In THE FAITH OF OUR FATHERS – THE FATE OF OUR CHILDREN: Proceedings of the European Conference of the Standing Conference of Jews Christians and Muslims in Europe
London, 14th February to 17th February 1972
…”The Faith of the Fathers and the Fate of the Children” might suggest that the fathers are the fully converted who stand within the charmed circle and the children are the partly converted whom the fathers have to convert. In fact it does not work quite like that … Sometimes it is the children who are saying “We are the most committed and you, the parents, are not.”
In any event, can one really talk about people within a charmed circle and absolutely committed, and people who are outside it and still have to be won over to the truth? The reality of the situation for most of us is that we too are partly committed, or at times very deeply committed and at other times doubters, not so sure … The neat division between the converted and the unconverted, or the wholly converted and the partially converted is not realistic. Nonetheless, many of us … represent a particular group which professes to be religious and committed to religious truth …, and we know there are other people who are less committed or even antagonistic and yet in some way are with us. For Jews this would be the problem of those who either call themselves secular Jews or who never, or rarely, go to synagogue, but are intensely Jewish … They belong to a particular tradition which is a religious tradition, and would be horrified at the suggestion that they are to be read out of it because they do not go to synagogue or because they do not give assent to certain religious propositions … The question for those within the charmed circle, those who are in the Synagogue or the Church or the Mosque is: How do they approach those who are with them and yet not with them? I speak from within the Jewish tradition …
We first notice that there is this thing called the civilization. Mordecai Kaplan wrote a book in 1936 called Judaism as a Civilisation. He claimed that in the world of today there is bound to be a failure of religious people – religious Jews – to communicate with others because many of the Jews do not share the basic religious propositions. But, he says, Judaism is not only a religion in the narrow sense, it is not only a matter of a man worshipping God in the narrow sense, but it is what he called a civilisation, a whole way of life. There is Jewish art, Jewish literature, music, a certain pattern of life, even diet. There is the Jewish ethic and a special Jewish approach that is different and should be preserved because it enriches the life of the Jew. This can appeal, not only to believing Jews but to any Jew who has a feeling for the People of Israel and the Jewish way of life. What is required, Kaplan said, is to reconstruct Jewish thought so that it is seen that this is what Judaism has always meant.
Now I think many Jews would disagree with Kaplan on this. Surely this is not what it always meant. It is true that Judaism is a civilisation but to reinterpret it always in terms of a civilisation as opposed to a religion would seem to many of us to distort the message … Many of the younger rabbis, for example, who have been compelled by events to face up to the seriousness of life, felt that this kind of vague talk about a civilisation is not what religious people want nor is it what anybody wants. If the appeal is to be presented to those who are not religious, it should be on religious grounds. Some would argue, and I would agree, that perhaps the approach should be based on more mystical lines, or on what religious people have found in religion. The point I am making is this: There was a movement in recent times in Judaism to attract the ‘non-converted’ by reinterpreting the faith so as to embrace them, and to say in so many words: “You are as good a Jew as the Jew who goes to the synagogue, because you are expressing it in your own way.” (From what I have read about the secular city I presume a similar approach is possible in Christianity).
There was a great Jewish thinker who influenced Kaplan called Asher Ginzberg who wrote under the pen name of Ahad Ha’am. His basic thesis is that there is a particular Jewish way of life which is of great value. In his polemic against Claude Montefiore who said that in some respects the Christian ethic is better than the Jewish and asked why one should not have both, Ahad Ha’am said “I am not prepared to debate whether the Christian ethic is superior to the Jewish or vice versa. One thing I know – you cannot have both, because (I do not agree with him on this) one is based on love and the other on justice.”
You cannot have two different bases for your ethic … It is not a question of superiority. The Jewish ethic is valuable for the Jew, and because it is valuable for the Jew it is valuable for the world and the world has been influenced by it. The world, the Jewish people and the individual Jew would be poorer if this vanished. It is therefore necessary to keep it alive, quite apart from any religious dogma … A devout Jew once wrote to Ahad Ha’am and said “I keep all the mitzvot, the precepts of the Torah and all that the religious Jew keeps, but I do not believe it any longer. I have lost my faith. What should I do? Am I a hypocrite?” Ahad Ha’am said “You are not a hypocrite. Keep on doing it because there is a value in the thing itself, quite apart from the religious dogma. By participating in it you are helping it to survive.” This is really an inversion of the old rabbinic doctrine that one should do things, even if it is not for the pure motive, because it will lead to the doing of it for the love of God. He was rather saying “It does not matter that you do those things that appear to be for the love of God because you will come in the end to the (for him) different but perhaps more relevant motive of the survival of the Jewish ethic, the Jewish way.” Because of all this many Jews today do talk about the ‘Jewish way of life.’ It is a tempting approach for many deeply committed religious people to adopt.
We have all learned something from the harm that has been done by wars of religion and intolerance. We wish to include everyone. I think it was Anthony Flew who said “we engage in ‘conversion by definition.'” We say every Jew is a Jew whether he goes to synagogue or not because this is not the heart of it. Christians who argue in this way also say that everyone believes in God, but it depends on what you mean by God. The problem becomes “what would you have to do in order to be an atheist?” This is one approach but it gives rise to another problem. Do not religious people who approach the question in this way eventually come to affirm something very different from what they set out affirming? Or to put it another way, are they not guilty of selling the past? If you say the heart of Judaism is not believing in God or worshipping God or following the Torah because it is the Word of God, but because it is the Jewish way, because it preserves Jewish values and enriches Jewish life; are you not in danger of eventually interpreting Judaism solely as if it were a civilisation and no longer a religion?
