Originally published in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, (Fall) 1964.
Ignaz Maybaum, formerly Communal Rabbi of the Berlin Jewish Congregation, is Minister Emeritus of the Edgware and District Reform Synagogue in England. He is Lecturer for Jewish Theology, Comparative Religion and Homiletics at the Leo Baeck College, London, and the author of several books on Jewish theological subjects.
Anglo-Jewry, as even readers of the general press in Great Britain and abroad have learned, is currently in the throes of a religious controversy, centering about the person of Dr. Louis Jacobs and his fight against obscurantism in the interpretation of the faith. Each side in the debate has its passionate, articulate partisans, and, if nothing else, this has made the letters-to-the-editor columns of the London Jewish Chronicle livelier reading (Dr. Jacobs’ position also enjoys the courageous and eloquent support of the editor of the Chronicle). The Jacobs Affair, as it has come to be called, is, of course, charged with far-reaching ramifications and the storm it has raised is not likely to subside soon. Meanwhile, as the discussion continues to rage, there has been one immediate result: the secession of an important congregation from the United Synagogue, the organization of British synagogues officially Orthodox and headed by the Chief Rabbi.
The details of the Jacobs Affair, as I noted, have been fairly well reported in the press but it might be useful, by way of background, to retrace some of its more salient events. Dr. Jacobs, it will be remembered, was the rabbi of a prominent London synagogue attached to the United Synagogue. From there he was called, about three years ago, to Jews’ College, which trains the ministers of the United Synagogue and which, over the years, had fallen victim to a certain attrition of vitality, unable to attract a sufficient number of students. Dr. Jacobs, a dynamic personality and a scholar of note, seemed to everybody, including the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Brodie, the right man to initiate a new period at the College (although Dr. Brodie was aware of the fact that Jacobs had authored books, including the best-selling We Have Reason to Believe, which expressed “progressive” ideas).
Thus Louis Jacobs came to Jews’ College as a lecturer and was promised that ultimately he would become principal. However, when it came time for the appointment to the principalship, there were second thoughts: Dr. Brodie, influenced by his ultra-Orthodox dayanim, vetoed the arrangement. This, in turn, infuriated some of the best representatives of Anglo-Jewry. The controversy was further compounded when Dr. Jacobs decided to return as minister to his former synagogue which his successor was preparing to leave to go to America and whose Board of Management welcomed the reinstatement. Whereupon Dr. Brodie refused to renew the certificate for Dr. Jacobs which the latter, according to the laws of the United Synagogue, needed in order to be reinstated. The Board of Management ignored the Chief Rabbi’s decision and re-elected Dr. Jacobs. The Head Office of the United Synagogue then had no other alternative but to dismiss the Board of Management of the rebellious synagogue. This turned the tables in favor of Dr. Jacobs. His followers bought the building of the former St. John’s Wood Synagogue which the United Synagogue had sold for demolition (and in which, incidentally, the Chief Rabbi used to worship). It was quickly made ready for use. On the High Holydays this year Dr. Jacobs officiated in his new synagogue, packed with his loyal and enthusiastic followers. This new synagogue no longer belongs to the United Synagogue and is independent from the Chief Rabbi.
The group that has gathered around Dr. Jacobs has found in him a most attractive spokesman. He combines warmth of feeling with intelligence. Although he is a splendid speaker, he does not belong to the class of public figures whose humanity is reduced to the political function they fulfill. He was trained at a Yeshivah but is the product of the English university. He is at home in the world of Western philosophy and can also quote Franz Rosenzweig. He has brought excitement and intelligent investigation into the life of Anglo-Jewry.
However, it is not Dr. Jacobs’ ideology that has created the new stirrings now evident among Britain’s Jews. Anglo-Jewry is changing rapidly. Never before in its history have so many Jewish boys and girls attended the universities. British Jews are no longer led by the handful of old aristocratic families with their often Sephardic names. The Rothschilds, Mocattas, Henriques, Montagues, and Samuels have given up many of their honorary offices to people like Sir Isaac Wolfson, a financier whose career in Jewish affairs can be summed up as: “from choir-boy to president of the United Synagogue.” Sir Isaac sides with the Chief Rabbi whose jurisdiction over the rabbis of the United Synagogue has been called an un-Jewish prerogative by Dr. Jacobs.
