Rome and Jerusalem/Seventh Letter
The Reform trick and the uncritical reaction-Luther and Mendelssohn-The rationalistic double-The key to the religion of the future-The three epochs in the development of the Jewish spirit-Restoration of the Jewish State.
The question you asked me, the answer to which constitutes the most difficult problem of Nineteenth Century Jewry, shows me that you have finally begun to interest yourself in Jewish affairs. You have, then, nothing against the attempt to raise the Jews once more to their former place in universal history. But you believe that this aspiration is merely a desire, and that at the present time, world Jewry consists only of a number of scattered and dispersed Jewish families, but is not a nation. The religious tie, which till now has bound the scattered members together and united them into a single entity, is now severed through the participation of Jews in the general cultural life. True, the reformers have tried to mend the situation, but they have succeeded only in widening the breach. And with barren orthodoxy and the uncritical reactionaries-those who still believe that the Polish fur cap is a law given orally to Moses on Sinai and handed down by the sages-it is useless to argue.
The inevitable result of this situation is, you think, indifference and severance from Judaism. Nobody can be held responsible for this precarious situation, for it is not the arbitrariness of man, but the force of circumstances that has dissolved the unity of orthodox Judaism. Which community, you ask, which synagogue, shall one who is still attached to his people, join? Again, you call out maliciously, shall we condemn our Jewish scholars for their attempt to give us, in lieu of the "externally shattered" hard shell of Rabbinism, the light of Science?
No, my dear friend, we will not hold anyone responsible for a crisis, though a dangerous one, but one which is, after all, wholesome and necessary. No human power could have avoided it, but its gravest symptoms are gradually disappearing and we have no fear of its repetition. Judaism, which in its first contact with modern civilization was threatened with dissolution-we say it without fear of being contradicted by history-has successfully withstood this last danger, perhaps the greatest that ever threatened its existence. Judaism, at present, expect$ no antagonism either from science or from life, but only from those who pose as its representatives without having the right to do so.
Far be it from me to minimize the untiring labor of the Jewish scholars to whom our present Jewish generation owes its education, social position, and mental and moral progress, and whom alone we have to thank for the fact that in the midst of an almost universal social disintegration the Jewish family still serves as a model of moral conduct. These scholars and teachers are the successors of the ancient rabbis, who were the support and stay of Judaism during the long two thousand year exile, and who, nevertheless, never formed themselves into a caste.
Yet even they, like our poets, are so much engrossed by the general current of life, that they hardly devote any time to thought about our national regeneration. And as with the Jewish scholars, so is it with the young generation; they need some external stimulus to rouse their dormant national feelings, so that they will proclaim themselves openly as Jewish patriots. The threatening danger to Judaism comes only from the religious reformers who, with their newly-invented ceremonies and empty eloquence nave sucked the marrow out of Judaism and left only its skeleton. It was not enough for them to aspire to spread and develop Jewish study on scientific principles, nor were they satisfied with a regulated, esthetic form of our ancient Jewish cult. Their religious reform was inopportunely borrowed from a foreign religious denomination, and has no basis or justification either in the conditions of the modern world or in the essential teachings of national Judaism. I do not deny the justification of the Christian Reformation at the time of Luther, nor of the Jewish reform movement at the time of Mendelssohn. The latter, however, was more of an esthetic than a religious or scientific reform. Those reformers keenly appreciated the historical basis of a religion and knew well that the old basis cannot be arbitrarily replaced by a new one. Our reformers, on the contrary, attempted to reform the basis itself. Their reforms have only a negative purpose-if they have any aim at all-to firmly establish unbelief in the national foundation of the Jewish religion. No wonder that these reforms only fostered indifference to Judaism and conversions to Christianity. Judaism, like Christianity, would have to disappear as a result of the general state of enlightenment and progress, if it were not more than a mere dogmatic religion, namely, a national cult. The Jewish reformers, however, those who are still present in some German communities, and maintain, to the best of their ability, the theatrical show of religious reform, know so little of the value of national Judaism, that they are at great pains to erase carefully from their creed and worship all traces of Jewish nationalism. They fancy that a recently manufactured prayer or hymn book, wherein a philosophical theism is put into rhyme and accompanied by music, is more elevating and soul-stirring than the fervent Hebrew prayers which express the pain and sorrow of a nation at the loss of its fatherland. They forget that these prayers, which not only created, but preserved for millenniums, the unity of Jewish worship, are even to-day the tie which binds into one people all the Jews scattered around the globe.
