HOW THE JEW DOES IT:Why He Is What He Is.
BY MILTON STEINBERG
THE Jew has alternately rejected and embraced the world; he has never come to terms with it. For a half millennium he secluded himself within ghetto walls, totally unconcerned about what lay beyond. Confined by the pressure of persecution and moulded by the influences of a traditional culture, he became a sharply defined personality, living his own patterns of conduct and thinking in a unique universe of discourse. But the day came when the world would not be denied, when it insinuated itself into his retreat, upsetting his balance of life, disturbing his peace. It hinted beguilingly of freedom and emancipation, of a fuller existence and a richer being. It beckoned, and the Jew crept forth. He tasted of this strange experience called liberty. It was sweet to the palate; he wanted more. So he abandoned his ghettos for the pursuit of it, he stripped off his protective segregation and exposed himself. The modern world took hold of him. It bent and twisted, thumped, kneaded, and shaped him. He emerged from the mills of emancipation a new creature, the Jew as the world knows him to-day.
Despite the entrance of the Jew into society, the modern world understands him no better than did the mediæval. Israel still runs true to form as the riddle among the peoples of the world. When the Christian of the Middle Ages referred to Jews, he knew exactly whom he meant. He was talking about those alien recluses who lived in ghettos, who read books in talismanic characters, who refused the true faith, and who uniformly and scrupulously performed suspicious rites. What the Christian could not comprehend was why the Jew did these things or how he managed to survive.
The modern Gentile is puzzled for an entirely different reason. When he thinks about Jews at all, it is with a sense of pained confusion. His experience with Jews is replete with contradictions. He knows some Jews who are pietists and others who are atheists, some who are radicals and some who are reactionaries, some who are cynics and others who are idealists. He has been irritated by Jews who are crude and brash with the boisterousness of parvenus, and moved to admiration by the quiet self-respect and poise of others. He always assumed that Jews were learned in their own heritage, only to discover many of profound intellectual attainments who are familiar with every literature but Hebrew, at home in any civilization except their own.
His confusion is infinitely worse confounded when he considers the divergent attitudes of Jews to their own group and its tradition. He knows one Jew who is passionately loyal to ancestral sanctities and another entirely careless of them. He has met the Jew who eagerly seeks social acceptance from Gentile society and the Jew who is content to live within his own people. He has heard Jews argue sincerely for the assimilation and disappearance of the group into the larger body of mankind, and others insist on the right and duty of the Jew to persist as a distinct personality. Consider for a moment some of the contradictions and conflicts of the Jewish scene as they reveal themselves to the observer.
Along the streets of some modern city on a Saturday morning a Jew makes his way from the synagogue. His handkerchief is bound about his wrist, for rabbinic law prohibits the carrying of even the slightest burden on the Sabbath. Five precepts of the Law of Moses forbid shaving, wherefore no razor has ever touched his face. The weather may be inclement, but he will not ride, even in a public conveyance driven by and for Gentiles. He has recited the prescribed Sabbath prayer; he will soon partake of an elaborate meal prepared the day before in strict conformity with traditional rules of diet. Twice more, before the sacred day is passed, will he intone immutable formularies of prayer. At dusk, he will kindle a light for the first time in twenty-four hours and send the Sabbath angels away, as ordained, with the sweet savor of spices. In the eyes of the world he may be a living anachronism, a vestigial survival of medievalism; in his own eyes he is a loyal Jew, obeying God’s will as revealed on Sinai, and finding it graceful and lovely.
Along the same street, in perfect oblivion of the Sabbath, another Jew drives his automobile from his place of business to a luncheon engagement. From the point of view of Jewish tradition, he is sacrilege in motion, a redundancy of transgression. He has shaved, he has labored, he is riding, he has not prayed. The food he is to eat is forbidden and no wine cup will be blessed before he partakes. The game of golf or bridge which will afford his afternoon’s entertainment is a travesty on the ancestral conception of a day of rest. If he is properly representative of his type, he has never given the whole matter a passing thought. At best, he has endured a perfunctory twinge of an anæmic conscience, or a transient nostalgia for an older way of life. At worst, he has dismissed it all as obsolete and fit only for those Jews who are not sufficiently modern to know any better.
