JUDAISM AND THE FUTURE
Israel Mattuck, 19 October 1952
Two questions arise about the future of Judaism. The first is whether it has a future beyond the immediate one; and the other is what kind of Judaism it will be. Obviously the answers may be interdependent. The future or Judaism may depend on the form it evolves in thought and observances. The impulse to these questions comes in various ways. The Jews hold a unique position in the world, one that inevitably puts a strain on their religious adherence. Furthermore, the establishment of the State of Israel is bound to affect in some way Jews in other lands; and it is with their Judaism that this article is concerned. The questions are also raised by the challenging assertion made by some critics or Liberal Judaism that it cannot endure. The answer to this challenge is involved in the answers to the two questions about the future of Judaism.
There are three main forms Of Judaism: Orthodox, Traditional or Conservative, and Liberal. The adjective Progressive is sometimes used by congregations or organisations without any well-defined meaning; some are Traditional and some are Liberal. The description Reform is used with varying connotations. In America, it has the same significance as Liberal in England, where, however, Reform is used for congregations which are pronouncedly conservative in their Synagogue Services. There is generally some confusion in the adjectives used to describe the various forms of Judaism. Some congregations that call themselves Orthodox would be denied the right to that label because many of their members do not fulfil the requirements or the Law and their Synagogue Services do not completely conform to its requirements and prohibitions. Traditional or Conservative congregations show a great diversity ranging all the way from nearly Orthodox to nearly Liberal. How then in this confused and confusing use of adjectives should Liberal Judaism be described?
It is distinguished from Orthodox Judaism by its attitude, to the Law. For Orthodox Judaism the prescriptions in the Law which includes the Pentateuch and Talmud, must be literally followed and the ideas in them accepted as true. Liberal Judaism, on the other hand, does not recognise the literal authority of the Law either for thought or practice. It does not deny explicitly or implicitly the divine quality in the Law which gives it the character of a revelation, but it also recognises the human element in it. The two are harmonised in the doctrine of progressive revelation. That is not a new doctrine in Judaism, it lay at the basis of Pharisaic Judaism; but it has been overlaid and obscured by later developments which crystallised what had been fluid.
This process of crystallisation was stimulated by the segregated life of the ghetto, which produced an inner concentration. The outside world with its thought was excluded and shunned. The Law was the only subject of study, with the result that it became what it was not originally, fixed and rigid. Until comparatively recent years, Orthodox Judaism depended largely on the ghettoes of Eastern Europe for its Rabbis and leaders. Liberal Judaism, on the other hand, was the product of emancipation from the ghetto.
Liberal Judaism differs from Traditional Judaism not by rejecting tradition but by treating it differently. The chief characteristic of Traditional Judaism is its emphasis on retaining practices and observances handed down from the past, especially in the Synagogue Services. It is a form of Jewish particularism which ascribes value to anything which it describes as Jewish. Though in practice it is selective in its treatment of traditions, choosing those it wants to preserve, it is at the same time committed to the idea that it is the chief function of the Synagogue to maintain tradition.
Tradition has an important place in Liberal Judaism; naturally, because Liberal Judaism claims to continue historic Judaism. But Liberal Judaism does not ascribe literal authority to it: treating it not as a master but as a guide. The development of Judaism for our time must begin with it, but cannot be bound by it in details. It must conform to the fundamentals in thought of historic Judaism, and include its observances that have a lasting significance. But other criteria are added in the decisions about details: truth in the presentation of the fundamental ideas of Judaism, and spiritual effectiveness in the observances it should require.
The development, therefore, which Liberal Judaism represents is not merely a selection of traditions to be followed but an attitude to tradition which affirms its value but denies its authority. It aims to identify Judaism with truth in religion, and to make its observances spiritually effective. In details of belief it does not in its ultimate affirmations ask what does tradition require, though it begins with a reverent examination of tradition, but what does truth require. In observances, though it similarly begins its development with tradition, its final decisions are regulated by present religious value, so that it retains traditional observances, like the holy days, which can stimulate the Jew's religious consciousness, ignores those that cannot have this efficacy, and adds new ones which can have it.
