Thoughts from The Frontier: Reflections on the Jewish Situation, Part VI: Faith and Form, by Ludwig Lewisohn (Jewish Frontier, July, 1950)

Reflections on the Jewish Situation


by Ludwig Lewisohn

Jewish Frontier
August, 1950


IT MAY BE well at this point to recall some of the insights at which we have arrived.  For from now on we will have to confront the contemporary mind with difficult decisions.  Several generations have been alienated from the true life of man.  A distorted Utopia, reaching into the past, stretching out into the future, has been substituted for a realistic picture of what man is and of what his life and destiny are.  So college students, both Christians and Jews (for this thing, this blight, is universal), rightly desiring answers to the eternal questions: What is Man?  What must he do?  How are we to attain integrity, hope, tranquility, redemption – college students, the children of this year and date, elect to study the so-called “social sciences”.  They still hope that by tinkering with techniques, institutions, statistics, they can achieve the inner tranquility and joy which they seek.  They have forgotten that literature alone paints a true picture of man, that philosophy alone can introduce them to the realms of meaning and value for which, without knowing it, they ache; that religion alone can lead them into an harmonious acceptance of man’s destiny.  The parents of these children have nearly all grown up with the notion that man can ]act differently without being different and that life can be more nobly shaped by the same blind and unredeemed will.  So-called Christians and so-called Jews agree on these melancholy and hopeless notions.  It is at this crucial point that further reasoning must start.  And so it is at this point that we may first sum up what we have found to be more in agreement with reality.

We found, first, that the old Emancipation of Jews is bankrupt.  And this is so because both the emancipators and the emancipated misunderstood the nature of the problem.  Both hoped that the Jewish people would disappear or dwindle to a mere sect.  Both innocently enough strove after this end.  A few unteachable people still do so, undeterred by the vast, the tragic, the miraculous answers of history: the mounting fury of anti-Semitism during the height of the emancipatory period; its ineffable culmination in the destruction of one third or the Jewish people; the counter self-emancipation to Jewishness and the triumph of that movement in the establishment of the Third Commonwealth.

We sought and found an explanation for these occurrences, for these events.  We found that the Jewish people is one among the peoples of the world, differentiated from the other peoples, as those are from each, other, not by any biological characteristics but by psychological and moral ones.  We found, in brief, that people differs from people as personality differs from personality and shares with personality the central trait of the identity of character with destiny.  We found, finally, by the irrefutable facts of history that the Jewish people is different from all the other peoples by virtue of its endurance, acknowledged by all Christendom, both friend and foe, as an historic experience, as a matter of direct knowledge.  And this endurance across the ages, especially during the ages of dispersion and persecutions; this ability to die a thousand deaths; and achieve a thousand resurrections even to this very hour in history, we found to constitute a uniqueness, a singularity, which necessarily inheres in that original, character of the Jewish people which determines at destiny.

NEXT we came upon another matter of universal experience, namely, that no Jew can understand himself and his station in the world and his fate nor learn how to live a whole integrated life who does not penetrate and make his very own this knowledge of the uniqueness of tie singularity of the Jewish people.  Only by accepting this fact, or, rather, not repressing it, for as fact it admits of no dispute, can a Jew understand the failure of the Emancipation, the birth of Israel, his own immediate situation in this world and the necessities of that situation.  Only by a constant awareness of this fact within the historic process can a Jew answer that question asked by all Jews everywhere today for themselves and their children:  How are we to live?  What is our hope?  How shall we shape our future?  What is our relation to our brothers in the State of Israel and to that state itself?

But we could not proceed to answer these questions at once because the right answers are kept from reaching the Jewish soul by certain fallacies in which Jew and Gentile are alike involved: the fallacies of “modernity” and “modern knowledge” as criteria of thought and action.  And so we tried first to paint a picture of this “modern age” and to show that no age so disastrously degraded could be thought of as living by any truth that can help or redeem men to being better and shaping a better life.  We found that the quality, the moral quality of this age, invalidates by what it is all the assumptions by which the age has been guided – the assumptions (symbolically speaking) of Darwin and Nietzsche and Marx and of instrumentalism in America.  We found, in brief, that materialism and nihilism had demonstrably led to the very brink of chaos and that we need not even examine the premises from which the obvious conclusions as embodied in human life and history are misery of the heart and death of the body, immeasurable cruelty and immeasurable hopelessness.

And finally, because these pages are addressed to the Jews of America, we sought to make clear the history and the present situation of the American Jew.  And so we found that, despite many adverse forces, the ideal of a free society is still alive in the United States.  Now a free society is evidently not, of all things, a society of an enforced or unenforced uniformity, but one in which individuals and groups are free to seek their redemption upon the path dictated to them by their character and their history.  And so we concluded that, since Galuth, since exile means in its evil sense living a false life, an un-Jewish life, a life of subservience to alien and tyrannous force, Jews could rescue America for themselves and their children from the area of the Gola if Jews would take advantage of the blessings of a free society by re-creating here their historic faith and form as their contribution to that society and to its culture.


SO WE come to the deepest and last problem; we come to the ultimate.  What are Jews who have re-allied themselves with their people and its unique historic experience – what are they concretely to ask in the realm of thought and action; what are they to seek to believe and to do?  And perhaps we can do best by beginning to state the ultimate problem and need of this time in general terms, in terms that apply to all men and then proceed to the specific Jewish embodiment of that problem.

A curious word has recently arisen among us.  It is the word “religionist”.  The form of the word is analogous to that of physicist, biologist, ichthyologist, one whose special and commonly professional interest is in physics, biology, the study of fishes.  The current and conscious implications of the word “religionist” are both farcical and shocking.  Just as the famous average man has no special interest in the science of life and can safely leave it to the biologist, so the inference is that that average man, that human being, has no special interest in religion and can leave all that to the religionist.  In other words: the average man, running a business, driving a car, owning a television set, casting a vote, is supposed by the implicit premise never to be alone with himself, never to wonder at the meaning of his life, never to have been born or face the destiny of death, never, to know bereavement or guilt or aspiration – never for an instant to be human, but to have sunk, in sober fact, to the level of a tool-using animal.  Search all history, search all so-called cultures from the most primitive on.  It is doubtful you will come across a definition an implication as degraded as that of the word “religionist.”  Through it we have been able to delineate the average man in a mechanized Society.  The question arises: how did he get to be the pathetic object that he is?

A new authoritarianism has drained him of his humanity – the authoritarianism of “science” – of science not as the supremely beneficent art of healing, nor as the ingenuity which has produced the intricate and useful machinery of production, locomotion, amusement – but of “science” as it seeks to transcend its proper functions and limitations, and seeks to substitute itself for other forces and for an order of meaning in the domains of human conduct and of human faith.

Its authoritarianism in respect of human conduct has been chiefly in its dealings with society.  We have here made the name of Marx the symbol of this aspect of scientific authoritarianism.  For that name conspicuously represents the notion, widespread too among non-Marxian sociologists, economists, political scientists, that human society can be re-cast and re-constituted upon premises having nothing to do with man’s spiritual and moral nature – that Utopia can be built according to a blue-print; according to an anterior design into which man must be fitted.  Oddly enough the average man in western civilization, though he must be afraid of force and pain, has not been deeply impressed by the overwhelming evidence that the blueprint state has forced its masters to murder all those it could not fit into its iron frame.  He seems curiously unaware of the parent fact that both the Fascist and the Communist States have destroyed and are destroying with every circumstance of icy cruelty and fiendish degradation a within their boundaries whose souls still betray the lineaments of freedom and of goodness.  Our average man still clings, in the face of this evidence, to the notion that environmental and mechanical changes, devices, techniques, can build of the same unredeemed men a better and adjuster society.

WHY does he cling to that notion?  Why does he desire a pre-fabricated Utopia?  It is the easiest way.  It relieves him of moral responsibilities.  Humanity is seeking in him to escape from being human.  And he echoes: “Science declares…  It has been scientifically demonstrated…”  He wants everything for nothing.  He wants a good society without being goo; he wants justice without being just; he wants what he thinks righteousness to prevail without having any notion of it.  He babbles, among Jews, about prophetic Judaism, and decries the God who bade the trembling and reluctant prophets speak.  He refuses to accept life as tragic and man as needing redemption; a cheap and false humanitarianism bids him demand the same-for all, irrespective of the inequalities of nature and of grace which it is his duty to alleviate as part of his moral discipline.  He aspires toward a gilded stable.  He talks about progress and means murder and gadgets and is undeterred by the terrifying and complete evidence that the scientifically planned state has everywhere immeasurably decreased the sum of human mercy, goodness, dignity and tranquility.

But indeed the whole notion of the planned master-state and prefabricated Utopia is a kind of moral madness.  For its proponents always hold the “scientific” view that man is not made in the image of God nor has free will nor needs redemption but is the product of mechanical genetic forces and environmental pressures.  Whence, then, do the planners, the makers of the blue-prints, the sordid dreamers of these sordid Utopias derive their authority?  Are they not enmeshed in the same forces?  No wonder that their means are the machine-gun, the crematorium, the slave-kennel.  A hideous hell has been created on earth by the “scientific” attempt to build a new society.  “If man,” Nicolas Berdyaev writes at his profoundest, “is nothing but the product of his social and natural environment, if he is wholly fashioned by society and owes everything to it; if there is no principle within him which raises him above nature and society, one does not grasp whence conies to him the creative power which permits him to master the forces of nature and society and to build anew.” (1)  These degrading fallacies have crept even into our free society.  They have confounded the realms of nature and of grace.  They have cheapened and confused human life.  Adequate symbols are those students, those poor bereft children who “go in” for the social sciences” as a means of redemption.  For, to quote Berdyaev’s stringent conclusion: “The crisis in civilization can no longer be surmounted by its own means alone, shaken as its very foundations are.  It is indispensable to turn to deeper forces.” (2)  These deeper forces are the permanent moral and religious forces that have distinguished man from the rest of creation since his appearance on the scene of history.  They have been broken and blunted by a mere mechanistic prejudice authoritatively pronounced and ire-iterated – the prejudice, in the words of one of the wittiest and wisest of living Americans, Joseph Wood Krutch, “that everything, including human character and literary greatness can be adequately studied by sociological and psychological methods.  That conviction is not itself based – as respectable scientific theory always is – upon the successful prediction of future events.   It is primarily a ‘will to believe’. (3)  That ‘will to believe’ offers “the reward without the quest, the prize without training for the race, Heaven without probation, wages without work, a master’s prestige without a master’s skill, a trade without an apprenticeship.   It has destroyed the moral and the social forms of life; it has gnawed away the sense of responsibility before a transcendent source of good; it has cast aside the truths derived from all earnest experience of human life – Pagan, Jewish, Christian.  A powerful counter-current has set in among Gentiles, as is proved by our quotations from two men so different in origin and temper as the critic, Joseph Wood Krutch and the Anglican cleric and educator Bernard Iddings Bell.  That current has not yet powerfully enough stirred the waters of Jewish life in America.


