RETURN O ISRAEL TO YOUR GOD
Israel Mattuck, 13 September 1912
‘RETURN O ISRAEL TO YOUR GOD.’
The chapter from the Prophet Hosea beginning with these words has long been the traditional reading for this Sabbath, and its first word has even supplied the calendar name for it. In this appeal the prophet looks upon Israel as a people that has fallen from earlier piety into the depths of degrading idolatry, a people who were not so good as their fathers had been before them and in whom neither devotion nor moral goodness exist to a worthy degree. He therefore looks upon them as if they had wandered away from their God, left him so to speak. Therefore, he now addresses them with the divine appeal for a return, and promises them that God is ready to receive the heart that turns unto Him with words of prayer and supplication.
Laudator temporis acti. For my belief in the progress of the human race is founded in my faith that God's providence is ever working the universe toward the perfecting of his designs and that man is an instrument in his hand. But even while believing that the human race to-day is further advanced in its work toward the fulfilment of its destiny than it was in the past, we may still long and rightly so for some of the best virtues of the generations that have preceded us, virtues that newer conditions have perhaps banished. Israel has shared in this progress of the human race, and is to-day, we believe, nearer to the fulfilment of his destiny than he has ever been, but that progress will become advantageous and marked only if in addition to his gains he also retains those noble virtues which characterised his fathers' loyalty to his Judaism, coupled with an indomitable spirit of self-sacrifice; but must we not admit that these are the very possessions which progress has weakened within us. A Rabbi has said that Israel cannot be redeemed except he repent, but that Israel will not repent except when it is afflicted and distressed and tortured and deprived of its very means of life. For a vast number of Jews these conditions are we thank heaven absent, but we should be unworthy of being called our fathers’ sons if prosperity and peace so dulled our noblest senses as to crush out of our hearts the love of our faith and the love of our God. And so to us too as a fellowship of Jews and as individual Jews the message of the prophet comes, "Return 0 Israel to your God". Ye have wandered far far astray from Him, misled by the alluring calls of many a siren, and your perception dulled by the blinding joy of prosperity. But your God needs you, yea, even more when you possess the blessings of strength and joy; He needs you even as He needed your fathers and will need your children even as He needs you, to keep untouched for the welfare of the world the faith that He gave through the seers and prophets of old.
When we recall the many definitions of religion which these prophets of ancient Israel have given and their many pleadings and exhortations for piety, we are impressed with their constant insistence upon the simplicity of the heart character of our faith. It is not a question of sacrifices, nor of feasts and fasts, nor of detailed observances multiplied a thousandfold, it is purely a quality of the heart which links it in abiding faith to God and accepts his dominion as the guide and the spur to those actions which make a righteous life. These definitions were enunciated centuries ago, and when we to-day cast our eyes about us to perceive the signs of Judaism, what a difference, yea what a contrast. Judaism is no longer for many men those stirring qualities of the heart which test the complete faith in God and evidence themselves in deeds of kindness and goodness toward men, but it is a series of practices and observances, piciunish and small, unworthy of being associated even to a small degree with that noble possession of man, his religion. As a mass of debris heaped upon the fire threatens to quench it, so these many worthless practices because they are received as the sum total of Judaism are threatening to destroy the very fire of our faith and to leave us nothing but a skeleton with the soul gone. Has the past known any idolatry worse than this; all the images before which the Hebrews of old bowed their heads and bent their knees could not have done one small fraction of the harm which this form of thanks accomplished, for it deprives our faith of its power among the peoples of the world and conceals its beauty under heavy trappings of ugly ceremonies. This was not the faith of the prophets, theirs was a bright light shining through all the channels of their being out into the vast world, shedding its rays everywhere, receiving its fuel from the soul, and this faith they strove to inculcate into the hearts of those who lived with them that it might be preserved and given to the generations that followed. This is your faith O Israel, it alone is the bond that links you to your God. Away then with all that sullies, corrupts, or stifles it. Return to your God in the simplicity of heart and in the purity of faithfulness.
