Commentary Magazine


The Great Jewish Books, edited by Samuel Caplan and Harold U. Ribalow

“Great jewish books” and Torah
The Great Jewish Books and Their Influence on History.
by Samuel Caplan and Harold U. Riba-Low.
Horizon Press. 351 pp. $3.75.

 

The jew of the age which produced Hitler and the State of Israel has almost necessarily a powerful sense of the unity of Jewish destiny. This, in turn, has led him to search for a “philosophy of Jewish unity.” But formidable problems stand in the way, and the philosophers of Jewish unity are often driven to pretend that they do not exist. All this is reflected in The Great Jewish Books: the sincerity of the search, the profundity of the tensions and contradictions, the ambiguous phrases which, consciously or unconsciously, seek to conceal them.

Everybody agrees that there are great Jewish books, and almost everybody would agree on what some of them are. No list would omit the Bible, the Talmud, the Siddur, the commentaries of Rashi. Judah Halevi and Maimonides are obvious choices from medieval philosophers. The Zohar is the classic of Jewish mysticism, the Shulchan Aruch the authoritative code of Jewish law. There may be less agreement when it comes to modern books, but the choices made here would scandalize no one: Graetz’s History is the classic among Jewish histories; Herzl’s Judenstaat and Ahad Ha’am’s Essays are the classics of Zionism; Bialik is the greatest modern poet in the Hebrew language. Thus this book, which offers discussions of these twelve books and selections from their texts, is quite representative of accepted opinion. Indeed, the editors made sure that it should be so: their preface informs us that “the project was begun by polling a representative group of scholars, rabbis, writers, and literary critics for their choices of those Jewish books which throughout the ages have played the most creative role in the survival of the Jewish people, and most deeply influenced their life and thought.”

And yet, what do we mean by “great Jewish books”? This volume begins by quoting Mohammed’s description of the Jews as “the people of the Book.” But “the Book” and “The Great Jewish Books” are two different—more, incompatible—conceptions. The “great books” are great human creations by Jews; the Book is a divine gift to Jews.

Even the non-Orthodox may be startled to find the Bible in a list of “great books.” As for the Orthodox Jew, such a procedure must be altogether unacceptable. To him, the Bible, and in a lesser degree the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, ultimately transcend all human standards of evaluation because they are divinely revealed; and to value them in terms of their “creative role in the survival of the Jewish people” is little short of sacrilege. True, Orthodox belief has always regarded the Torah as a law of life, and of Jewish life in particular; but its validation was never considered to depend on its survival value, or for that matter, on the survival of the Jewish people. On the contrary, the validity of Jewish “peoplehood” and survival were grounded in its being a necessary means to the fulfilment of the divine plan. The Orthodox Jew has always agreed with Saadia’s dictum that Israel is a people only by virtue of the Torah. Nor is it possible for Orthodoxy to take another stand and remain Orthodoxy. Once Saadia’s dictum is reversed and the Torah is made a means to the survival of Israel, it is reduced to a man-made book. And what men have made, men are permitted to change; indeed, they are morally obligated to change the means (the man-made book) whenever such change is required by the end (die survival of Israel). Thus the Torah, in the Orthodox sense, is no mere “great Jewish book”; since its author is God, it is, properly speaking, neither “great” nor “Jewish,” nor for that matter a book, in our sense. It is Torah.

The existence of a Jewish humanism which denies revelation is, of course, nothing new. What is new is the reluctance on the part of this humanism to reject Orthodoxy outright; its attempt, inspired by its desire to assert “Jewish unity,” to find a broad (and vague) framework in which Orthodoxy, too, will have its place. And nothing less than startling is the willingness of prominent Orthodox rabbis to accept this dispensation. As a result, the position of the Orthodox contributors to The Great Jewish Books cannot avoid being profoundly ambiguous. Rabbi Federbush calls Talmudic law the “fulfilment of the lofty humanitarian ideals of the Torah,” and he confines himself to ethical selections from the Talmud, such as would be “great” even if the Talmud were a purely human book. Rabbi Fasman forthrightly asserts that the Shulchan Aruch is divinely ordained; yet he also finds it necessary to point to its democratic spirit, and to its importance in “Jewish survival” during the past four centuries. The non-Orthodox contributors face a similar dilemma. Thus Rabbi Goldman, an outspoken humanist, regards the Bible as the “outgrowth of the divine wrestlings … of the Jewish people,” and its truths as “intuitions” rather than revelations; but he will not exclude his Orthodox brethren from the synthesis, and can write: “. . . by the aid of grace or as a result of a stroke of genius, as you will” (my italics).

The fact is, there cannot be any synthesis, in any such loose terms as these, of Orthodoxy and humanism, of the Book and the “great Jewish books,” that will stand up. The only significance of this particular attempt is the eagerness of both sides to bring such a synthesis about. It may well be that out of the present search for Jewish unity there will eventually emerge a faith neither “Orthodox” nor “humanist” in the old sense. This reviewer himself believes that neither present-day Orthodoxy nor humanism is ultimately tenable, yet each contains truth. But a genuine search for a tenable Jewish conviction must begin with a clear exposure of the relevant conflicts and intellectual contradictions in which we find ourselves. Like so many projects which start out by seeking the cooperation of a “representative group,” The Great Jewish Books presents only a pseudo-synthesis, concealing tensions instead of stating and resolving them.

