Reason to Believe:
The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs
by harry freedman
bloomsbury continuum, 304 pages, $35
The Talmud relates the tragic story of an ancient Jewish sage named Elisha ben Abuyah. Initially one of his generation’s leading rabbinic luminaries, Elisha eventually became Judaism’s first unambiguous Epikoros, or theological apostate, earning the sobriquet Akher (“the Other”). Speculation about the cause of his heresy has taken many forms. Perhaps he was too enamoured of Greek philosophy, or perhaps he was disillusioned by God’s apparent silence in the face of evil, or perhaps he suffered the debilitating after-effects of a particularly intense mystical experience. Although the precise nature and provenance of his apostasy remain concealed, the character of Akher provided Jewish tradition with a useful archetype: that of the seditious scholar, the brilliant rabbinic student whose vast learning did not prevent him from abandoning his patrimonial faith. Such notable figures as Shabbetai Tzvi, Baruch Spinoza, Solomon Maimon, and many early Zionist leaders have been accused of being an Akher.
In contemporary Orthodox rabbinic circles, especially in Britain, the name of one twentieth-century Akher looms large: Rabbi Louis Jacobs (1920–2006). This brilliant, pious, genial, widely beloved rabbinic scholar appears at first blush to be an odd candidate for the title of Orthodoxy’s arch-nemesis. Throughout his entire life, Jacobs remained scrupulously faithful to the practices of Halacha (Jewish law), taught Jewish religious texts day and night, and never ceased to identify both himself and his synagogue as fully Orthodox. Yet, when an Orthodox rabbi describes a certain idea or outlook as “worthy of Louis Jacobs,” it is usually code for “a piece of sophisticated yet unconscionable heresy.” How did this come to be?
This question is at the heart of Harry Freedman’s new biography, aptly subtitled The Controversial Life of Rabbi Louis Jacobs. The book is a breezy, enjoyable hagiography that provides great insight into the vanishing world of traditional Anglo-Jewry. Not atypically for such a book, the characters are divided into heroes and villains. The shining knight is Louis Jacobs himself: the enlightened religious scholar who rides into battle against an obscurantist and regressive Orthodoxy, armed with the sword of scholarship and the shield of rationality. Other heroic figures include Jacobs’s ever-supportive family, the network of international scholars and benefactors who supported Jacobs through his travails, and the members of Jacobs’s congregation, whom Freedman describes as being “amazed at their good fortune” to have such a rabbi. (Those who have waded through the treacherous quagmire of synagogal politics will find this description improbable.) These praiseworthy and respectable individuals are portrayed as the innocent victims of the notorious “Jacobs Affair.”
During the early sixties, Britain’s chief rabbi, Israel Brodie—supported and goaded by the great majority of the country’s Orthodox rabbinate—took a series of steps to isolate Jacobs, preventing him from assuming key positions within the community and eventually de facto expelling him from the ranks of officially sanctioned Orthodox rabbis. Jacobs never recovered. Though he was able to form his own synagogue and create his own minor institutions, never again was he welcomed back into the fold of British Orthodox Jewry.
These bitter and protracted hostilities, which drew national and international attention, were occasioned by Jacobs’s publication of a spate of books (most famously We Have Reason to Believe) in which he claimed that modern academic discoveries had rendered the classic Orthodox notion of “Torah from Heaven” insupportable. In Jacobs’s mind, the conclusions of contemporary archaeology, anthropology, and biblical criticism had finally and conclusively refuted two of the thirteen foundational dogmas of the Jewish faith outlined by Maimonides: the Mosaic authorship and the divine infallibility of the Pentateuch. Given the data supplied by modern scholarship, the honest intellectual has little choice but to accept the conclusion that the five books of Moses were composed, amended, redacted, and disseminated by fallible human beings several centuries after the events they purport to describe. The repeated, public, and unabashed repudiation of these two articles of faith proved too much for Britain’s Orthodox establishment, whose members closed ranks (some gleefully, some regretfully) to repudiate their courageous yet wayward colleague.
