Commentary Magazine


A Letter to David Daiches:
Change and Tradition in American Judaism

David Daiches’s article in the February COMMENTARY, “American Judaism: A Personal View,” which expressed an agnosticism toward the Jewish religion along with a scornful rejection of the “pussyfooting” of liberal Judaism in America, has aroused perhaps as much reaction as any article ever published in this journal. Last month Rabbi Leo S. Baeck, in an article entitled “The Task of Being an American Jew,” presented an answer to Mr. Daiches in terms of the positive accomplishments of the Reform movements in making Judaism viable for modern man. Milton R. Konvitz, professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, here replies to Mr. Daiches from the viewpoint of one who combines liberal humanism with traditional Jewish observance in his own personal life. Forthcoming numbers will present further discussion on this central issue of the survival of an authentic Judaism in America.

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Dear David Daiches:

Had your article in the February 1951 COMMENTARY been only an exposition and defense of agnosticism, it would have awakened in me echoes of Thomas Huxley and Bertrand Russell, but I would not have felt myself personally involved. Your article, however, because it is your “personal view” of American Judaism, has started up in me reverberations from some of the deepest layers of my mind; I find myself profoundly and inextricably involved. For you and I have had pretty much the same upbringing, experiences, and education. My father, too, as you know, was a distinguished Orthodox rabbi who enjoyed the respect and confidence of both Jew and Christian; my education, too, was in several cultures, sacred and profane; my career, too, has brought me in my vocation as teacher to an American university campus. However, while I accept some of the incidental things you say in your article, if your fundamental assertions are right, then I have been misliving my life; then I have gained from my background, experiences, and education only a bushel of tares while you possess the wheat. I feel myself, therefore, personally challenged.

Cutting away some of the underbrush, I find that my differences from you stem from our different attitudes toward tradition, particularly as to the function of tradition in Judaism. Our differences here are over fundamentals.

One extreme view of tradition may be characterized as the Platonic view. Plato held that the good is what preserves; that evil is what changes. Change leads away from what is perfect, the Form or the Idea; change tends toward the imperfect, evil. Any change whatever, Plato says in the Laws, “is the gravest of all the treacherous dangers that can befall a thing—whether it is now a change of season, or of wind, or of the diet of the body, or of the character of the soul.” This statement, he says, applies to everything except to what is evil. Again in the Laws he says: “The lawgiver must continue by hook or by crook a method which ensures for his state that the whole soul of every citizen will resist, from reverence and fear, to changing any of the things that are established of old.” In the Philelbus Plato says: “The men of old . . . were better than we are now, and . . . lived nearer to the gods. . . .”

The opposite extreme view of tradition may be characterized as the Emersonian view. If a man claims to know and speak of God, says Emerson in his essay on “Self-Reliance,” and yet “carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. . . . Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence then this worship of the past? . . . When we have new perception, we shall gladly disburden the memory of its hoarded treasures as old rubbish. . . . This one fact the world hates; that the soul becomes; for that forever degrades the past. . . . Say to them: ‘O father, O mother, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known unto you that henceforward I obey no laws less than the eternal law. . . . I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you.’”

Emerson, who knew his Plato, was here, I believe, answering him by substituting one extreme view for another. Plato was on a quest for certainty, Emerson was on a quest for change. Plato identified the good with being; Emerson identified the good with becoming.

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If one is offered a choice between these two extremes, a person with a warm attachment to life and experience must do what Emerson counseled: break with the past completely, tell the dead to bury the dead, kiss one’s parents goodbye and turn one’s face in the direction of the future and the unknown.

In a way, David, it seems that this is what you have done. The Orthodox Judaism of your father was, you say, “the real thing.” Judaism is that religion which you associate with your father—“the full historical Judaism with its richness, its ceremonial, its discipline, and its strange beauty.” When you think of Judaism, you are a Platonist and would put a curse on anyone who removes his father’s landmark. Judaism is a perfect Form or Idea; it is unchanging; any change is a step toward imperfection: “The men of old . . . were better than we are now, and . . . lived nearer to the gods.” If Jews wish to continue as Jews, they should go back to your father’s shul, his way of life, and his ways of looking at life and the world.

But you yourself, David, because of your intelligence and spirit, find your father’s ways and views no longer congenial or acceptable. You, therefore, feel that you must break with the past completely, and so you go over to Emerson’s side. For you, there can be no worship of the past. You say to your father: “O father, henceforward I am the truth’s.” You have made the leap from Jew to humanist, from Judaism to humanism, from the dead past to the live present and future, from being to becoming.

If Judaism is something that is finished, completed, a Form that will not reflect anything that is alive and throbbing today and this minute, how could one blame you? If Judaism is only a mummified corpse, what could you personally do with it except hack it to pieces, free yourself from it and run outdoors for a bit of fresh air and sunshine?

