Until nine or ten years ago, I was a thoroughgoing Marxist. I had spent most of my life in the radical movement, and Marxism was to me more than a mere strategy of political action, more than a program of economic and social reconstruction, more even than a comprehensive theory of history and society. Marxism was to me, and to others like me, a religion, an ethic, and a theology: a vast, all-embracing doctrine of man and the universe, a passionate faith endowing life with meaning, vindicating the aims of the movement, idealizing its activities, and guaranteeing its ultimate triumph In the certainty of this faith, we felt we could stand against the world.
It was a faith committed to freedom, justice, and brotherhood as ultimate ideals and supreme values. But it was also a faith, that staked everything on the dogma of Progress, that is, on the unlimited redemptive power of history. Through its own inherent energies, the materialist Dialectic of history would sooner or later solve every problem, fulfill every possibility, and eliminate every evil of human life, leading mankind through terrific struggles to a final perfection of uncoerced harmony amidst peace, plenty, and untroubled happiness.
The motive power of this redemptive process of history the Marxist metaphysic found in economics. Man’s essence was economic, the root of his frustrations arid miseries was economic, and his salvation would be economic as well. “Economic development” was the invincible power that in the last analysis determined everything, and in the final outcome would bring the processes of history to consummation and fulfillment: it was the invisible god of the Marxist faith.
But this invisible god operated through visible instrumentalities, through economic classes. The proletariat was the savior of humanity, and the class struggle the engine of salvation. From this conception emerged a system of ethics that I found increasingly untenable. Marxism, it is true, did not admit to possessing an ethical system; it prided itself on its “scientific” character, and scornfully rejected all moral imperatives. But in fact it followed an extreme moral relativism, according to which good and evil were constituted by a shifting class interest.
Whatever served the “interest of the proletariat” was good; whatever ran counter to it was evil. Everything, literally everything, was permitted if only it promoted the “proletarian class struggle.” But the proletariat could attain self-consciousness only in its “vanguard party,” so that in the end the interest of the proletariat really amounted to the interest of the party. Party interest—power for the party and its leaders—thus became the ultimate, indeed the only criterion of right and wrong.
This ethic of power was very conveniently justified by faith in the redemptive power of history operating through the Dialectic. The Dialectic prescribed the course of world history and to Marx, as to Hegel, Weltgeschichte was Weltgericht. Only world history could decide who was really right and since world history was bound to decide in our favor, everything we might do to promote the success of our cause—that is, of our party—was justified in advance. Ultimately, the only true moral agent was power, for only power could claim a hearing before the bar of world history.
Such was the faith by which we lived and fought. And so long as this faith remained unchallenged from within, no attacks from without could shake it. Doubts were ignored or else drowned in action.
But reality could not be forever withstood. I do not know what is the secret mechanism by which subconscious processes which have been going on for years are suddenly precipitated into consciousness under the impact of some great event. In my case, it was the course of the Russian Revolution and the development of events in Europe, culminating in the triumph of Hitler, that had this effect. Put to the test, the Marxist faith failed. It proved itself incapable of explaining the facts or sustaining the values that gave meaning to life, the very values it had itself enshrined as its own ultimate goals. It could not meet the challenge of totalitarianism because it was itself infected with the same disease. By the logic of its own development, the ideal of unlimited freedom had become the reality of unlimited despotism. The individual personality, instead of being liberated for self-fulfillment, as Marx and Lenin had promised, was being engulfed in a total collectivism that left no room whatever for personal autonomy. Sacrificial dedication to the welfare of humanity had given way to narrow, ruthless, self-defeating power politics.
It was this latter point perhaps that told most. The disastrous corrosions and corruptions of the Marxist movement in politics seemed to me clearly a reflection of its lack, or rather of its rejection, of an ethic transcending the relativities of power and class interest, and the lack of an adequate ethic to be the result of a radically false religion.
Not that I felt myself any the less firmly committed to the great ideals of freedom and social justice. My discovery was that I could no longer find basis and support for these ideals in the materialistic religion of Marxism. On the contrary, it seemed to me that in its philosophy and ethics Marxism went far toward destroying the very objectives it was presumably out to achieve. I felt intensely the need for a faith that would better square with my ideal, which in tenor, doctrine, and spirit could give impulse and direction to the radical reconstruction of society which I so deeply desired.
