In 1957, Louis Jacobs, a British Orthodox rabbi in good standing, published a book entitled We Have Reason to Believe, in which he argued that religious Jews needed to revise their traditional theology in light of the more assured conclusions of historical criticism of the Bible, in cluding the idea that the Torah is a composite work and not, as the premodern tradition had taught, entirely the work of Moses.
An immensely learned man, Rabbi Jacobs had been slated for the principalship of Jews’ College, Britain’s seminary for Modern Orthodox clergy. But the chief rabbi, alerted to the heterodoxy of the volume, refused to approve the appointment, and Jacobs resigned his faculty position, entering into a kind of communal no-man’s-land of traditional observance and belief in God without the traditional doctrines held, often unthinkingly, by almost all Jews who practice as he does. Beyond Reasonable Doubt restates and defends anew the thesis of We Have Reason to Believe and tells the story of the controversy it provoked. It also provides a critical survey of the spectrum of contemporary options for committed Jews as well as a few sketchy, disconnected discussions of traditional theological notions from Jacobs’ own position.
Jacobs calls that position “liberal supernaturalism”—“‘supernaturalism’ in that it affirms God as transcendent and ‘personal,’ wholly Other and yet in control of the universe He has created; ‘liberal’ in that it accepts the findings of modern scholarship, resulting in a non-fundamentalistic understanding of how ancient traditions, ideas, and practices were combined, over many centuries and through human trial and error, to form the Torah.” Whereas forty years ago Jacobs labeled himself “Orthodox” (given his observance of halakhah, or traditional Jewish law), today “to avoid confusion,” he de scribes his position “not as Orthodox but as Masorti,” a Hebrew term meaning “traditional.” As Jacobs points out, a notion of the Torah as composite and to a small degree post-Mosaic can be found, ironically, in a few premodern authorities revered by the same Orthodox Jews who revile his position.
Jacobs rejects not only the “fundamentalist supernaturalism” of his Orthodox opponents, but also the “liberal naturalism” that agrees with fundamentalism that “one who is prepared to accept the results of the historical-critical school and its implications cannot believe in a personal God” and must deny that there is a “divine element” in the Torah. As Jacobs, with characteristic elegance, puts it: “Liberalism redeems supernaturalism from primitiveness. Supernaturalism redeems liberalism from banality and crude historicism.”
Given the centrality of halakhah in the Jewish tradition, the key question arises as to whether the liberal supernaturalist will observe the commandments, or rather ascribe them to the “human trial and error” that Jacobs holds to be essential to the formation of Torah. He insists, however, that his difference with fundamentalism is “not on whether the precepts are commanded by God . . . but on how the command was conveyed.” Jacobs sees the commandments as made by “God-seekers who were followed by popular consensus, itself under the guidance of God.” Relative to the Orthodox position, this magnifies the human role and replaces revelation with inspiration and providence.
Despite his strong and often compelling argument for his Masorti position, Jacobs concedes that “psychologically, it is undeniable that a clear recognition of the human development of Jewish practice and observance is bound to produce a somewhat weaker sense of allegiance to the minutiae of Jewish law.” What is unclear is whether he regards this as an unfortunate and logically unnecessary consequence of his theology, or as an intrinsic aspect of liberal supernaturalism. If the latter, then his position is farther from Orthodoxy than he may recognize, for it fails to support even a non-fundamentalist orthopraxy, thus breaking sharply with its premodern analogues.
That Jacobs’ position is actually the less traditional one is suggested by his belief that “the non-fundamentalist is free to choose which sabbath and other observances awaken a response in him.” Now we have not only a higher degree of human involvement in the making of historic Judaism, but also something very new in Jewish thought, the notion that halakhic norms are subordinate to individual experience and depend upon a subjective “response.” If Jacobs is right that psychologically, liberal supernaturalism tends to produce a lessened degree of observance, it must be stressed that logically, nothing in the historical-critical study of the Bible and other authoritative Jewish books requires the individualism and the romantic subjectivism of Jacobs’ theology. Honest historical scholarship does not “free” anybody “to choose” anything. It cannot even tell us which “popular consensus” is under “divine guidance” and which is not.
