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The Outlook of Judaism

September 16, 1893 — Jewish Women’s Congress, Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL


* This paper was read by Mrs. Max Leopold


The nineteenth century has had its surprises; the position of the Jews to-day is one of these, both for the Jew himself, and for most enlightened Christians. There were certain facts we thought forever laid at rest, certain conditions and contingencies that could never confront us again, certain war-cries that could not be raised. In this last decade of our civilization, however, we have been rudely awakened from our false dream of security — it may be to a higher calling and destiny than we had yet foreseen. I do not wish to emphasize the painful facts by dwelling on them, or even pointing them out. We are all aware of them, and whenever Jews and Christians can come together on equal terms, ignoring differences and opposition and injury, it is well that they should do so. But, at the same time, we must not shut our eyes, nor, like the ostrich, bury our head in the sand. The situation, which is so grave a one, must be bravely and honestly faced, the crisis met, the problem frankly stated in all its bearings, so that the whole truth may be brought to light if possible. We are a little apt to look on one side only of the shield, especially when our sense of justice and humanity is stung, and the cry of the oppressed and persecuted — our brothers — rings in our ears. As we all know, the effect of persecution is to strengthen solidarity. The Jew who never was a Jew before, becomes one: when the vital spot is touched, “the Jew” is thrust upon him, whether he would or not, and made an insult and reproach. When we are attacked as Jews, we do not strike back angrily, but we coil up in our shell of Judaism and entrench ourselves more strongly than before. The Jews themselves, both from natural habit and force of circumstance, have been accustomed to dwell along their own lines of thought and life, absorbed in their own point of view, almost to the exclusion of outside opinion. Indeed, it is this power of concentration in their own pursuits, that insures their success in most things they set out to do. They have been content for the most part to guard the truth they hold, rather than spread it.

Amid favorable surroundings and easy circumstances, many of us had ceased to take it very deeply or seriously, that we were Jews. We had grown to look upon it merely as an accident of birth for which we were not called upon to make any sacrifice, but rather to make ourselves as much as possible like our neighbors, neither better nor worse than the people around us. But with a painful shock, we are suddenly made aware of it as a detriment, and we shrink at once back into ourselves, hurt in our most sensitive point, our pride wounded to the quick, our most sacred feelings, as we believe, outraged and trampled upon, But our very altitude proves that something is wrong with us. Persecution does not touch us; we do not feel it when we have an idea large enough, and close enough to our hearts, to sustain and console us. The martyrs of old did not feel the fires of the stake, the arrows that pierced their mesh. The Jews of the olden time danced to their death with praise and song, and joyful shouts of hallelujah. They were willing to die for that which was their life, and more than their life to them. But the martyrdom of the present day is a strange and novel one, that has no grace or glory about it, and of which we are not proud. We have not chosen and perhaps would not choose it. Many of us scarcely know the cause for which we suffer, and therefore we feel every pang, every cut of the lash. For our own sake then, and still more perhaps for those who come after us, and to whom we bequeath our Judaism, it behooves us to find out just what it means to us, and what it holds for us to live by. In other words, what is the content and significance of modern Judaism in the world to-day, not only for us personally as Jews, but for the world at large? What power has it as a spiritual influence? And as such what is its share or part in the large life of humanity, in the broad current and movement of the times? What actuality has it and what possible unfoldment in the future?

No sooner do we put these questions than we are at once confronted with every phase of sentiment, every shade and variety of opinion. We sweep the whole gamut of modern, restless thought, of shifting beliefs and unbelief, from the depths of superstition, as well as of skepticism and materialism, to the cold heights of agnosticism; from the most rigid and uncompromising formalism, or a sincere piety, to a humanitarism so broad that it has almost eliminated God, or a Deism so vast and distant that it has almost eliminated humanity. Nothing is more curious than this range and diversity of conviction, from a center of unity, for the Jewish idea survives through every contradiction, as the race, the type, persists through every modification of climate and locality, and every varying nationality. Clear and dis tinct, we can trace it through history, and as the present can best be read by the light of the past, I should like briefly to review the ideas on which our existence is based and our identity sustained.