For this Marxist religion itself, it now became clear to me, was in part illusion, and in part idolatry; in part a delusive utopianism promising heaven on earth in our time, and in part a totalitarian worship of collective man; in part a naive faith in the finality of economics, and in part a sinister fetishism of technology and material production; in part a sentimental optimism as to the goodness of human nature, and in part a hardboiled, amoral cult of power at any price. There could be no question to my mind that as religion, Marxism had proved itself bankrupt.
With Marxism went the entire naturalistic outlook as it affects the nature and destiny of man. I began to see that though man is undeniably part of nature and remains embedded within it, he quite as undeniably transcends it by virtue of his spirit, by virtue of his reason, his imagination, and his moral freedom. I began to see new meaning in the poignant words of Bertrand Russell, himself an uncompromising naturalist, describing man’s paradoxical status in nature:
A strange mystery it is that nature, omnipotent but blind, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking mother. . . .Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticize, to know, and in imagination, to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs, and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outer life.
These were the words of a great naturalist philosopher, but naturalism had so far not succeeded in explaining or building on this paradox. And so naturalism seemed to me bound in the end to fail to satisfy any one who demanded something better than the narrow and paltry conception of human life and destiny it offered.
The conclusion I reached as the final outcome of the long and painful process of reorientation was that neither man nor his fate could be understood in terms of an outlook that limited itself to the two-dimensional plane of nature and history, that the ultimate meaning of human life was to be found in a dimension transcending both and yet relevant to both—in a dimension that, in the most genuine sense of the term, was supernatural.
To suggest the process by which I and perhaps others found our way out of Marxist materialism and power-worship, I will paraphrase the words used recently in derision by a well-known writer, himself an unreconstructed Marxist, to describe an experience in some ways very like my own. In trying to discover what went wrong with economics—he says—they (that is, people like me) came to politics; but politics revealed that it was tainted and so they strove to cure the taint of politics with ethics; but ethics alone could not withstand the taint either, and so they went on finally to religion.
These are scoffing words, but they are not without their truth. I found in religion what I sought: and that was not an escape from social responsibility, but a more secure spiritual groundwork for a mature and effective social radicalism. The calamitous schism that had so long divided socialism from religion seemed to me to be at last coming to an end: in the profound insights and spiritual resources of religion, socialism would find a philosophy and a dynamic far superior to the shallow materialism that had led it so woefully astray. In short, I came to the conclusion that by abandoning the Marxist metaphysic in favor of a positive religious affirmation, I was becoming a better socialist and, if I may venture the paradox, even a better Marxist, taking Marxism in terms of its best insights and ultimate ideals. For the great contributions of Marxism were, it seemed to me, in the fields of economic understanding, social thought, and political action. And these could best be conserved, I now saw, within the framework, not of a shallow materialism, but of a profound religion that would give full recognition to the transcendent aspects of man’s nature and destiny.
In my particular case, finding my way to religion meant finding my way to Judaism. Was this a return or in reality a first encounter? I cannot tell. But I can tell, I think, what it was that I discovered in essential Judaism that came to me as a revelation in my perplexities. If I now describe it in entirely intellectualistic terms, I hope it will not be concluded that I ignore or deny the devotional, mystical, and ritual elements that are so vital to any true religious experience. I limit myself to the intellectual, one might say theological, aspect because that has been foremost in my thinking and has had greater meaning for me in the solution of my own perplexities.
I. God and man: The very heart of Judaism, it seems to me, is its magnificent conception of the Diety. It is a conception at once profound and paradoxical: a God transcendent, yet working in life and history, infinite yet personal, a God of power, justice, and mercy, but above all a holy God. The worship of a holy God who transcends all relativities of nature and history, as Reinhold Niebuhr has pointed out, saves the soul from taking satisfaction in any partial performance, curbs self-righteousness, and instills a most wholesome humility which gives man no rest in any achievement, no matter how high, while a still higher level of achievement is possible. The worship of a holy and transcendent God who yet manifests himself in history saves us alike from the shallow positivism that leaves nature and history and life all without ultimate meaning, from a pantheism that in the end amounts to an idolatrous worship of the world, and from a sterile other-worldliness that breaks all connection between religion and life. The worship of a holy and transcendent God who is the one God of the universe, besides whom there is no other, saves us, finally, from the many debasing idolatries that are bedeviling mankind today.
