Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The R. Louis Jacobs question

There's been a lot of talk about the passing of R. Dr. Louis Jacobs.

The talk seems to be centered around the following two positions (with a peripheral third one that is basically not a part of the discussion around the first two positions, but one given on other blogs):

  1. Feh. An apikores. Good riddance, [I won't] see you in Hell, Korach!
  2. What is your problem? He was a good Jew. He was a brilliant talmid chochom and intellectually honest with himself. Besides, who give you the right to judge him a heretic? He was hounded in his life and now he's being hounded in death.
  3. What a scholar! Farewell and may his memory be a blessing.
The truth is that those who are arguing the second point simply do not have a leg to stand on from an Orthodox point of view. They may be right that it is inelegant, unnecessary, even cruel to attack him just when he died. But the facts are that there is simple no formulation of Orthodoxy which accepts his views on Torah min ha-shamayim.

It's obvious that many of the people in these discussions never read anything he wrote. I have. There really is no way to make his beliefs compatible with Orthodoxy, even though he advocated halakhic observance. Putting aside the issue of beliefs, what sort of halakhic observance did he advocate? Not Orthodox halakhah. How could he? Was he saying that Orthodox posekim alone possess the authority to interpret and rule on halakhic matters? Of course not.

Furthermore, while I do not say he was a venomous writer--he was not--his writings ridiculed Orthodoxy as basically being intellectually bankrupt (although these were always tangential points. He was never obsessed with Orthodoxy, at least not in his writings, and he also criticized Reform and even American Conservative Judaism) Whether he was right or not is not the point. If you believed Torah min ha-shamayim today he thought you were a fool and a fundamentalist who either deliberately keeps yourself ignorant of the true facts, as he would put it, or were intellectually dishonest and/ or lacking the ability to think criticially that you missed it.

This is is no way more venomous that any of the standard Orthodox evaluations (let alone attacks) on other Jewish movements or personalities. So he needn't be judged as someone who wielded a poison pen. He didn't. But it isn't as if he was simply bursting with love for Orthodoxy, which isn't being reciprocated. He thought Orthodox Judaism is daft.

That said, anyone who has read his books know that he was a font of valuable learning. I don't need to demonstrate this for anyone.

An interesting aside, not that long ago he did an interview where he was asked who, if anyone, he would like to meet. His answer was the Rogatchover Gaon, R. Yosef Rosen. I wish I could find the text and quote him exactly, but for the moment I can't.

Now, Dr. Jacobs was under no illusion about who the Rogatchover was--a very traditional east European Orthodox rabbi--or what he undoubtedly would have thought of him, had he known his views. He would have been as vehement, or more so even than the commenters who espoused the first position. Furthermore, Dr. Jacobs knew full well that the Rogatchover believed things that he felt were impossible for intellectually honest people aware of the 'true facts' to believe.

So what's going on? The answer is that he learned to get over one of the biases that I find many people have: their inability to relate to people of other times and places who are from a different background with different points of view, the ability to put people into context. Not achieving the mastery over this bias, I find that many j-blog skeptics can't possibly see good things in Rashi, for example. Rashi believed there were mermaids. So what? This only troubles people who believe that Rashi should not have believed in mermaids. But there wasn't anything intellectually troubling with believing in them in the 11th century.

In fact, Josh at Parsha Blog is exploring this right now, in a series of posts dedicated to proving that Chazal often did believe in the literal and historical truth of many of the fanciful things they said, even if we won't believe in them in the same way, because we must recognize that our "social and intellectual inputs" are not the same.

So if we can learn anything from Louis Jacobs I would say it is this: learn to get over this bias, if you haven't. איזהו חכם הלומד מכל אדם.

Of course one can point out that if Louis Jacobs made allowances for early 20th century rabbis he ought to have made allowances for mid-to-late 20th century Orthodox Jews given that they've also got an intellectual and cultural context of their own.


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