What an endless perspective! Age after age unrolls, nations appear and disappear, and still we follow and find them. Back to the very morning of time, before the primal mist had lifted from the world, while yet there were giants in the earth, and the sons of God mingled with the daughters of men, we come upon their dim and mythical beginnings. A tribe of wanderers in Eastern lands, roaming beside the water-ways, feeding their flocks upon the hill-sides, leading their camels across the lonely desert wastes, and pitching their tents beneath the high, star-studded skies. From the first, a people much alone with their own souls and nature, brought to face the Infinite — self-centered, brooding and conscious of a something, they knew not what — a power, not themselves, that led their steps and walked and talked with men. Already in those earliest days great types loom up among them, the patriarchal leaders, large, tribal, composite figures, rather than actual persons, and yet touched with human traits and personality, moving about in pastoral and domestic scenes; men, already, in their own crude way, preoccupied of God, and his dealings with themselves and with the world. Upon a background of myth, and yet, in a sense how bold, how clear, stands Moses, the man of God, who saw the world aflame with Deity — the burning bush, the flaming mountain top, the fiery cloud, leading his people from captivity, and who heard pronounced the divine and everlasting name, the unpronounceable, the Ineffable I Am. In Moses, above all, whether we look upon him as semi-historic or a purely symbolic figure, the genius of the Hebrew race is typified, the fundamental note of Judaism is struck, the word that rings forever after through the ages, which is the law spoken by God himself, with trumpet sound, midst thunderings and lightning from heaven. Whatever of true or false, of fact or legend hangs about it, we have in the Mosaic conception, the moral ideal of the Hebrews, a code, divinely sanctioned and ordained, the absolute imperative of duty, a transcendent law laid upon man which he must perforce obey, in order that he may live. “Thou shalt,” “Thou shall not,” hedge him around on every side, now as moral obligation and again as ceremonial or legal ordinance, and becomes the bulwark of the faith, through centuries of greatness, centuries of darkness and humiliation.

Amid a cloud of wars, Jehovah’s sacred wars, with shadowy hosts and chieftains, the scattered clans unite, the kingdom forms, and we have the dawn of history. Jerusalem is founded, at once a stronghold and a sanctuary, and the temple built. The national and religious life grow as one growth, knitting themselves together, and mutually strengthening and upholding one another. Then the splendors of Solomon’s reign, the palace with royal state, and above all the ever-growing magnificence of the temple service, with more and more sumptuous rites. The true greatness of Israel was never to consist in outward greatness, nor in the materializing of any of its ideas, either in the religious or the secular life, but wholly in the inner impulse and activity, the spiritual impetus which was now shaping itself into Prophetism. And here we strike the second chord, that other source and spring of Israel’s life, which still yields living waters. In Hebrew prophecy we have no crumbling monument of perishable stone, the silent witness of a past that is dead and gone, but the quickening breath of the spirit itself, the words that live and burn, the something that is still alive and life-giving because it holds the soul of a people, the spirit that cannot die. The prophets owned the clearer vision that pierced below the surface and penetrated to the hidden meaning, the moral and spiritual interpretation of the law in contrast with its outer sense.

Throughout their history we find that the Jews as a nation have been the “God-intoxicated” race, intent upon the problem of understanding him and his ways with them, his rulings of their destiny. With this idea, whether in a high form or a law, in spiritual or material fashion, their whole existence has been identified.

In the Hebrew writings we trace not so much the development of a people as of an Idea that constantly grows in strength and purity. The petty, tribal god, cruel and partisan, like the gods around him, becomes the universal and eternal God, who fills all time and space, all heaven and earth, and beside whom no other power exists. Throughout nature, his will is law, his fiat goes forth, and the stars obey him in their course, the winds and waves: ” Fire and hail, snow and vapors, stormy wind, fulfilling his word.”

“The lightnings do his bidding and say ‘Here we are’ when he commands them.”

But not alone in the physical realm, still more is he the moral ruler of the Universe; and here we come upon the core of the Hebrew conception, its true grandeur and originality, upon which the whole stress was laid, namely, that it is only in the moral sphere, only as a moral being that man can enter into relation with his Maker, and the Maker of the Universe, and come to any understanding of him.

“Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? Deeper than hell; what canst thou know?”

