ESSENTIALS AND NON ESSENTIALS IN JUDAISM
Israel Mattuck, 09 May 1920
Liberal Judaism then begins with a question on the right to change in matters of religion and it supports this claim by an argument from the whole course of Jewish history which revealed development by stages, and adaptation to successive ages and various environments in accordance with their respective needs and ideas. And in the life and thought of our present age Liberal Judaism sees … a need for some changes in the expression and application of our religion.
Exactly what, however, does the right to change mean? In one sense such a right cannot at all be questioned in these days when states have long ago realised that they have no right to coerce consciences or to compel the expression of certain beliefs. There is no one who can interfere with the right of the individual to believe as he wishes or not to believe at all if he so wishes. There is no effective force to interfere with anything in the individual’s religion. There can therefore be no question of the individual’s right to change and even from a higher point of view of this right cannot be questioned. If I come to an altered view of life and find changes in my mental outlook directing to change in faith, surely there can be no question about my right to change inwardly or outwardly. Faith cannot be militarised; it must be commanded; and an individual cannot make his belief conform to dictates from outside. There is no “ought” in elements of belief, for faith describes a condition rather than an effort. It is true that faith may in its beginnings make use of effort, of the will to believe, but faith is a complete possession and represents a condition of mind, soul and body. It involves effort in its beginning and in its issue, but itself represents what is. When, therefore, we speak about the right to change, what we mean is that we have a right to change our religion and yet keep its name. that, however, it is evident, cannot be an unlimited or an unrestricted right and so the question is what changes can we introduce into our religion and yet be entitled to a place in Judaism?
Under stress of modern conditions and modern thought, changes are for many of us inevitable. We cannot believe, what is more to the point, we do not believe all the things that our grandfathers did. Though we were born Jews and brought up as Jews yet there are many things in the Judaism of even the immediate generation that has preceded us which are to us intellectually or spiritually unacceptable. We cannot believe in their view of the Pentateuch, that it was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai; we cannot believe in their view of the Creation; we cannot believe in miracles or in the coming of a personal Messiah. There is no sense in saying some might be inclined or ought to believe these things. The point is that we do not. Furthermore, there are certain practices that our fathers observed very religiously, which they considered important parts of the Jewish life and which for us seem to have no meaning, some even worse, and others perhaps are impossible. Illustrations will readily occur to you. You will think of such small things as the beard, to which great importance was ascribed, or to the punctilious observance of the Sabbath or to the more extensive dietary laws. Now here, too, can we change, modify and even abrogate, in our lives and in the lives of the group some of the observances which the past maintained, and yet call our religion Judaism? It is more than a matter of name that is involved though it sounds only as if it were a question of calling, for the whole conception of our religion and its future course and even existence in the world is involved. The question can be answered only by a consideration of what is and what is not essential in Judaism. If what is essential is retained then the question is at once answered in the affirmative.
Let us begin from the other end. The question has presented itself to us so far from the point of view of certain changes which we feel inevitable in our life. We have begun with the present. Let us however begin with the past. In our arguments up to now there is something more involved than the right to change. If we are right in attributing the character of divine revelation to what is good so far as we can know in the thought and spirit of our own time, then change becomes more than a right – it becomes a duty. If our belief in progressive revelation is true, and for us it is profoundly true, then there is required of us a conscious effort to develop Judaism along the lines directed by modern thought and life. Under what conditions must this effort be conducted? We have the Judaism of the past and the life of the present. In so far as they agree and harmonise, there is no question. In so far as there are differences, how shall we harmonise them? This question, too, you will see, must receive its answer from a consideration of what is and what is not essential in the Judaism of the past.
There is still another question- how shall we distinguish between the essentials and the non-essentials? The distinction can be guided by the same arguments as established the right to change. We said Judaism was a development – which means that its letter is of minor importance and its spirit of most importance. Then, too, it means that from the past there can be no authoritative code or book, for from which age shall this authority be drawn? We have the Bible and we have the Talmud. The two are by no means exactly alike in their commands or in their teachings. In the Bible itself we have the law of the prophets with discrepancies between them; and in the Talmud itself there are such differences that it has been said by the Jewish scholars who know it best that there is no opinion about a religious practice or a religious idea which cannot find some support in its pages. So great is the diversity in it that even the Rabbis who accepted its authority were often opposed in their judgments and the [Shulchan Aruch] derived such authority as it has, because in it Joseph Caro, the author, sought to decide for all time between these differences.
We may answer our question as to what are the essentials by choosing those elements of our religion which have been permanent throughout its long history; faith in God, a recognition of His dominion over the world and man and of man’s responsibility to Him. These have been present in Jewish thought in practically all its phases, though not always expressed the same way and not always applied the same way. But by itself such a criterion would be inconclusive. There are some ideas which the first generations of Jews did not know, but which I think we should all agree are essential to our faith. I take as an incisive though perhaps not the best sort of illustration the character of God. And although that character was described in anthropomorphic terms, in other words the absolute spirituality of the Godhead was not fully recognised, yet we should put that among the essentials of our religion.
