The Dilemma of Liberal Judaism
The liberal Jew of today is in a dilemma. His Jewish conscience urges him to look for an authority which might guide and direct his Jewish life. But his liberal conscience frowns on that desire, as a temptation to be resisted. As a Jew he fears that, unless individuals such as himself accept an authority, there will soon be an end to Judaism. But as a liberal he fears that, should they in fact accept it, there will soon be an end to liberalism. These fears and doubts confront him with the possibility that he might in the end have to choose between his Judaism and his liberalism; that, as critics on both right and left have charged all along, liberal Judaism is a contradiction in terms.
If this dilemma, latently present ever since the rise of liberal Judaism, is becoming open and manifest in our time, it is because of three main conclusions toward which the conscientious liberal Jew is more and more ineluctably driven. Gone are the days when one could arbitrarily pick and choose from the Jewish past and persuade oneself that one’s selection was Judaism. The selections have been too many and too varied, and too apt to reflect less the spirit of Judaism than that of those who selected from it, or that of their age or their class. If the liberal’s Jewish life is to have a claim to authenticity, then, there must be a sense in which the Jewish past has authority. This is the first conclusion.
The second is a corollary of the first. Arbitrary picking and choosing may be done by the learned and the unlearned alike. But genuine contact with the past is possible, if at all, only through learning and scholarship. Hence if there is a sense in which the Jewish past has authority for the liberal Jew, there is also a sense in which Jewish learning has such authority. The views of the learned and those of the unlearned cannot carry equal weight; they can approach equality only as the unlearned themselves take steps to become learned.
The third conclusion is the deepest and hardest of all. Indeed, it is so deep and hard that, although it is well-nigh inescapable, the desire to escape from it is stubborn and widespread. If the Jewish past is to have authority for the liberal Jew, then this past cannot be a merely human past, however great. A merely human past could obligate the liberal Jew, if at all, only as a man; and the Jewish part of it, perhaps to a greater degree than other parts, but not differently in kind.1 If Judaism is to continue to exist, there must be a sense in which the Jewish past has an altogether unique authority for the liberal Jew. But this is possible only if what speaks to him through it is not merely the voice of man but the voice of God. The third conclusion, then, toward which the liberal Jew is more and more ineluctably driven is that Judaism is not a purely human product: that it is, after all, a covenant between Israel and God. Hence he stands under still another authority, and this is the highest, of which indeed the other two are but means and instruments: the authority of God.
These conclusions, we say, are becoming increasingly inescapable for the serious liberal Jew. But because he is a liberal, he also finds them all but unacceptable. For they seem radically incompatible with that intellectual and spiritual freedom the exercise of which he considers both his right and his duty. As he sees his duty, he must criticize the past, not accept its authority; and he must criticize it in the light of standards which are modern and contemporary. It is by virtue of criticism that he sees the present to have progressed beyond the past; and to desist from such criticism and accept past authority would be, in his view, to betray his liberal conscience and lapse into reaction.
Liberal conscience, then, seems to rule out the authority of the past. It also seems to rule out the authority of learning and scholarship. A free believer must think for himself. He cannot be free if another thinks on his behalf. In the sphere of spiritual life, inferior thoughts which are the individual’s own are better than superior thoughts which are not—simply because they are his own. How then can the authority of learning be acceptable? Hillel maintained that the ignorant cannot be pious.2 To the liberal, these are hard and indeed intolerable words.
But the hardest authority for the liberal is not that of the past or of learning but that of God. Whether the divine word comes through the mouth of a prophet or a sacred writing or even through his own heart, he cannot, he feels, simply subject his conscience to it. He cannot but weigh that word against his own conscience; and in the end it must be his conscience and his judgment which are his authority, not a God other than they who legislates to them. If indeed there should be such a thing as revelation, it cannot be a voice other than the voice within. It must be identical with it. The voice of conscience, or of free thought, or of religious experience, must be the voice of God.
In an attempt to cope with the dilemma of the liberal Jew, our first task must be to consider more closely the concept of freedom which gives rise to it. That concept first achieved prominence in the Age of Enlightenment, and it has pervaded Western consciousness ever since.
