Originally published in Venture 1.2 (August 1956), pp. 13-16.
The Editorial to the first issue of Venture contained a reference to the need for a ‘middle of the road’ position in Anglo-Jewish life and thought. A number of readers have pointed out the need for a more specific account of the ‘middle way’, a more detailed statement of its nature and implications and how it differs from contending philosophies on the Anglo-Jewish scene. Unless the term is carefully defined, these readers have urged, it can only be misleading and help to darken counsel.
While recognising its justice, it is no simple matter to satisfy this demand. It is far easier to say what the ‘middle road’ is not than to state explicitly, and without ambiguity, what it is. The search for a middle way is generally undertaken by people who can see the truths contained in the philosophies of the right and the left but who are repelled by their extremism and one-sidedness. It is by no means uncommon for thoughtful Jews and Jewesses, who have examined the claims of both Reform Judaism and what, for want of a better term, has been called Ultra-Orthodoxy, to believe that the truth is to be found somewhere in between. A mariner may calculate that his course lies neither to the right nor to the left without being able to state definitely where between the two his destination can be found. Consequently, it would perhaps be more correct to speak of the ‘middle way’ as an attitude rather than a detailed blueprint of salvation. Its appeal is to the questing, rather than to the dogmatic, mind. Indeed, it is the excessive dogmatism of the right and the left, the claim to certainty where there is no certainty, that affront this type of mind and provides it with a powerful spur to search for the middle way. Nonetheless, it simply will not do to make distaste for inflexibility and fanaticism the excuse for vagueness, still less for yielding to the invidious techniques of religious double-think. The middle way may be no more than a mood but it can help its possessors to achieve a more balanced approach to the problems of our Community.
(1) First, on the intellectual plane. A pressing need has long been felt for an approach to Jewish tradition based on premises which cannot be refuted by the merest tyro in the physical sciences and the psychological, anthropological and historical disciplines. With the exception of a few fundamenalists, no educated person today can accept fully, literally and without qualification, the older views on such things as the age of the earth, the evolution of man, the composition of the Biblical books and their authorship, and the development of Jewish thought and Jewish institutions. Critical investigation into these matters by a host of brilliant scholars, whose disciples and heirs to whose finding we are, have not been in vain. But, at the same time, we are not prepared to follow blindly every fad and fashion parading as modern thought; we are not insensitive to the essential justice of Schechter’s biting critique of the ‘Higher Anti-Semitism’, in which theological, and even racial, conceit and prejudice masquerades as objective scholarship. More to the point, we love traditional Judaism and are convinced that it is possible to work out a satisfying philosophy of the faith we desire which respects both traditional values and human reason. We do not accept the view, popularised by Reform, that the researches of Darwin, Robertson-Smith, Fraser, Freud and other pioneers of human thought, have in any way invalidated Jewish institutions such as Kashruth and the traditional Sabbath. And this, be it said, is no new approach. It formed the basis of the Weltanschaung of religious teachers like Zechariah Frankel, Solomon Schechter, Franz Rosenzweig and, to some extent at least, our own Dr. Hertz.
(2) A particularly rich field for the practical application of the ‘middle of the road’ approach is that of the Synagogue service. The New West End has evolved over the years a form of service combining traditionalism with modernism with striking effect. Visitors to our Synagogue from many parts of the world have commented favourably on the richness, beauty and dignity of our form of worship. Our service is the full traditional one with its sweet melodies, its colourful imagery, its wealth of historical association, the devout outpourings of the saints, scholars and poets of many ages. There has been no tampering with Israel’s priceless heritage, no attempt at eliminating from the prayer-book Israel’s hope of restoration to the land of its fathers. The Hebrew language—the ‘sacred tongue’—has been retained as the only possible language of Jewish prayer. But the Synagogue has not been impervious to the need for some changes—notably, the introduction of a ‘mixed’ choir; the elimination of certain anachronisms; the formula of consent in English at a marriage service; the ‘untraditional’ but deeply moving memorial service; and the use of the organ at some of the week-day services. In addition, more than one special consecration service for girls has been held, at the last of which the Chief Rabbi preached. There is room for further improvisations of this nature—many of our congregants would like to hear a little more English in the services and, possibly, a greater participation by the ladies of the congregation. (In this connection, it is worthy of note that the New West End has been vigorous in the campaign for votes for women in the Synagogue, a principle recently accepted by the United Synagogue.)
(3) If the ‘middle way’ is to be a real philosophy of Judaism it must take a positive stand up the question of Halachah, the legal side of Judaism, the rules and regulations governing Jewish practice, which give Judaism its stability and its strength. Antinomianism is entirely foreign to the Jewish outlook. The glory of Judaism is to be witnessed in its attempt to hallow life in all of its spheres. A meaningful Judaism will have something to say about all of life’s situations, it will insist on the wisdom of the past having a voice in the affairs of the present, it will urge its adherents to observe certain standards in all that they do, it will even have something to say about their diet. Our faith will not be confined to what takes place in the Synagogue alone if the term ‘Judaism as a way of life’ is to be something more than a vague, meaningless platitude. But there are, of course, Halachic problems to be faced, most of which can be solved if the rigid, inflexible attitude to Halachah is eschewed. The followers of the middle path would advocate a return to the more dynamic methods of the great teachers of the Talmudic age—the builders of the Halachah—so that Halachah becomes, as it was meant to be, a powerful instrument for the direction of Jewish life and Jewish aspiration.
(4) One of the pressing problems of our day is our attitude to the State of Israel. Those who tread the middle road will steer clear of the Scylla of ‘Galuth negation’ and the Charybdis of indifference to one of the most significant events of Jewish history. Those who favour the moderate approach will not lose faith in the potentialities of the Anglo-Jewish Community, they will not neglect our local institutions and not give up the fight to further Jewish life and knowledge in this country. At the same time they will recognise the new State of Israel as the centre of their hopes and dreams, they will give it every support and provide it with every assistance.
These are but a few illustrations of how the middle of the road idea operates; others will readily present themselves. It must here be said that the middle way is not an appeal to weakness or compromise (it is on record that a Jewish mother said to her Rabbi before her daughter’s marriage service: ‘Please Rabbi, not too Orthodox and not too Reform but mediocre!’). It is not a curious mixture of religion and irregulation—‘Render unto Caesar . . .’ is hardly typical of Jewish doctrine. It is rather a balanced approach to Jewish living which cannot be undertaken without knowledge and conviction and which demands at least as much self-sacrifice and committal as any other current philosophy of Judaism. ‘Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire . . .’ (Ex. xix, 18)—‘altogether on smoke’, not ‘partly on smoke’, comments the Midrash—for no man can remain only half-committed once the fire of Sinai has touched his soul.
The old gibe about the sides of the road being for human beings and the middle of the road for beasts of burden, has lost its sting in an age when horse-drawn transport is a May-day curiosity. In the age of the automobile it requires skill and courage and a full awareness of the hazards of dangerous driving to reach one’s destination in safety and without harm to oneself and to others. An illustration more to the point is quoted from the Midrash by Nahman Krochmal as the guiding principle of his great work ‘The Guide For The Perplexed Of Our Time’. ‘The Torah may be compared to two paths—one of ice, the other of fire. To tread the one is to be burnt in the fire; the other, to be frozen by the ice. What does the wise man do? He walks in the middle’! A world in which extremism is popular needs a little more of this kind of wisdom.