There is another test which we might apply. The difference between the temporal and the permanent – of that which was suited for a time and derived its meaning and value from a particular mode of life and from a particular environment – from that which derived its meaning and value from something permanent in human life. To decide which is temporal and which is permanent, we are in a measure thrown back on our own conscience and reason. We have to decide by such lights as we have, which idea has its roots in the fundamental life of man and which in some passing phase of it. There are however intrinsic qualities by which the two categories can be distinguished. Firstly, the permanent is the universal; that which finds justification in the lives of all men and has an appeal to the reason and conscience of all men, associated, therefore, with what is present in all human life, must by this character be something that is permanent. On the other hand, an idea which finds its justification in the life only of a group, or associated with the conditions in a particular place, and can be applied so far as it is capable of application at all, under limited conditions, such an idea is probably though not necessarily, of temporal character.
Then, too, we have criteria in distinguishing between spiritual values in religion and their expression. In the institution of ceremony, the observances are but expressions of religion and a means for help in the religious life. Their value depends altogether on how well they fit this purpose, but the ideas they express, and their religious significance for the life of the spirit. They cannot therefore be ranked on the same level as the elements of faith, as religious teachings. Moreover, it is in ceremonies that time and places show themselves most clearly.
When we apply these criteria to Judaism I think that our results may be summed up in these essentials: - faith in God, the recognition of His direct dominion for the world and men, the presence of divine values in this world, the reality of man’s share in the divine character, from which issue the belief in prayer, revelation, and the hope for immortality, the moral responsibility of man in his individual life and in the life of groups, finally the belief in Israel’s destiny and mission to the world. In making this catalogue, I do not claim for it an authoritative catalogue, for in the same way as I infer them from such knowledge as I have of Jewish tradition and Jewish history by the application of criteria which appear to me valid, so every one else has the right to make his own inference, and the final test again must be the reason and conscience of the individual, if informed by a knowledge of and loyalty to our ancestral faith. But it were supererogation for the individual to come to this conclusion without reference to the views of others. The conscience and reason must be the test for him but if he finds any support in the conscience and reason of others like himself, the assumption would be against his – the authority of his conclusion – in other words, the final test so far as there can be one, is the conscience and reason of the individual, not(?) conscience and reason of the group.
I think we should all be agreed as to the secondary place which ceremonies hold in religion. They have no absolute value themselves, but such importance as they do have they draw from their relation with spiritual life. But we may not ignore the fact that ceremonies have occupied a very important place in our religion, so important that unfortunately some seem to have exalted them above everything else; so that even though we are not prepared to admit that ceremonies are among the essentials of religion in the sense that they are either unalterable or eternally permanent, yet they are of sufficient importance to call for our earnest consideration. Which then of the rights and observances that Jews have kept in the past should be observed by us today? What tests shall we apply in answering the question? I think there are three, all, however, closely related. The importance of a ceremony is to be judged by its effect on the spiritual life of the individual, by its effect on the community; finally, by its significance for Israel’s mission. If a ceremony handed down from the past does stimulate a feeling of relationship with God and with what is best in the world, then it is justified for the individual upon whom it has this effect, and it is most likely that it will affect others similarly. On the other hand, a ceremony may be helpful to a few and to others may prove weary, dull and void of all spiritual value. There are, however, some institutions, which, though they may not be effective for all individuals, are yet effective for a large number and serve as a concrete expression of the link which binds together the Jews and the world which attaches the present to the past. If such an institution is expressive of an idea which we cannot believe in then I believe it must go but if there is nothing objectionable in it, but has on the other hand, these two facts to commend it, that it us very old and is held sacred by a large number of Jews in the world over, then I think we should keep it as part of our Judaism, with this modification – that these should not be multiplied above what is necessary to serve these twofold purposes, for the multiplication of ceremonies generally tends to encumber religion and to deaden the spirit, and in the case of Judaism the continuance of ceremonies coming from a different time and from a different environment tend to obscure the universal teaching of our faith. Witness the number of people who think of Judaism as a mere system of dietetics; and if this is to be the opinion of the unintelligent among our neighbours, then witness those who are undoubtedly intelligent and consider Judaism merely a religion for a small nation or group, with nothing to give to the world.
When we apply these tests to the institutions that have been handed down to us from the past, I think the residuum will include the Holy Days, stripped however of the superfluities which have come to cling about them in the course of time, the Sabbath and the three Festivals, and the ten Penitential Days. These I believe must remain the important institutions of our faith, entitled to observance from all those who feel a loyalty to Judaism. And let us remember, too, that the Synagogue as a centre and chief institution of Jewish communal life has an abiding value but its public worship must conform to the ideas and needs of each age. The Synagogue and its services are important but I do not think that any of the special forms connected with the public worship of the past or of the present are of essential or even of paramount importance. The value of services lie in the spiritual truths they proclaim and in the help they give to the community and to the individual, and for any detail, it must be judged from its capacity to satisfy this aim. The language and particular forms of worship in themselves do not matter. It is the spirit that counts.
In conclusion, we may look at our question “What is Liberal Judaism?” through the channel opened by another, “What is a good Jew?” That answer would be: “he is a good Jew who has taken the guidance of the Jewish tradition into his life, who has felt that loyalty and devotion to the Jewish brotherhood, who finds in his heart and soul the consciousness of God’s presence and of the loyalty of the human spirit; who feels forcefully his responsibility to God and man, and who is ready to contribute by thought and action to the fulfilment of Israel’s service.