In a way, however, your position is extremely equivocal. You still want the cake, but only for others to eat. Identifying Judaism with your father’s shul and home, you want others to sustain it for “its richness, its ceremonial, its discipline, and its strange beauty.” For others, Judaism is a Platonic Form, perfect in its being. But not for you. For yourself, you are on an Emersonian quest of becoming; you shatter the past, you have disburdened your memory of its hoarded treasure as old rubbish.

Now I say, David, if the choice were only between Plato and Emerson, I would be on your and Emerson’s side. But you have narrowed the possible choices to two impossible extremes.

There is a third way. It is the way of all that is best in Judaism. For a description of this third way I shall go to T. S. Eliot’s essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—and I go to him rather than, say, Solomon Schechter, because his discussion will bring home to you the fact that you have treated tradition in Judaism differently from the way you would treat tradition in English literature or culture, for I believe you share the views Eliot expresses in this essay.

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Tradition, says Eliot, cannot be inherited as a dead weight—the way a son inherits his father’s house, say, or his books. The inheritance of tradition involves a number of things. First of all it involves the historical sense. This sense involves a perception, “not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” The historical sense “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” This historical sense is “a sense of the timeless and of the temporal together.” No writer or artist can be seen as standing alone. “His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

This is only one side of a two-sided transaction. “The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified,” says Eliot, “by the introduction of the new (really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.” The past, then, “is altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

In Judaism we find—at least I offer it as my “personal view”—both sides of the creative transaction described by Eliot. We have the historical sense, which gives to Jewish history a simultaneous existence and which composes of Jewish history a simultaneous order. Let me illustrate this point from the Passover Haggadah: “We were the slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt; and the Lord our God brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not brought us forth from Egypt, then surely we, and our children, and our children’s children, would be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.” We are taught that every Jew in every generation must think of himself as having gone forth from Egypt: “It was not only our forefathers that the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed. Us, too, the living, He redeemed together with them. . . .” The past, then, changes the present: I, in 1951, an American, have been redeemed from slavery and Egypt. The past is significant to me not in its character of pastness but in its existential presentness.

And the past in Judaism is changed by the present. When Moses was shown the Torah as it was to be interpreted and applied by Rabbi Akiba, many centuries later, he looked at it in amazement and consternation, for he could not—the rabbis tell us—recognize in it the Torah that he transmitted to the Jews at Sinai. The Torah as it passed through the alembic of the minds of the Prophets, of Maimonides, Saadia Gaon, and of the thousands of rabbis of the Talmud and of the centuries since then, has undergone deep-sea changes. “Turn it over, turn it over,” we are told, “for everything is in it.” Judaism can no more be reduced to a number of dogmas and practices, or even, as you seem to intimate, to monotheism, humanism, and a sense of righteousness, than English poetry can be reduced to a textbook of abstract generalizations.

In Judaism, then, the past is altered by the present, and the present is altered by the past. Had you considered Judaism in this light, you could not then have permitted yourself to identify Judaism with your father’s beliefs and practices. To freeze Judaism into any form is to give substance to Toynbee’s charge that Judaism is a fossil; for it means identifying Judaism with the past as utter and dead pastness; it means inheriting Judaism from one’s father as one inherits one’s father’s house or books. There is only one thing to do with one’s father, as John Bright has said, and that is: to stand upon his shoulders—and to see farther. For a child to carry his father upon his shoulders is to identify his father with obsolescence and to invite nihilism.

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Let me for a moment look at this matter from another point of view. It seems to me that an identification of Judaism with the shul and the forms of observance of one’s father lays one open to the charge of idolatry. “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and all thy soul, and all thy might.” We have not been taught to love our synagogues, or our kiddush cups, or our Sabbaths and holy days, or our rabbis, or even the Bible or the Torah, with all our hearts, with all our souls, and all our might—but only God. (We are taught to honor our fathers and mothers; we are not taught to love them with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might.) Holy places, holy days, holy books, and holy men are important, but their importance is of a secondary, relative, contingent nature. To identify Judaism with them is to confuse form with substance, shadow with reality. To worship the Bible is to practice bibliolatry—witness the Jewish judgment on the Karaites. To worship an infallible church or pope, or a Sanhedrin, or a land, or a book, is to love something other than God with all one’s heart, all one’s soul, and all one’s might.

It was Cardinal Faulhaber, though it could have been a great rabbi, who said: “We cannot separate the Law of the Lord from the Lord of the Law.” To give centrality in Judaism even to the Law of the Lord is to set up an idol. Only the Lord of the Law is entitled to centrality as an absolute.

