Faith & Reason
To the Editor:
In his review of my book, Principles of the Jewish Faith [May], Chaim Potok states that while I make reason the test of the relevance of Maimonides’s principles for the 20th century, I seem to make up the rules of what is reasonable as I go along or to shift arbitrarily back and forth among various kinds of reason. In support, he gives three examples. First, after admitting that the traditional proofs for God’s existence have no demonstrative power, I argue nevertheless that they are valuable as “indications.” Secondly, by rejecting the naturalist position because it fails to satisfy the religious mind I seem to appeal to aesthetic “reasons.” Thirdly, in rejecting Alexander’s concept of emergent Deity I abandon reason altogether and fall back on faith.
With regard to the first example, the difference between demonstrative proof and “indications” is to my mind perfectly clear and reasonable, hardly deserving Rabbi Potok’s description of it as “rhetorical utility.” The argument that religious naturalism fails to satisfy the religious mind Rabbi Potok dubs “aesthetic,” whereas my contention is that the naturalistic theory is unreasonable since it fails to do justice to the phenomena of the religious mind. As for Rabbi Potok’s third example, anyone who takes the trouble to read the book will see that I subject Alexander’s view to criticism and reject it on grounds of reason.
Potok also finds me guilty of persistent sidestepping of major issues, which he lists, failing to observe that my book does, in fact, deal with practically every item in his list. For instance, I have tried to examine in detail the question: “Can anything at all be said about the Ultimate Mystery?” (pp. 66-68 and the whole of Chapter 4). Nor can I agree that my version of the “Middle Way” is merely a matter of “personal aesthetics” (your reviewer is inordinately fond of this latter word, using it in a most imprecise way). The substitution of the idea of revelation through a people for that of revelation to a people in no way involves a surrender to individualism or subjectivity.
My distinction between God’s goodness as a belief which cannot be contradicted by the facts and fundamentalism which can be so contradicted, Potok calls “a bizarre game with words.” I fail utterly to see this. The whole point of the distinction is that the believer in God’s goodness does not deny the facts. He walks in faith that the facts are not incompatible with God’s goodness. The fundamentalist invokes his faith to deny the facts.
Finally, Potok gives us a picture of up-to-date American Jewish theologians who long ago have gone beyond the struggle to recognize modern biblical criticism now engaging some of us in Anglo-Jewry. The little knowledge I have of the American Jewish scene makes me question this reading of your situation. I have read many American Jewish theological writings, produced particularly, but not exclusively, by the Orthodox camp, which are totally committed to the fundamentalist position. I am unabashed that your reviewer detects an “archaic quality” in my book. For the book deals with Judaism and Judaism is a very old faith.
(Rabbi) Louis Jacobs
To the Editor:
Chaim Potok writes that “Rabbi Jacobs’s efforts mark the beginning of English Jewry’s encounter with modern thought.” Rabbi Jacobs is in fact neither the first nor only current English rabbi to undertake this task. Rabbi H. M. Loewe, Claude Montefiore’s collaborator, was more radical than Rabbi Jacobs in his acceptance of the higher criticism. . . . Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz accepted biological evolution, thought it compatible with Judaism and said so often in print. . . . He had excellent company. His great . . . contemporary, Rabbi Kuk, lauded the evolutionary hypothesis. . . . Rabbi I. Epstein more recently (1954) resubmitted the monotheistic idea to powerful reductive analysis. . . . Each of these men managed to keep on good terms, to say the least, with the British Orthodox Establishment. The attempt to reconcile reason with tradition by the British rabbinate is, in fact, as old as Haham David Nieto’s celebrated sermon of 1703-4, if not older. . . .
Rabbi Jacobs is an apologist for tradition; he is not attempting to construct a natural theology. His rejection of Alexander’s emergent Deity on doctrinal grounds is therefore not unfair. He does not argue that Alexander’s thesis is incorrect, only that it disagrees with normative Judaism. Rabbi Jacobs’s necessarily personal opinion as to what is normative may be incorrect, but it is not unfair.
And incidentally, Alexander’s thesis is by no means wholly unknown to Judaism. I, for one, think it close to the central doctrine of the Lurianic Kabbala. Late strata in the Babylonian Talmud in particular skirt the notion of an incomplete, less than omniscient Godhead. . . . These ideas have, in turn, many old rabbinic, if not biblical, precursors.