SCIENTIFIC authoritarianism based on prejudice and a mere will to believe could not, of course, have shattered man’s moral and social life, had it not first attacked the very bases of form and faith.  This is the force we have symbolized by the name of Darwin.  The use of the symbol is quite fair.  Physics, an exact science, dealing with the inorganic, with what is not life or consciousness, has always been prudent or, at least, moderate.  In recent years the ascertained fact that what men once thought of as inert matter is far more like what was once called mind, the vision of relations through relativity, of probabilities through the quantum theory as all that the physicist knows actually knows – these discoveries have destroyed the bases of that old false analogy which likened the universe to a machine.  Among physicists, too, tough old prejudices remain here and there so that, as Sir Arthur Eddington points out, they will actually use a “fallacious and obsolete view of the nature of observational knowledge” (5), although they know better.  He himself declares – and has not been contradicted – that the fundamental laws which operate within the physical universe can be foreseen wholly from epistemological considerations.  They correspond to a priori knowledge and are therefore wholly subjective.” (6)  Man, by alone knowing the universe and helping to shape it by his knowledge of it, once more stands at the center of things.

It is the authoritarianism of the so-called sciences of life which has attacked and undermined man’s sense of moral responsibility, because it has given a false account of him and his origin.  Deliberately in its picture of man and of what he is, it has omitted all those circumstances which differentiate him from all other forms of life: language, music, mathematics, the desire for knowledge; the universal hunger for redemption and for God.  It has committed the cardinal sin, according to the strict demands of responsible science, of forming theories which do not include or account for the most salient facts.  It is an experience at once farcical and melancholy to read a book, any book, dealing, for instance, with genetics, the science of heredity, upon which all the biological views of man are based.  The pages are peppered with recurrent phrases: “There is as yet no positive knowledge” … “it- is strongly suspected” … “it is rash to assume” … “no doubt” … “this will be eventually solved” … “But whether or not”…  In every other paragraph the question is begged, that is, to prove a thing the writer assumes it to be so.  Analogies of hair-raising variety are used as proofs.  The “genes,” of which everyone has heard nowadays, are alike.  Yet they function toward great differentiation.  Well, why shouldn’t they, says your geneticist.  Snow crystals are all made of water, the same water, yet each of the millions of crystals is of its own exquisite pattern; different from all the other myriads.  He seems to be explaining one unfathomable mystery of creation by merely likening it to another unfathomable mystery.   Even the educated lay-man rarely reads these crabbed and pompous books.  He goes to a lecture.  The lecturer tells him that man is a primate descended from some branch of the primate family, that he is a higher ape.  The layman is helpless.  How does he know that the “proofs” are a display of intellectual charlatanism?  He assumes that the Darwinian hypothesis of uninterrupted development has been scientifically demonstrated.  Sadly or gladly, according to his spiritual temper, he accepts the fiat of science and so a universe empty, without God of hope.

This aspect of scientific authoritarianism has sunk so deep and wrought so much havoc that one more flagrant instant may be adduced.

Our geneticist asserts that the development from a unicellular animal to Plato and Isaiah, to Shakespeare and Beethoven took place by means of “a mechanism for blind-hereditary variations sorted out by the automatic sieve of natural selection.  He does not pretend to know quite how it happened, as we have seen from his phraseology.  He makes his pompous assertion.  He goes further.  He makes metaphysical assertions that are plainly impudent.  How does he know that the variations are “blind,” seeing that he admits their adaptive function, the aim in view.  But there must be no am.  For aim would readmit a Creative Power.  The notion of purpose or aim in nature is known in philosophy as teleological.  Therefore teleological has become bad word among third-rate scientists: Like God.  These terms and notions are taboo among them.  It is quite like not walking under a ladder or being frightened at a black cat.  But our geneticist, whose use of language is hardly of scientific precision gives himself quite away by his glib use of the world “automatic” in the phrase “the automatic sieve of natural selection.  Now “automatic” is put together out of two Greek words which mean self and moving.  Translate the second word to Latin and you have automobile, which also, means self-moving.  But an automatic machine and an automobile drive by themselves only because man’s ingenuity has produced a mechanism which, when started and applied with energy as fuel by man, will continue to function for a limited period and within boundaries set by man and the quality of the material used by man.  In brief, man is the autos, the self, the power which causes the machine to move.  Therefore by the analogy our genetic himself proposes, a Creator is at work.  Heine was quite right in his quip against the silliness of atheism.  He said that in Frankfurt-on-the Main he met a watch which did not believe in the existence of watch-makers.  He didn’t buy it.

But that is not all.  The ordinary variety of biologist assumes that the unfathomable abyss between the inorganic and the organic has been bridged, that it is known how the living developed from the non-living.  It is not true.  Reputable biologists have advanced theories as fantastic as that the first germ of life was wafted to earth from another planet. (8)  We do not know.  We have no inkling.  We are faced by the utterly inscrutable.   Similarly anthropologists assert that we know concerning the birth of language, of the arts, of prayer.  It is not so.  All men of whom we have knowledge, however antique or “primitive,” whatever that may mean, have language, art, immortal longings.  There is no bridge from non-life to life; there is no bridge from the anthropoid ape to man.  None.  None.  According to the most stringent demands of rigorous thought the assumption of a divine and transcendent Creative Force alone explains both what we know and what we do not and cannot know.  He who, using both faith and reason, utters the name of God, as the sages of Israel did from age to age, enters the realm of meaning and value, which is man’s dwelling place.  He alone explains both the good and the evil that are in the world; he is aware of the character of man’s visible destiny; he alone knows the meaning of human freedom both in the universe and in society.  He alone will defy the tyrants who seek to enthrall us more and more – the pseudo-scientific tyrant of the mind, the totalitarian tyrant of both the body and the mind.  For these two tyrants are in league with each other and with death against us.

It is often said by those who, in the brilliant definition of Whitehead, are provincials not only in space but in time, (9) that science operates with the human reason, that what is unscientific is irrational.  From the point of view of method this is precisely contrary to fact.  Modern science in its origin was, as Whitehead pointed out a quarter of a century ago, “through and through an anti-intellectualistic movement.” (10)  The human reason, no perfect instrument, had gone to dire extremes in the Middle Ages.  An appeal to the humble facts was in order.  Thus arose the experimental sciences and the sciences of classification and achieved incomparable triumph after incomparable triumph.  But these triumphs, man being what he is, intoxicated the scientists.  They applied their methods to realms in which these methods were not applicable.  They committed the final sin of which man is capable.  They substituted themselves for God and led men into sordid idolatries – the idolatry of science, the idolatry of the master state.  The two are one.  For no one would have dreamed of consenting to slavery in a slave state, had he not been befuddled into believing that scientific manipulation could build a painless society.  The hour has come for an appeal to reason, to order and to faith.

For so soon as we use our, reason we know that even could technical manipulation build a painless society, the painlessness would be only that of the stalled ox.  The conscious mysteries of birth and death and bereavement, oft spiritual sorrow, of the passing of love, of the chasms between aspiration and fulfillment, the dread of the soul falling a blinded thing in an unmeaning universe – all these unquenchable sorrows would remain.  Religion is man’s way of dealing with these.  And they are as sharp, if not, sharper, than the pain of the bodily wants.  Homelessness in the universe is a deeper anguish than maladjustment in a transitory social structure.  And perhaps we shall be able to build a society in which men will be less alienated and homeless when we have recovered a sense of the universe as not empty and meaningless but as divine and rational.

Reason, supplemented by faith, must once again build significant forms of life, forms within which the things that man is and does have, meaning and sanction.  For that is what has been lost – the meaning and the sanction which made of the acts and emotions of man acts and emotions that he could objectify, as man alone does, which he could contemplate with satisfaction and with hope.  Without that there is, as we can see, mere abasement, mere degradation.  This, as Ortega y Gasset wrote, “is simply the manner of life of the man who has refused to be what it is his duty to be.” (11)  How deep that cleaves!  How many people, how many Jews of our time does that delineate!  We see them dill about us, restless, afraid, desirous and famished, in mechanized flight from their centre and true being, from their faith and form.  But it is also to be observed that the Jew fervent in adherence to the Law and the fervent Zionist escaped that restlessness and abasement.  These two had not refused to be what it was their duty to be. They had neither abandoned faith nor shattered form.  In an evil age, within confusion and alienation; they asserted the dignity of man and the meaning of life

(1) Nicolas Berdyaev.  Au seuil de la nouvelle epoque.  1947.
(2) Berdyaev.  Op cit.
(3) The Nation.  Dec. 12, 1949.
(4) Bernard Iddings Bell.  Crisis in Education.  1949
(5) Arthur Eddington.  The Philosophy of Physical Science.  1939.
(6) Op cit.
(7) All these quotations are examples are taken from: Muller, Little and Snyder.  Genetics, Medicine and Man.  Cornell University Press.  1947.
(8) J.A. Thomson.  Concerning Evolution.
(9) A.N. Whitehead.  Science and the Modem World.  1921.
(10) Op cit.
(11) Jose Ortega y Gasset.  The Revolt of the Masses.  1936.

