Below is a summary of a much longer paper I gave in Oxford in January. There are many more names, people, and issues in the full version of the paper. This gives you a gist.
Louis Jacobs expected to publicly teach Biblical criticism while remaining an Orthodox pulpit rabbi. Was it axiomatic that in order to accept the higher biblical criticism you need to leave Orthodoxy or was Jacobs needlessly attacked by his critics for acceptable positions? This paper will explore the question from a descriptive historical perspective based on rabbis from 1920-1960 and then situate Jacobs in that historical framework. Specifically, it will seek out answers as to why he thought he could be both Orthodox and simultaneously accepting of biblical criticism. This paper will also look at and agree with those who disagreed with his position and believed he crossed a religious line.
This paper does not assume that the definition of Orthodoxy is the same for all countries and decades. According to Mark Noll, a scholar of Protestantism, during the first half of the twentieth century this question separated American and British Evangelical Protestants. In the United States, there was a less academic critique of religion rather congregants turned to pastors; academics were not conventionally accepted clergy. Hence, even mild academic critique was not tolerated from the pulpit in the United States.
In contrast, English academic dons were in fact viewed as members of the clergy and of the House of Lords. The Evangelical and Anglican Church turned to academics for answers, but fully aware of their simultaneous role as pastors, the academic critique was not sharp. The professors were not accidentally religious, but conservative Protestants who need to confront scholarship. They accepted a realistic and historical approach to the text, while preserving its divinity. We find a similar distinction between the countries when we look at Jewish authors.
A. Precursor Hayyim Hirschenson
Hayyim Hirschenson, creative thinker and rabbi of Hoboken, declared Biblical criticism the main issue of our time to solve. Hirschenson thought higher criticsm was completely false and heretical. But he concludes it would not be necessary for the Orthodox Jew to boycott the Hebrew University if some of its professors espouse the cause of Higher Criticism because of religious tolerance. Hirschenson suggests (Maiki Ba-Kodesh, Vol. I and II, St. Louis, 1919-1921) that the main objection in the Talmudic sources to the rejection of the doctrine of “Torah from Heaven” is that, such a rejection, impugns the honesty of Moses by suggesting that he claimed to write something he had not received from God. In a long essay, he shows that we can accept ascription of much of the Pentateuch to other hands as longs as we maintain- that Torah is from heaven, a position very similar structurally to Heschel’s 1960 position.
B. Hebrew University
When Hebrew University was established in the 1920s, its founders sought a Professor of Bible who was competent in both rabbinic worlds and with Biblical criticism. They first selected the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Hirsch Peretz Chajes (d. 1927). He was a Gemenide rabbi with Orthodox training who accepted biblical criticism. Already there was protest that Hebrew University could not accept a biblical critic, so he withdrew his candidacy. Israel Levi said in the name of the British Lord Rothchild that there will be no bible chair for someone who accepts Biblical criticism. Greater tolerance was allowed for observant Orthodox professors to have liberal views in their seminaries than was given at Hebrew University.
Hebrew University found a compromise by finding lecturers who rejected the Documentary Hypothesis but accepted a predominately human formation of the bible such as Segal, Tur-Sinai, Seligmann and Kaufman.
C. From Moshe Seidel to Mordechai Kaplan: The creation of the Conservative Movement
The proximal background to the Jacobs Affair was the divide between Orthodox and Conservative movements in the United States.
Moshe Seidel taught bible at the Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Rabbinical seminary in the 1920s and 1930s.Seidel sought to push the limits of Orthodoxy by wanting to teach Biblical criticism. He also corresponded with Rabbi Kook about Biblical criticism and brought Rav Kook to visit the United States. Rav Kook held that there is no cause for dealing with this heresy, which constitutes total falsehood, and he wrote to his disciple, Rab Moshe Seidel, asking him not to engage in resolving the contradictions posited by Biblical Criticism, but rather continue to observe the holiness of the Divine Torah as an integral unit.