It is well denned by Immanuel Kant. “Enlightenment,” Kant writes, “is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage.”
In Kant’s account, freedom is not the mere ability to choose. This would be altogether compatible with authority, that is, the taking of direction from another, provided only such direction is taken voluntarily. True freedom, for Kant, consists of autonomy. And by autonomy he means the ability to choose in the light of standards approved by one’s own thinking, conscience, and experience. Freedom as so defined is radically and completely incompatible with authority, that is, the taking of direction from another. Kant thinks that true enlightenment consists of autonomy, and hence of emancipation from authority; and that autonomy is man’s noblest goal. A noble goal: but not a goal that is easy or popular. Kant continues: “It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet . . . I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay.”
The modern concept of autonomy has had revolutionary implications for religious thought. The first of these was stated by Kant himself. Holy Writ cannot legislate to moral conscience. Moral conscience must legislate to Holy Writ. We cannot accept a law as moral because it is Biblical. Rather, we can accept a Biblical law only if it is moral; and it is moral if approved by moral consciousness. Moses and Jesus are not moral legislators who provide us with moral standards. They merely illustrate moral standards which we already possess.3
The second implication of the concept of autonomy became manifest in the course of the 19th century. Pre-modern historians accept past facts on the authority of reliable documents. And pre-modern Biblical historians accept Biblical facts on the authority of the Bible. But modern historians wholly dispense with authorities. They reconstruct the facts of the past, instead of accepting them on authority, and the reconstructing is done in the light of their critical reason. Documents are no longer authoritative statements of what has happened; they are merely one means among others which enable the historian to reconstruct what has happened.
To the modern Biblical historian, the Bible can be no exception. It too is not an authoritative statement of historical facts, but merely one source among others which aid in their reconstruction. Hence the discipline known as Biblical criticism is not a mysterious discipline in its own right. It is but a branch of modern critical history.
But is the Bible merely another book of moral maxims, or another historical record? What of its claim to being the record of a divine revelation? The most momentous of all implications of the concept of autonomy is that revelation is in principle impossible. Revelation is the incursion of a God who is other than man into the life of man; and man is receptive to his incursion. But such receptivity is in principle incompatible with autonomy. If indeed man is capable of autonomy, then autonomy is his highest possibility; and if and when he actualizes it, he has transcended all passivity and receptivity in creative self-realization. Only two possibilities therefore remain concerning revelation if man is capable of autonomy. Either God does not contact man at all, being nonexistent or necessarily absent. Or else the God who contacts man is not other than man and present to man, but rather present in man. Revelation occurs, in that case, in great moments of human self-realization and is identical with it. Religious experience, or moral conscience, are not stimulated or caused by God. They are themselves divine.
It is in this re-interpretation alone, then, that revelation is compatible with autonomy. But if thus re-interpreted, revelation cannot be accessible through acceptance of the Bible. No doubt the Bible is the product of creative religious genius. But if later generations accept it as an authority they do not gain access to revelation but on the contrary bar themselves from it. For revelation consists of spiritual creativity whereas they have lapsed into receptivity and passivity. Only if they themselves achieve spiritual creativity can they penetrate, beyond the product of ancient creative genius, to that genius itself, achieving spiritual sympathy with it. But if they do achieve such creativity, then recourse to either the Bible or the genius which produced it is no longer needed. That bold, iconoclastic reformed clergyman, D. F. Schleiermacher, was able to write: “Not he has true religion who believes in a Holy Scripture, but he who does not require such a Scripture, and indeed could compose one in his own right.”
Such, then, are the main implications of the modern concept of autonomy, so far as they are relevant to religion. Whether or not that concept is valid we must in due course inquire. For the present it must be shown that the concept of autonomy has, at any rate, enough validity for the liberal Jew to make pre-modern concepts of religious authority in principle unacceptable. Indeed, it was through recognition of this fact that liberal Judaism first came into being.