Its distinctive idea that Judaism is subject to development in accord with developments in thought and changes in circumstances has the support of the history of Judaism. Judaism has lived by developing. Pharisaism affirmed and followed the principle of development in Judaism. It suited the intellectual climate of 2000 years ago to read new developments into old laws; religious developments must nowadays be justified and validated by other criteria. Liberal Judaism has, therefore, preserved an old characteristic of Jewish thought in its insistence on the evolutionary character of Judaism, which entitles each age to think out anew the interpretation of its teaching and the formulation of its practices.
The most fundamental change in doctrine which Liberal Judaism makes is in its attitude to the Law. It recognises the quality of revelation in it, that is in Jewish scripture which includes Bible and Talmud, but not its literal authority, maintaining that it contains a human element which relates it to the various times through which it developed so that its permanent authority it limited to its developed fundamental ideas. Revelation comes through the minds of men in contact with the mind of God. In the result, his absoluteness is translated into human relativism. The relative ideas draw from the process the authority of absolutes in the contexts which produced them. The fundamental ones, however, like the Prophets' monotheism, transcend their original contexts with their permanent truth; others, on the other hand, like the value ascribed to animal sacrifices, lose their significance, and may become even objectionable, with the development of human thought.
In accordance with this attitude to the Law, Liberal Judaism expresses the fundamentals of Judaism in harmony with modern thought. A simple example, perhaps all the more useful because it is simple, is its idea of creation. The universe is God's creation, but the method of creation is the process of evolution, not divine fiats on six primeval days. This attitude to the Law also produced a changed attitude to its ritual prescriptions. They had attained to a crucial place in Judaism. For some centuries prior to Liberal Judaism, the binding authority of the ceremonial laws was not questioned. The expounders of Judaism did not always agree about the beliefs it required, but it was heresy to violate any ritual commandments in the Law. In attaching so much importance to ritual conformity, Judaism had moved away from the teaching of those Prophets who not only denied value to rites but even condemned them as evil. Liberal Judaism does not go so far in its attitude to religious ceremonials. It gives them, however, only an instrumental value, so that each one must be judged by whether it fulfils effectively a spiritual function. No rite has an absolute claim to observance.
About the future of the fundamental ideas of Liberal Judaism and of its attitude to observances, there can, on the basis of present facts, be no question. The belief in the divine perfection of the Law and its consequent literal authority is intellectually untenable. And it is a fact that most Jews, including most of those who do not profess adherence to Liberal Judaism, hold the Liberal Jewish view, which recognise a human element in the Law so that its authority is limited to the ideas and commandments in it which human reason and human moral judgment can accept and validate. This attitude is imposed inevitably by the intellectual climate of our time. Obviously the Judaism of the future will have to include it. Or, to put the same conclusion conversely, only the Judaism which maintains it, has the prospect of an effective continued existence in the future. That the Liberal Jewish attitude to the Law is accepted by most Jews in the Western world is shown in practice by their neglect of many of the observances prescribed in it, including even dietary and other laws which used to be considered most important, (and are now so considered by Orthodox Judaism) with the feeling that they are religiously unimportant. The belief in the divine perfection of the Law, which gives absolute or eternal validity to its detailed ritual prescriptions, is held by only a small and decreasing number of Jews in Europe and in the countries of America.
Many Jews, however, are motivated in their Synagogue attachments by the form of the Services. Their parents attend Orthodox Services, and though the beliefs and practices of the children diverge from those of the parents, they continue because of the conservatism which likes the familiar, to belong to Orthodox Synagogues. The Services in Liberal Synagogues diverge pronouncedly from those in Orthodox Synagogues in content to accord with the distinctive ideas of Liberal Judaism. And they, mostly, have a form which is such as to stimulate the religious consciousness of the worshippers. Hence truly Liberal Jewish Services (and also some in the U.S.A. designated as Conservative) use extensively the vernacular instead of Hebrew, because outside the State of Israel comparatively few Jews understand Hebrew, though some of the others can read it.