The nature and grandeur of the task which lies upon the Jewish fellowship makes absolutely indispensable a high degree of loyalty, and an unusual degree of virtue in its individual members. We believe, and history affords us ample reason for that belief, that Judaism has an important role to play in the salvation of the human race. There are those who will admit that this was true in the past, but deny the validity of this claim for the present or the future. We should be ready to agree with them if we could honestly feel that the task which Israel set out to do centuries ago was either accomplished, or was being done better by another agency, but in all sincerity we cannot believe that. We know that it is not accomplished, nor can we feel that there is any other agency that even understands fully what the task is, yet in this effort Judaism has but a very small percentage of the world's inhabitants as its support and its embodiment. But because there are so few, their ardour, zeal and courage and excellence must compensate for the lack of numbers. The importance of everyone is enhanced, but the demands on everyone are increased. We are but a small band contending against the superstitions and crudities of a world striving to supplant them with the unbroken light of the one God and striving to improve humanity by the faith in that God.
It therefore is not enough for any one of us to say I am as good as my neighbours who are non-Jews, for it is our duty to strive to be better in order that through our virtues the light of our faith may shine radiantly and find its way into the lives of others. Yet it is a common excuse when it is found that a certain vice prevails among us to say that it is only what our neighbours are doing; it always reminds me of the ready excuse of the boy who gets into mischief by saying the other boys did it. It is a poor excuse in any case, and worse than a poor excuse in our case. When the ancient Greeks were wallowing in the mire of corruption and debased their lives by gross immoralities, when the Romans amused themselves by sacrificing the lives of poor men, and revelled in the sight of human blood, your fathers struggled and suffered and contended, refusing to yield even to the least of these debasements. They said not 'others do it', and because they possessed that strength and yielded not to the allurements of a wicked and rotten world, humanity blesses them. How dare then any Jew offer as the excuse for his addictment to any vice that it is a common frailty? Ye are not worthy Jews if ye strive not to be above the common, nay you are not even worthy men if contented to accept and to practice the low and the base and the foul simply because your neighbours do it. There is required in us a degree of virtue, and the freedom from vice that shall make of our lives the best testimony to the excellence of our faith.
The effectiveness of Judaism in the history or in the movements of the world is being weakened by the indifference of those who are in name its adherents. This faithlessness which is such a curse to him who is unfaithful because it takes from him the valued guide for life, deprives him of that wealth of spiritual blessing which Judaism offers to those who are its sincere devotees, and oft-times cripples him and dulls his life by depriving him of the knowledge of God's presence. But this indifference does serious harm to Judaism in preventing it from advancing into the arena of universal life, strongly feeling that everywhere there are loyal hearts ready to struggle and to sacrifice for it. This indifference manifests itself in two forms, in him who pays no attention to any phase of the Jewish religion, nor does he associate himself with any of its institutions. Lamentable though such a state of affairs is, we remain actuated by the hope that when once we can convince these indifferent men and women of the immense importance of religion for human life and its vital significance for every individual life, we may reclaim their hearts for our cause and find them returning in sincerity of soul to Israel's God who will accept them and bless them. There is another kind of indifference that conceals itself under a cloak of piety. It is I fear the indifference which to-day characterises a vast mass of English Jews. I mean that vast number who join their names to Jewish institutions and are enrolled among the members of Synagogues, yet give not one thought to the inner interests of the Jewish faith. They are oftentimes loud in the proclamation of their adherence and devotion, but it is mouth honour which the heart would fain deny but dare not. They sometimes even contend by word of mouth at least, for the preservation intact of all which constitutes the mass of Jewish tradition, and well they may, for I fear that they themselves would not observe them.
Their indifference consists in their heedlessness toward the future of Judaism, toward its effectiveness in moving the hearts of men and controlling their destinies, toward the perpetuation of the nobler traditions which constitute its soul and its spirit. These are they who are more concerned in showing off wealth before non-Jews than in the welfare of the house of Israel, who are Jews because it is respectable to be something, and carry their religion just as they wear their frocks and hats, because it is good form. Judaism can gain nothing from these, and loses much by them. They reduce it to a ritualism and to a formula which stifles the very soul that is in it and drives away sincere hearts that seek their God.
It is high time that we realised that the needs of Judaism are greater than the mere seeking of the opinion of others and that it demands more than good appearance in its adherents. We have a mission to perform, a service to render to humanity. The performance of it requires a burning zeal, a high enthusiasm and unflinching loyalty.
It demands above all sincerity and whole heartedness and high virtues. With these motives present in the hearts of Jews our faith grows from strength to strength, and progress unto that latter day when all men will come to know the presence of the one God and to practise the righteousness and the love which are His laws. Return therefore to your God O Israel who will receive you with His blessing, and through you we pray He will bless humanity.