Commentary Magazine


Judaism: A Way of Life, by Samuel S. Cohon

Evasion Through Metaphor
Judaism: A Way of Life.
by Samuel S. Cohon.
Cincinnati, Union of American Hebrew Congregations. 448 pp. $2.75.

 

That the scarcity and meagerness of Jewish theological thinking is a disgrace to American Judaism is a point which need not be argued. But it is important to understand the inner reasons for this situation. A reading of Professor Cohon’s latest book is an excellent means to this end; for on the one hand, it excels the run-of-the-mill rabbinical books sufficiently in degree to show up their barrenness, yet on the other hand it shares their fundamental shortcomings sufficiently in kind to reveal the roots of that barrenness.

Most current volumes of Jewish thinking are concerned with synthesizing, in the most convenient manner, the Judaism of the modem American Jew with his general outlook as 20th century American. In the process there is sacrificed most of Judaism, as well as what is really intrinsic to the modem intellectual outlook. What is uncomfortable in classical Judaism is abandoned as “unessential” or “superseded by the evolution of thought”—and presumably it is reason or science which provides the criteria; yet whenever reason and science seem to lead to conclusions which threaten peace of mind—such as agnosticism regarding the meaning of life or the purpose of the universe—we are referred back to the “essence” of Judaism for the assurance of meaning and purpose. In other words, most of these works draw their justification neither from reason nor revelation; they merely make the already complacent still more complacent, and provide no guidance for the genuine seeker after God and Jewish religious existence.

Professor Cohon’s book is superior to the ordinary book of this sort in that it is the product of sincere search, a willingness to face what is difficult and uncomfortable, and in that it bears traces of considerable scholarship in both classical Judaism and modem thought. (Since the emphasis of the book is on the religious life, he relies particularly heavily on the psychology of religion, and here his views are often instructive.) Consequently, this book is not merely a statement of the views to be expected from a professor of Reform Jewish theology; its author was willing to grapple with his subject and to learn from it. A Reform Jew, he nevertheless argues forcefully for the significance of form and ceremonial law in the religious life, with a fine understanding for concrete reality. Further, he overcomes the temptation, all-too-present to the Reform Jew, of dissolving the religious into the ethical element. And occasionally he penetrates to insights into the nature of classical Judaism which border on the profound. Everywhere we see signs of genuine inquiry.

With all these virtues, however, this book shares the basic defects of American Jewish theological writing; indeed, the virtues make the defects all the more obvious and saddening.

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Intense and even devoted learning in detail, we can see from this book, is no substitute for clarity in basic philosophical and theological categories. Professor Cohon speaks sometimes of God as if He were a mere ideal to which man must aspire; at other times He seems to be a sort of idealistic world-spirit; and again the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who confronts man in existential encounter. But if the first is the true view, this should basically affect the doctrine of prayer (for no one can pray to a mere ideal); and if the last doctrine is the true one we require a theological justification of such a God (Professor Cohon evades this in metaphorical language of which we shall speak later); and if the second view be true, we should require a defence of idealistic philosophy.

To the classical Jew, Judaism Was a body of revealed law plus the encounter between God and Israel. Cohon, with all of liberalism, substitutes for this the “essence”-approach—in itself highly dubious and requiring fundamental analysis. But Cohon’s use of this category has particular ambiguities of its own. He knows, of course, that the “essence” of Judaism is not simply what has survived, and that personal “religious experience” is not as such authoritative. What then are the criteria of norm and value? At times spiritual insights are exalted as against mere positive fact; yet on the other hand, judgments of value are said to be relative to time and circumstance; and then what is valuable and binding in Judaism is seen by the pragmatic test: “Reform can only recommend values, standards and institutions on the ground that they have proved themselves spiritually efficacious in the life of the Jewish people.”

Thus potential insights into detail are annulled by confusion in basic philosophical and theological categories, and, one suspects, even failure to take the latter seriously; psychological concepts appear where theological ones ought to, and what was originally a genuine perception dissolves into empty metaphor.

Metaphorical language has its legitimate use in religious writing when its role is precisely defined as indirect speech in a realm where direct speech is impossible. But Cohon shares the common vice of modem Jewish theological writing in using metaphor homiletically, as a substitute for precise thought where such thought is imperative. What precisely are we to understand by sentences such as: “To be creative, tradition must not serve as an embalming fluid for the preservation of dead remains. It must rather be a living stream that makes glad the city of God. In touch with the life springs, it must help man to greater freedom and growth”? Characteristically, it is the basic terms and doctrines that are lost in a haze of language. But while intellectually confused and even meaningless, these metaphors have a certain emotive meaning. Theological doctrines, the implication is, are neither true nor false, or their truth consists in their efficacy—the “enrichment” of life they provide.

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This brings us to the most serious shortcoming of Cohon’s book, which is again only symptomatic of the state of American Jewish theology: its pragmatism. We witness today a general tendency to defend Judaism on the grounds of its social and psychological usefulness, and simultaneously rabbis foresake their proper business, theology, to meddle with psychiatry. But Judaism cannot be understood in pragmatic categories. Cohon attributes to religious leaders the ultimate aim to achieve the personally and socially useful. Is this not a gross distortion of the truth? Is not the true ultimate aim of the religious leader to preach that which is good in itself, as a duty to be performed for the sake of God? The pragmatic interpretation of religion is as distorted as the Marxist position whose inversion it is. For religion has now become a wholesome pill rather than the opiate of the people.

The pragmatic interpretation transforms religion, which Cohon himself says must be “heroic,” into a comfortable practice of mediocrity. It can hardly be said without insult to the martyrs and prophets that “religion . . . connects man with the tendency in things toward normalcy.” And while Cohon properly observes that the fear of God drives out all other fears, he is anxious to minimize the fact that it is often infinitely more terrible for the believer to be confronted with the living God.

It may be objected to the foregoing criticism that Professor Cohon’s book is meant for the layman who is unwilling or unable to delve into profound theological discussion. To an extent this is true, and certainly the general reader will benefit from this book in many details. But in a profounder sense the point is not valid. For in religion we must first ask what we can truly believe; only then can we preach it in popular language. The opposite procedure—to worry about techniques of “putting it across” before worrying about the truth of what one wants to put across—is self-defeating. It would be very desirable if Cohon forgot for a while all about the useful, the practical, and the popular and used his great learning to work out a clear, coherent, and true theology for modem Judaism—and if he left it to lesser men afterwards to popularize his results.

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