Jewish literature is the true Jewish museum. For nowhere does the Jewish spirit express itself so thoroughly, in all its multifarious character and its historic transformation as in literature. There are nations that have found their classic expression in art or politics or science. There are nations and epochs in which all spiritual activities combined and found expression simultaneously. There was Greek antiquity, and the Italian Renaissance. The classic symbol of the Jews, in all times and in all countries, is religion. It is from the Jewish religion that the stream flows and expresses itself in Jewish writings up to our day. No community of people has found its spiritual expression in writing so much.
If anti-Semitism combats the Jewish spirit, openly or under a mask, honestly or with malice, it knows neither the historic forces nor the transformations of this spirit. It paints a terrifying picture of qualities which are for the most part either not Jewish, or have been torn out of their contexts and so have very little relation to reality. Above all, they fasten on the inward contradictions, which are explicable only if they are viewed historically. They forget the great span, from East to West, which gives the Jewish spirit both the appearance of cool and clear rationalism, and of mystical, metaphysical searching. Even in the narrow field of religious writing, these two aspects always manifest themselvesâ€”the Talmudic art of exposition and the spiritual passionate yearning for God, such as found its most recent expression in Chassidism.
SOUL THE MOTIVE FORCE
If we consider Jewish literature, from Biblical times till the present day, we find that with all the changes of motives and forms, the religious basis is always there as a living force, in the same way as the span between East and West, between emotion and reason. Even in the great rational thinkers the soul is the real motive force of their thought. The Jewish writer never gives himself up entirely to the outward world, he never denies the inward soul, he never represents the purely Occidental type whose aim is action alone, without relationship to the inward life. The Jewish spirit demands much more, and in this respect it has always remained Oriental. It has always insisted that outward pleasures and successes must be subordinate to the inward life.
It is true that Jewish religion and the Jewish spirit are not ascetic, and unlike Christianity do not negate life, But life is to be sanctified, ennobled, spiritualized, turned inward. In this point all the centuries of Jewish life and all the tendencies of Jewish life are at one. Judaism says yes to life, but it does not seize hold of life as something given to be enjoyed, but rather as a task to which to rise. The task embraces everything that we are and can be. It embraces our soul, our spirit, the deeds of our hands, our whole life.
NIETZSCHE’S TRIBUTE TO JEW
The reality to which this Jewish thought holds fast is Jewish life in the real sense. As Jews live together and for each other, as their religion is their communal life, so the thought of the Jews from the beginning to the present day seeks to realize the Jewish life, to sanctify, to consecrate, to understand and to penetrate it. There is an almost unknown passage in Nietzsche’s work, “The Will to Power,” which speaks of this characteristic of the Jews. Nietzsche is dealing with the Jewish family of the Diaspora “with its warmth and tenderness, with its readiness to help, unknown and perhaps never understood in the whole of the Roman Empire. They help each other, unostentatiously, clothed in the humble pride of the Chosen, feeling no envy of the things that lie on the surface, power and glory.”
And Nietzsche says also that thus it came about that the principle of love emerged out of the small Jewish community. “It is a more passionate soul that glows here under the ashes of humility and poverty. This was neither Greek, nor Indian, nor even Germanic. The song in praise of love which Paul composed is not Christian, but a Jewish burst of the eternal flame that is Semitic.”
This song has constantly been written anew in the Jewish writings. The language has changed; it changes not only according to the nations among whom the Jews live, but it changes also in spiritual character, no matter whether it is philosophical teaching, or hymnal song, research, the reformation of the religion, or a message. Always the Jewish writer speaks to his own community, and with that passionate soul that affirms life, but at the same time seeks to raise the level of life, of love, of mutual help, of the spirit. If the Jew steps outside the circle of these Jewish ties, he is generally a heretic who strives to speak to the whole world and save it from egoism and lethargy, by the proclamation of new verities, which proceed however from his Jewish soul. That is what Jesus and Paul did, and Spinoza too.
SPIRIT THROUGH LITERATURE
It is possible nowadays to dig down into this immense richness of Jewish writings and to recognize this unity in multifariousness.
Only the other day, the Schocken Verlag in Berlin issued the first volume of a work intended to give in the German language the classic examples of Jewish thought. The first volume contains selections from the Talmud and the Midrash, passages from Josephus, Chassidic legends, extracts from Rabbinic literature, folk songs, and the like. The work does not claim to be systematic and exhaustive; it is not intended for the scholar, but for the average reader.
The real aim is to show Jewish life, Jewish spiritual reality through Jewish literature. It is not an attempt to teach Jewish literary history, or theology, or ethics, but to acquaint the reader with the peculiar, spiritual, religious force of Jewish past and present, as they have found expression in Jewish writings.
POETRY OF COMMUNAL LIFE
“Between God and Man” is the title heading the selections from Talmud and Midrash. It might be the title of the book as a whole, of all Jewish writings. For all these thinkers and poets are filled with a passion, devoted in the same breath to their community and its life, and to ethical ideals. The short admonitory stories all revolve round the justice of God and of people, and the poetry is that of communal life, and of the love of God and His people. When this passion rises into prayer and piety, or, as among the Chassidim, to stormy yearning for the Messiah and mystic unity, it is through all centuries and all lands the same Jewish soul.
There is danger in literature when it threatens to cut adrift from life, but there is no real danger of this in Jewish literature. For even Talmudic theology, which knows no other world but that of the Bible, does not entirely turn away from life, since the teachings of the Torah always relate to life. Thus the apparently sterile and world-renouncing Talmudistic erudition too serves life. That is the inmost meaning of all Rabbinic prayer. The Rabbis pray that teaching may sanctify life.