Originally published in Bnai Brith Bulletin (Australia), March 1962, pp. 12-13, 20.
These books have been lately much discussed. Rabbi Dr. Jacobs is considered by influential Jewish circles in Britain as a highly qualified scholar and as a possible candidate for the position of the Principal of the Jews College in London following the retirement of the outstanding educator of Rabbis and Teachers, Dr. Isidore Epstein.
It is not the purpose of this article to take sides in the dispute which developed around the question who should succeed Dr. Epstein, although the decision in this matter may be of greatest importance for Orthodox Jewry also in Australia, which expects to be able to secure her need of efficient Rabbis and Teachers from the mentioned Jews College in London. Among its students are Australian Jews too. We do not feel competent to take part in a discussion on the kind of qualification which the Principal of an orthodox institution for the education of Rabbis and Teachers has to show. The decision on this point must be left to the guardians of the precious heritage of orthodox Judaism who are possessed by the determined will and zeal to hand on that heritage not only diminished but if possible enlarged.
By reviewing Rabbi Dr. Jacobs’ books in a short way we want to make our readers acquainted with a few problems which are involved in this cause.
“We Have Reason To Believe” deals with “some aspects of Jewish Theology examined in the light of modern thought.” In the introduction to the book the author refers to the great mediaeval thinkers Saadiah, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides and Crescas as to scholars who have been able to blend respect for reason with respect for tradition. Rabbi Dr. Jacobs seems to be like many others—deeply impressed by the fact that the “reasoning” giants were strictly observant Jews; that they were what we call today orthodox. Maimonides who was the most widely read and studied amongst them stressed the obligation incumbent on any Jew to carry on his life in accordance with the Commandments and the customs of the Hebrew religion.
That is apparently the ideal which to be strived for if we understand Rabbi Dr. Jacobs correctly: Regard to the modern thought in theological scholarship and philosophy of religion combined with strict observance of the Law and respect for tradition.
After having dealt with the subject “The Torah and Modern Criticism”, Dr. Jacobs speaks of a synthesis of traditional and critical views concerning our Bible.
Lower Criticism endeavours to remove the comparatively few doubts which exist with regard to certain passages in the Pentateuch differing with the Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Syrian translation of the five books of Moses. This is a matter which interests mainly scholars only and cannot exert any notable influence on the public.
Different is the case of the “Higher Criticism” which was discussed quite recently in the “Bulletin”. Dr. Jacobs gives an outline of the aims of Higher Criticism and of the achievements which this scholarly pursuit claims for itself: different authors have composed the Pentateuch, it is not the work of Moses. (Only the founder of H.C., the French professor, Jean Astruc, was in favour of Moses’ as the compiling author). H.C. is also extended to all other parts of the Hebrew Bible.
Of course, Dr. Jacobs mentions also several scholars who have attacked H.C. but do not learn from him very much specific about the objects of their attacks and the resulting conclusions, so that an otherwise uninformed reader cannot easily form his opinion.
In the “Creed” of Maimonides it is said: “That the Torah has been revealed from heaven.” That is the traditional view of Judaism and it cannot be reconciled with the contentions of the “Critics”, Dr. Jacobs freely admits. But nevertheless he sees a possibility of a synthesis between the old and new knowledge and dedicates a whole chapter of his book to this topic.
Dr. Jacobs can discern within Jewry three different attitudes towards the problems created by Criticism. Total adoption of the implications of Criticism by the Reform Group, total rejection by Orthodox Jewry, and lastly the third group striving for a synthesis between the traditional and critical theories. In his opinion “the attitude of respect, reverence and obedience vis-à-vis Jewish observance is not radically affected by an ‘untraditional’ outlook on questions of Biblical authorship and composition.”
As the rejection of Bible-Criticism by Orthodox Jewry is a consequence of the basic faith of this group it is hard to see how the idea of synthesis could penetrate into the orthodox camp. The assurance of reverence, respect, observance and obedience will be probably considered as incompatible with the “profanation” of the sacred books subjected to the “dissecting” activities of the critics.
But when the assertions regarding a pious conduct shall be taken seriously by the orthodox group it could be asked whether it is worth while to lay such a stress on the doubtful views of the Critics.
