Thoughts from The Frontier: Reflections on the Jewish Situation, Part V: The Jew in America, by Ludwig Lewisohn (Jewish Frontier, June, 1950)

Reflections on the Jewish Situation


by Ludwig Lewisohn

Jewish Frontier
June, 1950

THE AMERICAN JEWISH reader of these chapters, even while grasping our description of this world, this age, this historic scene and its corruption of all values, will doubtless have asked at once: What of America?  What of this land, these States?  Was not a new and better order to be established here?  And does America share in its totality the guilt of the world?  Are we Jews in America no other in any respect from other Galuth Jews?  Are we here, too, in homeless exile?  These are in truth burning questions.  These are questions that must, be answered before Jews who, as is our hope, have- re-allied themselves with their true nature and their tradition, can plan an embodiment of their recovered, reborn Jewishness.

The phrase has been mouthed until it is thread thin.  But there was an “American dream.”  It exists; it persists, at least in memory and in aspiration.  But Jews, the very Jews often enough who think that they are within that dream, that hope, that aspiration, are most ignorant of it and most remote from it.  Yes, the spiritual republic of which the republic as a body was to be the vestiture, was conceived under the image of a free society.  At the dawn of things American Roger Williams declared in the forests of Rhode Island that all persecution was persecution for conscience’ sake. (1)  In his serene old age Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison of his final conclusion: “I prefer dangerous liberty to tranquil servitude.” (2)  At the height of the single classic movement in American literature Henry David Thoreau wrote: “A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority.” (3)  The wisest and most authentic of living American poets, Robert Frost, knows profoundly that fusion is not liberty, that the loss of form is not the republic’s gain, that “good fences make good neighbors.” (4)  He goes deeper into the mastery of belongingness, of a man and his home.   When the merely seasonal hired man comes back to the farm sick unto death, the farmer’s wife says:

“He has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time
The farmer is amused.  “Home, he mocked gently.”  The wife replies:
“Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.”

And so they try, these wise, simple, classically American people, to define “home.”  The farmer says:

“Home is the place where, when you have you go there,
They have to take you in.”  His wife adds:
“I should have called it,
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve”. (5)

The poet does not, he observed, say anything about what the hired man has first to be in order to be taken in but emphasizes that home is home; because you need do nothing to deserve it.

Yes, there is an American dream in memory, in aspiration.  “What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn,” (6) Thoreau wrote.  He also wrote: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.” (7)  And but the other day an American Christian scholar and gentleman wrote to the New York Times: “The facts about Jewish life in the Christian world that have made Israel a necessity leave little room for Christian pride and moralizing.  The rise of Israel should drive Christians to penitence and humility and, I think, also to gratitude.” (8)  Yes, there is an America that nurtures the ideal of a free society, a society which knows, as John Stuart Mill wrote in his classical treatise, that its test is, “the freedom and variety of situation’’ (9) which it promotes and that, in such ages as these, “the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. (10)  The ideal of a free society is not dead in America; firmly the old aspiration dwells in the best and highest American minds.  But What have the eager; assimilationists, the runners with every Gentile heard, the stentorian patriots and flag-wavers, the proponents of the danger of double or divided allegiance, the artists of the propitiatory gesture, the Jewish “liberals” and apes of everything alien to them – what have they to do with the Americanism of Williams and Jefferson, of Thoreau and Frost?  What have they to do with that “freedom and variety of situation” which is the test and the definition of a free society?  By all they are and do they undermine and seek to destroy its last vestiges.  The ideal of “America is that of a free society.  If Jews will take advantage of that freedom; if they will operate within that freedom and seek by their action and example to preserve and extend it, then America need not be an undifferentiated Galuth.  It is in the hands and in the will of the Jews of America to transform this land into something other than Galuth before it is too late, before the American dream and vision of freedom fails utterly and they, themselves, the Jews, have helped to make it perish from the scene of history.

