Originally published in the Washington Jewish Week, 18th May 1989.
Principles of the Jewish Faith, Louis Jacobs, Jason Aronson Publishers, Northvale, N.J., 1964, republished 1988. pp. 469, $35.
It is with some irony that, perhaps the greatest theologian of Conservative Judaism, was trained as an Orthodox rabbi, and teaches in a Reform seminary, in a country where the Conservative movement has little more than a nominal presence. It is also a source of inspiration to my colleagues and myself that Louis Jacobs, an active pulpit rabbi, has been able to organize his schedule so as to produce a large number of scholarly publications, in addition to the rigors of regular teaching. Jacobs’ works exhibit not only his depth as both a lomden in the classic sense, but as scholar, in the modern sense. He is also a master stylist. Jacobs has something to teach the university professor, but can be understood by a bright bar mitzvah lad.
I mentioned that Conservative Judaism has little more than a nominal following in Britain—but a mere 25 years ago, it came within a whisper of capturing the country’s prestigious Chief Rabbinate and its synagogue establishment, institutions which still serve as the model to smaller Jewish communities throughout the Commonwealth. Aronson has reissued Jacobs’ classic Principles of the Jewish Faith on what is both the silver anniversary of its original printing and the 25th anniversary of the “Jacobs Affair,” a series of events that shook Anglo-Jewry to its very foundations.
In a series of events, a newly resurgent fundamentalist element, led by a rather timid chief rabbi, Sir Israel Brodie, and his more dominant dayyanim, blocked Jacobs from becoming head of Jews’ College and heir apparent to the chief rabbinate. In vetoing the appointment by the college company, Jacob’s modernistic views were cited as evidence of his unsuitability for the position of principal of the Orthodox seminary. A row broke out in media, with the London Jewish Chronicle taking Jacobs’ side.
Although Jacobs was immensely popular and successful as a pulpit rabbi, Brodie exercised his constitutional authority as chief rabbi and withheld his endorsement from Jacobs’ appointment to his former congregation, the New West End Synagogue. In an attempt to circumvent Brodie’s edict, the synagogue leadership appointed him to be their “reader” instead of “Rabbi.”
Jacobs’ book, Principles of the Jewish Faith, is a brilliant analysis of the Maimonidean Thirteen Principles. Each chapter contains at least one excursus into the literature on that topic. The result is a concise, one volume, liberal Jewish education.
Having studied for three years with Dr. Jacobs, who also supervised my thesis, I knew that the chapters on the Divine origin of the Torah, and its unchanging nature, would be his best and also his most controversial. I confess that I read them first. It is, after all, his acceptance of modern, critical scholarship that got him into so much trouble. But Jacobs is not the sort to yield his intellectual position for the sake of earthly honors or titles. His honesty and intellectual integrity prove him an able teacher, not just in academia, but on a moral plane.
Jacobs asserts that the modern scholar can feel free to “investigate the origins of Jewish observances and come to conclusions concerning these which are at variance with tradition, without giving up the concept of the mitzvot as divine commands.” In other words, most serious scholars think that Yom Kippur, the most highly defined spiritual institution we know today, is certainly post-Mosaic, but that fact should not be used as a rationale for violating the fast or for not appreciating the day’s importance in the life of the modern Jew.
Similarly, the origin of the Sabbath as an outgrowth or the Babylonian “taboo days” in no way refutes the sanctity and beauty of sabbath observance. That Moses may never have put on tefillin is no reason for us not to do so, as the act binds us to generations of Jews who did don them and to the spirit of Moses, as represented by our tradition. Are the prayers of Israel and its faith as nothing to us because we now have the scholarly tools to understand Judaism’s development in a manner in which the ancients did not? The fact that we have motorcars and Maimonides did not, that we use electricity and he read by candle light, does not make us superior. Anyone studying the Code of Maimonides cannot help being overwhelmed by his genius. But if Maimonides was a giant, and we are dwarfs, the dwarf standing on the shoulders of the giant can see further. Do we bring honor to the giant by denying what we so plainly see?
Last year, for the first time in its history, the Conservative movement issued its first platform, Emunot V’Deyot. It is a noble attempt to articulate a theology for the movement—and the document’s greatest strength, as well as its greatest weakness, owes to the fact that it is a consensus statement. Twenty-five years ago, Jacobs wrote, “the historical school has always been handicapped by its failure to build theologically on the very sure foundations its researchers have uncovered.”
It is certainly true that Solomon Schechter, who, after refuting Moses Mendelssohn’s curious, but oft-repeated notion that Judaism has no dogmas, never formulated his own vision of Judaism into a concise credo. Building on the principles of Maimonides, Louis Jacobs develops his own credo, suggesting, to borrow the title of one of his earlier books, that we do, indeed, “have reason to believe.” Maimonides offered us principles that have served us well for almost a millennium. While eschewing a narrow catechism, Jacobs, the sage of London, gives us a direction that embraces the past, but looks to the future. No one has done better.
Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom of Columbia, Md.