'We Have Reason to Believe'

This year marks 50 years since the publication of Louis Jacobs's famous and controversial book, We Have Reason to Believe.

rabbi jacobs 88 224 (photo credit: )
rabbi jacobs 88 224
(photo credit: )
This year marks 50 years since the publication of Louis Jacobs's most famous and most controversial book, We Have Reason to Believe. Although that book did not cause much of a stir when first published - as a matter of fact it was well received by several Orthodox authorities and ignored by others - it later became the basis of denying him the position of principal of Jews' College. That in turn led to the loss of the possibility of his becoming chief rabbi of the United Synagogue and even cost him his rabbinical position. As a result he founded the New London Synagogue, at first an "Independent Orthodox synagogue" but eventually the first Masorti (Conservative) synagogue in Great Britain. Jacobs always believed that what he taught was authentic Judaism and should be recognized as such by Orthodoxy, but that was not to be. What he taught turned out to be heresy for Orthodoxy although it fitted perfectly into the theology of the Conservative Movement. Jacobs therefore became a member of the association of Conservative rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly. It was his attempt to synthesize modern biblical studies with traditional views of the Torah that caused all the trouble. Jacobs was convinced that our current knowledge demanded the recognition that the Torah was not given in one moment at Sinai, but was a product of more than one hand in more than one generation, albeit under divine inspiration. He eschewed a fundamentalist approach to the Torah for one very good reason: It could not be sustained by our knowledge and by the facts. Truth was truth and could not be denied. His mission was to learn as much about Judaism as he could, to absorb as much general knowledge as was available, to blend and synthesize the two and to pursue the truth wherever it would lead him, and then to convey this to others and guide them in their quest for Torah and truth - for the Torah of truth, torat emet - the two being inseparable. He was constantly searching. He wanted to be able to blend the past, the tradition, with modern knowledge and modern concerns. Because of the scandal that became "the Jacobs affair," to this day for many people Louis Jacobs and the rejection of a fundamentalist approach to the Torah are synonymous. That is understandable. He was the first traditional rabbi in Britain to espouse that view and to teach biblical criticism while still maintaining loyalty to the Torah as divine revelation, a stand that had already been taken in other countries by thinkers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel. In England it was revolutionary, a thunderstorm that aroused British Jewry and split it asunder. It was specifically because he was such a great scholar and such an observant, traditional Jew that it made such a great impact. When he said it, it could not be ignored. It is to be regretted that he is remembered mainly for that, because it obscures the deeper message of his teachings. His book is not entitled "We Have Reason Not to Believe," but We Have Reason to Believe. His mission was not to negate but to affirm, to find the truth and give modern Jews a faith in which they could believe. Let me quote a few lines from Rabbi Jacobs's preface to that book to illustrate what I mean: "A true Jewish apologetic, eschewing obscurantism, religious schizophrenia and intellectual dishonesty, will be based on the conviction that all truth, 'the seal of the Holy One, blessed is He,' is one, and that a synthesis is possible between permanent values and truth of tradition and the best thought of the day. If [this book] stimulates its readers to think seriously about their faith and even helps some of them to declare 'We have reason to believe' this will be its justification." Jacobs certainly did not set out to be a revolutionary but to strengthen Judaism by bringing it into the modern age, much as Maimonides had done before him. Jacobs lived a traditional life. In outward form his synagogue resembled those of the British United Synagogue, but the sermons were quite different, reflecting his ideas in a completely honest way. He was committed to what he called "Minhag Anglia," the tradition of synagogue practice that had developed in English Orthodoxy and saw little reason to depart from it. A master halachist, in his halachic decisions he had little patience for those who constantly sought to enforce ever more stringent measures than the Halacha actually demanded. He adhered to the requirements of Jewish law - its real requirements, not to every stringency, every humra that could be found. He was definitely an adherent of Beit Hillel and not Beit Shammai. Fifty years after its publication, We Have Reason to Believe can still be read with profit by those with open searching minds. It will not seem revolutionary to most of us, but it will still appeal to our reason and cause us to rethink our beliefs, not in order to abandon Judaism, but in order to live by it. The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.