NOTE: Dr. Lewisohn’s challenging series, “Reflections on the Jewish Situation,” which appeared in recent issues of the JEWISH FRONTIER will be included in his forthcoming book “The American Jew: Character and Destiny”, to be published on November 2, 1950, by Farrar, Strauss & Co.  The book will contain new material in addition to the articles which we have been privileged to present to our readers.


 A PDF version of this interesting exchange of correspondence is available here.

Thoughts from The Frontier: Reflections on the Jewish Situation, by Ludwig Lewisohn: Correspondence with Jack J. Cohen (Jewish Frontier, July, 1950)

Jewish Frontier
July, 1950



Mr. Lewisohn’s article in the May issue of the Jewish Frontier contains, in my opinion, some glaring errors of commission and omission.

He reads into the “Program for Jewish Life Today,” published in the Reconstructionist (Vol. 16, No. 1) a conception of adjustment to “modernity” and “modern conditions” which not only is not there but is definitely deprecated in that document.  Mr. Lewisohn confines himself to his own arbitrary interpretation of modern life.  He assumes that modernism is synonymous with the barbaric and catastrophic totalitarianisms of our day.  We are amazed that Mr. Lewisohn should have imputed to Reconstructionists a yielding to the forces that make for totalitarianism.  The “Program for Jewish Life Today” states “Judaism demands resistance to any totalitarianism because it necessarily deprives the individual of his freedom to make the most of his own life.”  Reconstructionists have consistently championed democracy against every authoritarian encroachment on freedom of conscience and human rights.  Adjustment to modern life cannot mean indiscriminate acceptance of all its mutually contradictory elements.  It must mean taking cognizance of both the good and the evil in the world today and neither rejecting any good that is not traditional nor condoning any evil that is rooted in tradition.

Even more amazing to me than this misrepresentation of the Reconstructionist attitude to modern life is Mr. Lewisohn’s own failure to recognize the very existence of problems that constitute the crucial issues affecting Jewish life today.  Without entering into any lengthy discussion of these issues, let me list just a few of them:

1. How shall Judaism reckon with the necessary conditions resulting from the mechanization of our economic processes

2. Has Judaism anything to learn from science and the scientific method that can make for the spiritual enrichment of Jewish life?  Ought not Jewish religion reckon with the experimental method, with the authority of verifiable facts as opposed to that of dogma or tradition and with the willingness, characteristic of science, to reexamine traditional beliefs and theories, when these are challenged by new experience?

3. The struggle of democracy against totalitarian tendencies has heightened our awareness of the need for safeguarding the right to be different.  How shall this awareness affect the inner life of the Jewish community, which in the past, insisted on universal conformity with authoritarian codes regulating all the minutiae of human conduct?

These are only a few of the issues of modern life with which any program for Jewish living must reckon.  A romantic glorification of the past will not avail.  Only by applying human intelligence to the reconstruction of Jewish life can we save Judaism from those dangers that beset it in the modern world.

Director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation



I AM SORRY THAT Rabbi Cohen has the impression that I ever dreamed of accusing the Reconstructionist which, with reasonable reservations, I respect and admire, of totalitarian sympathies.  The three phrases I quoted from the Reconstructionist program re-iterate the well-known position of the movement that Judaism should be governed by the winds of doctrine of a particular age and make them its criterion.  To deny this is not as monstrous as it seems to Rabbi Cohen.  It grieves me to see Jews lag behind in better things.  In my own humble way I seem to myself to be within Jewry a representative of that powerful current in that Christian world which is connected with the name of the late Nicholas Berdyaev and with the names of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebhur.  If Rabbi Cohen will do me the honor of reading my argument to the end he will see, in the light of this statement, just where I stand.

The three questions he asks show that he has no inkling of my position whatever he may think of it.

1. Of course, the truths of any religion have precisely nothing to do with such things as the “mechanization of economic power” except, perhaps, to sit in judgement on its moral results.

2. No, Judaism has nothing to learn from science.  Except in the realm of physics the experimental method has produced nothing but fallacies and chaos.  So soon as it touches the phenomena of life, man, history, it has proved itself confusing unveracious and wholly evil in its inferences.

3. Correct.  The right to be different is the most precious of democratic rights.  Who has deprecated the asher bacharbanu mi-kol ha amin?  Who?  The Reconstructionists or I who humbly and fervently believe it and who believe that all history, from Sinai to Warsaw and the Medinath Yisrael, has confirmed it irrefutably?

Brandeis University
Waltham, Mass.


 A PDF version of this interesting exchange of correspondence is available here

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

Thoughts from The Frontier: Reflections on the Jewish Situation, Part III: Redemption and Survival, by Ludwig Lewisohn (Jewish Frontier, April, 1950)

Reflections on the Jewish Situation


by Ludwig Lewisohn

Jewish Frontier
April, 1950

IT IS AN EVER RECURRENT experience that no Jew is able to establish a right relation to himself, to his own being and destiny, until he accepts the fact of the uniqueness of Jewish character and history.  For this reason it is the frightened Jew who is always alert for analogies to his own situation.  In America and elsewhere he likens his situation to that of other minorities, the Negro, the Latin immigrants, the Balto-Slavs, in the subconscious hope of common effort, the protection of numbers above all, of the reduction of his own strange and unique problem to a tolerable and manageable denominator.  Alienated as he is by the false emancipation he forgets, and indeed, he desires to forget the circumstances that to his grandfather or, at farthest, great-grandfather whether in Minsk or Kovno or Frankfurt the Jewish situation seemed not at all strange.  It was assented to as God-given in its precise differentness.

If sanity, if mental balance, as we now know, depends upon the facing of reality, upon the acceptance of necessity, it is no wonder that neurotic symptoms and ill organized lives are found among those Jewish liberals, often brilliant and cultivated persons, who withdraw from the hard fact of Jewish uniqueness into the hiding-places of analogy, into the refuge of false alikeness and a hopeless community in effort with other groups.  In the end they are bound to be wounded by accepting the fact or inwardly sickened by repressing it, that the Negro is susceptible to anti-Semitic myths and hatreds and that the South or East European immigrant never and quite correctly connects his own temporarily unfavorable status with his attitude to the Jewish people.

The modern so-called emancipated Jew forgets or represses another salient fact, namely, that the denial of Jewish uniqueness is of relatively recent origin.  It arose out of the general tendency to reduction, to classification, which characterized the now discredited methods of mere Empiricism.  An older world, not yet deterred from the perception of historic fact by transitory theory, was steadily aware of the uniqueness of Jewish being and experience.  We hear the classical voice of Christendom at its best in Pascal: “This people is worthy of consideration not only by reason of its antiquity; it is also singular by its power to endure, which has continued from its origin to this day.  For while the peoples of Greece and Italy, of Lacedaemon, Athens and Rome, as well as others, who appeared thereafter, have all perished long ago, this people continues to exist, and does so in spite of the attempts of so many powerful kings who have a hundred times fought to destroy it. (1)

Nor has the endurance of Israel and the world’s attempt to destroy it changed since Pascal wrote.  We have continued to evoke resistance by what we are.  We have died again and again up to this very generation, up to this very day and have re-arisen from those deaths.  We have been torn out of the context of history.  And the first act of the troubled but alienated Jew in America must be to lay hold upon this fundamental and central truth and to reconstruct his inner world under its guidance.  Fortunately, the majority of American Jews are-troubled; fortunately, a majority corresponds to the second and not any more to the first group of Jews as the two groups were delineated by another French Christian, the saintly and gifted Charles Peguy: “There are only two kinds of Jews: those who are devoured by Jewish anxiety and play so many poor comedies to deny it, to deny it even to themselves, and those who are devoured by Jewish anxiety arid never even dream of denying it.” (2)

HOW IS THAT MORE or less alienated American Jew, who is so deeply troubled, to find his way back to his people and himself.  He cannot re-live his life nor quickly enough rectify the errors of his education, both formal and environmental.  He may be able to grasp only gradually the uniqueness of his people’s history and experience; he may at least approach it by the intermediary stage of Martin Buber’s fruitful formulation: “Jewishness is an intellectual and spiritual process which has documented itself in that inner history of the Jewish people and in the works of great Jews. (3)   He may be able to find the Jew within himself and so re-ally himself with his own and his people’s destiny.

The thing has been experienced; the thing has been done. It has been done in the East and in the West, among the perished Jewries of Europe.  It has rarely taker place in America.  We shall see why when we come to discuss and describe the specific realities of the Jewish scene in America.  But all those who came from any region of Jewish alienation to both the contemporary martyrdom and the contemporary re-birth of Israel, have found their way home to themselves and to their peoples by a process of innermost recognition.  Thus Aaron David Gordon, the incomparable ideologist of Labor Zionism and founder of Daganiah, wrote: “I believe that a Jewish human being, if he were to succeed for one moment to be wholly himself, to be free of every alien influence – that such a being would unhesitatingly bring himself to confess that within him lives a special thing, his very own, which struggles for its separate existence and seeks a way of manifesting itself in its own form.” (4)

Perhaps for us here in America a more persuasive voice may be that of Franz Rosenzweig, the wholly modern man, alienated in his first youth almost to the point of apostasy, possessor of all the philosophical and literary culture of the West, whose final word was this: “In this human being there is something that makes him a Jewish human being, something imponderably small and yet immeasurably great, his most inaccessible secret which yet breaks forth from every gesture and from every word and most of all from the most casual.  ….  The thing is not even experienced.  It is simply lived.  It is what one is.” (5)