Pre-modern Judaism was by no means blindly authoritarian. Tradition stresses that R. Akiba interpreted the Torah so freely that Moses himself could not recognize it; and that what matters in the observance of the 613 commandments is not the letter but the spirit. At the same time, R. Akiba thought that he was merely drawing out what was in the Torah, and tradition insists that the commandments be observed, preferably to be sure in spirit as well as in letter, but in letter in any case. R. Akiba’s conviction and the insistence of tradition in the end rest on one single fundamental belief, and this belief is the ultimate basis of pre-modern Jewish authority: the belief, not only in revelation, but in verbal revelation; the conviction that the Torah is not a human product, even one produced under the impact of divine revelation, but quite literally a divine product, dictated by God.
In breaking with the Orthodox view of authority, it is with this belief that, in the final analysis, the liberal Jew broke. Nor can he, even in his most romantic moods, return to that belief today. He broke with it under the impact of the concept of autonomy. But whatever the validity of that concept, it has enough validity to make the break inevitable.
Orthodox apologists often harp on specific blunders or excesses of Biblical criticism. But the true impact of Biblical criticism does not lie in particular radical assertions, such as that Israel never stood at Mt. Sinai. It would be as great even if all the critics agreed that Israel had stood at Mt. Sinai. The impact lies, not in specific assertions, but in basic assumptions. A medieval thinker such as Judah Halevi could accept Biblical facts absolutely, on the authority of 600,000 witnesses and an unbroken tradition. A modern historian can accept them, if at all, only tentatively, as a hypothesis capable of being overthrown. In the modern age, to follow the lead of Judah Halevi would be to exempt the Torah, alone among all historical documents, from the methodological requirements of modern history. But this is for the liberal Jew intellectually impossible. He can indeed, as we shall forthwith argue, believe in revelation. But he cannot possibly believe in verbal revelation, that is, in a divinely handed down text.
To do so is not only an intellectual impossibility. It is a moral and spiritual impossibility as well. When confronted with Biblical laws and concepts which seemed offensive to his conscience, the pre-modern Jew had two basic choices. Believing as he did in verbal revelation, he could see himself forced to swallow his scruples. Thus the Orthodox Jew prays for the return of animal sacrifices even today. Or he could interpret what seemed offensive so as to make it acceptable; and believing as he did in verbal revelation, he could believe that his interpretation was faithful to the literal meaning of the Biblical text. For the liberal Jew, both of these escapes are impossible. He is too deeply imbued with the modern historical spirit to be able to believe that modern values are implicit in ancient laws and concepts whose letter contradicts them. Nor can he pray for the return of animal sacrifices. To him, these are ancient but long outmoded ways of worshipping God.
The upshot, then, is clear. Whether or not he can accept revelation, the liberal Jew cannot, at any rate, accept verbal revelation. To accept it would be to accept an authority which would silence or fetter his critical reason and his spiritual conscience. But he would cease to be a liberal if he betrayed his duty to give free rein to both.
But some liberal Jews have always thought it necessary to go far beyond these negative conclusions. The concept of autonomy was accepted by them completely, with all its implications. Indeed, some have gone so far as to make the concept of autonomy the central positive concept of liberal Judaism. The “Pittsburgh Platform,” adopted by a representative group of Reform rabbis in 1885, may be cited as a significant illustration. That platform frankly replaces revelation with “the consciousness of the indwelling of God in man.” It openly rejects all traditional laws except moral laws, and what is moral it determines by the standards of modern consciousness. It regards Judaism as “a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason.” Not Judaism, not revelation, not the Torah, but reason is the one and only standard of truth and value!
Still, liberal Jews have frequently hedged as regards the concept of autonomy, and they have done so in increasing numbers as time went on. Thus while the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 is forthright, the “Columbus Platform,” adopted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1937, equivocates: speaking of religious experience, but also of revelation; and asserting religious progress, but also that prophetic insight is unique, and hence presumably still unsurpassed. Liberal hedging is epitomized in a prayer, known to us all, which bids us “welcome all truth, whether shining from the annals of ancient revelations or reaching us through the seers of our own time.” Whether both truths are revelation or neither is; whether the ancient legislates to the modern, or the modern to the ancient: these are questions which remain unanswered.
