When the Wall Is Fallen
RECENTLY, I came across a pamphlet published by young Catholics on a certain college campus. One article in it, entitled “Indifferentism” and written by a student, discussed the prevalence of good people in other faiths, but insisted that despite their virtuse, they lacked a peculiar grace which only the Church could impart. Catholic youth apparently believe in a mystical quality which is inherent in the teachings and practices of their church and sets them apart from all others. This sort of “differentism” reminded me of my own young days, the long spiritual pilgrimage since then, and the unanswered query concerning the ultimate outcome of sectarian determinism which adds its rift to a world already divided.
As a Jewish boy born in the East Side of New York City, the fact uppermost in my awareness was this “differentism,” which placed me irrevocably behind an impassable wall. My youthful state of mind was a mixture of suspicion and contempt for the non-Jews. It was my practice to hold my breath and quicken my footsteps whenever I passed Christian churches, of which there were very few, for the Goyim among us were represented by a sprinkling of Irish and Germans. These were often the kindly janitors of the houses where we burrowed in droves. Their women had large bosoms that smelled more clean than those of our aunts, and we were content to nestle in security on strong Christian arms that picked us up out of street dangers.
But somehow, in our developing minds, these Christians were outcasts, different from us of proud heritage. Only a rudimentary relationship with them was tolerated. On the Sabbath evening and morning, since Jews are not permitted to touch fire, they were admitted to our homes to turn down the lamps or light kitchen stoves, the only source of heat in winter in our surly tenement caves. This contact never aroused any sense of interdependence or friendliness. These people were strangers who dwelt in our midst.
Yet there was one name among them that began to stand out early in my consciousness as a name of dread, of an archenemy, a vague personality without time or place, but threatening all the dangers of an evil force. In my own family I never heard the name. To utter it would have brought anathema on the speaker. At the age of seven, as soon as I was old enough to borrow juvenile literature from the public library branch, I became aware of the curious fact that this name, wherever printed, had been effaced by previous readers. Yet it was freely ejaculated among us in street oaths in one form or another.
Thus in the years of adolescence I grew up with the idea that the execrated appellation was the epitome of all that is hateful and inimical to the Jew. I can remember when I was twelve and Christmas was approaching. We boys were mightily excited by the season, which concerned us in no way except that we got an extended school vacation. When we became old enough to realize that the people on the other side of the wall were exchanging presents, we turned wistful eyes in their direction.
But at that time, and in my home, Christmas furnished only an occasion for fortification. What an opportunity for an old rabbinical teacher to decry the hated name of him whose birthday the Goyische world was celebrating! My rabbi gathered about him some twenty of the older boys, candidates for confirmation into the Jewish synagogue, and with bated breath told them the truth about Jesus. Iesel, it seems, was a wicked lad who, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, wanted to know more than he should. He haunted the Sacred Tabernacle and, seizing his chance, penetrated into the Holy of Holies, where he overheard the sacred word that gave him many powers.
Fortunately, his theft was discovered early and the High Priest pursued him. With the aid of the magic formula which he had stolen, Jesus rose in the air to escape the righteous wrath. But the High Priest was mightier, for he rose even higher and forced Jesus down to earth, where he was deprived of his magic. The story went no further, but we boys walked out with a sense of our superiority over this vague enemy because of whom we had suffered so much through the centuries, yet who could not prevail against our High Priest, for all his stolen sorcery. This constituted my first official teaching on the life and works of Jesus.
I had become, at thirteen, a full-fledged member of the synagogue. In the later teens I found it increasingly hard to obey all the precepts of an exacting religious practice. The wearing of the phylacteries in the morning conflicted with the need of doing early chores in a store and getting off to school for a nine o’clock class. Yet the holy cubes were respectfully worn every day, even if the rapid mumble-jumble in Hebrew that accompanied the sacred act became more and more merged into a prolonged murmur. And so, on through a city college, where at graduation I received a medal in Philosophy though I had not read the New Testament, and where I was accorded the distinction of Phi Beta Kappa, though, incredible as it may seem, I did not know of the Goyim that, while they were primarily Christians, they were also Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians.
