6. The Messianic Goal
How can we escape from our guilt? It seems to me, when I first posed this question, that we had above all, to uncover the source of our failure. This I found in the Jew's attitude towards the messianic ideal.
It was just this which had captured my attention when I had found my way back to Judaism. It seemed to me to be of central importance in our world-view. G-d had created man as a physical being, and yet had imparted to him of His own spirit. He had let him fail and fall, and yet had given him the knowledge of G-d's existence, will, and glory. He had let him sink into sin, yet had held out to him the ideal of virtue, by which he might save himself. It could not be otherwise, then,—there must come a time when G-d will hearken to man's longing to be saved from the tragedy of these contradictions, from the pains of failure. The divine plan of world government must provide for this salvation—otherwise the creation of this strange human race, belonging to our world, yet possessed of a divine spark of immortality, would be meaningless. The divine spark cannot remain hidden away in the half-shadow of secluded obscurity but must, one day, illuminate all our life. Just as the world of nature knows of cosmic upheavals, so there will be an upheaval in the realm of human affairs. The ordinary development of mankind can only promote earthly, human values and ideals, but "the end of days" will pass beyond these, to grant to man a "new heart", the full clarity of a divinely guided insight into the world, an unquestioning and unquestioned holiness—of knowledge, mercy, splendour.
All this seemed to me natural and necessary. However, I also realized that it can only be a human being, one man, who will bring salvation unto humanity. It will be a towering personality to whom G-d gives the greatest mission in world history: with unsurpassed spiritual energy to conquer the souls of millions of men and of their descendants, to redeem each one individually and to bring them all together into the covenant of redeemed humanity.
Yet, I realized, the achievements of this great messenger of G-d cannot but stand in relationship to the human struggle against sin! The blessing of salvation will not come unmerited, it must be gained by human endeavor: by the pains of sin, the struggle with it, the longing to overcome it; by hard labor—through which the towering heights of virtue are slowly climbed.
And finally, I also realized that there has to be one people which should march at the head of the nations in this hard struggle. Its selection does not mean the rejection of the other peoples: they can enter into the mercy of G-d by serving Him in other forms, with other symbols; the granting of the divine Law to the Jew is only the means of pointing out, to them all, the royal road that leads to the messianic goal. The Jewish people has produced the noblest heralds of holiness, men who attained an unsurpassed spirituality in their craving for salvation; and the man of the "end of days", who will bring about the supreme, the only lasting achievement of world history, will be the greatest of these men, a son of their people, and –by his achievement– will lift it from its lowliness.
I was not surprised to note that the pagan Jews, if they did not reject, had crippled this glorious messianic conception. The idea of a divinely sent personal messiah follows quite logically from the historic sequence of Jewish messengers of the spirit; but there has been put in its place the fiction that the Jewish people as a whole is the messiah. Instead of the longed-for act of redemption and era of the messiah, the liberal-ethical ideal of cultural progress has been set up –to be realized by assimilation and apostasy, stock exchange and journalism– summed up in the phrase of "the special Jewish mission".
Such views fit perfectly into the picture I have of our modern Jewish pagans. All the more surprised have I been to note that the pious masses, too, no longer have that inspiring faith in the coming of the messiah which seems to me so vital an element in the Jewish world-view. I have heard them daily proclaim their loyalty to it, and I do not doubt their honesty—but I cannot overlook the legendary color which the messianic ideal has acquired in their eyes. Above all, I have had to note that in their thoughts and sentiments the belief in the coming of the messiah is no longer linked to the other great teachings of Judaism: the idea of the chosen people, and that of reward and punishment. They have become blind to Israel's splendid destiny: to advance with the Law, through the attainment of holiness, to the coming of the messiah. They have forgotten that the mission of the chosen people does not exhaust itself in the observance of the divine Law but has a threefold content: the Law is the vehicle, sanctification is the road, and the messiah is the goal.
Our pious Jews are apt to think of the messiah as an isolated phenomenon—to be sent by G-d in token of His mercy, without regard to the merits of the men to whom he is sent. All too often they do not remember that they could bring about his arrival by their merits, by the observance of the Law as a means to their sanctification. In short: they believe in the messiah, but not strongly enough; their faith in him does not move them to reform their ways, to rise in sanctity. Thus they have condemned themselves to the present state of affairs, in which they are happy and satisfied if they are merely able to live according to the Law. They have lost the revolutionary impatience and the creative ambition which are required to make over a world according to the dictates of the spirit. It is thus that they have become guilty.
Of course, this fact provokes another question. How was it possible that the pious masses lost the true meaning of the messianic ideal? How could the messiah shrink for them into a legendary figure, of little significance in their world of religious ideas? I do not believe that this development was caused by the inability of the people to grasp the lofty spiritual ideal of a messiah to be brought by human exertions; the history of the Jews disproves such a view. There only remains the explanation that the messianic idea has not been sufficiently supported by tangible forms which would assure it a permanent hold on the mind and life of the people. Such forms are necessary to sustain an idea which offers such a challenge, demands such energies and sacrifices as the messianic ideal does.
Paganism, in its later stages, pandered to the individual; it thereby ruined the community and, with it, the individuals too. Judaism has disciplined the individual and thus saved him as well as the community. The discipline of Judaism is based on the eternal foundations of its divine Law (both its written and oral parts). In accordance with the spirit and purpose of this Law, the sages erected "fences" around everyone of its provisions, to preserve the pious from unwittingly transgressing them. But in the course of time it has become evident that still more is needed if the Law is to conquer the ages and to turn them to its service: a "fence" has to be erected around the Law as a whole; the entire body of divine teachings has to be surrounded by rules regulating the varied conditions of life of the community at large, which will prevent it from drifting away from the Jewish ideal and losing its powers of self-sanctification. Moreover, such rules must be supported by practical organs of communal action, which will enable the Law to dominate Jewish life by shaping Jewish material existence in accordance with the Jewish ideal. The absence of such organized communal discipline in subservience to the great goals of Judaism is responsible for the loss of revolutionary messianic fervor .
