Originally published in Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.
Principles of the Jewish Faith: An Analytical Study. By Louis Jacobs. New York: Basic Books, 1964. 473 pp. $9.50.
What Rabbi Jacobs, a scholar of depth and probity, has done is excellent. There seem to be to be some significant omissions, which stem from the format of the book. Jacobs uses the thirteen principles of Maimonides as chapter headings, with the consequence that I feel that he has not faced up to some matters, such as Zionism, which need confronting, but do not fit into these thirteen categories. I mean this as not as a carping criticism, but only to illustrate a certain pitfall in his arrangement of materials, and no more than that; but by having the discussions revolve around Maimonides’ thirteen points, Jacobs has thereby almost inescapably limited himself, at least in this volume.
On the other hand, those matters which he does discuss he pursues in depth. In virtually every chapter he follows the same admirable procedure: he cites the item in the Maimonidean creed, he explains it an traces it in detail and with precision through the vast reaches of traditional Jewish literature which he commands effortlessly, and then he approaches the given item in the light of the humanistic, scientific scholarship of the past one hundred and seventy years.
I have had one or two hasty, pleasant personal meetings with Rabbi Jacobs. My impression is that in his practice he never deviates from Orthodox Judaism. His scholarship is by no means heterodox, and certainly from my own standpoint, his convictions are on the conservative side. But Jacobs does not abstain from subjecting the thirteen rubrics to a searching inquiry, nor does he shun confronting, and even using, such scholarship as the Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch. Undoubtedly it is this honest encounter on his part with all learning that brought down on him the wrath of the then Chief Rabbi (Orthodox) of Great Britain, with the result that Jacobs’ appointment to head Jews’ College was vetoed, and his election as rabbi of one of the synagogues which make up the constituency of the Chief Rabbi was blocked, so that the synagogue solved its dilemma by retaining Jacobs and withdrawing from the Chief Rabbi’s jurisdiction. Since I affiliated with Reform Judaism, I find it elusive to have a balanced judgment on this controversy. My sympathies all go to Jacobs; the one meeting I chanced to have with that Chief Rabbi did not leave me with admiration for the gentleman’s learning or his possession of the amenities. In a sense, the book is heterodox, in that it opens itself to encounter unorthodox opinions; in another sense it is quite orthodox, for by and large, as I see it, Jacobs is intent on incorporating into his traditional Judaism the insights from where ever he can find them. In so doing, he is clearly a disciple of Maimondes – who also was regarded as somewhat heretical by some of his contemporaries. Most of all, I lament that a man whose dedication to scholarship is demonstrated on every page of this book should have had the personal harassment which Jacobs underwent.
As the utility of his book, the copious citations from Jewish literature make this book a learning experience for the lettered Jewish scholar, and especially for the novice, Jew or not, who wants a detail inquiry into the principal components of the Jewish faith. Jacobs provides a richness of materials, a carefulness in his clear exposition, and a refreshing intellectual honesty, combined with his manifest love for the tradition he is trying to renew. Since I am separated from him in premises, and far more ‘radical’ in comparison with him than he is with that particular Chief Rabbi, I would need to register a dissent, not respecting the scholarship, but respecting the weighing of the modern factors and the subsequent conclusions; or, at the minimum, I would say things quite differently from the way in which he has said them.
But yet I know of no book addressed to the exposition of aspects of Jewish theology which matches this book for its depth, breadth, and clarity. Rabbi Jacobs is to be congratulated.
Samuel Sandmel, Hebrew Union College