THE SOCIAL TEACHING OF LIBERAL JUDAISM
Israel Mattuck, 12 May 1912
The elements of religious teaching naturally divide themselves into two parts, one, consisting of those principles which apply directly to the individual life, and the second comprising those teachings which apply more directly to the life of society. These two are not separable, yet form two natural headings under which to discuss the teachings of any particular sect. Of old the definition of religion was given in the two verses, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God", and "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself". The former more immediately comprises all the dictates for the inner religious life of the individual, the latter commands or controls the social relation between individuals.
Adam in the garden of Eden when still alone, and before the sleep had fallen on him out of which he wakened as two instead of one, could have appreciated the first command, but hardly the second, but even the first command he could not have realised or applied in its full significance. A love that cannot express itself is a rather colorless possession and of doubtful value, but the commandments would impose upon us a love great in its figure, potent in its influence, ready to act and eager to work. The question therefore must arise in the mind of every devout, God loving person, how the love for God may be expressed, and if one answers in prayers of thanksgiving and praise, in worship humble and devout, in purity and in sinlessness, we should answer this is but the beginning, for the life of God demands of us more than worship, more than prayer, yea, more than purity and sinlessness. It demands of us an active love of mankind, a love eager to work for human welfare, and even ready to sacrifice for it.
Though, therefore, there are these two logical divisions in the elements of religion, in the complete religious life they are inseparable. We may call the one phase the spiritual and the second the ethical, or the moral, or the social. It is not amiss here to insist on the inclusion of morality into any definition of religion. In our laxity we oftentimes speak of religion and morality as if morality were something apart from religion, but quite the contrary is true. Morality is a very large part of religion, and the exclusion of it may be due to two opposite causes, to the narrowness of the devout who are so jealous of their God that they think it profanity to associate with Him anything so common as mere morality, and on the other hand this distinction is made use of by the bigots of the other extreme who are so narrow in their opposition to religion that they will admit of it nothing that is recognised as universal good.
It can be, I believe, historically proved that the moral laws are religious laws, derived not from any philosophical treatise and ethics, but issuing out of the hearts of pious leaders who sought to instruct man in the true worship of God. If the Ten Commandments begin with the postulate that may be called theological, it contains more than one prohibition that is moral. "I am the Lord thy God" is a spiritual command. "Thou shalt not kill" is an ethical or social. As the first is an element in our faith, and the fundamental element, so the second is a means of expressing that faith. The belief in God is an empty phrase unless they who maintain it live by it and are impelled by it unto deeds and work that shall give undoubted evidence of an abiding faith in God. Conduct, therefore, becomes the test of faith. Conduct is social, bringing blight or blessing unto mankind. The deeds of the one will affect the many, and the faith of the one becomes valuable when it drives him to work untiringly and unceasingly for the welfare of all.
In our previous discussion I tried to show the general outlines of the faith which Liberal Judaism seeks to inculcate in the individual. Our next step, therefore, is to deduce the social values of that faith. They are not new, but in theory common to many or all religious sects, oftentimes perhaps forming a bond of unity that may subsist between them, but I fear that they are or have been somewhat neglected. It is undeniable that for many centuries official religion has laid all stress on the salvation of the individual. It has directed all its efforts toward bringing unto the individual a consciousness of God, or even less, a mere acceptance of the rule of God, thinking that by such a knowledge man will be saved. The question asked was "are you right with your God, do you believe in Him"?, and the like. We would not minimise by one degree the value of this work. The salvation of the individual is not unimportant but we would insist that even more important is the salvation of society, and so we harp back to Israel's prophets who never wearied in the effort to impress upon all their social obligations, who were never slack in exhorting the one to serve the many, and denouncing all for the sins committed against society. The poor and the weak, the widows and the orphans and the strangers were their concern, but it was for them their way of instructing their hearers in their social obligation. The goodness which God demanded as his worship was the love of mercy and the practice of righteousness that by this means the time may be hastened when the wondrous visions of universal peace and all pervasive happiness may become a reality upon earth.
Instructed therefore by the prophetic utterances of Israel's first teachers, Liberal Judaism would strive to bring to us a realisation of the unity of mankind. The brotherhood of man is an inevitable corollary following upon the belief in the fatherhood of God, and no man can claim God as the Father unless he does also treat every man as his brother. To impress this unity is one of the purposes of communal worship. While strengthening in each his individual faith the joint worship of many should impress all with the divine bond that links them one to another in the presence of God. Our worship in Synagogues and churches is vain if it does not make us feel at one with God and with all mankind. Our prayers are but lip service, empty sounds signifying nothing, and our cries of Father, Father, are but cant if our hearts are filled with enmity or indifference toward our fellow men. Would ye love the Father, then love first all His children. Would ye find God, seek ye first the well being of men.