Superficially a sign of intellectual cowardice, such liberal hedging in fact reflects a profound Jewish awareness. It springs from the realization that the concept of autonomy, if carried to its logical conclusion, and made the central concept of liberal Judaism, must necessarily destroy Judaism.
To demonstrate this assertion is not difficult: to judge the past by the standards of the present is to presuppose the absolute superiority of the present. It is not merely to reject blind submission to the authority of the past. It is also to deny that we can learn anything whatsoever from the past. The past may approximate or on occasion even reach the level of the present. But it cannot by definition ever and at any point surpass it. Precisely because present standards decide what is true and of value, a Judaism based on the concept of autonomy would therefore have to be a wholly contemporary Judaism, cut loose from all essential ties with the past.
Further, such a Judaism would have to be a wholly man-made product. If based on the concept of autonomy, it could leave no room for revelation, understood as the incursion of a God other than man into the life of man. The voice of God could be present in such a Judaism only if identified with the “religious genius” which had produced it; and the genius would have to be, in essence, contemporary.
How could such a Judaism be related to the modern Jew? It could be understood as a body of universal truths and values. But then there would be no reason why to accept this body one need be a Jew, or why a Jew need accept it because he is a Jew. We should be left, not with Judaism but with a “religion of mankind.” Or it could be regarded as a body of particular Jewish truths and values, true and valid for Jews alone. But in that case we would save Jewishness and Judaism only at the cost of lapsing into chauvinism and idolatry. In the past, the Jew persisted in his Jewishness for the sake of the worship of God. But if God is not other than man but present in human vision, and if He is present for the Jew in his Jewish vision, then the Jew of the future would have to persist in his Jewishness, for the sake of the worship, not of God but of the Jewish vision of God.
This serves to show the most serious and indeed catastrophic implication of the belief in autonomy for Judaism. The God of traditional Judaism can be present to man. If man is autonomous then God can be present only in man, as “conscience” or “insight” or “creative genius.” But to accept this is in the end to fall prey to idolatry. That the voice of the heart is the voice of God is a belief which could seem plausible in ages given to romantic enthusiasm. But this age cannot but see that the heart, while endowed with great spiritual power, is also, as Jeremiah said, deceitful above all things and exceeding weak. And we arrive at this crucial conclusion: God is accessible to man, either as He who is other than man and yet enters into human life; or He is not accessible at all. But this means that we must choose between Judaism and the belief in autonomy. We cannot have both.
The central problem of the liberal Jew has now become clear. Judaism requires a twofold receptivity: a receptivity toward the past, and a receptivity toward a God who speaks through both present and past. The problem is whether this twofold receptivity is compatible with freedom. And this is a problem because the concept of autonomy implies that it is not compatible.
But one may wonder whether true freedom is always autonomy. Let us first ask: must every free relation to the past assume the absolute superiority of the present over the past? No doubt one’s first reaction is to answer in the affirmative. Present science is superior to past science, and present history, to the history of the past. To think otherwise would be to lapse into reaction.
But reflection gives rise to second thoughts. Present science builds on past science, and present history on past history. Is the same necessarily true of religion and morality? Science and history deal with concepts only. Religion and morality are concerned not only with concepts but also with human lives. Concepts can be built on other concepts. But lives cannot be built on other lives. Hence while in science and history there can be steady progress, progress in religion and morality is at best only haphazard and equivocal. Religious and moral truths, even if long discovered, must always be re-discovered; and they are re-discovered, not just by being re-thought but by being re-lived. In short, in religion and morality, the present is not necessarily superior to the past.
This is why one cannot simply subject past religious and moral beliefs to present standards, any more than one can simply submit to their authority. To do the latter would be to avoid the responsibilities of freedom. To do the former would be to remain with a very limited freedom which, by idolizing the present, would become enclosed in its parochial bounds. A truly free spiritual relation to the past is not either of these one-way relations; it is the two-way relation of a genuine encounter: a relation in which the past, to be sure, is exposed to the judgment of the present, but in which the present also exposes itself to the judgment of the past. In such a relation there is acceptance from the past. But there is no blind acceptance. For what is unacceptable is not accepted, and what is accepted is appropriated by the recipient and made his own. But this is the crucial point: what the present recipient has accepted from the past is something he has truly learned. It is something new, something which he did not possess before the encounter. This is why, when he accepts it and makes it his own, his very being is transformed.