It is true that some efforts have been made to remedy this weakness. Thus, Hassidism represents a faint, almost unconscious recollection of the Jewish task. It never posed the question of "law versus faith ", as some people claim today; it gave even less justification for such an interpretation than the prophets of old Israel. It never was a protest against the religious discipline of Pharisaic Judaism (which pagan Jews love to calumniate). Its struggle for closeness to G-d did not clash with the disciplinary element in Judaism. On the contrary. From its very outset, Hassidism represented a practical attempt to strengthen communal religious discipline, by closely organizing the community around religious leaders, and thus releasing great popular energies in the service of the Jewish ideal.
Hassidism succeeded in teaching the Eastern Jewish masses an enthusiastic confidence in their spiritual leaders, a social virtue much more human and creative than the so-called independence of modern crowd-man. But the energies released by Hassidism have not been channeled into a powerful stream of messianic endeavors; nor, indeed, has any organized direction and personal leadership been given to the life of the people as a whole. And what Hassidism did not succeed in, the other sections of traditional Judaism could not achieve either.
Yet this sad state of affairs, the decline of messianic consciousness, and the absence of communal leadership and planning, should not be taken to indicate an inability of the Jewish people to discharge its task. Such a conclusion is contradicted by the divine assurance of the ultimate triumph of Israel, as well as by the lonely road which the Jew has walked so far, and by the eternal values which he has created in his struggle with the times. The tenacity he has revealed is but the symptom of intense and concentrated power—held in chains so far, but waiting for a time when it will break its bonds and remake its world. The strength of the Jewish spirit among the Eastern Jewish masses holds out the hope that Jewry may even now, just now, embark upon its greatest spiritual ascent.
Our time calls for deeds. It demands that we rid ourselves of the faintness which besets our messianic faith—that we make up for old sins of omission, and rededicate ourselves to the supreme goal of self-sanctification.
One thing is therefore needed: if the messianic faith of the pious masses is uninspired because they do not see redemption as the divine reward of loyalty and sanctity, they must be made aware of their error and sin—must be awakened to warm, creative messianic fervor. And another thing is necessary: if the weakness of the messianic ideal is due to the lack of suitable communal organs for the protection and strengthening of our faith, then communal anarchy must be replaced by the spiritual leadership of the true guardians of the faith. Neither comfort and the ambitions of incompetent men, nor the hostility of the pagan opponents of creative discipline, should keep pious Jewry from evolving within its midst an organized community of guardians of the faith, for spiritual leadership and representation. A final demand: if pious Jewry, despite its religious loyalty, has been subject to the persistent and evil influences of so-called modern forms of life, it must resolutely cut itself off from all those forms which endanger the discharge of its lofty mission . . . .
If these demands are fulfilled, we can free ourselves from the threat of stagnation: the atmosphere is created, then, in which we can advance to a life of sanctification. The study of the Law, and the devotion to prayer; creative labour and inspired song; dedication to our tasks and isolation from the confusions of our world—those are the steps leading to the holiness which devotion to G-d can alone produce. Ever more unselfish endeavors to serve our fellow-men in all fields of life, will make us share in the sanctity of divine mercy. And by striving for beauty and grace, purity and order, we attain the sanctity of divine glory.
These are the roads of endeavor which lie before us. If G-d wills it so, they will be taken even now; if not, our people will discover them later. But I feel bound to do all I can to gain pious Jewry for them, however hard this may be. As for our pagan Jews of all shades of opinion, some groups among them may well find their way back to the true Judaism—perhaps under the impact of the historic happenings of our time and especially, as I hope, the revitalization of pious Jewry. There are quite a few of those pagans who have always wanted to come back to us, without knowing it themselves. I shall be happy to see them with us—but I am not out to convert pagans. If they so desire, they may cleave to their aberrations (for which, I know, I have a good deal of responsibility). All I have aimed to do in writing this frank and open essay is to take leave from them, and to tell them on this occasion what I plan to do, and that they have somewhat underestimated the strength still inherent in pious Jewry.
I do not want to convert, because I know that many, too many, Jews are so far from us that they will not even hear me,—those who were born into apostasy, or those who proudly chose it out of their rebellious mood. I shall not, therefore, be touched by their reaction. They may sympathize; they may be silent; or they may vituperate me. I shall not react. I leave them to their own pursuits. Let them depose G-d every day anew and yet without overcoming Him. Let them go out and "seek" Him in the jungle of their stock-phrases, or pattern Him to their own desire. Let them instigate their petty rebellions, and try to govern the course of history, whilst they are in truth but its street-arabs. Let them play at a conventional humanity which does not entirely conceal their hunger for might, or their narrowness of mind. Let them crowd the theatres, lecture halls, and newspaper columns, befuddling their own minds. Let them worry about the Jewish question, strike the Jewish people from the list of the nations, or cut it to their fashionable pagan pattern. Let them, in short, do all that they, as lost and restless pagans, cannot help doing. It cannot touch me, for I have found my way back to pious Jewry, and I know they cannot succeed: G-d will be G-d forever, and Israel dedicated to Him.