WHAT IS LIBERAL JUDAISM?
Israel Mattuck, 20 January 1912
Inaugural Lecture of Rabbi Dr Israel Mattuck given at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue
This is taken from a hand-written sermon that is over 100 years old. Some of the text could not be deciphered; the reader may fill the gaps as best he or she can.
Liberalism is a manner of thinking. It is an attitude of the mind. It is essentially the freedom in the search for truth and in the practice of it. It is the same wherever it manifests its working, whether in politics, social, economy or religion. It is different from that other method of thinking which is limited largely or contained by tradition. Not that Liberalism does not recognize traditions. It utilizes them, but refuses to be restrained by them from going far beyond them. It is again to be distinguished from that form of radicalism which in constant protest against traditions, rather thoughtlessly throws them all overboard. That, too, is servitude and not freedom.
Liberal Judaism, therefore, which is the result of the application of this manner of thinking to Judaism, because its essentiality must be freedom can propose no creeds, nor set of dogmas; for the very nature of creeds is such as to claim unalloyed consent – and therefore immediately a constraint is laid upon the subscriber. But if no dogma, what, then, unites us who call more Liberal Jews into a fellowship? The answer is – this very attitude of mind which we would all apply to our received Judaism – and again a community of hope or purpose, We have no articles of faith – did Judaism ever have universally accepted articles of faith? But we have a common aim.
And what is that aim? It is to interpret the spirit of Judaism in the light of the age in which we live – to embody Judaism in forms acceptable to that age. Spiritual rather than cultural. (This way, it does require the abrogation of certain institutions and the addition of others - but what of that? Life means change – death alone means fixity. And who made of change the changeable currents of a pulsating life for the immutability of a memory?)
Underlying all the institutions which antiquity has delivered to us, fundamental to all the dogmas which tradition has crystallized – residing within all the truly Jewish literature, then is the spirit of Judaism – no matter what its form may at one time be, no matter what particular custom it has forced into being, that form and that custom and that institution can have their value only because of that spirit which they express. Our feast days and our fast days, our Sabbaths and our holy days, not for themselves but for the spirit they embody, have been essential. There would be no need of making this all too evident statement if it was not for the fact that alas too often it is the concrete institution that is insisted upon. There is a kind of observance that is worse than a violation. And that is the observance that neglects the spirit and so deadens it. The first task of Liberalism becomes, therefore, to fix the attention upon the spirit – away from the letter.
And the Spirit of Judaism – it can be read in every line of its noble literature, it can be seen in every observance that still lives – it is godliness plus humanity. It has been called ‘ethical monotheism’. We may call it love of God and man. These are two distinct commands but the two must go as one – there can be no love of God without love of man and no love of man without love of God.
The Jewish institution which best demonstrates this spirit of Judaism is the Sabbath – as we find it in the Bible. We see it here freed largely from its early [missing] among other semitic peoples – and filled with Jewish sentiment. It is a day given to God but its purpose is philanthropic – you will recall the command as it is found in the Deuteronomic Decalogue. The divine and the human are so fully commingled that it is in vain that we seek to separate them. Yet other religions perhaps too, have known men who sought to serve God by shunning their fellow men – seeking sanctity for themselves forgetful of the needs of their fellows.
As a result of this identification of the divine and the human we have in Judaism the insistence upon a proper valuation of this world – a command as to the work to be done in it. The Jewish attitude towards life is a positive rather than a negative one. Whilst teachers of other religions have said “Avoid Sin” the Prophets have said “Avoid sin and do good”. To avoid ‘sin’ is not enough. Weakness may even triumph in ‘this’, but to do good that is strength. This world is God’s world. Thus He manifests the working of His providence – thus an element speaks of His Presence and His Power. Here, too, then, man must work – man must strive, man must aspire.
Our aim, therefore, as we are Jews, is to hold constantly before morals and before rules to this message of Judaism – and by means of it to promote Spiritual and Ethical culture. For this is the work of religion – to present to its adherents what it believes to be true and by means of this preaching to enable men in their spiritual natures and strengthen them for ethical practices, to develop faith and simple morality. And in this message of Judaism we have the truth that, when accepted, shall lead to good. Both we need in life, faith for the salvation of the individual, morality for the salvation of society. To insist on the culture of ethics and to neglect faith seems to me rather a dangerous attitude, for it must ultimately submerge the individual and deprive him of his source of strength – his individuality. To insist upon faith and the neglect of ethical precepts – as I fear has been done, yea is being done in some quarters threatens to harm society a helpless prey to the many ills and cankers that beset it.
Faith, then, means strength, strength of the individual It is his one fortification against the mighty currents of life that he cannot control. This is the light that pierces the thickest darkness – and the beacon that guides to lands unknown. And he who has faith in his heart stands like a mighty Gibraltar amidst the raging and surging mass of life. Lashing against him they shall exhaust their force.
Yet this word ’faith’ needs explanation. Some believe themselves in the possession of faith because they utter prayer like a number of sentences beginning with “I believe”. Yet we can utter “I believe” until doomsday and be without faith It is the faith that trusts. It is the faith that aspires. It is the faith that accepts this world as a creation of the good God. It strives for goodness in the consciousness that God is good – and though forsaken, your disaster may come at first, it seems its efforts, now praying, now fasting – because it knows that its work is in God’s name – and in this God it trusts.