Such a receptivity, then, far from being incompatible with freedom, on the contrary enlarges and enhances it. It raises the recipient above the narrow dogmas of his time. No doubt a merely passive receptivity is incompatible with freedom. But not every receptivity is simply passive. We must therefore conclude that the problem of freedom and authority, as stated in terms of the concept of autonomy, is a falsely stated problem. And it is falsely stated because the concept of autonomy is itself invalid. Or rather, it is valid for the activities of abstract scientific and historical thought. But it is not valid as a concept of freedom which applies in human life.
This is our first important, positive conclusion, and it frees the liberal Jew from a time-honored but false dilemma. Critics on the right charge that to accept the past must be to accept it entire, and that all selective acceptance is arbitrary. Critics on the left charge that to select from the past is to be committed to present standards of selection, and that to be thus committed is to have no need of the past. Jointly these critics have always charged the liberal Jew with mere compromise.
But such charges have no force for the truly liberal Jew, who meets the Jewish past in a genuine encounter. For in this encounter he learns that not all selecting from the past is arbitrary; and not all acceptance from it a form of blind submission. No doubt his encounter with the past is fraught with danger. He will often project into the past what he believes himself to be discovering in it. And he will often fall prey to blind worship of the past when he believes himself to be freely accepting it. But he must resist the temptation of escaping from the encounter, by a flight either into or from the past. Rather he must cope with the dangers of the encounter in the encounter itself.
We conclude, then, that human freedom is compatible with receptivity to the past. But is it compatible also with receptivity to a God who speaks to man through present and past? With this question, we have come upon the crux of our whole inquiry. This question is the crucial question. The difficulties it poses are the crucial difficulties. Indeed, on our ability to answer this question the success of our whole inquiry depends. And in the final analysis, everything thus far said has been said to prepare just for this question: is human freedom compatible with human receptivity to a God other than man—a God under whose authority he therefore stands?4
Reception from a human other can appropriate what it receives; the recipient can make what he receives his own. But can he appropriate the gift of a divine Other, and make it his own? Appropriating reception is possible in the first case because giver and recipient are both human. But is it possible if only the recipient is human while the Giver is divine? It may seem that only two possibilities exist in this case. Either the human recipient can indeed appropriate what he receives. But then the divine Giver cannot, after all, be other than the human recipient, and we are led back to the view that the divine voice is in man, rather than being other than the voice of man. Or else the divine Giver is indeed wholly other than the human recipient. But then the latter must receive His gift in radical passivity, and we are led back to pre-modern authoritarianism. For if the prophet is the mere vessel of the divine revelation, then the words he speaks cannot be a human reflection of an event of divine incursion, but must be quite literally the words of God. In short, we should have landed in Orthodoxy. Thus it seems that the crucial dilemma of liberal Judaism is still unresolved.
As we at long last try to cope with this dilemma we must first turn for guidance to traditional Judaism. For while authoritarian, traditional Judaism is by no means blindly so. And we must never forget that what unites liberal with traditional Judaism is far more than what separates them.
Traditional Judaism is often pictured as a barren legalism, in which the observance of external laws takes the place of a relation with the living God. If this account were correct, then revelation, as understood by traditional Judaism, could reveal laws only, not God along with these laws. And the Jew bound by them would be related only to these laws, giving recognition to their divine origin merely by submitting to them in blind passivity. In fact, however, this legalistic picture is nothing but a gross caricature. Except for rare periods of spiritual decay, traditional Judaism was always a religion, not of law, but of commandment.