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But might not the approach represented by this volume be valid if, omitting the Orthodox, it tried for unity among all other shades of “positive Judaism”? We perceive further difficulties if we pose two questions: Does the greatness of a “great Jewish book” reside in its intrinsic, timeless value, as religion (or, for that matter, as literature or culture), or in its appropriateness to the social and political needs of a Jewish generation? And is it Jewish because its content is Judaism or Jewish vision, thought, or insight, or because it has aided the survival of the Jewish people?

The German liberal-Jewish generation that spoke of the “essence of Judaism” would have chosen, without hesitation, the first answer to both questions. By and large, that generation had surrendered the Orthodox belief which sees Jewish existence as based on a divine interference with history; but it certainly did not surrender the moral and religious truth value of the “essence” of Judaism. Through the intuition of man rather than the revelation of God, this Judaism yet had an absolute claim on the Jewish people: the continuity of Jewishness was essentially the continuity of Judaism, only incidentally the continuity of the Jewish people.

It would be difficult to hold such a view in our time. Too many significant events have happened in the life of the Jewish people which have little, if anything, to do with a rather abstract “essence of Judaism.” Furthermore, our generation has become anthropology-minded, seeing even apparently timeless, perennial values as actually arising from the concrete needs and aspirations of concrete situations. The Great Jewish Books only reflects the spirit of our age when it leans to the second answers to the above two questions. In the age of pragmatism and cultural relativism, the continuity of Jewishness consists essentially in the “group survival” of the Jewish people; and Judaism (or, as some of the contributors would prefer, “Jewish culture”) has been, and is, a mere means to such survival.

Thus where any collection of “great Jewish books” made a generation ago would surely have included Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem and Hermann Cohen’s Religion der Vernunft, the present volume gives us Herd’s Juienstaat and the essays of Ahad Ha’am—works which are included not at all for their timelessness but, on the contrary, precisely for their timeliness: they said what was “needed” when it was needed. More than this, we are informed that the value of the Shulchan Aruch consisted, at least in part, in its being a “unifying force,” and that of Graetz’s History in bolstering Jewish self-respect. And of the Zohar, Rabbi Agus has this to say: “The Kabbalists, in general, and the authors of the Zohar, in particular, set out to restrain and modify the rationalistic spirit in Judaism so as to build up the kind of sacrificial loyalty that the circumstances of their time required” (my italics). Rabbi Essrig expresses this pragmatic “group-suivival” viewpoint most frankly when he implies (for himself as well as for Ahad Ha’am) that traditional Judaism is a mere “theological rationale for Jewish survival.”

And yet, there can be no doubt that this group-survival philosophy is hopelessly inadequate as an interpretation of Jewish tradition and Jewish destiny. If the “essence of Judaism” approach failed to do justice to the concrete life of the Jewish people, the “group-survival” approach surely fails even more abysmally to do justice to Judaism’s innate claim to moral and religious truth. There are, to be sure, those who would transform Judaism into a mere folk culture devoid of all authority; but such a transformation would involve a more radical break with tradition and history than even the most radical Reform Jew ever contemplated.

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But the fact is that the contributors to The Great Jewish Books intend no such break with the past. Yet this only shows that their instinctive sensitiveness to Jewish life and tradition is far sounder than the philosophy to which the majority of them profess to subscribe. The latter, taken seriously, would make their entire project unintelligible. Why should anyone accepting the relativistic dogmas of the group-survival philosophy turn to the past at all? If the Judaism—or rather, Judaisms—of the past are mere outmoded “rationales for Jewish survival,” why should the modern Jew (whose “needs” are different) bother with them? Tke Great Jewish Books not only bothers with the past; the past is its central concern. Moreover, the further back it goes into the past, the more consistently does it deal with books whose greatness lies less in temporary “survival value” and more in being intrinsically representative of Judaism. Clearly, our contributors may hold that Judaism is, in some sense, a means to the survival of the Jewish people; but they also hold that, in some other sense, the Jewish people have been, and should continue to be, a means to the survival of Judaism. But this latter insight is sufficient to wreck the group-survival philosophy, or at least its adequacy as an interpretation of Jewish life.

This volume has thus in itself a peculiar timeliness: it reflects, without resolving, the problem of Jewish self-interpretation in our age. Its philosophy of Jewish unity is a failure, partly because of the gravity of the historic issues of our time, and partly because of its too unreflective adherence to pragmatic and positivistic modes of thought. Both these factors are characteristic for this Jewish generation: the former, in the mind of every thinking Jew, at once challenges him and makes him feel somehow inadequate; the latter makes him even more inadequate than he needs to be, blighting a large section of religious thought. But this volume is timely also in another, and more hopeful, respect: it shows that while our “philosophic” (or rather ideological) response to the events of our time may thus far be a failure, our instinctive response is not. The Jewish heart has been far more perceptive in fathoming Jewish destiny in our time than the Jewish mind. This fact must make us hopeful that, with sufficient intellectual patience and integrity, we may also succeed in formulating the adequate philosophy of Jewish unity which we all desire.

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