Commentary Magazine


Ahad Ha'am and Conservatism

To the Editor:

I trust you will allow me a few lines to clarify the perplexities that your reviewer, Mr. Milton Himmelfarb, found in my book Guide-posts in Modern Judaism (January).

I devote many pages (276-306) to the explanation of my theological approach, which calls for the viewing of the same phenomenon from an objective as well as a subjective standpoint. Religion in action and in feeling is a subjective experience, but theology is the endeavor to supplement the practice of religion with an objective analysis. . . .

In the first part of Guideposts I describe the movements in American Judaism objectively. This includes a high estimate of the great influence of Ahad Ha’am’s thinking, especially within the Conservative movement When, in the second part of the book, I consider what Ahad Ha’am should mean to us today, I reject his doctrines and his presuppositions.

When your reviewer suggests that, in repudiating the philosophy of Ahad Ha’am, I repudiate Conservatism, he errs in confounding a part for the whole. Ahad Ha’amism was one of the component trends in the history of the American Conservative movement, but obviously the two were not identical. Professor Moritz Lazarus, in 19th-century Germany, represented a type of Conservatism that was distinctly non-nationalistic. In place of the people as the mythical source of all that is Jewish, I substitute the stream of sacred tradition. And I consider the process of earnest self-criticism as an essential element of the living tradition. Nowhere in my book do I give any support to the notion that Conservatism should be construed as Reform plus Ahad Ha’amism. Conservatism, in my view, is a contemporary expression of “philosophical Judaism,” as classical Reform is believed by its followers to be an embodiment of “prophetic Judaism.”

When I speak of the mentality of some American Jews as being that of spite-racism, I refer principally to those whose Jewish consciousness is devoid of any positive convictions. It is spite-racist to say, “I am a Jew because the world dislikes us,” and to identify the content of Jewishness with ethnic loyalty, since ethnicism is the least common denominator of all Jews. . . . If one must relate spite racism to Ahad Ha’amism, one could say it constitutes the biological drive of the will to live without the corresponding doctrine of a spiritual aspiration for an order of absolute justice. By the same token, I do not endorse every element of the American spirit when I describe its genius and its impact upon Jewish life from an objective viewpoint. In fact, I devote a section to warning against what I call “the adulation of the spirit of the age. . . .”

As to the presumed superior insight of “returners,” I can only plead that this phenomenon is not without precedent in Jewish life. Already, the Talmud asserts “In the place where Baalei Teshuvah stand, the righteous cannot abide” (b. Sanhedrin, 99a).

(Rabbi) Jacob B. Agus
Baltimore, Md.

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