Seidel had several major students who transferred from RIETS to JTSA and became the founders of the Conservative movement, especially Jacob Agus and Ben Zion Bokser (who, not coincidentally, wrote the first two books in English about Rabbi Kook). Agus and Bokser were also the two sides on the permissibility to drive on the Sabbath, each on opposite sides. Bokser, remaining true to Seidel, mildly accepted Biblical criticism and believed that God spoke words to humans but there was a human element.
Agus, in contrast, influenced by Mordechai Kaplan, maintained men were inspired by God and wrote based on their own perception: “We recognize that the divine light in scripture is necessarily clouded by the contingent passions and limits of the human agents of revelation.”
Agus also polished the isolated bon-mot from Franz Rosenzweig’s passage about R as Rabbanu, to falsely imply that Rosenweig was concerned with biblical criticism. Rather, Rosenzweig was concerned with revelation and holiness, not the historical text.
Just as a student of William James knows how to put every “religious experience” into the correct cubbyhole of the psychology of religion, and a Freudian student can analyze the experience into its elements of the old yet ever new story, so a student of Wellhausen will trace every commandment back to its human, folkloristic origin…
“Where we differ from orthodoxy is in our reluctance to draw from our belief in the holiness or uniqueness of the Torah, and in its character of revelation, any conclusions as to its literary genesis and the philological value of the text as it has come down to us.
My full discussion will include Solomon Goldman, another product of RIETS who became a leading student of Kaplan’s, was the protagonist in the major court case that started the separation of the two movements. Goldman rejected the Documentary Hypothesis but assumed the Bible was a human document.
D. American Orthodox reaction
The modern Orthodox reaction that became dominant in the early 1950s made the acceptance of the revelation of Torah directly from God into the dividing line between the Conservative Movement and Orthodoxy. A great variety of statements were issued by Mizrachi and other thinkers condemning the Conservative movement’s stance on revelation and Biblical criticism. Fox, Berkovits, Wurzburger all focused on the existential commitment. This culminates in the conclusion that held true in the United States that the concept an “Orthodox biblical scholar is an oxymoron.”
Wurzburger wrote: “This is an existential choice we cannot abdicate to anyone else. . . . In the final analysis, cognitive factors cannot resolve the question whether to accept or reject religious faith; it is a purely subjective decision . . . we cannot escape responsibility for choosing the categories with which we seek to understand our world.”
This reaction did not differentiate between liberal and conservative approaches, between the approach of Agus and Bokser, or between naturalism and supernaturalism. The position of American modern Orthodoxy was not sufficiently nuanced to analyze British Jewry.
E. England – Rabbi Hertz and Herbert Loewe
David Ruderman, the historian of Early Modern Jewry, states that most British Jews knew their own formulation of Judaism only through a massive English translation project, couched in English non-Hebraic terms. This produced their religious attitudes and behaviors, reflective of upper class English Protestants. British Orthodoxy was more academic and open-minded than in the United States and tolerated progressive thought as long as they deferred to the Anglican church- or in this case, the United Synagogue. Therefore, a Reform leaning preacher like Rev Morris Joseph who accepted Biblical criticism and had Reformist views of ritual was tolerated by the United Synagogue as long as he did not make waves.
But what about those that considered themselves Orthodox? Rabbi J.H. Hertz, in his well-known commentary on the Pentateuch, wrote that “Judaism stands or falls with its belief in the historical actuality of the Revelation at Sinai”
However, Herbert Loewe, reader in Semitics at Oxford was in tension with Chief Rabbi Hertz for his acceptance of Biblical criticism, but it did not write him out of Orthodoxy accepted that there was real person Moses who received revelation and was a significant author, but not all of the text is from him. Loewe thinks that the Biblical text was recreated by Josiah after losses of material. Loewe accepted an “inherent revelation” in which great eternal moral values are adapted for their age. In the introduction to a Rabbinic Anthology by his son Raphael, he credits his father with a commitment to the Bible and Orthodoxy not for sentimentality but as the germ of ethical values and theological notions of Rabbinic Judaism.
