American Rabbis and Religion
To the Editor:
It was with great interest that I read the article by Will Herberg in the May COMMENTARY. The way Mr. Herberg has arrayed before us the modem Christian theological systems and the few and fragmentary European Jewish theological ideas, in juxtaposition to the vacuum in American Jewish theology, has elucidated his problem clearly and vividly: “Has Judaism still the power to speak in these days of mankind’s crisis?” This procedure resembled the annotations of the Tosafoth to the text of the Talmud, in that they ask very clear, very cutting questions, but seldom are able to give an adequate answer. Mr. Herberg did not even try to answer his own question. This gesture of passivity was in itself very discouraging.
The whole picture was discouraging indeed. If it can be said, not only of the general Jewish public and the secular leaders, but even of rabbis and theologians, that they “make their interpretations and judgments, do their thinking in wholly non-religious terms,” that “they can say nothing which cannot be better said by the psychologist, sociologist, or political leader”—then the situation is very, very bad. Though I do not accept such generalizations as necessarily true, nevertheless it seems to me quite symptomatic when I read in Newsweek an interview with a young rabbi, the successor to Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, who remarks that his predecessor was interested in religion and psychiatry, whereas he wants to interpret Jewish life in the American scene. This can easily be taken to mean that the talented young rabbi is less interested in religion than in the social structure of American Jewry. Observing symptoms like this, one has the feeling that Mr. Herberg was justified in putting his question and also in answering it.
If we want to find the missing answer, we must first try to find the causes of this secularization of American Jewish sentiment. These causes are manifold, involved, and divergent; like the influence of fin de siècle materialism, which extended well into the 20th century, the anti-religious tenets of Marxism and also the indifference of Jewish nationalism to the religious aspects of Judaism, especially to the prophetic idea of chosenness and mission, have had their effect.
But besides these universal phenomena I see another factor that has played a part in the gradual loss of interest of American Jewry in religious matters. This is the relation between American congregations and their rabbis. Before discussing this relationship I should like to make the following remark. A man recently arrived in this country may see things which are hidden from the eyes of those who are accustomed to the established order of things. To the newcomer everything is conspicuous, even the obvious. It is therefore not unlikely that I, as a new member of the American community, and especially because of my European experiences, may observe things which, just because they are so conspicuous, can easily elude the searching look of a native investigator.
The first impression of a rabbi coming to the democratic and free atmosphere of American life is of the tremendous novelty of the organization of religion. Religious institutions are built here on the spontaneous contributions of a voluntary membership and not on compulsory taxation as in those countries where religion is still regarded as an affair of the state. This means secularization of religious life. It means also that very often the rabbis have to accept guidance and renounce leadership. They depend wholly on the good will, sometimes even the whims, of worldly leaders, on the tastes and predilections of the members. In order to secure their positions, the rabbis must conform to the opinions of those who support the congregation and who have only an inkling of what religion means.
In accordance with the American principle of democracy, rabbis are also elected only for a short term—for one, two, five years—and are subject to reelection after the lapse of their terms. (Only a very few rabbis have lifelong contracts.) If the rabbi does not cater to the opinions of the membership, he is dismissed like any employe in any business organization. So a feeling of insecurity forces the rabbi to be always on the lookout for what people expect to hear from him; he cannot decide what he wants to teach. The result is the deterioration of the pulpit into political oratory, into pseudo-scientific lecturing, into fashionable chit-chat, sometimes even into demagogy, story telling, and news reportage.
The ultimate effect of this maladjustment is a still further deterioration of religious thinking, because the congregation receives from the pulpit blurred and misrepresented ideas, and a distorted picture of religion. This vicious circle—so clearly described in the words of the prophet: “like priest like people”—forces religion to recede before the advance of ideologies, popular topics, pastimes, and caprices. Very illustrative in this respect is the fight between the Jewish centers and the synagogues, with the synagogues becoming more and more transformed into a semblance of the centers, though centers never seek to resemble the synagogue.
Looking deeper into this so obvious phenomenon, however, one may easily recognize some encouraging features. The element of freedom is the basic one. Against the system of compulsion prevalent in European religious life, the foundation of American religiosity is free will. Voluntary sacrifice is of much higher moral value than the securer way of levying and collecting taxes.
And the great American Jewish institutions—the seminaries, yeshivas, publication societies, synagogues and congregations, papers and periodicals—bear witness not only to the magnanimity of American Jewry but also to its religious spirit. Even if we take into account that some of these institutions were established for other than religious considerations, the religious ideal is undoubtedly there, in secular disguise. Give to the rabbis the necessary independence and security, and they certainly will see to it that this great fund of idealism will enrich the religious life of American Jewry.
Rabbi Francis Hevesi