WITNESSES COULD BE multiplied from various ages but especially from this age in which the alienation has been so wide and so subtle and so grave and in which Jewish souls have been so intolerably anguished by the vastness of Jewish martyrdom, by the cold indifference of the world to that martyrdom and then briefly and strangely and not without an echoing pang lave been elated by the establishment of the Medinath Yisrael.  These have been the experiences of the contemporary Jew.  And to these should be added too, the war in Israel, the war which would have been lost, had not naked hands been able for a space to hold off tanks – had not, as a sagacious journalist wrote, the koach ha-ish, the power of man of moral heroism, been stronger than the koach ha-esh, the power of fire, of ammunition.  Jews who have witnessed this, Jews who are deeply troubled by their being the the future of that being, why should they not descend to the depth of their souls, of their psyches, and re-discover their oneness with the sources of their people’s life?  The Jew who succeeds in doing that will find, to use the unrivalled formulation of Buber, that “his people is to him a community of men and women who were, who are, who will be, a community of the dead, the living and the unborn who together represent a oneness – the precise oneness which he perceives to be the groundwork of his “I”, of that “I” which was destined from all eternity to be this necessary link in the long chain of being.  ….  The past of his people is his personal memory; the future of his people is his personal task; the way of his people teaches him to will and to understand his true self.” (6)

How difficult is this act of self-recollection and self -recognition to the contemporary Jew in America!  For he is emancipated, and commonly, he speaks that word with pride, not knowing or daring to know that he has been emancipated from his true self, from the sources of being, from his own historical experience and so from what constitutes his humanity, namely, his Jewishness.  He suffers.  Doubtless he suffers.  But he reads to console him, if he reads at all, some sociological treatise, some last word of some transitory theorizing.  He does not go into himself.  If in youth he is persuaded to read fragments of Torah, he performs a religious exercise and does not see his fate in fiery letters on the immortal, the prophetic page: “And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even to the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy father have known, even wood aid stone.  And among these nations thou shalt find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the Lord shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind.” (7)  Nor do the rabbis often enough to the few who go to synagogue read these fatal and final words, these shatteringly true and realistic words.  And so Jews emancipate themselves more and more in order to worship more and more these gods, of wood and stone, these “not-gods’’, these lies”, these “lying vanities” these “carcasses” and “dumb idols” (8) of which the names in this age are games and sports and radios and cars and television and, one step higher, meetings and resolutions and inter-faith (where there is no faith) and anti-defamation and, above all and most evil of all, smoother and smoother adaptation to an uncritically’ accepted environment.  The same words are droned; the same liberalistic gestures are repeated; one thing changes not: the trembling heart, the failing of eyes, the sorrow of mind.

The Jew emancipated from his true self, alienated from the groundwork of his character and destiny, is left a prey to all the forces of one of the most evil, if not indeed the most evil scene in all history.  Let him remember – and this observation must be and will be repeated – that it was this civilization, this Christendom, this emancipatory Galuth too, which produced, out of its accursed womb the Nazis with their crematoria, the Stalinists with their “liquidations” and their slave-kennels, the sordid horrors in Palestine perpetrated by a Labor Government in Britain, the refusal of the Allied Powers to bomb the murder camps, the bland assertion of an American Secretary of State that the sale by Britain of heavy offensive armor to Egypt has no relevance to the security of the State of Israel.

If the American Jew would achieve not only survival, which nakedly and by itself is not possible; if he would achieve redemption toward survival, he must measurably and in contemplative hours free himself from all the influences of his environment.  He must redescend into the depth of his being and find there, since there alone they can be found, redemptive forces both for himself and perhaps even for his Christian neighbor.

THE ENTIRE SITUATION created by the establishment of the Third Commonwealth and the continued existence of a dispersion, primarily today the American center of dispersion, is not new in form.  The co-existence of a State in Eretz Yisrael and of the Hellenistic dispersion offers a fair parallel.  “On account of their number,” Philo of Alexandria tells us, “no single land can contain all Jews.  Therefore the greater number inhabit the fertile islands and continents of Europe and Asia.  As their capital they consider the Holy City in which stands the Temple of the Highest God, yet they hold that place to be their fatherland in which they were born and have been brought up and have dwelt for generations.” (9)  These words refer to a situation that existed in the first quarter century of the Common Era.  At that time Alexandrian Jewry alone numbered roughly 1,000,000 souls.  When Cyril and his monks arose to cleanse the city of Athanasius from the unbelieving Jews in 412, he found a bare 40,000 to slaughter or drive forth.  What is starkly clear from this record is that the Alexandrian diaspora, living in the year 25 according to the principles set forth by Philo, was slowly self-destroyed before the final blow obliterated it.

Both historic evidence and luminous analogy tell us how this self-destruction took place.  The Jews of the Hellenistic world evidently experienced a paralysis of their historic will – that will of a people toward its destiny which creates history and stamps environment with its own image. (10)  They yielded to the lures of the Hellenistic world; they gave in to that pressure which Shlomo ibn Verga defined so tersely and finally so many centuries later: “The ruling nation seeks to transform other peoples into its own image.”  They turned dispersion into Galuth; they abandoned their history-shaping will; they became alienated from the sources of their being and perished, self-slain and self-obliterated.

We approach the core and center of our problem.  What is Galuth?  Why is the pre-emancipatory, the old Galuth, to be affirmed as an integral and venerable part of Jewish history and the post-emancipatory Galuth to be negated?  For the answers so far given have not yet gone deep enough.  We must go deeper in order gradually to approach our overwhelming question of immediate destiny, our question of life and death: Is America Galuth?

Yitzhak Baer is right in his assertion that “with the Galuth, Jewish history leaves the frame-work of natural law,” and that it is a “fact unique in the history of nations.” (11)  The Jewish people was, from the beginning, torn out of the context of history.  But its survival in exile, in Galuth is the most conspicuous and irrefutable proof of its extra-historic character and destiny.  The wonder is not that there are only 10,000,000 Jews left in the world; the supreme wonder is that there are any.  But what applies to the Jews of the dispersion as a whole, does not apply to specific groups at given historic moments under the pressure of certain kinds of environment.  We have just seen how the powerful Hellenistic dispersion, turned into Galuth, lost its history-shaping will, and perished.  We have all witnessed a contrary phenomenon.  Doubtless there was peripheral Polonization in Poland; there was Bundism; there was the Westernizing trend among the Maskilim, the enlighteners.  But the Jewish people of Poland a whole, a compact mass, though author of the specific Golus pathos, stood firm against all the storms of circumstance and all the pressures of a pagan world and finally faced ineffable martyrdom in a mood of unbending and undying affirmation of the on mess, the uniqueness, the eternity of Israel.

Which represented and which was Galuth, Hellenistic Jewry?  Polish Jewry?  What are the facts behind the words?

DISPERSION BECOMES GALUTH when the Jew abandons his history-creating will; dispersion becomes Galuth when the Jew unresistingly yields to environmental pressure; when he consents to alienation from the sources of his being; when he gives himself up and begins to perish as a Jew; when he worships the idols of wood and stone of the pagan world; when he begins to hide from himself “the thousand-fold lie which constitutes Galuth” (12) or even pretends to himself that that lie is a truth, that it is his truth.   Galuth in that precise and unescapable sense is self-created, created by Jews with a sub-conscious drive to Jewish deaths to Jewish extinction.  It is created by Jews themselves even when they give charitable gifts for far-away Jews and sick Jews and hungry Jews, even when they pay insurance against anti-Semitism, even when they clamor for civic rights and the separation of Church and State and the protection of other minorities.  All these things are good and useful and of fair outward seeming.  But when they are analyzed they will be found to be devices by means of which Jews seek to perpetuate that apparent security in Jewish alienation, in the abandonment of the history-creating power of the Jewish people – that merely apparent security in which half slumber the unescapable seeds of doom and death.

It will now be clear why the redemption of Jews, why the redemption of the individual Jew in America is the fundamental condition of Jewish survival: why the instant and unanswerable command is the re-identification of the Jew with his Jewishness at the deepest level of consciousness.  No devices of organization, of planning, of conferences or congresses will take the place of this act.  For only Jews in whom this act has been accomplished can devise those outer means and techniques which it will be necessary to devise in order to assure the survival of the Jewish community amid the circumstances in which it is played.  Jews in council who have not identified and re-allied themselves with the sources of their being, with the unique character and history of Israel, will be guided, even when they are unaware of it, by the pressures of the emancipation – those manifold pressures which all sought to emancipate the Jew from his Jewishness and hence to destroy him.  They will forget, if only for an instant, and that instant would suffice for a fatal issue – that the world desires the Jew to diminish his Jewishness in order that it may the more easily escape from the moral burden, the moral obligation which the very existence of unassimilated Jews confirms and demands.  Resistance on this point, resistance arising from a perfect understanding of this situation, must be absolute in principle.  No Jew will serve the survival of his people, no Jew will help liberate America from the lies of the Galuth at its most degraded who does not see with an utter certainty of vision, irrespective of opinion or content, that ear-locked Hasidim on Avenue A and 3rd Street, dancing with holy joy on Simchat Torah, are free men, self-sustaining men, cooperators with a free society, and that some member of the American Council for Judaism whose Christmas tree on his lawn outshines that of his Gentile neighbors, is a slave in body and in soul, imprisoned in the cold and empty hell of a self-created Galuth.  Such is his function and effect as a Jew.  His function and effect as an American are of an equal deadliness.  For, by every implication of his being and his acts, he destroys the variety and flexibility of a free society; he invites the intolerance he dreads; he does his share toward plunging his country and his society into the chaos of the slave state.

It will be recalled how in the early days of the Zionist movement Achad HarAm declared it to be a principle that the redemption of man, of the people, the ge’ulath ha-am, would have to precede the redemption of the land of Israel, the ge’ulath ha-aretz.  He was eternally right.  Those young men and women who laid the perilous foundations of the re-colonization, who shook with malaria and endured the rigors of labor and half-starvation and the additional rigor of speaking a language they did but half know – these were all souls self-redeemed from the emancipatory Galuth of Europe.  Only a perfect vision, only an unalterable faith could have caused them to accomplish what they did accomplish.  So it must be here; only so can any help or healing come to us now.  The redemption, the liberation, of the individual American Jew from the thousand-fold lie of Galuth must precede the acts which can assure Jewish survival.  He must be free of lie he that the idols of wood arid stone can ever be his gods except at the expense of his very life; he must be free of the lie that uniformity is a virtue and that it is well for him to feign to be what he is not; he must be free of the lie that in this mimicry there is any measure even of security; he must be free from the lie of lies, the desperate and dastardly lie at the core of a materialized society, that any good thing can be won without suffering, without martyrdom, if need be, or that new devices will be different if employed by the same unredeemed and unilluminated souls.  A Jewish community in America can be preserved from dwindling, from corruption and decay, only by Jews, by individual Jewish men and women who, having descended to the depth of their souls, have recovered themselves and with those selves have recovered and regained the history-willing, the history-creating, the self-determining power of the Jewish people.