The United Synagogue is a Victorian institution and organized in determined imitation of the Church of England. Its ministers, for instance, wear “dog collars.” Conservatism of a liberal brand was in vogue in Victorian England, and the United Synagogue is therefore Orthodox according to the Victorian mode—a style which differs, of course, from the Orthodoxy of first-generation British Jews who looked to rabbis with fundamentalist views as their spiritual guides. The vast majority of United Synagogue members, however, are Westernized Jews who discovered with disdain that their religious leaders, their dayanim and rabbis, were of the East European variety. The conflict between Westernized and not-yet-Westernized Jews is perhaps the crux of the Jacobs Affair.
Politically, Dr. Jacobs represents the Westernized Jews of the United Synagogue. His theological position is what he himself calls a “midway position”; it can best be described as a Jewish replica of Roman Catholic neo-Thomism. Dr. Jacobs’ Thomas of Aquinas is Maimonides. He analyzes the Thirteen Principles of this great medieval scholar, adds some intelligent criticism, but does not progress beyond Maimonides’ assimilation to Islamic legalism. This Maimonidean theology is set forth in his recently published Principles of the Jewish Faith (Vallentine Mitchell, London). Its pages show the vast learning of the author and his lucid style, but the reader is left with the difficult job of finding in this maze of quotations and citations what the views of the author really are.
What makes Dr. Jacobs a neo-Maimonidean theologian is his medievalist belief in an ultimate document of revelation. “This mystical view of the Torah,” Dr. Jacobs writes, “effectively prevented any attempt to regard the Pentateuch like any other book” (Principles of the Jewish Faith, p. 225). Of this medievalism, which imprisons revelation in a book, Islam is the classical example. As Rosenzweig wrote:
The first word of revelation addressed to Mohammed is: read. The page of a book is shown to him; in the night of revelation the archangel brings him from heaven a book. In Judaism it is different. There the oral teaching is regarded as “older and holier” than the written teaching. “More stringent are the words of the rabbis than the words of the Torah.” With Jesus the position is similar, for he did not leave a written word to his followers. Islam, however, is a religion of the book from the first moment of its existence. A book is dispatched from heaven. Can one think of a more radical turning away from the concept that God Himself “comes down” (Exodus 19, 20), that He gives Himself, surrenders Himself, reveals Himself? He whose throne is in heaven, should He not have given man something other than a book? (Stern der Erloesung, II, 102).
Classical Rabbinic Judaism is Biblical faith, the faith of the prophets. This faith is not a creed but a responsibility. It is the responsibility for the Kingdom of God. We have to bear the yoke of the Kingdom of God in our service of mankind. Pietism without responsibility is not Jewish. Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Baeck, and Martin Buber turned to prophetic faith for their exposition of Judaism. Dr. Jacobs, on the other hand, aims at a Judaism regulated by Halachah. In this he conforms to the spirit of our mass age in which behaviorism replaces action founded on personal conviction. The Middle Ages had the ideal of a cultural, world-embracing unity of mankind. Christendom achieved it through the one and only Church; Islam, through the unchangeable Sharia, the law going back to the one and only prophet. The post-Maimonidean codifiers had the din to shape the dispersed Jewish people into a united people. The desire of average minds to stick to traditions and to interpret them strictly and literally is a strong factor in the Jewish and Islamic Middle Ages. The pious Muslim did not say: “Such was the tradition of my fathers, and it is mine,” but rather: “I follow the usage of the prophet of God.” The Orthodox Jew expresses the same statement by saying: “It is the din, and I obey.” For what “the” prophet said and did there were several Boswells. It is “Mohammed” who makes Sharia valid law, just as the din is holy law because it is the law of “Moses.” One of the greatest legalists of Islam never ate a water melon, because he could not find that the usage of the prophet had laid clown the sanctioned canonical method of doing so. An Anglo-Jewish Orthodox divine surprised his flock with a sudden prohibition to eat turbot, because he was not aware of the Halachic reasons which made other “authorities” declare this fish to be kosher. Surely, the Jew, obliged to combine piety with chochmah (intelligence), cannot defend a pious simpleton with an acknowledgement, of sancta simplicitas. A modern Jew asking, “What is the din?” wishes to avoid personal decision and turns therefore to medieval traditionalism.