This, incidentally, is one reason why I object to making the Law of the Lord the law of the State of Israel, for it means separation of the Law of the Lord from the Lord of the Law; it means the intervention of a policeman between Jew and God, and the displacement of God by the state. The intention of the rabbis is, of course, to enthrone God; but the effect is precisely the opposite. When you, David, say that the separation of church and state in Israel may be good Jeffersonian Americanism but is not good Judaism, you are again fossilizing Judaism, refusing to admit that the Judaism of thousands of years ago has been changed by the centuries and the many millions of Jews—and non-Jews, including Jefferson—who have lived and died since the destruction of the Temple.

It is in a non-idolatrous, Jewish spirit that we observe rites and ceremonies. “The commandments,” said Rab, “were given to Israel only in order that men should be purified through them. For what can it matter to God whether a beast is slain at the throat or at the neck?” Even the Temple was used by our forefathers as an idol. “Trust ye not in lying words, saying: The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, are these,’” said Jeremiah to them. T will do unto the house, whereupon My name is called, wherein ye trust . . . as I have done to Shiloh.” To call a place the temple of the Lord and to trust in it in such a way as to displace God is to engage in idolworship. (We see here the essential reason why Jews find it impossible to reconcile themselves to a religion which says that the way to the Father is only through the Son—or through the Church; for this means the positing of an absolute besides God. The Jew, per contra, says: the way to the Father is through your heart and your deeds. Nor does he add: and through your father’s synagogue and observances.)

I want to quote to you a Psalm which you know very well, Psalm 15:

Lord, who shall sojourn in Thy tabernacle?
Who shedl dwell upon Thy mountain?
He that walketh uprightly, and worketh
   righteousness,
And speaketh truth in his heart;
That hath no slander upon his tongue,
Nor doeth evil to his fellow,
Nor taketh up a reproach against his neigh-
   bor,
In whose eyes a vile person is despised,
But he honoureth them that fear the Lord;
He that sweareth to his own hurt, and
   changeth not;
He that putteth not out his money on
   interest,
Nor taketh a bribe against the innocent.
He that doeth these things shall never be
   moved.

I quote this Psalm not so much for what is in it as for what is not in it. You will note there is not a word in it about the Temple, about forms of worship, not even a word about Jews or Judaism. And it was this Psalm which, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, summarized the 613 commandments. It was in the spirit of this Psalm (and such passages in the Bible are legion) that Saadia Gaon said that he who observes the commandment regarding honest weights and measures may, for all we know, be as righteous as he who observes the ritual commandments, and that Rabbi Kook said that the halutzim in Palestine were earning great merits in the world to come by observing the commandment of avoda (labor). I cite these examples not to prove that deeds are more important than rituals, but only for the purpose of demonstrating that it is a falsification to give to rituals or to any institution or to any person or book a position of centrality in Judaism.

You, David, are no worshiper of ancestors, and no worshiper of idols. Your intelligence is free and brave, so you have shattered the image of Judaism which you had projected upon the image of your father; and by shattering one, you have shattered both. But you were wrong in the beginning when you identified Judaism with your father’s loyalties and practices. Had you climbed up to your father’s shoulders, you would have seen farther—you would have seen yourself as changed by him—and as changing him. From the standpoint of a tradition that is not inherited as a dead weight but that is alive and creative, it may be said that even as he is the child of the man, the child is also the father of the man. Piety, said Santayana, is loyalty to the sources of our being. This is the piety that characterizes the direction of sentiment from son to father. But this is only half the story. The other half is the piety which characterizes the direction of sentiment from father to son. Either half alone is impiety; the two taken together give us a tradition in which the present is enriched by the past and the past is enriched by the present, and thus save us from nihilism as well as from idolatry.

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Seen this way, Judaism is no hindrance to humanism. On the contrary, it affords one a stance from which one can say with Terence: Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto. Jews and Christians have been great humanists without feeling that either their religion or their humanism was compromised. A proper perspective makes possible a perception of the timeless and the temporal together, and of man and God together. When a man knows with Saadia Gaon that God is “the God of all mankind,” and that “the worth of each man and his lot are equally precious before Him,” and with Ben Azzai that the verse in Genesis, “This is the book of the generations of Adam,” is the greatest principle in the Torah, then nothing human—not even agnosticism, David—can be alien to him. Judaism, as thus conceived, stands committed to all that is open and free and is the enemy of all that is closed and restricted. If you will say that this is not the Judaism of your father and mine, but a Jeffersonian Judaism, I will answer that I am not at all sure that they were not Jeffersonian Jews. Though at times they felt themselves possessed by God, they never acted as if God were possessed by them.

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You are inclined, David, it seems to me, to seek a simple solution—total Orthodoxy or total assimilation—to a problem that is very complex. Let me try to make my meaning clear by a brief comparison between your father’s experiences as rabbi in Edinburgh and my father’s experiences as rabbi in Newark, New Jersey.

When your father came to Edinburgh in 1919, he found 400 Jewish families and two Orthodox congregations. The call to your father came from congregations acting jointly. After some years and much effort, your father succeeded in bringing together the two congregations, forming a new united synagogue.