The efforts of our German Jewish religious reformers tended to the conversion of our national and humanitarian Judaism into a second Christianity cut after a rationalistic pattern, at a time when Christianity itself was already in a state of disintegration. Christianity, which came into existence on the graves of the ancient nations, had to withdraw from participation in national life. It. therefore must continue to suffer from internal dissensions arising from the constant clash of irreconcilable principles, until it is finally replaced among the regenerated nations by a new historical cult. To this coming cult, Judaism alone holds the key. This "religion of the future" of which the eighteenth century philosophers, as well as their recent followers, dreamed, will neither be an imitation of the ancient pagan Nature cult, nor a reflection of the neo-Christian or the neo- Judaism skeleton, the specter of which haunts the minds of our religious reformers. Each nation will have to create its own historical cult; each people must become like the Jewish people, a people of God.
Judaism is not threatened, like Christianity, with danger from the nationalistic and humanistic aspirations of our time, for in reality, these sentiments belong to the very essence of Judaism. It is a very prevalent error, most likely borrowed from Christianity, that an entire view of life can be compressed into a single dogma. I do not agree with Mendelssohn that Judaism has no dogmas. I claim that the divine teaching of Judaism was never, at any time, completed and finished. It has always kept on developing, its development being based upon the harmonizing of the Jewish genius with that of life and humanity. Development of the knowledge of God, through study and conscientious investigation, is not only not forbidden in Judaism, but is even considered a religious duty. This is the reason why Judaism never excluded philosophical thought or even condemned it, and also why it has never occurred to any good Jew to "reform" Judaism according to his philosophical conceptions. Hence there were no real sects in Judaism. Even recently, when there was no lack of orthodox and heterodox dogmatists in Jewry, there arose no sects; for the dogmatic basis of Judaism is so wide, that it allows free play to every mental speculation and creation. Differences of opinion in regard to metaphysical conceptions have always obtained among the Jews, but Judaism has never excluded anyone. The apostates severed themselves from the bond of Jewry. "And not even them has Judaism forsaken," added a learned rabbi, in whose presence I expressed the above quoted opinion.
In reality, Judaism as a nationality has a natural basis which cannot be set aside by mere conversion to another faith, as is the case in other religions. A Jew belongs to his race and consequently also to Judaism, in spite of the fact that he or his ancestors have become apostates. It may appear paradoxical, according to our modern religious opinions, but in life, at least, I have observed this view to be true. The converted Jew remains a Jew no matter how much he objects to it. At present, there is but little difference between the enlightened and the converted Jew. My friend, Armond L---, whose grandfather had already been converted, is more interested in Jewish affairs than many a circumcised Jew, and he has preserved his faith in Jewish nationality more faithfully than our enlightened rabbis.
The Jew was not commanded to believe, but to search after the knowledge of God. Belief is a matter of conscience, for which we are not accountable to anyone but ourselves. It is impossible to give it to another. It is .very easy, indeed, for false rationalism, just as for blind faith, to drawl forth its creed. But real religion, which grows out of the innermost life of the soul, develops with the individual. Humanity cannot be formulated completely and embraced in a set of articles of creed. On the wide, dogmatic basis of Judaism, many and various views of life were able to develop. But for creative Judaism itself, these various views of life were only passing phases, the result of internal and external experiences; and in spite of this multiplicity of forms of development, the original type never disappeared, but was constantly reproduced as the ripe fruit of the tree of life.