Besides, it seems that Dr. Jacobs over-estimates the importance of Higher Criticism and does not take due notice of the views of leading scholars of international standing who decry the exaggerations of the Critics. These leading scholars are not as much convinced of the non-Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch as the Critics would like to have it. Contrary, Prof. Dr Albright of John Hopkins University, f.e., expresses the view that the Pentateuch is substantially of Mosaic origin. It is therefore very questionable whether any advantages could accrue to Orthodoxy from exchanging the traditional inspiring version for a doubtful assumption. Surprising discoveries of archaeology are working more in favour of tradition than for the view of the critics regarding the post-Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch. The most amazing case are the excavations in Mesopotamia by French archaeologist proving that the story of the war against Chedor-la-omer reported in Genesis as having been waged at Abraham’s time is now corroborated by the excavated texts.
Dr. Jacobs discussed also the question whether it would be feasible to overcome the difficulties which arise when one tries to bridge the gap existing between the story of the creation of the universe in the Bible and the current scientific conceptions relating to the origin of our world. Religious thinkers dealing with the subject frequently write “that the Bible is not a scientific text book but a work of guidance and inspiration and we must not expect its opinions on scientific matters to be “up-to-date”. He elaborates on this opinion as follows: “. . . if eternal truth is to be revealed to man and expressed in his language so that he can grasp its substance, it can only be transmitted in a manner which reflects the thought-pattern of the age in, which the revelation takes place.”
In this connection Dr. Jacobs quotes also from Canon Arendzen’s book “Religion and Science” the interesting opinion that a Bible brought up by a committee of highest scientific experts to the level of the most recent scientific achievement, would be utterly out of date in one generation.
In a very thorough way Dr. Jacobs handles the problem of “Moral Difficulties” in the Bible. We know that politicians and scholars, usually not very friendly towards Judaism and Jewry, deem themselves justified to attack the Bible on this ground. An example: the extermination of the Canaanites by the conquering Israelites under the leadership of Joshua. Dr. Jacobs is not quite satisfied with the opinion of the late Chief Rabbi Dr. Hertz that such a case is not an isolated phenomenon as “the population of nearly every European country today had conquered its present homeland and largely destroyed the original inhabitants.” Dr. Jacobs thinks that we should expect in the Bible a higher morality than that of conquering European peoples. His explanation moves from the facts to higher grounds using—as he says—a modern conception popularised by Christian scholars: “We have in the Bible the divine message conveyed to us through the activities and the thoughts of human beings. The Bible in this view is the record of a dialogue between God and man . . . in which not only the sagacious contribution of the father is given but the baby-talk of the child, without which the report would be incomplete.
The Chapter “What Is Meant By God” offers Dr. Jacobs the opportunity to examine the programme of the Reconstructionist movement within American Jewry led by Prof. Kaplan.
The personal conception of God was clearly declined already by Maimonides. He refuted the anthropomorphism in the conception of God in a splendid way. The Reconstructionist movement, says Dr. Jacobs, makes the claim that the traditional conception of God is no longer tenable; that for modern man God must be defined as “the Power that makes for salvation.” Kaplan, in his book, “The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion” represents God as the relationships, tendencies and agencies which in their totality go to make human life worthwhile in the deepest and most abiding sense. Religion can no longer provide a relationship with the supernatural. Godhood can have no meaning for modern man apart from human ideals of truth, goodness and beauty, interwoven in a pattern of holiness.
We have followed here quite extensively the quotation by Dr. Jacobs to characterise the Reconstructionist movement to an extent which will make it understandable that this point of view of Kaplan is rejected by Orthodox Jewry in general and also by our author.
Dr. Jacobs is a scholar of great learning and high erudition and knows very well how to make other chapters in his “We Have Reason To Believe” dealing with “The Proof of God’s Existence,” “Is Religious Faith An Illusion?”, “The Problem of Pain,” “The Study and Practice of the Torah” and “Attitude of Judaism Towards Other Faiths” most interesting.
In the book “Jewish Values” Dr. Jacobs subjects questions on “The Study of the Torah,” “The Love of God,” “Humility,” “Truth” and others to a searching analysis which provides us with valuable information.