The very essence of Israel's being rests upon the Torah; in it is our basis and our goal, from it the vital fluid in our veins. If our relation to it, the law of life and truth, be healthy and normal, Israel can suffer no ill; if sick, Israel cannot be well. There is no evil, no wrongful development in Judaism which does not owe its origin to an improper or sinful comprehension of the Torah, or at least is perpetuated thereby. Our sages with profound insight point to this as the true cause of the first national downfall, שלא ברכו בתורה תחלה, that they did not study the Law with the firm resolve to fulfill it in life and for life; life, the practical daily life of the world, fled from the Law, and the Law could not therefore properly pervade life, could not adequately enlighten it and inspire it with its, the Law's, own genial warmth.
If you search for the cause of our modern sickness, you will find it nowhere else than in this fatal misconception and misapprehension. Originally only the fundamental teachings of Israel's Law were fixed in written form, the so-called written Law, ת״ש״ב״כ, but the broader application thereof, in particular the spirit, which is the life, was to be preserved only in the living word, the so-called oral law, ת״ש״ב״פ. The oppressions and afflictions of the times and the dispersion of Israel threatened destruction to the traditional science; the great and holy men who stood at the nation's head, yielding to necessity, decreed that the Mishnah be written down as far as its mere external word was conceived, but its spirit was still left to the traditional exposition of the living word. Increased external sorrows demanded more; they put into writing the spirit of the Mishnah in the Gemara, but the spirit of the Gemara was still reserved for oral interpretation. The affliction increased, making further safeguards necessary; they put the spirit of Bible and Gemara into the Aggadoth or allegorical interpretations, but disguised and veiled so that personal research should still be required to discover the true spirit of the traditional teachings thus perpetuated.
In two academies the Law and the spirit sought refuge, but passion and error soon sapped the foundations of these noble institutions and destroyed them; the Law went into exile, the letter and its external practical fulfillment were saved, but the spirit, preserved only in the symbolical concealment of the letter, disappeared. The spirit could only be comprehended by deduction from the letter and the veiling symbol, together with the higher insight which individuals had preserved. In that dark time there were not lacking individuals who shone forth conspicuous through the true understanding of the spirit of Judaism which they possessed, but they were the exceptions; not all were endowed with such mental elevation.
Israel's youth, as a rule, trained their minds in non-Jewish schools, in independent, philosophic studies, and drew from Arabic sources the concepts of the Greek philosophy. As the highest purpose of human existence they learned to consider self-perfectation through the knowledge of truth. Their awakeued minds felt themselves in contradiction to Judaism, whose spirit they did not comprehend; their life-view was opposed to a view of life which lays chiefest stress upon the deed, upon action, and looks upon knowledge only as a means to such action. The age gave birth to a man, a mind, who, the product of uncomprehended Judaism and Arabic science, was obliged to reconcile the strife which raged in his own breast in his own manner, and who, by proclaiming it to the world, became the guide of all in whom the same conflict existed.
This great man, to whom, and to whom alone, we owe the preservation of practical Judaism to our time, is responsible, because he sought to reconcile Judaism with the difficulties which confronted it from without, instead of developing it creatively from within, for all the good and the evil which bless and afflict the heritage of the father. His peculiar mental tendency was Arabic-Greek, and his conception of the purpose of life the same. He entered into Judaism from without, bringing with him opinions of whose truth he had convinced himself from extraneous sources and — he reconciled. For him, too, self-perfecting through the knowledge of truth was the highest aim, the practical he deemed subordinate. For him knowledge of God was the end, not the means; hence he devoted his intellectual powers to speculations upon the essence of Deity, and sought to bind Judaism to the results of his speculative investigations as to postulates of science or faith. The Mizvoth became for him merely ladders, necessary only to conduct to knowledge or to protect against error, this latter often only the temporary and limited error of polytheism. Mishpatim became only rules of prudence, Mitzvoth as well; Chukkim rules of health, teaching right feeling, defending against the transitory errors of the time; Edoth ordinances, designed to promote philosophical or other concepts; all this having no foundation in the eternal essence of things, not resulting from their eternal demand on me, or from my eternal purpose and task, no eternal symbolizing of an unchangeable idea, and not inclusive enough to form a basis for the totality of the commandments.
