Thursday, January 19, 2006

Learning from Louis Jacobs

1. The Jacobs Affair

Before we get to lessons we can learn from the Jacobs Affair, I think many readers could use a summary of its events. Louis Jacobs is an 85-year old "Masorti" rabbi in England, recently voted to be the greatest British Jew ever. Back in 1957, however, he was a 37-year old graduate of the Manchester yeshiva and the Gateshead kollel. Widely acknowledged as a talmudic genius, arguably the greatest product ever of the English yeshiva system, his secular training and polished speaking ability made him the most likely candidate for the position of chief rabbi. 1957 was the year he published his lectures from a study group of congregants from his New West End Synagogue in London as a book titled We Have Reason to Believe. In the book, he made the case for a modified religious belief system that takes into account critical academic scholarship. A large part of the book is dedicated to his acceptance of multiple human authors of the Torah -- the Pentateuch -- and cultural and scientific errors in it. In 1960, Jacobs was appointed as an instructor at The Jews' College and the following year, upon retirement of the principal (dean) of the school, his name was submitted as a replacement -- widely understood as his next step towards the position of chief rabbi -- but he was vetoed by then-Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie for holding insufficiently Orthodox beliefs. Later, when Jacobs attempted to return to his pulpit at New West End Synagogue, the chief rabbi vetoed that as well. This was all very public and there was quite a furor over it. In the end, members of the New West End Synagogue formed a new independent synagogue, beyond the authority of the chief rabbi, and appointed Jacobs as their rabbi. He no longer goes under the title Orthodox and is essentially affiliated with the Conservative and Masorti movement(s). There is, of course, much more to this story. But this will have to suffice for now.

Jacobs has written and spoken a good deal about this episode and what it means. For our purposes, however, I would like to focus on a 9-page retrospective he wrote for the 2004 (fifth) edition of his controversial book, We Have Reason to Believe. In this relatively short piece, Jacobs exudes certain attitudes that I think can inform us (and particularly me) about a different "heresy" controversy that is taking place, and hopefully winding down, now.

Read more2. Crossing the Line

I found three themes particularly noteworthy in this retrospective. First, Jacobs entirely minimizes the extent of his departure from traditional Jewish belief. As we'll soon see, he acknowledges that his assertion about the authorship of the Torah is "untraditional" but does not concede that he has crossed any red lines. To him, it all seems to be either the straight, unwavering traditional belief or something else. In doing that, he is able to lump himself together with Orthodox thinkers who also deviate from traditional views but without crossing red lines.

Jacobs is not unaware of the rabbinic tradition. Not by far. He unquestionably knows (and acknowledges elsewhere) that his position "flies in the face of talmudic teaching, Maimonidean teaching, and contemporary rabbinic discussions," as Dr. Shnayer Leiman has described an equivalent position in another context (Shalom Carmy ed., Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah, pp. 184-185). Yet his retrospective implies total ignorance of this. He seems to be papering over the fact that he crossed a very significant red line. The issue is not that his belief is untraditional, but that it is contrary to one of the fundamental principles of Judaism as listed by Maimonides.

3. Dismissing Alternatives

In the retrospective, Jacobs responds specifically to a review of his book by Dr. Tamar Ross (whom Jacobs mistakenly calls Tamar Roth) of Bar Ilan University (published in Studies in Contemporary Judaism vol. 18 [Oxford University Press, 2002]). Ross asked why Jacobs had not pursued other, more traditional responses to biblical criticism and he answers this question. He briefly reviews the positions of Prof. David Weiss Halivni, R. Mordechai Breuer, and Dr. Shubert Spero. Jacobs gives each position very short shrift, inaccurately describing them and summarily dismissing them. Without discussing whether or not I think any of the three have also crossed over a red line, I find it at once very surprising and perfectly understandable that Jacobs barely even entertains their theories. There are problems with each theory, which can be dealt with in various ways perhaps successfully, but Jacobs does not even consider them sufficiently to identify those problems.

This is not too hard to understand. Someone who was tormented -- publicly humiliated -- and had his promising career ended because of a particular belief is going to be hard pressed to consider alternatives. (Even if this turns out to be a caricature and oversimplification of a complex personality, it is worthwhile to pursue this angle for our own moral needs.) Jacobs has a good deal "invested" in his analysis and it seems almost unreasonable to expect him to give alternatives a fair hearing.

But what we cannot expect from others, perhaps we must demand of ourselves. The pursuit of truth requires us to be always willing to reevaluate our stances. Let me be clear: I am not advocating an eternal state of uncertainty. However, outside of certain fundamental beliefs, one must be willing to consider the possibility, no matter how remote, of being mistaken and to listen open-minded, within reason, to alternatives. If we made a mistake, we must be willing to admit it.

4. Looking for Friends

It is quite peculiar that more than once Jacobs states that others within the Orthodox community secretly agree with him. On the one hand, I don't doubt it. On the other, it seems abundantly clear that he is far overstating that phenomenon. For example, his declaration that the current chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, agrees with him in some respects is entirely irrelevant. Sacks does not dispute a fundamental principle while Jacobs does.

This finding of friends with similar beliefs seems to me to be an entirely human way of handling the situation. While there was certainly a good deal of politics involved with the entire affair, it is incorrect to attribute it all to mere power struggles and personality conflicts. Jacobs is equating partial agreement with complete conformity and mistaking personal kindness with ideological harmony. It is natural to consider the voicing of sympathy to be agreement, but that is not at all necessarily the case.

5. L'Affaire Slifkin

I see all three things happening in the current Slifkin controversy. We -- meaning this writer but not necessarily only me -- have dug into our trenches. This is, of course, ironic because I really have no opinion on the age of the universe or evolution. I never particularly cared about it and am open to just leaving it as an open question. Are there other possible answers? Perhaps. But are we open to reevaluating our stances? And perhaps we are incorrect about what is and what is not a fundamental principle.

And finally, we have definitely been stretching to find friends. Many of the rabbis who support us do not agree with us but feel that we have not crossed over any red lines. In other words, they think we are wrong but not out of bounds. Let's be real about that.

Let me be clear, though. I am not backing down and I am not removing my support. I am only advocating a more thoughtful, but no less strong, position. It is still true that R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. David Tzvi Hoffmann, R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook, R. Yitzhak Herzog, and many other great scholars advocated and/or defended as viable the positions we have been discussing: the age of the universe, evolution, and the science of the Sages. But let us not mistake sympathy for agreement.

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