5. Our Guilt
I do not deceive myself about the strength of Jewish paganism. I realize, above all, that it has spread from among the rebels-by-conviction to the Jewish masses at large, which are not even conscious of the pagan rebellion and its significance. One after another of the true Jews exchanges his harmonious and beautiful way of life for the common and empty fashions of modernity; his deep-rooted and beneficial fear of doing wrong is replaced by the desire for enjoyment; and the unity and discipline of the Jewish spirit are sacrificed to insipid formlessness. One Jew after another tears the living G-d out of his heart, to put in His place splinters of knowledge, dishonest sentimentality, and political slogans—to advance from the "darkness of the ghetto " into the "light of civilization".
Yet this sad drama of apostasy cannot dampen my mood for long. It cannot rob me of the feeling that a cloak of eternity is draped around my people's shoulders; it cannot take away from me the sense of certainty that the threads which the Jews have spun between the divine and the earthly, between G-d and humanity, will not be torn in the future, just as they have never been torn in the past. After all, what importance do all those pagan Jews have, assimilationists and nationalists, when compared to the religious masses which have grown up in the Jewish atmosphere of Eastern Europe?
In contrast to the Jews in the Western world, who have been more or less affected by their pagan environment, these masses represent a solid reservoir of Jews who give themselves over unreservedly to the Jewish spirit. Some people argue that the loss of assimilated Western Jewry will gradually be followed by that of Eastern Jewry. They like to point out (with a derisive smile on their lips) that its survival represents an anachronism: a temporary dallying of the mills of history which will soon, however, grind traditional Jewry to dust, just as they have done in our time with religion in general. They claim that the passing of time, discoveries and inventions, capitalism and industrialism, socialism and freedom of the intellect, have made impossible the survival of a Jewish island within modern society, with outmoded cultural and economic forms of life.
Such arguments make as little of an impression upon me as the proverbial wheel of history, which "cannot be turned back". Without any sense of shame I admit that I altogether disbelieve a philosophy of history that operates with comparisons and analogies. I do not subscribe to the theory that economic and technical developments inescapably govern the course of history. I just do not believe that man's inner, higher life is completely dominated by economic and technical facts; does not man, in the contrary, learn more and more to rule nature? I am of the firm conviction that the physical world has to serve, and that humanity has to use it, for the practical realization of its intellectual and social goals. Sooner or later, I think, all men will come to make an end to the threat posed to their spiritual (or relatively spiritual) life by the crudely materialistic forces in the world. This, in any case, has been the endeavor of the Jewish people throughout its history, and I do not doubt that it will remain loyal to it. Despite all those Jews who drift away from Judaism, there has always remained a group firmly devoted to its responsibility: to save the honor and immortality of Israel. Today this group is made up, above all, by the pious Jews from Eastern Europe. They still today live "in the face of eternity"; they have their own style, pathos and detachment from the flow of things, and they will continue to refuse to sacrifice them before the world-Golem, the "achievements of humanity". Henceforth, too, they will live in single-minded dedication, as the "people of G-d", ultimately subordinating the economic-technical progress of the ages to their divine mission . . . .
There are some who throw doubt on the power and ability of the Jewish masses to survive; and, above all, their worthiness is questioned—by the pagan Jews in the first place. It has become fashionable in certain circles to glorify and cuddle the Hassidic Jew. But this fashion has been superficial, never advancing to a real affirmation of his way of life. Above all, it has remained true that in general resentment and contempt for old fashioned piety govern the contemporary scene (the Gentiles, of course, following suit). The Jewish pagans, typically enough, cannot forgive the Eastern European Jew for clinging to his distinctive garb, which splendidly expresses his adherence to traditional Jewish concepts of modesty, dignity, and piety. Whilst the rebels are very forgiving where their own sins are concerned, they cannot be calm about the real and alleged faults of the "Eastern Jew".
