimates? How can this anchoring be accomplished in a manner that will not violate the canons of rationality? Or should one admit once and for all that the only answer possible is the anti-rationalism of Kierkegaard and Barth?
The Middle Way may well be the only alternative open to the intelligent modern Jew who is repelled by fundamentalism and yet feels a powerful attraction to Jewish doctrine and law. But the acceptance of this position entails the responsibility of coping with its implications and it is this responsibility which Rabbi Jacobs fails to meet adequately.
Furthermore, he does not recognize the great extent to which the whole fabric of Jewish doctrine is held together by the thread of fundamentalist revelation. Rabbi Jacobs is correct in removing that thread, but he will not admit that he thereby begins to unravel the entire fabric. In the closing section of the book he tries to distinguish between traditional beliefs which can and cannot be contradicted by new knowledge, but this is a futile enterprise, for there are no objective standards by which such a distinction can be made. For example, to say that God’s goodness is a traditional belief which cannot be contradicted by new facts, while the Mosaic authorship of the Bible can be so contradicted—because the former supplies us with information about the meaning of life, whereas the latter is based on traditional opinions about the facts of the material universe—is to play a bizarre game with words. Are principles about the meaning of human life never to be tested against the facts of reality? And, conversely, is the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch merely a belief based on traditional opinions about a fact of the material universe? Isn’t the assertion of fundamentalist revelation the unequivocal guarantee that God has invested all of reality with meaning?
Indeed, it is because the entire fabric of belief is imperiled that those who are still deeply committed to Judaism, and at the same time are aware of the radical challenge of modernism, undergo the difficulties of rethinking their positions. The results are evident in the wide spectrum of thought that characterizes contemporary philosophies of Judaism. Rabbi Jacobs’s work takes its place as one more statement within that spectrum, but it is an inconsistent and antiquated statement, for he is not yet willing to investigate the full implications of his position.
Along with its scholarly discussion of classical Jewish theology, the value of his book comes from its honest groping for an alternative to fundamentalism. Rabbi Jacobs’s efforts mark the beginning of English Jewry’s encounter with modern thought. At the same time, however, they clearly indicate the extent of the cultural gap that exists between American and English Jewry. Thus, the most refreshing element in the book is Rabbi Jacobs’s recognition of the validity of modern biblical criticism, though this has been taken for granted by Jewish theologians in America for many years now. Rabbi Jacobs himself suggests that much of what is presented in this book may not be original. One hopes that his future writings will help to bring Anglo-Jewish thought more abreast of the issues with which contemporary theologians must inevitably wrestle.