Or consider the following contrast. The Jewish social climber is an interesting figure and deserves a moment of condescending attention. His whole life is concentrated on earning an accolade from the non-Jew. The mark of his triumph is enveloped in an invitation to a dinner or a membership card in some Gentile club. To attain his end, he has stripped himself deliberately of every vestige of his Judaism. He has Anglicized or Teutonizcd his name; his home is as conventionally American or German as he could possibly make it. Because he feels insecure, he is driven to ape his neighbors in every detail. He assimilates himself so completely to his environment that he becomes an object of suspicion. His conventionality is so perfect that it proclaims its spuriousness, his patriotic ardor toward the land of his residence so complete that it betrays deliberation. He may deny his Jewish descent and sedulously avoid contaminating contact with other Jews. Normally, it is all in vain. He finds the Gentile suspicious, polite, and cold. Ultimately he is convinced that the world does not want him. He then takes refuge in the company of other frustrated Jews. Thus is formed a class of Jews who do not want to be what they are and cannot be anything else. In a communion of affliction, they look on yearningly like beggar children at the windows of palaces in fairy tales.
In direct antithesis stands the Jewish chauvinist, always forcing his Jewish identity on the attention of the world. This super-Jew may not be conventionally religious; his observance of tradition is often more than a little ragged; even his knowledge of the group culture may be a bit hazy — but his pride is explosively inflated and his allegiance impeccably complete. He resents militantly any aspersion on Jewish honor, even when it is justified, and resists bitterly any insinuation of inferiority. For the renegade, the assimilator, the social climber, he entertains a vigorous contempt. In the intensity of his loyalty, he insists that the world shall know him for what he is, and, with a dramatic flourish, he binds his Jewishness for a sign upon his hand and for frontlets between his eyes. From the Gentile point of view, it is a toss of the coin which is more objectionable, the ingratiating and fawning suppliant or the supersensitive and belligerent patriot.
This series of violent contrasts is not confined to conduct and social attitude. It penetrates into the realm of Jewish ideology; it has split the philosophers and theorizers of Jewish life into two camps — the assimilationist and the loyalist. Some there are who point to the bitterness of the Jewish lot, to the irritation which the Jew inflicts on the Gentile. They advocate the deliberate and conscious dissolution of the Jewish group on the grounds that, the Jewish problem can be solved only when there are no Jews. Over against these counselors of mass disappearance stand the protagonists of survival, the justifiers of persistence. For them, assimilation involves a too heroic surgery on the Jewish personality. In their eyes, the attempt at submergence is impossible of success so long as the Gentile world exhibits little cordiality even to the dejudaized Jew. Above all, the whole effort of escape implies a wanton disregard for a great historic culture which has not yet said its last word to the nations of man.
All of these contrasting illustrations from the Jewish scene are extreme and limited cases. The reader will recognize them as such. Most Jews are neither totally observant of nor completely indifferent to traditional practices, neither eager aspirants for Gentile acceptance nor contemptuous of it, neither deliberate assimilationists nor subtle loyalists. In addition, the vast majority are neither completely ignorant of nor adequately informed in Jewish culture. Their knowledge is composed of odds and ends of information — fragments, half truths, and misconceptions. The average Jew is, then, a pathetically confused person who stands midway between these ultimate states and knows not which way to turn. He observes some Jewish forms and not others, nor is he entirely clear as to the logic which impels his acceptances and rejections. He would like to be at home among Gentiles; he actually feels comfortable only with his fellows. He is deeply, if unreasonably, loyal to his past and present, but he has his moments when he wonders what it is all about, when he asks why the Gentiles abuse him, and inquires whether he and the world would not be happier if he could cut away his Jewishness in one clean stroke.
Such is the portrait of the modern Jew, the picture of his conflicts, contradictions, and confusions — a people that seems less a people than a potpourri of diverse individuals, a group in chaos to which it appears futile to apply logical categories. Of all the prophecies of Scripture concerning Israel, one has been fulfilled, even if not in its original connotation: ‘And ye shall be unto me a peculiar people.'
Now, the Jew may be an anomaly; he is certainly no miracle. Yet, when one recalls the figure of the ghetto Jew in its pre-emancipation lineaments, one is tempted to postulate some magician’s wand, some sorcerer’s charm, to explain how, from what he once was, the Jew became what he now is.
A bare century and a half ago, the Jew lived apart from the world under a tacit covenant of no intercourse. He pursued his own modes of conduct, to which he adhered uniformly and rigidly in all the diverse lands of his dispersion. He knew one culture and this he cultivated carefully and lovingly. In the larger world he displayed no interest; it was a place of cold crudities and of an inferior morality. He regarded it with patient tolerance; certainly he felt no desire to win either approval or acceptance from it. No haunting doubts beset him as to ultimate ends and objectives; he never asked himself whether it was not the part of wisdom to lose himself among the nations. The God of his fathers had elevated him to a high position and none could question the omniscience of the Divine.