IT HAS NOT perished yet, that American aspiration after a free society.  It has been, needless to say, resisted and attacked from the beginning.  During the life of the republic it has never yet been directly attacked by law or enactment.  It has been undermined by forces that have grown more and more powerful both within the American masses and within a self-constituted ruling class or caste.  Those forces manifest themselves from the Jewish point of view today in the half-underground nativist anti-Semitic movements, of which typical spokesmen are Gerald Smith and Congressman Rankin; they manifest themselves on higher economic and cultural levels by the exclusion of Jews from heavy industry, banking and public utilities.  They have deep roots, these forces.  And the soil in which they were originally embedded was not of necessity a poisoned one.  Rhode Island, the community founded by Roger Williams, refused naturalization to a few Jews, even though the person chiefly concerned, Aaron Lopez, was an uncommonly beloved and respected citizen.   And Ezra Stiles, who was later to become president of Yale wrote: “I remark that Providence seems to make everything to work for the mortification of the Jews, and to prevent their incorporating into any nation, that thus they may continue a distinct people.” (11)  Here we have, of course, the theological concept, shared by us, of the necessity of Jewish survival.  But we have also the ugly implication that Jews as Jews cannot be members of a nation by choice.  Thus the concept of a free society was negated, as it was to be again and again in the course of American history.  Twenty years after this incident Ezra Stiles wrote of Aaron Lopez, who had just died: “He was my intimate friend and acquaintance!  Oh! how often have I wished that sincere pious and candid mind could have received the evidences of Christianity!” (12)  We are back with Josephus, back among the Alexandrian anti-Semites and proponents of the uniform master state of the first century: “Why, if you are Alexandrians, do you not worship the gods the city?” (18)  Stiles was a man of exemplary goodness and a devout Christian.  The republic swept away his notion of the necessity of an all Christian state.  The sentiment which he entertained on a high plane was never quite eradicated.

During more than a century after the founding of the United States the question of the status of Jews as the very test of a free society never reached any acuteness.  The sparse Sephardim of the early years were received more or less as foreign but acceptable gentlefolks.  The early history of such a community as that of Charleston, S.C. bears out that description fully.  The next wave of immigration, that of usually fairly assimilated German Jews, created almost as little disturbance.  The Jewish intellectuals of Cincinnati and New York, though usually adhering to their reform synagogues, often cooperated smoothly in the acceptable life of the German-American groups.  Until the First World War Jews were found functioning without friction in German-American cultural and social groups, in literary and Carnival societies, in musical enterprises of various kinds.  Certain exclusions were nevertheless, rigidly though usually tacitly, exercised.  A Jew found it all but impossible to teach in an American school or college; the once notorious incident of Dr. Mary Putnam Jacoby illustrates the tightening of social and residential barriers such as in normal times, existed in no Western European country.

Had this situation remained, static, an equilibrium, such as existed in the Netherlands before the Second World War, might have been maintained.  But history took its inevitable turn.  From the Czarist pogrom waves of the 1880s on the Jews of Eastern Europe poured into the land which was hungry for labor and for population – Jewish Jews, recognizable Jews poured in.  Today our perspectives have doubtless been altered by subsequent events.  Those whose memories go back prior to the First World War seem, upon objective examination, to find little nativistic resistance to the Jewish immigration of the thirty crucial years between 1880 and 1918.  The country was in an absorptive mood.  A general attitude of kindliness, not untempered by condescension toward those who passed through the portals, prevailed.  No fear was felt – and this is the central point – as to the assimilation, the complete Americanization or the new Americans.  The fallacies of the old Emancipation were believed with a touching faith.  The new Americans themselves often shared those fallacies.  Many of them hastened to abandon Jewish faith and Jewish ways.  To this day you will read in the marriage brokers’ columns of the Yiddish Press of “ladies” and “gentlemen”, emphasizing the fact that they are “American”, that is to, say, that their Jewishness has been reduced to an unobtrusive level.  A scramble for Americanization took place.  From the membership lists of Reform Temples the German names faded and the East European ones were substituted.  Polish and Lithuanian and Russian Jews even invaded the precincts of the Spanish Congregations.  Two literary documents mark the trend and the aspect: Mary Antin’s “The Promised Land” and that small satiric masterpiece of Thyra Sampter Winslow: “A Cycle of Manhattan.”  But, as in many other ages and many other lands, the immanent will in history was not to be swerved.  The vast majority of Jews remained, after some fashion or another, integrated with their Jewishness and their Judaism.  Even the most ardent Americanizers on the lowest plane of Americanization remained recognizably Jewish to themselves, their fellow-Jews and, above all, to the world.  Mimicry was a failure, as it has been through the ages.  Jews remained Jews.