Not through the finite, limited intellect, nor any outward sense-perception, but only through the moral sense, do these earnest teachers bid us seek God, who reveals himself in the law which is at once human and divine, the voice of duty and of conscience, animating the soul of man. Like the stars, he too can obey, and then his righteousness will shine forth as the noon-day sun, his going forth will be like the dawn. It is this breadth of the divine that vitalizes the pages of the Hebrew prophets and their moral precepts. It is the blending of the two ideals, the complete and absolute identification of the moral and religious life, so that each can be interpreted in terms of the other, the moral life saturated and fed, sustained and sanctified by the divine, the religious life merely a divinely ordained morality, this it is, that constitutes the essence of their teachings, the unity and grand simplicity of their ideal. The link was never broken between the human and the divine, between conduct and its motive, religion and morality, nor obscured by any cloudy abstractions of theology or metaphysics. Their God was a God whom the people could understand; no mystic figure relegated to the skies, but a very present power, working upon earth, a personality very clear and distinct, very human one might almost say, who mingled in human affairs, whose word was swift and sure, and whose path so plain to follow, “that wayfaring men, though fools, should not err therein.” What he required was no impossible ideal, but simply to do justice, to love mercy, and walk humbly before him. What he promised was: “Seek ye me and ye shall live.” How can one fail to be impressed by the heroic mould of these austere, impassioned souls, and by the richness of the soil that gave them birth at a time when spiritual thought had scarcely dawned upon the world. The prophets were the “high lights ” of Judaism; but the light failed, the voices ceased, and prophetism died out. In spite of its broad ethical and social basis, its seeming universality, it never became the religion of the masses, because in reality it is the religion of the few, the elect and chosen of God, who know and feel the beauty of his holiness.

The people needed something more penetrating and persuasive, or else something more congenial to their actual development at the time; namely, some concrete and sensuous form in which Deity could be brought into life. Therefore the code was devised, or rather it evolved and grew like a natural growth out of the conditions and constitution of Judaism. The “Torah” was literally the body of the law, in which the spirit was incased as in a mummy shroud. In order that Israel should survive, should continue to exist at all in the midst of the ruins that were falling around it, and the darkness upon which it was entering, it was necessary that this close, internal organization, this mesh and network of law and practice, of regulated usage covering the most insignificant acts of life, knitting them together as with nerve and sinew, and invulnerable to any catastrophe from without, should take the place of all external prop and form of unity. The whole outer framework of life fell away. The kingdom perished, the temple fell, the people scattered. They ceased to be a nation, they ceased to be a church, and yet, indissolubly bound by these invisible chains, as line as silk, as strong as iron, they presented an impenetrable front to the outside world, they became more intensely national, more exclusive and sectarian, more concentrated in their individuality than they had ever been before. The Talmud came to reinforce the Pentateuch, and Rabbinism intensified Judaism, which thereby lost its power to expand, its claim to become a universal religion, and remained the prerogative of a peculiar people.

With fire and sword the Christian era dawned for Israel. Jerusalem was besieged, the temple fired, the Holy Mount in flames, and a million people perished, a fitting prelude to the long tragedy that has not ended yet, the martyrdom of eighteen centuries. Death in every form, by flood, by fire, and with every torture that could be conceived, left a track of blood through history, the crucified of the nations. Strangers and wanderers in every age, and every land, calling no man friend, and no spot home. Withal the ignominy of the Ghetto, a living death. Dark, pitiable, ignoble destiny! Magnificent, heroic, unconquerable destiny, luminous with self-sacrifice, unwritten heroism, devotion to an ideal, a cause believed in, and a name held sacred! But destiny still unsolved; martyrdom not yet swallowed up in victory.

In our modern rushing days, life changes with such swiftness that it is difficult even to follow its rapid movement. During the last hundred years Judaism has undergone more modification than during the previous thousand years. The French Revolution sounded a note of freedom so loud, so clamorous that it pierced the Ghetto walls, and found its way to the imprisoned souls. The gates were thrown open, the light streamed in from the outside, and the Jew entered the modern world. As if by enchantment, the spell which had bound him hand and foot, body and soul, was broken, and his mind and spirit released from thrall, sprang into re-birth and vigor. Eager for life in every form and in every direction, with unused pent-up vitality, he pressed to the front, and crowded the avenues where life was most crowded, thought and action most stimulated And in order to this movement, naturally and of necessity, he began to disengage himself from the toils in which he was involved, to unwind himself, so to speak, from fold after fold of outworn and outlandish customs. Casting off the outer shell or skeleton, which, like the bony covering of the tortoise, serves as armor, at the same time that it impedes all movement and progress, as well as inner growth, Judaism thought to revert to its original type, the pure and simple monotheism of the early days, the simple creed that Right is Might, the simple law of justice among men. Divested of its spiritual mechanism, absolutely without myth or dogma of any kind, save the all-embracing unity of God, taxing so little the credulity of men, no religion seemed so fitted to withstand the storm and stress of modern thought, the doubt and skepticism of a critical and scientific age that has played such havoc with time-honored creeds. And having rid himself, as he proudly believed, of his own superstitions, naturally the Jew had no inclination to adopt what he looked upon as the superstitions of others. He was still as much as ever the Jew; as far as ever removed from the Christian stand-point and outlook, the Christian philosophy and solution of life.