Yet must we not confess that religion itself, or shall we better say religions, are responsible for divisions in the human family, destroying the feeling of unity. Each sect claims for itself the possession of the only means towards salvation, and inasmuch as with them individual salvation is the great aim, surely those who have been saved by the only means wherewith men can be saved should be separated from that vast mass of the poor ignorant blind human beings who seek salvation in every other way. We shall not speak of the dire results to which this has led, of the times when those who were unwilling to be saved suffered cruel tortures and even death at the hands of those who were so eager to save them.
We shall forget those times because happily they are over, except in those few barbaric countries whore civilisation is but a name, but we cannot shut our eyes to the distinctions and the separations between man and man because of a divergence in belief. This separation becomes so acute because we still value individual salvation more highly than we do the welfare and the progress of humankind. It is well that we be divided into sects on the basis of belief and individual faith, like joining with like in the search for mutual helpfulness in the aim to strengthen the common faith and to seek God by the one path best known to them, but it is wrong, yea, godless that these divisions should play the part that they do in our existence, driving man from fellow man, oftentimes turning one against the other. It may be a bold assertion and a daring hope, and yet I feel it is one to which we should adhere, the hope that the time will soon come when men of different opinions may at times worship together. From the social point of view it is not enough that Jews should worship with Jews and Christians worship with Christians. This must be and should be the case for the most part, yea, by far the most part, but there should be times when adherents of different sects may come together for worship and feel that the worship is acceptable to our God who is the Father of all.
And Liberalism, whether it is Liberal Judaism, or Liberal anything else, should put before itself this as one of the great tasks, to unite as far as union is possible the different sects, making them realise community in their aims, guiding them with a common hope, impressing them with the unity of mankind, inspiring them with the feeling of the universal fatherhood of God. We can thus remove the blackest stain that has been upon the escutcheon of religion. You may recall Schiller's famous saying, "Of all religions which one do I confess? None. Why? For the sake of religion, for men who are profoundly and truly devout, strong in their faith and overcome with a love of mankind, [I] cannot believe [that it] ought to be right or godly which constantly separates man from man. Has not God in His infinite goodness and unbounded love taught us another lesson when in His glorious nature, creatures different and powers diverse join in the one endless hymn of praise unto Him who is the Father of all".
The next element in the social teaching of the individual that I would emphasise is its belief in human progress. I am conscious of the abuse to which this word is put, used as a cloak to cover a multitude of sins. Many a crime has been committed for the sake of progress and many a falsehood has been widely spread because it called itself progressive. Yet let us not be deterred. The golden age for us must lie in the future, for if it be true that the golden age is in the past and we have been constantly going downward and further away from it what a wretched fate must be awaiting us with the deep abyss of darkness and ignorance waiting to engulf us at the end of time! Surely we should spend our time in self pity if despite the generations that have preceded us we are further from perfection than our fathers were and infinitely more ignorant than they. Let anyone hold to this faith who will. Some people like to pity themselves, here is a good chance.
But I think there is better work to be done, work that requires a great deal more strength. We have long ago been promised that the time would come when wants and strife, and everything that is far from being right would for ever cease. We have been told that the time would come when peace would reign supreme, when nation would not raise sword against nation and that even beasts and men would live together in harmony, and though the time has not yet come, I cling to the hope that it will come, but only in one way, that is by humankind striving for it. There is no way of bringing peace into the world without everyone seeking peace in his own heart. There is no way of bringing justice into the world without everyone practising justice at all times. There is no way of bringing upon earth the reign of goodwill without everyone seeking it. The path of social perfection runs with the path toward individual perfection, and as we believe that the human race is advancing ever nearer unto the goal of the existence that shall be in every way perfect and divine, so does it become our duty as individuals to prove it in his own life and to attain and to practise those virtues which shall make him more nearly perfect. If our race is striving for a time when righteousness will be supreme in the world, then we must now strive to be righteous. If our race is struggling out of hatred and bitterness in an effort to reach a time when love shall be the supreme power in the affairs of men, then we must now strive to be loving. If our race is struggling through darkness and ignorance for a clear vision of perfect truth, we must now live in the light of the truth that we possess. Perfect men and perfect women will make a perfect society.