Mediæval Jewry stands, then, in sharp contrast to modern. It was homogeneous and universally ordered rather than formless and inchoate. It was serene and self-contained, at peace with itself, and not restless with perplexities. It was free from either servile subjection to the world or blatant rebellion against it. And it was rich in its possession of a satisfying culture and competent ideology rather than impotent in ignorance and sicklied over with abstract alternatives of to be or not to be.
Only cataclysmic events could have effected so violent a transformation, only the strangest alchemies of destiny could have driven the Jew so far in so short a time. It is to this transforming and disintegrating history that we must now turn our attention. In our analysis of it, the character of the modern Jew will find explication, his contradictions resolve themselves reasonably. Without this understanding, the Jew must appear an absurd and unreasonable grotesque. With it, he may still be a strange or even an unpleasant person; he will at least be intelligible.
More than the Bastille fell on July 14, 1789; in its capitulation feudalism gave up the ghost. Through the thunder of falling beams could be heard the tolling of a death knell. An old order had changed, yielding place to new. For the nations of Western Europe the French Revolution was a spectacular but not a decisive event. It introduced no violent changes in the tenor of mass life. The mediæval economy and polity were for all practical intents already dead. The events of the last decade of the eighteenth century were only the elaborate rites of a decent burial.
For the Jew alone the French Revolution inaugurated a real revolution. Only his world experienced radical transformation. And when the smoke and dust of struggle subsided a half century later, his seclusion had disappeared; he had been transformed from a passive and indifferent spectator into an active and interested participant in European affairs, his character and personality had been remade.
The Jew did not slip unconsciously from mediævalism into modernity; he was catapulted into it headlong. Just as he passed from Palestine to the Diaspora in one decisive step, so he moved dizzily from the Middle Ages into the modern world within one or two fateful decades. The ghetto of 1750 may chronologically be assigned to the eighteenth century; in spirit it lived in the fourteenth. For five hundred years the withdrawal of the Jew had been complete. A Renaissance had come and gone, a Protestant Reformation had been born, an industrial economy had been created, a new science and a new philosophy had been conceived, but, except in isolated instances, none of these penetrated into the Judengasse. There time had stopped. For the half millennium prior to the French Revolution, the Jew was a chronological absurdity. And then time remembered that it had forgotten him. It seized him by the forelock and dragged him, willy-nilly, over a span of five hundred years in fifty. The general history of Europe closes the Middle Ages with the Renaissance or Reformation; it allows three to four centuries for the transition to modern society. The Jewish historian turns one page — dated July 14, 1789.
Within twenty-five years from the fall of the Bastille, the Jew in every land in Western Europe had attained partial emancipation. For words are potent things; they carry a dynamic logic of their own. When Europe had once subscribed to the slogans of the Revolution, — Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality, — not even inveterate prejudices could keep their implications from affecting the ghetto. After all, it was uncomfortably inconsistent for the revolutionary to mouth three abstract nouns, always with the reservation ‘except for the Jews.’
To ghetto masses all this was a bewildering but refreshing experience. They generally greeted their change of status enthusiastically; they availed themselves of their new rights and privileges; they learned, in an incredibly short time, to take them for granted. And then they reached for more, and their knuckles were rapped for their greed. In 1815 came the violent counter-revolution. The ragged survivors of the feudal order in solemn session at the Congress of Vienna voted to set back the clock. They resolved that every trace of the nightmare of the Revolution must be obliterated. Europe must return to normality, to the glory of ante-bellum days. The Jew was shocked and sobered. Once again he heard the order, ‘ Dog, to your ghetto!’ Once more he timidly doffed his hat when a Gentile called, ‘Jude, mach Mores.’
Thus did the world coquette cruelly with the Jew, thus did it tantalize him. It offered itself coyly, and, when he reached, withdrew. With each lunge he won an additional favor, from each effort he fell back dissatisfied. The history of the Jew in the nineteenth century is a recurrent succession of concessions and their denial. When the whole mad game was over, the Jew had won much, but not everything; his hands were full, but it was of the ragtag odds and ends of freedom, of the semblance of emancipation but not its essential integrity.
