Two hundred and forty-one Reform Rabbis, members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a statement last week in which they expressed themselves as being in full accord with the principles and ideals of the Palestine Labor Movement. They did not, of course, endorse every action of the Histadruth, nor commit them selves to any partisan approval of any and all of its future actions. They hailed the social principles basic in the program of the Palestine Labor Movement which they believe to be in complete consonance with the prophetic idealism of Israel’s faith. And at a significant juncture they spoke, convinced that "A wise man is impartial not neutral. A fool is neutral, but not impartial," (Confucius).
This statement of the Reform Rabbis has a twofold significance. First, it reveals the very liberal economic views which have come to prevail among the leaders of Reform Judaism in America. And secondly, it dramatizes the remarkable volte face which has taken place in recent years among Reform Rabbis with reference to Palestine.
The radical liberalism of so many Reform Rabbis will come as a shock to those critics who, never varying their sing-song, still speak of Reform temples as the altars of the rich and the citadels of economic reaction and of Reform rabbis as time-servers and lackeys of entrenched privilege. In many a community today it is not infrequent to find the rabbi of the Reform or Conservative congregation, the one who speaks up against economic reaction or political corruption or professional patrioteering. In fact, our Jewish ba#ale batim have become seriously perturbed over this "radicalism" of the American Jewish ministry, and some of them are casting about for ways to muzzle it.
But the enthusiasm of the 241 rabbis for the "rehabilitation of Palestine as the Jewish homeland" is even more significant. This number represents the overwhelming majority of the members of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. What a remarkable change has come over the face of things in the last few years! And how gratifying? Truly, life achieves results which neither dialectics nor logical persuasion can ever hope to achieve….
May we suggest that American Rabbis may serve the cause of Zionism not merely materially, in fund-raising activities and in organizational work, but spiritually, in keeping steadily before the minds of the Jewish people the total program of Zionism. As Rabbis, they have a distinctive contribution to make in terms of fundamental thinking and ideologic orientation. They should not permit themselves to become mere party functionaries and campaigners.
What is the total program of Zionism?
Havelock Ellis in his introduction to J. K. Huysmans’ "A Rebours" makes the interesting observation that the essential distinction between the classic and the decadent in art and literature is to be found in the fact that in the classic the parts are subordinated to the whole, whereas in the decadent, the whole is subordinated to the parts. "The classic strives after those virtues which the whole may best express; the later manner (the decadent) depreciates the importance of the whole for the benefit of its parts, and strives after the virtue of individualism." This is a fair distinction; and we should like to apply it to the philosophy of Zionism.
Zionism, as we see it, aims at the classic balance in Jewish life. Judaism is a compound of many elements. Many tributaries flow into its historic channel—prophecy, legalism, mysticism, nationalism. In recent years some zealous and mostly uninformed partisans have attempted to reduce Judaism to what is only a fraction of itself—to race or nationalism or folk-ways or theologic abstractions. Quite unconsciously they are falsifying Judaism. It is a mark of our decadence in the diaspora that so many of our people have lost the sense of the classic harmony in Jewish life and are attempting to substitute a part for the whole.
Zionism is the national effort to restore the lost harmony of Jewish life. It aims at a reconstituted totality of Jewish existence.
Politically we are deficient because we lack a national home. Therefore Zionism strives to fill this want for the sake of retrieving the true equilibrium of our corporate life, not because nationalism is the summum bonum or the sole goal of our existence. The Jewish people never idealized nationalism per se. The idolatry of race and nation is neither pagan nor Jewish. It is one of the pathological aberrations of the decadent civilizations of western Europe.
Culturally, we are disadvantaged. The shelter of the ghetto walls is gone and the sharp winds of alien cultures are sweeping over our group life and scattering it. The culture of a minority needs the security of isolation—political, economic and religious. Such isolation is no longer possible for the Jewish group even in this mad, intolerant, post-bellum world of ours. Zionism would therefore give to our national culture the security of a home, as well as the matrix of a national soil.
But Jewish culture is not just another culture, a replica of the cultures of the peoples of Europe. It differs from them not only in content but in spirit. In a sense it is their challenge and their condemnation. One of the tragic casualties of assimilation has been the surrender of the sovereign inheritage of our unique culture to a simulated identity with other cultures. Our terrestrial Jerusalem is a replica of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Our classic creations of the past were tipped with the fires of a uniquely world-purpose—prophecy…. Both the Written and the Oral Law were aimed at making Israel "a holy nation"—not just another nation. This is a conception as astounding as it is unique.
The Bible is not just literature. Neither is the Apocrypha, the Apocalpses, the Talmud of the abundant writings of the philosophers, scholars, mystics and poets of the Middle Ages. All the purely "secular" literary writings of the Jewish people up to modern times would not entitle us to a tenth place in the literary estimation of the world. Our literature is, in the broadest sense, religious literature. It is hortative literature, if you will, the championing, in preachment, song, law or philosophy of a few vital and transcendent moral and religious ideals.
A Jewish culture which is devoid of its Messianic theme, its moral passion and its profound spiritual faith, is a delusion and a mockery.
Zionism never lost sight of this quintessential truth. Its roots were always in the Messianic ideal of our people. This ideal in turn, is bound up with the prophetic vision of "aharit hay-yamim"—the ultimate vision of a perfect society. Up to the latter half of the nineteenth century the restoration movement was entirely and avowedly religious in character. Towards the close of the century, the influence of certain European philosophies of nationalism upon some of the leaders of our movement introduced into Zionism a note of secular nationalism and the pseudo-philosophies of race and culture.
There is not enough of truth or vitality in these concepts of nation, race or secular culture to inspire or to hold a generation of Jews to Jewish loyalty. They are a scant viaticum, hardly sufficient "tsaidah laderek" for so hard a journey. The total Jewish program—the moral idealism, the religious values, the cultural treasures and the national aspirations of Israel—might achieve this miracle.