Commentary Magazine


How Basic is “Basic Judaism”?
A Comfortable Religion for an Uncomfortable World

Many think they note a current trend toward religious interest both within the universities and outside. Often this takes the form of a search for personal belief, perhaps more often of intellectual interest in the problems of religion, that is, in theology. The movement, if it is that, has not been as visible in Judaism as it has in the two major Christian traditions, but there are signs of similar stirring. Milton Steinberg’s new book Basic Judaism, recently published by Harcourt Brace, is in part an effort to answer the needs of these new seekers. We have asked one of the younger writers who has been concerning himself with religious thinking to set down his personal reflections on Rabbi Steinberg’s exposition of Judaism for our times. Rabbi Steinberg is among the small handful of American rabbis and Jewish scholars who have given us serious books on Judaism and its modem relevance in the past two decades: they include The Making of the Modern Jew (1934), and A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem (1945).

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I

Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s little book, Basic Judaism, is in good part addressed to me, as one of those who “are groping to establish rapport with the Jewish tradition, standing at the synagogue’s door ‘heart in, head out.’” It is a provocative book, as would be expected from a man who is so able an exponent of the Re-constructionist version of Conservative Judaism, and who writes with such learning and grace. But it provoked in me—along with an appreciation of its virtues—a considerable unease at its often hollow ring. Rabbi Steinberg will hardly regard my positive and negative reactions as presumptuous. After all, the purpose of his book was to set unsynagogued Jews like myself to thinking about the Jewish religion and their relationship to it.

In writing this book, Rabbi Steinberg has tried to be fair and objective in reporting the various differences, creedal and ritual, within the body of Israel. This is what the Orthodox think, this is what the Reformed think, and here is the golden mean of the Conservatives—so runs the argument in many of the chapters. But beneath all these differences, Rabbi Steinberg insists, there is an unbreakable thread of unity, of agreement, that he calls “basic Judaism.”

One must confess to some misgivings about the whole concept of a basic Judaism—or of a basic religion of any kind, for that matter. To be sure, Judaism has always been concerned to protect its unity against the conflict of contradictory interpretations; in this, the sense of the precarious position of the community in the Diaspora played its role. The Talmud itself endeavored to ward off the possibility of schism; is it not written: “Whatsoever any earnest scholar will innovate in the future, lo this was already spoken at Sinai”?

The unity in Judaism that Rabbi Steinberg proclaims is a unity of historical fact. A unity of historical accident, one is tempted to say. For it is not a unity that has anything to do with philosophy, world-outlook, or immediate inner experience. There is, of course, a common original text—the Torah—and to a certain extent a common fund of images and memories; but these, while necessary conditions, do not in themselves make up a religion; a core of intellectual conviction is equally necessary.

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Actually, all the events that shattered Christendom into the conflicting denominations we know today have had their parallel in Jewish history. The difference is that the oppressive weight of world hostility has restrained the centrifugal impulse created by these events. We may consider this a blessing if we wish. But we must be wary that the search for “basic Judaism” is not merely an escape from intellectual responsibility, from responsibility to one’s beliefs. It is a fact, however depressing, that there is today no defining Weltanschauung in being a Jew—just as there is none in being a Christian—just as there is none in being a man. (And if we tolerate such concepts as basic Judaism, basic Christianity, basic Buddhism, and so on, why should we not settle for basic religion—in which everything is so watered-down and vague that no one’s religious sentiments are excluded from participation? No such settlement is possible because it would simply reflect the atrophy of the religious sentiment itself.)

If we are to have a Weltanschauung, it has to be constructed—by each man, by each group of thinkers, by each generation. It is a question of picking and choosing from what tradition and the present have to offer, of acceptance, rejection (no matter how discreet), and reconstruction.

The Orthodox might retort that it is indecent to weigh religions in the open, so to speak. There is something unpleasant in this public pinching, scrutinizing, and fingering of beliefs for which one’s ancestors—and even one’s family, perhaps—have suffered and died. (This sense of propriety must explain, at least in part, the traditional reluctance of Judaism to engage in overt theological controversy.) The only defense for doing so—true if inadequate—is that the ruling self-consciousness of our times spares nothing its dry uncomfortable glare, not even a Judaism bereft of the protective shell of the ghetto.