Broad and tolerant as either side might consider itself, there was a fundamental disagreement and opposition, almost a different make-up, a different caliber and attitude of soul, fostered by centuries of mutual alienation and distrust. To be a Jew was still something special, something inherent, that did not depend upon any external conformity or non-conformity, any peculiar mode of life. The tremendous background of the past, of traditions and associations so entirely apart from those of the people among whom they dwelt, threw them into strong relief. They were a marked race always, upon whom an indelible stamp was set, a nation that cohered not as a political unit, but as a single family, through lies the most sacred, the most vital and intimate, of parent to child, of brother and sister, bound still more closely together through a common fate of suffering. And yet they were everywhere living among Christians, making part of Christian communities and mixing freely among them for all the business of life, all material and temporal ends. Thus the spiritual and secular life which had been absolutely one with the Jew, grew apart in his own sphere, as well as in his intercourse with the Christians — the divorce was complete between religion and the daily life.

The outer world allured him, and the false gods, whom the nations around him worshiped: Success, Power, and Pride of Life and of the Intellect. He threw himself full tilt into the arena where the clash was loudest, the press thickest, the struggle keenest to compete and outstrip one another, which we moderns call life. All his faculties were sharpened to it, and in his eagerness he forgot his proper birthright. He drifted away from his spiritual bearings, and lost sight of spiritual horizons. He, the man of the past, became essentially the man of to-day, with interest centered on the present, the actual, with intellect set free to grapple with the problems of the hour, and solve them by its own unaided light. Liberal, progressive, humanitarian, he might become, but always along human lines; the link was gone with any larger, more satisfying and comprehensive life. Religion had detached itself from life, not only in its trivial, every-day concerns, but in its highest aims and aspirations. The something that the Hebrew prophets had, that made their moral teaching vital and luminous, was lacking, the larger vision reaching out to the unseen, the abiding sense of an eternal will and purpose underlying human transient schemes, an eternal presence, transfusing alt of life as with a hidden flame, so that love of country, love of right, love of man, were not alone human things, but also divine, because they were embraced and focused in a single living unity, that was the love of God. How different now the cold, abstract and passive unity, the only article of their faith now left to them, that had no hold whatever, no touch with life at any point, no kindling power! In what of positive and vital did their Judaism consist? Were they not rather Jews by negation, by opposition, non-Christians, first and foremost? And here was just the handle, just the grievance for their enemies to seize upon. Every charge would fit. Behold the Jew! Behold one not ourselves who would be one of us! Our masters even, who would wrest our prizes from us, whose keen wits and clever fingers have somehow touched the inner springs that rule our world to-day, and set its wheels in motion. Every cry could shape itself against them, every class could take alarm, and every prejudice go loose. And hence the Proteus form of Anti-Semitism. Wherever the social conditions are most unstable, the equilibrium most threatened and easily disturbed, in barbarous Russia, liberal France and philosophic Germany, the problem is most acute, but there is no country now, civilized or uncivilized, where some echo of it has not reached; even in our own free-breathing America, some wave has come to die upon our shores.

