Israel Mattuck, 14 February 1920

The Place of Tradition in Liberal Judaism

It would be difficult to exaggerate the place in the government of the Universe which Tradition assigns to Israel. Upon it will depend the ultimate salvation of humanity, for through it, all the world will come to recognise and to worship God. It has, therefore, a place of special responsibility, and though often and again, language is used which indicates the association of a special privilege with Israel's distinctiveness, against that must be put in the balance the readiness to accept suffering too as a consequence of that choice. In its original form, as we find it in the Prophets, the special place given to Israel meant its ultimate triumph among the people of the world, both nationally and spiritually. The two were for them inexplicable strands of one life current. The supremacy of Israel's religion meant for them too, the supremacy of Israel's rule. The latter, however, lost more and more of its meaning as time and circumstance led Israel away from nationhood and its values - only a mere residue of national associations clung to Israel’s hope for the ultimate triumph of righteousness.

Other ideas, however, came to be associated with the time of this triumph - the coining of the personal Messiah and the bodily resurrection of the dead. It. is not easy to say exactly when the belief of the personal Messiah came to be held among Jews. For the Messiah, now and then mentioned by the Prophets was altogether a different being from the Messiah of later Jewish Theology, whose presence is found in the Creeds. It is, however, probably not much later than the first century before the Common Era. The belief in the bodily resurrection of the dead finds expression first in the book of Daniel which was written about the middle of the 2nd century, before the Common Era. The belief may be a little older than that. These two ideas received very great emphasis in Rabbinic Theology. The Liberal attitude to them can best be described as one of translation. We do not believe in some superhuman being who will come at the end of days to fight single handed against the evil of the world, and through their individual efforts, Israel and even all mankind will be saved. Rather do we believe that through the efforts of all men with righteousness – with holiness – and with truth, they shall be brought nearer to God.

We look forward to a Messianic age as the consummation among men of God’s rule – as a time of the completion of his revelations to man – and the permanent conquest of good over evil. This coming of that time, however, requires the prayers and work of all men. The best among us shall lead us – but all must strive to march forward. One hesitates to say anything dogmatic with regard to life after death; dogma of the bodily resurrection of the dead has, in the case of Liberal Judaism, been supplanted by the hope for immortality. There is a difference between the two. The belief in the resurrection of the dead does attach more importance to bodily existence it would seem than the belief or hope for immortality. Thereto, its original implication – though I doubt whether it has retained it throughout till now – was that for a time death did represent the absence of life, it must however, be quite evident that the essential idea in the belief of the resurrection of the dead is not only carried over into the hope for immortality, but has enhanced it and is exalted by it. This translation, however, is not new to Judaism as we read “The souls of the regeneration are in the hands of God, and the hope is for immortality”, through a Jew who lived 2,000 years ago.

Finally, in speaking of the ideas, reference must once again be made to the traditional view toward the law. The latter, as we have seen earlier, includes the Pentateuch and the Talmud – the traditional view recognises them both as having been given to Moses on the Sinai. There was a time when a distinction was made between some of the Talmudic laws and the others. That, however, was many centuries ago. The last word in Orthodoxy was that the written and the oral law were both given to Moses on Sinai and indeed, his efforts of reform were directed toward a distinction between the two, recognizing the inviolable, divine character of the former, and practically denying all inspirational qualities of the latter. Here, Liberal Judaism does radically depart, however, from tradition, and such a departure is inevitable. It has been made even by many who would deny that they at all share in the Liberal view. It is not in a spirit of captious criticism, but with rather a desire to face and interpret facts that one has to point out that there are many of the traditional laws which even they, who call themselves Orthodox Jews, do not observe – and why? presumably, because they feel that loyalty to Judaism does not require such observances – in other words, without avowing it – they have adopted an attitude which permits them to pass between the more and the less important – the inner law, which theoretically they say, is inspired throughout all its parts. Liberal Judaism does not only choose but avows the idea behind the right to choose, namely that the law, though in many parts truly inspired in revealing the influence of God upon the spirit of man, yet among other parts, reveals the results of human imperfections. Furthermore, against the view which holds that all religious truth is contained in the ancient Jewish revelation, we hold that though there is, in that revelation, the fundamental teaching yes – we may say the chief teaching – about God. Righteousness as instruction did not end with that revelation, but is continued down to our time, and will continue, until man shall stand in the full light of the divine presence. That it was limited not only to one people, but granted in varying measure to all and even the Rabbis say that though Israel had the largest share in the prophecy which God gave to the world, the other nations still were given a share. Again, it ought to be pointed out, that this idea of a fixed, unalterable revelation is nowhere near so old as Judaism itself. Amongst the sayings of the Rabbis which can be found to support the Liberal belief in a progressive revelation, is in that saying that the wiser men may abrogate a part of the law – and does not the Bible itself allow Baalam, a non-Jew, to speak under God’s inspiration – but the strongest ground for our belief in progressive and universal revelation is the history of Judaism, and the history of all human thought, and even if the words of books gave the belief no support, we can still be constrained to it by the force of human life as revealed in its story.

