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Richards Disputes Morgenstern’s Claims That Reform Would Ease Trials of Russian Jewry Suffering from

February 13, 1930
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The claim made by Dr. Julius Morgenstern, president of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, that the introduction of Reform in Russia would greatly mitigate the situation of the Jews who are suffering from the Soviet’s persecution of religion in all its manifestations is disputed by Bernard G. Richards, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, in making public correspondence on the subject that has passed between himself and Dr. Morgenstern.

January 3, 1930.

Dear Mr. Richards:

I see from your letter of the 27th ult. that I misunderstand the spirit and purpose of your previous communication accompanied by the copy of the address of Leo M. Glassman, I understand better now your purpose in addressing me. I shall endeavor to answer you in conformity with your purpose.

Unquestionably, the situation of Judaism and of those Jews who conform to Judaism as an active force in their lives is difficult in the extreme in Russia. It has troubled and saddened me greatly. I have given considerable thought to the question. I must say frankly that I do not find the situation at all surprising and incomprehensible, although this statement may seem strange to you. I regard what is happening in Russia today as but a repetition, though upon a larger and more extreme scale of what happened in Central Europe a century or so ago. The gates permitting entrance into the world of modern life, education and culture, with all the privilege and opportunity which this means, were opened to the Jews of Russia with the great war. They found, as did the Jews in Central Europe a hundred years ago, that, during the period of their enforced existence in the Ghetto, cut off from cultural and spiritual contacts with the rest of the world, and the opportunities for growth and expansion which these should have brought, Judaism among them and Jewish cultural life, had, on the whole, stood still. They have been trying to do in these ten years what the Jews of Western Europe and America have been trying to do during the last one hundred years, and this last, I believe and I am sure you will agree with me, with considerable success; to catch up with the rest of the world, to go through in the short period of ten years a process of cultural growth and progress which the world required four hundred years to experience. A rapid and enforced growth such as this is always unhealthy and dangerous. Small wonder, therefore, that extremes are meeting in Russia today; the extremes of Atheism and Orthodoxy. Our sympathies, of course, as positive, living and believing Jews, are with Orthodoxy in this struggle.

But we must realize that the solution of the problem, if there is to be any solution at all, must lie with Reform. Please understand that I am not attempting to make propaganda for American Reform Judaism. I am trying sincerely, on the basis of my careful and responsible studies of Judaism, to understand the true inwardness of this situation and the solution of the problem. The time has come when the entire world must face the fact squarely that Reform in Judaism does not mean disloyalty to Jewish tradition, nor is it yet the way of ease, assimilation and compromise, as its antagonists so often unworthily claim. It is a matter of historic necessity. Judaism’s progress with the passing of time, its ready assimilation and incorporation into its content of new, tried and proved ideas, principles and ideals of existence alone have enabled it to exist throughout all these ages and to grow and create. The soul of Judaism and the soul of the Jewish people with it can find true self-expression only in spiritual progress and even in spiritual leadership. We must realize that the Yevsektzia are striving for this, even though we must condemn their methods and their goals.

As I said before, the only solution of the problem can be true, progressive, moderate, constructive Reform Movement in Russia. Judaism may not remain Orthodoxy there any more than it may remain Orthodoxy elsewhere. Otherwise, the Yevsektzia will persist in their program and they will undoubtedly be right in principle, even though wrong in practice and in method. On the other hand, just as the Orthodox must be made to understand that Reform in Judaism is historically justified and necessary, is in accord with the true spirit and soul of Judaism, so must the Yevsektzia be taught, if this be possible, restraint, moderation, patience, and cooperation. No institution or movement can go through a process of four hundred years of growth in ten or even twenty years and live.

The task is spiritually difficult. The problem is complex, but I can envisage it in no way other than this, and I can see no solution other than this. And I must admit with sadness, even if it be granted that I have formulated the problem correctly, and proposed the only solution, I would not know just how to go about it in a practical way. It is this that distresses me most. Perhaps if some consensus of opinion along these lines could be established here in America, it would be possible to devise some plan of approach that might at least be helpful and contribute somewhat to a solution of the problem. But I fear greatly that even here in America we are very far from any such agreement in spirit, even though I believe there is actually no very great disagreement in practice between the various Jewish groups in America.

If I may sum the matter up, I do not think that we in America can do anything whatsoever to assist in the solution of the problem, unless we approach it along this line. To attempt to bring pressure to bear upon the Yevsektzia will, I am sure, have no effect whatsoever other than to widen the breach and make the antagonism and resultant persecution even more bitter. To approve of and support Orthodoxy alone and condemn the Yevsektzia uncompromisingly, wrong though they are all together in purpose and in method, would be not only fruitless, but it would also be historically untrue.

I do not know whether this reply to your letter will be at all what you wish, or, even if it is, whether it will be at all satisfying to you. I shall be glad to consider very carefully and sympathetically any suggestions, particularly those of a practical nature, which you may offer.

Very sincerely yours,

Julian Morgenstern.

February 3, 1930.

My dear Dr. Morgenstern:

I have received your letter of January 3rd and I read and reread it a number of times. All this time I have delayed and hesitated to make reply, because your communication revealed a frightful gulf of misunderstanding and estrangement which I was in utter despair of being able to bridge or overcome. Though using the vernacular of the country, you and I are evidently speaking separate languages and once more is the vaunted unity of Israel in jeopardy, in, alas, more than one figurative sense.