He, the great systematic orderer of the practical results of the Talmud, gives expression in the last part of his philosophic work to opinions concerning the meaning and purpose of the commandments which, taking the very practical results codified by himself as the contents of the commandments, are utterly untenable — cast no real light upon them, and cannot go hand in hand with them in practice, in life, and in science. These are the views which have been inherited up to the present day by those who care at all to understand the spirit of the Mitzvoth. But since the precepts, as practically fulfilled, stand entirely out of connection with these explanations, it was inevitable that their ceremonial fulfillment lost its spiritual basis, and became despised. You see, instead of taking one's stand within Judaism, and asking, "Inasmuch as Judaism makes these demands of me, what opinion of the purpose of man must it have?" instead of comprehending each demand in its totality according to Bible and Talmud, and then asking, "What is the reason and idea of this injunction?" people set up their standpoints outside of Judaism, and sought to draw it over to them; they conceived a priori opinions as to what the Mitzvoth might be, without disturbing themselves as to the real appearance of the Mitzvoth in all its parts. What was the consequence? After these opinions had brought about the natural phenomenon that men who believed themselves the possessors of the knowledge which the commandments were designed to inculcate, thought themselves absolved both from the fulfillment of the commandment, intended only as a guide, and from the study of the science of the commandments, which had lost for them all intellectual significance; other men, possessed of a deeper comprehension of Judaism, became at first enemies of this philosophical spirit, and later, of all specifically intellectual and philosophical pursuits in general. Certain misunderstood utterances were taken as weapons with which to repel all higher intellectual interpretation of the Talmud; no distinction was made between the question, "What is stated here?" and the question, "Why is it stated?" and not even the category of Edoth, which, according to its whole nature, was designed to stir the mind to activity, was excluded from the excommunication of the intellectual. Another misunderstood passage, (בלולה סנהדרין כ״ד א תוס״ ד״ה), even led later to the suppression of Bible study, an error against which Prophecy expressly warns (ה״ל״ט מס״ סופרים פ ט ו). The inevitable consequence was, therefore, that since oppression and persecution had robbed Israel of every broad and natural view of the world and of life, and the Talmud had yielded about all the practical results for life of which it was capable, every mind that felt the desire of independent activity was obliged to forsake the paths of study and research in general open to the human intellect, and to take its recourse to dialectic subtleties and hair-splittings. Only a very few during this entire period stood with their intellectual efforts entirely within Judaism, and built it up out of its own inner concepts. Most distinguished among them are the author of the "Cuzari," and the son of Nachman. This condition of uncomprehended Judaism became particularly prevalent in Germany, where ages of persecution and oppression suppressed every freer upward movement of the mind. The general fundamental principle, God the All-One and the Torah His will, and the fulfillment of the Law in the fear of God and with love for, and faith in Him, retained, however, everywhere its living force; and life, with all its possessions and all its pleasures, was offered with magnificent devotion as a willing sacrifice to it. A form of learning came into existence, concerning which, as a layman, I do not venture to express a judgment, but which, if I comprehend aright the little that I know, is an invaluable repository of the spirit of Bible and Talmud, but which has been, unfortunately, misunderstood; and what should have been eternal, progressive development, was considered a stationary mechanism, and the inner significance and concept thereof as extra-mundane dream-worlds. This learning came into existence, and the mind turned either to the external ingenious development of the Talmud, or to this learning, which appealed to the emotions as well. Practical Judaism, which, comprehended in its purity, would perhaps have been impregnated with the spiritual became in it, through misconception, a magical mechanism, a means of influencing or resisting theosophic worlds and anti-worlds.