In our effort, however, toward a higher degree of social perfection we are not content as a religious body in urging in a general way the love and practice of the social virtues, but we would strive to come directly to the problems which beset society, and seek, so far as we can, to find some solution. We say to ourselves it is right to be good, or it is good to be right, but how? And here lies a great, though I fear neglected work for religious institutions. It may be hard, nay it is hard. It is again that we prize individual salvation so highly as to forget all about the saving of society, and substantial worshippers have become so thoroughly accustomed to listen somnolently to the kind promises of an indulgent preacher who would tell them that they are assured of salvation that it seems almost cruel to rouse them out of the sleep and make them see that their chances are not quite so good, for the complete salvation of the individual is possible only through the salvation of society. I wonder how many there are among us who say to themselves something of this sort: I am a faithful believer, I pray, I attend services, I contribute my mite to the congregation, and if he be a Christian add, and I give something to help convert the heathen, surely if there is such a place as heaven I do not see who has a better right to go there than I.
I am reminded of a dream I once heard, dreamed by a pious man. He had died and sought admission into heaven. He thought he had sufficient claim; he had been devout and did the usual amount of religious duty, but he was very much surprised when his knock on the door of heaven was answered by the question 'who are you, and who is with you?' He said who he was, but there was not anybody with him, so he was very politely told that he could not come in. Downhearted, he pleaded his causes and recounted all the good he had done, and-how pious he had been, and all he received in reply was "we do not admit individuals into heaven".
Piety may be selfish. It is selfish in the case of him who is pious in the hope for reward, or refrains from sin because of the fear of punishment. Reward and punishment have played too important a part in religion. I would like to take them and throw them out bodily for all time, out of life and what affects life most keenly, and even if we spiritualise them and say it is not physical reward or punishment that we believe in, but spiritual improvement that is to be obtained through the practice of good, or spiritual degeneration that is produced by the practice of wrong, the case to my mind is not essentially altered; it still puts religion on a selfish basis. I rather like that saying that individuals are not admitted to heaven. Selfishness, even spiritual, has no place in piety. The reason for goodness is the love of God, and the aim of goodness is the welfare of mankind. Righteousness, Justice, love and all the virtues are based upon the moral ought, emanating from the source of all goodness, and directed to the interests of all His children. Religion, therefore, must be put upon a social basis. It begins with the individual, but must culminate with its best fruits in society.
Therefore it is that religions must address themselves to the solution of social problems, in order to guide aright those who look to it for guidance. I confess that I was frankly amused some time ago when I read in the daily paper a letter from a Church dignitary objecting to the permission taken by a colleague of his in linking economics with ethics. If the business of religion is only to talk about heaven, I can understand his opposition for there are no economics in heaven. If, on the other hand, it is the business of religion to talk about life, then I fear he has made a serious mistake in separating it from economics, for there is so much in it of life, and perhaps there is no better use for ethics, at least there is no place where it is needed most, than in the economic adjustments of social agencies. The application of ethical principles to the industrial problems and economic questions which confront us to-day, go a long way in solving them. Must we not confess that the churches are standing powerless and almost useless in face of the crisis that is hanging over us. All about us are the threatening signs of industrial unrest. Before us is the keen conflict between sections of society, contending for supremacy and emphasising divisions between man and man. In the face of this shall religion continue to delight the hearts of its adherents with glorious promises of what will come beyond this world. Shall it content itself with the exposition of dogmas that are meaningless or worthless. Shall it repeat again and again its old statements worn bare by use and abuse. Shall it not direct its efforts toward helping in the solution of the monstrous problems of society? That is the business of sociologists, some will say. The business of experts in economy, others will say, but it is first of all the work of those who speak of God to men, who would endeavour to bring upon earth the kingdom of heaven, who are praying, - nay, they also strive, - for the advent of human perfection.
To sum up, then, Liberal Judaism, if I understand it aright, teaches that the faith of the individual, apart from giving him that strength and that guidance which he needs for life, apart from rousing his spirit unto an effort to approach God and brighten his life with ineffable hopes, strives to teach the impelling power of that faith in accomplishing work in behalf of society. Social salvation is more important than individual salvation, for it alone will make possible perfection, and as we believe that the human race is progressing toward that goal which the prophets describe in the terms of peace and perfect goodwill, so it becomes the duty of everyone to strive by what powers he possesses and what talents are vouchsafed unto him, in helping the race to progress, and upon itself lies the duty and the necessity to offer in its own spirit and in the light of its own faith, some solution of the various social problems that confront us; teaching mankind how they may apply righteousness, justice and love, impressing them with the unity of mankind, that working in that spirit all may help toward the final consummation of God's promise for the glory of humanity.