Originally published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 44:4 (1976), p. 742.
Theology in the Responsa. By Louis Jacobs. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul (The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization), 1975. xi + 378 pages. $18.75. ISBN 0-718010-7.
Some old and cherished wrong notions die hard. There are still people who play off the NT God of Love against the OT God of Justice, people who, without any qualifications, would describe Judaism as the “religion of deed” and Christianity as the “religion of creed,” and people, both Jewish and Christian, who would insist that theology is not a “Jewish” enterprise. Louis Jacobs endeavors to lay that later notion to rest—once and for all.
He does so not by referring to the rather extensive philosophical and theological literature of Judaism, both medieval and modern, but by going to the very sources where one would least expect to find evidence for the existence of a Jewish concern for theology. He deals with that branch of Jewish religious literature which, almost by definition, is the most “legalistic” branch of all—the literature of responsa. In addition to its quasi-canonized legal sources—the Mishnah, the Gemara, the Codes of Maimonides and Joseph Karo, and various other medieval law codes—Judaism possesses a vast literature of “responsa,” i.e., answers elicited from individual rabbis to legal questions not specifically dealt with in the Talmud or the Codes. In turn, many of those responsa were utilized by subsequent editors of authoritative legal codes. It is this literature of responsa to which the student of Jewish Law turns for the elucidation of specific aspects of dietary regulations, marriage and divorce legislation, Sabbath observance, liturgical procedures, and even civil law. The student of Jewish history finds in that literature significant documentation of the life of Jewish communities in different times and different places.
Jacobs turns to that literature—as a theologian. Devoting a chapter to each century, from the tenth through the twentieth, Jacobs singles out a number of legal authorities from each period, and surveys their treatment of various theological issues. Those issues were either dealt with directly or they played a role in the determination of a legal decision. In this way, Jacobs is able to extract from the responsa statements and views about the after-life, about angels, apostates, biblical difficulties, Christianity and Islam, mysticism, prayer, revelation, etc. While the bulk of the book deals with the legal authorities in chronological order, a chapter on “Summary and Conclusions” provides a convenient topical overview.
This book is evidence of the author’s impressive command of Rabbinic literature, his theological sensitivity, and his scholarly objectivity. It is a pity that, in dealing with the nineteenth century, he confines himself to the Orthodox reactions to nascent Reform Judaism, without paying attention to some of the Reform Jewish responsa which elicited those reactions. For, astonishing as it may seem in the light of later developments, some of the earliest literary productions of Reform Judaism did, in fact, take the form of Rabbinic responsa, in language as well as in style. But, as if to make up for that omission, Jacobs does devote an appendix of six pages to Saul Berlin, a kind of eighteenth-century precursor of Reform Judaism, and to his responsa collection, Besamim Rosh.
Altogether, there can be no doubt that Jacobs has succeeded in his demonstration “that the great Respondents took their theology seriously, giving the same care and attention to questions of belief that they gave to their legal decisions” (p. 343). Henceforth it should be a little more difficult to maintain that theology is not a “Jewish” enterprise.
Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati
Jakob J. Petuchowski