So effectively had public education been organized, through the elementary grades, high school, and college, that the name of Jesus had been obliterated from my instruction. Here was a lad of twenty, with much Hebrew lore in his baggage but no vital spiritual concept; with an entire ignorance of what constituted Christianity but possessing an ingrained aversion to it; an enemy of Jesus by accident of birth but without personal animosity; a citizen prepared by public instruction to dwell on the Israelite side of the immemorial palisade raised against the Philistines.
I am surprised, in my present sophisticated awareness of religious denominationalism, that I could have lived in New York as a boy and gone through college and still not have learned the names of the various partitions behind which Christians have grouped themselves. By the age of twenty-nine, when I returned from the First World War, I had vaguely heard of the Methodists and a few others, but I should not have been able to tell how they divided themselves from one another. (It would be an interesting venture if a questionnaire were circulated among professing members of the various Protestant churches today, aiming to ascertain what they knew of the essential differences between the sects.)
WHAT I have to relate of my adventures with Protestants will be more credible if I here pay homage to a man who was born a Catholic. I chanced to meet him in my early twenties in an East Side settlement house where he was a worker, and I soon realized that I was coming under a new influence. Here was a man without any church connection now, yet leading a life of goodness and mercy, indeed a follower of Jesus on earth. In his presence I learned to mention the detested name without self-consciousness, and presently with wonder. From my friend I received the accolade of spiritual living based on the vital principle of an all-embracing love, a sentiment the doxologies that I had chanted in my teens to the Lord of Hosts had never brought me. This man, at one magic touch, had crumbled my walls.
So freed had I become that I actually committed the crime of marrying a Gentile woman. The heartrending disgrace for my orthodox parents was something that I can barely understand today. After burying me with religious ceremony, they hurriedly left the neighborhood in which they had lived honored and respected.
I resumed my work of teaching after the cataclysm of 1914-1918, during which I served abroad, still ignorant of modern Christianity. The president of a small but nationally known college in the Middle West invited my wife and me to dinner in New York, in order to see what we were like. When the demitasse was served, I offered him a cigarette which he accepted and smoked with the air of a habitué. It was only after my arrival on his campus, situated in a town where local option had banned the sale of cigarettes, that I discovered that I should not mention the presidential transgression. This was the first of a series of local taboos on certain subjects which included sex, Prohibition, politics favorable to the Democratic or Socialist parties, dancing, and religion.
At the beginning, my transgressions due to ignorance were forgiven, and I accepted the taboos as I gradually discovered them. It was in this preliminary stage of adaptation that I learned from a Methodist friend on the faculty, a professor of science, what the Methodists stood for, and also that while he did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, he publicly accepted it for the sake of “the masses.” I wondered what role the masses played in this town of two thousand souls, and I was so surprised at this revelation of self-sacrifice through hypocrisy that I hesitated to peer further into the local beliefs. But there was another Methodist on the faculty, a sweet, wise spirit and a learned mind, who really believed in the Trinity, and who restored the balance for me.
Before I took the position in this college, I had made it clear to the president that I was a Jew, and that I had no intention of substituting any denominational adherence for my discarded orthodoxy. This was amicably understood between us. I found my ignorant aversion for churches a positive influence, and during my first year in this small Midwestern community I never entered one. Be it said to the credit of the Christian folk with whom I dwelt that they accepted me cordially if wonderingly, opening their homes, and eventually their hearts, to me.
At the request of the president, who heard that I had a bass voice, I joined the college chapel choir. This was the only nudge of a religious type that I experienced, but I found it agreeable to assist in the chapel services and to sing certain hymns, while other hymns, by their wording, provoked a shocked silence in me. I was surprised at hearing young, fine-looking American men and women chanting the inanities contained in violent verses that predicted cataclysms and judgment resurrections or employed symbols dripping with blood. Those stanzas struck me as grievously as the more ancient rituals from which I had freed myself. But these things left me interested, and I eagerly began to inquire and read concerning Christianity.
At the age of thirty I read the four Gospels for the first time. After that, I walked everywhere among brothers. Blessings seemed to sprout from our contacts. I look back to this first life among Christians as a blissful regenerative time when I caught glimpses of beauty in every spirit and when something joyously infectious kindled in us a happy radiance as we met.
From the very beginning of my stay in this new, invigorating West I began to hear much of the Congregational minister. He was away, serving after the war with the Y.M.C.A. abroad, attached to our returning troops. My friends gave me the impression that he was a great power for good, an admirable man, a true Christian, and they wanted me to meet him. I began to look forward to his return, promising myself the privilege of knowing a man so reverenced and loved by a community. He finally came, and in no way disappointed my high expectations. In spite of the resumption of his churchly duties and his many friendships, he found time and curiosity for me. He made the first advances, visiting me on the campus and asking me out for an occasional walk. His courtesy was exquisite, and I surprised myself one Sunday by suggesting to my wife that we visit his church.
I BEHELD on the platform bare of symbolical decoration, between two vases of flowers, my friend the minister. He led the service simply and with a graceful tact that indicated his sense of rest and ease amid divine inspirations. I can remember nothing today of his sermon, — the first I had ever heard, — but I can never forget the undeniable presence of the spirit in the man, the evidence in his outward semblance and bearing of great things unseen. I remember how stirred I was by his simple sincerity. After that first visit, I made many others.
One day he asked me to speak at Wednesday evening prayer meeting concerning my Jewish training. I demurred. He asked it as a personal favor and I consented. The Sunday-school room was fairly well filled. As I spoke of our orthodox Jewish religious education, I became persistently aware that on the wall behind me hung a picture of Jesus being questioned by the elders of the synagogue, draped in their prayer-shawls. They were the silent ancient host listening to my testimony. The graceful boy radiant with light seemed to reach forth and touch me, imparting a glowing respect for long tradition known to him, and into which he had attempted to breathe a new vigor. I was asked to speak again, on the following Wednesday, and the community seemed to crowd into the room. After that
After that my pastor friend began to urge me to join his Congregational church. I told him I could not join because I could not accept any formal creed or submit to any ceremony such as baptism or communion. In answer, he asked me to meet with the board of deacons at the church and make before them a frank profession of the faith I had, allowing them to judge whether my acceptance into the church was possible. This, for his sake, I promised to do, certain beforehand that the spirit of the elders upon the wall would be upon the deacons, and that they would never accept into their midst a man who could not conform to the essential observances to which they had been born.
We met — I standing before them, they a dozen men and women seated around me. In words that came straight from my heart I told them how much I appreciated their kindness to me during my stay with them. The idea of drawing even closer the tie between us had come from their minister, but for me the bond was already indissoluble, I then spoke of my undogmatic state, no longer influenced by or dependent on any formal religious observance, yet inwardly responsive to the most perfect sources we have, the two Testaments. From the Old I received the inspiration of strength and character; from the New the lesson of love, the key to all hearts. I spoke of my acceptance of the Sermon on the Mount as my ultimate guide to conduct. This was as far as I could go.
As I spoke, a glowing spirit seemed to shed its warmth on all of us. These men and women of the Western plains, bred in definite Christian doctrine and practice, were with one accord moved not to ask of me any statement beyond the strangely stirring one I had already uttered. I humbly stated my inability to accept either baptism or communion as essential to my spiritual welfare. There was an undeniable pause. Then the oldest Congregationalist among them spoke, saying that he saw no necessity of urging me to accept either of these forms. The others chimed in. They asked me to join their membership.
My habits and thinking were not visibly influenced by this closer association with the Christian world about me. It was easy to slip into the simple routine of Sunday attendance at church, for the presence and inspiration of our leader in worship were vitalizing to me. The experience was transfused with a quality I had never known in connection with the Hebrew ritual. The orthodox Jew does not go to a synagogue primarily for the sake of his neighbor, but because he is moved to religious conformity by long custom and by a sincere desire to be on the credit side of God’s ledger at the time of annual reckoning, the dread days of New Year. The Protestant Christian, I noticed, was much more social-minded in his pious observance, and the notion of the meetinghouse identified with the house of prayer rather attracted me in the early days of my pilgrim’s progress.
I warmed quickly to the sociability of it, the friendly exchange with approving souls who hailed my advent in their midst with frank pleasure. I slipped into the regular relationship with amazing simplicity, as if the changing from one faith to another were a simple transfer from one railway center to another across the city. If I had thought of this travel figure then, I should have been pleased with it, for I felt I was taking passage aboard the Congregational train at the beginning of an auspicious journey into a land of promise. It is true that there were other competing lines in that town, particularly the efficient Methodist System, but all these rails seemed to me to run in the same direction, and like true parallels, to converge as they met at infinity. Yet other pastors, as I met them socially, seemed to me sectminded men who did not radiate that generous force which my Congregational friend possessed in such rich measure.