The ghetto was gone; the life it sheltered went with it. Once the wild rush of liberating events was launched, degeneration proceeded with dizzy rapidity. Age-old habits of life disappeared, hoary ideas and ideals dissolved, a whole society vanished in a puff of historic smoke.
That so solid a world should melt away seems incredible. Not even the change in external circumstance quite accounts for it. The secret of the velocity of decay is to be discovered in the peculiar conditions of mediæval Jewish stability. Equilibrium, whether physical or social, is an ambiguous word. It may denote the stability of inertia — the secure quiet of a book flat on a table. On the other hand, it may describe the deceptive rest of a body in infinite motion. The stability of the ghetto was that of a spinning top; it was the result of the interplay of social powers; it gave the illusion of firmness because the resolution of forces balanced exactly. Emancipation disturbed the stabilizing dynamism, and the collapse of a society followed.
The mediæval Jew had long awaited his Messiah, but never dreamed that he would incarnate himself in the squat form of a Corsican upstart. He had listened patiently for the word of salvation, and, paradoxically, it was heard in revolutionary slogans spun out of the brains of rationalists and agnostics. He had hoped for an ultimate rest from his afflictions, and had achieved instead the breathlessness of a transforming pursuit.
The witches in Macbeth put the liver of a Jew into their boiling pot; into its seething cauldron society plunged the whole of him. Freely it applied the acids of rationalism, the spirits of modern conduct, and the elixir of a magical transformation. For a century and a half this mixture has boiled and bubbled effectively. Through the steaming vapors one can already see the older Jewish personality melting away, an ancient culture in dissolution. How the chemistry of modern history effected this metamorphosis in character and social order is our next concern.
Sooner or later it was inevitable that modern thought should intrude upon the Jewish mind and awaken it from its intellectual mediævalism. The awakening unfortunately was a rude one. With emancipation the Jew became free to walk abroad in the world and his eyes were opened. It must be said of him that he was an apt student. In one generation he overtook the intellectual lead of Europe gained through five centuries. But in the course of this pursuit he discarded one invaluable possession — his traditional theology, which was also his raison d’être. He read modern philosophy, and it converted his God from a vivid personality, such as might conceivably have chosen an Abraham, into a metaphysical abstraction, or, worse still, into pure nullity. The study of comparative religion revealed the fact that he had no monopoly on claims to revelation, and Biblical criticism shook his confidence in the divinity of his regimen of life. He applied the theory of evolution to his own history and discovered that his group life had been, not that of a mystic agent of God, but rather the struggle of an organism for survival.
The Jewish religious skeptic now appeared. All groups have their share of doubters on issues divine. Among Jewish intellectuals they are both more numerous and more vehement than elsewhere. For, unlike Christian theology, Jewish religious speculation had no opportunity to make progressive adjustment to the development of modern thought. The inroad of scientific knowledge came as a surprise attack. In disproportionate numbers, Jews who came to know modern thought rejected religion entirely. Except in Russia, no intellectuals are as rabidly anticlerical as newly emancipated Jews. Their rabbis for centuries, they feel, have been misleading them; they would have continued to do so had the world not turned on the light.
Now, too, the Jewish assimilationist becomes comprehensible. Once the traditional atmosphere has been dissipated, the Jew can no longer claim for his group either election, divine guidance, or ultimate victory. These positions are either untenable completely or radically doubtful. But since these concepts historically have formed the rationale of his existence, he is no longer sure what the group is living for. He is compelled to cast about for a new apologia for Judaism, a new logic to justify it, and he fails to find one. He then considers the pain and frustration which the world inflicts on the Jew and the troublesome irritation which it suffers from him. The horrible conviction settles in his mind that the whole of Jewish agony, past and present, is some wanton, pointless jest. Shall a people, he asks, continue to suffer and weep for no reason and to no end? Better that it lose itself, that the slate be wiped clean.
In one other realm of the intellect did the new order affect Jewish character. It destroyed the tradition of a sanctified scholarship. For untold centuries the Jew had found in his learning courage in his suffering, escape from a threatened insanity, and a compensation for his lot. He cherished and nurtured it with that intensity with which a mind threatened by degeneration clings to elements of lucidity. He trusted in its value; he was assured that no system of thought was as accurate, no literature as rich, no culture as elevating, as was his. Then Western knowledge unfolded its ample page, rich with the spoils of time. The intellectual pride of the Jew turned to confusion. He grew ashamed because of his mediævalism. He felt that he was the Rip Van Winkle of Europe, still clothed in the tattered rags of a style long obsolete. His culture had philosophy, science, and theology, but they were outmoded. He was without the art, music, and drama which made Gentile civilization graceful.