Little by little there came into the hands of the people a part of a work, originally intended only as a compendium for the learned and containing the last results of Talmudic legal science, codified for ceremonial practice. It was essentially nothing but a differently arranged edition of the systematic work of Maimonides, by which this latter had become the great preserver of practical Judaism in the times of the greatest Galuth-oppression. Unfortunately, however, it was almost exclusively one part of this work which came into the hands of people, containing only the divisions Edoth and Abodah, referring to worship and holy days; the other parts, which treat of the other duties, were left for the learned, and did not become the possession of the people. Gradually the unfortunate opinion developed that Judaism meant nothing but praying and keeping holy days; its significance for life in general remained unrecognized.
Considering all these influences together, you will be able to comprehend the appearance which Judaism presented, say, eighty years ago. The subsequent events will also be intelligible to you. When the external yoke began to grow lighter, and the spirit felt itself freer, then arose a brilliant, respect-inspiring personality, Mendelssohn, which by its commanding influence has led the later development up to this day. This commanding individual, who had not drawn his mental development from Judaism, who was great chiefly in philosophical disciplines, in metaphysics, and aesthetics, who treated the Bible only philologically and aesthetically, and did not build up Judaism as a science from itself, but merely defended it against political stupidity and pietistic Christian audacity, and who was personally an observant Jew, accomplished this much, that he showed the world and his brethren that it was possible to be a strictly religious Jew and yet to shine distinguished as the German Plato.
This "and yet" was decisive. His followers contented themselves with developing Bible study in the philologic-sesthetic sense, with studying the Moreh, and with pursuing and spreading humanistic letters; but Judaism, Bible and Talmud as Jewish science, were neglected. Even the most zealous study of the Bible was of no avail for the comprehension of Judaism, because it was not treated as the authoritative source of doctrine and instruction, but only as a beautiful poetic storehouse from which to draw rich supplies for the fancy and the imagination. The Talmud thus neglected, practical Judaism thus completely uncomprehended, it was but natural that the former symbolizing and abstract interpretation of Judaism, which had for a time been interrupted, again became prevalent, and was carried to an extreme which threatened to destroy all Judaism. If that view of life be true, which places the highest mission of man n the recognition of truth; and who could venture to doubt it, seeing that Maimonides has declared so; above all, if those views concerning the requirements of the Torah be true; and who could dare to think otherwise, since Maimonides, the great authority on Talmud, and himself an observant Jew, had propounded them; then, indeed, the many-foliod Talmud is nothing but a wearisome mass of hair-splitting subtleties, useful only for the accumulation of dust and moths; then, indeed, is practical Judaism nothing but unreasoning weariness of the flesh: who could resist this conclusion?
If, for instance, the sole purpose of the prohibition of labor on the Sabbath was to enable men to rest and recover from the toils of the week, if the Sabbath means only the cessation of corporeal activity in order that the mind may be active; and who could doubt it, since both Moses interpret it thus, and the Christian Sunday agrees with their conception, who must not consider it mere pettiness and pedantic absurdity to fill an entire folio with the investigation of the question, what particular actions are forbidden, and what permitted on the Sabbath day? How singular, to declare the writing of two letters, perhaps an intellectual occupation, a deadly sin, while judging leniently many acts involving great physical exertion, and freeing from penalty all purposeless destruction! Why, it even forbids the hen to lay eggs! Or, to go over to another domain, if sacrifice means only to give of one's possessions in grateful recognition that they come from God, or if, in its special Biblical form, it was mainly designed as a protest against the polytheistic sacrificial usages then prevailing; how absurd it is, to fill three or four folios with investigations concerning the manner of offering sacrifice, the part which might be used, the persons who might officiate, and the permissible times! Do you not see, that all this is only mind-destroying priest-craft? Therefore; therefore — many conclusions could be and were drawn, but before drawing them, people should have asked themselves, "Is Moses the son of Maimon, or Moses the son of Mendel, really identical with Moses the son of Amram?" Is there not contained in this dissonance between the theory of the Mitzvah and its reality a proof that the explanation is not right, that it is not based upon the complete conception of the Mitzvah, but is — dreamed into it from without?