There is a further reason for the form of Services in Liberal Jewish Synagogues. Historically, Liberal Judaism began with an emphasis on the universal character of Judaism. Because of its history, Judaism had a particular national framework and cultural idiom. Liberal Judaism freed itself from them, at least in theory, affirming pointedly a conception of Judaism as a universal religion. It has not always conformed fully to the conception of religious universalism; but it always insisted on this aspect of it: that Judaism is not a national religion with its home in Palestine of which it had been deprived and which will be restored to it when the Messiah comes, but that it is a religion that can be followed fully in any country and expressed fully in any civilised culture.
It pertains to this universalism to interpret and present Judaism wholly in religious terms. Jewish life had accumulated a number of distinctive customs which had no religious significance. The reason given for maintaining them was that they were ‘Jewish’; that is, distinctive elements in the segregated life of Jews. The psychological underlying fact is obvious; Jewish value was ascribed to whatever segregated the Jews, distinguishing and separating them from the non-Jewish environment. These customs belonged for the most part to the ghetto life. Liberal Judaism gives Jewish value only to what belongs to the Jewish religion. This aspect of Liberal Judaism has a special bearing on the question of its future and the future of Judaism. To endure outside the state of Israel, Judaism will have to be presented wholly as a religion with its adherents integrated in the nationalities and cultures of the various countries.
It is an element of strength in Liberal Judaism that its Synagogue Services can have a character which puts them into harmony with the culture of the environment. Undoubtedly the attitude of Jews to Judaism is often produced by their reaction to the Synagogue Services. If the Synagogue Services simply preserve old traditions and Oriental customs, they produce a gap between Judaism and those who want to combine it with modern thought and the general culture in which they share. The comparatively short history of Liberal Judaism gives no basis for an empirical judgment on the influence of Liberal Jewish services. Moreover, Liberal Judaism has not yet attained to its full development. But theoretically it must strengthen the hold of Judaism on its adherents if the form of its synagogue services conform to the cultural patterns and social ways in which they share. That conformity is required by religious universalism. It is also required by the integration of Jews individually into the lives of the various countries to which they belong. They can make a Jewish contribution to the religious life of the various nations if Judaism is integrated in them, like Jews individually, speaking their language, comporting with their culture, and concerned with their problems.
Two questions, however, arise. The first is: can Judaism survive without being encased in a particular national and cultural framework, which segregated its adherents and endowed them with the surviving power which segregation gives, and without the props to Jewish loyalty supplied by the elements which emphasised, and promoted, Jewish separatism?
The question can only be answered theoretically. A study of the past cannot supply any evidence on which to base an answer. The nearest approach to such a Judaism was made by the Hellenist Jews in the first and second centuries B.C. They were favoured by the vast contrast between their monotheism and the polytheism of the peoples among whom they lived and in whose secular culture they shared. But the advent of Christianity put an end to their combination of Judaism with Greek culture, by taking over some of their ideas and putting them into a framework which was not only non-Jewish but religiously anti-Jewish. Until the modern era Jews have not had an opportunity to make a similar combination.
But, and this is the other question: will not the existence of the State of Israel militate against a universal Judaism and encourage everywhere Jewish separatism?
For several reasons the influence of the State of Israel on Jews in other lands cannot be taken for granted. In the first place, the interest shown by many Jews in the establishment of the Jewish state was actuated by philanthropic motives. They wanted the State in Palestine as a secure home for Jews in Europe who suffered persecution from antisemitism. Their continued interest in the State of Israel cannot be assured, and even if their interest continues in some measure, their children may not share it. Nor will the next generation of Jews in countries other than the State of Israel contain many who will feel the nationalist sentiment which motivated some Jews, especially those with an east European background, in their desire for a Jewish State. Even now Zionist leaders complain of a waning interest in Zionism. It is also significant that when the Prime Minister of Israel criticised Zionists in the United States for not emigrating to Israel, their leaders answered that America was their homeland.