The Scriptural doctrine of God, as I read it, is also a doctrine of man. For man is created “in the image of God”: that is his glory but also his inescapable responsibility. The Biblical doctrine seems to me to hinge upon a dramatic tension both in the nature of man and in his relations with God. On the one hand (Psalms 8:5), man is “but little lower than the angels”; on the other (Genesis 8:21), “the inclination of man’s heart is evil from his childhood.” In this I see no contradiction, but rather a profound insight into the paradoxical, the ambivalent nature of man. It is an insight that does justice both to his grandeur and to his misery, both to his capacity to transcend self in righteousness, reason, and loving-kindness and to the inescapable limits of self-transcendence because of the irreducible egotism of his nature.
The Scriptural conception of man thus refuses to countenance either the fatuous optimism of the Rousseauistic doctrine of the natural goodness of man or the dismal pessimism of the ultra-Calvinist doctrine of his utter depravity. It is at once more realistic and more complex, for it sees both sides in their coexistence and conflict, in their state of eternal struggle out of which is generated that tragic sense of life which is the mark of every high religion. But it is a sense of tragedy that is never final, for with God all things are possible.
The same dialectic tension that converts the human soul into the field of a battle never won, yet always within reach of victory, is to be found in another form in the relations between God and man. “Everything is in the power of Heaven except the fear of Heaven,” the sages tell us. “God in his providence determines beforehand what a man shall be and what shall befall him but not whether he shall be righteous or wicked.” We need not take even this partial determinism too literally to see the profound significance of the uncompromising insistence on man’s freedom of will. Evil is the result not of the forces of nature or of the promptings of the flesh: that is a Greek-Oriental notion which has had a most unfortunate effect upon our popular moral outlook. Both nature and the flesh are good in themselves, for did not God create both and find them good? Evil is rooted in man’s spiritual freedom and consists in the wrong use of that freedom, in sinful disobedience to God.
I find this conception, which as far as I know is unique to Judaism and the religions that derive from it, the only adequate foundation for a significant moral life. It does justice alike to man’s creaturely subjection to the moral law as the law of God and to his self-determination as a free moral agent. It combines freedom and responsibility in a synthesis that no philosophy has been able to transcend.
II. Man and society: If there is one strain that has run through Judaism from the earliest codes to the present day, it is the passion for social justice. No modern attack upon economic exploitation can equal in earnestness and power the denunciations of the Prophets against those who “grind down the faces of the poor.” No modern warning against the evils of authoritarianism is so arresting as the words of Samuel rebuking the people of Israel for desiring to subject themselves to the yoke of kingship.
But even more important, it seems to me, is the fact that the Scriptural doctrine relating man to God provides the only really adequate groundwork for the ideals of freedom and equality, as well as the only fully realistic justification of democracy in political and economic life.
At bottom, the affirmation of the freedom of the individual person can be grounded in nothing less ultimate than the belief that he is created in the image of God and is therefore a being in comparison with whom all of the non-human world is as nothing in worth. It is the belief in the eminent dignity of the human personality—in other words, in the infinite value of the individual human soul. This has received its modern formulation in the Kantian teaching that every man is an end in himself, and is not to be used as a mere means or tool for some external purpose. In the same way, the affirmation of human equality cannot be grounded in empirical fact; it can be grounded in nothing less ultimate than the belief in the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. For men are equal not in power or wisdom or beauty or goodness, but in their spiritual essence, in the infinite worth of their individual souls, in their relation to God. It is this equal relation to God, it seems to me, that alone can serve as the ultimate criterion of human relations. True understanding of this principle—of the value and significance of human personality—came to the world for the first time with the Prophetic insistence on the spiritual autonomy and moral responsibility of the individual person.
The Scriptural insight into the ambivalent nature of man makes for a clear and realistic view of power and government. Power of man over man is intrinsically evil, for it involves the subjection of some men to others, the violation of their God-given personal autonomy, and by that much their enslavement. Power, moreover, has its own logic of expansion and corruption: it corrupts the wielder as well as those upon whom it is wielded, feeding the pride and arrogance of the one, and instilling a slavish spirit of subserviency in the other. Yet power is necessary, because man’s “inclination to evil”—that is, his egotism and self-centeredness—makes coercion at some point necessary in order to protect society from the centrifugal forces of individual and group self-interest. The recognition of power as an inescapable necessity, and yet as a corrupting influence, endows social life with the same sense of tension and pathos that we have noted in the spiritual life of the individual. The moral law, which is embattled in every human soul, is also imperiled, and at least partially thwarted, in every transaction in the world.