Does not the Moreh itself say that in forming the concept of the Mitzvoth it uses the written Law only as the basis, a standpoint which Maimonides himself would have declared incorrect for the practical fulfillment, and which cannot, therefore, be considered aught else than irrational?
Does he not himself say that in considering the significance of the Mitzvoth he has overlooked those details which, in their totality, give the complete idea of the Mitzvoth, and which form the main subjects of discussion in the Oral Law? (Moreh Nebuchim, Chapters XXVI and XLI.) There must be sense in all the commandments, in particular as regards those which announce themselves as instructive, which call themselves Testimony, Memorial, Symbol. It must be possible to find the indwelling spirit of these; how would it be to try to do so, to make once the experiment? This attempt has hitherto never been made. Many did not wish to make the attempt nor to attain to the result. A spirit had come from the West, which mocked at everything holy, and knew no greater pleasure than to make them ridiculous, and together with it there entered a longing for sensual enjoyments, which eagerly embraced the opportunity to rid itself so easily of burdensome restrictions. These motives combined to induce people to tear down the barriers erected by the Law, until human conduct became one dead, dull level.
And what is our present state? The first delights of the worldly spirit have passed away, other generations have succeeded to those who witnessed the first change in Jewish sentiment, and to-day two diametrically opposite parties confront each other. The one party has inherited uncomprehended Judaism as a mechanical habit, מצות אנשים מלומדה, without its spirit; they bear it in their hands as a sacred relic, a revered mummy, and fear to rouse its spirit. The others are partly filled with noble enthusiasm for the welfare of the Jews, but look upon Judaism as a lifeless framework, as something which should be laid in the grave of a long since dead and buried past. They seek its spirit and find it not, and are in danger, with all their efforts to help the Jew, of severing the last life-nerve of Judaism — ignorantly. And to-day, when, despite a thousand shades and variations of difference, these two opposing elements agree in the one great circumstance, that they are both wrong — what shall be done? What is the way to salvation? Does it suffice for the salvation of Judaism to establish our schools upon such a two-fold basis, and to reform our form of worship? The spirit, the inner harmonious life-principle, is lacking, and that you cannot supply through polishing the outside frame.
There is one way to salvation; — where the sin was committed the atonement must begin, — and this one way is, to forget the inherited prejudices and opinions concerning Judaism; to go back to the sources of Judaism, to Bible, Talmud, and Midrash; to read, study, and comprehend them in order to live them; to draw from them the teachings of Judaism concerning God, the world, mankind, and Israel, according to history and precept; to know Judaism out of itself; to learn from its own utterances its science of life. With the Bible the beginning should be made, its language should first be comprehended, and then out of the spirit of the speech the spirit of the speakers should be inferred. The Bible should not be studied as an interesting object of philological or antiquarian research, not as basis for theories of taste or for amusement; it should be studied as the foundation of a new science; with Davidic sentiment nature should be contemplated; with the ear of an Isaiah history should be listened to, and then, with eye thus aroused, with ear thus opened, the doctrine of God, world, man, Israel, and Torah should be drawn from the Bible, and should become an idea, or system of ideas, fully comprehended. In this spirit Talmud should be studied, in the Halachah only further elucidation and amplification of ideas already known from the Bible should be sought for; in the Aggadah only figuratively disguised manifestation of the same spirit. This path you should pursue, unconcerned as to the opinion which the one or the other school of misled ones may hold in reference to your methods of study; unconcerned that your simplicity of interpretation will not permit you to shine among the heroes of hair-splitting, life-ignoring disputations; unconcerned if you do not shine in the special disciplines which you use only as auxiliary sciences for your general object; unconcerned if you are no longer qualified for pretentious appearance. All this should concern you little, for you are learning what is better, to know the light, the truth, the warmth, and the sublimity of life, and when you have attained to this you will comprehend Israel's history and Israel's Law, and that life, in its true sense, is the reflection of that Law, permeated with that spirit. One spirit lives in all, from the construction of the Holy Tongue to the construction of the universe and the plan of life, one spirit, the spirit of the All-One! That would be a task for the disciples of science! But the results of that science must be carried over into life, transplanted by schools. Schools for Jews! The young saplings of your people should be reared as Jews, trained to become sons and daughters of Judaism, as you have recognized and comprehended and learned to respect and love it as the law of your life. The language of the Bible and the language of the land should be theirs; in both they should be taught to think; their heart should be taught to feel, their mind to think; the Scriptures should be their book of law for life, and they should be able to comprehend life through their word.