I wrote to you on December 12th to bring to your knowledge the findings of Mr. Glassman relating to the terrible campaign for the suppression of Judaism, Jewish culture, etc., in Soviet Russia. In reply you enlarged upon a minor reference to economic conditions in Mr. Glassman’s report, discussing the comparative conditions under which Jewish colonization may be carried on in Russia and Palestine, a point which was quite outside of the range of the immediate subject.

I wrote to you again under date of December 27, stressing what was the chief substance and main object of Mr. Glassman’s paper, and asking once more for your opinion on the ruthless attempts to stamp out every vestige of the spiritual life of the Jews within the Soviet Union. You then replied at length, assuring me that “I understand better now your purpose in addressing me,” and stating in effect that (1) you regard “what is happening in Russia today as but a repetition, though upon a larger and more extreme scale, of what happened in Central Europe a century or so ago;” that (2) having been forced to live in a Ghetto and “cut off from cultural and spiritual contacts with the rest of the world,” the Jews of Russia have, in the march of progress been left behind and are trying to make up in ten years for the loss of a century of time; that (3) “the solution of the problem, if there is to be any solution at all, must lie in Reform;” that (4) the Jewish Communists or Yevseks are moving in the direction of Reform Judaism; that (5) something should be done to introduce Reform in Russia; that (6) while we must condemn the methods of the Yevsektzia we cannot oppose them in principle for the reason that “to approve of and support Orthodoxy alone and condemn the Yevsektzia uncompromisingly, wrong though they are altogether in purpose and in method, would be not only fruitless, but it would also be historically untrue.”

With all due respect for your standing and position, my dear doctor, I cannot refrain from saying that your letter is the most astonishing document which I have read in many years. Your apparent misreading of the whole chapter of recent Russian history baffles any further attempt to outline the real problem and, if Mr. Glassman’s clear, lucid and logical statement of 17 pages has failed to convince you that Judaism and Jewish culture of every phase and form are being destroyed by the Soviets, what more could I do now to prove that it is not a case of quibbling about Reform versus Orthodoxy.

How can there be any serious talk of Reform or any newer interpretation of Judaism in the face of ruthless assaults upon hallowed Jewish practices and memorials, brutal attacks upon every form of worship, observance or religious utterances; in the face of the cruel persecution of rabbis and Jewish teachers, the most dire suffering inflicted upon men, women and children on account of contact with Jewish study or religious customs? Would you stop and argue the comparative merits of various schools of Jewish thought in the presence of a raging pogrom? Do you think that we can now sit down comfortably to adjust our religious and philosophical differences, with a terrible conflagration surging around us? On what ground do you assume, even though vaguely, that the Soviets or Yevsektzia would permit the introduction of Reform or tolerate any religious or semblance of religious activity of whatever shade of opinion? Does not Mr. Glassman, does not Professor Kroll, does not Maurice Hindus, a writer sympathetic to the Soviets, make clear that every form of religion is being uprooted in Russia and that the religious life of nearly three millions of our people is well-nigh doomed? Are you not aware that there is an entire system or code of Russian laws, printed some while ago and recently forwarded to this country, which has the very definite intention and purpose of exterminating and demolishing every phase of social life that relates to religious beliefs or professions? Have you entirely overlooked the reference to the drastic injunctions against the religious education of the young, an object which your associates and yourself presumably have very much at heart? Would you rather leave these children and youths, under eighteen, uninstructed than initiated into Judaism and Jewish history by teachers who do not share your theory of Judaism? Is there no way of transmitting to you and your group the poignant and the deliberately-enforced drying up of this great reservoir of the essence of Judaism and Jewish culture, a reservoir which has fed the streams and rivers of our life, running to the most distant parts of the world? How can we talk of Reform or of any interpretation of Jewish religious ideas in the presence of the most wanton destruction, of an unspeakable catastrophe.

The campaign of the Soviet Government is clearly and unmistakably motivated by the most pronounced conception of atheism and materialistic philosophy and is very definitely directed against any and every manifestation of religion; so that interpretations and modifications of religious life or religious culture are at the outset ruled out of this discussion. The Jewish representatives of the Soviets or members of the Yevsektzia are the most subservient, obsequious and sycophantic followers of the Soviet rulers, and their frantic attempts to be more cosmopolitan and more ardent free-thinkers than their overlords, superinduced by a psychology of fear and uncertainty, presents a grotesque mockery of what extreme and desperate assimilation might bring about. How you can describe them as striving for “spiritual progress” or aiming at “spiritual leadership” passes all comprehension. The Yevsektzia, because of its Yiddishistic leanings, may bear the earmarks of a quasi cultural organization but those who are acquainted with the subject know that it resorts to Yiddish not for a Jewish nor even for Yiddishistic purposes, that its aims are chiefly political and that it primarily strives for the weaning of the Jewish youth from anything and everything that is at all cognate to Jewish tradition or to the Jewish spiritual heritage.

Neither the American Jewish Congress, which is not committed to any special religious platform, nor any of the other Jewish organizations seeking to be of service, which have a definite point of view, nor the Board of Jewish Deputies in England, nor Chief Rabbi Hertz, who has denounced the indifference of Jewish leadership to the problem none of these have raised the question of Orthodoxy, but have cried out against the ruthless destruction of the fundamental elements of Judaism, the fountain-head of knowledge and belief to which all schools ultimately resort.

It was with the apprehension of this calamity uppermost in my mind that I wrote to you and wrote, among others, to a number of Reform Jewish leaders, believing that those who stress Judaism as the center and basis of Jewish life would be among the first to offer to come to the rescue if

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