The effect of my first year of Christian fellowship was to draw me more directly to the study of Christ, who became an absorbing figure for me. To me he was a Jew dissatisfied with the formalism of lip service. He drew from his great resources remonstrances which seemed clothed with peculiarly poignant feeling. His teaching became a source of delight and of inspiring thinking. His ways were simple and direct. Conduct ceased to be a problem to be regulated by practical considerations. It became instead a natural living out of the personal inspirations that his teaching instilled. I visioned clearly and in detail the boyhood of this son of Joseph, his eager revolt from creedal subservience, his retreat in early manhood to the sources of his being, his illumination and preaching, and his tragic end. I had indeed traveled a long way from my early detestation of the name of Jesus.
Two years later I joined the faculty of a small college in the Middle West situated in a progressive city of some thirty thousand people. In my new home I rapidly found congenial companionship among the townspeople as well as the faculty. The college is one of the best-known of its type, and I never had any reason to regret my decision to go there. In this town also it happened that the Congregational church was the largest and most influential. I was welcomed, and I worshiped with people who soon became friends and happy acquaintances.
The minister was a fine man, of splendid attainment, of distinction in his sermons, of high integrity in his dealings. Yet he gave me the impression that he was following the rules, and that his acts were unaccompanied by an inner quality of revelation. He made joy seem quite distant, in a mystic future. Present conduct seemed to be a measuring up to a dimensional ethical world, instead of a natural flow from the self in touch with its divine sources.
I liked this minister, I admired him, but I could not love him. For the first time I realized with surprise that my church attendance was directly connected with the minister’s personal appeal, and soon the mere social act of Sunday appearance at service was not significant enough to me to warrant the effort. I had, however, an effective sentimental attachment to the Congregational church which led me to contribute to its annual budget and to signify, by my occasional presence at the services, that I preserved my faith in its importance and usefulness.
In this town there were perhaps a dozen Jewish families. Considering their inferiority in number, they had surprising prominence in civic and charitable matters and occupied a high place in the respect of the community. They were not drifters, but scions of a second generation, the first having been among the pioneers who had helped to develop the town. Their old orthodoxy had been worn away in the process of the Western years, lost in the inexorable demands of a new environment where the male adults had not been numerous enough, in the early days, to produce the minyan (ten) necessary for communal worship.
These Jews preserved nothing but a racial consciousness that manifested itself once a year during the dread days of New Year and Atonement. They met then, in some church building, under the monotonous leadership of an insurance man from a neighboring larger city who still preserved some rudiments of Hebrew, and listened to a service predominantly in English, with only an occasional ancient phrase. This ceremony was far removed in spirit and content from the orthodoxy I had once known. It felt more like a memorial gathering in honor of a vanishing tradition, to commemorate the forefathers.
For the Ark of the Covenant a glass bookcase was used, in which there reposed a slender feeble imitation of a scroll that was never taken out and read. Even my sensibilities were shocked when on New Year’s Eve, as I entered the Episcopal church where the Jewish services were to be held, I saw the golden Christian cross gleaming in its wonted place, directly above the drab bookcase with its woebegone Holy of Holies. Shades of John Singer Sargent and his paintings of synagogue crumbling and church triumphant!
The next day the cross was removed, but the organ, the choir stalls, the hymn numbers on the walls, all remained to remind us in our simulation of worship that we were exiles, with the hand of the Lord against us, the glory of Israel somehow departed because the Ark of the Law was no longer there. The English phrases and the voices of two hired Gentile women singers, chanting from notes the ancient burdens, re-echoed strangely and sadly against the background of my memories of the toneless lament of my people in their redolent synagogue. These quiet American businessmen in smart apparel, sitting with their welldressed wives, contrasted oddly with my memory of bearded men in striped prayer-shawls swaying to the fervor of supplication while in a distant corner bulky wives in holiday finery moaned in humble monotone.
I went to this annual racial gathering moved by a social consciousness and a sense of solidarity with my people. To the Congregational church I went infrequently as a token of my interest in an institution which had my respect. To neither did I go for worship, which became for me more and more a private act. I felt myself to be a Jew who was a Christian, a Christian who remained a Jew. There was no shock to my reason in my adherence to two faiths. One developed from the other; they differed in language but often used identical Old Testament phrases in their services. The shock occurred when I tried to join a third religious society.