Of course if you believe that it is a civilisation and not a religion you are not forfeiting anything; but we are concerned with the problem of the committed believer who does not see it in this way. A curious thing has happened in the Jewish world … Many thinking Jews are saying to their Christian friends: “What you are saying (I do not know whether you are still saying it but you were five or ten years ago) we knew all along. We have been absolutely in love with secularism, we have accepted this mission. We have said that we know that the important thing is what you do and belief is secondary. But we are beginning to see that in some sense you were right and we were wrong; or rather our interpretation was wrong. If we go back to the sources we see in fact that at the heart of it there is something else.” There are many people who do not wish to be told “you are all right as you are”. They wish to be told “there is a spirit, there is a soul, there is worship.” There are deeply sensitive religious people who may not know that they are religious, but who are, and who are looking for what in theological language would be called a soul in the presence of God. They do not want to be told that whatever they do helps the survival of the Jewish people; that the Jewish ethic is a wonderful thing … They are looking for what religious people have always found in life.
I would certainly not disagree about the necessity of involvement in life. This is typical of Judaism. One does not go into a corner and pray and leave all else to God. One becomes a co-partner with God in the work of creation, as the Rabbis explain. This is true but if you try to convert the non-religious who share many of your propositions by saying that only those propositions are necessary, the danger is that you surrender those other propositions that you consider to be necessary and which, from the religious point of view, are very necessary. Judaism is in a particularly difficult situation here because of the notion of the Jewish people . . .
Peoplehood is an essential ingredient in Judaism so there has always been an extreme reluctance to read anyone out of the Jewish people. Because of this the emphasis is bound to be on peoplehood, on belonging, on survival, on the particular Jewish way, rather than on special beliefs. That is why there is no real history of firm dogmas that have been accepted by all Jews. If on the one hand one does want to bring nearer those who are not entirely converted, but partially so; and on the other hand there is the problem of trying to do this without surrendering one’s own point of view, are we not in the position of which the Jewish rabbis spoke when describing Satan in the book of Job? … Satan was supposed to inflict Job with suffering severe enough to be a test, yet he was not to kill him. The rabbis say it can be compared to a king who said to his servant: “Break the jar and preserve the wine.” And it is precisely this that we are talking about – the problem of many believing Jews, Christians and Muslims today: breaking the cask but preserving the wine. How do we do it?
I suggest that one way is to accept the first proposition: there is this civilisation, this wider view. A person who does not go to the house of worship, or follow the religious norms, or even have religious beliefs, is not excluded because he has this wider view and belongs in this sense. At the same time we say: there is another dimension. It is not a matter of our accepting more propositions than you accept. Rather we also say what you say: we work for social justice as much as you do, for example … But there is also a different dimension. There are some people who argue that the religious person has less possibility of realising these wider values because of the limitation of a human person’s capacities. His energies are channeled in a different direction and he has less potential for the secular field. I am not ready to accept the validity of this argument. In fact it is fatal because it means a division of religion from life. For the religious person to abdicate from secular concerns is to be untrue to the religious principles of Judaism.
I read in a biography of Baron von Hugel, a famous Catholic thinker, that he was shown round a factory owned by a devout Catholic who was proud of the way he behaved as an employer.
He showed him the airy rooms in which the people worked, the wages he paid them, the excellent facilities for recreation, health service, pensions etc. Finally von Hugel is reported to have said: “This is all very fine but what has it to do with religion? Religion is a matter of a soul with its creator.” Whether von Hugel said it and whether Catholics would agree with it, I do not know. I do know that for a Jew this would be a monstrosity …
This is what religion is about in a very real sense. It would be a mistake for a religious Jew to say to a non-religious Jew who has this attitude that he is in any way opposed to it. He should say “What you are doing is God’s work. Maybe we are not doing it as well as you are but it is all part of the Jewish tradition. All we say is that there is this other dimension and are there not times in your life when you appreciate that it is there?”
I will conclude with a rabbinic saying, which is not to be misunderstood or misinterpreted … There is a passage in the book of Jeremiah which talks about the People of Israel having worshipped the gods of the nations and it ends “And they have forsaken me, and they have not kept my Torah.” … One of the rabbis comments “God says ‘All right, they have forsaken me; I am sorry about that. But I am even more sorry that they have not kept my Torah because would that they had forsaken me and kept my Torah; the light in the Torah would bring them back again.'” It seems to me that this can apply to any religious person who is grappling with the problem we have been discussing. He must believe that in his tradition there is a light, something that speaks to the souls of men. He can say that people must not be divided into believers and non-believers, into those who belong to the charmed circle and those who do not, because each one is also in that other position for some of the time and also because as part of our belief we have to accept that there is this light and that God as it were is saying “Would that they had forsaken me; but if they would preserve that particular way of life, the light that is there would bring them back to the truth.”
The discussion centred largely around the question of how the religiously committed person defines his role in the ‘secular’ world and the difference that is made to his life and the life of those around him by the fact that he is in possession of the ‘other dimension’ referred to by Rabbi Jacobs. Some time was also spent discussing what it is which makes the position of the believer different from that of the non-believer. Attention was also drawn to the fact that whereas Christians are, as it were, rediscovering the ‘this world’, the social dimension already familiar to the Jews, the latter are seeking to learn more of the ‘other-worldly’, mystical dimension, in which they feel lacking at present. This would seem to suggest that for true openness to the spirit both elements are necessary.