(1) Pascal.  Pensees.  No. 620.
(2) Charles Peguy.  Page Choicies.  Paris.  1928.
(3) Martin Buber.  Reden ueber das Judentum.  1923.
(4) A.D. Gordon.  Erlosing darch Arbeit.  1929.
(5) Franz Rosenzweig.  Zur juedischen Erziehung.  1937.
(6) Martin Buber.  Op. cit.
(7) Deuteronomy.  28.  64-5.
(8) Harry A. Wolfson.  Philo, Vol. I, 2nd Ed. 1948.
(9) Philo.  Flaccus.  Concerning the Evidences of God’s Might.
(10) Shlomo ibn Verga.  Shevet Jehuda.  Ed. M. Wiener.  1924.
(11) Y.F. Baer.  Galuth.  1947.
(12) Martin Buber.  Kampf um Israel.  1933.


 A PDF version of this essay is available here

Thoughts from The Frontier: Reflections on the Jewish Situation, Part II: What Are We?, by Ludwig Lewisohn (Jewish Frontier, March, 1950)

Reflections on the Jewish Situation


by Ludwig Lewisohn

Jewish Frontier
March, 1950

JEWS, SPEAKING AMONG THEMSELVES, Jews of authentic feeling speaking to their Gentile neighbors, instinctively use the pronoun we.  And in that we they include instructively, as the slightest analysis will demonstrate, all the Jews in the world, the living and the dead, the martyrs of Europe and the heroes of Israel.  They include in that act of speech the innumerable generations that have gone before; they include all the children of Abraham, and at high moments of festival or memorial, of grief or of triumph, they are aware of spiritual presences according to their range of knowledge, from Moshe Rabbenu to some sage or zaddik of yesterday.

There are Jews who will deny this fact.  If the denial is not a defensive perversion induced by terror of the pagan world, then these are the peripheral Jews who are, by inner and usually not conscious acts of will, on the road to moral suicide and Jewish extinction.  At times their children or their children’s children return.  If not, the loss must be born.

But the majority of Jews say we in that deep and instinctive sense.  Yet when they are asked to define that the – and confused and malicious people are constantly asking – they are hard put to it and give answers that are not their own, answers that come out of a withered set of fallacies which still poison the intellectual climate in which most contemporaries live.  How can it be otherwise when a man apparently as astute as Arthur Koestler (1), though his old Hungarian assimilatory self-hatred can be seen struggling against his better cognitions, displays and flaunts those wilted fallacies with an air of triumph:  “With the exception of the ‘race-theorists’ nearly all modern authorities hold that Jewish characteristics are a product of sustained environmental pressure and not racial heredity.”  For evidence he appeals to that fantastic pseudo-mystic Toynbee, whose last word on the Jewish people is that, idolizing itself, it rejected “the still greater treasure which God offered it in the coming of Jesus of Nazareth.” (2)

Koestler sums up every fallacy by which the authentic Jew is bedeviled.  Correctly that Jew denies that the Jews are a race.  He falls back on the definition of Jews as a religious, community and is at once faced by the obvious fact that the vast majority of non-religious Jews feel themselves to be Jews and act as Jews and desire the world to know them as such.  What shall he say, what think?  Are not the Koestlers the people who ought to know?  And even if our authentic Jew distrusts Koestler on- account of the monstrousness and silliness of Koestler’s final conclusions, he is still, alas, deeply impressed by that appeal to “all modern authorities” and to that bit about “environmental pressure” which he hears from all the “liberals” and all the “progressives” and all those groups who have long stopped thinking and have taken to the obligatory repetition of rubber-stamped verbiage.

Precisely as we must re-examine the terms and tendencies of the old and false emancipation – that emancipation of which the aim was the death and not the life of the Jewish people – even so we must re-examine the intellectual bases of the era of the emancipation, of the nineteenth and early twentieth century and their jagged vestiges.  And first of all for our purr poses we must re-examine the biological and sociological fallacies.  So, and; only so, shall we arrive at a concept of what a people is and of what we are.

THERE ARE NO “RACES.”  There is only one “race”, by which is meant the genus homo sapiens, the genus man.  All human beings are anatomically (structurally) and physiologically (functionally) identical.  The differences of skin pigmentation and facial form are so superficial that the genus man cannot even be said to be sub-divided into species.  There are only varieties in the biological sense among men.  The best and final proof of the oneness of the genus man; the human race, is the circumstance that all men can be mated with all men and produce fertile offspring.  Consider, in contrast, genuine species of a genus, real sub-divisions of a biological kind.  Consider the genus or family or kind of felis, the cat family, and try to interbreed the species under this genus: the lion, felis leo, the tiger, felis tigris, or the kitten purring at your fire-side, the felis catus or felis domstca, the house-cat.  All men are alike; all men are brothers; the human race, the genus homo, is one.

Such is the first fact established by our reexamination of the question.  The second fact, the most tremendous of all facts concerning man is this: this uniform creature, this indivisible biological kind appears on the planet both within history and pre-history not otherwise than in groups.  These groups of biologically uniform creatures differ each from the other in profound and crucial ways.  With exactly the same organs of speech they create a thousand languages that differ utterly each from the other; with the same hands they produce artifacts wholly different in pattern and symbolic intention; identical in biological needs and appetites they create gods and cosmogonies and ideals and rules of conduct of infinite variety.  Forms of marriage, of initiation, of the treatment of the old, the degrees and variations of the incest fear – all these divergences arise evidently not from biological needs, seeing that all men have the same biological needs.  In brief: what differentiates human group from human group in respect of language, art, religion, custom, is not biological in origin.  The genus homo, the human race, assumes its groupings upon some principle other than the character of its body or that body’s needs.

The anthropologists, the technical students of the nature of man, were willing enough to grant the basic fact of the non-biological origin and character of peoples and their cultures.  “There is,” the late Alexander Goldenweiser admitted, “to be sure, a national psychology, but it is rooted not in biology but history.” (3)  But the admissions were made with a degree of reluctance.  The anthropologists were in trouble.  They did not want to be “racists”.  But since they had been brought up in the intellectual climate of a scientific reduction of all phenomena to the realm of mere nature, they were at a loss to account for the differentiations among mm and among their cultures.  They were sold to the teaching of the sufficiency of “natural” causes; they were committed to the concept of man as merely a primate, a more complicated animal and suddenly they had to admit that this animal created its languages, religions, arts, according to the inexplicable taste and temper, spirit and appetence of biologically non-differentiated groupings.

They looked about for the nonbiological causes of the origin and rise of group-cultures, of specific civilizations, the Navajo, the Greek, the French, the Jewish.  In this search they fell upon the concepts of history, of education, of the social “force” and the social “construct”. (4)  But they were at a loss to account for the origin and the transmission of these things on the basis of man as a primate, all of whose characteristics and actions must be derived from his animal or natural being.  And so they used these concepts of “history,” “education,” “social forces,” as though they were independent of man and wreaked themselves in some manner upon him.  The admirable Ruth Benedict (5) gives a description of culture that would fit beautifully the historic culture of the Jewish people.  It is “a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action,” like “a style in art.  But she agonizes over the question of the origin and transmission of such a phenomenon and does not shrink from such absurdities as asking whether Greeks, let us say, or Jews, Englishmen or Frenchmen, the Bantu or the Zuni peoples did not differ in their basal metabolisms to account for the unimaginable differences of the cultures they brought forth and perpetuated.

IT MAY BE ASKED why the factor of physical environment was not stressed.  Because students of many cultures found that though the material aspect of a people’s environment delimited the character of its artifacts, its houses, garments, weapons, yet the patterns of speech, form, faith, love, beauty, were wholly independent of whether the climate were cold or hot, the landscape mountain or plain, and that peoples dwelling contiguously in identical physical environments produced cultural patterns of the strangest and most striking diversity.  It is only a clever dilettante like Arthur Koestler who, in his sick-souled rage to destroy himself through the destruction of his people, falls back upon crude environmentalism.  He does worse.  He falls back upon a pseudo-racialism.  It is not without grim import that he writes as follows of the sabras, the native born Palestinians: “There can be little doubt that the race is undergoing some curious biological alteration, probably induced by the abrupt change in climate, diet and the mineral balance of the soil….  The whole phenomenon is a striking confirmation of the theory that environment has a greater formative influence than heredity, and that what we commonly regard as Jewish characteristics are not racial features.” (6)  But it is clear from what has here been said that no sane man regards Jewish characteristics as “racial”.  It is an ex-communist, an old-fashioned materialist, who speaks.  Climate and diet do affect the body.

Young American Jews are taller and stronger than their fathers from the under-nourished ghettos of Minsk and Kovno.  They are psychologically and spiritually the same Jews.  The people of the old Yishuv of Jerusalem, the Chalukah people, above all, were physically and temperamentally not different from the Jew of Eastern Europe, even though they had changed climate, diet and soil.  The sabras arc a new spiritual and physical type.  But what shaped them was not climate or soil.  What shaped them was a development in Jewish culture; in Jewish civilization.  It was the ideal of self-emancipation, of national reintegration; it, was pride and glory; it was the recovery of their own speech and the experience of their own tragedy, not of some foul catastrophe from without that wrought the change in them.  Their environment in the creative sense, their education, their history, their “social forces” and “social constructs” were the great impelling passionate teachings of a ge’ulath ha-am, the redemption of a people, through the ge’ulath ha-aretz, through the redemption of its land.  It may be asserted with scientific precision that the character of the sabras was determined by ideas that issued from Jewish minds.  Achad Ha-Am and Aaron David Gordon – these and their fellows were the re-creators of Jewish history and of the Jew.  A revolting but exact analogy is this, that an evil idea born of an ignoble refusal to accept defeat and guilt changed the German from a leader of civilization into an abysmal madman and murderer.  It was the same German in the same environment of the same lineage, who rose so high and fell so deep.