Contemporary Jewish theology is, in its various branches (including the Orthodox), a more or less self-conscious construction of Judaism, a careful mixture of past and present in the hope that the mixture will turn out to be a true solution. This is especially the case with Rabbi Steinberg’s Conservative Judaism; its careful middle-of-the-road tone should not be allowed to obscure its essentially creative purpose. His point of view is an important one by virtue of its great influence on the American Jewish community; it is also important because it is shared to a surprisingly large extent by thinkers whom we would not ordinarily assign to the same category as Rabbi Steinberg. There is a world of difference between the great mystic-philosopher Martin Buber and the urbane rationalist Milton Steinberg; yet it is surprising how much they do have in common when one gets down to points of doctrine.

My primary concern, genuine if possibly selfish, is: what does this kind of contemporary Jewish theology have to offer to people like me? I believe that it does have valuable positive insights to offer, and that they do establish a claim of Judaism upon me; I also feel that what it has to offer is not quite enough. First, I would like to indicate—in a necessarily sketchy manner—what I consider these positive insights to be.

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II

The creedal basis of Judaism is not overt, but implicit. Since Jews have always belonged to Judaism by belonging to a historical people and culture, there was never a pressing need to set forth the faith in logically pure propositions. There are dogmas, but they are not integrated into a hierarchic, syllogistic structure. Judaism is less a religious system than a system of living religiously. As Martin Buber has written: “In the religious life of Judaism primary importance is not given to dogma, but to the remembrance and expectation of a concrete situation: the meeting of God with men. Dogma can only arise where detachment is the prevailing attitude to the concrete, lived moment. . . .” In other words, to use a currently popular term, Judaism is an existential religion.

What this means is that Judaism thinks in the categories of life—it does not try to adapt life to the categories of thought. The law and the prophets taught the truths of life and not the truths of philosophy; the “religious life” includes all of life, in its full particularity. If we think of religion as an eternally continuing dialogue between man and God (and this is already a Jewish conception), then the language of this dialogue is life—not prayer, meditation, contemplation, ecstasy, good deeds, or anything else but all of life.

All well and good—but how about God? How does Judaism justify its belief in God’s existence? There are innumerable procedures of justification, and Jews at one time or another have tried them all: reason and revelation, first cause and final purpose, and so on. But what is striking about these endeavors is the ironic ease with which one can supplant the other as soon as strategy indicates the need for such a move. Judaism believes in God because—well, to begin with, because Judaism has a covenant with God. Does one sign a contract with a non-entity? And if stupid lawyers (mainly apikorsim at that) cannot read the handwriting, what does that prove? Judaism has always respected the intellect—up to a point. There is a saying: where there are two Jews there are three opinions. The “proofs” of God by metaphysics, natural reason, science, sophistry, etc., all in the long run cancel each other out, and we are left with a deity whose existence is essentially non-controversial. It all comes down to the fact that Judaism has faith in God, and it accepts a belief in God for the good and sufficient reason that it believes he exists. Is this arguing in a circle? Well then—it is arguing in a circle. (But it is a circle of words, and outside this circle lies life, and man—and God.)

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There is hardly any such thing as Jewish “apologetics”; the medieval texts of the “golden age” which can claim that title are outside the subsequent channels of study and concern. Apologetics is the science of defending a belief from attack; for the quarrel to be meaningful, both attacker and attacked must have the same criteria of evidence and proof. Christianity, exposed to the influence of Aristotelian philosophy and modem science, was forced to some degree to accept the criteria of practical and theoretical reason. Post-medieval Judaism, in its insularity of the ghetto, was oblivious to both the criteria and the quarrel, and by the time the ghetto was disrupted, theology was already out of season. This may be more historical fortune than essential virtue—but in any case, there it is. Judaism has always insisted upon the salvation of the world rather than the knowledge of things. All modern science and philosophy, having separated man from the world for purposes of pure knowing, is now desperately trying to put them back together again. (All, that is, except the logical positivists with their mincing distaste for “unanswerable questions,” who incline to see the life of man as a kind of grammatical misadventure.) Judaism has never left the whole of man’s existence to pursue other hares. Man finds religion in his life, he “proves” it with his life—life is a dialogue with God. That is what Pascal must have meant when he wrote on a slip of paper that he always carried near his heart: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob—not the God of the philosophers.”

