Inner Obstacles

To those who have already through some inner process of their own reached the conclusion that the present situation of the Jewish people is an abnormal and unhappy one, whether anti-Semitism is at ebb or at flood—to such the notions and plans I have outlined in this column will seem, however erroneous in detail, natural and sound enough in temper and intention. To others, to what is alas still an overwhelming majority of Jews, the rank and file, in fact, of respectable American Jewry, these notions and plans still seem fantastic and alarming, calculated to shake still further their already tottering inner equilibrium and to render more desperate their difficult and precarious pacts with their environment. I have recently seen admirable people driven to what seemed to them the edge of the precipice of the auto-emancipation and with a shiver and a sigh retrace the step and sink back into the morass of propitiatory assimilationism.

It may be of some value to seek to understand the inner obstacles that prevent these numerous men and women among whom, I repeat, are astonishingly many fine souls and fine minds, from taking the ultimate step of liberation and redemption. The first and often the chief of these inner obstacles, especially among the maturer in years, is the nineteenth century tradition not only of the supremacy of the reason, but of the reason being supreme by virtue of one single function and use of it alone. Let me seek to make that quite clear. The classical thinkers from the Rambam to Kant held and illustrated their conviction that the reason must also know its own limitations; it must know where its work ends; it must know how to take cognizance of both cosmic and moral facts which it is powerless to explain. It is this function of the reason which the nineteenth century negated. To the nineteenth century what could not be classified did not exist; whatever refused to fall within a well-defined category was negated in its totality; the reason was used to show that whatever phenomenon was recalcitrant to obvious classifications must be a figment of some sick fancy.

Thus and only thus could it have come about, for instance, that two Jews, an Austrian economist and an American physician, each wrote a book proving with all the apparatus of contemporary anthropology and ethnology that the Jews were not, within the classificatory systems of these sciences, a race and believed—both Kautsky and Fishbein—that they had now proven that there were no Jews and that the assimilatory game could go merrily on. In brief: the nineteenth century superstition of the classificatory use of the reason being its only use could go to the amusing length of denying out of existence a people of fifteen million souls with its own specific average habitus, speech, folk-ways, eternally unique moral and spiritual nature, its own incomparable way of dealing with man and nature and God, because that people refused to fall within the categories (nose-length, skull-breadth, skin-pigmentation) that had been more or less antecedently agreed upon. I wonder if the Middle Ages could beat that for a superstitious use of the human reason.

What has that to do with the average respectable American Jewish merchant, physician, lawyer? Everything. He was brought up in this nineteenth century tradition; at school and college it soaked into his very bones; he was taught that by virtue of it he was modern and enlightened and progressive. His Rabbi confirmed him in it by being afraid to mention seriously either his God or his people; in his temple, which had been stripped of everything Jewish, historical, traditional, of all the symbols of such infinite tragedy and such infinite glory, he heard the Torah interpreted as a valuable ethical document for general use instead of as the eternally unique symbol of himself and his eternally unique people. In other words, all life, including Torah and temple, had been classified down to meet the scientific superstition that the unique (das Einmalige in Buber’s fine phrase), the imponderable, the immediately and grossly inexplicable did not exist. He who still believed in its existence was unscientific, unprogressive or, most dangerous of words, orthodox.

So today this respectable and reasonably well-educated Jew has to overcome the initial total world-view in which he was brought up. He has to relearn from the beginning; he has to find out for himself that essentially and psychologically his great-grandfather was right and that he is wrong; that the Jew must heed the everlasting monition, the iron clang of the undying call: Viphiythem li k’doshim, khi kadosh ani Adonai or sink into corruption and emptiness of soul and servility, and that he must do so because it is literally and demonstrably true to historic and to present facts that va-avdil etchem mi-ha-amin. We are a unique people; we serve our unique destiny or our souls perish. It is not easy for an American gentleman driving to temple on Sunday morning in a radio-equipped car to get that through his poor bewildered head.

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