When my father came to Newark in 1924, the synagogue that called him had a membership of some 400 families. Newark then had an estimated Jewish population of between 60,000 and 70,000 (many thousands have since moved to the satellite towns). There was no census of congregations, but I venture to say that there were no fewer than 30 or 40 Orthodox congregations, besides a Reform temple and two Conservative congregations. In addition to my father, there were only two or three other Orthodox rabbis with smicha, that is, properly ordained. But there were in addition many fakers—I use the term advisedly—who professed to be rabbis: former Hebrew teachers, shammosim (sextons), chazanim (cantors), and shochtim (ritual slaughterers), a despicable crew of “reverends” who were perpetually covetous of money and publicity. They were a stinking abomination to both God and man. Yet these fake rabbis had congregations, performed all the functions of rabbis, buried the dead and flattered the living. They were constantly tempted to make of kashruth a racket. This was not too difficult in a city where there were, I would say, between 125 and 150 butchers and many poultry markets that catered to the Jewish trade.

It was not long before my father and his colleagues found themselves in a life-anddeath struggle. I am not exaggerating. If I were to disclose the facts, our anti-defamationists would charge me with contributing to anti-Semitism! (The record, however, of the kosher poultry racket of New York City, in which the union of shochtim played a prominent role, may be found in the proceedings of the New York State courts.) That episode in my father’s life is one which I find extremely painful to recall: for at least a decade my father had no sense of personal security and no inner or outer peace.

Now I submit to you, David, that it is not helpful to judge the anarchic complexity of Jewish life in Newark (or Chicago, or Philadelphia, or San Francisco) by the relatively idyllic simplicity of Jewish life in Edinburgh. Going from Edinburgh to Newark is like going from Walden Pond to Boston—or from Selborne to London. There is, as Mr. Justice Brandeis said, the curse of bigness. It is not merely that with bigness a small problem becomes a big problem; bigness and smallness may be incommensurable.

Please note that what I am talking about is the large-scale hefkores, the utter disorder that one can find in a large Orthodox community in the United States, a state of affairs that exists among American Jews who profess to adhere to your father’s shul and to his religious values. Orthodoxy, then, is no guarantee against vulgarity, corruption, and even plain criminality. To say to American Jews (of whom some 4,000,000 are said to live in cities with a Jewish population of 10,000 or over) that they should be Orthodox or assimilate, and to say this in a context which implies that Orthodoxy will shield them from evils which you associate with non-Orthodox Judaism, is, I fear, to hold out illusory hopes. The evils we see around us are not due to the fact that some Jews are non-Orthodox.

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Let me be clear on this point: Just as I am not attempting to whitewash Reform and Conservative Jews, so I am not attempting to blacken the repute of Orthodox Jews. My intent is only to caution against the prescription of a cure that is irrelevant to the malady. Just as it does not follow, I believe, from what you have said that Jews should not be or become Reform or Conservative, so it does not follow from what I have said that Jews should not be or become Orthodox. The decision regarding religious commitment should be made only on the basis of religious faith and belief as to what best ministers to the individual’s deepest personal needs.

But you, David, seem to be advising American Jews to base their decision regarding personal religious commitment on institutional behavior; that is, on observation of the way in which congregations and rabbis behave. You ask them, in effect, to choose their religion on sociological rather than religious considerations. The moral import of your approach can tend only further to eat away the foundations of Judaism. If followed, your approach would, in the long run, contribute to a deepened vulgarization and a more widespread shallowness, so that ultimately we would all become hollow men. In a word: you tell us to be or become Orthodox, but for the wrong reasons—reasons which, if taken seriously, would cause Judaism to crumble. It would be both dry and empty.

There is, of course, much that is wrong, and even rotten, in American Jewish life. But this is equally true of American life in general (as it is true also of British, French, Asian life, and of every man’s life, wherever his local habitation and whatever his name). Yet we do not, by any means, despair of American life. Why, then, should we dispair of Jewish life in America? If we are not better than others, are we worse? Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel saw no less evil in their own days, yet they were prophets of hope as well as prophets of doom. Their mission was to call for and promise a renewal. American Jews today, as Jews everywhere and at all times, prefer the lesser to the greater good, see the better but follow the worse. There is so much good that must be done and so much evil that is being done that one wishes to cry out: “But yet the pity of it . . .!”

One is torn between anger and pity—at oneself as well as at others; but Judaism is committed to both anger and pity. For just as pity alone may weaken the will so that it becomes tolerant of evil, so anger alone may destroy the world—with all the good that is in it and all its promise of good for the future. It is not only Judaism but sanity that compels us to stake all we have on the good, and on the future—eschatological or natural. Judaism will yet flourish, even in America—perhaps especially in America. There is much vexation of spirit, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. Yet the crooked can and will be made straight.

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