What answer have we for ourselves and for the world in this, the trial-hour of our faith, the crucial test of Judaism? We, each of us, must look into our own hearts, and see what Judaism stands for in that inner shrine, what it holds that satisfies our deepest needs, consoles and fortifies us, compensates for every sacrifice, every humiliation we may be called upon to endure, so that we count it a glory, not a shame to suffer. Will national or personal loyalty suffice for this, when our personality is not touched, our nationality is merged? Will pride of family or race take away the sting, the stigma? Lo! we have turned the shield and persecution becomes our opportunity! “Those that were in darkness, upon them the light hath shined.” What is the meaning of this exodus from Russia, from Poland, these long black lines, crossing the frontiers or crushed within the pale — these “despised and rejected of men,” emerging from their Ghettos, scarcely able to bear the light of day? Many of them will never see the Promised Land, and for those who do, cruel will be the suffering before they enter, long and difficult will be the task and process of assimilation and regeneration. But for us, who stand upon the shore, in the full blessed light of freedom and watch at last the ending of that weary pilgrimage through the centuries, how great the responsibility, how great the occasion, if only we can rise to it. Let us not think our duty ended, when we have taken in the wanderers, given them food and shelter, and initiated them into the sharp daily struggle to exist upon which we are all embarked; nor yet guarding their exclusiveness, when we leave them to their narrow rites and limiting observance, until, breaking free from these, they find them selves, like their emancipated brethren elsewhere, adrift on a blank sea of indifference and materialism. If Judaism would be anything in the world to-day it must be a spiritual force. Only then can it be true to its special mission, the spirit, not the letter, of its truth.

Away then with all the Ghettos and with spiritual isolation in every form, and let the “spirit blow where it listeth.” The Jew must change his attitude before the world, and come into spiritual fellowship with those around him. John, Paul, Jesus himself, we can claim them all for our own. We do not want ” missions ” to convert us. We cannot become Presbyterians, Episcopalians, members of any dividing sect, “teaching for doctrines the opinions of men.” Christians as well as Jews need the larger unity that shall embrace them all, the unity of spirit, not of doctrine.

Mankind at large may not be ready for a universal religion, but let the Jews, with their prophetic instinct, their deep, spiritual insight, set the example and give the ideal.

The world has not yet fathomed the secret of its redemption, and “salvation may yet again be of the Jews.”

The times are full of signs. On every side there is a call, a challenge and awakening. Out of the heart of our materialistic civilization has come the cry of the spirit hungering for its food, ” the bread without money and without price,” the bread which money cannot buy, and “thirsting for the living waters, which, if a man drink, he shall not thirst again.” What the world needs to-day, not alone the Jews, who have borne the yoke, but the Christians, who bear Christ’s name, and persecute, and who have built up a civilization so entirely at variance with the principles he taught — what we all need, Gentiles and Jews alike, is not so much “a new body of doctrine,” as Mr. Claude Montefiore suggests, but a new spirit put into life which will re-fashion it upon a nobler plan, and consecrate it anew to higher purposes and ideals. Science has done its work, clearing away the dead wood of ignorance and superstition, enlarging the vision and opening out the path. It is for religion now to fill with spirit and with life the facts that knowledge gives us, to breathe a living soul into the universe. “Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of Hosts.” “All we like sheep have gone astray,” Christians and Jews alike have turned from the true path, worshiping upon the high places and under every green tree, falling down before idols of gold and silver, and making graven images of every earthly and every heavenly thing. Thus have we builded a kingdom, wholly of the earth, solid and stately to the eye of sense, but hollow and honeycombed with falsehood, and whose foundations are so insecure that they tremble at every earthly shock, every attempt at readjustment, and we half expect to see the brilliant pageant crumble before our sight and disappear like the unsubstantial fabric of a dream. Christians and Jews alike, “Have we not all one Father, hath not one God created us?”

Remember to what you are called, you who claim belief in a living God who is a Spirit, and who therefore must be worshiped “in spirit and in truth,” — not with vain forms and meaningless service, nor yet in the world’s glittering shapes, the work of men’s hands or brains, — but in the ever-growing, ever-deepening love and knowledge of his truth and its showing forth to men. Once more let the Holy Spirit descend and dwell among you, in your life to-day, as it did upon your holy men, your prophets of the olden times, lighting the world as it did for them with that radiance of the skies; and so make known the faith that is in you, “for by their fruits ye shall know them.”



Source: The World’s Parliament of Religions: an illustrated and popular story of the World’s First Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in connection with the Columbian exposition of 1893,” Volume 1, (Chicago: The Parliament Publishing Company, 1893), pp. 705-715.


Also: Papers of the Jewish Women’s Congress: Held at Chicago, September 4, 5, 6 and 7, 1893, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1894).