Their eye should be open to recognize the world around them as God's world and themselves in God's world as His servants; their ear should be open to perceive in history the narrative of the education of all men to this service. The wise precepts of Torah and Talmud should be made clear to them as designed to spiritualize their lives for such sublime service of God, and they should be taught to comprehend, respect, and love them, in order that they might rejoice in the name "Jew" despite all which that name implies of scorn and privation. Together with this instruction they should be fitted for bread-winning, but they should be taught that bread-winning is only a means, not the purpose of life, and that the value of life is not to be judged according to rank, wealth, or splendor, but according to the amount of good and of service to God with which it is filled. They should be taught not to subordinate the demands of their spiritual mission to those of sensuality and comfort, but the reverse, and while this training was going on, and until Israel's houses were built up of such sons and daughters, the parents should be implored and entreated not to destroy the work of the school, not to crush or choke with icy and unsympathetic mood the tender shoots of Jewish sentiment in the breasts of their children. The latent germs of a nobler disposition in the breast of parents should also be stirred, and if this be impossible, at least they should be forced to respect the sentiments they could not comprehend nor share. If these ends should be earnestly striven for, it would be different in Israel.
It will be different in Israel; our time leads necessarily to such a change. Do not think our time so dark and hopeless, friend; it is only nervous and uncertain, as a woman in child-birth. But better the anxiety which prevails in the house of a woman about to give birth, than the freedom from anxiety, but also from joy and hope, in the house of the barren one. This time of labor may outlast our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren, but our later posterity will rejoice in the child that has struggled out into light and life, and its name will be "self-comprehending Judaism."
The age offers one pledge for the accomplishment of this result; it is the effort to think, to comprehend and to grasp with the mind that which should be respected and revered. Truly, when the mind will have realized the futility of this baseless and aimless striving, of its bargaining with the overestimated demands of the fleeting moment; when it will have clearly brought to its consciousness that the noble life can only be erected upon ideas inwardly recognized as true, then will arise the question, "What does it mean that I am a Jew? What is Judaism?" Nor will the answer to this question be sought at the cathedras or in the writings of non-Jewish scholars, who often see Judaism through a distorting glass and who sometimes think it necessary to destroy the teachings of Torah and Judaism in order to establish their own notions. Neither will it be sought in the writings of time-serving reformers influenced by external motives, nor in the writings of Jewish scholars who take their standpoint outside of Judaism. But the seekers after knowledge will go back to the ancient fountains of Judaism, Bible and Talmud, and the one effort will be to obtain the concept of life out of Judaism and to comprehend Judaism as the law of life, and this effort will lead to the transposing of that which holds the theory of truth and life into actual, practical truth and life, in accordance with the old adage, now, alas, nearly forgotten, ללמוד וללמד לשמור ולעשות, "to learn and to teach, to keep and to do."
