The Jew and the Currents Oe His Age

THERE are few more popular misconceptions — which have spread, too, in ranks that claim to be academic — than the widely accepted opinion of Jewish intellectual narrowness and self-complacency. Jewish thought in the long sweep of centuries is held to have been rigid, exclusive, wholly uninfluenced by the currents of each age — as fixed and unyielding as the fabled statue of Memnon, but responsive to no melody at each successive sunrise in the world’s advance. In other words, it is claimed that there has been no intellectual development, in its proper sense, in Jewry, that sterile and rudimentary conditions have ever prevailed, and its Jericho of torpidity and ecclesiasticism has refused to fall, despite all the trumpet-calls of enlightenment.

Now, the slow rise of the most rational opinions is a disheartening blow to the over-ardent lover of mankind. Is it so very long ago since it was stoutly believed that heretics had tails, or that there was some dim connection between a Quaker’s conference and a rainy sky ? The popular verdict as to the Jew shows as surprising logic. There has been nothing too absurd to say about him — a privilege he shares with priests, princes, women, and lawyers. He could not be in better company, only the lash cuts deeper in his case when the only fact exceptional about him has been the treatment he has received from his lords and masters, as if he were half criminal, half clown.

It is hardly the present purpose to enter into any consideration of the causes and conditions which have led to such fallacies of judgment. Some of these, doubtless, can be traced to the Jew himself, to his tenacity of belief and scorn of consequences. An uncompromising religionist is apt to arouse more dislike in certain minds than a man who is a “mush of concession.” Unconsciously, there is often an unlovely aggressiveness in your man of resolute faith, especially when his tent is pitched among children of darkness. If this has been the Jew’s attitude, he would only have to blame himself for the burdens which he has borne. But just as the Ghetto was no original Jewish creation, being forced upon the Jew from without by conditions beyond his wish and control, so this familiar theory of an intellectual Ghetto with its accompaniments — its disdain of its age, its contempt of any vision outside of the synagogue, its limitless self-satisfaction, its conceit and arrogance — this view which dies so hard, is wholly un-Jewish and unhistorical.

Forces, it is true, have existed in Jewry, taking their cue from the environment, which from time to time have striven to produce a rigid cast of thought and action, with threats of the ban, if not the thumbscrew, the thunder, if not the lightning, of church tyranny. There is little doubt, for example, that the almost contemporaneous condemnation of Descartes’ writings by the Synod of Dordrecht was largely responsible for the excommunication of Spinoza by the Amsterdam rabbinical authorities. Yet the genius of the Jew as reflected in the varied activities of his best and most representative thinkers, from the era of Isaiah, has sought as persistently to break the yoke, to catch a wider rift in God’s sky, a broader inspiration, and that without any color of disloyalty but with the fullest reverence for the ancient religion.

No wonder that the Exodus has been regarded as Judaism’s most significant point of departure, its most distinctive festival, for it has served as the very keynote of emancipation, an everlasting spirit-call for freedom, even in centuries when serfdom and degradation were among the inalienable privileges of man. In fact, the close mantle which apparently he delighted to wear in certain inflammable eras was due more to the instinct of self-preservation than to any innate exclusiveness. It is not narrowness of view to guard one’s home against infection. There was never too much rosewater atmosphere in court and camp.

Although conditions thus had a tendency to keep the Jew in a kind of quarantine, Jewish thought has not been impervious to external influences. There has been a steady interrelation between Jewish and non-Jewish streams of opinion, points of contact at certain periods of profound consequence in the history of civilization. The Jewish mind has been open to impressions, it has recognized its duty to its age, and has been no laggard in the work of human advancement, in which its interest has been as keen and impassioned as it is to-day.

An early, and in many respects a classic, example of the readiness of the Jew to widen his horizon is afforded by the story of Philo and the Alexandrian school. When Alexander founded his famous city (332 B. C.), a Jewish colony was among the earliest settlers, and it did not take them many years to become so influenced by their environment as to write Greek with the fluency of an Athenian. In the more or less favorable conditions that prevailed for a considerable period under Alexander’s immediate successors, they were Greek citizens without losing their religious identity. Soon there sprang up among them a school of writers, poets, dramatists, historians, who were not the least eminent leaders in literature and philosophy. Philo may be taken as the typical thinker of his time, and he is always termed Philo Judæus. Greek was then largely the vernacular of the synagogue, and Homer, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics were as much read by young Israel as the Pentateuch, the Psalms, the Prophets of Judæa.

