Commentary Magazine


The Task of Being an American Jew:
The Modern Rediscovery of Jewish Life and Faith

In the February COMMENTARY, we published an article, “American Judaism: A Personal View,” by David Daiches, professor of comparative literature at Cornell University and well-known literary critic, which looked with a disapproving eye on its subject, comparing Mr. Daiches’ memories of his Orthodox youth in Scotland with the current practices of Reform and Conservative congregations in this country, to the latter’s immense disadvantage. LEO S. BAECK, in reply to Mr. Daiches, here vigorously defends our evolving liberalized Judaism as a natural and healthy—indeed inevitable—form for the Jewish spirit in the modern age. 

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In the previous issue of this magazine there appeared an impressive article by Professor David Daiches, an article that was a spirited confession of his faithful unbelief. We should be grateful to COMMENTARY for having published it, and, of course, first and foremost to the author for having written it. It was the confession of a sincere and thoughtful man, and we are not to take it lightly. For Mr. Daiches had cast his eye about, scanning the province of American Judaism, and nearly all that he found he found wanting. He did not discover any door inviting him to enter. Only toward some unpretentious vestibule of an Orthodox shut did he feel occasionally inclined to wend his way, and, at a propitious hour, go within to experience some intense devotional moments.

Much that he says will appeal to the sentiments and judgment of others. For there are more than a few Jews, gently or peremptorily declining to be Orthodox, who yet, like that man whom he cites with respect, are used to saying tachanun, and probably not only on Mondays and Thursdays. They, too, perhaps do not like to hear our synagogues being called temples (by the way, this name is not American-born, but came here as an immigrant from the quite Orthodox regions of Moravia and Hungary), nor do they take kindly to the ultra-modernizing, over-Americanizing speeches delivered so often by so many rabbis. These very same un-Orthodox people, though not, like Mr. Daiches, brought up in Scotland, will also wholeheartedly confirm from their own experience what our author warmly remembers: how handsomely a genuine and distinctive Jewishness may contribute to a true coming-to-terms with the Gentiles, and how a familiarity with our Hebrew Bible may evoke among them a respectful and genial responsiveness. And they are equally ready to agree with the emphasis he places upon the old synagogue song, they feel grief at its being lost in some Jewish regions; the Jewish people, they believe, always were and should remain a singing people, singing in their synagogues, maybe unsolemnly, but singing themselves—not by proxy, by the choir.

Yet there are some problems that Mr. Daiches resolves in a way that should, and I hope will, evoke disagreement rather than nostalgic assent They are significant problems, touching upon the essence of Judaism. It is therefore important that this disagreement be reasoned rather than partisan and harsh. Mr. Daiches’ article is a fair challenge and must be fairly answered.

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There is, first, the problem of this colorful being that is called Man and its relation to this particular, curious species called Jews. Mr. Daiches seems to be aware of some unsolved puzzle here, for when summing up his arguments and declaring: “I am a man, and I am interested in humanity,” he carefully advances the qualification, “with an individual background and heritage as every man has.”

Aye, there’s the rub! Everybody on this our earth is an individual, and it is only in the form of an individual that existence is conferred; what birth brings forth, what death brings to an end, at least in our world, is individuality. But wherever there is individuality, there is always a background and heritage, a system, a physical and biological, a psychological and historical, a geographical and social system which holds, permeates, and complicates the individual. And where there is a system, there are also laws, which set conditions and relations, which rule, direct, and restrict one and all of these individual universes. Only within “heritages,” within systems and their laws, do individualities have their life. And within his heritage, man has his life in a special manner.

What has evidently fallen to man’s share, what signifies the human particularity—although possibly, in a manner unknown to us, it might be the property of the other individualities, too—is the faculty of consciousness, of becoming aware of one’s individual life and its direction. And thus it is that upon a man, by means of his consciousness, there are imposed both chance and choice—the chance for him to grow capable of feeling his life to be a problem, and the choice for him to make of converting this problem into his task. Such is man, and such is his original trial: to experience consciously his heritage, to realize himself within the laws of nature and history, to unfold a distinctive personal character, to establish an ownership of life. Only if we appreciate this can the problem be understood and the task approached—the problem and task of being a man, and the problem and task of being a Jew, a Jewish man.

In each life there live the experiences of the many generations that came before it. Every life, within its allotted years, compresses centuries of destiny and fate, and is itself fettered by bonds established prior to its birth. This is true for all men but not always in the same way. For essential historical divergences emerge, divergences more substantial than those between any two individuals as such. There are the rich and the poor heritages; centuries that have been fertile or barren, dynamic or static, cultured or barbaric, centuries of real history or of mere existence—history only begins when men start thinking, that is, when they dare to engage in problems, in reflecting on reasons and consequences. We know that peoples with a history can ha Ve a continuance in it, a historic perseverance, possessing an antiquity, a Middle Ages, and a present that is uniquely their own. Thus there are, on the one hand, certain “chosen” peoples, having an exceptional heritage and background, and, on the other hand, peoples as yet lacking such a singularity.