Elemental intellectual honesty compelled the Jew to turn his efforts from his own outdated culture to the thought of the new world. The Talmudist now became a scientist, an author, or an artist, and to his new efforts he brought the same spirit of consecration with which once he approached the Hebrew tome. His love of learning has remained spectacular, his insistence on education emphatic. He crowds the professions to the point of suffocation. Modern life has changed the direction of the Jewish intellect; it could not dissipate its intensity, developed through centuries.
Blinded by a novel brilliance, the Jew to-day gives scant attention to the quiet light of his native culture. He assumes that its outmoded exterior reflects an essential irrelevance. He presents a strange paradox to the world — a man who knows all histories except his own, all philosophies but that of his people, who reads books in all the seventy tongues but who cannot generally construe a word of Hebrew.
Concomitant with this dissipation of mental climate went the disintegration of Jewish practice. For the theology and ideology had been not merely avenues of mental escape; they had been theories of sanction for routinized living, props and shorings for form and ceremony. Once the modern world kicked these intellectual foundations out from under, the collapse of the superstructure was inevitable. Ancient group habits were now without a preservative rationale.
Compelled to live with and among Gentiles, exposed to disintegrating alien influences, the Jew suddenly found the observances of his father burdensome. They kept him from his shops on Saturday, they broke into his normal day with innumerable and irrelevant interruptions, they erected a barrier of diet between him and his recently acquired Christian associates. The Jew cast about for some logical reason to justify all this troublesome inconvenience. He found none; he yielded to the demands of his interests and compromised.
And now the process of attrition, so long inhibited, began in earnest. There was generally nothing precipitate about the sloughing of Jewish habits. The automatisms of conduct rarely break sharply. They are worn away only gradually. But, once the first concessions are made, the landslide begins. With the passage of time the individual Jew yields more and more, conforms less and less. In each successive generation, the ceremony of riddance goes on with accelerating momentum. Herein lies the explanation of the contemporary crazy quilt of Jewish practice. Some few Jews there are to-day who have made no concessions, remembering facilis descensus Averni. Others there are who have yielded in some things but not in others. And there are those who, in more than a dietary sense, have gone ‘the whole hog,’ whose lives are distinguished by not a single traditional form or practice.
To Israel Zangwill we are indebted for the most apt characterization of this nonconformist chaos. He puts into the mouth of an Irish maid employed in a Jewish household this sage observation: ‘To-night being yer Sabbath, you’ll be blowing out yer bedroom candle, though ye won’t light it; Mr. David’ll light his and blow it out too; and the old misthress won’t even touch the candleshtick. There’s three religions in this house, not wan.’
If the history of the Jew of the Middle Ages be a tragic drama, then the record of his modern life is a satirical farce. For the essence of tragedy is the heroic theme, and there is little of heroism in recent Judaism. The act of renunciation may often be futile and unintelligent, but it is always dignified. Through his renunciation of the world the mediæval Jew acquired an epic quality that obscured his physical squalor. But the modern Jew is done with the self-immolation of his fathers. He has eaten of the fruits of the tree of emancipation and has developed an insatiate appetite for his new diet. The world, however, is still a grudging giver; it liberates the Jew only bit by bit. Even now it withholds much. As a result, the Jew finds himself a perpetual suppliant, constrained to wheedle and flatter for the residue of liberty and acceptance which has been withheld. His posture is neither dignified nor graceful. An Achilles sulking in a tent is a fitting theme for a Homeric poet; an Achilles scrambling headlong after an everelusive tortoise is a theme only for a comedian — or a philosopher.
Because the Jew is placed in this false position, his attitude toward Gentile society undergoes a radical transformation. Compelled by circumstance to plead for equality, he acquires unconsciously a beggar’s psychology. Thus is born that sense of inferiority which perverts and degrades the Jewish personality, which drives so many Jews to imitate Gentiles blindly. The stupidity of undiscriminating imitation has infected every phase of contemporary Jewish life. No names are so immaculately AngloSaxon as those with which Jewish parents afflict their offspring. Jews eat food they do not like, engage in sports and games for which they have no aptitude, and train their children in amenities that appear inconsequential to them — all because such is the fashion of the Gentile. The Jew who once refused to imitate the virtues of the non-Jew now sedulously copies even his vices. The very ritual of the synagogue is often appraised by the alien standards of the outer world.