The noble Jewish spirits and the great thinkers of Israel understood this peculiar character of historical Judaism. They did see in every modification of the view of life a new religion, and never persuaded themselves that they could reform the historical basis of our religion. Saadia and Maimonides, Spinoza and Mendelssohn did not become apostates, in spite of their progressive spirit, though there were many fanatics who wanted to exclude them from Judaism, or, as in the case of Spinoza, had him excluded. Our modern rationalists would excommunicate from the Synagogue Jews who declare themselves Spinozists, if they only had the power.
Dissatisfied with reform and repulsed by the fanaticism of the orthodox and heterodox, you ask me, with which religious faction should one affiliate with his family in these days? I know only one religious fellowship, the old Synagogue, which is fortunately still in existence and will, I hope, exist until the national regeneration of world Jewry is accomplished. I myself, had I a family, would, in spite of my dogmatic heterodoxy, not only join an orthodox synagogue, but would also observe in my house all feast and fast days, so as to keep alive in my heart and in the heart of my children, the traditions of my people. If I had influence in the synagogue, I would endeavor to beautify the religious worship. Above all, I would see to it that scholarly Jewish teachers and preachers should assume their proper positions and be reverently respected. I would then turn my hand to other reforms, if you care to call them such, but of a different kind than those spiritless and empty reforms favored by our religious reformers. No ancient custom or usage should be changed, no Hebrew prayer should be shortened or read in German translation. And, finally, no Sabbath or Festival should be abolished or be postponed to the Christian day of rest. The Hazan and singers should not be mere soulless singing machines. The prayers and hymns should be read and sung by pious men and boys, who are not only versed in music, but also in religious matters. The house of prayer is not a theater and the cantor and singers, as well as the preacher, should be something more than mere comedians. What does not come from the heart can never affect the heart. Prayers, songs and sermons, which treat our holy national worship as an antiquated institution, cannot exalt the soul; they always arouse in me an unconquerable aversion. In a word, I would favor everything which would contribute to the elevation and education of the congregation, without, at the same time, undermining our ancient worship. And in my own family circle, also, I would carefully see that the traditions of our people are strictly observed.
If people were to follow the policy outlined above, peace would reign in Jewish communities, and the religious cravings of every Jew, no matter what view of life he holds, would be better satisfied than they are with the reforms that every intellectual bungler fashions after his own individual pattern. These unsystematic reforms only terminate in a meaningless nihilism, which brings in its train desolation of spirit and a continual estrangement from Judaism on the part of our young generation.
We really confer too much honor upon reform when we call it a free, intellectual movement, in the higher sense. True, in a negative sense, we may call rationalistic criticism a free tendency, for the negation of antiquated principles is the first step toward freedom. But positive freedom is an autonomous development, and when rationalistic reform denies the essence of Judaism, namely, its nationalism, it cannot become a creative factor, and consequently cannot be said to be free in the higher sense. Its services on behalf of negative criticism are very slight; and these, as you rightly remarked, are for the most part, due to the circumstances and conditions of a revolutionary age for which the reformers can hardly be held responsible.
