To the Editor:
I would like to express my deep appreciation for Sidney Hook’s “Isaiah Berlin’s Enlightenment” [May], a discussion of a great book that is worthy of its subject. The article analyzes, corrects, and carries further the discussion of the fundamental issues with which Isaiah Berlin is concerned. Thus Mr. Hook’s treatment of the theme will be as indispensable as the book itself for all those concerned with the ethos of Western man and the future of society.
But on one point I must demur. Mr. Hook writes: “All we need to do is to make explicit the realization that man is a finite, limited, imperfect creature and therefore always open to the solicitations of evil and the corruption of power and place—the kernel of the Chris-don myth of original sin. . . .” I have no strong objection to describing this concept of human nature as “the kernel of the Christian myth of original sin”; however, the kernel has been preserved through the centuries and wrapped in so many layers that the original taste has been all but lost. What has replaced it are extreme formulations of the original concept and these have exerted a powerful and less than beneficial influence on the conscious thought and the unconscious attitudes undergirding Western civilization to the present, whether we call it Christian or post-Christian. More than historical justice is involved in recognizing that Mr. Hook’s description of human nature, which he describes as “the permanent legacy of the Enlightenment,” is precisely the outlook of the normative tradition in Judaism, not of the historically dominant standpoint in Christian theology.
[Rabbi] Robert Gordis
Jewish Theological Seminary of America
New York City
Sidney Hook writes:
I agree with Rabbi Gordis about the mischievous, even pernicious, role of the myth of original sin during many centuries of Western history, but the durability and persuasiveness of the myth are rooted in the incontestable facts of human finitude and limitation. These facts are incompatible with utopianism but not with a seasoned liberalism. Recognizing them does not paralyze the nerve of intelligent action in behalf of a better or less evil world. However, as I have argued against Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich in my book Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life, acceptance of these truths does not entail belief in any supernatural existence.
In view of Rabbi Gordis’s scholarly authority, I am impressed by his contention that what I called “the permanent legacy of the Enlightenment, meliorism or the possibility of change in human nature” is, in his words, “precisely the outlook of the normative tradition in Judaism.” But are there not other traditions in Judaism, expressed in the Book of Job and in the cosmic piety of those who accept the holocausts of this world as part of the divine scheme of things as they await deliverance by the Messiah?
To accept the “outlook of the normative tradition in Judaism,” if I understand it properly, no more requires a belief in supernatural-ism than to accept the kernel of truth in the myth of original sin. A truth even older than the Enlightenment is that men create their gods in their own moral image, which implies that morality is autonomous of religion and theology.