I am somewhat bemused to see Rabbi Jacobs’s adoption of Frankel’s Middle Way called “inconsistent and antiquated” by the editor of Conservative Judaism. (This is a compressed but, I think, accurate statement of Rabbi Potok’s position.) Perhaps Rabbi Jacobs is inconsistent, but is Frankel really antiquated? If so, then Schechter, his disciple, is antiquated also, and Conservative Judaism as well. . . . How does one avoid being antiquated? I think Solomon Schechter tried to answer that question in the introduction to the first series of Studies in Judaism. . . and throughout Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology when he, expressly following Frankel, contended that rabbinic legislation had saved Judaism from rigidity. He taught that the oral tradition had lightened the burdens of the written law. Biblical religion in this view, untended by rabbinic Judaism, would have been inflexible, Schechter being quite opposed to the earlier American Reform view that the written word liberated, while rabbinic law enslaved. Tradition was Judaism’s self-correcting and updating mechanism. Or is my understanding of Schechter mistaken?
Rabbi Potok asks if an anchoring in provisional absolutes can “be accomplished in a manner that will not violate the canons of rationality?” Since when are the canons of rationality absolute? Contemporary science is hardly irrational, but mathematical physics since Clerk Maxwell and the philosophy of science at least since Poincaré have expressly worked within provisional boundaries. . . . Attempts at reconciling reason and religion, and they are legion, have always had something strained about them. But for that matter, empirical science and reason have at times been incompatible. Seldom has that incompatibility been as great as it is in our own day.
(Rabbi) Frank Abarbanell
Rabbi Potok writes:
Rabbi Abarbanell misses the point. Louis Jacobs stands at the head of a movement that has arisen out of England’s Orthodox Judaism. As such, he differs from the intellectuals and liberals mentioned by Rabbi Abarbanell, for he represents a communal encounter with modernism.
Rabbi Abarbanell’s attempt at compression results in a serious case of theological bends. It is Rabbi Jacobs’s sudden discovery of the validity of scientific biblical criticism that I regard as outdated. Frankel and Schechter are still valuable today as foundations upon which one can build a theology relevant to contemporary problems. One who adopts them in toto, however, is simply duplicating them; he is addressing himself not to our time, but to theirs. This is the major fault of Rabbi Jacobs’s position vis-á-vis the contemporary American scene. In no way, however, is this to be construed as a disparagement of the intrinsic worth of the contributions of Frankel and Schechter, or of the efforts of Rabbi Jacobs on behalf of today’s Jewry in England.
As for Rabbi Jacobs, he misses a point in logic. A purported demonstrative proof that has been invalidated enters the null class qua demonstrative proof and cannot be used to indicate anything, for it indicates everything. Its use is therefore emotive or rhetorical.
The naturalist does indeed account for the phenomena of the religious mind (see, for example, Sidney Hook’s In Quest of Being). But he will not ontologize, whereas the religionist will. Between the two there exists no argument of fact that will convince anyone of the complete justification of either position who is not already convinced before he even enters the discussion.
The clinching argument used by Rabbi Jacobs against Alexander is precisely as stated in my review. Rabbi Abarbanell appears to have read Jacobs on this matter exactly as I have. Thus my argument against Rabbi Jacobs’s three different uses of “reason” stands.
How revelation through a people rather than to a people avoids leading to the problem of subjectivity remains a mystery to me. A revelation that enters the stream of history becomes subject to the changing processes of history. Such a view of revelation immediately involves us in the problem of determining what criteria are to be employed in evaluating which elements of the evolving tradition are and are not rooted in the original revelation. The implications of this situation are not examined by Rabbi Jacobs. They could well lead to a religion of “personal aesthetics,” a term which is clearly explained in my review.
The believer in God’s goodness does deny the facts when he continues to believe in God’s goodness in spite of the fact of Auschwitz. Can Auschwitz be, to the human mind, anything other than brute, senseless evil? It is this fact that is denied by one who continues to assert God’s total goodness. Rabbi Jacobs may argue that such an assertion of absolute evil is not a statement of fact but a reading of history, and history has secrets which are not known to us. But an opponent of Bible criticism will argue (and, indeed, does) that the Bible has secrets which, were they known to us, would do away with the questions asked by Bible scholars. By virtue of what criteria does Rabbi Jacobs invoke his faith in the area of God’s goodness and not in the area of fundamentalist revelation?
Finally, Judaism is indeed a very old faith; but it must not be an antiquated faith. The problems facing Judaism today are altogether new. It is these problems and their implications that I do not find discussed fully in Rabbi Jacobs’s book. But this is not to deny the intrinsic scholarly value of Rabbi Jacobs’s efforts. It is more a statement of hope that in his future works the really serious contemporary theological problems will be treated by him in depth.