America or, rather, certain small but, as we shall see, important elements among the American people, gradually attained to an awareness of the eternal fact: that in their sense of measurable obliteration Jews were not assimilable.  They were amazed and a little angry.  For, even those who were intelligent enough to have noted the character of the problem in the Old World, had been sanguine that the freedom of America would accomplish what the unfreedom of other lands had failed to do.  Here, it had been argued, Jews would cease to be Jews or, at all events, assume the character of a mere additional Unitarian sect.  It is this silly and moldy fallacy, contradicted by all history and all experience, which still, like a ghost, stalks in the “American Council for Judaism.”  Thus anxiety, not untinged by irritation, arose in certain circles in America.  They forgot the nature of freedom, just as many Jews had forgotten its nature.  Freedom is to be, of all things, not coercive.  If it does not permit a man to be and to remain what God and history have made him, it is no longer freedom.  The American anxiety concerning unassimilable foreigners rose.  It included all the immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.  Then came, to the not un astonished American people, the involvement of the first World War; and every ember became a flame and every anxiety a small terror.  Moreover, immediately after the war’s end, immigration figures rose.  The year 1920 saw the entry of 430,000; the year 1921 of 800,000.  Thus, in the latter year Congress passed the first stringent immigration act.  But this was understood to be temporary and provisional.  In 1924 came that immigration act which limited immigrants of a given nationality a year to two per cent of the persons of that nationality resident in the United States according to the census of 1890.  The thing had been neatly and yet strangely thought out.  Only the German quota represented an increase over the average immigration of the past decade; even the British was slashed.  Italians and Jews (Russian, Polish, Austrian, Roumanian) were all but excluded.  The anxiety of the nativists had won.  Thus in 1927, the French sociologist Andre Siegfried was able to utter his polite jeers at an America which had dreamed of a universal fusion and had now the old and classical problem of unassimilable Jews on its hands.  (14)

HE WAS WRONG.  The nativists are wrong.  The Jewish assimilationists are wrong.  If the nativists and the Jewish assimilationists are right, then America is but another example of Galuth, of exile, with its thousand lies and miseries and its final catastrophe.  But if, though today, only as memory and aspiration, the American Dream, nurtured by Americans from Roger Williams through Robert Frost, may be said to be a still living thing, then America can be rescued from the Gola, the area of exile, and assume a special place in Jewish history and experience.  Those of us, at all events, who are convinced of the necessity of Jewish survival in the United States, must act as though the American dream of a free society were realizable.  And we must, above all, cooperate with those forces in American life and culture which are on the side of a free society; a society of unrestricted variations within the framework of certain definite common purposes; we must resist and cooperate with all those who do resist the encroachments of state and ethnic absolutism in this country and, do so even for that country’s sake.

What we experience in the United States today is the conflict of two psychological and social patterns: the original American pattern of a free society and the pattern borrowed from Europe of an at least supposititious, ethnically and culturally unitary state which exercises complete control in order to preserve and enforce this unitary condition.  The extraordinarily hopeful aspect of this situation and this conflict is the following: all civilized Americans act instinctively according to the first pattern.  They form their own associations; they build and support their own denominational and lay schools and colleges; they are extremely sensitive to any infringement on the liberty of press or publishing; they are willing to protect eccentricity and even margins of intolerable license in the service of the freedom of society.  They are beginning to protest bitterly and effectively in the very highest places against the low level and flat indoctrinations of the public school system.  Nihilist, instrumentalist, mere pragmatic doctrines with their inevitable trend toward uniformity and enslavement are in recession and flight.  Religion and freedom, faith and form are slowly gaining ascendency on the highest levels of American life.  Who clamors for the unitary state and society in America?  Gerald Smith and Lessing Rosenwald.  Not Robert Hutchins or Reinhold Niebuhr or Archibald MacLeish.  With which America are Jews going to make common cause?

Why are any Jews, why are thousands of Jews tempted to play into the hands of those who are both their enemies and the enemies of America?  The matter admits of a clear analysis.  The great immigrant masses who entered America between 1880 and 1920 were subjected to four circumstances and influences which shaped the lives of many and which have brought American Jewry to its present pass.

I. The immigrants found political freedom and economic opportunity.  A state of euphoria, of intoxication; set in.  Jewish faith and form and holiness were identified with the poverty and oppression of the Russian pale and America was identified not with the limited though inestimable good, the purely temporal good it had to offer, but with spiritual values and eternal aspirations.  And since America had not these to offer, the values were themselves abandoned.  Only the other day a dreadful young Jew wrote a novel in which he delineated as ascent in the human scale of values the grandson of a venerable sopher,’ a Torah scribe in Russia, amid the rough sordid empty confusion of the Chicago streets.  None of these eager apostates from Mary Antin on seemed to know how alienated they were from the classical American tradition.  The Separatists of Massachusetts Bay, the Quakers let by Penn, the pietists led by Pastorius in Pennsylvania, the Huguenots of New Rochelle and Charleston, all came to America to establish and to exercise the freedom of their faith and ways not to abandon it.