Before going to the second section of our discussion, namely the attitude of Liberal Judaism towards specific ceremonies, let us briefly sum up the conclusions we have reached so far. We do not altogether accept the essential ideas of tradition in exactly the form and expression in which they have been transmitted, but we have retained the real character of the Jewish belief about God – about the spiritual power and worth – the moral responsibility of man – that though we do not believe in a personal Messiah, we do hope for the Messianic age, and our attitude toward life after death may be described as a hope for immortality rather than by a belief in bodily resurrection of the dead. What the Messiah of Israel is for us, a vivid reality though we recognise in it only that which is spiritual – finally, that we believe in revelation and not in one limited time granted only to a section of humanity – rather the revelation that is progressive and in which all strive to know God and become [missing] through its channels.

That, however, is only one phase of the attitude of Liberal Judaism toward tradition. Another, and perhaps even a more important one with which, however, we may differ from the traditional teaching in some respects, but has that teaching which is our starting point, and guide and inspiration of the efforts to know God and to worship Him. We did not, as it were, begin with a blind book – we wrote down in it such views as we may have evolved through study and thought, but we started with a book in which many pages were filled, and studied them and under their instruction, thought further to repeat tradition, that with our authority has been and is our guide.

But let us now, however, turn to another aspect of Judaism: the ceremonies and its institutions. It would, perhaps, be fair to point out that Liberal Judaism does not give such an important place to these as traditional or Orthodox Judaism do. And the reasons for the importance in Orthodox Judaism are, I believe, two – 1. Because they are commanded in the law which is accepted as binding and secondly, because they are looked upon as marking Israel’s special place among men as emphasising Israel’s special relation to God, and the distinctive duties that relation lays upon him. Well, from what we have said, it is evident that the first reason cannot hold with regard to Liberal Judaism, and for the second, though we believe in Israel’s distinctive place, we would rather associate with it a call for a higher and perfect morality, and the standard of social righteousness than for a punctilious observance of rites. And here, we have the authority of the Prophets, for they too, gave to ceremonies an inferior place in religion. It may even be said that Liberal Judaism once again raises the prophetic line in the Jewish past to a higher plain of religious importance, and effectiveness.

It would also seem that the ceremonies now and then received, what might be called a sacramental character that is clearer in other religions. I sometimes feel that in the attitude of Orthodox Judaism toward some rites, there is something of this feeling. A sacrament is a ritual performance which by itself, almost physically, has power to unite man to God, and that was the original meaning of sacrifice. Whether there is any of this character attached to the ceremonies upon which Orthodox Judaism insists or not, it is, I think, right to point out that in the case of Liberal Judaism, no ceremony has this value by itself – that is – intrinsically, if it does not help man to come nearer to God, (by its influence on man’s spirit). For the value therefore, of efficiency and reliable observance depend on the attitude and the spiritual aim of him who observes.

A word too, must be said with regard to the ceremonies as a method of discipline. I, myself, feel – though I may be wrong – that it is a bad form of apology for ceremonism to insist on its disciplinary value. God loved Israel, say our old teachers. That He gave them the law in the Judaism of the past was the least of them to the greatest of them, a token of God’s great love for Israel. To make of them, therefore, a means of moral discipline is to force out of them that joyousness with which their observance was meant to be filled – moreover, that moral discipline through better and more useful means. The strictest observances of the moral laws themselves and a constant practice of unselfishness need only be mentioned to prove this, for surely, there should be as much moral training in a command to spend a fraction of one’s earnings for others as in the prohibition against some kind of food.

The final consideration for ceremonies, however, is that they act as a link with the past – that is true. The question arises need all the ceremonies of the past observation be retained as a link. The general attitude of Liberal Judaism towards ceremonies therefore might be described as actuated by a twofold purpose - 1. to maintain a visible sign of the historical continuity, and 2. to help the spiritual life of the living individual. Let us see how that applies to some specific institution.

Some like to take the attitude of the Sabbath as the very test of Jewishness. We are not prepared to go that far. The love of God, moral purity, - spiritual holiness is a greater thing than all the institutions combined – but we do recognise in the Sabbath a very important institution, satisfying our two fold purpose – it does make us feel one of the long line of the Jewish generation and has a personal living message which helps that moral and spiritual striving. The Sabbath, therefore, on which we lay stress is not the Sabbath of the Rabbinic Judaism hedged about by innumerable prohibitions against some of life’s simplest actions – but the Sabbath rest – joy – and spiritual uplifting – and too, we would revive any connection with its original message and reason – the equality of all men before God and their rights in society.

HOLYDAYS I mean the three Festivals – Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles – originally they were agricultural feasts and then they came to have historical associations. Well, perhaps we attach less importance to their historical associations than to the ideas which those associations call forth. In Passover we think less of the traditional account of the Exodus from Egypt than we do of the ideal of freedom; and in Pentecost, less of the legend about the giving of the law on Sinai than over the idea and ideals of the law and the revelation; and on Tabernacles, less of Israel’s experience in the wilderness than of God’s bountiness through nature, calling forth man’s gratitude. Thus have their meanings been enlarged – if you will – universalised, and the means of observing them such as arises entirely out of our lives and brings most clearly the message to our hearts and minds.