It must, however, again be emphasized that it is not his theology which has made Dr. Jacobs the leader of the secessionists. What propelled him forward as the spokesman of a large section of Anglo-Jewry is the dissatisfaction of the Westernized Jewish laymen who protested against the leadership by a not-Westernized minority. What is happening in Anglo-Jewry is the beginning of a Kulturkampf, due to come also in Israel, and, I believe, in America. The holocaust has robbed world Jewry of a sufficient number of religious leaders who represent the post-medieval situation. When Yeshivah-trained rabbis jump without preparation into the Western world they cannot but be bewildered. In this helpless situation they fall back on tradition, not on the classical period of our tradition but on the tradition of the last pre-churban days. Nostalgia for Jewish life in the shtetl and fundamentalism constitute Orthodox Judaism of today. East European Jewry was not Orthodox in this sense; it was still rooted in the historic time of the unbroken Middle Ages. In fact, since the days of Mendelssohn, East European Jewry looked to the West. Western civilization is based on the belief in progress. The West came into existence through separation from Byzantium, which held the dogma that truth can be preserved only in a static history, that time can be forced to stand still. The West believes that the finger on the clock of the world moves forward—and this is the belief of the Biblical prophets. The Jew of today is, therefore, able to be both: Westernized Jew and Jew faithful to his religious mission as outlined by the prophets and the classical rabbis.
The beginning of the Kulturkamp must be welcomed. A religious movement does not start in the conventicle of scholars. All religious movements in Jewish history have been lay movements, from Pharisaism, which gave birth to classical Rabbinic Judaism, to Hasidism and Reform. It is to be hoped that Dr. Jacobs will continue to play his role in the forthcoming Kulturkampf initiated now in Anglo-Jewry by courageous Westernized laymen. Yet Dr. Jacobs will only be able to do so by giving up his “midway” theology and by revising his views about the Reform movement. He blames Zunz, Geiger, and Graetz, because they express themselves in a 19th-century language, and he overlooks the fact that these men progressed towards classical Judaism. This will not do for one who in the approaching Kulturkampf has led his Westernized group to its first success.
Not selected points but the basis of Dr. Jacobs’ neo-Maimonidean theology must be made the target of constructive criticism. I, therefore, turn to my own exposition of the Maimonides of the Thirteen Principles. This is my personal, well-intended contribution to the Jacobs Affair. In the following conclusion of this report I wish to show that we can de-mythologize the principle of “Torah from Heaven” without destroying its true meaning.
The term “as it is written” in the mouth of the Muslim is spoken not merely with solemnity but also in the spirit of submission which abandons argument and protest, and obeys—not as a child obeys his lather, not as a disciple obeys the revered teacher, but as a slave obeys the infallible master. In Islam the spirit of freedom is absent. Mohammed is called “the” prophet or “the last prophet.” This proves that Biblical prophetism is absent from Islam. In Mishnah and Talmud the terms “as it is written,” “as it is said” are used in the freedom of controversy and dialogue. The quotation introduced with the formula “as it is written,” “as it is said” is answered and contradicted, enlarged or reduced, confirmed or abrogated by other quotations. With a victorious, sometimes even self-righteous “as it is written,” “as it is said” free enquiry is initiated and upheld. In Mishnah and Talmud the spirit of the Biblical prophets is still alive. Thus, no Jew can speak of an “end of prophecy.” (The remark, “after the destruction of the Temple prophecy was taken away from the prophets and given over to fools and children” was directed at political zealots who, after the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, still enticed the people to wage war against Rome and prophesied that this secular enterprise would bring final Messianic victory.)
The greatest achievement of Reform Judaism was a return to an understanding of the Biblical prophets. These had not been properly understood in the East European Yeshiva, where the Talmud, a Jewish document of Roman civilization, was studied as medieval Christian lawyers studied canon law and as the ulemas studied the Shariah. The beginning of the influence which Islamic monotheistic civilization exerted on medieval Jewry can be shown when we compare the concept of the Torah as formulated in Mishnah Sanhedrin 10 with that formulated in the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides.
The author of the Mishnah formulates: “He who says the Torah is not from Heaven has no part in the world to come.” This is not a doctrine about a “book from heaven.” The Torah was not merely a book to any of the Pharisaic Rabbis, though it was to the Sadducees who rejected the Oral Torah. What the author of the Mishnah endeavors to state becomes clear from what he endeavors to contradict. He contradicts the law of the polis, the law of Rome, the law established by the sword. He contradicts the law of the mighty Roman Eagle with the law of the widow and orphan, i.e., with the Torah. The Torah is valid. This absolute validity is expressed in the words “from heaven.” Torah or Roman Law, Kingdom of God constituted by the Torah or Imperium Romanum created and represented by the Caesar—which is valid? Only the Torah! “The Torah is from heaven”: this sentence of the Mishnah is not a dogma for a creed but formulates the basis on which Jewish life rests. Jewish social life is not like life in the polis in which the Caesar creates the stability of life. It is, rather, that of a community in which another Law, the Law of God, or, using the semantics of the Rabbis, “the Torah from heaven,” creates that peace in which the weak can be safe and secure.