The modem world has suffered much damage by permitting the scientists to appropriate the vocabulary of meaningful and authoritative discourse as their own and only their own. To “analyze,” in the scientific sense of the word, is to express a thing as a function of something else. And if a thing cannot be expressed as a function of something else, it simply doesn’t “exist” so far as the scientist is concerned. “Love,” as we use the word, has no place in the scientific vocabulary (not even, I would insist, in the vocabulary of psychoanalysis), nor does “God”; why that should give everyone—except the scientists!—an inferiority complex with regard to their beliefs in Love and God is one of the wonders of our times. Similarly, science has pre-empted the word “truth” to refer to a valid proposition issuing from a previous series of propositions, some of which may refer to experimental procedures. Perhaps we had better choose another word, like “authentic,” for those statements of religion, poetry, and sheer human wisdom that were formerly thought to be “true.” But then some hard-headed gentleman will quickly rise to point out that these statements are not—true.

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George Foote Moore, the distinguished historian of Judaism, has written: “Jewish monotheism was reached neither by postulating the unity of nature nor by speculation on the unity of Being—the physical or the metaphysical approach of science and philosophy—but by way of the unity of the moral order in the history of the world. . . .” The world is no play of phenomena and noumena, matter and spirit; it is the daily life ready to be made sacrament, prepared for an act of redemption. According to certain rabbinic teachings, the act of Creation was inspired by the souls of the unborn pious, and the world owes its continued existence to these pious men (zaddikim). Abraham was assured by God that at any one time there could be found thirty men his equal in saintliness—without them the world could not endure.

That evil exists is undeniable; that it is often triumphant is equally evident. Yet, as is seen in the Book of Job, the tragic solution is unacceptable in Judaism. Though evil be inexplicable and ineradicable, the end of human activity is positive and constructive. Judaism forbids man to doubt this; in his deepest extremity, the most that a man is permitted to do is to repeat after Job: “I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.” In the Kaddish prayer, offered up for the souls of the dead, God is praised and death is not so much as mentioned. “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis). This goodness was never vitiated by man’s ejection from paradise. Adam fell and men learned to know good and evil—but the world did not fall with him.

Whereas for Kierkegaard the love of God was incommensurable with all of reality, for Judaism there is an unbreakable bond between the love of God and the love of all reality. There are few echoes of Christian-Oriental asceticism to be found in Judaism. For a Jew, virtue is a pleasure; even when it is a sacrifice, a great sacrifice, it is a pleasure. There is no place for wanton sensuality, but neither is the human body considered corrupt or degraded. In the old ghettos on a Friday night the pious Jew would perfume himself and comb his hair before he went to prayer, would fervently chant the Song of Songs at the table, and after the Sabbath supper, the best meal of the week, he generally went to bed with his wife. It was right to do this on the Sabbath, because the union of husband and wife gives us the image of the union of God with the shekhina. It was also allowed to break the holiness of the Sabbath for the purpose of making marriage arrangements. Thus did Judaism attempt to achieve the old prayer that runs: “O Lord, let me worship thee not only with my good inclination, but also with my evil inclination.” By hallowing the earthly, potential evil was transmuted into actual good.

How far is this from the Catholic mind! “The law of divine love knows no mercy. Love truly sacrifices: it desires the death of everything not itself” (Mélanie de la Salette).

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This contrast between Jewish and Christian attitudes toward the material world comes out strikingly in their different estimations of poverty. Léon Bloy was a Catholic who always stretched Catholic doctrine to its furthermost limit. When a coin is given to a beggar with bad grace, he wrote, the coin “pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, makes holes in the sun, flies over the firmament and compromises the universe.” All this happens because poverty is a form of holiness, and must be honored as such. It is a highly poetic view, a transvaluation of values—if only on a verbal level as far as most of Bloy’s fellow Catholics are concerned.

Among the Jews it is otherwise. Poverty is a gift of God, a product of His boundless mercy along with all other human states. But it has no preferential value—the good things of life are too well appreciated. On the contrary, poverty is thoroughly undesirable, like an early death, whether issuing from God’s mercy or not. Tevye, the pauper in Sholem Aleichem’s stories, puts this succinctly: “With God’s help I starved to death—I and my wife and children—three times a day, not counting supper.” God’s blessings must be accepted, but there is no law against an ironic comment on his dispensation. To be poor among the Jews . . . is to be poor. That and nothing else. If you don’t know what that means, Sholem Aleichem will explain it to you: “Among us Jews, poverty has many faces and many aspects. A poor man is an unlucky man, he is a pauper, a beggar, a schnorrer, a starveling, a tramp, or a plain failure.” He goes on to say that one can surpass poverty by laughing at it, by refusing to be degraded—but that is a matter of human dignity, not supernatural grace.

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Since Judaism posits “the moral order in a the history of the world,” it is impossible to separate doctrine from ethic or either from the people that created them. For Judaism, the relationship between the real and the ideal is active, not cognitive. When Hillel was asked to summarize the Torah in one commandment, he replied: “That which is hurtful to thee do not to thy neighbor. This is the whole doctrine. The rest is commentary. Now go forth and learn.”

Whereas the Greeks subsumed ethics under the intellect (philosophy), Jewish ethics are subsumed under the working of the will (law). The Fall was the primal failure of will, but man’s spiritual and moral nature was unaffected, and his moral responsibility in no way relieved. The freedom of man’s will has never been seriously challenged within Jewish thought. On the contrary: not only is man’s responsibility for himself assumed, but also his responsibility for his fellow men, and for God himself.

There is no vicarious salvation in Judaism—each man must save his own soul. At the same time, Judaism is directed toward the salvation of the community, for which individual salvation paves the way; on the Day of Atonement, Jews pray for the remission of communal sins as well as private ones. “Separate not thyself from the community,” Hillel said, and indeed Jewish eulogies of the joys and virtues of communal life so resemble those of John Dewey, that it will sometimes happen to me in reading one or the other that the images of the New England small village and the East-European ghetto will merge into an incongruous coincidence.

Nor is Judaism ethnocentric. “The righteous of all people have their share in the world to come,” is quite another matter than “outside the church there is no salvation.” A non-Jew has only the seven commandments of the sons of Noah to perform in order to be eligible for the best the next world has to offer. The Jews, on the other hand, as the “chosen people,” have a greater burden of duties and obligations. The Rabbi of Kosnitz, it is reported, used to pray: “And if you will not yet redeem Israel, then redeem at any rate the goyim.” There is in this plea a commingled despair and appreciation of the advantages likely to accrue to the Jews if the goyim were redeemed. But there is also a pure breath of genuine universalism.

Man is responsible for his own fate, for his community’s fate—and for God’s fate. The world was created for the sake of those who can exercise the power to choose God; if God is not chosen, his purpose is wrecked. Each instant is filled with all time in so far as the moral act, the act of redemption, is concerned. This is the significance of the Messianic task. Not a blinding angel on a fiery steed come to supersede the world; the world is not to be superseded at all, but to be redeemed, that is, consummated. It is the zaddik, living his moral life in seclusion, unidentifiable, who carries on and defends the Messianic purpose. “Not thine to finish the task, but neither art thou free to exempt thyself from it.”

It is from this conception of man’s divine responsibility that springs the stubborn hope, the blind optimism, that has been so frequently observed (and misinterpreted) in Judaism. In the daily prayer, it states: “Happy are we; how goodly is our portion and how fair is our lot.” But to my mind, the classic example of Jewish transcendent hope lies in the Hasidic tale that begins: “It is told: dangerous plots against the Jews were brewing in the emperor’s palace. Then Rabbi Shmelke and his disciple Moshe Leib of Sasov set out for Vienna to put an end to such plans. . . .

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III

These are, in brief and in part, the insights, indigenous to Judaism, that I find so valuable. Valuable—yet insufficient. There is something lacking in this kind of Judaism—a note that is absent, a key that is never struck, that subverts one’s appreciation of the total effect.

It is not an easy thing to designate, this element that is wanting. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to make the statement: as far as most non-Jewish intellectuals are concerned—and for many Jewish intellectuals, too—the greatest and most influential Jewish thinker of the 20th century is Franz Kafka. And Kafka was a great and influential thinker and writer in so far as he was a Jewish heretic; a heretic to whom Judaism offered itself in its full magnificence, but who could not choose to accept it. “What have I in common with Jews?” he asked. “I have almost nothing in common with myself.” To the extent that Judaism refuses to explore the basis of this rejection, it delivers itself up to irrelevancy—or worse.

In effect, Rabbi Steinberg’s “basic Judaism”—and not his alone—seems to be directed toward a happier era than our own, to a better humanity than we know. His is a religion of the good deed and the good community, in a time when the quality of the good deed is anything but self-evident, and the good community is only a dream of something that might have existed. It strikes me—and I say this with no disingenuousness—as considerably too good for us. And in the absence of a corresponding genuine goodness without, it fixes itself upon the imitation mostly directly at hand, so that the noble intention is used to the advantage of the ignoble fact. Consequently, it is not astonishing that there runs through Rabbi Steinberg’s book a colored thread of superficiality, even vulgarity, that entwines itself into the very warp and woof of his theology.

What happens is that Rabbi Steinberg accommodates his religious views with facility to the outlook of an American “Main Street” in its New Deal variant. What is worse, this accommodation represents not merely Rabbi Steinberg’s state of mind, but also the state of mind of a large section of the American rabbinate, and much of the American Jewish community in general. It results in the perversion of the Jewish religion into a doctrine of social (and sociable) principles, the transformation of Messianism into a shallow, if sincere, humanitarianism, plus a thoroughgoing insensitivity to present day spiritual problems.

Rabbi Steinberg’s Judaism is reduced to an earnestly moral socio-political liberalism, with divine sanction to boot. What are we to make of a rabbi who claims for the Mishnah and the Talmud that they guarantee the right to strike—thereby providing Holy Writ with the satisfaction of having paved the way for the National Labor Relations Act! Obviously, Rabbi Steinberg is entitled to his political opinions. He is even privileged, if he so desires, to seek divine sanction for them, though this strikes me as a daring and somewhat purposeless venture. But, in fact, what he is doing is to justify and ennoble his religious beliefs by parading what he deems to be their enlightened socio-political implications.

It is social philosophy that is his talking point, and not religion. Judaism, Rabbi Steinberg finds, has an immanent political doctrine that adds up to “political democracy, to a modification of capitalism in the direction of democracy, and a world state.” How convenient . . . But what is this but an oblique way of saying that one of the merits of Judaism is that it permits its believers to read the New Republic with untroubled soul? And what kind of belief in Messianism is it that finds itself represented in such diverse figures as Saint Augustine, Tennyson, and Hegel? And what a grotesque selection!

Rabbi Steinberg’s Judaism is obviously native American. That is to say, in its heart it has no faith in the effectuality of religion on the American scene, and hastens to adopt a vocabulary with a higher popularity rating at the first opportunity. Genial and well-wishing—appropriate company for a business man’s luncheon. When he says “all good men are Messiahs,” it rings with all the fervor and conviction of “any boy can grow up to be president.”