A law discloses only itself. A commandment discloses its giver along with itself. Obedience to a law does not necessarily create a relation to its giver. Obedience to a commandment necessarily creates such a relation. In Judaism, revelation is commandment rather than law. And this means that revelation does not disclose the will of God to the exclusion of God, just as it does not disclose God to the exclusion of His will. It discloses both in indissoluble union. And this disclosure calls for an appropriate response on the part of those to whom it is made: that is, that they should both accept the commandment, and accept it as God’s commandment. In prophetic utterances, the words “Thus saith the Lord” are not a mere preamble; they are an essential part of the message. To state the whole point very briefly we may say: traditional Judaism is not the mechanical observance of a system of laws. It is the living covenant between God and Israel.5
Where revelation is thus experienced and understood its reception cannot possibly occur in total passivity. Were this the case, the Divine presence would shatter the will of the human recipient, and indeed his very selfhood. The recipient would, as the mystic claims he does, dissolve into ineffable union with the Divine. But revelation which commands leaves the human self intact, for the commandment is addressed to him. It leaves his free will intact, for it is to his will that the commandment appeals. Indeed, the commandment accentuates this will, for it confronts it with a challenge from which there is no escape. Finally and most importantly, in Judaism revelation-as-commandment does not challenge the recipient merely to receive and fulfill the commandment, but to fulfill it with joy—that is, to appropriate it and make it his own.
To the mystic, revelation-as-commandment has always seemed an impossibility. How can finite man, touched by the Infinite, retain his finite identity? How can this touch even accentuate his will? Finally, how can he appropriate the gift of the Infinite, while himself remaining finite? This may seem an impossibility. Yet it is the innermost secret of Jewish faith and Jewish life that this “impossibility” is actual.
How can it be actual? It is actual by virtue of divine love. In the very moment of touch which threatens to devour finite selfhood, revelation turns into commandment which re-establishes and reassures that selfhood. In the instant in which the commandment confronts man with a radical otherness which threatens to destroy him, it divests itself of enough of its otherness to become capable of enhancing human life instead of destroying it. In Judaism, then, love is not a revelation separate from commandment, let alone an “idea which was evolved only later in religious development.” The very disclosure of commandment is also and already a disclosure of love, and would be impossible without it. And the traditional concepts of God as commanding King who inspires fear, and as forgiving Father who inspires love, are not separate, let alone incompatible concepts. The King is Father, and the Father, King. Hence it has well been said: “Love and fear God; tremble and rejoice when you perform the commandments.”
Where revelation discloses itself as commandment, later generations which are subject to it cannot be related to it as to a dead past. Were this the case, the commandment would be living commandment only to those who first received it. To all others it would be mere dead law. The past for traditional Judaism is not a dead past. Through it still speaks the God who gave it. He still speaks because He still lives, and because His covenant with Israel is still alive. And the Jew today, as the Jew of old, is enjoined to practice, not arid law, but living commandment. Hence the Midrash well says: “All souls, even those which had still to be created, were present at the revelation of Mt. Sinai.”
Our crucial question has thus in part been answered, in terms of Jewish tradition. Is human receptivity to a God other than man compatible with human freedom? If revelation is neither arid law nor mystic union but commandment, it is not only compatible with freedom but impossible without it. The human self remains intact even in the moment of touch by the Divine. He is free to choose for or against His commandment. Finally and most importantly, he is free to appropriate His commandment: to observe it, not in blind, slavish fear, but in the kind of love which exists because the recipient has made God’s commandment his own, and God’s will his. There can be no greater freedom than this. We saw above that free appropriation of the human past raises man above the parochialism of the present. We see now that free appropriation of God’s commandment raises him above a human parochialism which is the lot of man when he is divorced from God. The Midrash thus rightly says: “When the Torah came into the world, freedom came into the world.”
Jewish tradition, then, solves most of the liberal’s problems. But it leaves one serious problem unsolved, and to solve it, the liberal Jew must crucially depart from tradition. As for tradition, a recipient of the commandment is free to accept or reject it; and if accepting it, to observe it in fear, or in love as well as in fear. But it would appear that human spontaneity does not enter into the act of hearing itself, for the traditionalist holds that what he hears is quite literally the word of God. But this belief, as we have seen long ago, is to the liberal unacceptable.