The language of Mishnah and Talmud is the language of lawyers and legal scholars. These men wanted life to be shaped by the Torah, by the Law of the Kingdom of God and not by the laws of Rome. They had to speak as jurists in a Roman world in which the numerous Syrian scholars, often of Jewish extraction but not confessing Judaism, were nearly a majority who dominated the intellectual scene of the Roman Empire. The Rabbis of that time confronted the law (nomos) of Rome with their own Law, their Torah. Paul misunderstood Torah as “Jewish nomos.” He was wrong. The Rabbis understood the Torah as the very contradiction of nomos. “He who says the Torah is not from heaven has no part in the world to come” is spoken in a legal controversy in which a Rabbi challenged a Roman lawyer; Sanhedrin 10 is not a dogma concerning a Jewish creed but establishes that Jewish Law is as different from secular law as God in His heaven is from any human law-giver.
Maimonides is altogether a different case. He is concerned with creed. He had to contradict Islamic orthodoxy’s belief in the Koran as the book from heaven. In this he is the classical example of the apologist who sets out to prove the error of the opposing belief and, while closely following his opponent in his argumentation, submits to him. Maimonides begins with the words: “I believe.” It is not the Biblical word ha-amin, which means “to believe” in the sense of being faithful, strong, loyal. Ha-amin did not originally mean “believing in a creed”; yet this is what Maimonides transforms it to mean. He formulates a creed. In this creed the Mohammedan’s Koran, his “book from heaven,” is rejected as a potential content of belief: “The whole Torah now in our possession is the same as that which was given to Moses.” Maimonides regards this as the refutation of the Mohammedan creed. The literal translation from the Hebrew, usually rendered “now in our possession,” would be “in our hands.” The Torah, the Rabbinic word denoting revelation, becomes something material: you can hold it in your hands. We have entered the mode of thinking in which revelation and the Book are identical. Having entered this mode of thinking, Maimonides speaks exactly in the language of the Muslim who contends that his Koran has taken the place of the Torah. No, says Maimonides, “This Torah cannot be changed, and there will not be another Torah.” Contradicting the Muslim’s belief in the eternal, unchangeable validity of the Koran, Maimonides submits to the concept of a document of revelation.
With the dogma that “no prophet after Moses may make innovations in the Law,” Maimonides intended to defend the Torah against Islam, but in fact he opened the door through which Islamic teaching could enter Judaism. With his doctrine that “no prophet will rise again in Israel like Moses” (as formulated in the liturgical poem Yigdal of Daniel ben Yehudah), he contradicts Islam’s claim that Mohammed was the last prophet, yet accepts the doctrine of a prophet who alone makes Jewish law valid. Moses is transformed into a Mohammed. Thus, Maimonides, following the approach of Islamic orthodoxy, is responsible for the fact that Orthodox rabbis began to resemble Islamic ulemas. Today, Jewish fundamentalism can make its primitive doctrine respectable by quoting Maimonides. But even the late Chief Rabbi Dr. Hertz wrote: “Not that either his [Maimonides’] contemporaries or those who came after him have all of them endorsed his Thirteen Principles. . . . It is not, therefore, a matter for surprise that strictures on Maimonides’ list continued in modern times” (Daily Prayer Book, pp. 248-9).
Mohammed has been called a great simplifier. Every fundamentalism turns to simplification. Revelation offered in the material form of a book is simplification, a crude simplification useful for the propagation of a creed. Those who accept the creed are believers; those who do not, infidels. Even the illiterate who do not read “the book” can believe in it. They believe it to be holy, as they believe that a relic, a picture of a saint, or his tomb, or a particular place (e.g., Mecca) is holy.
With Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles we leave the classic Judaism of Bible and Talmud and are in the midst of the Jewish Middle Ages. The Jewish Reform movement goes back to classical Judaism by returning—as we must return—to the prophetic understanding of a divine revelation. And as for Dr. Jacobs, it is to be hoped that he will advance from what is so far only a political success to a clear understanding of the way which leads Jewry away from the Middle Ages. The “midway position he now occupies, theologically speaking, is one which, according to British tradition, recommends itself well in politics. In theology, however, such a position must be avoided. The theologian too is addressed by the prophet’s admonition: “How long hold ye between two opinions?”