The Jew is a subtle person, and when he is accused of an indecent lack of self-respect he has his answer prepared; he offers an ingenious defense of his parrot-like, ape-like procedure. Why, he asks, does the world refuse unreserved recognition to Jews? A plausible explanation is that Jews insist on being distinct personalities, on clinging to their otherness. The very logic of the situation demands a deliberate remaking of the Jew into a Gentile. The more emulation, the less social discrimination. This is the casuistic logic of contemporary Jewish mimicry, the rationalization of a programme of imitation.
The Jewish social climber is the natural product of this servile psychology. Cursed by a sense of inferiority, overwhelmed by a presumption of the superiority of the non-Jewish world, the Jew determines to win acceptance from it. The more often he is rebuffed, the more desirable entrance into it becomes; the more he insists, the more transparent and tawdry appear both his motives and his means. Gentile society is polite; it never tells the unwanted Jew the unpleasant truth; it even, in moments of weakness, gives him grounds for hope. Never discouraged, yet never successful, he eats out his heart in impotent rage, a despicable yet a pitiful figure.
This business of emulation and ingratiation has now been in process for a century and a half. In each generation when the Jew awoke to the meanness of his pursuit, he placated his outraged self-respect by assuring himself that the end justified the means, that the game was worth the candle. But after he had played long enough he became oppressed with a sense of futility. The winning of Gentile recognition seemed discouragingly prolonged, like those ghastly nightmares in which one wanders through labyrinthine corridors hoping always to find a way out but never succeeding. At each stage the world held something back; at each step it insisted, ‘Thus far and no further.’ The ointment was never without some fly, minute as it might be.
For a time, at each point, the Jew engaged in wishful thinking. He believed, because he wanted to believe it, that the whole evil would disappear if only certain trifling factors were modified. He pinned his hopes successively on the fall of some reactionary minister, on the correction of specific economic evils, on the spread of democracy, on the universalization of popular education. The reactionary minister fell, the specific economic evils were mitigated, democracy became a pious reality, and literacy attained to a delightful universality — and still salvation had not come, acceptance was not complete. The old flies in the ointment had been removed only to reveal the presence of others hitherto unsuspected. The upshot of the whole process was a progressive disillusionment. No game is worth the candle if the game can never be won.
Out of perpetual frustration many a Jew turned to counsels of despair. If the Gordian knot could not be unraveled, it might perhaps be cut. The first of these avenues of wild escape was obviously religious conversion. During the first half of the nineteenth century in Western Europe, and the latter half in Eastern Europe, a strange travesty was enacted — a parade of hypocrites to the baptismal font where Jews hoped to become as Christians, not in religion but in social advantage. In early emancipation days thousands of desperate Jews made the plunge of baptism. And then the parade was halted abruptly. The Jew discovered that the church offered no social salvation. The world suspected the Christianized Jew; it doubted the efficacy of holy water to change his spots.
The rise of the Jewish radical reflects in part a second counsel of despair. No apology need be given for the fact that a people has its rebels. Whether the Jewish group has more than its share of social revolutionaries is a moot point. In any event, certain factors in the contemporary Jewish scene logically incline the Jew toward programmes of fundamental correction in society. In the first place, he is heir to a great ethical tradition and a body of law which persistently stress the rights of man and the ideal of social justice. In the second, he is relatively a newcomer in European society. He regards the world with a fresh objectivity, with a critical appraisal undimmed by habituation. But, in large measure, the Jewish radical is a direct result of the vagaries of emancipation. When the Jew has lost his old world and finds no place for himself in the new, he rises in rebellion, he determines to shatter an inhospitable society to bits and remould it nearer to his heart’s desire. The world has raised its afflicting hand against him; no wonder, then, that his hand strikes back against his oppressor.
And if, by reason of either temperament or training, the Jew cannot become a radical, he tends to be a cynic. What faith can he put in the professions of the Western World, when his own lot demonstrates their insincerity? From personal experience, he knows that the ideal of human brotherhood is a dishonest myth, equality a Sunday School aphorism, and the worship of democracy a lip service. Acutely conscious of the failure in practice of human ideals, he rejects all idealism as a conventional lie of civilization.
