Commentary Magazine


Jewish Survivalism

To the Editor:

I wish to thank David Daiches for his perceptive review of my book, The Meaning of Jewish History [April], and to answer his two questions. He caught the main core of my treatise and his reaction is rewarding to me as proof of the impact of my work.

His first caveat relates to the nature of religion and philosophy. It is my conviction that religion, as a living experience, is a feeling both of possession and of privation. The greatness of Judaism was precisely its inclusion of the rationalistic-moral approach and of philosophic doubt within the confines of religion. This was its challenge to paganism, which either excluded the moral-rational approach, or else, as in Greece, separated it from religion. Within the Jewish faith, the two phases of religion were kept in tension. I do not say, balance or equilibrium, for unbalance resulted as often as a healthy synthesis. I maintain that my view is in consonance with the greatest expressions of the faith, but I do not claim that it was either popular, or “normative,” or the “mainstream.” I dispute the validity of these terms. I expounded this thesis at length in a previous book, The Evolution of Jewish Thought.

My challenge to intellectuals is to bring their “open-mindedness” within the social and ideological tensions of the Jewish community. Else, a disequilibrium results, and leadership reverts to the ideological time-servers, who cater to popular prejudice and to the “pooled pride” of their constituents. “Openmindedness” is but one-half of Judaism; the other half is a firm rootedness within the tradition, in both its social and religious aspects.

As I see it, the spectral fears about “Jewish survival” are sociologically meaningless and morally unjustified. Sociologically, the Jewish community will be preserved indefinitely, as can be seen by simple mathematical calculation, even if intermarriage should reach the rate of 25 per cent, which now prevails between Catholics and Protestants, and even if all intermarried couples should desert the community—which, of course, is by no means the case. Morally, it is not “Jewish survival” that should be our main concern, but the creative continuity of the healthy elements in our faith, on the one hand, and the physical-spiritual well-being of Jewish individuals, on the other. “Survivalists” dare not write as if the catastrophe of the six million had never happened. The real problem is the maintenance of the tradition in a state of healthy tension, allowing for both a dynamic continuity with the past and a creative integration into the ideal society of the future. We can leave it to the masses and their servitors to provide the social cement of habits, institutions, sentiments, even of collective bias. It is for the intellectuals to provide the ferment of fresh criticism. For if the intellectuals should fail, the massive fatalities built into Jewish history by centuries of bias, both Jewish and Christian, will surely generate a deluge of hatred that will engulf all—including the deracinated intellectuals.

(Rabbi) Jacob B. Agus
Beth El Congregation
Baltimore, Maryland

_____________

 

Mr. Daiches writes:

“A firm rootedness within the tradition”—but what tradition, what aspect of the mutually contradictory elements that Rabbi Agus himself finds in Jewish religious history? And if Jewish tradition in the form most worth perpetuating is something available to people of humane intelligence of whatever background (and this seems to be implied by Rabbi Agus’s definition of it in his book) why should mere social survival of any particular group matter? And what is a “deracinated intellectual”? Are the Jews a race, with an obligation to maintain a viable religion in order to insure racial survival? I agree that Jewish intellectuals should help “to provide the ferment of fresh criticism” and seek a dynamic relationship between past, present, and future; one cannot and should not write off one’s past. But might not Rabbi Agus’s prescription lead to new kinds of communities? Does it require the perpetual separate existence in the diaspora of the Peculiar People? Two thousand years of suffering, culminating in the catastrophe of the six million, represent an appalling price. Exactly what was it paid for?

About the Author




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