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The spiritual distress of the modern world does not arise merely because man perversely chooses to do evil rather than good. If it were as uncomplicated as all that, present-day Judaism—even Rabbi Steinberg’s Judaism—would have the answer right at hand. The horror that breathes into our faces is the realization that evil may come by doing good—not merely intending to do good, but doing it. That is the trap of social action that the movements of progress and enlightenment of the 9th and 20th centuries fell into; and we—whether “best minds” or ordinary citizen—haven’t the faintest inkling how to get out. Universal literacy has led to popular demagogy and mass mania; modem medicine finds unparalleled opportunities unleashed by the atomic bomb; the shortening of the working day goes hand in hand with the break-up of the family and the derangement of the sexual sentiment.

A century of incessant effort to the building of a humane life-on-earth has led with fantastic ease to a victorious life-in-death. To say, with someone like Sidney Hook, that the disaster is a result of our having failed to carry out the full implications of these high ideals, or our having misconstrued them, is in itself an unfounded assertion, not subject to test by experience. Moreover, it is the kind of assertion that our situation does not encourage—indeed, the situation makes it appear superbly beside the point.

There is a difference between the doctrine of original sin—which is open to many objections and which can have no place in Judaism—and the fact of sin. Judaism, today, and especially liberal Judaism, despite the horrors of modern totalitarianism, seems unable to recognize sin when it sees it. It does see the evil of individual wickedly-minded men (or nations), but it refuses to assign to evil its full and menacing stature. It has preferred to dress itself up in the clothes of 19th-century liberalism in order to attend a 20th-century execution. The transcendental hope of Judaism has settled into uncomprehending, complacent euphoria.

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Consequently, Judaism looks blankly at the current trends toward a “theology of crisis.” Sometimes it allies itself with the “naturalists” and “progressives” and talks of a “failure of nerve,” thereby missing the point. For the trend in religious thinking (except in Judaism) is away from certitude, harmony, and peace. These are left to the self-styled “humanists.” Or else it nods approvingly at the fact that God is a word once again in currency, without looking into the “how” and “wherefore.” The “theology of crisis” represents a genuine discovery—though by no means a novel one. The gulf between man and righteousness has widened with frightening rapidity. And against the soothing inanities, generally either social or psychoanalytical, that gush forth from rabbinical pulpits, there is the chord struck by Kafka’s sardonic judgment: “Plenty of hope—for God—no end of hope—only not for us.”

That Judaism has escaped relatively scot-free from the ideological conflict betwen science and religion of the last few centuries is, as I have pointed out, a valuable asset. Yet it has had its drawbacks, too. The poignant sorrow over “the death of God,” the striving for faith in a faithless world, has been relatively unknown to it. At a time when Judaism is in need of a world view, its perspective is still catastrophically narrow. Intellectual timidity, cultural immaturity, a reluctance to venture to extremes even when the extreme has become banal and quotidian—these are the outstanding features of contemporary Jewish thought.

We are beginning to wonder, and discuss, the question “why Jews are in the world”—even if, to date, we have ended with hoary platitudes. We have scarcely dared to ask “why goyim in the world?”—an important question, it must be conceded. Perhaps we are afraid that we will not be able to stop there, but will go on to the semi-blasphemous question “why men in the world?” Yet, if theology today is to ask any question, the last one is the most pertinent, whether it be asked by Jew, Protestant, Catholic, or atheist. A Jewish analysis of “the human condition” usually (with too rare exception) turns up as an analysis of the “condition of the Jews.” Judaism, at the present moment, seems shy of asking the important questions for fear its answers might be inadequate.

Judaism is trying to approximate to a genuine theology through a heightening of the social conscience because its intellectual base is constantly narrowing. The prophetic vein has been abandoned (to be grabbed up by Protestant neo-Orthodoxy); the Law has buried itself in a dugout at the threat of the modem secular—and insane—world. What we have left are political lectures, fund-raising, Zionism, inter-faith activities, public relations, social work, and so on.

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It may be that I have no right to ask Judaism to take all this into account. The fault might as easily be mine for feeling these problems as it is Judaism’s for not managing them competently. Or perhaps, whether one speaks blandly or tragically when walking off the cliff-edge that is the 200th century, is a matter only of personal vanity. But that is in itself a theological speculation.

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