The same history that created social climber, radical, and cynic has produced the Jewish chauvinist. The world does not genuinely want its Jews. Pride often leads the Jew to contempt of the world. The answer to perpetual anti-Semitism is a vehement Judaism. Wherefore the old Jewish rebel cry is heard again, ‘To your tents, O Israel’; and less audibly, for even the super-Jew fears Gentile censure, ‘A plague on all your houses.’
Underneath this chaos of a society in decay and personality in transition runs, like some sombre undertone, a refrain of pain and restlessness. When an old world dies and a new world is not yet born, the soul of man is left homeless. It has been expelled from the quiet of the order that has perished. The new body in which it is to incarnate itself struggles toward birth but is not yet actualized. The modern Jew, then, is a man of sorrows, of split personality and divided loyalty. If he is normal, he loves the past of his people, he is possessed of an instinctive devotion to it. He surrenders it only grudgingly and hankers after it when it is gone. But, since he is human, he knows that his future and his interests lie in another, unrealized realm.
It is often glibly asserted that the Jew is a neurotic. Certainly his conduct impresses observers as unbalanced and unstable. The explanation of this maladjustment is to be found in recent history and contemporary conditions. The Jew to-day stands astraddle of two worlds, with his feet planted on two different orders. One breaks under him whenever he rests his weight upon it, the other heaves in protest against him and seeks to shake him off. Only a people of acrobats could preserve a semblance of poise on a footing so unstable.
At no time, during this entire process of disintegration, was the Jew unaware of what it was doing to his personality and group culture. Attentively he watched the liquefying of his fast-frozen civilization and its everquickening dissolution. With anxious apprehension, he observed the emergence from his own body politic of agnostics and assimilationists, of social climbers, imitators, radicals, and chauvinists.
The great masses of Jewry unconsciously adopted a philosophy of sauve qui peut. Impelled by the momentum of two thousand years and inspired by his tremendous instinctive loyalty, each Jew saved from the wreck what he could. Despite the lack of a formulated programme, the undeliberate loyalist (a phrase descriptive of a vast majority) succeeded surprisingly. He preserves to this day great patches of traditional practice, deep wells of ancient loyalty, large fragments of ancestral culture. He has, by and large, avoided the alternative pitfalls of a surrender of self-respect and a recourse to counsels of desperation. For all his mental confusion, he represents the human strength of Judaism to-day, the material through which programmes of solution must find expression.
On the other hand, from the very inception of the collapse the need for deliberate planning became apparent. Face to face with a cataclysmic emergency, theorizers of Jewish life proceeded to the formulation of philosophies of reconstruction which might be adequate to the problem.
Early in the nineteenth century, the first attempt at a competent ideology was made, the philosophy known as ‘reform Judaism’ was conceived. In the ghetto the Jew had been a Jew purely and simply. Now that he was a citizen of the land of his residence, he was bewildered as to his status; he was at a loss to understand how he could be both a Jew and a citizen of his own country. The impasse was traversed by redefining the nature of Jewish identity. The Jew, argued the theorizers of reform, is actually a German, Frenchman, or Briton in nationality, culture, and social identity. He is a Jew only in theology, religion, and tenets of belief.
By this doctrine, Judaism was a religious communion and the Jew a member of a sect. Now traditional Judaism had, to be sure, included a credal atmosphere, but it had been much larger than that. These metaphysicians of Jewish life were not deterred. They proceeded to make Judaism conform to their Procrustean bed, to eliminate all aspects of the whole that could not be explained in credal terms. They reduced Judaism to a pallid religiosity; by systematic emasculation they excised those virile qualities which alone could enlist the intense loyalty which the hour of stress demanded. Conceived as a programme of integration, reform has accelerated the centrifugal momentum; intended to make survival possible, it has, at the worst, encouraged dejudaization, and, at the best, only retarded it.
If the emancipation and its consequences shocked all Jews, the failure of reform to inhibit disintegration threw many into a blind panic and fear. One attempt had been made to come to terms with the world, only to end in frustration. A return to mediævalism followed close upon this recognition: the new orthodox Jew was born.
The orthodoxy of the new orthodox Jew is not the undeliberate conformity of his fathers. It is conscious and calculating. It argues that any rapprochement with Gentile society must lead to ultimate group extinction. It demands a mental if not a physical return to the ghetto. Let the Jew close his eyes to the results of modern science and philosophy; let him make a wild leap of faith and accept the divine origin of traditional Judaism. Then the process of compromise in conduct is nipped in the bud, the Jewish scheme of life preserved in all its pristine integrity. There are to-day thousands of Jews who, in obedience to this solution, obey every tenet which mediæval Jewry held sacred. The intent is laudably honorable, the programme none the less sadly futile. Their Judaism refuses to bend; it must ultimately break.