The peoples and the cultures they produce are products of neither biology nor environment.  They are ultimate and self-subsistent facts.  They are, like language, music, stylet, free creations of the human will and of the human mind.  They are, if one prefers scientific language, spontaneous variations; they are, if one prefers a theological formulation, creative acts of God’s grace.  Careful thinking will come upon the fact that the two phrasings have the same final content.  The peoples, as Achad-Ha-Am suggested, might be likened to supra-personalities.  This agrees well with the final finding of the anthropologist that “society is not and never can be anything over and above the individual minds that compose it.” (7)  In brief, the peoples and their cultures are the creation of kindred souls.  That they differ widely one from the other should amaze us no more than that human personalities and countenances and characters differ widely from each other within the identical biological pattern.  These things are of the soul, not of the body.  The sublime parable of the Mishnah is eternally true of people and of peoples: “Man stamps many coins with the same seal and they are all like one another; but the King of Kings, the Holy One,-blessed is He, has stamped every man with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them is like his fellow.  Therefore everyone must say: For my sake, was the world created.” (8)

THE PEOPLES are ultimate self-constituted entities.  Each creates its own culture in the image of its soul.  Every Frenchman finds his soul mirrored in and symbolized by Racine, even Englishman by Shakespeare, every Jew by the Torah.  Each people is unique and its culture is unique; each member of each culture is both participant and creator within it.  His fathers shaped it in the image of their souls which is also his soul, so that the most “advanced” Frenchman finds his way back to Racine and no Jew, as Maimonides wrote to the Yemenite, “escapes this Torah.”  Each people and its culture are unique and incomparable.  But  the uniqueness of the Jewish people and its culture has a special character.  It is as Maurice Samuel demonstrated long ago, not a separateness from each of the other peoples. (9)  It is a separateness from all the other peoples, a specific and transcendent separateness.  That separateness is implicit in the circumstance that the supreme symbol of the French spirit is Racine, a classical dramatist, and of the English people Shakespeare, a somber, pagan master of speech and creator of characters, and that the permanent expression and symbol of the Jewish people and its spirit is a book, that deals with God and man and with God’s will and man’s obedience or rebellion.  The great and representative books of the other peoples are works of literature; the great and representative book of the Jewish people – a book that has therefore conquered worlds – is not literature but scripture.  It is not beauty but revelation.  It will not be left or read.  It demands; it threatens; it summons.  It came into the world and brought, as Jesus said of himself and his mission, not peace but a sword.  It is beyond all circumstance of individual dissent or faith, the permanent symbol, of the Jewish people, of that people’s character and fate.

Character and fate!  The decisive words have been spoken.  For has not the common sense of mankind always known that these two aspects of man are one and that the former determines the latter?  Character is fate.  A people’s essence creates its destiny; the same things keep happening to it from age to age during its historic existence, even as a given individual creates or evokes a recurrent similarity of fortune. No blind necessity is at work.  A people out of the depth of its willing may renew itself, as the Jewish people has done in this age; a man may undergo a conversion, a teshuvah, and be indeed a new man.  But renewal and return, national or individual, are willed and created from within.  The modern Jewish sage, Sigmund Freud, did no more than deepen and confirm this immemorial cognition which has never been more precisely formulated than by that great artist and Freudian, Thomas Mann: “The blending of subject and object, their interpenetration, an insight into the mysterious oneness of the world and the ‘I’, of fate and character, of event and action, an insight, then, into reality as a creation of the soul – such is assuredly, the Alpha and Omega, of all psychoanalytical initiation.” (10)

The peoples are, ultimate phenomenon behind which thought cannot go.  Each people is unique, but the uniqueness of the Jewish people, the people not of an Odyssey nor of a Niebelungenlied, nor of a Racine, nor of a Shakespeare but of a Torah, is a transcendent uniqueness.  For it challenged the world; it made itself, as Socrates said of his relation to the Athenian state, a gad-fly.  And this circumstance, too, has found its adequate expression in the incomparable words of Thomas Mann: “Innate in Abraham was an urgent, care-worn anxiety to confirm the nature of God.  From the beginning there lived in him the germ of an insight into the Creator’s transcendence, allness and spiritual character, so that He was the place of the world and the world not His place.” (11)  The Jewish people did net worship idols interchangeable with other idols; it created as its national heroes not brave warriors interchangeable with the Agamemnons and later with the Beowulfs and the Siegfrieds: it came upon the scene of history with this Torah, this conception of God and this demand upon man.  By what it was, by its ultimate and self-created character, it flung an undying challenge into the very countenance of a pagan world.

THE PAGAN WORLD was not unaware of the challenge, dim and distorted – deliberately though unconsciously distorted – as was its early knowledge of the Jewish people.  The pagan world reacted to the challenge with irritation and wounded pride and repressed dismay.  In the year 59 before the common era Cicero, defending a Roman fiscal agent accused of embezzling Jewish funds sent to sustain the Temple in Jerusalem, exclaimed: “Every state has its religion; we have ours.  But even when Jerusalem stood and the Jews lived in peace, the character of their rites harmonized but ill with the splendor of this empire, the dignity of the Roman name and the institutions of our ancestors.”  When that had been said 2009 years ago, all lad been said.  The anti-Semites of the ages have added no new element.  “Every state has its religion!” (13) Cicero cried.  Every state throughout the ages has had its religion and has tended to become the idol of its own worship even to the monstrous Hitlerian and Stalinist idolatries of this age.  And always the people and the faith of Amos and Nathan and Elijah and Jeremiah has evoked by what it was, by its character which is its destiny, the identical reaction from a pagan world.  It had repudiated the state and the idolatry of the State in the days of Gideon and Jotham and Samuel.  No wonder that thirty years after Cicero’s outburst Josephus tells us how the Alexandrian anti- Semites asked the silly, everlasting question: “Why, if the Jews are citizens, do they not worship the same gods as the Alexandrins?” (14)  Gradually a faint Jewish influence in the shape of Sabatarianism spread in certain Roma circles and the satirist Juvenal lashes out against it as a sign of the corruption; of the period, and Seneca, the Jews being now a conquered people, cries out, as did the Nazis of yesterday: “Victi victoribus leges dederunt – ” (15) the vanquished have imposed laws on the victors!

Nothing changed.   Nothing has changed.  Christianity arose and for a brief period the pagans turned against the new faith and resisted the Jewish people and its faith, as Tacitus tells us, only as being the instigator and, as it were, the root of the new challenge.  But early in the fourth century Constantine made the Christian religion the religion of the Empire and once more the Jewish people were declared under another form and according to another rationalization outcasts, heretics, the common enemies of mankind.  Jewish character, identical with the Jewish idea, remained unaltered and evoked an unchanging reaction.  Tranquilly and simply Maimonides wrote in the Iggeret Teman to his Yemenite friends: “The divine teaching in our hands has ever evoked enemies and men strove ever to turn us from that teaching.  We suffered in antiquity and our sufferings have not diminished since the two new religions, the Christian and the Mohammedan, arose.”

Nor has the matter ever not been understood, though stated, if one likes, in unscientific terms, until the pressures of the false emancipation corrupted not only Jewish life hut the integrity of the Jewish mind.  Now and only now the evidence of all history and of all experience was denied.  A false universalism sought to obliterate sharp and salient distinctions, to rob all phenomena of their qualities and to plunge the Jewish people into the unappetizing cauldron of a pagan world.  It was forgotten that the Jews had been and were hated and resisted precisely because they brought with them into the world a universal challenge – the challenge of God, of peace, of righteousness, but that they could no longer issue that challenge if they abandoned themselves and their ways and their sanctification of life.  The uniqueness of the Jewish people among the unique peoples of the world is not a theological dogma, as has been foolishly pretended.  It is a fact of historic experience.  Its witnesses are all the peoples and all the empires of the Western world from Rome to Germany.  The bitter immediate persecution of Jewish intellectuals in Soviet Russia is the last link in that unriven chain. (16)

WHAT ARE WE?  A people among the peoples – ultimate phenomenon and fact upon the landscape of immortality.  But by the witness of all history, by the uniform reaction which our being has evoked, we are a people of transcendent uniqueness.  This was admirably seen by a comparatively simple soul like J.L. Peretz when he wrote: “The form in which the universal spirit, seeking its incarnation in substance, embodies itself in the Jewish soul – that is Jewishness.” (17)  But deeper and more fundamental than the words of philosophers and poets, historians or scientists, are the words in which the Jewish people itself has, as it were, from age to age, expressed its unerring knowledge of that character which is identical with destiny.  We thank the Eternal, before taking the scroll of the Torah from its shrine for having “separated us from all the peoples and given us His law”; we praise the Eternal in the Aleinu, that profoundest delineation of our character and fate, “for that he has not made us like the peoples of other lands nor set us level with the clans of earth.”  But we do more.  Out of that uniqueness we issue one more the challenge to an unredeemed world.  We pray for the splendor of God’s might, to obliterate the idols, to strike down the false gods; we beseech the Eternal for that day when all mankind will take upon itself the yoke of His kingdom and He will govern in glory.

What have we to do with the obliteration of character and quality which the false universalism of the emancipation his dinned into our ears?  Out of our transcendent uniqueness we have issued the call of a universal redemption to mankind.  The answer of the ages is recorded in history and experience.

(1) Arthur Koestler. Promise and Fulfillment. 1950.
(2) A.J. Toynbee. A Study of History, pp. 310 and 572
(3) Alexander Goldenweiser.  History, Psychology and Culture.  1933.
(4) Margaret Mead.  Sex and Temperament.  1935. 
(5) Ruth Benedict.  Patterns of Culture.  1934. 
(6) Arthur Koestler.  Op. Cit. 
(7) Ruth Benedict.  Op. Cit.
(8) Sanhedrin.  Folio 37b.
(9) Maurice Samuel.  You Gentiles.  1924
(11) Thomas Mann.  Freud und die Zukunft.  1936
(12) Thomas Mann.  Joseph der Erniehrer.  1943. Note the Talmudic echo.
(13) Cicero.  Pro Flacco.
(14) Josephus.  Contra Apion.
(15) Quoted by Augiutine.  De Civitate Dei.
(16) For the first adequate documentation on this point see:  Peter Vierack.  Conservatism Revisited.  (Notes and Appendix to Chapter III)  1949
(17) Peretz.  Edited by S. Lipsin.  Yivo 1947. 