Having cut the ground out from under traditional concepts of halakhic obligation, Jacobs is at pains to offer the modern Jew a reason to choose the traditional observances after all. For example, in considering the Karaites, an anti-rabbinic sect, he tells us that “when all is said and done, history has decided, or, better, God has decided through history, that the Rabbanites have won out and that this, therefore, is the admittedly man-made Torah that God wishes us to keep if we wish to be faithful to Judaism as a religion.”
The theory is that of the nineteenth-century Breslau school that lies behind Conservative/Masorti Judaism—“that origins and historical considerations are matters of scholarship, while religion has to do with what has become the Jewish religion.” The problem with this is that all is not said and done, history is not over, the Karaites are still around, and if their numbers are minuscule, so are those of Rabbanite Jews (especially those who pay any attention to rabbinic law) in comparison with two groups that history—or is it God?—has favored more abundantly, Christians and secularists. The Hegelian notion that history has always moved in a positive direction, and the kindred notion of Social Darwinism that those who have survived are fittest, have often been used against the Jews. It is jarring to see a Jewish theologian, especially after the Holocaust, still relying on the old Breslau school of religious historicism.
Jacobs’ confidence in historical tradition as defining what is normative is characteristically British. It recalls nothing so much as Viscount Falkland’s famous statement in the seventeenth century that “when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Though this approach is logically and theologically flimsy everywhere, in the British context it may have more force than in America. Here the historical difference between the two Jewries is illuminating. As Jacobs points out, “in nineteenth-century America, if you wanted to be ‘American’ you had to be a Reform Jew, whereas to be an ‘English’ Jew at that time you had to be Orthodox.” A hundred years later, though both communities are mostly nonobservant, (nominal) Orthodoxy is still the norm in Britain, as are Reform and Conservative in the United States. A practice based on local tradition, independently of its theological warrant, means something very different in the two countries.
The issue of homosexual conduct is a case in point. In explaining his objections to American Reform Judaism (and its closest British counterpart, Liberal Judaism), Jacobs correctly argues that “homosexual relationships [cannot be] made ‘kosher’ because the two persons concerned love one another,” since “according to Jewish values not every ethical question can be decided on the basis of love.” Here one must resist the ubiquitous and depressing tendency in these liberal movements by which “opinions voiced in the general progressive media become the Jewish view.” The more general point, of which the liberal Jewish embrace of homosexual behavior is only symptomatic, is that “If Jewish standards depend on what is considered to be ethical in each particular age, this can only mean that there are no fixed Jewish ethical standards.” In the American context, however, the identification of Judaism with progressivism more often than not is the received tradition, and the traditional idea that halakhah overrides private conscience and sentiment—an idea with which, as we have seen, Jacobs has his own difficulty—is robust only within the small circle of Orthodox Jews. It is hard to believe that the same process will not eventually overtake British Jewry as well, if it has not already.
In this connection, the rapid capitulation of the non-Orthodox movements to the liberal Zeitgeist on most issues involving sex and gender is instructive. Needless to say, Jewish law regulates sexuality to a high degree, and gender is one of the central structuring features of the whole halakhic system. But today, outside of Orthodoxy, the traditional laws on these matters tend to be articulated and observed only to the extent that they conform to the ethos of contemporary liberalism. One need only consider the growing demand for the normalization of homosexual behavior even in the Conservative Movement, or the consensus outside of Orthodoxy that abortion, which halakhah allows only in rare circumstances, should be seen as a private option and made available to all women. These examples suggest that what Jacobs terms “the minutiae of Jewish law” are more important than he realizes. For, with a few laudable exceptions, it is only those who observe the “minutiae” who uphold the traditional view in the great moral debates of our time (of which homosexuality and abortion are surely two).
The incivility, ignorance, and irrationality of the attacks on Jacobs from the right have elicited his convincing critiques of “fundamentalist supernaturalism,” culminating in the impressive volume under review. It is too bad that he has not turned his enormous intellectual gifts to the same degree against those who stand to his left. For, although they are usually kinder and gentler in demeanor, they are also more numerous and more influential and pose a threat of their own to Judaism and to the moral health of society at large.
Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School and author of The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and Historical Criticism: Jews and Christians in Biblical Studies and The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity.