Originally published in Venture 1.3 (November 1956), pp. 11-12.
To understand the Bible correctly we have to recognise that its eternal truths are expressed against the background of an ancient civilisation very different from our own. To take the Bible seriously, we must not take it literally. We need not be perturbed the fact that in some matters its views differ from those of modern science or that some of the Biblical stories are paralleled the Babylonian and other ancient mythologies. The eternal truths found in the Bible stand out like precious jewels whose brilliance is unaffected by their setting. To take some of the truths taught in the first portion of the Torah—that man is created in the image of God; that God is the Creator of all that there is, that sin consists of God saying: ‘Do not’ and man defiantly saying: ‘I will!’. Can religious truth be summarised more effectively and, in more simple a form, so that even a child may understand while containing food for reflection for the most mature man and woman?
‘Where art thou—Where is thy Brother?’
Jews have always been fond of the question and answer method of teaching. ‘Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?’ a Jew was asked. ‘Why not?’ was his reply! One of the most important branches of Jewish legal literature is the Responsa literature in which great teachers reply to questions put to them in matters of Jewish law by diligent inquirers from many parts of the world. It is not surprising therefore, that the Bible begins with two great questions—that addressed by God to Adam ‘Where art thou?’ and by God to Cain: ‘Where is thy brother?’ This is what Judaism means. God requires of man the answers to these two questions: ‘Where art thou?’—what are your standards, your aims, the purpose of our life, what are you making of your life?—and ‘Where is thy brother ?’—what are you doing to increase the happiness and wellbeing of others, are you a good neighbour, do you give to others as well as receive from them?
Hard and Easy Judaism
People think that we fail in our Judaism because it is too hard. May it not be nearer to the truth that we fail because our Judaism is too easy. When our ancestors said ‘It is hard to be a Jew’ they were doing more than express whimsically the difficulties of their existence. They knew in their heart of hearts that an easy religion is a contradiction in terms and that it is the glory of Judaism that it makes demands on its followers. ‘God offers us the choice between truth and ease.’ (Emerson.) ‘The disciples of the wise have no rest neither in this world nor in the next.’ (Talmud.)
If each Jew would take hold of some great Jewish idea and try to give it full expression in his life, even if he had to make sacrifices to do this, Judaism would soon become a real force for good.
‘Not by bread alone …’
Man does not live by bread alone, says Scripture. This does not mean that the material things of life should be neglected. Judaism teaches that God placed us in this wonderful world he has created to enjoy it. The meaning of the verse is well expounded in the Chinese proverb : ‘I had two loaves so I sold one and bought a Lily.’ Many a Jewish scholar would have said: ‘So I sold one and bought a book.’ Many a Jewish philanthropist would have said : ‘So I sold one and gave the money to a man in need.’
Religion and Ethics
The relationship between Religion and Ethics ought not to be that of Master to Slave, with Religion dominating Ethics or Ethics Religion. Nor ought it to be the relationship between enemies, with Religion and Ethics hostile to each other. It ought rather to be the relationship of two members of the same family who recognise their kinship and help each other to achieve their aims. The Rabbis put the Jewish ideal in these words: ‘And thou shalt do the good and the right…’ ‘The good’ in the eyes of God, ‘And the right’ in the eyes of Man.