It is out of this keen sense of the perils of power, so strikingly absent in traditional Marxism, that democracy grows. For democracy is at bottom an institutional system for the control of power in the interests of freedom and social welfare. It is predicated on the conviction that no man possesses sufficient imagination, wisdom, or virtue to make him a safe repository of the interests of others—that no man is good enough or wise enough to be entrusted with absolute power over his fellow-men. This is a principle that applies not only to politics but to economics as well, where it serves as the starting point of democratic socialism, as well as of all other programs of economic reform in the interests of social justice. Democracy is, in effect, a dynamic reconciliation on the social level of man’s grandeur and misery, of his eminent dignity as a person and his perennial inclination to sinfulness as manifested in the egoistic self-assertion of power.
Judaism, as I see it, is the sworn foe of the totalitarian state in its claim to absolute control over the individual and all his activities. Unconditional obedience to a universal and transcendent God precludes the possibility of total and absolute subjection to any earthly power. Earthly powers making such claims are usurpers and pretenders to the prerogatives of Deity. They are to be resisted to the bitter end. “For unto Me are the children of Israel slaves,” says the Talmud; “they are not slaves unto slaves.”
The profound insights of Scriptural religion reveal a logic of social action that escapes the pitfalls alike of power-mad cynicism, secular utopianism, and other-worldly quietism. As against the cynicism that recognizes no rule but power, Judaism vindicates the validity and relevance of the moral law, however impossible it may be to live up to it fully in any given situation. As against other-worldly quietism, it raises the witness of the Prophets and the duty to one’s neighbor. As against the secular utopianism, whether liberal or Marxist, which hopes to achieve perfection within history, it stresses the inescapable relativities of this world and places the grand consummation to come at the end of time rather than within it.
It is here that the uncompromising monotheism, the abhorrence of idolatry that distinguish Judaism are, to my thinking, so relevant. The modern world is full of the most obscene idolatries—idolatries of race, of class, of society, of the state, of dictators, of science, even of ideologies. It is most vital to emphasize, as Judaism does, that faith cannot be placed, finally and unreservedly, in any person, institution, or order of this world. To do so would be not only to invite inevitable disillusionment; what is worse, it would be to destroy even the partial good embodied in the person, institution, or order thus idolatrously worshipped. By attempting to exalt a relative into an absolute good, we can but convert it into a total evil. Faith and worship can rest finally and unreservedly only in the transcendent, the ultimate, the absolute, in the one true God; all other faith must be partial, tentative, and provisional at best.
The insights into the nature and destiny of man revealed in Scriptural religion supply a dynamic as well as a logic of moral action. For it discloses how the ideal standards of the moral law, though impossible of achievement amidst the intractable forces in man and society, are yet directly pertinent to life in their function as transcendent principles of aspiration, judgment, and action. It is this tension between the immediate relevance, and yet ultimate impossibility of the absolute imperatives of the moral law, that generates the dynamic of moral action in social as well as in individual life.
III. Israel and the world: On this question, I speak with great reluctance and hesitancy, for who can penetrate the mystery of Israel? A sociologist of our time, Carl Mayer, has given it as his verdict that:
The Jewish problem is ultimately inexplicable. . . .It can be stated, described, and analyzed insofar as its external manifestations are concerned, but it cannot be explained. . . The Jewish problem in its fundamental aspects appears to be of such a character as to transcend human understanding, and thus essentially belongs to a sphere which is open only to faith. . . .
Judaism is embodied and incarnated in a people which is not a race or a nation or even a religious group in the usual sense of the term. “The Jewish people,” says the sociologist I have just quoted, “represent a sociologically unique phenomenon and defy all attempts at general definition.” The mystery of Israel is one that escapes all categories of nature and society.
This, it is my conviction, is true of Israel, its history, and its scriptures. The history of Israel is not simply the history of an ethnic or cultural or religious group, but in truth a providential history that reveals God’s ways with men in a sense in which the history of no other people does. The holy books produced by the Jews are not simply part of the sacred writings of the peoples of the world: they are the word of God in a way in which the holy, books of no other people are. In what way I could not define, but that they are so I cannot but believe.
