Commentary Magazine


Guideposts in Modern Judaism, by Jacob B. Agus

A Conservative Theologian
by Milton Himmelfarb
Guideposts in Modern Judaism. By Jacob B. Agus. Bloch. 444 pp. $4.50.

This collection of thoughtful essays about our religious and communal problems is also a revelation of the perplexities and ambiguities in the mind of one of those few of our rabbis who can be called theologians. Some of Dr. Agus’s difficulties arise from his painful consciousness of being in a minority, especially within Conservative Judaism; others arise from his siding, whether spontaneously or by an act of the will, with the majority in his profession, his movement, or his society.

As we would expect of the author of Modern Philosophies of Judaism, Dr. Agus on Orthodoxy, Reform, and Reconstructionism is able and useful. It is his discussion of Conservative Judaism that raises questions. Our attitude to Conservatism must depend in some measure on our attitude to Ahad Ha’am. Though he does not reject the possibility that Ahad Ha’am was not in any real sense a believing Jew, Dr. Agus tells us that “Ahad Ha’am . . . saw the genesis of every ideal in the ‘will to live’ of the people. . . . Thus, it is possible to identify oneself with Jewish life for the sake of spiritual self-fulfillment, even if one does not accept the idea of God [my italics]. . . . Ahad Ha’am’s ideas functioned as powerful centripetal forces for the Jewish community, directing attention to the cultural and spiritual content of the Jewish faith and stimulating a broad loyalty to the total complex of Jewish values. And it was within the hospitable compass of the Conservative movement that the seeds of Ahad Ha’amism found their most fertile soil.” Here we can discern no reservations about Ahad Ha’am or Conservatism’s hospitality to him, but in the next essay we are told: “Ahad Ha’am did most to introduce this dark dogma of biological nationalism into the thinking of the modern Jew. He went to the extent of suggesting that the whole Jewish religion was inwardly motivated by this impulse of national group survival. . . . In other words, it was not because the Jew believed in Torah and Talmud that he braved all ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’; on the contrary, he developed the beliefs and customs of Judaism in order to erect a Chinese wall of segregation about the . . . Jewish community, enabling it thus to endure through the ages. . . .”

Condemn the master and you condemn his disciples, but Dr. Agus makes no explicit criticism of Conservatism. Instead American Jewry as a whole is treated harshly: “At the moment the dominant trend [among American Jews] seems to be a kind of spite-racism.” Whether or not we think this reproach justified, on his own showing he should have directed it to Conservatism in the first instance; and perhaps he made it all the more bitter because of the struggle of loyalties within him that would not allow him to name the offender convicted by his own logic.

Actually, Dr. Agus observes with satisfaction that American Jewry is moving toward a religious character that is increasingly divesting itself of ethnicity. While it is his branch of Judaism in America that has put most stress on Zionism and the ethnic element in general, Dr. Agus has far less ethnic fervor than the great majority of his Conservative colleagues. This has exposed him to another temptation, more usually associated with the Reform rabbinate, and he has yielded to it.

Traditional Judaism was a synthesis of universalism and particularism. When a complex unity breaks down, its previously unified elements, taking on an independent life of their own, are often perceived as being in conflict. So with universalism and particularism in Jewish religion after Emancipation. Classical Reform accepted the first and rejected the second with equal ardor. Essentially, so does Dr. Agus. The irony is that many universalists among Jewish religious thinkers have unwittingly equated universalism with the set of values and prejudices of the national society—whether German or American or any other—with which Emancipation has made us eager to identify ourselves. But while Jews are taught by the Bible and Talmud, and Christians by Jesus and St. Paul, that Jewish particularism is divinely ordained, neither Jews nor Christians can find any warrant for making that claim for American or any other modern national particularism. Our universalists, therefore, tend to substitute, for a particularism sanctified by the tradition, a pseudo-universalism concealing a particularism that is untraditional and idolatrous.

In Dr. Agus’s book this shows itself in the unstated but ever present proposition that what is American is good. “The great founder of the American Conservative movement,” he says, was Solomon Schechter, whose “conception was . . . typically American.” This is supposed to be honorific both for Schechter and for Conservatism. Schechter was in the United States only for the last dozen years of his life, but Dr. Agus seems to reason that since he was an admirable and good man, he must also have been typically American.

Much more serious is this statement, made with every appearance of enthusiastic assent: “In the long run, the enduring tradition of America is liberal humanism, enshrined as it is in the basic documents and heroic saga of the nation . . . the same fundamental bias makes for a steady substitution of psychology and the goals of happiness for philosophy and the abstract ideals of truth and rightness.” If this is an accurate description of us, should we be proud of it? Should it delight a philosopher and theologian? Blessing the tribe’s follies does not become universalist religion merely because the population of the tribe is 165,000,000.

Why should a learned and scholarly theologian, courageous in opposition to the slogans and prejudices both of the laity and of his colleagues, disappoint us by this ultimate wrong-ness of thought and feeling? Perhaps it is because most rabbis are “insiders.” The best of them, wearied and brought close to disillusion by their frustration with the inside (Jewish) reality, are sometimes inclined to overestimate the virtues of an “outside” that they see at its best, remotely, and with whose different kind of reality they have no intimate experience. This may be why so much of the most impressive thinking and writing in modern Judaism has come from returners. Their illusions about the inside go quickly enough, but their illusions about the outside have already gone.

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