The little book that launched a big crisis
UK Jewry’s most controversial book, We Have Reason to Believe, by Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs, is now 50. But its call for faith to go hand-in-hand with reason remains timely, argues Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
IT IS HALF a century since the publication a of Rabbi Louis Jacobs’s We Have Reason s To Believe — what the JC has called “the s small volume that detonated modern British r Jewry’s biggest religious crisis”. However, nothing exploded in a hurry. u A critic writing in The Synagogue Review in 1957 saw little disturbing to report, though he held high hopes for Rabbi Jacobs’s future. The storm broke in 1961 when the Chief Rabbi, Israel Brodie, vetoed Jacobs’s appointment as principal of Jews’ College, the Orthodox rabbinic academy. The entire board resigned and the ensuing row spilled over from the Jewish Chronicle into the pages of The Times. Pushed to defend his decision, Brodie referred to Jacobs’s “published views”. These seemed to him sufficiently unorthodox to warrant the further veto of Jacobs’s return to his former pulpit at The New West End Synagogue, intensifying the controversy.
The views alluded to were presumably Rabbi Jacobs’s arguments in his chapter: “The Torah and Modern Criticism”. He asserts that 150 years of scholarly research cannot be ignored and that a careful consideration of the historical and literary evidence proves that there are human elements in the Torah. The doctrine that the Torah is literally God’s word must therefore be dropped.
The Torah, Jacobs argued then and throughout his life, remains the record of divine revelation; it is still “Torah from Heaven”. But this must be understood as God’s revelation not simply to, but through, human beings. That the Torah reflects its historical, social and legal context can be denied only by ignoring the evidence. But intellectual integrity compels the honest seeker to look the facts in the face.
In his very opening paragraph Rabbi Jacobs condemns those who refuse to do so. He was as troubled by such wilful blindness and “religious schizophrenia” then as he was frustrated by it 40 years later, when he still felt that no Orthodox rabbinic voices had seriously and satisfactorily dealt with his arguments.
The row publicised the book. In his epilogue to the third edition (1965), Rabbi Jacobs wrote: “The view... that the Jew, if he is not to stifle his reason, must be free to investigate the classical sources of Judaism with as much objectivity as he can command and should not look upon this as precluded by his religious faith, seems to me to be impregnable.” He was by then himself a victim of those thought police whose object was to prevent precisely that courageous engagement with the challenge of modern scholarship which Jacobs believed both essential and unavoidable.
In a fiery preface to the fifth edition (2004), William Frankel, editor of the Jewish Chronicle at the time of the Jacobs Affair and a staunch supporter, wrote: “Ultimately, this was a battle for the soul of Anglo-Jewry, between those advocating a free spirit of inquiry, as reinforcement to faith and tradition, and those who shunned reason out of blinkered, diehard, fundamentalism.”
Miri Freud-Kandel, in her book Orthodoxy in Britain Since 1913, (published in 2006) reached an equally stark conclusion: Jacobs’s theological arguments were merely the catalyst for a conflict waiting to happen. He simply provided “the right wing . . . with the means for exerting their influence across a broader spectrum”. That it has since done so is undeniable, as the rapid growth of Artscroll Judaism proves.
Precisely here lies the abiding importance of We Have Reason To Believe. It stands as a crucial countercultural challenge to those who want a tidily pack- aged, d h homogeneously l sealed l d religion, li i protected t t df from the inconvenient truths of modern knowledge.
Such people are many. The more unsafe the world becomes, the more numerous they are, not only in Judaism but in all faiths. They want the security of a clearly defined system. They want to know who they are for, who they are against, exactly what God says and precisely what they have to do.
Facing the evidence of scholarship, recognising laws and ideas as formed within a historical and cultural context, confronting difficult questions about what is, or is not, of enduring moral value, honestly embracing the challenging dynamic between continuity and change, such disciplines, in which Rabbi Jacobs courageously engaged, fall mainly outside the pale. In intellectual history this represents a reversal of the enlightenment endeavour to pursue both truth and values together and a return to mythologisation.
The perils of this trend, which seems currently dominant — witness resurgent creationism, fundamentalist Christianity and political Islamism — are manifest. Faith, Rabbi Jacobs acknowledged, always transcends reason; but the faith which ignores reason is dangerous.
Judaism may be protected from some of the excesses of all forms of fundamentalism by the authority of the Oral Law, that process by which the rabbis reinterpreted the written law and effectively controlled what it meant. Buttooutlawexaminationof theevidenceisalwayswrong and there is ultimately a link between intellectual totalitarianism and its political counterpart.
Others r e j e c t Rabbi Jacobs’s arguments on different grounds. Theology does not really matter. Why create difficulties about “truth” when there is so much on the ground to be done? Anyway, postmodernist literary theory teaches that there is no such thing as “the truth”. You have your truth, I have mine; why waste time on the issue? Let’s get on with building schools and synagogues and doing good works!
While the conclusion may be laudable, the premise is not. One cannot always place convenience before honesty. The trouble with refusing to face difficult questions is that one is liable to end up perpetuating falsehoods and, as Rabbi Jacobs reminds us on his very first page, truth is God’s seal.
What is at stake is more than the posthumous reputation of Anglo-Jewry’s greatest scholar. It is the future of faith and reason themselves.
As religion returns to the centre ground of political debate, as fundamentalism re-arms to an extent unseen since the Middle Ages, what is the relationship to be between reason and faith? Is the latter going to extinguish the former? Are we already living in the twilight of the emancipation and its values, while the empirical method of giving the evidence a fair hearing drops below the horizon? Or is our faith to be imbued with reason and our reason inspired by our faith? That is the question behind the quest to which, 50 years on, We Have Reason To Believe still points the way. Rabbi Wittenberg is among the speakers at a meeting to discuss the legacy of the book at the New London Synagogue on Sunday, from 5.30pm (tel: 020 7328 1026)
Rabbi Louis Jacobs in a BBC interview, 1964