Originally published in Religious Studies, 13:4 (1977), pp. 511-14.
Louis Jacobs, Theology in the Responsa. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975). Pp. xi + 378. £6.00.
The Jewish responsa literature comprises a very mountain of replies to questions put to rabbis from the middle ages. For the most part, the concern is with halakhah, the practice of Jewish law in all its manifestations. Rabbi Dr Jacobs has here made a pioneering attempt to extract material of a theological nature, thereby supplementing the classical expositions of Jewish theology which are to be found in other literary genres.
His approach is chronological. Commencing with the Gaonic period, he deals with each succeeding century, from the eleventh to the twentieth, in a separate chapter. There is much which, though formulated in the idiom of Jewish learning, is of universal interest. From the start, with Hai Gaon (939-1038), we find discussion of the nature of providence, of divine omniscience (‘Only God knows how that which did not actually happen would have happened if in fact it had happened’; ‘God’s foreknowledge of events is not causative’), and of religious language, and it is not long before we discover other recurrent themes: prophetic vision; dreams; kabbalistic interpretation; the eternity (contested) of the world; and the limits of rationalism.
Unfortunately, the author’s aim to provide a comprehensive, chronological account inhibits his development of thematic analysis. He is content to provide a descriptive summary of each responsum, often with bare cross-reference to the same theme (sometimes the same questions) discussed elsewhere in the book. The result is that we are left with many provoking thoughts which cry out for further comment. A sixteenth-century source refers to the view that it is through reincarnation that an answer is given to the problem of the suffering of the righteous, and two chapters later vicarious merit through a man’s children is offered as an alternative means of achieving reincarnation’s objectives. There is passing reference to the development of a dogma of the progressive decline of the generations; to the distinction between thought and intention (regarded by the respondent in question as ‘obvious’); to the status of other monotheistic faiths; to the difference, for the purposes of benediction, between events inside and outside the mind; to the relation between sin, purity, and intention (raised by the problem of one who accidentally swallowed a fly).
Perhaps the major lost opportunity and this is a criticism assuredly not confined to the present book lies in the failure to analyse Jewish epistemology and relate it where (as often) necessary to particular theological beliefs. We read of David Nieto’s anti-Deist sermon, in which he preached the view that God and Nature are the same. But how exactly should we understand the argument from gematria (the belief in the significance of the numerical associations of words calculated by the values of their letters) that the divine name, Elohim, and ha-teva (‘Nature’) correspond? Again, the respondents provide various elements which contribute towards a linguistic theory, incorporating demythologising exegesis, appreciation of hyperbole, gematria, and the non-translatability of certain elements of meaning. Such issues cannot be denied systematic consideration, since much of Jewish theology depends upon revelation in a particular linguistic form. Most important, we have a responsum which argues from revelation against reductionist ethics: ‘each precept is a “principle” and a fundamental idea’. It would have been particularly appropriate in the context of a book which deals with the theology that derives from an halakhic genre to pursue this matter further, since reductionist ethics often lie behind the charge of ‘legalism’, and the epistemology of reductionist ethics is at least as debatable as that of revelation.
Alongside such theoretical issues, we find responsa whose concern is more practical. The book’s title would not, perhaps, lead the reader to expect to find discussion of whether a student should go abroad to study with his chosen teacher despite his father’s wishes; or whether it is permitted to engage in secular studies (or read newspapers) on the Sabbath, or go to the circus in order to recite the benediction over observing strange creatures; or of the ethics of hunting. Indeed, the inclusion of not a little material is difficult to justify even in terms of the author’s own interpretation of theology as ‘any topic in which the chief preoccupation is with belief, even when, as is not infrequent in this literature, belief has practical consequences that can immediately be seen’. This wide definition, and its expansive application, must be viewed in the context of an ongoing Jewish debate. There are those who maintain that there is no Jewish theology, or at least that Jewish speculation as to the nature of the divine should not be so called. The reasons for this approach need not detain us; elsewhere Rabbi Dr Jacobs has himself replied most effectively to them. It seems, however, that in his enthusiasm for the subject Dr Jacobs here goes too far in the opposite direction. Indeed, at one point (p. 191) he impliedly equates theology with ‘non-legal’ questions, and the context shows clearly that ‘legal’ is understood in the sense of modern civil or criminal law. It may, of course, be argued that ‘belief’ is the ‘chief preoccupation’ of all Jewish religious law. But such a position is here merely assumed, not argued.
Such argument, the author may feel, would have been out of place in a descriptive, chronological account. But the value of the form of presentation here adopted must unfortunately be questioned. The book is more than an index, but less than a history. The objective of comprehensive coverage leads to paragraphs such as the following (pp. 281-2):
A Responsum (no. 28) addressed to the Hasidic master Phineas Elijah of Pilz in 1880 refers to a Reader in the synagogue suspected of fornication. Bornstein refuses to disqualify the man without knowing the full circumstances, and argues that a mere rumour is not sufficient to disqualify. He advises the community to provide the Reader with a sum of money to invest in business and this will keep his mind off sex.
Judaism has never claimed to be wholly ethereal. Neither should it imply as Dr Jacobs would be the last to do that every pronouncement of every respondent deserves attention. Thus the wisdom of Abraham Palaggi (at pp. 284-5) and some others is hardly worth space which could have been devoted to a more critical consideration of a thinker such as Hayyim of Baghdad (at 261-74). And is one really expected to appreciate, without more, an account of a twentieth-century (!) responsum on a woman’s claim to have been raped by a demon, in which we are baldly told: ‘Uziel quotes Meir of Lublin who rules that intercourse with a demon is not held to be intercourse within the terms of Jewish law’? In his conclusion, Dr Jacobs observes that halakhic methods of reasoning are employed even when theological questions are concerned. Quite so. But what is the significance of such an application?
The final chapter contains a summary of the views expressed on major topics, and this, together with the index, should help the reader interested in particular themes. Nor is the text without its merits as a collection of material capable of illuminating the rabbinical response to changing cultural conditions and intellectual challenges. But as an essay in theology the book ranks, at best, as a supplement to Rabbi Dr Jacobs’ earlier A Jewish Theology, which has justly been acclaimed as a masterpiece. Only the author’s modesty can have prevented him from referring frequently to this systematic exposition. This reviewer’s disappointment reflects the very high expectations of the audience which Rabbi Dr Jacobs commands, and which the Littman Library serves so well.
Bernard S. Jackson