What I have been saying amounts to an affirmation of the age-old doctrine that Israel is a chosen people. As I read Scripture and history, Israel was chosen both for a mission and for suffering; indeed, the two are probably two sides of the same thing. I be-live that Israel was chosen to be a “light unto the nations,” to bring the highest reaches of the moral law to the peoples of the world. The exile and dispersion came not as punishment of Israel but as an opportunity to spread the word of God to the four corners of the earth. But the mission thus entrusted to Israel creates a tension between Israel and the world: Israel remains in the world but is not entirely of it. “Like an activating ferment. . . .[Judaism] gives the world no peace. It bars slumber. It teaches the world to be discontented and restless as long as the world has not God. It stimulates the movement of history.” Thus speaks the Christian philosopher, Jacques Maritain. For the sake of this, Israel must undergo persecution, humiliation, agonies of pain and death. Bringing God to the world, Israel must suffer the hatred and resentment of the world against God and his law. Israel as the Chosen People is Israel the Suffering Servant of the Lord, of whom it is written in the words of Isaiah: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
The message of Israel is universal. The Jews, it has been acutely pointed out, are “an ethic group with a universal religious faith which transcends the values of a single people but which they are forced to use as an instrument of survival in an alien world.” This is the irony of Jewish existence: devotion to a universal faith marks off the Jews as a “peculiar” people, a “chosen people,” and only too often, an “accursed” people! Where this will end, when this will end, is a mystery within the greater mystery of Israel.
These are the things I must think of when I think of “my faith as a Jew. And I must add that I am among those who see fundamental spiritual kinship rather than opposition between Judaism and at least the more Hebraic forms of Christianity. Indeed, I find that many of what I conceive to be crucial Jewish insights are illumined rather than obscured when viewed in the light of the development they have undergone in Christian doctrine. I therefore believe that whatever significant differences there may be between Judaism and Christianity considered as total systems, there is real and vital meaning in the idea of a Judeo-Christian religious tradition basically distinct from all other religions of the world.
Thinking about religion, so I have found, is no easy way of arriving at simple solutions. It is not a refuge from reality but a challenge to realistic thinking. It means an endless grappling with problems that are never fully solved. In the course of my reorientation, I have encountered perplexities that I was not even aware of before. What is the ultimate meaning of the ritual observances so central to the Jewish tradition? How are we to distinguish their transient historical from their eternal religious aspect? Or the existing Jewish community, how is it related to, yet distinguished from, the spiritual community of Israel? And what are the implications of the universality of Judaism? At various times in its history, Judaism was an expansive force. Will it ever become such again, or is its expansive role at an end since the rise of Christianity and Islam?
Some of these questions will undoubtedly be answered by time, experience, and increased understanding on my part. But other problems will surely arise in their place. Nor is any answer ever likely to be final or conclusive, for in questions of such ultimacy, it seems to me, inquiry must end in an irreducible mystery at the heart of things.
For all my uncertainties, however, there is one remark, or rather plea, I would venture to make. It is an appeal for a renewal of Jewish theology. I have lately been reading Dr. Solomon Zeitlin’s book, Disciples of the Wise, which professes to detail the social and religious opinions of American rabbis, as expressed in answers to a questionnaire. One cannot but be gratified at the advanced views on social and economic questions of the rabbis. But it would be difficult to feel the same gratification at the general state of their theological views. According to Dr. Zeitlin, the group of nearly 250 rabbis “as a whole, as well as the several wings, is divided between the acceptance of the concept of salvation as (a) achievement of an integrated personality, and (b) participation in efforts for social progress.” Thus religion is conceived either as a kind of inexpert psychotherapy or else as an auxiliary social reform agency. In one case as in the other, it seems entirely secondary, and as such, can claim no significant place in modern life. Have we really come to the pass where such profound and tradition-laden words as salvation can mean nothing more; where (to take another example from the study) sin is conceived exclusively in such shallow external terms as “harm to neighbors, friends and business associates; harm to society; support of accepted institutions which are socially harmful”; or where (to take still another example) prayer is interpreted entirely in subjectivistic and sociological terms? I cannot believe it. For this would mean that Judaism has been reduced to nothing more than routine observances and a somewhat emotionalized social ethic. Surely Judaism has not yet come to this pass. What we are witnessing,
I think, is the gradual corrosion of faith by the naturalistic and secularist temper of the time. It is a corrosion that can and must be arrested and undone by a vital theology, cast in contemporary terms.
Throughout the world, even in America, there is a widespread hunger for metaphysics, engendered by disillusionment with the shallow formulas and plausible half-truths of positivism. .Throughout the world, there is a renewed concern with theology, amounting to a renaissance. Catholicism has its neo-Thomism. .Protestantism has its new and vital neo-orthodoxy associated, in various forms, with the names of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr. What Judaism needs today, in my sincere opinion, is a great theological reconstruction in the spirit of a neo-orthodoxy distant alike from sterile fundamentalism and secularized modernism. I earnestly hope that we will not have much longer to wait for this great and high undertaking to get under way.