We recently marked the third yahrzeit of Rabbi Louis Jacobs, one of the most brilliant and controversial Jewish thinkers of the modern age. In the mid-20th century he was considered to be a rising star in British Orthodoxy. He would most certainly have become principal of Jews College in London and probably chief rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain had he not published his book We Have Reason to Believe, in which he detailed his way of reconciling modern biblical criticism, which he accepted, with traditional Jewish beliefs in divine revelation.
His studies had led him to accept the view of modern biblical scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, that the Torah contains the teachings of various schools within ancient Judaism and therefore represents the work both of God and of human beings. Thus one must study it with the same openness with which one studies all documents. He accepted the view of the "Historical School" founded by Zecharia Frankel and continued by Solomon Schechter, which later became the Conservative/Masorti Movement, that God does not convey to man "detailed propositions at all but rather that He enables men to have an encounter with Him of a specially intense form."
At the same time the Historical School maintained that the Torah remains the authoritative basis for Jewish law. This is the synthesis that he desired - the acceptance of the use of biblical critical methodology while maintaining that the Torah is holy and authoritative so that Jewish law remains binding and unharmed.
Why was Jacobs so eager to embrace this controversial theory of biblical criticism that was bound to arouse opposition? Could he not have kept this to himself as I am certain many others have done?
There were two reasons. In the first place, he was convinced that it was true and his intellectual integrity would not permit him to pretend otherwise. But at least as important was the fact that this enabled him to tackle honestly various problems he saw within the text of the Torah and the entire Bible, problems that troubled him and that were often cited by Christians critical of Judaism and by questioning Jews as well.
As a believing Jew, an observant Jew, a Jew to whom the Torah was a precious possession, he was aware of scientific and moral challenges to the doctrine of biblical revelation. For example, as believing as he was, he nevertheless could not find it within him to believe that such things as the account of creation in Genesis 1 could be taken literally or that verses such as that condemning a witch to be killed (Exodus 23:17) or that the Canaanites should be completely exterminated (Joshua 9:10-15) represented the will of God.
Nor was he satisfied with the usual polemics offered on these issues, such as that of former British chief rabbi Joseph Hertz that "the population of nearly every European country today had conquered its present homeland and largely exterminated the original inhabitants." Jacobs asks, "Why does this kind of apologetic leave us dissatisfied?" Because we expect perfection from the Bible.
However, if we accept the new view of divine inspiration that he has expounded, i.e. that "in the Bible we have the divine message conveyed to us through the activities and thoughts of human beings," then the problem is no longer a problem. We can admit that the Bible contains "higher and lower stages of spiritual development."
Jacobs then went on to say that it is not all that difficult to tell the one from the other, to "distinguish between the eternal and the ephemeral," and that Jewish tradition, the way in which the Oral Law interpreted and enforced or modified the various laws of the Torah, helps us do that by not enforcing certain laws and interpreting others out of existence. This also enables Jacobs to contend that this new view is therefore "not, if rightly understood, a radical departure from Jewish tradition."
In candor and honesty, then, Jacobs had forged for himself an understanding of the meaning of divine revelation which was based on new, critical, study of the Bible, making use of the tools of philology, comparative religion and archeology, in which the Bible was no longer viewed as the direct dictation of God but, in Jacobs's own phrase, as "the record of a people's tremendous attempt... to meet God... the disclosure of God Himself." The Torah is the book in which the word of God may be found. Thus he was able to solve the difficulties posed by modern scientific beliefs that contradict a fundamentalist view of the Torah and meet the moral challenges posed by various difficult biblical passages and laws.
By adopting the view of the Historical School, he was also able to continue to assert that Jewish law was nevertheless binding.
This was the synthesis that he desired. In this he succeeded. Where he failed was in persuading official Orthodoxy that these views could be accepted within those circles and were not a radical departure from traditional Jewish teaching. His view enabled him to cling to the Torah without denying the truth as he saw it, but, unfortunately for Jacobs, it was not a view that enabled him to be accepted by the British Orthodox establishment. But in all honesty it was not Jacobs who suffered most because of that but the establishment - banishing from its ranks the most brilliant Jewish mind not only of the century but of the 350 years of British Jewry.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.