The Ten Days of Penitence, beginning on the Day of Memorial and ending with the Day of Atonement, have received in Liberal Judaism a place to which their permanent character and message entitles them. They have gone far from their origins and when we observe them, we have to forget much that the past has associated with them. They are for us, days devoted altogether to thoughts about the character and tradition of our lives individually and socially: to a confession of sin, to an expression of sincere repentance with prayers and hopes for atonement. Here are some of the fundamental facts of our religious relation between God and man. Through them and the manner of their observance dictated together by the desire to express fully and to strengthen that relation. We would omit some of the superstitious ideas that have been accumulated about these days so that their real, true message may sound all the more clearly. We value them for themselves – we value them too, as a link with Israel’s past.

I think that these Holydays are on the whole the only institutions from the past that Liberal Jews accept as valuable, helpful and necessary. Sacrifices have entirely been left out though the need and desire for sacrifice ever holds a prominent place in Jewish tradition and the traditional prayer book is full, not only of references to the sacrifices of the past but of hope for their restoration in the future. The whole theory underlying the sacrificial system has been rejected by our religious view, and I think it may be safely said of all modern religion. We here frankly reject tradition.

The dietary laws always come in for a large share of discussion when ceremonies are considered. With regard to them, however, we say neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’. In themselves, they are unimportant. They may help one to be a better Jew and a better man – they may also prove spiritually detrimental, and that is when their observance is mistaken as [essence] of religious and even moral duties. I sometimes suspect that the occasional combination of ritual observance with moral laxity is due to a mental confusion which makes ritual observance take the place of morality. I do not mean to say that moral laxity is always combined with ritual strictness, but I do mean that very often when it arises this confusion is at the bottom of it, and there are cases where we should get a higher morality if we threw ritualism out. No one will deny that in some cases there is a danger that the observance of the dietary laws has taken the sum total of what Judaism requires from its adherents; it is, however, necessary to emphasise again and again that the value of the dietary laws altogether reside in their effect and in their meaning for the individual. There is, however, no religious principle involved in them. The same statement applies to a number of other practices and especially to those that are associated with public worship. Take the wearing of the hat and the wearing of the Talith. There is no principle involved in either. Whether one wears them or not depends a great deal on how one feels. Personally, I do not like them because they are not natural to us, and I believe that worship, should, so far as possible – introduce forms [consistent] with the manners and circumstances of our daily life. We do not ordinarily wear a hat indoors – and when we want to show respect, our daily clothes should be good enough to pray in.

As for the general idea of public worship and prayer, there is here no difference between traditional Judaism and Liberal Judaism. Our methods and our manners may differ, we do not believe in prayer as a mere formal duty but as to the value of public worship and as to the human meaning of prayer, we are all agreed.

There is, however, another large part of the Jewish tradition which deserves consideration, namely the civil or legal enactments. The law does not only value what we call religion and its requirements in the narrower sense, but it deals with the regulation of the life of communities and their social aspects. There are laws about poverty, about the marriage, divorces and so on and these occupy a very important place in what is known as Jewish tradition. It is beyond question that they represent on the whole a high ethical standard and sense of justice – but we look now to the occupation of several states or nations of which we form part for this regulation of life, and in its direction, we hope to see combined the best influences of all the religious communities and of religious teaching. We still want our Judaism to influence our social relations but for this translation into laws, we look in other directions than the Jewish tradition, moreover, in some respects, the laws inscribed by that tradition are inferior to that point of view and ask sometimes hardships against which our sense of humanity often rebels. I have in mind a case which I have mentioned before – that the traditional laws about divorce often worked injustice against women. Then there is too, that ridiculous distinction between a “Cohen” and an ordinary Israelite which often causes trouble in the case of marriage.

This account has naturally been brief and fragmentary – yet with regard to the instructions even as with regard to the ideas, some things hold true – we did not begin ‘de novo’. If we were to construct a new religion, I doubt very much whether we should today put a Sabbath on the 7th day of the week – or fix Festivals illustrating ‘freedom’, revelation in God’s goodness on the dates when Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles come and the same holds true of every inspiration which Liberal Judaism retains – we have them because we have taken the Jewish tradition as our guide and the inspiration which it has transmitted to us which served the double purpose of linking us with past on the one hand and with stimulating within us the loyalty of Judaism and loyalty to God. And here, finally, in these two ideas, loyalty to Judaism and loyalty to God we have that much older Jewish truth to make its guide – loyalty to God stands for truth and sincerity – that the worship of Him is the best we know and the best we can do. Loyalty stands for these things, and for their expression by such means and in such ways as were [..] not only to the one and the individual, but the spiritual strength and example of the whole House of Israel.