This faith is at one with ethics. It is the sum of goodness that impels us to goodness. And as well have a body without a soul as have a part of goodness without faith. (story of the guns in the fort) All the precepts for goodness are of no avail unless there is a spiritual spark to set them aflame as the igniter gives power to the cannon.. Goodness, goodness in deed, goodness in thought, goodness through life – this conception of ourselves, our future, God requires it of us – God commands it. And the sustaining power that shall impel goodness is the spirit within us – and the life of that is faith.
This twofold concept of life finds an adjunct to basic principles in the central idea of Judaism. God who is the source and object of faith [missing] to man the rules of faith – and man [missing] a bond of goodness and righteousness. This which for us is the essential truth of life from its [missing] by its force and effect on life – (the 3 rings). Religious truth, as all truth must have life values. They must satisfy the desire of living for truth; be guided and nurtured into proper living. If they are not this, then let them be as the beautifully moulded statue – beautiful it is true, but the ugliest form that lives is better than it is, greater than it is.
The problem, therefore, becomes one of making this message vital for life – that is the challenge before us. To keep it ever before us as the mariner holds his compass to hold it unto thee. And for this purpose the past – call it tradition – offers us a constituent of means – it offers us literature, laws and customs. “These” it says “have in the past helped men to the knowledge of God and the love of man.” And re-examine them. And like a lesson says to us. ”Judge for yourself”. And so you might find that some of their laws and customs and ideas may appeal to us. They must not conflict with some notions we already possess. They collide with certain principles we accepted as truths in this department of thought and have taken them into our life.
There are two possible outcomes. One says: “Accept all that tradition offers and, where there is a discrepancy, discard that which opposes the traditional view but retain the tradition” – the other says: “Accept only that of the tradition which you can honestly and sincerely accept as valid – study it as a fact in history – but eliminate it from religion when it has no significance for life.” The latter is no answer. Let us apply it to our literature – Bible and Talmud. These have been the authorities that have guided the Jews to the love of God and righteousness among men. And to give them this authority, Jews have received them as direct revelations from God. All was revealed to Moses at Sinai – [missing]. We find, however, that this view does not appeal to us. We may, therefore, confess ourselves hopelessly cast into the abyss of darkness then to [missing] that as best we can. Yet in fact and thus, yes many are similarly minded. It would be harsh to hold that God has chosen to absent himself from so many of His children that they may be continuously lost. Nor can we embark on the belief that limits the revelation of God in the end, we may add, in space [missing]. Is the power of God so short? Our belief is rather this, That complete truth has not yet been revealed – that revelation is a process – that men in all ages have sought after truth and have at times hit upon some sense of the divine within us and so have the privilege of proclaiming what appears to us to be tantamount to the truths of mankind.
In this sense we judge both Bible and Talmud. We say ‘not for me – it is no authority’ and of the other ‘it is not for us’. But of truth we say – That in there much is ‘ennobling’, that which to me is true, that which we can apply to our present life with hallowing results – that is authoritative for me. For the Spirit of God which resided in the men whose words are here recorded works in men today. The longing for truth which then provoked men to search out the ways of God informs them today. And if then it was satisfied with the first chapter of Genesis and today some of us find a better answer in the theory of evolution – shall we not allow it this satisfaction. For God is in both – and both evidence man’s love for God.
What we cannot accept on present day evidence we cannot accept on the dictum of tradition. Genesis misquotes an author subordinant to the spirit of our religion. They are brought into being by the desire for expression. But they are more, they are pedagogies of writing. They constitute the channel through which the spirit communicates itself to those who feel it not – as by a flash of the eye causes it to be communicated from heart to head – as by a mien of the face the actions of the heart are revealed so by the ceremony [missing] the soul of religion inspires itself into men, By Holy Days holiness is taught – by worship the love of God – by charity the love of man. If the ceremony fails to do this for one reason or another – then that ceremony had better not be. They are the language of religion and if the language is not understood wherefore speak in it. Has tradition given us such rites that we no longer sense their virtue, then we must abrogate them. Yes it may be hard – there is always the feeling of fear – so shall I say consider, that pleads for conformity. But there is a given danger. The ceremony that is meaningless is worse than useless. It is a detriment – for it conceals the spirit of the religion – and it is the spirit we seek – it is the spirit we should perpetuate.
It is just these changes which the spirit dictates that gives it vitality. Growth and progress are the sign of real life. Fixedness – that is death. And would we not rather have the fluctuations, the changes of a pulsating life rather than the immobility of a mummy.
This is not merely a question of thematic religion. It is a question of practical study. It is our sacred duty to express honestly and full and comprehensively the religious impulses which sway us. It is a duty in me to our Judaism to our future and to ourselves. Our Judaism and our future lie in the hope that those who find themselves straying like sheep without a shepherd – who are drifting like a boat without a compass may in this message find the truth that shall appeal to them and by which they shall be guided. It is the duty for us and to our Judaism – to present it – that it may be a force of good in the lives of generations to come. But we shall be faithless if we neglect this duty because of the lure of conformity. There are some to whom the voice of the past speaks with complete authority – who find an answer to this desire for truth in the utterances of the past, who are helped by them to right thinking and right living. There are those that are not so missed. In which some find to satisfy and to help us – such as will find something that will satisfy and help. Our message must, therefore, sound clear – it must appear unclosed and in the open – that with the brightness of the morning sun it may stand revered by all men.
Judaism is greater than all ceremonies – all rites – and all laws. It is a revelation [missing] of the home. It is a part of His Spirit – His truth – and like Him it abides though all else changes.