LIBERAL JUDAISM AND UNIVERSAL RELIGION
Israel Mattuck, 12 November 1921
In the "Voice of Jerusalem" Mr. Zangwill criticises Liberal Judaism for its retention of some characteristics which to him appear narrowly Jewish. Why, he asks, did it not follow its principles to their logical conclusion and stand before the world as a Judaism in universal growth. The criticism has been put by others not so clearly and pungently as by Mr. Zangwill. It does not, however, mean the same thing in all mouths. Some people feel that all religious divisions are objectionable. The prevalence of that attitude is proved by the atmosphere of disapproval which hovers over the word "sect." It is almost an insult to call a religious group a sect. That feeling comes partly from a failure to understand and therefore to appreciate the importance of the difference in ideas which separate the various groups. Sometimes, it is true, these differences are of so slight and attenuated a nature that the understanding of them will only strengthen the opposition. Sometimes, too, this desire for one universal religion over-riding all differences or swallowing them up or eliminating them, arises from a laudable desire to be at one with all humanity. It is in some ways akin to the tendency to cosmopolitanism - in fact the two very often are found together: the objection to national divisions and the objection to religious divisions. At the bottom of them lies a large humanity which refuses to be satisfied until all the groups of men are brought together in outward uniformity.
Very often, therefore, the criticism about the narrowness of Judaism is impelled merely by this general objection to divisions and in practice means why maintain separate existences instead of simply sinking into the larger religious group among whom we live? It is not my purpose at the present to face this particular point of view. That I have done before now, and in so far as it is amenable to logic, I think not difficult to meet. Mr. Montefiore in his address on Sunday did concisely sum up what would be generally the answer to this view as when he said that the particular religion is a mediator between the general claims of the spirit and the religious life of the individual.
Mr. Zangwill’s criticism, which I mentioned at the outset is, however, of a different kind. It says in so many words, Judaism is fundamentally a religion which is suitable for the world. It can be understood by all, it can be practised by all. Moreover, it is just the sort of religion which the world needs to raise it out of its present state which he thinks a very low one to a higher degree of spiritual, moral and social attainment. But Judaism has brought with it from the past many particularistic limiting elements, national or racial, which interfere with its presentation as a universal religion. And Liberal Judaism, thus the criticism, which in theory lays stress on the universal reach and application of its teachings has yet retained some of these national, racial, at any rate, limiting, features. Our only way to meet this criticism is to analyse Liberal Judaism to find exactly what part in it lays itself open to attack.
I must confess, however, at the outset, that in so far as one might sympathise with the criticism of one's own views, I do sympathise with this one. I mean this - that I, too, wish it were possible to remove from Judaism all that interferes with the possibility of its message being seen and understood by all. I want Liberal Judaism, which for me is the same as Judaism, to be a universal religion, to strive for influence over all men. In so far as that aim finds itself in opposition with other Jewish considerations, I am always inclined to give it power above them. So I may claim to be in a particularly favourable position to meet this criticism, because I do so much appreciate it and agree with the idea behind it.
Among the ideas for which Judaism stands, I think there is only one to which with any degree of plausibility the criticism may be directed. Surely it cannot derive any force from the Jewish teaching about God, in spite of the demands made now and again to derogate the Jewish conception of God by pointing to the lower strata in Old Testament theology, in order to enhance the greatness of the higher strata of New Testament theology. The God about which modern Judaism teaches, about which Judaism has now taught for many centuries, the God, yes, of the Prophets of 2600 years, of the Psalmists, is a God of all men to whom all men are related. He is a universal God. In the teaching about human responsibility and the ultimate triumph of goodness in human and social life, we have ideas that are very free from all nationalistic or racial limitations. Surely in the teachings about immortality as it is presented in Judaism or in Liberal Judaism, there is nothing in which it detracts from its universality. There is, however, one idea which, in a sense, seems to modify some of those I have already mentioned, and can in its implication best be taken by itself, which superficially, at any rate, seems to introduce in the teaching of Judaism a particularly narrow, a group limit, and that is the idea about the mission of Israel.
I do not mean here to discuss fully the implication of this belief in a mission, but only to see how far, if at all, it justifies the criticism that Judaism is not a universal religion. In the first place, there is a danger of confusing the idea of the mission with the idea of the elect. It cannot be too often pointed out that though the idea of the mission is expressed in the Bible very often by speaking of the Jews as the chosen people, it means something altogether different from the way in which later theology spoke of some as being elect or chosen for salvation. The mission of Israel I think we may safely say never meant that only Jews were to be saved when the world should come to the fullness of its life in righteousness and happiness. It surely did not mean that to the Prophets. The general view was rather expressed by the Rabbinic saying that it is the right of all nations to have a share in the life of the hereafter.
In a way the belief in the mission of Israel does particularly underlie the universal character of the Jewish religion. It says in so many words we have a religion not only for ourselves but one in which we want all men to share. The blessings that it brings are not only for us but for all who walk in its light. It must undoubtedly react upon all the elements of the Jewish religion in such a way as to give them a large universal atmosphere. It is true that for a long time the outward circumstances of the Jews’ life prevented that reaction and only in these latest days when these circumstances have been removed or alleviated, their religion is once more free to react to the universal implications in its own teachings about Israel's mission, once more to reveal the universal power which lies in its spiritual and moral direction. That power made of the Judaism of the past the foundation for the civilization which we know and the rise of a people in the past in the scale of moral and spiritual achievement has been marked by the degree in which it entered into the heritage which Israel brought into the world. The mission, I feel, therefore, becomes an inevitable fusion from the combined character of the universal teachings of Judaism. It has lost whatever of national or racist signification it may have meant and simply means that Judaism is a religion of the world.
