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

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

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

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