 A PDF version of this essay is available here

Thoughts from The Frontier: Reflections on the Jewish Situation, Part I: Re-Examination, by Ludwig Lewisohn (Jewish Frontier, February, 1950)

Reflections on the Jewish Situation


by Ludwig Lewisohn

Jewish Frontier
February, 1950

A DEEP METAPHYSICAL ANXIETY stirs the Western World.  Even so nihilistic a movement as that which is called existentialism bears witness to that anxiety.  Keen as the feeling is, it as yet fruitless.  It is still a flight from fear and a desire for reassurance.  It has not yet entered the moral world or the world of action; it has not yet entered the world of contrition and expiation.  It may still for the day and hour be summed up in the saying of Paul Valery: “There is science, mortally wounded in its moral ambitions and, as it were, dishonored by the cruelty of its applications.”  The ground is shaking under the feet of Western man; he is hardly yet poised for flight, nor is he on his knees.  His heart is still barren and the sky above him empty.

This metaphysical anxiety is shared by not a few Jews.  But in them, whether they know it or not, it takes on a different character for the reason that their sub-consciousness is not gnawed by guilt.  Upon pagan altars they were the sacrifice; the blood-soaked hands of Christendom are spiritually the remotest thing from them in all the world.  They are not driven to such enormities as the celebration annually of a Mass of a Messiah with those hands still twitching away from any lustral waters.  They are therefore too often still lured by a withered positivism, by a forgetfulness of the great words of Martin Buber: Vom zeugehden Geist aus dauren wir.  (“We endure by virtue of the creative power of the spirit.”)  Nevertheless, the pervasive metaphysical anxiety of Western man is theirs too.  It may, through them, if they will it, assume a redemptive form that will transcend themselves.

Meanwhile, there is another, a specifically Jewish disquietude which casts down many hearts, which rasps the nerves of many.  Or else, it is a kind of sudden dismay.  And it takes yet a third form, that of a huddling, as though all obstacles were now gone, into the transitory comforts of a pagan world.  The years of dread and doom are feigned to be over for ever – as has always happened in respect of such days.  Their memory is repressed.  And this process is the easier in this century because the prophecies from Amos on have been fulfilled.  The Third Commonwealth, the Medinath Yisrael exists.  “They shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens and eat the fruit of them.”  May one not then be at ease in one’s alien Zion?  Need one be agitated further?  But though the disclaiming voices are loud, they do not wholly hush the agitation deep within.

There is a nobler Jewish disquietude than this.  It manifests itself in an impassioned concern over the status of religion in Israel; it is deeply troubled by the problem of the relation of American Jewry to the people of the State of Israel; it fears chasm and schism and seeks to build a bridge for which there is as yet-no foundation on this side of the sea.  But the foundation must be built.  And since it takes time to build foundations that shall last and since the disquietude is deep and cannot afford time, conferences are called and panel discussions invited and “plans for Jewish living today” are sent out for approval and masses of well-meant and sterile words are proliferated.  The disquietude persists.  And even so it still shrinks from facing other questions, rightly dear and sacred to innumerable souls.  How shall we from now on pray for the beruth, the freedom of Israel, interpreting it, according to the liturgy, as the freedom to gather our exiles from the four corners of the earth?  With what countenance shall we at our Sedorim say I’shanah haba’a b’yerushalayim – unto the next year in Jerusalem?  The freedom is won; the gates of the land are open to every Jew in the world.  Why not in Jerusalem this year – no – on the instant?  Planes fly; ships sail.

BUT WE ARE IMPRISONED in a world of contingency.  The absolute answer to an absolute command is wholly possible only in the realm of the mind, of the spirit.  The centrifugal forces of the post-emancipatory Galuth splintered the Jewish soul and the vast majority of Jews in America, of adherents of the Zionist movement in America, could not afford to grasp and to transmute into action the realities of the Zionist Revolution.  For Zionism was in very truth a radical movement.  It went to the root of things.  It made radical demands based upon radical conclusions.  Although secular in its forms and phrasings, it re-affirmed the antique instinctive conviction of Israel that it was a people in exile, that exile knows only mitigation of evil but never knows the good and that therefore secular means, not excluding the power of the human spirit, were to be used to liberate Israel from exile and return it – as the prophets and sages had promised – to its own land.  And Zionism meant the people Israel – the whole people.  Its negation of the Galuth as a form of human life was total.  We will not even leave our dead behind, Herzl wrote in his diaries.  There will be a ship sailing to Eretz Yisrael carrying the bones of our fathers.

If American Jews stopped short of embracing this total concept of the entire Jewish people as a people on the march from homelessness home, it cannot be denied that an element of self-protection was unconsciously at work.  Even before the establishment of the Commonwealth and before the opening of the gates of the land it was evident that it could not house all the world’s Jews and that the remnants of Europe and the oppressed of the Arab countries must first be rescued and redeemed.  Though the world’s Jewish population was reduced from 16,000,000 to a bare 10,000,000, the land still was too narrow.  A vigorous and numerous chalutziuth movement in America will help to sustain Israel technically and physically; it will serve American Jewry spiritually and morally.  It can barely touch the question of the continuous corporate existence of the Jews in the United States of America.   We shall remain here.  For the sake of freedom itself, of our own security, of the security of the State of Israel we must sustain and fortify our position in America.  How is that to be done?  In what character, as what, do we remain?  Here, at this point, set in new contradictions and difficulties.  Here, at this point, arises the great Jewish disquietude of our day.

ONE THING is CLEAR to all except the self-stupefied laggards of a perished age: we cannot remain in freedom and dignity on the terms of the old pseudo-liberalistic emancipation.  For those terms involved, however tacitly, however equivocally, the aim of self-annihilation.  It implied that aim externally and internally.  Macaulay, a man of good will, a high-minded man, pleaded for the civil emancipation of the Jews on these terms: (1831) “They are not so well treated as the dissenting sects of Christians are now treated in England; and on this account, and, we firmly believe, on this account alone, they have a more exclusive spirit.  Till we have carried the experiment further, we are not entitled to conclude that they cannot be made Englishmen altogether.”  In the same year of 1841 Gabriel Riesser, pleading for the civil emancipation of his people in Germany wrote: “The question is none other than a question of religious liberty ….  We are either Germans or we are homeless.”  There is no merit in hindsight.  But it is infinitely curious to observe that Macaulay and Riesser, both conscious liberals and libertarians, proposed a theory of society which sets as its goal and ideal the highest measure of conformity.  Both affirm the unitary or, as we should now say, the monolithic state and the identity of society and state.  One was willing to grant and the other to demand religious freedom.  But since Macaulay did not understand and Riesser chose to forget the character of the Jewish religion, the addition of one more mere sect to those already tolerated was no great concession.

It is clear that passages of similar purport could be quoted by the hundred.  The hope and ideal of the emancipation was – as it is still of lazy liberals and anti-Semites with a troublesome conscience bidding them be philo-Semites – that complete liberation would destroy what was held to be the accidentally or sociologically determined separateness of the Jews.  And if, in fact, that separateness had been “accidental” or had been determined by so-called social forces of recent origin, the hope need not have been in vain and Jews might have become undifferentiated Frenchmen, Englishmen, Germans.  By the same token anti-Semitism ought gradually to have declined and faded.  Neither thing took place.  Liberals continued to plead for the Jews and to befriend them on the principles of the emancipation; great masses of Jews strove by means ranging from the not wholly ignoble to forms of violent self-degradation to play the game of ultimate annihilation.  Apostasy and inter-marriage did decimate the communities and cultural assimilation cut the last ties with the congregation of Israel.  But the masses of Jews survived as Jews and anti-Semitism burned with foul and hitherto unheard-of fury and fever and the world of the emancipation crashed with world-historic guilt, shame, martyrdom, ineffable tragedy, and was burned to ashes in Majdanek, Auschwitz and Treblinka.

These are commonplaces to thoughtful Jews and, it is to be hoped, to a few thoughtful Christians.  It may be doubted whether the iron tread of history has ever so gigantically confirmed the analyses and prophecies of a group of men as these decades have confirmed the insights and visions of the early Zionists.  Yet when a man like Jean-Paul Sartre writes: “It is not the Jewish character which evokes anti-Semitism but on the contrary, it is the anti-Semite who creates the Jew;” when a gifted American Zionist still says wistfully that, after all, fusion was the American ideal, it is clear that the unbending facts of the historic process must once more be emphasized.

Nor is this all.  It is necessary to be utterly clear as to the inner character of the modern emancipation before we can examine the groundwork of our being and destiny upon which the forms of our survival must be based from now on.  The great and disquieting question: in what guise and under what aspects shall we guide and govern our lives in America and what shall be our relationship to the people of the State of Israel, can be answered only on the ground of many re-examinations of history and experience.  The first re-examination must be that of the inner meaning of the emancipatory period – the period, roughly, from Napoleon to Hitler, from 1808 to 1933.

THE DEMAND FROM WITHOUT and the trend from within was to render the Jew indistinguishable from his fellow-citizen except by religion.  Since, however, the historic Jewish religion is a form and discipline of the whole of life, sanctifying and setting apart an entire people from the other peoples by that form which intends a spiritualization of man and nature, an imitatio Dei, it could not in its authentic form be even approximated to the practice of other religious groupings.  Hence all the practices which constitute kedusha, the sanctification of life, were gradually abandoned.  A remnant of self-respect dictated the disavowal of the hard realistic motives of this process – the diminution of Judaism to the final point of fusion and disappearance.  The age placed handsome rationalizations into the hands of the so-called reformers.  In an “enlightened age,” it was said, the age of, so to speak, Darwin, Haeckel, Huxley, Buckle, Marx, Wellhausen, Harnack – note the unification of trend within the different intellectual disciplines – a man could not be expected to abide by archaic practices, vestiges of a barbaric age, nor could he exclude himself from that community of all mankind which, under the leadership of science and democracy, was being even “more strictly knit into a unity of freedom and brotherhood.