Hence we are compelled to put forward a different doctrine. Human spontaneity enters not merely into the response to the commandment, but already into the hearing of it. Hearing does not precede the human response to the divine address. The hearing already contains elements of response. Hence every single word any prophet ever spoke is shot through with human interpretation. Yet had there been no event of divine revelation there would have been no human interpretation. Franz Rosenzweig rightly said: “‘He came down’ [on Sinai]—this already concludes the revelation; ‘He spoke’ is the beginning of interpretation, and certainly ‘I am.’”
This doctrine, if acceptable, removes all the remaining liberal difficulties. Regarding the Torah as the human reflection of a divine revelation, rather than as itself literal revelation, the liberal can regard it as a human book which is the legitimate object of historical criticism, and whose commandments do not have, in letter, authority over him. But he may at the same time regard it as the prime means of access to a divine revelation which addresses him, as much as his ancestors. In his quest for the commandment as it applies to him, he does well indeed to take the ancient human reflection of the revelation with the utmost seriousness. But were he to subject himself blindly to its authority, as if it were itself the literal word of God, he would not fulfill God’s commandment, but rather bar himself from it. He must hear with his own ears. He cannot hear with ears of yore.
But is the above doctrine acceptable? If all revealed content is shot through with human interpretation, must we not conclude that revelation, apart from this interpretation, is wholly without content and therefore irrelevant? Do we not, after all, return at this late point—in practice if not in theory—to the unacceptable doctrine of autonomy, the doctrine which identifies the word of God with that of man?
The answer is that revelation and interpretation can be distinguished in abstract thought, but not in the concrete existential situation in which both occur. To make the distinction between revelation and interpretation is important, lest we subject ourselves blindly to the authority of the ancient interpretation. But once we have made it we must ourselves return to the existential situation, and to its responsibilities. And to do so is to ask: what does the divine commandment demand of us? What can we hear? What can we do?
In search of an answer, the liberal Jew of today must encounter the ancient reflection of the divine incursion which constituted the covenant under which he still stands. He must also encounter the tradition of those of his ancestors who sought—and received—answers before him. But if and when he himself receives an answer as a result of this encounter, it will be—if the encounter itself is genuine—the answer heard by him with modern ears, and addressed to him in a modern situation. Heard by him, it will no doubt bear the stamp of his human interpretation, just as did the answers heard by earlier generations. But if it is a genuine answer, genuinely heard, his human interpretation will nevertheless be the result of God’s address. For He, the God of Israel, still lives; and the liberal Jew, son of the covenant, still stands at Mt. Sinai, as did his fathers.
1 Any contribution of past “Jewish genius” is a contribution no doubt different from but not incommensurable with that of Greek genius. Why should the contemporary Jew have a qualitatively unique obligation to past Jewish contributions? The duty to assimilate Greek philosophy, if a duty at all, is incumbent, not on modern Greeks but on modern civilized men. This whole point is developed at greater length in my article, “Can There be Judaism Without Revelation?” in COMMENTARY, December 1951.
2 It may be noted in passing, however, that Rabbinic Judaism balances this insistence on the importance of learning with an insistence on the importance of religious motive.
3 See chiefly Kant's Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (transl. Greene and Hudson). Kant, who undoubtedly would have had a profound regard for Judaism had he possessed an adequate knowledge of it, thought of it as a mere external legalistic system—a notion which seems to have reached him, ironically enough, through Spinoza and Moses Mendelssohn.
4 This is the crux of the present, but not of every, inquiry into revelation. The question “Is revelation compatible with human freedom?” is logically secondary to the question “Can a modern man believe in revelation at all?” After all, while in the case of receptivity to a human other, one can know the existence of this other, in the case of receptivity to a divine Other, one can accept the existence of this Other, if at all, only on faith. But an inquiry into faith and revelation is not part of our present purpose, which is confined to inquiring into the compatibility between the liberal and the Jewish faith. See, however, the article previously referred to and also “Jewish Existence and the Living God” (A People and Its Faith, ed. A. Rose, pre-published in COMMENTARY, August 1959).
5 The distinction here made between law and commandment is indebted to a celebrated exchange of letters between Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. See Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning (ed. N. N. Glatzer, New York 1955), pp. 109 ff.