I have no desire to prove here that the sins he is accused of are not quite as bad or wide-spread as one is led to believe; and that they are largely the result of circumstances for which he bears no responsibility. I certainly do not feel called upon to defend him before the pagans Jews who certainty have the least reason to despise Jewish Jews. Nor do I want to play the apologist before the non- Jewish world. In an age so very far from blessed perfection as ours is, before critics as vulnerable as ours, a nation can hardly be asked to answer for its sinners or even for its common citizens, for its bad times or even its good ones. At least at present we can only hold a people to account for the worthiness of its "collective personality"; for its national achievements in the past and its collective conduct in the present. Judged in this way, the pious masses among the Jews can calmly face their challengers. Their ancient and firm faith in G-d, their spiritual naturalness, their harmonious and disciplined way of life, their unique and unshakeable peacefulness can compare well with the tyranny of the machine, with the propaganda slogans, and the mood of egotist aggressivity, which have spread throughout the modern world. Mankind, if it looked up for a moment from the frenzied haste of its work, might realize what traditional Judaism is—to understand that (as long as it is not forcefully assimilated to the modern ways) it poses no threat to mankind, to say the very least.
This is our answer to the critics from outside our community. But what if we go into judgement with ourselves? It is not good enough, then, that the Jewish people as a whole is still superior to the prejudices of its detractors; that it has not yet bowed before the idols of our time; that it still can call men its own who offer a shining example to humanity. If we have to judge ourselves, witness is rendered against us by all the evils concerning which we reject the overbearing critique of pagan Jew or Gentile; by the sad state of disrespect and social and economic weakness into which we have fallen in the world; by the entire sad drama of continuous desertion from our colors. Our guilt, the guilt of the pious Jews, is thus revealed as immense: it seems as if G-d had never commanded us to be a "saintly people", or as if He had revoked the charge at a later time. The example of the great men, it is clear, has not had a decisive effect on our people; we have, indeed, stayed within our own sphere of life, the "four cubits of the Law", but we have not risen in it . . . we rather let ourselves sink lower and lower. The knowledge of G-d, the imitation of His mercy, the spreading of His glory, could have blessed us with holiness; but they have not attained mastery over our people. The Sabbath has not radiated into our everyday existence the awareness, and dignity of a life dedicated to the knowledge of G-d. Mercy has not become the supreme force in our dealings with the world; and we have fled into its dark comers rather than receive and spread the splendour of divine glory. This is the indictment: before G-d, and before ourselves, we have to confess our guilt.
This basic fact and the problem of what answer to make to it, constitutes what I consider the true Jewish problem. In its light alone can we understand and solve all the varied questions of Jewish life. Most of our leaders concentrate their attention on one of these questions, thinking them to be fundamental; yet, in truth, they are but partial aspects of the one great problem which I pointed out. There are Jewish leaders who are satisfied to secure a little improvement of the Jewish situation in one place; and others who champion the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth in another. They altogether overlook the spiritual issues and are quite ready to sacrifice our most precious religious values. I leave these men to their ill-advised modesty. On the other hand I know of those Jews, loyal to their faith, who do not demand anything but to be allowed to continue in their traditional ways; they are happy to have escaped the general flight from Judaism. I understand their self-sufficiency, but I cannot throw in my lot with them either. They do not really do justice to the task divinely imposed on our people, and to the strength vested in it by G-d for the achievement of this task. It seems to me that we were not commanded to be apart from the nations for the sole purpose of fleeing a world in which we might otherwise be trodden underfoot. Our task is to stay within the world, to conquer it for G-d, by our strength and youthfulness, and to climb in it higher and higher, by virtue of our divine inheritance. It is not the will of G-d that we should be satisfied with a splendid isolation dedicated to the observance of the "Law"—however much this may distinguish us. It is, indeed, the indispensable condition for the successful discharge of our mission; but this demands that our isolation, safeguarded by the Law, be used by us for G-d's purposes.
These we have ignored much too long; the time has come for a radical change. Jews must cultivate attitudes which do not even allow petty aberrations to be thought of: silent joy, solemn beauty, purity and strength gained by a life for G-d. Thus, and only thus, can we preserve ourselves pure of all pagan influences; can we escape the degrading grip of material necessities; can we draw meaning, dedication, and dignity for all our endeavors from the deepest wellsprings of our divine soul. The loyal among our people must at long last recognize our guilt—and our hour. They must strive to save us from the dangers of stagnation. They must turn our energies into an irresistible floodwave, guided in its course by the divine Law, sweeping away all human impurity before the holiness that is imparted by the knowledge, mercy, and glory of G-d.