Philo, about whose life only scanty details are preserved, could not have been a more loyal Jew, with greater reverence for his religion and firmer attachment to his special community, in whose defense he participated in an embassy to Rome. Yet he was broad enough to see goodness elsewhere, and he strove to fuse the wisdom of the Greek with the faith of the Hebrew, not from any desire to abandon his traditions, but to show their adaptability in a cultured age. Whether his system of allegory was a success or not, and whether his philosophy was accepted or not by his brethren in the flesh, these are inquiries absolutely secondary to the main issue — that a man like Philo, with his character, training, and standing, could feel the necessity of reconciling his faith with current tendencies without being less a Jew. That he was rejected by his people, who preferred the interpretation of Palestine to that of Athens or Alexandria, and that his writings owe their preservation to the Christian Fathers, with undoubted influence on the early theology of the Church, do not invalidate the position assumed. Certainly the point of contact in those centuries might have led to far-reaching consequences, if Roman supremacy had not precipitated a catastrophe which scattered philosophy to the winds and made the Jew only draw his cloak closer around him.

A no less suggestive cross-fertilization of ideas took place in Spain when the caliphs founded their schools and gave such a marked impetus to the advancement of knowledge. Here the receptivity of the Jewish mind, its plastic character, its readiness to unfold and expand in a genial atmosphere, could not have been more superbly and convincingly illustrated. Long ages of devotion to study, wdiich began in the home circle as the young child was taught the meaning of his religion and its symbols, —“ Thou shalt teach them diligently to thy children!” reads the olden command,— this has predisposed him to the pursuit of learning, under the Moslem ruler, and later under the Christian kings until the era of relentless persecutions changed the scholar’s pen into the pilgrim’s staff, a distinguished coterie of thinkers were spurred on to independent research, and Arabic, in turn, became in a measure the synagogue’s vernacular, while Jewish writers competed ardently with their Moslem contemporaries in literary skill.

It is beyond our present scope to allude to the Jew’s versatility, which made him now a caliph’s grand vizier, now a translator into Arabic of priceless works, as well as merchant, scientist, trader. To restrict one’s self to the field of religious philosophical thought in particular, the point of contact was marked. So keen was the rivalry, so susceptible the Jewish mind, that, to quote the words of the late Professor David Kaufmann, of Budapest, in some respects the most erudite writer in his line for many decades, “ Every more important achievement in the domain of Arabic philosophy was noticed, examined, utilized by Jews; the appearance of a new Arabic work was usually followed by its Jewish imitator.” Although Dr. Kaufmann insists that this imitativeness does not imply slavish dependence, it shows none the less an intellectual openness in the most important of all branches to the Jew — that of religious philosophy.

The men, too, who were influenced so markedly by current thought were the sweet singers of the synagogue — poets and moralists of the stamp of Gabirol and Judah Hallevi, esteemed the glory of mediæval Israel. Nor did they lose aught of fame. Their works are still retained in the traditional ritual and on the solemn days, so broad after all is the synagogue, which took its cue from the sages who formed the Old Testament Canon. These included the Song of Songs as well as the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes as well as the Psalms, as if they meant to symbolize the light and shade, the joy and sorrow in human existence, in the composite character of the Biblical books.

It is Maimonides (born at Cordova, 1137; died at Cairo, 1204) who presents, perhaps, the most salient example of Jewish adaptiveness in those centuries. He was the “ eagle of the synagogue,” the sage par excellence, of vast industry and extensive knowledge, judging from his exhaustive works. Yet this scholar of scholars, this profound rabbinical authority, whose condensed creed of Judaism, termed “ the Thirteen Principles,” is accepted practically throughout the Jewish world, exclusive of some American congregations, this man of all men set himself the task of reconciling revealed religion and Greek-Arabic philosophy. In other words, he saw the necessity of harmonizing the old and the new, and deemed current tendencies serious and divine enough to impel him to write his famous Guide of the Perplexed. This work, originally in Arabic, but now translated into various tongues, left its distinct mark on contemporary thought, furnishing ideas to later ages, from the Schoolmen to Spinoza.

Here, too, the main question is not whether this work is still of service, or whether its standpoint is hopelessly antiquated, with the disappearance of Aristotelianism in modern philosophy. The real fact for consideration is that a Jewish authority like Maimonides freely absorbed the views of his age, and was broad and open enough to attempt to reconcile current thought with his traditional faith, — Aristotle and Moses. It is true, his work was regarded as heretical by a few prominent rabbis, and his adherents and opponents in later years had sharp feuds of their own. But he had written his book and given an example to his people, even if, like other thinkers of other climes and creeds, he was a solitary peak above the plain. Yet he was not entirely alone — there were other minds that absorbed as keenly. Then came the ravages of the Black Death and shameless persecutions, which again robbed the philosopher of his calm idealism, and made the Jew once more a helpless wanderer.

The Renaissance movement, with the spread of Humanism, was welcomed by the Jew as marking almost as Messianic an era as the French Revolution and the century of emancipation in its train. Here the point of contact was peculiar, for, instead of opposing the new ideas and ideals, he met them half-way and gladly opened his treasures of learning to advance their growth. That was none the less a period of cruel repression, and the exiles from Spain found it hard to gain a safe foothold anywhere in Europe. Yet the Jew could not have been more responsive to the currents of his time, when a Reuchlin could become his pupil in Hebrew, and the disciples of Elias Levita could introduce Hebrew studies into Germany. Elias del Medigo was not averse to be selected as umpire by warring factions in the University of Padua, while other Jewish teachers at the universities gave freely of their wisdom as their highest duty towards their age.