Here we are brought face to face with the Jew and with the problem and task inherent in being a Jew. And it is by being brought face to face with it in this way that we can come to understand both the Judaism of the last century and American Reform Judaism.

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The strata of the Jewish heritage are deeper and more influential than perhaps any other. The Jew has known older days, and they were days of constant thinking and speculating; he has older eyes and ears than most people—he could here be compared with the Indian and Chinese, but he differs from them in that he has experienced many a land, many a climate, and many an earthquake too. This Jewish ear sometimes heard, and this Jewish eye sometimes saw, what others did not, or have not even yet. And the Jewish mind throughout the centuries was one stirred by an imperative hope, it was a mind in motion, a mind on the way, often acutely tensed with strain. The Jew was always in the midst of the Jewish fact and the Jewish problem. He might forsake them, they never forsook him.

The individual Jew might sometimes yearn for assurance, assurance in orthodoxies, spiritual or national. Yet somewhere within the Jew there is a perpetual fountainhead of Jewish dynamics, perhaps crusted over today, but one day certain to send forth a stream, with its whirls and eddies, of Jewish problematics: a day bound to come in his own life or in his children’s or grandchildren’s. The noble savage of the 18th-century sentimentalists could happily say: I am a man with my individual background—meaning only my individual background. His Jewish antipode neither could nor can say the same; his is the crucial specificity, he is the Jewish man, and only as this Jewish man may he be a man. Even those Jews who have made their stand quite outside of Judaism, great and audacious personalities like Heine, Marx, Disraeli—for their times, indeed, they may have stood outside and opposite; for the centuries, however, they were within.

In the revolutionary epoch of the past two centuries, the Jews were put to a crucial test, experiencing a transformation such as scarcely any other community has ever undergone, and comparable only to that which the Jews themselves had once suffered when entering the Greek world. When the Jew left the ghetto, he left not only a social and economic condition, but was disengaged from the very form of his existence. An existential problem was to be solved, and to do so—and only so could it be done—the problem had to be converted into a task. The old spiritual compass could operate no more. The Jew had lost his sense of direction.

Consequently, the Jew became aware one day that he, as a Jew, no longer could express himself, neither to the world nor to himself, as he had so easily done through a thousand years. He was threatened, as a Jew, with being a mute. A new language had to be discovered in order to make the Jew understood and able to express himself, and since each language has its own logic, its method of thinking and reasoning, it had really to be new. This learning to speak his mind, to speak as a Jew—this was the Jewish problem and the Jewish task of those recent generations of which we are the heirs. This was the historic question, in an age when the new Jewish times seemed to deny, and to be denied by, the old Jewish centuries.

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It is one of the momentous achievements of Jewish history that the challenge was met as an adventure—a faithful adventure in which the first pioneers were such unorthodox men as Moses Mendelssohn, Leopold Zunz, Nachman Krochmal. Not very felicitously, the movement that sprang from them is usually called Reform, but it is more than that, it is nearer to a spiritual revolution. When most people speak of it, they think first, or only, of outward adjustments affecting, for example, the dietary and sabbatical laws, or the prayer book, the choir, and organ. But what profoundly stirred those pioneers, and what aroused their enthusiasm, were not such external matters. It was the problem of their own Jewish life, the vital problem of the Jewish man, that had laid hold of them—this problem of that existence which is the ground of a man’s substance and which underlies all manifestations of his individuality. They faced the question whether the Jew had been sentenced by history henceforth to exist outside of himself, to see himself as a historical object, or whether, in these new revolutionary days, he could and should rediscover himself and become again radically conscious of his existence.

This was the outstanding historic accomplishment of the men of the Reform movement. They heard the question and, hearing it, they rediscovered the Jew, his problem and task, rediscovered Jewish life and faith. They gave to a new epoch the Jew and Judaism, and gave to the Jew and Judaism a new epoch. It was no easy thing to do, requiring strenuous intellectual effort and enduring moral confidence. But the men of the Reform strove hard and, for the most part, they succeeded. They renewed the Jewish tongue and enabled Judaism again to express itself. A language, an effective agency of the spirit, was created anew. Judaism could be voiced again.

And these men of the Reform, with their scholarship and historical research, also formed a new sense of history, and afforded a fuller knowledge of permanence and change in Jewish life. The Jew reconquered his memory, and the Jewish remembrance again proved to be a dynamic remembrance that engenders and nourishes hope. The Jew began to discern that direction of faith—true faith means first a direction—which rules the voluntary paths and dominates the forced detours. He felt his own days to be history; thereby a new human self-consciousness was born, a new sense of human responsibility. That old Jewish religious power again broke through, by virtue of which a Jew can never be merely “interested in humanity” but is bound up in humanity, in bearing his part of mankind’s destiny, in enduring for himself mankind’s hope—suffering from hope is the Jewish heritage.

