Israel Mattuck, 03 March 1917

Our friends, the opponents of Liberal Judaism never weary in pointing out what they call the easiness of Liberal Judaism. Liberal Judaism looks to them like an easy religion, because they think of religion only in terms of ceremonies commanded to be done; and therefore, if a religion has freed such commands, it means that it is an easy religion. Implying, however, as they do, that orthodoxy is a hard religion, at least for them, they reveal the distance which separates them from true Jewish piety of the orthodox kind. That religion saw only joy in the commandments, they delighted to speak of the joy of the law – when pseudo-orthodoxy speaks of hardness.

But I want now to point out where one of the elements of hardness is in Liberal Judaism, not primarily as a reply to our critics but to indicate a task Liberal Judaism lays upon its adherents. It springs from the attitude of Liberal Judaism to Jewish tradition. That attitude has been often expounded and explained. It is simply this, that Liberal Judaism {missing word} and values that tradition, seeks guidance from its elements, but more especially from its spirit; it does not however recognise it as an authority. The Jewish tradition consists of our ancient literature, of the institutions that past generations have organised and transmitted, customs, rites and ceremonies. We see, however, the chief value of that tradition not in its physical or material elements, not in the words of its books or in the {missing word} which the institution is, but in the spirit which expresses itself in them and {missing word} them. It is in that life of ideas and feelings which flow out incessantly, leaving a stationary pool and then making an inroad into the banks, but itself never resting, but ever flowing on and on. In this life’s {missing word} it finds the essence and force of Judaism and it seeks to express in it the present circumstances and ideas of life.

To understand and to know that life, however, means a study of the literature and institutions in which it has expressed itself in the past. These are the language of religion, in which each generation expresses its consciousness of God and its worship of Him; they are the treasure chests in which each age transmits its knowledge of God to succeeding ages; they are the channels through which the spirit of the past works upon the present. It just allows the individual a large measure of freedom in the expression of his religion and in the choice of physical means by which he would develop or strengthen his physical life. That freedom gives outsiders the impression that Liberal Judaism is an easy religion. They forget that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, that freedom means responsibility, that to choose rationally is more difficult than having all ready done. The freedom which Liberal Judaism grants to individuals impresses upon them a great measure of responsibility. To decide what Judaism requires and what it does not require, what it demands and what it prohibits assumes a knowledge of the essentials in Judaism and being imbued with the spirit of Judaism. That knowledge and spirit do not come down upon us from heaven, at the expression by us of a mere wish for it; nor are they transmitted to us by our parents, as the colour of our eyes or the contour of the nose very often are. There is only one way to get them, and that is to study the history, the literature of Judaism.

Yet there are some who think themselves very good liberal Jews or Jewesses, who think that a study of these things is far beneath their religious or intellectual interest. To tell them what the Bible teaches upon any subject is not only to bore them – poor things! – or to be greeted with the answer, “We do not care what the Bible teaches; it is modern teaching we are interested in.” Foolish, short vision that sees human life and thought only as it exists at present. And whence do they expect modern Judaism to come from then? Even Athena had to have the head of Zeus to spring from. Or do these wise people think so well of their heads that they think Judaism needs no more than them? No, not even a Magician’s wand can call forth a modern religion for us from mid-air. Far from spurning a knowledge of the past, it should be the duty of everyone who is truly devoted to Liberal Judaism to study that past, the literature and institutions it left, that from them they may get to know and to feel the spirit of our faith and upon this knowledge and feeling build up their religion in modern terms for modern ends.

Some day, we may hope, there will be a sort of library of Liberal Judaism which will make possible a more complete study of that tradition than is now possible except for experts. The Bible is available for all. But even in connection with it there may be some spiritual work that Liberal Judaism might do in bringing together, as it were, its general teachings. Certainly much of this kind of work needs doing for the later literature and institutions of Judaism. Liberal Judaism has, to repeat, a special need in this direction. It is enough for the orthodox Jew, if he knows the details in the tradition, the laws he is expected to obey, the rites to practise and the ceremonies to adhere. And these have, indeed, again and again been collected for him in handy form. It is palpably easier to be told that such and such an observance has to be performed and done, than to study a number of observances with the purpose of finding out their meaning, coming closer to their spirit. Yet this latter should be the duty of Liberal Jews.