1. The Road Home
THERE was a time, at first, when I used to believe that all those who recognized the Jews as a people, with a claim to an individual life of its own, were full, national Jews—no matter in which soil they had their spiritual roots. At that time I did not think at all about religion. To be sure, I knew that in earlier times religion occupied the foremost place in the life of the Jewish people, and it seemed that even today it still wielded a considerable influence. But that did not concern me, nor those who thought as I did. After all, we were national Jews—national loyalty, not religious conviction, was to us the criterion of a Jew.
Somewhat later I came to realize that it was not good enough merely to acknowledge allegiance to one nation or another, as one pleased; to belong to it, one had to enter into its life and spirit. Of course this view did not let me treat religion with my former indifference: it was in religion that the Jewish spirit had expressed itself through the ages. Yet I still felt that the Jewish religion had lost its significance for present and future. Why, indeed, need it be considered the only, immortal expression of the Jewish spirit? Could this not come to the surface in other, in all, aspects of social and cultural life?
I could not cling to this view for long. It became clear to me that the history of humanity, of all the nations, all the efforts and achievements of culture, had crystallized and developed around religious, spiritual centers. I gazed with awe and fervor upon the mysterious spiritual forces which direct the paths of man according to set goals. Naturally I applied this discovery also to Jewish history; and recognized that the future of the Jewish people, if there was to be one, could only be inspired by, and built around, its central spiritual core. But I was still too deeply steeped in the spirit of materialism to draw practical consequences from my new wisdom. I knew well enough now that religion could not be explained away as a useful invention of man; and I realized that its teachings on the unity and meaningfulness of historic developments were true. But I did not act upon these teachings, because I did not, at this time, truly believe: I did not know G-d yet.
Today I do; I have meditated much about the latter and, if necessary, I can defend (not, G-d forbid, prove) my belief in G-d and all its implications by all manners of rational arguments. For example, I can note the fact that the plan of a man's life, the development of his spirit, is already determined at the moment of his coming into existence; why, then, should nature and history as a whole be considered to be planless, accidental, without a living spirit to direct them from the first? Actually, if there were only a purely mechanical process of world development, we could not speak of moral laws (as we in fact do); these only make sense if we consider humanity capable of freely realizing given spiritual goals. We may consider the development of our world very much like the unreeling of a string from a spool; more and more of the string appears to us, but all of it had already existed before, although invisible to us—and, in the same way, world development may be conceived as the gradual expression of a prior plan laid down by the Eternal Spirit. Religious faith is challenged by the assertion that world development was not planned, and only appears to express a meaningful plan—yet such an assertion is itself based on a new kind of faith. It can hardly be denied that where there appears a plan there must be a planner, that the immense structure of the world presupposes a world builder. From this idea of G-d as planning for eternity I can derive the omnipotence, omniscience, justice and mercy of G-d, without concern for the fashionable arguments of our time.
But these, and other, considerations are not the reason for my faith in G-d today; and it was not they which led me to it. I did not seek G-d, as people put it, very nicely but hypocritically; I did not have to find Him. He suddenly announced Himself to me and entered into my consciousness. Without any mediating speculation I recognized Him, in whom the spiritual foundations of all nations are anchored, the Father and First Cause of all that exists, the Prime Planner of all developments, the Prime Builder of our world. For a while false shame did not let me submit to this new discovery. But soon it was overcome by a new and burning shame which has not left me to this day: shame that I should have been for so long among those who do not know of Him; that the wisdom of my ancestors, the greatest there ever was on earth, had so long been dormant within me, and the voice of my people silent so long.
It was then that I rid myself of the last vestiges of my materialistic view of history, and came to recognize the unique nature and life of my people. True enough, I realized, the other nations had men who knew of G-d even before Jewish influence had reached them. But these men only philosophized about Him as a cold and lofty abstraction; they did not love Him, and were not His messengers. He did not inspire them to rise up before their peoples, to proclaim Him to them, to enter with Him into the world. The nations continued to go their diverse ways; they looked for G-d in the multiplicity of appearances, in the colorful variety of idols. Only to us, to the speck of dust among the mountains; to us, who since time immemorial, had known G-d without seeking Him, the first and only ones; to us alone was He more than a philosophical discovery. We entered with Him into the world, to understand its meaning and purpose; we entered with Him into history, to shape it according to His will. We alone organized our little community for Him alone, without looking for power or petty profits. Thus we remained lonely and unrecognized among the heathen nations of ancient times—eccentrics for whom they had no use or understanding. Even later, through the ages, when we met with the nations of the world, we stayed in splendid isolation.
We did indeed give them new religious foundations; our Jewish idea of G-d entered into the world as a perpetual ferment—so that we can almost speak of a "colonial Judaism" among the nations. But again and again the tough pagan strain inherent in the nations asserted itself by rebelling against our great and unique remaking of the human spirit. Ever more frequently they attacked those religious and social institutions and movements in their midst which had been inspired by Judaism (even though these structures themselves had rebelled and developed away from their Jewish origins). They seemed unable to tolerate their Jewish background and component elements. Particularly since the days of the Renaissance, the attacks multiplied upon the Jewish principle, "G-d first, and only then the world"; and upon the restraints divinely imposed on man. The ancestral instincts of pagan man strove ever more to break through these restraints, and to attain the so-called "'free play of forces" which does not only let a Cain slay an Abel but even, on occasion, allows one Abel to destroy another.
We, however, were like men in a well-protected port, looking out upon a storm-swept sea. With astonished eyes we watched the battle raging abroad because of a little part of our Jewish faith. We remained in our safe haven, alone with our holy mysteries of eternity. G-d had chosen us—and we Him.