Modern social life, the outcome of the revolution, is regenerating in its nature; it does not occupy itself solely with tearing down the old, but is mainly busy with creating new forms. At the basis of every creation, however, there is something of the old, for ex nihilo nihil, out of nothing, nothing can be created. The national-humanitarian essence of the Jewish historical religion is the germ out of which future social creations will spring forth. As long as Jews misconceive the essence of the spirit of modern times, which was originally their own spirit, they will only be dragged along involuntarily by the current of modern history, but will not participate in its making. In order to be influenced by modern life, there was no necessity for rationalistic reform. Such countries as the Rhine provinces and France clearly demonstrate this. In these countries the current of modern life is at its height, yet rationalistic, religious reform has hardly appeared there. It is in these countries, too, that religious indifference has been brought about without the help of a reform movement. Even orthodox Jewry itself, in modern Europe, is gradually being carried away by the current, as can be seen by the fact that the most important function of Rabbinism, namely, its jurisdiction, has disappeared, without the slightest protest on the part of orthodoxy. Reform has only gone a step further-to raise this groundless negation to the rank of a principle, or, as remarked above, has sanctioned unbelief. We could well afford not to begrudge the reformers their laurels, had they not persuaded themselves that they had created something positive. Imitating Christian reformers of an earlier age, they set up the Bible, in contradistinction to the Talmud, as the positive content of regenerated Judaism, and by this anachronism, which was merely an imitation of a foreign movement, they only made themselves ridiculous. It is, in reality, a narrower point of view than that of orthodox Judaism, to declare the living, oral tradition to be a "human fiction," and because it was written down at a later time, to discard it, while admitting the law of the Bible to be divine. This view is also unhistorical. Everything tends to show that until the Babylonian exile, or even still later, until the period of the Sopherim, [the writers who supposedly wrote down the law after the return from Babylonian exile, under the Persian rule] no distinction was made between the written and the oral laws, as is the case to-day. It is only after the time of the Sopherim that this distinction was made. Until then, tradition was neither exclusively written nor exclusively oral. How this separation was effected has not yet been clearly demonstrated by critical historians. But one thing is firmly established, namely, that the spirit which at the time of the restoration inspired the Sopherim and the sages of the Great Synagogue, was freer, holier, and more patriotic, than the spirit which inspired Moses and the Prophets. Every liberation from a politico-social slavery is at the same time a liberation of the spirit and serves as a means of fertilizing the national genius.
There are two epochs that mark the development of Jewish law: the first, after the liberation from Egypt; the second, after the return from Babylonia. The third is yet to come, with the redemption from the third exile. The significance of the second legislative epoch is more misunderstood by our reformers (who have no conception of the creative genius of the Jewish nation), than by our rabbis, who place the law-givers of this period even higher than Moses, for they say: "Ezra [leader of the Jews who returned from Babylonian exile] would have deserved that the Torah be given to Israel through him, had not Moses preceded him." In the form in which we possess it to-day, the Torah was handed down to us directly through the men of that epoch. These same men, living at the same time, utilizing the same traditions, and in the same spirit, collected both the written and the oral law, which they handed down to later generations. Nothing entitles the written law to a holier origin than the oral. On the contrary, the free development of the law by oral tradition, from the time of the return from the Babylonian exile, was always considered of greater importance than the mere clinging to the written law. The reason for this is quite evident. The national legislative genius would have been extinguished, had the sages not occupied themselves with the living development of the law. It was to this occupation that Judaism owed its national renaissance after the Babylonian exile, as well as its existence in the Diaspora. It was through this, that the great heroes who fought so bravely against the Greeks and Romans, rose in Israel. And, finally, it is to this oral development of the law that Judaism owes its existence during the two thousand years of exile; and to it the Jewish people will also owe its future national regeneration.
The rabbis were justified in their long struggle against writing down the oral law. Had they kept on teaching and developing the law orally in the schools, Judaism would never have been threatened with the loss of its national legislative genius. But they were compelled to reduce the law to writing, in order to avoid a still greater danger, namely, its being entirely forgotten, especially in the Diaspora. To-day, we have no reason to fear the latter danger. But we can escape the former, only if we set up the spirit of criticism against barren formalism and dissolving rationalism and revive in our hearts and souls the holy, patriotic spirit of our prophets and sages. We have to restudy our history, which has been grossly neglected by our rationalists, and rekindle in the hearts of our young generation the spirit which was the source of inspiration to our prophets and sages. Then, also, will we draw our inspiration from the deep well of Judaism; then will our sages and wise men regain the authority which they forfeited from the moment when, prompted by other motives than patriotism, they estranged themselves from Judaism and attempted to reform the Jewish law. We will then again become participators in the holy spirit, namely, the Jewish genius, which alone has the right to develop and form the Jewish law according to the needs of the people. And then, when the third exile will finally have come to an end, the restoration of the Jewish State will find us ready for it.