Originally published in the Scottish Journal of Theology, 19:1 (March 1966), pp. 96-8.
Principles of the Jewish Faith, an Analytical Study. By Louis Jacobs. Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1964. Pp. 473. 63s.
Rabbi Jacobs has set himself the task within Judaism with which Christian theologians also must continually grapple, viz., to interpret the faith in the light of contemporary thought. I hope he himself regards his excellent volume as merely prolegomena to the real task still to come, and which he ought to undertake.
Judaism has its stresses and strains as does the Church. A transition from Jewish Fundamentalism, not to Liberalism, but to what Jacobs calls ‘the Middle Way’, is as difficult for many Jews to accomplish as it was for Christians eighty years ago. This work lays the foundations most ironically for the educated Jew, who may have grown up in Orthodoxy, yet cannot find satisfaction in it, to see the relevance of his Judaism in the nuclear age.
Jacobs declares that Judaism does indeed theologise, even although traditionally orthopraxy has been more esteemed than orthodoxy, and despite Moses Mendelssohn’s dictum that Judaism has no dogmas. The famous historian, Graetz, seventy years ago, declared that ‘the modern Jew desperately needs a detailed Creed’. Jacobs then structures his book by giving a chapter to each of the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith of Maimonides, who lived in the twelfth century. These Principles virtually became normative for the Judaism of the Middle Ages. But it is difficult for the modern Jew to regard them as such if he has broken with the Orthodoxy that fitted well with ghetto conditions. Jacobs deals with each of the Principles in turn. He has a wide knowledge of the works both of subsequent Jewish cornmentators and of modern Jewish thinkers; and he does not make the mistake of many American Jewish writers who are blissfully unaware of the renewal of Christian theological thinking and of biblical studies that has taken place with the emergence of Karl Barth. Each chapter is adorned with one or more excursus, and these often reveal Jacobs’ most helpful thinking. Incidentally they provide valuable notes on much of the relevant literature.
Using Maimonides’ schema, Jacobs handles issues such as the existence of God, God’s unity, incorporeality and eternity, discussing what atheism and agnosticism are and the traditional proofs of God’s existence. I was surprised, incidentally, that his arguments for the existence of God take no account of the fact of empirical Israel. He deals with prophecy, the place of Moses, the nature of Torah, reward and punishment, the messianic hope and the resurrection of the dead. His chapters on Torah and Messianism are particularly valuable. For one thing he introduces us to a Jewish saint, Alexander Susskind, whom Jews and Christians ought to know better.
The picture which emerges at the end of his study is of Judaism as an eternal faith, yet where a distinction must be made between traditional beliefs and traditional practices. Jacobs declares that new knowledge does not contradict basic beliefs such as the nature of Israel’s God, His goodness and mercy, or His unity and power; nor can it contradict such realities as that He has revealed Himself in the Torah, and that Israel has a special role to play in the fulfilment of God’s purpose, etc. On the other hand, new knowledge may contradict such traditional beliefs as the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and may lead to the view that the Rabbis of the Talmud were not infallible. The first group of basic beliefs are accepted by Jews in the first place because they are traditional, but secondly and more importantly they ought to be accepted because they are true. The discovery of new facts cannot possibly contradict them. Thus Jacobs sees it as his task to aid the thinking Jew to differentiate between interpretive beliefs, as he calls them, and factual ones.
To this end his chapters on the nature of Torah in particular will be of help to the inquiring Jew, as they might well be also to the inquiring Christian who is reaching for a doctrine of the authority of Scripture. Yet it is here that the book, I believe, will not fully meet the need of the modern thoughtful man. First, it does not go far enough. It remains, as its sub-title indicates, an analytical study. The author shows the development of thought up to the present day on the issues raised by Maimonides’ Principles. But he does not give us enough of Jacobs himself. Paradoxically, of course, no one wants to know what Jacobs has to say; they want to know what God has to say, as interpreted by Jacobs. Despite his denial, Jacobs’ ‘Middle Way’ is still too much the way of the liberal; for he relies more than he cares to admit on philosophical and existential categories rather than on Scripture as the revelation of the mind of the living God. My pencil has made many marks where I note (as I would suggest) a blindness on Jacobs’ part to the profundities of the Torah as it speaks for itself, and not as it has been interpreted by the Rabbis; and I think of Jewish friends attracted by the Honest to God controversy who will not find in this book a biblically based answer to their needs.
Renewal within the Church will come in proportion as Christians take the biblical categories seriously and think them through in terms of the new age. If Middle-Way Judaism too were to take the Old Testament as seriously as Christians are doing (and it alone within the Synagogue is in the position to do it, for it alone takes seriously the challenge of modern thought upon the interpretation of Scripture), then together we might make a worthwhile breakthrough in understanding the Bible in the nuclear era; and incidentally Church and Synagogue would be drawn closer together. I would suggest to Rabbi Jacobs that an Analytical Study is not enough. Modern Judaism is crying out for a biblically based Synthesis, a Theology of the Old Testament as seen through the eyes of the Talmud, but not dictated by its views. Rabbi Jacobs is well equipped to give us such a work.
George A. F. Knight