For Freedman, the rejection of Jacobs amounts to black-hearted villainy. The principal scoundrel is of course the “weak” Chief Rabbi Brodie, who—through a combination of pusillanimous leadership and misplaced theological principle—issued a series of “edicts” expelling Jacobs from the rabbinate. Other malefactors include the puritanical United Synagogue Dayanim (rabbinic judges) and Jewish figures from across the world who aided or abetted the excommunication. Even the late, lamented, and extravagantly praised Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks is criticized for his failure to extend an olive branch to the beleaguered Jacobs during his tenure.
Like Jacobs himself, Freedman displays a regrettable naivete regarding the centrality of theological doctrines to Orthodox communal life. The foundational creed of Orthodox Judaism today (indeed, of all varieties of organized Judaism between the second and nineteenth centuries) is the belief that the five books of Moses were dictated, fully and flawlessly, by God himself. The unmediated divinity of the Pentateuch underwrites the entire framework of Jewish law, validates the covenantal relationship at the heart of the Judaic religion, and serves as the foundation for millennia of Parshanut (Jewish biblical exegesis). It is the rationale for a way of life based entirely upon fealty to biblical laws. Put simply, an Orthodox understanding of the Jewish religion rests—historically, sociologically, and logically—on this creed. The strength of Jacobs’s case against the idea of “Torah from Heaven” is entirely immaterial. Even if the historical-textual arguments against this belief were conclusive (as many contemporary academics believe them to be), it would not matter to the Orthodox. Rabbinic authorities could not, would not, and have not budged.
The most surprising thing about Jacobs’s excommunication is that it surprised him. Jacobs somehow labored under the delusion that his public assertions that the Pentateuch was a manifestly human document—replete with errors, inconsistencies, redundancies, scientific impossibilities, historical inaccuracies, and moral defects—ought not endanger his Orthodox credentials. He expressed great personal anguish at his treatment, apparently believing that if only his rabbinic colleagues could be slightly less myopic, dogmatic, or retrogressive they would understand that his theological positions aided, rather than harmed, the Orthodox cause. Until his dying day, Jacobs pleaded not so much his innocence as his harmlessness.
Freedman criticizes Chief Rabbi Brodie’s two successors—Lord Immanuel Jakobovits and Lord Sacks—for not “clarifying their positions” regarding the divinity of the Pentateuch. Quite apart from the fact that both rabbis do indeed address this issue in their writings, Freedman fails to understand that to be an Orthodox rabbi means affirming the divine origin of the Torah. This iron-clad conviction is implicit in every legal decision, every homiletical sermon, every educational program, every facet of their work. Demanding that lifelong members of the Orthodox clergy “clarify” their position on the divinity of the Torah is somewhat akin to demanding that the College of Cardinals “clarify” their position regarding the divinity of Christ.
Those who demand that Orthodox authorities be more flexible on this fundamental point of theology demonstrate a basic ignorance of the Orthodox Jewish psyche. From infancy until senility, Orthodox Jews read and re-read, chant and debate, deconstruct and reimagine the full range of their canon. Read with great immediacy in the original language, every word is minutely analyzed, every letter weighed, every sentence parsed. The verses and aphorisms accompany every life event, from the cradle to the bridal canopy to the grave. The canon provides the idiom of Orthodox Jews’ speech, the categories of their thought, the paradigmatic lenses through which they perceive everything. The Pentateuch, the foundational element of this canon, constitutes the greatest weight of all. This text’s divine auctoritas pervades the mind of every Orthodox Jew.
The considerations of the historian, the anthropologist, and the textual critic are powerless before the immediacy of this all-enveloping way of life. Hence the quixotic nature of Jacobs’s efforts to reform his native community’s theology. Jacobs used the terms of the world around him as his criteria for assessing the divinity of Judaism’s foundational text. His Orthodox colleagues, following twenty centuries of precedent, presupposed the divinity of Judaism’s foundational text and used it as their touchstone for assessing everything else. Between these opposing views there can be no reconciliation.
J. J. Kimche is a PhD candidate specializing in Jewish intellectual history at Harvard University.