O, that you all, who mean well with Judaism, which you have inherited as a habit, and which you are thinking of handing down as a habit, O, that your eyes might be opened and that you might recognize that only through the spirit can you hand it down; O, that you might at least hand to your sons and daughters the Holy Writings, the writings of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa, so that the spirit which throbs in them might become their light and support in life; O, that you noble-minded ones, who think that you labor for the weal of Judaism; O, that you might consider that when you strike the chains from hand and foot or don fine clothing and adorn your outward persons, you do not yet help to improve or elevate life. Lower again the hand upraised to strike down the battlements of your faith, and consider whether you are not about to destroy an edifice which, even though in its covering of the dust of centuries, it appears to you worthy only of the axe's stroke, may yet contain things holy and eternal, things of life and truth; turn again toward it your averted gaze and examine what it is from which you turn away. Is it the fault of the object — should the object be held blameworthy, if those who represent it, themselves covered with the dust of the battlefield upon which they struggle against oppression and misery, could only rescue it dust-covered and made repulsive? Should we, to whom the mildness of the times has given the task of rubbing off the dust, think so little of the troubles and battles of those men as not even to deem it worth while to dust off the jewel for our own benefit, but, regarding only the dust-covered exterior, cast away as worthless the precious possession for which our ancestors sacrificed life, and property, and liberty, and all the joys of life? Should — but I forget, my dear Benjamin, that only heaven hears these wishes, that only this paper sees them, and that only to you will they be shown; I forget that I am writing only to you. Light and truth and life will emerge from this time of trial; be sure of that, friend, and then you will regard differently that which I was accustomed to lament with you, the apparently chaotic condition of the spiritual affairs of our people; no government, no authority, all efforts solely individual, and, through the lust for reform, the religious service, about which the whole movement turns, has become so variegated that a Jew, travelling through Germany, might almost find it different in every congregation. Do you not see that this also may have its good? I am convinced that none of those of us now living comprehend Judaism in its true purity and truth. Consider also the divergency of opinions, quite natural inasmuch as almost every Rabbi strikes out his own path and is led by no schools. Consider furthermore that we are only in the time of labor; it would be unfortunate if an authority tried to establish something — it would only make our sorrows eternal! It would be impossible to select proper men. If one-sided, they would perpetuate extravagances; if composed of minglea elements representing various ideas, their creation would be a half-thing, a torso, and would only serve to dam the stream of development, which can only bring pure and living water when permitted to flow to its uttermost end. Time, if left unhindered, will wash away what it itself has brought into existence, and room will always remain for the higher edifice which yet awaits us. I think that if, in the period after Maimonides, anxiety for the maintenance of Judaism in external practice had not made it necessary to suppress antagonistic efforts, centuries ago the improper tendencies of the Jewish spirit would, through the very completeness of their fulfillment, have brought about sober reflection upon the nature and purposes of our faith, and we would now be whither we can only expect to come in centuries. Under present conditions I rejoice that the scales hang free, held by God alone, and that only intellectual efforts mutually balance each other, but that no temporal power can interpose the sword to check the freedom of the swinging. If it should be stopped, our great grandchildren would be no better off than we. Should we fear to go through the period of anxiety for them?
Let the scales swing! The freer they hang, and the more violently now they swing up and down, the truer and purer will be the estimate of the right principle of faith and life which they will finally fix. And when the scales have ceased to swing, and when all luminous will stand in Israel, the Spirit of Understanding, רוח בינה, the spirit which understands itself, its history, and its law, when its throbbing impulse of life will have pervaded all its members; when the branch gone forth from Israel shall have performed its mission and fought to victory a battle of another kind in the midst of our non- Jewish brethren; when the free gaze uplifted to the All-One, and the consciousness of inner moral power shall have conquered whatever dims the eye and corrupts noble vigor . . . then will the book of our history have been written, and its final teachings will have penetrated all spirits. Let us comprehend our time, dear Benjamin, and let every one, according to the measure of intellectual and spiritual power vouchsafed him, strive to further the progress to the goal, each in the greater or smaller circle in which he lives. Thousands may forsake the cause of life and light, thousands may tear themselves away from the lot and the name of Israel, whose mode of life they have long since rejected — the cause of truth counts not the number of its adherents. If only one remains — one Jew with the book of the law in his hand, with Israel's law in his heart, Israel's light in his spirit — that one suffices; Israel's cause is not lost. When Israel had grown unfit for its mission, the All-One desired to permit the law and the mission of Israel to be borne by the one Moses, and the prophet tells us timid ones the same truth:
"Gaze upon the rock from which we were hewn,
Upon the fountain-hollowing mallet with which ye were dug!
Gaze upon Abraham, your father,
Upon Sarah, destined to bear ye.
One only was he when I called him;
I blessed him and made him many."
Farewell, dear Benjamin, train yourself to be such a one; farewell.