II. The immigrants arrived during the period of America’s gigantic industrial development, its unparalleled growth in wealth and power.  Cultural pressures had never been very potent in America.  Now they almost disappeared.  Often indeed, an odd inverted pressure set in, which had been operative for long on the diminishing frontier.  Books, values, ideas, the arts, grace of speech or manners were discredited as unpractical; effeminate.  There arose the symbolic figure of the two-fisted American with hairs on his chest, ranging in shadings from the rough frontiersman with a heart of gold to the go-getting Babbit.  And a thing arose; a phenomenon came into view, so hilarious and melancholy, so degraded and sickly, so grotesque and unnatural, that the long ages of human civilization have not seen its detestable like.  Jews, members of the am-ha-sefer, the people of the Book; Jews who had sustained schools for their children and academies for their youth in the long illiterate ages of Europe when a priest who could half read his missal was considered a real scholar; Jews who had made of a book a living substitute for their lost fatherland; Jews who in every other corner of the diaspora had sought to excel in the cultures of their adopted countries and had indeed done so; Jews eagerly aped this decay of the humanities and this contempt for humanistic values.  Proudly Jewish merchants and manufacturers and professional men aver that they have no “time” to read literature.  They cannot go to synagogue because they are tired and must play golf or bridge.  They cannot sustain the serious theater because they need amusement.  They endow, when they can, football stadiums and athletic fields.  Plain people, proud of their “plainness” – another incredibly grotesque phenomenon among Jews – and pseudo-intellectuals of Jewish birth actually fell so low as to cooperate with that contempt for values and ideas which fills the minds of authentic Americans with horror and dismay.  They yielded and yield to that notion destructive of a free and democratic society which has never been better diagnosed than by Professor R.B. Heilman in a presidential address before the American Association of University Professors.  “One of the most disquieting of the phenomena of democracy is a suspicion of various kinds of superiority, a desire to ignore it, or at worst to ridicule and undermine it; the converse of this is the misuse of democracy to glorify the commonplace or even the meretricious…  The worst blow that can be struck against a democracy is for standards of excellence to be identified with exclusiveness, and therefore to be considered ‘undemocratic’. (15)

What was the result of the process here described?  To say that it was an assimilation too rapid and too eager is not to say enough.  Assimilation is no simple problem.  Cooperation with the society and culture in which they live is both the right and duty of Jews.  What took place in America, for the first time in all history, was assimilation on the lowest possible plain – assimilation not on the level of Emerson and Thoreau and Henry James but on the level of baseball, gin-rummy, the average Hollywood film and the comic strip.  The representative folk-heroes of great masses of American-Jews – not all, thank God, not all – are Eddie Cantor (a truly good and righteous man in his private character) and the Marx brothers.  Nowhere and at no time in all history have Jews fallen so low.  Total assimilation is a great sin and a terrible danger.  But assimilation to Pascal and Racine or to Goethe and Beethoven left the assimilationists the bearers of high and eternal though alien values.  American assimilation on the “folksy” level is destructive of every value by which Jews must live, if they would survive in any guise except the guise of apes and fools, of objects of contempt to those Americans who are seeking to guide the Republic to better things, of no less hatred and suspicion from that rabble with whom they have made common cause.  Unless Jews re-integrate themselves with their Judaism, its traditions, its values, its standards, and cooperate as such, as integrated Jews, on highest levels of American culture and cm these alone, there is no future for the American Jewish community except one of shame and disaster.

III. Another phenomenon which impaired the cultural life and Jewish survival of the immigrants precisely during the crucial years was the dominance during those years, a dominance only now beginning to weaken, of materialism and instrumentalism in the world of thought.  The immigrants were busy making a living.  They sent their children to the public school and, when they could, to college.  Home life disintegrated under economic and other pressures and the Jewish children for the most part fell in, as was natural, with what they were taught concerning the reduction of man to an animal level, concerning the death of all values except those that were supposed to “work” in a business civilization, concerning the complete sacrifice of all culture which must be made in the service of one class alone, that, namely, of the industrial worker, a sacrifice which certain misguided rabbis equated with “prophetic Judaism,” with the abandonment of “useless” studies, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, philosophy, with all those notions and practices which have brought our civilization to its present pass.  Religion, man’s way of grasping the inscrutable, so that he may live, became a bye-word or a perfunctory gesture.  With these forces the old-fashioned cheder or Talmud Torah could not cope.

IV. Finally and briefly: during the latter years the sinister forces of the concept of the total State, the master State, insinuated itself into this still free society.  Jews fled to cover.  Jews, sensitive to moral and social atmospheres, Jews too, not wholly guiltless in not having trained their children to deeper Jewish loyalties, so that not even the few noisy fools who did could have made common cause with the-Soviet tyranny and its crimes – Jews fled in sharp consternation from their God-given difference.  They became loud patriots.  They founded a few of them, the American Council for Judaism.  Zionists and traditional Jews of various shadings by their hundreds of thousands resisted this degradation.  Against the forces of cultural assimilation on a low plane not too many of even these stood firm.

