All references in this article are to: Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology (New York: Behrman House, 1973)
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Louis Jacobs’ Theology
Rabbi Jacobs defined Jewish Theology as “an attempt to think through consistently the implications of the Jewish religion.”(Endnote 1). He then stated that this “thinking is to be done in accordance to the state of knowledge and information available at the present epoch in human history.” According to him, this did not mean that “we set up [..] modern thought as a rival to Judaism, or as a judge of it.” In fact, we should recognise the limits of our knowledge at any given time. Nevertheless, this means that Jewish theology is always something provisional. It should be attempted by every generation. It is also necessary that Jewish theology remains relatively consistent with that which has been established previously.
The topics that such a theology would deal with are concerned more with Jewish belief than with Jewish practice, and he listed them as follows. A short summation of his position on each of them has been appended:
- “The Jewish approach to God and how this differs from the approaches of other religions” – God is one; God is both transcendent and immanent; Jacobs always maintained what he called a “liberal supernaturalism”, insisting on a personal God, and rejecting as insufficient the God of the philosophers.
- “The relationship between God and man” – God is omnipotent and omniscient; God is eternal; God is the creator of the universe; God controls and guides the universe; God is wholly good; all these refer to God in relation to humanity, as to humans in relation to God, there are two main requirements, the love of God and the fear of God.
- “The meaning and significance of worship” – worship encompasses prayer, study of the Torah, observance of the precepts or commandments, and ethical conduct.
- “Revelation” – Torah is the record of the meeting between God and humanity, in which God reveals the Divine Presence. Its commands provide the elements of worship, as understood in the preceding point. Hence it is vital to understand the authority for the observance of the commandments, especially those for which no reason can be easily found. Louis Jacobs classifies Jewish observances into three categories: significant, meaningless and harmful. He argued for the absolute maintenance of the first, the possibility making optional the keeping the second, and the possible abolition of the latter. Ethical conduct informed by revelation allows the individual to get close to God.
- “The doctrine of sin and repentance” – Sin results from following the Evil inclination while repentance, understood as making good the harm that has been done and reconciling with one’s fellows as well as with God, leads to finding peace with one’s soul.
- “The doctrine of reward and punishment” – this doctrine is accepted as essential but subject to several important qualifications, namely, that we do not know exactly how God works, and that we are connected to one another, so that our actions affect others with whom we are in contact as well as our descendants.
- “The doctrines of the Messiah and the Hereafter” – Jacobs questions the idea of a personal Messiah and states that in the matter of the Messianic age, we do not know what it will be like; he accepts the idea of the Hereafter as a necessary conclusion, but finds it impossible to determine the shape it will take.
- “The idea of the Chosen People and the theological implications of the State of Israel” – the first doctrine should be accepted but not in qualitative terms, i.e. the choice is mutual (through a covenant) and made in a universalist, not tribal sense, and it is a choice to serve others which is not exclusive, as there is the possibility of converting to Judaism; in an analogous way, the State of Israel is a reality but must not be an object of worship, just as Zionism must not be a substitute for religion, the sacredness of the land must not be interpreted crudely, secular Hebrew culture is not Torah, and the God of Israel is a universal God.
- “The problem of evil” – for Louis Jacobs evil does exist, but we cannot understand why God allows it and even less the reasons for its specific occurrences, i.e. the Holocaust.
- “The question of divine providence and miracles” – though God works through natural causes, Louis Jacobs also admits the possibility of miracles, even if they do not seem to occur anymore.
Endnote 1. All references are to: Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology (New York: Behrman House, 1973)