THERE came to our city a young minister called by an influential Presbyterian church. In his youth he had played football; in the war he had served at the front. He possessed the conviction of a man who had tried all kinds of living and through some cataclysm of experience had emerged consecrated to the service of humanity. His soul was eager within him and flamed high, warming many who sought what he had to give. He lavished his time and strength upon a thousand generous enterprises. He began a noonday service for businessmen, he slaved for the charity chest, he trudged to visit the sick, he went into the line of our college football team in the dim autumn afternoons and helped the coach to substitute morale for profanity.
This minister attracted me when I met him socially, and I soon came to know him and love him. I went to hear him preach and found myself deeply moved by the undeniable flame that burned in him and found expression in his sermons. Brotherhood, love, the life of the spirit, again became familiar terms exemplified in a marvelous personality. Presently I was sending an annual check to his church, as a token of my valid sympathy for the work he was doing.
And gradually the idea of joining his church took shape. I knew that Christians did not belong to two different churches at the same time, though they often changed from one to another, but I saw no obstacles in the way of my identification with various institutions for good, whose doctrines and practices were very similar and fundamentally derived from the same source. I had no religious habits, no sense of a church home, nothing that discouraged me from the venture of belonging to as many churches as my means and my inclination permitted. The church seemed a sanctuary for the spiritual urge of mankind where all those who worshiped could feel at home.
It had only one practice that still perturbed me, the sudden interruption of service by the crude financial insistence upon a collection. The emergence of money in religious worship, its ancient prominence within the temple, had always irritated me, whether manifested by the jangling box in the hands of the priest preceded by beadle with mace, or by the auctioneering before the Ark of sections of the chapters of the Law to be read in the synagogue, or again by the rapid collection plate wafted along the rows of coin-dropping sitters under the control of intent ushers.
But this was a very minor dissatisfaction, and I determined to become a Presbyterian. It was of course my intention to ask to be taken without form or creed, in the spirit and not in the letter. As a matter of fact, I was innocently uncertain whether the Presbyterians really required any statement of faith beyond acceptance of the teaching of Jesus.
On a certain day, while these ideas were still taking shape in me, I happened to walk homeward with the president of my college, a young man I deeply respected and admired. I asked him into my house and I conferred upon him the honor of a seat in my favorite rocker. I opened my heart to my president, who was the son of a minister and had a long, intimate knowledge of Christian tradition. My rocker almost collapsed when he heard that I was planning to join the Presbyterian church.
“How about the Congregational church, of which you are a member?”
“What about it?”
“Why do you want to resign from it?”
“But I don’t intend to resign!”
It had never occurred to him that one could be a member of two such organizations and he did not see how I could serve both. To him it seemed that I was trying to be in two places at the same time, a ubiquity conceded only to divinity. To him, the church was a place; to me it was a living spirit. I have often heard cynics ask to which church Christ would go if he returned to earth. My answer was ready: he would go to all that worshiped in spirit. I could easily imagine him blessing them all as he wandered from one to another, reproving, approving, perhaps here and there again driving out the money changers, but in the main glad of the gradual miracles wrought by the leaven of his spirit. I sometimes permitted myself to imagine that he might feel at home also in the orthodox Hebrew worship, with its unique and marvelous succession of praises to one God, the Universal Father, the King of the World. Why might not I, preserving my roots in his ancient Hebrew tradition, permit my branches to take nourishment from all healthful sources of his spiritual radiation?
It was at this impasse that my friend, the president, hit upon the argument that prevailed. The Presbyterian minister would himself pose no objection to my being taken into his church without doctrinal conformity. He would, in fact, be just the man to be fired by such a project and to try to carry it out in the face of certain opposition of some of his deacons. He was already in hot water because in several matters he had tried to break free from control in order to let a warming generosity guide his conduct of church business. If I added this major problem to his vexations, I should merely complicate his situation and achieve no good for anyone concerned.
I could not face the prospect of adding to my friend’s burdens, and I trusted the president, whose experience and contacts enabled him to envisage the likely embarrassing implications of my idea. What had seemed so simple and straightforward suddenly appeared complicated and full of pitfalls. Shortly after that my Presbyterian friend left preaching for teaching. He never knew of the plan I had fondled and the vexations I had spared him. For me, there resulted some discouragement at his departure.