The chain of reasoning is complete.  The free society in the United Statesman can be wrested from Galuth.  The best forces in American society at its highest spiritual levels are striving to save democracy from the tendency to level downwards.  They are trying to reestablish faith and values; they are re-introducing discipline and form into education; they are re-allying themselves with their ancestral religions; they are recovering the classical insights and know at last that “under the perpetual smile of modernity there is a grimace of disillusion and cynicism.” (16)  With these forces and with the men who represent these forces all that is best in American Jewry must ally itself.  We must return to our insights, our sanctities, our disciplines as they are returning to theirs.  As equals with them and co-workers, as possessors of the fundamental mother-wisdom and mother-insights of both their democratic freedom and their faith, we must strive with them to keep America a free society within which our faith and our form, the most venerable in the Western World, will redeem us and redeem the residual unfreedoms of America to freedom by our intrepid exercise of it.  Here, then, at last, Jew need not be psychical and moral helots; here a group of Jews may recover and use its creative, its history- making will.

(1) The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience.
(2) Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietam servitutem.
(3) An Essay on Civil Disobedience
(4) Mending Wall
(5) The Death of the Hired Man
(6) Op. cit.
(7) Op. cit.
(8) J.C. Rylaarsdam, U. of Chicago Divinity School.  March 29, 1950.
(9) J.S. Mill.  On Liberty.
(10) Op. cit.
(11) J.A. Marcus.  The Jew in the Medieval World. 1938.
(12) Op Cit.
(13) Contra Apion.
(14) Les Etats Unis d’aujour d’hui 1927.
(15) A.A.U.P. Bulletin. Vol. 35, No. 4.
(16) Reinhold Niebnhr.  The Nature and Destiny of Man.  1949.


 A PDF version of this essay is available here

Thoughts from The Frontier: Reflections on the Jewish Situation, Part IV: The Jew Confronts An Age, by Ludwig Lewisohn (Jewish Frontier, May, 1950)

Reflections on the Jewish Situation


by Ludwig Lewisohn

The Jewish Frontier
May, 1950

LET US SUPPOSE a Jew to have recognized the uniqueness of Jewish character and history; let us assume that he has sought, in order to ease heart and mind and to bring order into his thought and action, to re-identify himself with his people.  Let us suppose him to have gained the insight that this self-redemptive effort is the pre-supposition of his ow and his children’s survival.  He knows at once that this inner change and spiritual act must sooner or later lead to other acts; it must lead to renewals and new forms; it must lead to a transformation of his whole life.  There are Christians who come to similar conclusions out of similar experiences.  More and more Jews are confronting this inner act of recognition and re-alliance within themselves.  But when they seek to draw me right inferences in action, when they set out to change their lives, they are met, from, many quarters, including deceptively respectable ones, with the cry: “But you cannot do that in this world and age; do you think the clock can be set back?  We are in the middle of the 20h century.  History races on.”

Ah yes, history races on; every age has been progressive.  The Latin word from which progressive comes, the verb progredior, means to march forward.  Forward – to what goal?  A murderer marches forward to the scene of his crime.  Forward movement in space or time has no virtue of its own.  The quality of the goal of movement determines the quality of the act.  People are foolishly proud of being, as the silly saying goes, forward-looking.  To what do they look forward?  Usually to a multiplication of the sins and evils with which man is already afflicted.  How well the great Pascal understood that three centuries ago.  “Heedless we rush toward a precipice, after we have placed between it and ourselves an object to keep us from seeing it.” (1)  People are frightened of things, of the atom bomb, of the hydrogen bomb, of rockets and lethal bacilli.  But these are only dead things under human control.  It is the human control, the moral-governance of things, the will of man that have gone awry.  These are commonplaces of speech.  They are admitted on a verbal plane.  But so soon as someone proposes to change his attitudes and actions in accordance with these admitted truths, the same old stupid cry meets him: “You cannot do that here and now.”  Jews, apparently good and intelligent Jews, issue a plan for Jewish life.  And the plan is full of those poisonous fallacies and self-deceptions.  Beliefs should be interpreted “in accordance with the knowledge of their times.  So we must do today.”  We must do thus and so “because of changes in conditions and mental outlook”; we must plan Jewish life “under modern conditions.” (2)

What is the “knowledge” of these times?  What are these “changes in conditions” and this “modern outlook” which are to guide us?  What kind of a world is this, morally and intellectually, which is to be our criterion of belief and action?

Let us see what this world is like according to the testimony of a few of the loftiest spirits in the realm of the world’s peoples, of the non-Jewish world.  When, after an absence of sixteen years Thomas Mann reluctantly visited Germany, he said in his discourse at Frankfurt: “To my dead son, a victim of this time of crisis, our great French friend, Andre Gide, said: ‘When young people come to me for advice I am so ashamed of my incompetence and helplessness and so embarrassed. They ask me whether there is any way out of this present crisis, whether there is any logic, any purpose, any meaning behind this utter confusion.  But who am I to give them an answer?  I myself do not know.’  If Gide could speak so, had to speak so – who am I to pretend to better knowledge?  How man is to re-attain the blessing of moral authority, to some faith that is better than superstition born of need, a wretched .hiding-place of mere refuge in face of the Sphinx’s demanding glance – our helplessness before this! question is great indeed.” (3)

BUT IT NEEDED not the second World War; it needed not the ultimate horrors to reveal to elevated and sensitive spirits the character of our civilization in this age.  In 1938 Paul Valery spoke thus to a group of French Collegians: “Never has humanity united in itself so much power and so much confusion, so much anxiety and so many mere toys, so much knowledge and so many uncertainties.  Anxiety and futility share our days between them.  ….  Modern life tends to spare us all intellectual effort even as it spares us physical effort.” (4)  That is doubtless the central practical insight, that most contemporary men spare themselves intellectual effort.  They cease to think.  They repeat the rubber-stamped verbiage of so-called ‘“progressivism” like the excellent Jews quote d here.  They yield to the age and its evils instead of arising to resist them.

From neither Mann nor Valery, artists of the first order though they are, may we expect a quite last word of analysis, though in discourse here quoted Mann trembles on the  brink of it.  We hear that last word uttered by the one great, lonely Russian soul of our time, by the philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev: “The crisis of culture cannot be surmounted by its own exclusive means, shaken as it is to the very foundations.  We must of necessity turn to far deeper sources.” (5)  To those deeper sources Berdyaev descended and found the last word of wisdom for this world and this age. “Man is so made that he lives by faith in God or else by faith in idols.  When he loses his faith in God he falls into idolatry.  The cult of idols is found today in all areas: in science, in art, in the political, national, social forms of life.  Thus communism, for instance, is an extreme form of social idolatry.” (6)

Do Jews need to be told that?  Is it not written down on every page of the Torah?  Were not a blessing and a curse set before Israel in the birth-hour of its history – a blessing “if ye obey the commandments of the Lord, your God … a curse, if ye will not obey” and “go after other gods?” (7)  Is not that alternative of Berdyaev the core and kernel of prophetic Judaism?  “The ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.” (8)  And there is, as here and there a few are coming to see, no other salvation, no other hope-among men for justice or for freedom.  Nor was this insight and this conviction ever lost in Israel until the other day, until Jews forgot their truth which a stricken world is seeking to recover, until, to express it in brief Symbols, they exchanged Torah and Talmud (9) for Darwin and Marx and intellectually cooperated in the downfall of that civilization which had once housed both Jew and Christian and had at least measurably, kept at bay the nethermost forces of primordial barbarism and horror.

The house is in ruins.  Dismay and terror are in the hearts of men.  Let us add Buber’s analysis to those of Mann and Valery: “The present situation is marked by the confluence of cosmic and social homelessness, of terror in the-face of the universe and .of life which has given rise to a mood of loneliness which has probably never before existed in this measure. (10)  In all contemporary thought, even in the domain of literary criticism, we find these words unconsciously reechoed.  Anxiety and alienation are the plaints that are offered.  The poet cannot create in a world and a universe so shattered, so empty of values, so blood-soaked, so deserted by God and good.  The novel is in a state of decay because there are no threads by which the human world is held together.  Music crashes into cacophonies and painting jabs the eye because harmony would be falsehood and because the symmetry of the visible world has vanished to the eye that has lost faith and so abandoned form.  It is clear to the most superficial observer that our civilization is in naked fact “shaken to its very foundations,” as Berdyaev wrote, and that, even in the apparently half-stable West, in France, in England, in the United States, we are on the very brink of chaos of the heart and mind and of the classical purposes and aspirations of man.

And this is the world to which the Jew is asked to conform; this is the world which he is asked to make his guide and criterion.  This is that “modern” world, these are those “changed conditions” which are supposed to keep him from re-integrating himself with, his people, with the sources of his being, with God against idolatry, with freedom against the slavery to idols and to terror and to death.  There is an unfathomable malice in that satanic spirit of the time which seduces good but blinded men to tell Jews that they must not do this nor believe that because it is not in conformity with the temper of this age of doom and of confusion.  They are counselled not to arise and resist and seek to save what may yet be saved hut to plunge into the horrors which have already destroyed six millions of their people.

THIS IS THE HARDEST thing to speak of.  Yet it must be done.  In the diary which Andre Gide kept during the German occupation of France he deplores that lack of sympathetic imagination in people which causes them to accept coolly the sufferings of others which they themselves are not forced actually to undergo. (11)  In that sharp form the reproach cannot be brought against American Jewry.  From 1933 on and especially since 1938 thousands of hearts among us trembled and thousands of willing hands of help were stretched out.  The political efforts put forth first against the Mandatory Power and next for the establishment of the State of Israel, the splendor of material generosity, unrivalled in all history – these unforgettable acts bore witness or seemed to bear witness to a deep vitality in the American Jewish community.  But very troubling circumstances followed: the slackening of effort since the establishment of the State, of which more will be said hereafter, but also and above all, the failure of American Jewry to incorporate its experience in its thinking.

How did that come about?  How could that come about?  The psychical mechanisms involved are simple and very, very human.  Great positive gifts were doubtless given and great positive acts of political agitation performed.  But the average Jew who gave to United Appeal and the average Jew who allied himself with some Zionist group did so in a spirit of avoidance and I self-defense and hidden shame.  “Not of us be it said” and “absit omen” (“unbeshriggen”);the thing must be stopped and alleviated lest it spread and reach us … and wry jests were made to ward off fear and there was a great, whistling in the  dark.  And now it is over, over, and we can go or worshipping idols in a reasonably comfortable world.  It is for this reason and this reason alone that Jews can still be told to conform to the world, the immediate and unchanged world in which this monstrous thing happened, in which its aftermath and qualitatively identical consequences are still happening.

How can this thing he so positively asserted?  Because the books that delineated what had happened in Europe did not sell – neither the earlier accounts nor the later, neither the Warsaw diaries nor even the mild and careful anthology of Mr. Leo W. Schwarz of just the other day (12).  To what is this thing to be likened, as the Talmudic sages were fond of saying?  It is to be likened to this: A man is told that his brother has been afflicted with a frightful and disfiguring disease – his own brother, son of the same father and of the same mother.  He offers to send gifts.  He is told that gifts are not enough.  His brother is coming to see him, to show him his affliction.  The man telegraphs his brother: he must not come.  Other and richer gifts are on the way.  He himself is busy and not too well.  The afflicted brother is grateful for the gifts.  They alleviate his need and his suffering.  But he needs to see his beloved kinsman face to face.  The unaffected brother sends still more gifts, and sets out on a long journey the term or end of which he confesses not even to himself.

AMERICAN JEWS refused to see their brothers’ faces.  In 1944 a Christian Pole, an emissary of the Polish Government in exile in London, Jan Karski, published a book called “The Story of a Secret State.”  Chapter 30 of that book is called “To die in agony”….  You read it and your cheek blanches and your voice dies.  It is beyond tears, far, far beyond.  These things happened precisely as they are coldly told on this page; they happened to Jews, to our brothers, to the simple and the learned, to the helpless, the kind, the intelligent, the brave; they happened yesterday.  The Germans and their helpers, Poles and Ukrainians and Estonians, who executed this precise thing may still be alive in the world, may still breathe the air and see the light of the sun.  They have not died of the horror of their deeds; they were not blinded for evermore, as neither was M. Jan Karski, by what they had seen.  They came out of the world of which these acts were the ineffably poisoned and satanic blooms; they continued to live in this world.  M. Karski went to Mass, as he tells us.  Let us hope that he felt shriven.  And Szmul Zygelboym, a leader of Polish Jewry who knew and had seen turned on the gas in his London apartment and died in the hope that his voluntary death might stir the world into succoring his perishing people.  There was not even a ripple.  There was silence.  There was nothing. M. Karski doubtless continued to perform his devotions with a clean conscience.

Such is this world to which Jews are bidden to bow down and to conform.  It has not changed that world.  It is not enough to say: Ah yes, we know, we know, and then again bring vain oblations to the monstrous idol whose feet are deep in the congealed blood of the children of our people.  That way lies final ruin.  Rather must it be said: No Jew and no Christian has a right to live and guide his actions as though the six million had not died in agony.  For this thing did not happen far away or long ago in a remote period long transformed by the dynamism of history.  It happened yesterday; it has not ceased happening.  It was this world, this Christendom out of which it sprang, as fruit from tree, as child from womb.  And over this world in whose womb this thing grew no radical change has come.  We are all still involved in that unspeakable world; our feet are on the very brink of those innumerable graves.  No Christian has a right to live without a daily act of contrition and some effort toward expiation; no Jew has a right to live without a daily Yiskor, a daily memorial service in his heart and a steadily conscious ahavath Yisreal, a love of Israel, his people, that guides his every action and his every thought.  Love of Israel, be it noted: not hatred of any enemy.  Such is the last word and the last truth about this world and this age in which we live.

People know this thing in a dim way.  But they do not want to know it to be so and they invent arguments of avoidance and escape.  Other periods, they say, shaking their heads with feigned fatalism, were just as bad.  It is a lie in avoidance.  Other ages were not as bad.  All Jews have heard of the pogrom of Kishinev in Czarist Russia, since the whole world rang with indignation and horror.  Do you who read these lines know how many people were killed in Kishinev?  Forty-five.  And several hundred wounded. (13)  And the whole world, it must be repeated, was up in arms.  But the Inquisition!  Is that not a trump card?  No.  The classic historians of that infamous and unsavory institution record that those “handed over to the secular arm” those actually executed are to be reckoned in the hundreds only over many decades and in several lands. (14)  Not until after the First World War did there begin this age in which we live with its unbridled dance of death, its insane horrors, its peculiar corruption of the human soul.  Yet even the bitter pogroms of the Russian counter revolutionary armies in the Ukraine were the acts of hoodlums, bandits, drunken mercenaries.  They had not the slow, cold, systematic, pseudo-ideological fury of Nazi murder or Stalinist “liquidation.”  No subtly devised concentration camps were built to break both body and spirit; no “progressive” machines for the cremation of the living were invented; no by-products of human soap or human leather were planned.  In no other age either had methods been carefully thought out by which to break down the resistance of human personality without death, so that Princes of the Roman Church and decent American business men confess to crimes which either are no crimes or of which they were wholly ignorant.  The incomparable horrors of this age arise from the fact that these horrors are not the result of barbaric lusts, untutored rage, drunkenness and primitive cruelty.  They are the icily calculated, icily executed results of definite doctrines.  And these doctrines arise, as Berdyaev has pointed out with everlasting validity, when man who “is so made that he lives by faith, loses his faith in God and “falls into idolatry.” (15)

THIS ARGUMENT has been made rather elaborate because no one who knows contemporary American Jewry-can fail to have observed that there is a great fear of not being modern, of not being, so to speak, up-to-date, of lagging behind.  The rabbinate has not always been guiltless of furthering this cult of “modernity.”  Therefore it seemed necessary to show the meaning of “modernity” and to describe the content of the concept in terms of reality.  The crimes which have made this age in which we live the foulest in human history were consciously motivated by doctrines; they were and are still defended by pseudo-philosophical arguments.  Hegel and Nietzsche, Darwin and Marx, who themselves in their human character would have shrunk in utter dismay from the contemporary embodiment of their doctrines; these and the malicious criticism of the Bible and the cultivation of certain “social” pseudo-sciences, these have furnished ground-work and rationalization to the varied demonisms which have brought mankind so near its downfall.  Every argument arising from this complex of ideas may be today denounced as false and vicious – as false and vicious a priori, that is, on the plain evidence of experience.  Knowing so well the poisonous fruits, need we even examine the roots of the tree that bore them?

The doctrines of so-called modernity which still contaminate our intellectual and moral climate have been discredited by every philosophical and every practical argument.  When they are offered, they must be presumed false.  They provide the rectification and change and “progress” that lead to the abyss.  Whatever stems from them is morally tainted.  Whatever stems from them has the stench of the gas-chamber and the slave camp.  It is not the Torah that has failed; it is not the predominantly Pharisaic ethics of Jesus that have failed.  These have been denied and despised and trodden under foot.  It is the idols that have failed; it is Moloch that has devoured the children of mankind in his foul flames.  How can any thoughtful Jew be so deceived and so corrupted and so confused as to be prevented from returning to his people, his center, the everlasting sources of his being, his tradition of history and the knowledge of his God by doctrines and devices that have, to the plain perception of common sense and common observation, turned, earth into a wilderness and men into insane’ demons.  Have we not a better knowledge and a better way?  “The whole of Israel,” wrote Jehuda Halevy in his Kitab al Khazari, “knew these things, first from personal experience and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.”  The personal experience has been clouded by the follies of the pagan world and the tradition has been violently torn asunder.  If we would be redeemed in order to survive we must turn inward, we must turn deep, within to recover the experience and gain the strength to re-ally ourselves with that great tradition which has redemptive power for both ourselves and for the world.

(1) Pascal.  Pensees No. 182
(2) The Reconstructionist.  Vol. XVI.  No. 1.
(3) Thomas Mann.  Ansprache im Goethejahr.  1910.
(4) Paul Valéry.  Variete IV.  1938
(5) N. Berdyaev.  An seuil de la nouvelle epoque.  1947.
(6) N. Berdyaev.  De L’Esprit bourgeois.  1949.
(7) Deut. XI.  26-8.
(8) Isaiah LII, 10.
(9) Cf. Makkoth 24a.
(11) M. Buber.  Dialogisches Leben.  Problem des Menschen.  1947.
(12) Andre Gide.  Pages de Journal.  1944.
(13) The Root and the Bough.  1949.
(13) Juedisches Lexicon.  Vol. III, 1929.
(14) H.C Lea.  History of the Spanish Inquisition.  E. Vancadard.  L’Inquisition.
(15) The Pogroms in the Ukraine.  Committee of Jewish Delegations.  1927.


 A PDF version of this essay is available here