J. Abelson, leader of a congregation had a similar position and is cited by Jacobs.
F. Cohen and Epstein
Let us turn to the direct antecedent of Jacobs and works that were available in every United Synagogue member congregation.
Abraham Cohen (1887-1957) was the editor of the Soncino Books of the Bible and participated in the Soncino translation of the Talmud and Midrash. He most notably, explained his views in the essay, “The Message of the Bible.” The work demonstrates Cohen’s comprehension of the Bible.
The essay opens with a broad introduction that the Bible is a library of books, heterogeneous, and not speaking one word. The Biblical authors wrote based on their expectations for the times and current events, as well as based on their personal circumstances. What holds all these books together is their “unity of principle” in teaching “the revelation of God’s will as the controlling force in the life of man and laws for the government of the Israelite community.” The Bible provides individual and collective testimonies to the saving power of God. The book blends religion and morality with history
The Bible shows the need for revelation and teaches not only the limitation of human intellect but also the inadequacy of reason for understanding the mysteries of the universe and human living. Cohen follows the natural theology of the early 20th century. The message of scripture does not depend for its vitality on belief in doctrines but “upon its claim to be the communication of God to man.” This revelation was made through four media, nature, direct utterance, indirect intimation, and human experience.”
The first category of revelation includes the natural phenomena of those who know of God’s eternity, wisdom, infinite power, and mercy and leads to the second category of prophets: “To Moses, as well as to Israel, revelation assumed this direct form and in this respect he was an exception…the corpus of religious and ethical teaching and social legislation which he was instrumental in delivering to Israel from God is known as Torah.” Prophets were not just preachers but rather “they had consciousness that they were the spokesmen of God.” Following this, the third category, God is deduced from contemporary events.. The forth category is direct human experience where we sense God.
Cohen rejects the 19th century Protestant Biblical criticism which denigrated Judaism as a tribal legalistic and priestly religion that was rejected by the prophets. He rejects the critics who claim that there was evolution from the primitive Judaism to the developed prophets. Furthermore, he shows that one cannot use the divine name to separate the Pentateuch into authors. Cohen also shows that there are not two voices in the Bible one in favor of priest cult and one against. Yet, Cohen writes of the Garden of Eden that “this allegory framed in language understandable by the primitive mind”
Cohen’s Jewish statement that, “The revelation of God’s will as the controlling force in the life of man […] tThe Bible provides individual and collective testimonies to the saving power of God” is not far from the Anglican-Catholic definition that, “The authentic record of God’s revelation to man and is a revelation valid for all men and all time. In the Bible we have God’s revelation of Himself, His saving activity, and moral demands.”
Isidore Epstein (1894–1962) was Orthodox rabbi and rabbinical scholar in England the editor of the Soncino English translation of the Babylonian Talmud. Epstein’s major work, The Faith of Judaism, offers a rational exposition of the doctrinal foundations of the Jewish region. Judaism must be founded to “make sense and answer to the rationality which is fundamental to human nature.” And his second allegiance is to the Jewish people in which the author as a “son of a people” must report on the “objective revelation of God in history involving the whole community of Israel. Epstein is dismissive of the recent turn to a religion of humanism, he is dismayed by those Jews who turn to Dewey, Mordechai Kaplan, or Julian Huxley.
The importance of Sinai was to confirm with human eyes the mission of Moses. Sinai gave him authority and thereby it gave authority to the Oral Law throughout the ages. Other prophets are now limited in what they can say and are limited to interpreting God’s word to Moses. Revelation is the foundation of all vital religion because it is needed to assert the existence of personal relationship to God. “If this is true of religion in general, it is at least equally true of the religion of Israel, out of which all higher religions have proceeded.”
Revelation is a psychological experience which implies the inter-penetration of the infinite mind of God and the mind of man.” If there is a personal god then it must be able to find entrance into finite minds. But it remains a mystery as to how and this communication of God does not denote interference into the natural course of things.
Both Cohen and Epstein leave opening in the Sinai Revelation for a human element. The instructors at Jew’s College were similar to the right wing of the American Conservative movement.
