Articles written by Rabbi Jacobs: Extract from Beyond Reasonable Doubt - Man-made versus divine precepts

Extracted from “Beyond Reasonable Doubt:A Sequel to ‘We Have Reason to Believe,’”  published  by the Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation

IT IS IMPORTANT to free the doctrine of Torah min hashamayim [“ Torah from Heaven”] from the fetters of mechanistic fundamentalism. If it may be put in this way, it seems far more plausible, and more true to the facts, to say that God works through human beings in the disclosure of His word than that the Torah is an heirloom to be placed reverently on the shelf, with only an occasional dusting.

To see Judaism in historical terms enables us to study the Torah in a new but refreshing way. It is no accident that fundamentalist Jews usually view historical studies with a strong degree of suspicion. They are right to do so, from their point of view of static transmission. The idea of an unfinished Torah to be completed by humans does not affect in essence the doctrine that the Torah is divine. What is required is a new philosophy of halachah, in which this creation of the Jewish people has not lost its dynamics. Yet there are problems in the new approach, especially in that it allows for selectivity.

If we examine the institution of the Sabbath in this light, there is no logical objection to the acceptance by a non- fundamentalist of all the details of Sabbath observance, since for him, as well as for the fundamentalist, the Sabbath is mandatory.

He will not smoke on the Sabbath because he can appreciate that the discovery of how to make fire was one of the greatest steps towards civilisation, and he will refrain from smoking on the Sabbath as an acknowledgement of God as Creator. But he will find it hard to accept the notion, found in the sources, that to light a cigarette on the Sabbath involves the death penalty, and that if he were to do this in the days of a restored Sanhedrin, he would be sentenced to be stoned to death. He would be free from the crushing burden of direct divine communication that there is — in theory, at least — the death penalty for this religious offence, flogging for another, and he would be glad that history has decided that such divine threats can no longer be operative.

Since, according to his view, the non-fundamentalist is free to choose which Sabbath and other observances awaken a response in him, he may, in his personal life (though without any wish to offend others) choose, say, to switch on the electric light on the Sabbath, though he might not use electricity to cook or bake or shave. This is because the latter activities have long been part of Sabbath observance, whereas a case has been made that switching on an electric light, since there is no combustion, does not fall under the heading of making fire.

But that would be his personal choice, and he would do it in order to enhance his enjoyment of the Sabbath. For the same reason, he might decide that, whatever the halachists say, to carry a handkerchief in the pocket on the Sabbath does not involve the carrying from domain to domain referred to in the Mishnah, since people did not have pockets in their garments in mishnaic times.

He will agree, if challenged, that he is not operating within the boundaries of the halachah, but might feel free to depart from the halachah in his personal life. Admittedly, there is a grey area in all this, and there are undoubtedly severe tensions in the life of a non-fundamentalist who still believes that it is right to be observant.

To give a different illustration of the non-fundamentalist attitude, we can take the Shema. The fundamentalist, in the unlikely event of being asked why he recites the Shema, would reply somewhat as follows: “In Deuteronomy [6:4-7], Moses says: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.’

“Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Torah delivered by God to Moses, and I therefore recite the Shema because God has told me to do so. I am aware that there is an opinion in the Talmud [Berachot 21a] according to which ‘these words’ means words of the Torah ; and hence the duty to recite the Shema twice daily is rabbinic. But, then, I consider rabbinic law, as laid down in the Talmud, to have ultimate biblical and hence divine sanction.

“I know that I have to recite the Shema in the evening and the morning because the rabbis tell us that this is the meaning of ‘… when thou liest down, and when thou risest up,’ which, say the rabbis, means at the time of lying down and at the time of rising up — that is, in the evening and the morning. Thus, whenever I recite the Shema, I am using God’s actual words communicated (I know that God has no vocal organs and does not literally ‘speak’) to Moses.”

The non-fundamentalist will put it all rather differently. He will say something like this: “Deuteronomy was originally a separate book, probably the book discovered in the days of King Josiah and compiled shortly before then but, in any event, long after the days of Moses. It does contain the words of God for that time but is not itself the word of God. This it cannot be, since it became part of the Pentateuch only when it was combined with the other pentateuchal books by an editor or series of editors, which means, since there are contradictions between Deuteronomy and other sections of the Pentateuch, that the Shema is not the words of Moses himself but what the Deuteronomist said that Moses said. I do not see the rabbis as infallible authorities but as great teachers, yet I must respect their ruling that one must recite the Shema daily, not so much because the rabbis say so but because all the evidence goes to show that the Shema was recited as part of the Temple service and has been recited by Jews throughout the ages.

“As a historically minded Jew, I am interested in how the Shema developed, but as a religious Jew, the development is irrelevant to me. I recite the Shema because the words constitute a glorious affirmation of Jewish belief and, when reciting it, I share in the experiences of my fellow-Jews, belonging to a community of faith reaching back to Deuteronomy and beyond. Since it is good to do this, and since it provides me with a Jewish ‘vocabulary of worship,’ the only one that makes sense to me as a Jew, I believe that to recite the Shema is a divine command, albeit one communicated through the experiences of my people. By the same token, I recite the words following the first verse of the Shema, which everyone admits were added in rabbinic times: ‘Blessed be the name of His glorious Kingdom for ever and ever.”

In effect, then, not only do both the fundamentalist and the non-fundamentalist Jew recite the Shema; they both do it in obedience to a divine command. The truth is that neither usually bothers to spell it all out. The religious Jew, fundamentalist or non-fundamentalist, is not necessa-rily concerned with theological or historical niceties. For all the discussion on man-made versus divine precepts, it is the sociological factor that is decisive.

A Jew acts out his Judaism within the context of the particular fraternity to which he belongs. A Chasid will probably shout aloud the words of the Shema, and this will be not only tolerated but admired by his fellow- worshippers. A different, contemplative type of Chasid may be lost in silent contemplation during a good part of his recitation of the Shema. A Lithuanian-type Jew will probably recite the Shema with clear enunciation of each word, as the rabbis advise. The custom of covering the eyes when reciting the Shema is observed by many Jews, but some Western Jews seem to believe this to be an ostentatious form of piety. What matters is that Jews recite the Shema in worship of the One God. By so doing, they transform a man-made institution into a divine command.

Service Times

Friday night: 6:30pm
Shabbat morning: 9:15am
Sunday: 9:00am

Rosh Chodesh:

7:15am weekdays
followed by breakfast
or 8:45am Sundays

Minyan Chadash:

9:45am monthly
See calendar.

Candle lighting based on 18 minutes before sundown; Havdalah based on 8.5 degrees below horizon (Shitat HaG'onim).

Connect With Us

New London Synagogue
33 Abbey Road

Tel: 020 7328 1026

Go to top