Originally published in The Jews and Ourselves: Judaism and Christianity in the World of Today, 3:1 (Winter 1965), pp. 35-8.
Principles of the Jewish Faith. An Analytical Study. By Louis Jacobs. Vallentine and Mitchell, London, 1964, pp. 474.
“There is today a burning need for a Jewish theological approach to the Bible, in which eternal truths will be presented in a manner true to the facts”. This remark, made by Dr. Louis Jacobs, should express the purpose and approach of his substantial and significant book which has been expected eagerly for some time. Making a clear distinction between the ethical and the religious, between the thinking and the practising Jew, the author presents his approach as theological, as an attempt to discuss what a modern Jew can believe. Judaism is not a form of behaviourism with its practises buttressed by faith; it is a religion, not merely a way of life. There are truths and beliefs in it, not only commands and halakhoth. And if Judaism is to be built on firm historical foundations it also needs to be shown as a living faith. Contrary to 19th century opinions, the author stresses that there are dogmas in Judaism. What are they and how can they be interpreted? To answer these questions constitutes the main purpose of the book.
The method is firmly traditional: Scripture as interpreted by generations of Jews. But, ever since the Babylonian exile, it was felt that Jewish beliefs need formulation. Attempts to define them are very ancient, the earliest was perhaps Philo’s who was followed by many others, Saadya Gaon, Jehuda Halevy. The most wide-spread and famous of these is certainly the 12th century philosopher, Moses Maimonides. On him the author proposes to base his work.
The principles which form the title are no other than “The Thirteen Articles” to be expounded in as many chapters. This composition is so important and precious to the Jewish mind that it has been included in the Synagogue liturgy. It is the only post-rabbinical element that is permanently a part of it. It opens the morning prayers and concludes the Sabbath-eve service in the poetic version the “yigdal” due to a Roman Jew c. 1300 A.D.; it was translated into English verse by Mrs. A. Lucas at the end of the last century. Maimonides’ text itself begins with the words, “ani maamin” (I believe) intended clearly as a Creed, a counterpart to non-Jewish contemporary creeds. The Thirteen Articles can be grouped into three parts: Those relating to the existence of God and His attributes, those dealing with the Revelation and the Law, and the Last things or the world to come.
But the book is not only a teacher’s exposition with commentaries. There are strong apologetic overtones, elements of controversy and the author’s defence and justification, as it has been understood in the climate of British Jewry today. We read in the last chapter: “While each one of Maimonides’ thirteen articles 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.” In his argumentation Rabbi Jacobs distinguishes between traditional beliefs and traditional pratices; also between beliefs which are non-contradicted and beliefs which can be contradicted. In other words, between eternal truths such as we would call dogmas, and opinions which are open to revision. The basic beliefs are interpretive, not factual. They justify free investigation and there is no problem for practices based on these; they are the fundamental ethical commands. But those beliefs which are open to revision have also practices based upon them and these are more or less justified according to developments through the course of time. God, the author explains, may have chosen to give men only gradual knowledge. Among the beliefs which may be contradicted by new knowledge, he lists: the mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; the Isaian authorship of the Deutero-Isaiah; the Solomonic authorship of the Wisdom books and the Davidic authorship of some the Psalms; also, of course, any Biblical descriptions of the material universe which cannot be correlated with modern scientific discoveries. One can conjure up the ghost of Galileo here! “As tradition can be mistaken”, he says, “it is never an adequate guide to belief. The thinking Jew specifies the beliefs of the first class as being in the tradition because they are true, but not as being true because they are in the tradition.” What becomes of the traditional practices then? Their case is explained under a different aspect.
The thirteen chapters start with the existence and the unity of God, His incorporeality, His eternity and sole Divinity. The author confronts these truths with parallel classical arguments and commentaries of secular philosophy, such as the traditional proofs of the existence of God with reference to, and reaction against, the non-Jewish religious dogmas. In the first six chapter’s there is no divergence from traditional, orthodox teaching.
Disputed questions regarding revelation and inspiration and the authority of Moses are raised with the 6th and the 7th principles: “All the words of the prophets are true”, “The prophecy of Moses was true and he was the chief of the prophets”. But the critical turning point comes with a very long chapter on the 8th principle of Maimonides: “That the whole Torah now in our possession is the same that was given to Moses our teacher”, and the 9th: “That this Torah will not be changed and that there will never be any other law from the Creator.” This is the central part of the book. The basic contention is that the fundamentalist attitude can no longer be maintained. Here are references to modernistic debates, to biblical criticism of sources and form and literary milieu. Incidentally to show that basically the methods have been used before, he quotes two Jewish scholars, Ibn Ezra and Bonfils, who applied them centuries ago, arguing: “What devout Christians have been able to do for their faith, why cannot Jews do it?” Regarding the practices as mentioned before, which are said to have been instituted by Moses, what matters is their meaning in Jewish life and worship rather than their institution. They may have acquired a true, symbolic or sacramental value expressing the holiness of the Jewish faith, the recognition of God, penance and restriction on wordly pleasures, etc., particularly the dietary laws and circumcision.
With the 9th principle, “The Torah is unchanging”, all depends on how the term, immutability of Torah, is understood. Judaism is a dynamic faith rather than a static faith in which literal interpretations and re-adjustments in practice are required in the light of present events, as well as greater flexibility. The 10th principle deals with God’s Providence, and His knowledge of man’s deeds. The 11th and 12th bear on retribution and the coming of the Messiah. The Old Testament keeps comparatively silent, according to Rabbi Jacobs, and no complete system of eschatology existed in rabbinic times. It is interesting to follow the historical developments of these trends. Opinions have varied on a Personal Messiah and on the Messianic Era. The last and 13th principle is on the revival of the dead. Modern trends seem to prefer the immortality of the soul to a more definite concept of the resurrection of the body. The here-after was only spiritual according to Maimonides who denied that “it is possible for man here on earth to have any conception of what eternal life is like” (probably quoting Isaiah 64: 4, repeated by St. Paul in I Cor. 2: 9.).
To sum up: this book states clearly the position of modern Orthodox and non-fundamentalist Judaism, “investigating the facts and making the necessary adjustments in the firm belief that it is this which his faith would have him do since the God he worships is the God of truth who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth”. It should satisfy the mind of the thinking elite, and answer the questions posed by the younger generation. It appears to us also as a “Summa” in which the non-Jewish reader is grateful to find an adequate and understandable explanation of the Jewish faith, which is so difficult to obtain only from the rabbinical background. Once again the Christian will recognize the enormous amount of beliefs which we share in common and he will sympathize with the controversial aspect in efforts for re-interpretation and re-adjustments and in the modernistic crises we have overcome.
The author makes this humorous reference to an Englishman’s prayer: “O God, give us the courage to change those things which can and should be changed. Give us the serenity of mind to accept those things which cannot be changed, . . . and give us the wisdom to distinguish one from the other!”