Friday, 17 January 2014

In Honour of the 50th Birthday of New London Synagogue

From ‘We Have Reason to Believe’

Retrospective written for the 2004 Fifth Edition (40th Year of New London Synagogue, aged 84)


The thesis of the book, for which it was attacked from left and right, is that modern knowledge and scholarship have made it impossible to accept the traditional view that God ‘dictated’ to Moses, word for word and letter by letter, the whole of the Pentateuch. My argument runs that, while such a doctrine of verbal inspiration is now untenable, the traditional doctrine that Torah is from Heaven can and should still be maintained. To put this in different words, God is the author of the Torah (conceived of as the sum total not of the Pentateuch alone, but of religious thought through the ages). He cooperated with His creatures in producing the Torah, through human beings reaching out to Him. There is thus a human element, as well as a divine element, in what we call the Torah.


That the notion of direct divine communication, for all its hallowed history, has to be abandoned is demanded by our present-day knowledge. The findings of geology, astronomy, archaeology, biblical criticism and modern research into the sources of Judaism all go to show that Judaism (‘the Torah’) has undergone development as Jews came into contact with and were influenced by societies and cultures different from their own.


Reform and Liberal theologians have been largely puzzled that all this is in any way a source of offence. ‘So what else is new?’ they exclaim. Human beings have known that for centuries, as Galileo said after his recantation, ‘The earth still moves.’ My reply has been that I have never tried to present as new the findings of science. I have only tried to put forward the view that Jewish practice, the Halakhah, is still binding because this is the will of God, provided, of course that the Torah is seen, as it often is in the tradition itself, in dynamic terms of trial and error, falsehood gradually yielding to truth. Nor do I claim any originality for such a view, which has been held by Jewish traditionalists from the early nineteenth century. But I now admit that I was wrong in imagining that such views are compatible with Orthodoxy as this is now understood in fundamentalist terms (I use ‘fundamentalism’ not in a pejorative sense but only to denote the attitude of those who are either indifferent of antagonistic to all modern critical scholarship).


So much for theory. On practical note my views may have been considered to be heretical, but I know from personal contact through the years that many of the Modern Orthodox and even a few of the Charedim have shown sufficient interest in my view to whisper in my ear ‘There is something in what you are saying.’ In Anglo-Jewry however the Orthodox establishment and the Chief Rabbi have dubbed me a heretic. The Chief Rabbi has never responded to my critique ... More than once I have urged that Chief Rabbi to declare that basically his views differ only slightly from mine, but he has not bothered to reply. And there is the odd matter of the London Beth Din issuing a ruling to the effect that while I am welcome to any United Synagogue I cannot be called up to the Torah because, granted my beliefs I cannot honestly recite the benediction ‘Who has given us His Torah.’ If, as a result of the above, I find myself over forty years after the publication of We Have Reason To Believe, in something of a limbo, belonging neither to the Orthodox, nor to the Reform, nor, in a sense, fully to the Masorti. I do not complain. I suppose I asked for it. I have consoled myself by quoting a Hasidic saying which runs, ‘One who has no place anywhere has a place everywhere.’


For going over old ground I must apologise by repeating a story I have often told. An old Jew was observed in a railway carriage muttering to himself and waving his hands in dismissive gestures from time to time. ‘What are you doing?’ he was asked. I was bored with the long journey and was telling myself Jewish jokes to while away the time.’ ‘And why did you wave your hands?’ ‘I have heard them all before.’


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