It is hard in 1950 to describe these rationalizations without irony.  For two things have happened.  That mechanistic universe of impenetrable matter and economic determinism and the unimpeded action of rigid laws is swept away.  No vestige of it remains.  Einstein’s discovery that energy and matter are interchangeable has received the empiric proof of the fission of the atom.  Matter is far more like what was once called mind and the Kantian analysis of the act and process of human knowing has been validated by the last word of astro-physics.  Man creates his universe as he goes along and such theories as that of biological evolution are far more symptomatic of limited philosophical trends in man than they are of the processes that actually take place in an objectified universe.  And another thing has happened and was destined to happen.  The liberalistic world based upon materialistic determinism has also been destroyed.  Monstrous rebellions against the remaining ethical and living universe have plunged half of the world into a freezing and intolerable hell of spiritual nothingness and slavery to blood and chains and dread.  Man, supposing himself liberated by Darwin and Marx from moral responsibility aid spiritual fact, set out to destroy the classical civilization of the West.  To this rebellion more than one third of the Jewish people fell victim.  The metaphysical anxiety of our immediate day bears witness to a growing awareness of what has taken place.

What does this mean?  What is its relevancy? The meaning and the relevancy are that all the Jewish rationalizations of a flight from Judaism during the nineteenth and early twentieth century were based upon ugly and transitory fallacies – the most barren and brutal fallacies that ever darkened the spiritual horizon of man.  Shall one laugh or, weep when an eminent living Jewish scholar repeats the historically conditioned and hence once forgivable errors of the early reformers by an appeal to a “modern mind,” basing itself upon a completely discredited view of the sum of things?  In brief, all the intellectual bases of the Judaism of the so-called emancipation have crumbled into dust.  That way is no longer a way.  No trace of it remains.

Such is one aspect of a re-examination of Jewish life between 1808 and 1933; that is, during, the era of the false emancipation, of which the shadows fall upon us still.  All its trends, Reform, Bundism – all its refusals and all its universalist affirmations – were based upon fallacies shattered and disgraced by their dreadful consequences.  There is another aspect, closely allied, of course, with the first.  Whatever Jews did, especially Western Jews, during the period in question, was done under the pressure of forces outside of the Jewish people.  Organic Jewish history – except among Zionists and the Orthodox – was interrupted.  It was the powers at whose mercy we were that demanded, from Napoleon on, the negation of our peoplehood and of the Messianic hope.  It was the powers of a world totally outside of us that crushed our pride, our self-affirmation, and robbed us of that residual freedom and self-determination which dwelt, however turbidly, in the pre-emancipatory kehilah.  It was a pagan world which with its brutal demands, supported by its stupid and brutal and Godless notions, crept into and corrupted the very soul of the Jew, especially of the Westernized Jewish intellectual and created that phenomenon, unparalleled in degradation, which is known, and rightly known, as Jewish self-hatred.  The manifestations of that self-hatred are with us still.

A DISTINCTION OF THE HIGHEST importance is to be made.  The term “negation of the Galuth” must not be used without discrimination.  The- pre-emancipatory Galuth – the Galuth of the Rambam, of Rashi and Meir of Rothenburg, of both – to span the ages swiftly – the Baal Shem Tov and the Gaon Elijah of Vilna – that Galuth, despite its constant tragedy, is to be affirmed and reverenced as an integral and precious part of Jewish history.  But we were forced and driven from our path and made the objects, totally the objects, of forces outside ourselves with the onset of the so-called emancipation.  For the world’s peoples wanted us to be emancipated not as ourselves but from ourselves.  The immortal miracle is in the ultimate failure of this monstrous attempt which had on its side all the powers and all the principalities, of the world.  Yet not all minds were wholly clouded and not all moral strength was lost.  There did arise the men of the Chibath Zion group and the towers of orthodoxy, that is, of authentic self-determined Judaism, did not crumble in the East nor wholly in the West.

It is the post-emancipatory Galuth that must be negated in its essential character – in all its pseudo-philosophic, in all its psychological and political assumptions – as a first step toward even the most preliminary answering of those questions which represent the metaphysical and, moral anxiety of the Jews of America in this day and hour.  Where did we stand on the eve of that so-called emancipation?  What were the forces at work within the organic community of Israel?  Those who today have from time to time urged a neo-Orthodox or neo-Hasidic movement have not necessarily been obscurantists who would shut the door upon a living development of a living Judaism.  The examples already given of the changes that will have to be made in the liturgy as a consequence of the existence of the Medinath Yisrael illustrate a kind of change, a kind of development within the history of a living and acting Jewish people.  The rabbis, earlier or later, of yesterday or today, who trembled at the assertion of our separateness in the blessings that precede the reading of the Torah either because Gentiles might not like these historically exact assertions or because these assertions did not harmonize with the “modern” theories of a dozen transitory pseudo-sciences – these rabbis were and are the symbols of that unrivalled intellectual and moral degradation to which the Jewish people were reduced, as a people, during the period of the false emancipation.

It is from that intellectual and moral degradation that the Jews of America must liberate themselves as an initial act toward any reconstruction, any re-orientation, any laying of any new foundations upon which may be built a not ignoble and a self-sustaining life in America.  We must think through afresh the question of our character, destiny, attitudes, techniques of living, of hopes and of our faith, wholly uninfluenced by the devices and the demands of the so-called emancipation.   A new emancipation must be initiated – an emancipation from the sordid fallacies of scientific materialism, from the ominous identification of the state with society, from the cowardice which will not criticize our Gentile environment, as civilized Gentiles do daily, from that inner servility which consents to our being merely the object, never the codeterminants of the historic process in which we are involved.  History is on the march.  The State of Israel exists.  The great prophecies of our prophets have come true.  A portion at least, of our Western World is awakening from the lethargy of materialistic determinism and moral nihilism.  If we will it, our feet may now be set upon a path from which we may use a rare and great Midrash of the Jerusalem Talmud:  “Do you know what consoles us and enables us to bear His wrath?  Though he strikes us down He always creates us anew.”

The Jewish Frontier takes pride in announcing the publication of a series of articles by Ludwig Lewisohn, of which “Re-Examination” is the first.  Forthcoming articles in this important series by the distinguished novelist, essayist, and scholar will be “The Jew Within History”; “Tradition and Faith”; “Unity with Israel”; “Relations to the World”.  This challenging analysis of major problems and perplexities troubling thoughtful Jews today should arouse wide interest.


 A PDF version of this essay is available here

Thoughts from The Frontier: Essays by Ludwig Lewisohn in the Jewish Frontier – 1950

From February through July of 1950, the Jewish Frontier published a series of thematically related essays by writer and academic Ludwig Lewisohn (1882-1955) under the heading “Reflections on the Jewish Situation”.  As mentioned in the July issue, the collection of essays was intended for inclusion in Lewisohn’s then forthcoming book, “The American Jew: Character and Destiny”, which was to be published in November of that year by Farrar, Strauss & Co.

Each essay approaches and addresses a specific aspect of the then historical condition of the Jewish people, particularly in light of the two central events of the just-ended decade:  The shoah, and, the re-establishment – after a hiatus of approximately eighteen hundred years – of a – of the – Jewish nation-state of Israel, as an autonomous political and geographic entity. 

In the context of a life denoted by marked (if not wild?!) and creative transitions in terms of self-identity, romantic relationships, literary expression, and career paths, Lewisohn’s series of articles might – in a psychological sense – be construed as a reflection on and recapitulation of the events of his own life, projected onto a wider historical, if not civilizational, canvas.  Regardless, the intellectual and psychological “origins” of these essays do not diminish the validity of their analyses, observations, and conclusions, many of which remain strikingly relevant in 2017.

Though Lewisohn seemed to have passed into relative obscurity after his passing in 1955, his writings and thoughts about the “situation” of the Jews retain relevancy, despite the passage of time.  The reason being, that while the world has changed; has always changed; will ever change – the “place” of the Jews in the world – a “place” neither bounded nor explained through a purely materialistic interpretation of reality – has not changed. 

Because by definition and nature, it cannot change.


Each post in this series of blog posts comprises a verbatim transcript of a specific essay by Lewisohn, and for your convenience, includes a PDF version of the same document.


Information about Lewisohn’s life and work is readily; widely; easily available both in print and digital formats.  For example, a search of lists some 131 items to which Lewisohn was either a contributor or (less frequently) primary author.  More importantly, Dr. Ralph Melnick, of the Judaic Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts, has chronicled Lewisohn’s life in two monographs under the major title “The Life and Work of Ludwig Lewisohn”.  Published in 1998 by the Wayne State University Press, they are:

A Touch of Wilderness (covers 1882 through 1934)
ISBN 0814326927 9780814326923
754 pp.

This Dark and Desperate Age (covers Lewisohn’s life from 1934 through 1955)
0814327656 9780814327654
596 pp

I also highly recommend these essays about Lewisohn’s most interesting life and times:

Lambert, Josh, Comeback Kid, Tablet, November 3, 2008

Myers, D.G., Retrieving American-Jewish Fiction, Jewish Ideas Daily, September 2, 2011,

And of course, the Wikipedia page for Lewisohn

Notable Books by Ludwig Lewisohn

The Island Within (1928)
Up Stream (1922)
The Creative Life (1924)
Israel (1925)
The Case of Mr. Crump (1926)
Expression in America (1931)
The Last Days of Shylock (1931) (Illustrated by Arthur Szyk)
Trumpet of Jubilee (1937)
Rebirth (1935)
The Broken Snare (1908)
A Night in Alexandria (1909)
German Style, An Introduction to the Study of German Prose (1910)
The Modern Drama (New York, 1914)
Rebirth, A Book of Modern Jewish Thought (New York, 1935)
Breathe Upon These (1944)