Originally published in The Jewish Chronicle, 8 June 1962.
Jewish teaching loves to dwell on the “we will do and we will hear” theme. When God came to give the Torah to His people Israel did not ask “What is written therein?” before accepting, but joyfully and spontaneously submitted without question to whatever God was to command. The Talmud tells of critics who argued that it was the height of impetuosity for Israel so to commit itself in advance. Prudence demands a calculated assessment of the risks before embarking on an important choice. Only a fool fails to look before he leaps. The shrewd investor never says “I will do” before he “hears” all the details of any proposition put to him. But unperturbed, the Jews have continued to be a rash people; building synagogues in every new place to which they came before settling down properly in their own houses, setting up organisations for educational and charitable purposes before they had an assurance of the wherewithal to carry the burden, founding a modern State which to the detached observer seemed bound to fail, setting at naught the counsels of Mr. Worldly Wiseman.
The trend in modern philosophical thought is to recognise the deep wisdom in this attitude of living one’s life rather than theorising about it. It is the participant in the field who thrills to the game rather than the spectator in the grand-stand. Detachment is of value in certain areas of life. The business man does well to avoid becoming excessively involved in an enterprise he contemplates until he has made up his mind calmly and cautiously whether it will bring him the profits he expects. But there are other areas which refuse to yield to the calculated approach. No amount of reading about art or music, for example, can give anything like the degree of appreciation from actually looking at paintings and going to concerts. People may read books on parenthood but it is not until they have children of their own and know at first hand all the hopes, fears, frustrations and intense joys of bringing them up that they really understand what being a parent means. The young man who has to pause to ask himself whether he is in love is too detached to be in love.
If all this is true of other aspects of life it is especially significant of man’s approach to his religion. Shavuot is celebrated annually as the feast of Revelation to remind us that the Torah was not only given at one point in time but that it must be accepted afresh in each generation and by each individual. The nature of the communication between God and man that we call Revelation is bound to be mysterious and interpreted in many ways. It receives its validation through human experience. The Ten Words engraved on the tablets of stone do not become the Ten Commandments until man tries to live by them and so engraves them on the tablets of his heart. This applies to the whole range of Jewish religious teaching. Speculations on the process of creation, for instance, are of intellectual value, but the more subtle philosopher is the Jew who takes a cup of wine in his hand on the Sabbath eve and sings in his family circle the praises of God as Creator. Solomon Schechter in a famous letter to this journal at the turn of the century wrote: “The outlook is thus dark enough; dark enough indeed to be followed by some great revival or renaissance. . . . Now the renaissance is usually described as the moment in history in which man discovered himself. In a similar way the Jew will also have to discover himself. This discovery, which should be undertaken with a view to strengthening the Jewish consciousness, could only be made by means of Jewish literature, which retains all that is immortal in the nation.”
No one sensitive to the challenge of the time will do otherwise than subscribe heartily to Schechter’s recommendations, still far from being realised after 60 years. But we would add that Jewish rediscovery is to be attained through living Judaism as well as thinking about Judaism. The Sinaitic revelation only receives its true expression when men live by it Experience as the highest grasp of truth was formulated for all time in the sublime verse in which Job finds peace with his God and with himself: “I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; But now mine eyes seeth Thee.”