My Dear Naphtali:
When, recently on the occasion of your trip through the town of my residence, we were privileged to meet again, after many years of separation, for a short meeting hour, you did not imagine, my dear Naphtali, what interest the subject of our conversation had - and, indeed, still has - for me. You found me so changed in my religious views and practices that, despite your habitual tolerance, you could not suppress the questions which rose, as it were, spontaneously to your lips, "since when?" and "Why?" As answer I gave you a whole series of accusations against Judaism, concerning which my eyes had been Opened by reading and contact with the world since I had left home and parents.
You listened quietly to my speech, and, when I had done, replied, "Do you believe that you really understand the object which you are thus condemning? Have you acquired with your own eyes, and by dint of honest, earnest investigation, an actual understanding of a matter which, inasmuch as it is the holiest and most important consideration of our life, should at least not be cast aside thoughtlessly and unreflectingly ? "You showed me that the only sources of my knowledge were, on the one hand, the mechanical practice of parental customs and a few imperfect and undigested fragments of the Bible and Talmud acquired from Polish teachers, and, on the other hand, Christian writers, modern reformers, and especially that view of life which our present age has brought forth, and which has, as its chief endeavor, the suppression of the inner voice of conscience in favor of the external demands of comfort and ease.
I was forced to confess the insufficiency of my knowledge, begged you for instruction; then the coachman called, and, in bidding me good-by, you had only time to call "in writing." You have, therefore, made me distrustful, my dear Naphtali, of the opinions I have hitherto held, but you have not refuted them, nor given me better ones in their stead. I, therefore, take advantage of your kind permission, and repeat to you in writing a number of my charges, not for the purpose of defending my present mode of life, but in the sincere desire of information and guidance. Every religion, I believe, should bring man nearer to his ultimate end. This end, what else can it be than the attainment of happiness and perfection?
But if we take these principles as a criterion for Judaism, what utterly depressing results do we not obtain? To what happiness does Judaism conduct its professors? From time immemorial misery and slavery have been their lot; misunderstood or despised by the other nations, and while the rest of mankind mounted to the summit of culture, prosperity, and fortune, its adherents remained always poor in everything which makes human beings great and noble, and which beautifies and dignifies existence.
The Law itself interdicts all enjoyments, is a hindrance to all the pleasures of life. For two thousand years we are as the plaything of fate, as a ball tossed from hand to hand, even in the present time driven from all the paths of happiness. And as for the perfecting of human acquirements, what culture, what conquests in the domain of science, art, or invention, in a word, what great achievements have Jews wrought compared with Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Italians, French, English, or Germans?
Robbed of all the characteristics of nationality, we are, nevertheless, deemed a nation, and every one of us is by his very birth doomed to form an additional link in this never-ending chain of misery. The Law is chiefly at fault for all this: by enjoining isolation in life, and thereby arousing suspicion and hostility; by breaking the spirit through the inculcation of humble submissiveness, thereby inviting contempt ; by discouraging the pursuit of the formative arts; by dogmas which bar the way of free speculation, and by removing, through the separation in life, every incentive to exertion in science and art, which, therefore, do not flourish among us.
As for our own lore, it perverts the mind and leads it astray into subtleties and the minutia of petty distinctions, until it becomes incapable of entertaining simple and natural opinions, so that I have always wondered not a little how you, who have taste and understanding for the beauties of Virgil, Tasso, and Shakespeare, and who are able to penetrate into the consistent structures of Leibnitz or Kant, can find pleasure in the rude and tasteless writings of the Old Testament, or in the illogical disputations of the Talmud ?
And what effect has it, the Law, upon heart and life ? The broad principles of universal morality are narrowed into anxious scrupulosity about insignificant trifles ; nothing is taught except to fear God, everything, even the pettiest details of life, is referred directly to God; life itself becomes a continuous monastic service, nothing but prayers and ceremonies; he the most praiseworthy Jew, who lives most secluded, and knows least of the world, though he permits it to support him, but wastes his life in fasting and praying, and the perusal of senseless writings. Look yourself at the book which is put into our hands as the "Path of Life," and which contains the whole duty of the Jew, what else does it teach except praying and fasting and the keeping of holidays ? Where is there one word of the active, busy life around us? And this, too, just in our time? Why, it is quite impossible to keep these laws intended for an entirely different time. What limitation in travelling, what embarrassment in association with Gentiles, what difficulties in every business !
Please, please do not point, for an answer, to the reformistic tendencies of the age, how little by little everything is being cut away which does not harmonize with the conception of the destiny of man or the needs of the time. Is not this in itself a step outside of Judaism ?
Should one not rather, if one is a Jew, consistently carry out these notions, instead of attaching oneself to such contradictory principles, by which nothing can be attained except capricious, fortuitous patchwork ?
And, besides, for this very reform, everything is lacking, unity, legally constituted legislative bodies, authority. All of these efforts are only the doings of individuals, the most divergent opinions prevail among the Rabbis and preachers; while some as enlightened men of the time tear down, others hold fast to the rotten building, and wish themselves to be buried under it. I myself recently saw a young Rabbi who, whenever he travels, in simple-minded piety, contents himself with prisoner's fare, and whom, when one visits him, one may still find poring over the folios of the Talmud; nay, he is even said to grieve earnestly over the fact that some of the members of his congregation are so far advanced in enlightenment that they do not close their places of business on the Sabbath. What shall become of us, dear Naphtali? I am about to marry, but, God knows, when I think that perhaps I shall be called upon to exercise the duties of a father to children, I tremble.
Excuse me, dear friend, that I have spoken so freely and unreservedly, although I know that you revere all this very much, and, I suppose, must do so as Rabbi, on account of your position; still I am confident that you have so much love left for me from former days, that you will, in answering me, forget your office; for what that teaches, I know sufficiently well.