The fact is that most Jews in the Western countries feel themselves identified with the nations to which they belong. Conceivably an outbreak of violent antisemitisim might change their outlook. If there should in the future be a violent outbreak of antisemitism in the Western democracies, it would promote in Jews a feeling of attachment to the State of Israel with all that it connotes, including emphasis on the segregative elements in Jewish life and on particularism in the Jewish religion.
It is, however, reasonable to assume that such an outbreak of antisemitism is unlikely, that the position of the Jews in countries like England and the United States will remain in the foreseeable future what it is now, subject to the tension of a minority group but not adversely affected in matters of serious import. [The Prague trials and the new “purge” in Russia, which have occurred since this article was written have no relevance to the position of the Jews in the western democracies.] On the Jews in this position the State of Israel cannot be expected to exercise any positive influence. On the contrary, it may well impose a strain on their attachment to Judaism by giving the name Jew a national connotation. Only a Judaism presented as a universal religion can be expected to overcome the strain.
Generally the environment puts a strain on the loyalty of Jews to Judaism. That strain adds to the value of the loyalty. Because Jews are in the minority, they must individually pay the price which is always imposed on members of a minority, and especially on members of a religious minority. The Jews should not object to paying it so long as it is a fair price related to their religious distinctiveness, which has a value not only for themselves but is their contribution to the religious life of the larger communities to which they belong. At the same time, however, it requires an appreciation of the value of the distinctiveness to resist the strain. And Liberal Judaism can meet that need by its presentation of Judaism in purely religious terms with a content that makes it at home in every land and capable of expression in various nationalities and cultures.
It must be admitted that to present Judaism as a universal religion is an adventure of faith. But only by such adventures can religion attain to its full power and perhaps only so maintain an effective life.
Liberal Judaism will be confronted by the problem of how to maintain the Jews’ group consciousness without segregation. Will its emphasis on the distinctiveness of Judaism as a universal religion suffice to make Jews feel a bond with one another? For a minority group it is vital that its members should in their spiritual constitution feel effectively their membership in the group and their loyalty to it. The success of Liberal Judaism to solve this problem will depend in some, perhaps considerable, measure on the importance which future generations will attach to religion generally. If the present irreligion should prevail, then religion cannot give a basis for a group loyalty. But in that case, the prospect for any kind of Judaism must be dim to vanishing point. On the other hand, the characteristics of Liberal Judaism give it special strength to combat irreligion among Jews and to join with others in the combat against irreligion generally.
Another problem is suggested by the attitude to liberalism generally in the present intellectual climate. With other forms of liberalism, liberalism in religion has been eclipsed. It stands for freedom of thought in religion, but it demands the exercise of individual thought. Self-fear wants to avoid it. This lack of confidence in themselves drives men into the arms of authority, which totalitarianism has utilised for political ends. Liberalism in religion depends on, as it requires, the earnest thought of individuals. It has undoubtedly suffered from the prevalent denigration of the individual. Liberal Judaism has not been affected in numbers but by the growth of a desire for authority. The principle of development, however, on which it insists, can be followed only by free exercise of individual thought - free, and, of course, responsible. But even if Liberal Judaism can avoid the arresting hand of authority, it may not succeed in avoiding the conservatism which clings to the past, and tends to convert new developments in religion into new orthodoxies. Liberal Judaism would cease to be liberal if it yielded to this conservatism. It does not claim to be the final form of Judaism, but to present Judaism in a way that allows and obligates each generation to enrich it with the growing knowledge of truth and to make its spiritual power effective in existing conditions. It is the strength of all religious liberalism that it keeps the way open for religion to absorb new ideas proved true and to relate its practices to them and to changing conditions of human life.
All religions in the Western world are passing through a transition, including even those which appear to be most entrenched in old traditions. The cause is the changed intellectual climate of the world. Judaism has been affected by still other causes. The changes in Jewish life and the establishment of the State of Israel have produced a condition which may be described as a transition but it amounts to a crisis. The Judaism that will emerge from it will have to be one which conforms to modern thought and meets the challenge posed by new conditions and facts in a way which will evoke the loyalty of Jews in all lands.