Only most recently has a fresh start been made toward the formulation of a theory of Jewish existence which shall be true to essential tradition and equal to the demands of contemporary conditions. A more adequate ideology is now being evolved. Its form is still not definitive, yet its larger outlines are sufficiently clear to make possible tentative statement.
The protagonists of this philosophy make three presuppositions which they regard as axiomatic to any rationale of Judaism. The first of these is the impossibility of escape. Experience has demonstrated that complete acceptance by the world is impossible. A few Jews may achieve it; the bulk of Jews must remain Jews, if for no other reason than that anti-Semitism will not allow anything else. The second postulate asserts that, even were assimilation readily possible, Judaism deserves the preservation of its identity. For all that much of Jewish tradition is obsolete and untenable, its essential character is still unique and unimpaired. The ancient way, representing four thousand years of wise experience, can still be, if not the best way, at least as good as any other. And if the Jew must, in any event, continue to suffer frustration and denial, he may as well derive all the satisfactions that unapologetic Jewish living affords.
The final assumption underlying the new programme stresses the necessity for immediate action. At present, the Jewish group still possesses predominating numbers of individuals whose conduct and loyalty are largely traditional. Besides, it still can count on huge reserves of human material from Eastern Europe, where Jewry still lives under the ancien régime and the Jewish pattern is, by and large, undisturbed. In consequence, a sense of half-hysterical urgency drives the reconstructionist. The new programme must become operative before it is too late, before the tenuous allegiances of the West are completely dissipated, before the East withdraws its subsidies. Failing this promptitude, decay in character and culture will attain a point at which all effort becomes hopeless.
Proceeding from these three premises, the new philosophy of Jewish existence spins forth its theoretic apologia pro vita sua. Judaism, it indicates, is the unique culture and civilization of the Jewish people, possessed of its own peculiar qualities, traits, and attitudes. Like any other civilization, it represents an organic nexus of a literature, language, folk ways, group hopes, and aspirations. In this living whole, religion is at once the driving motif and the ideal expression, but it is by no means the whole or even the largest part.
This, in a nutshell, is the essence of the new ideology. Its authors already draw from its logic huge practical implications. They demand a rebirth of learning. They insist on a return to a modified and adapted practice, less on theological grounds than because these forms are the mores of the Jewish group. To the old fear of a divided social loyalty they respond by arguing that each Jew must carry two cultures — that of his land and that of his ancestry. The Jew is no less patriotic an American, Briton, or German because he is endowed with a second civilization. On the contrary, he can, if he is alert, make himself the medium of an intellectual leavening. The culture of his country will be enriched by the fructifying stimulation of another system of thought. Civilizations, like flowers, blossom bountifully only through the transference of pollen.
More than thin-spun philosophical programmes, the dream of restoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine has breathed life into a moribund decadence. By its apparently impossible quixotism, Zionism infuses the drabness of Jewish existence with a spirit of adventure. It affords a dramatic purpose analogous to older dreams of a Messianic restoration. The Jew finds in it a programme of physical action, a release from eternally painful debate. It has made possible, at least in one land, a full, dynamic Jewish life, a revival of a complete civilization. That culture, free and untrammeled, need not always make adaptation to a hostile world; it is not overshadowed with the haggard threat of dissolution.
Palestinian Jewry is culturally creative as no Diaspora community has been in two thousand years. It has evoked a renaissance of Hebrew literature, art, and music. Out of its vitality, revivifying impulses have passed to the dispersion. The Zionist can now tell himself that even if his deepest dreads are realized, even if Jewry of the Diaspora is doomed, even then, with the failing strength of death, he has built for himself one society where his incarnate spirit shall defy time and its corrosions.
Our description of the contemporary Jewish scene is complete. Before our eyes has been unfolded the pageant of character in transition, of personality in contradiction, and of programmes in conflict. The decisive issue has now been joined. The powers of dissolution struggle chaotically with the newer reënforcements of a self-respecting survival. It is natural that one should undertake to read the future, that an attempt be made to foresee the final event on that
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The world from curiosity, and the Jew from poignant concern, ask alike, ‘Watchman, what of the night?’ But the modern student, for all his personal loyalties, must simulate the indifferent manner of science and answer, ‘I am no prophet; neither am I a prophet’s son.’