I he Jew was to be borne swiftly along the stream of a movement which was to be followed by the Reformation. He might have been excused had he held aloof, but his passion for knowledge must have vent. He became poet, —Immanuel of Rome was a friend of Dante, — philosopher, astronomer, mathematician, in his enthusiasm. He gained fresh courage in the new atmosphere, and accompanied Columbus on his voyage, Vasco da Gama on his distant quest. He was among the earliest to see the possibilities of the printing-press, which was to spread also his literature, never designed to be a sealed book, but whose study was his highest duty. He could develop, too, into an ambassador from Turkey to the Venetian republic. In the flourishing mercantile states of mediæval Italy he could play an active rôle, and his sphere was not restricted to finance but extended to the handicrafts as well. He was quick to utilize every invention and to promote every industry, whenever the political laws allowed his freedom of choice and some certainty of tenure, and did not limit his vision to old clothes and the junk-shop.

No religious scruple stood in the way, nor any traditional barrier to prevent his imparting of knowledge to the stranger without the gates, for he recalled the treasured opinion of one of his early fathers: “A non-Israelite who occupies himself with the law of God stands in the same rank as the high priest.” No wonder Reuchlin’s heart could go out to his teachers as he defended Hebrew literature from the malice of the obscurantists. So close, then, was the connection between the era preparatory to the Reformation and the teachers of the Humanists, without whose pioneer work, perhaps, Luther might have less signally triumphed.

These instances of Jewish participation in the great movements of history might readily be extended, and it might easily be shown how the activity spread to other lines besides religious thought, as can be observed to-day in every civilized land. If the objection is interposed that the illustrations are individual and cannot be regarded as characteristic of the race, one might as well deny to Isaiah, to Micah, to the Psalmist, the claim of being Jewish and representative of Jewish thought. To have produced such broad genius, such impressionable minds, there must have been always a central fire in the heart of the Jewish race which leaped upward exultantly when the moment was propitious, — a storehouse of sympathy for humanity in its widest sense, and for human progress, which could be utilized by prophet or sage.

Among truly typical thinkers there was ever cherished a larger hope, a wider inspiration, which was not the idle cry of a child for a star but the deep impassioned yearning for human perfection and universal brotherhood as the goal to which law and statute, symbol and ceremony pointed. How pitiful that outside pressure, unrighteous conditions in church and state, have made the Jew’s history a continuous tragedy and maimed him at times almost beyond recognition, so that often the caricature was taken for reality. Yet the miracle of resurrection was ever there, the blossom beneath the snow, the love of humanity which was unconquerable under every affliction. In the world’s welfare he read and felt his own welfare. He knew he would not wear forever his gaberdine. He could bide his time. The day must break, the shadows pass away. The sword would change into the ploughshare, the bitter taunt into brotherly love. Let suffering be the badge of the tribe —

Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.

What of the relation of the Jew to American life and ideals ? Here his plastic quality has been illustrated in the work of representative men and women in every epoch, from the Colonial through that of the Revolution, and in the Civil and Spanish-American Wars. There is something divine in the American atmosphere, which causes Old-World rancors and prejudices to weaken and lose much of their keen edge under its influence. In the demands of American life, in the strain and spur of competition, with the closer contact enforced by school and shop, mill and factory, the creeds, consciously or unconsciously, are affected as never before, and the Jew, like the rest, is broadened by his environment. He enters gladly into the currents of his time — whether he becomes a pioneer in Alaska or an up-builder in California, as he rears his department store in the great cities or plans his philanthropies without distinction of creed. He upholds the new education, is among the investigators in science, defends the public schools, is active in movements for civic betterment, and whether Democrat or Republican, feels the stir of his age. He is as proud of his Americanism as are the little children of the emigrant in the intoxication of their first flag-drill. Patriotism is to the American Jew a part of his religion, as was shown in the days of ’76 and ’61, and in the recent war with Spain, when even the Rough Riders had their Jewish quota.

Nor is the Jew less in touch with American ideals; they sound curiously familiar, for did not his fathers hear the slogan of old, — “ proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof ” ? America spells freedom under the law, as does Judaism. The American ethical standards are the old-fashioned ones of justice and morality, public and private virtue, even if these for the time are somewhat obscured by prevalent graft and greed. And has not Theodore Roosevelt been termed a later Hebrew prophet? Why should not the American Jew be at one with his country and its ideals, and be aroused to his best as the years advance ? No Ghetto has stained the American soil; no foul bigotry to deny the Jew the rights of man. He will be spurred on to breadth in life and thought, in sympathies and achievement. To-day America means more to the Jew than to any one else, for it is the only land that opens wide its gates to the persecuted and the downtrodden. He and his children can never forget their obligation in return, as loyally, modestly, and helpfully they do their part in realizing the ideals of our Republic.