SOMETHING of the original fire and incentive slipped away from me, as well as the impulse toward religious initiative. I stopped going to church altogether and practiced for myself a quiet worship that, with all its attainment, did not entirely satisfy. The meaning of the admonition appeared to me that where two or three are gathered together in His name, there would He be in the midst of them. I saw clearly the obvious value and necessity for divine adoration together with others. The dim chapel in Catholic France, with its groups of mute women humbly kneeling, was infinitely satisfying to the questing spirit. Here one could find the proper combination of individual worship in company. In such places I have often been strangely stirred to a quiet, sincere approach to God, with altar candles a vivid blur, Mary and her attendant saints a friendly but unobtrusive band, myself stripped of foibles and vanities under the essential hunger of the spirit.
In far-away Spain, wandering among drab mountain villages fettered in poverty, in an ancient synagogue which now houses a bleeding Christ, I have understood the vision of Isaiah and his six-winged seraphim. These apocalyptic glimpses, deep inner promptings absorbed from the vibrant atmosphere of the land of the mystics, were quite different from the warm, generous uplift surging in me as I listened to the ethical discourses in the Protestant churches of more northerly latitudes. Yet all these places of worship fulfilled a great mission and satisfied a true need for the human spirit. Why could one not dwell at will among them, absorbing the inspiration that each has to give to the questing soul in the groping stages of its pilgrimage?
Actually, my wanderings and peerings behind denominational enclosures have been very limited. These seem still to remain, mightily cutting across the lovely human landscape, while I wander afield, now foot-loose and uninquisitive. Aware of the rigidity of certain sectarian barriers, I seem to have stopped becoming a Christian, though more understandingly than ever before filled with homage of Jesus.
Often I meet fellow men from these sectarian frontiers who, like me, are disengaged from sanctimonious servitude to a name, and with them I hold communion. Their names are Catholic and Protestant and Jew, and like me they preserve a wistfulness for the security of discarded ramparts. Their gaze, however, is not turned backward, but rather forward to boundless horizons undistorted by straggling walls. Their ears listen eagerly, though not too expectantly yet, for the gigantic crumbling that the ages will bring when the newer chosen of God, emerging from the long deserts of time and multiplied in number as the sands of the sea, will circle Jericho seven times on the seventh day. Once in a while, a reassuring vision strikes their eyes, like that of the four clergymen, a Catholic, two Protestants, and a Jew, who, having given their lifebelts to young soldiers on a vessel torpedoed in the winter of 1943, locked arms on deck and said their prayers together as the boat went down.
It is in a time of pressing general danger that our gaze penetrates to the underlying brotherhood of mankind. Such a crisis is upon us now, and all of us are engulfed in the tidal waves driven up by the new world hurricane. We are newly sensitive to the dangers that threaten us all as we listen to the cry of the persecuted and the oppressed. That is why I am not deeply alarmed by anti-Semitism, a blight that is fundamentally more anti-Christian than it is antiJewish. I have faith in the prompting of self-preservation to lead thinking Christians of all sects to condemn instinctively, for their own safety, attempts at racial or religious discrimination. Wherever antiSemitism has flourished on a national and political scale, there the flood of hate has always destroyed the haters.
We are today very vocal about these matters, which is a good sign, and should not lead us into mistaking our painful awareness for an aggravation of our malady. On the contrary, the more openly this weakness is analyzed, the closer is its eventual cure. Danger resides only in the secretive hushing of this poisonous evil. The rays of the light of a great teaching will always heal the infection of destructive and demoralizing prejudices that enable hypocrites to lead fools, though like the poor these may yet be with us for long, long years.
In the meantime I occasionally take my large atlas off its shelf and turn to one of its pages which pictures a huge semicircle. In segments of different color and size, it neatly represents the principal religions of the earth, with green Catholics hardly more numerous than violet Mohammedans or orange Brahmans, with gray Protestants slightly predominant over the rosy heathen, with blue Jews forming a slender thread against the expansive red strip of the Buddhists. And I wonder when some magnificent future atlas will picture all these children of God in the radiant blending of white spiritual consciousness.