The criticism itself, however, applied to, or got its force from, the institutions or ceremonies which give to Judaism in the lands we know best an exotic, strange appearance. When Jews observe the seventh day Sabbath in a community which observes the first day Sabbath, the religion of the Jew not only thus differentiates itself but takes on to itself a strange feature. Undoubtedly such an appearance itself interferes with the full manifestation of its universal teachings. Yet the Sabbath idea is a universal one. Its universality is proved by the fact that it has been adopted by many religions. If Christianity observes the first day, and Mohammedanism observes the 6th day, as the Sabbath, yet the. idea underlying these days they derive from Judaism, though they altered it. Certainly Christianity altered it in many respects. We cannot therefore say that the Sabbath idea conflicts with the universal outlook. It is the Sabbath idea given expression on the seventh day which is responsible for that. So, too, take an institution like Tabernacles - in its essential meaning as a harvest festival it makes the universal appeal. The idea that religion in some ceremonial way gives thanks for the gift of fruits and grains is a widely prevalent one. The churches as we have occasion to mention, have no historic harvest festival, so we find many churches institute such a festival for themselves. The idea is universal, but shall we say the exact day, and even more, certain attendant characteristics which make it particular. The building of the booths, the waving of the palm branches , these things can mean nothing, may even be repellent to those who have not been brought up with or in the Jewish tradition.
Take again, the Day of Atonement, coupling with it the Day of Memorial. The ideas for which these days stand - sin, repentance and atonement - are as universal as the belief in God. And even in their observance there is, I believe, little or nothing which most un-Jewish minds or hearts fail to understand and appreciate. I am not referring to such a custom as the blowing of the Shofar, which I believe we shall soon have to alter into the blowing of a more modern instrument, as indeed many modern Jewish congregations have done. That is only a little thing. The general ideas of the penitential season in the way they show themselves for the most part in the worship and method of observance are such that do not militate against their universal significance.
It would, however, be futile to deny that all these institutions, however universal they may be, have yet received a special enrichment from Jewish history. That shows itself in the character of the hold some of them have on the Jewish consciousness, even where that consciousness fails to appreciate their essential and real meaning. Now I am sure there are many Jews who give the Day of Memorial and the Day of Atonement the strictest observance, to whom yet, I do not wish to be uncharitable, to whom yet sin, repentance and atonement mean very, very little or nothing at all. The reason, however, for their observance is that these days have come to them with a history so laden with solemnity that it holds them captive.
In a festival like Passover, on the other hand, the main importance is a historical one. It celebrates what is more or less a historical event. True, it takes that event as a symbol of evidence of God's providence; but remove the Exodus from Egypt from Passover, and you leave it altogether empty.
This brief summary of the institutions of Judaism which we who are Liberals still retain, reveals the true nature of our problem. I speak only of those institutions, because though there are others which some among them may be devoted to, we do not claim for them any importance in our communal religious life. Some may observe the dietary laws. It is an individual desire which compels them to do it in the belief that by so doing they are better Jews or are more strong morally. They do not however come among the things for which Liberal Judaism stands, nor do I think among the institutions which are important to our religion. But those others for which we do stand officially, reveal the nature of our problem. They combine in varying degrees historic with universal evidence. Those two are the opposites between which it would seem we would have to choose history on the one hand, calling for the maintenance of customs and ceremonies into which it has poured much of its meaning, but which on the other hand, do not altogether suit any larger environment than one which is particularly Jewish. The universal implication, on the other hand, which seems eager to break out, bursting all the bonds which hold it back in order that it may overflow the world.
I do not for a moment mean to question the value of the symbols which help our religion to maintain its relation to the past. In this they act as a stimulus to the consciousness and give colour to the religious life. Moreover they are of value in transmitting religion to the young. So that in a sense they form a link between the past and the future. Yet if we take only history as our guide in religion, we should find ourselves burdened under a mass of legacies mostly useless because at one time or another our ancestors thought them religiously valuable or rich in spiritual power. This point needs no labouring here. If we accept absolutely the authority of tradition which means history, we should have to be not only Orthodox Jews, but even more orthodox than they. On the other hand, a religion without institutions, however universal its ideas may be, is in danger of a loss of influence, partly through vagueness, partly, too, through crudeness. The late Mr. Voysey, who was the founder of the Theistic Church, which by the very nature of the case laid all stress on the universality of its ideas, for it had no history, would not have a school to teach his religion to children because he felt that they would not be capable of grasping the ideas for which it should stand. It may be due to that fact that whereas the first service which he took at the new church about ten years ago was attended by two thousand people, the present surviving strength is comparatively small. The conclusion, then, is this, Liberal Judaism is a universal religion, which in a few ways maintains its connection with the past in order that its universal ideas may not perish for want of a body. As time goes on and we develop a new chapter in the history of our religious life, some of these institutions may be further modified or removed. At present they are necessary to preserve the life of the Jew, and without them there can of course be no Judaism. We have the authority of the Rabbis for saying that the time will come when all institutions will be abolished. That will be the time when all the world shall recognise the God of Israel as their God, but until that time Judaism must live in a historic group, informed and guided by a historic consciousness, reaching out, at the same time, even to the free influence of the spiritual instruction of its history for its universal influence.