Thus, as a result of the Reform, Jewish spirit and existence were enabled to with-, stand a profound crisis. Judaism could affirm itself and commence a new epoch of its own. We are still in the midst of its course, but we can even now become aware of its significance. It is an epoch rich in risks and achievements, pregnant with problems, abundant in luminous personalities. It was as if a volcano, which had appeared dormant for a very long time, did prove its might again. One must know what went before to perceive the importance of the new. Without the Reform there would be, not only no new Liberal Judaism, but no new Conservatism, no new Orthodoxy, no new Hasidism, even no new Zionism. They all are the offspring of Reform, Reform’s legitimate children, and they all speak the Jewish language taught by their mother, the Reform movement. Certainly there was, and is, a narrower sense to Reform: accommodations and adjustments to the new era that were, in part, good and necessary, in part bad and unnecessary. (It should be pointed out, though, that Conservatism and Orthodoxy have also, for both better and worse, been reformed in this sense.) But however useful and proper such adjustment may have been, it is of secondary importance to Reform. Its primary achievement was and is a new method, a new outlook, a new way. But for this Reform, we would not have today our Orthodox or un-Orthodox Jewish life, our Jewish confessions of belief, disbelief, or unbelief. Jewish Reform, in the breadth of its view, made allowance for many a turn, save for one shift indeed: for a “believing in Jewish theology”—that is, believing in any arrangement, old or new, of real or supposed Jewish doctrine. What a curious mistake to suppose that such a thing is to be found anywhere within the Jewish sphere, whether the Orthodox or the un Orthodox!

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Only by understanding the real significance of Reform shall we understand the American Jew and American Reform. When, in the 19th century, the Jews from Central Europe came in great numbers to settle in America, this was their second emigration: their first had been out of the ghetto. (Later on, when many Jews left Eastern Europe to come to America, they experienced these two emigrations at once.) They entered America, this new world without an antiquity and a Middle Ages of its own, and found something quite new ready to welcome them. Another language, and not just an American English, was spoken here. The spirit of the Declaration of Independence, which can be called the Grand Adventure, and of the Constitution, which can be called the Grand Experiment, began to pervade them. A second Reform, an American Reform, was felt to be needed.

All the religious communities here have experienced this American Reform. There is an American Protestantism and an American Catholicism just as there is an American Judaism, and the attribute “American” must always be especially accentuated. Epigrammatically overstating, one could even dare to say: all confessions in America are somehow and somewhat like denominations of one extensive faith which means America. That American readiness for adventure and experiment is, more or less, common to them all. They show a glad preparedness for the new beginning.

The second Reform of Judaism, as first carried out by the immigrants from Central Europe, did, and perhaps sometimes had to, make more radical accommodations than had been made in Europe, and here and there a step backward had to be taken later on. But theirs was the enthusiasm and theirs is the historic achievement. It is owing to them that there is, in its many nuances, this American Judaism, that hundreds of thousands, later millions, as true Jews became Americans, and as Americans remained conscious of being true Jews, that as American Jews they were able sincerely to express themselves and to enrich their country’s thought and vision.

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One great task however still lies before Reform as it does before Conservatism also—though it is Reform that especially justifies itself in showing the way. This task is the reestablishment of the Bible in the life of the Jew, for to him the Bible must never come to be mere “literature.” Time and again, through the Bible, the Jewish people has rediscovered itself; the history of Jewish thought is the history of these renaissances and reformations. This book can never, to a Jew, be only a matter for knowledge or research. The depth of the command and of the mystery is rooted in it; ever anew it claims man. Without this book the Jewish people could not survive, and without this people the essentials of this book would no longer live. The two belong to one another.

To be sure, this book stirs the soul, many a complacency is disturbed, many a self-satisfaction greatly disquieted. Unless, of course, one is an agnostic to whom the Bible is “literature”—as seems to be the case with Mr. Daiches. Yet life evades one risk only to run another, and there is obviously someone for Mr. Daiches to be afraid of: this Elisha ben Abuyah who “has long fascinated” him. For this man was quite different from what Mr. Daiches supposes him to have been. He had traveled and crossed many a road, from Gnosticism to being “Aher” (an “Other”), and his life bore the scars of trials. Should he one day be disposed to call at Ithaca, New York, there would be an uneasy moment at Cornell University. For, seeing the houses of learning and hearing literature lectured there, he would at once, as often he did in Palestinian houses of learning, begin to turn the youth out of doors, shouting, as related by the Talmud Yerushalmi (Hagiga 77b): “Out with you, you lazy people, stop idling away your days. Begin a human work, start you becoming a carpenter, and you a mason, you a tailor, and you a fisherman.” Maybe Mr. Daiches would no longer feel fascinated.

But, in conclusion, I should like to proffer to Mr. Daiches my sincere thanks for what his confession has called to my mind; without him, I should not have said what I wanted so much to say. And if he will permit me to quote the very same Elisha ben Abuyah (Sifre on Deuteronomy 4:9): “Has someone induced his neighbor to attempt some fair doing, he may be considered as having done it himself.”

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