H. Louis Jacobs
The question becomes quite simply: why exactly did Jacobs think his views would be accepted?
In 1957, Jacobs was just a little more critical than the later discussed Epstein and Cohen because he rejected natural theology, and acknowledged that parts of the Bible are primitive.“The real significance of the Jewish religion lies in its ascent, in the height which it has reached and maintained, and not in the rudimentary forms out of which it has risen.”
How do we evaluate what is truly Biblical, he maintained that, “[I]it will be asked, if there are higher and lower teachings in the Bible how are we to recognize which are higher and which lower, how are we to distinguish between the eternal and the ephemeral? The answer is, surely, that the distinction is perceived by the human heart and worked out in Jewish tradition.” His views are dependent on sensing God in history; we sense through historical change what is no longer acceptable.
Dayyan Grunfeld’s complaints were not the issue because for example, he underlining Jaocb’s passage about the late date of the book of Daniel, was a position accepted by Epstein and Cohen. Jew’s College was positive historical not Hirschian.
However, between the years 1964 and 1965, Jacob’s writings had taken a turn out of Orthodoxy and began writing passages closer to Jacob Agus, a liberal position even within the American Conservative movement. Now, six years later it the bible a human work and you cannot study Semitics without acknowledging that. In the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, he threw down a gauntlet that if you don’t agree with him you are a fundamentalist, either/or.
Some of these views were already expressed orally since 1958, and he was in conversation with the NY JTSA to become part of their rabbinical faculty. But the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, William Frankel who wanted the United Synagogue to be more like the American Conservative movement goaded Jacobs ever to the left.
When Biblical criticism and historical scholarship generally have done their work the picture which emerges with the greatest clarity is of a human work, produced as all other human works are produced and thus amenable to literary analysis and philological investigation, which does not impart anything like infallible information.
Some Reform congregations today tend to hold similar views and in so far as they do are very close to our position. In the United States we would belong to the ranks of the Conservatives.
In discussing difficult biblical passages the rabbi can introduce his congregation to the idea of demythologizing.
By 1965, he already spoke about the difficulty of seeing a divine element in entire parshiot and that we have to grasp the demythologized message of the Bible. He also wanted criticism to be discussed from the pulpit, a position that was rejected by the Conservative movement and still frowned upon even among Reform preachers.
And by 1973, Louis Jacobs agrees with the Reform theologian Jacob Joseph Petuchowski that there was an existential meeting of the Jews and God, a human experience that produced no content. “God did “command” them but not by direct communication – as in the traditional view – but through the historical experiences of the people of Israel… The various propositions are, then, not themselves revelation but are the by-product of revelation.” Bible is primitive work does not offer direct moral guidance. He remained Masorati and was not Reform)
To reconstruct the development of the Genesis narratives is probably impossible now and a strong element of guesswork is involved in any attempted reconstruction. But something of the following would appear to be not too far from the truth. Out of the early myths, tribal movements and ancient traditions, the Genesis narratives were woven and told originally in the form of saga. These traditional stories were eventually put together to form the more or less continuous narrative we have in Genesis as part of the Heilsgeschicht, the sacred history in which God makes His covenant with the Patriarchs and their descendants… The various propositions are, then, not themselves revelation but are the by-product of revelation.
Even when discussing the ethical system of Saadia who considered that in the “revealed Scripture we have the precise details of how ethical norms are to be applied in concrete situations.” Jacobs commented: “But such a solution is not open to anyone who, under the influence of biblical criticism, cannot see the biblical laws as direct divine guidance of this kind.”
Jacob’s ideas were not unfairly rejected as un-Orthodox. And if his ideas were accepted it would not have created a more modern Orthodoxy, rather a British United Synagogue closer to the liberal side of the American Conservative movement. Jacobs was a liberal theologian operating against an Orthodox background.
The reaction to the Jacob’s affair, however, made the more historical approaches of Epstein, Cohen, Hirschenson, and even Loewe fade from the scene. This paper only covers until 1973. It does not discuss anything about today or evaluate contemporary thinkers.