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The Universal vs the Particular in Religious Identity
by Emanuel Rackman / Jacob Neusner / Howard B. Radest
The text below is the portion written by Emanuel Rackman. For the full text with the other author’s contributions, please see the PDF linked above. Thank you.
Rabbi Rackman is the spiritual leader of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue (Orthodox) and assistant to the president of Yeshiva University. He is the author of Jewish Values for Modern Man.
Today’s young generation is not the first to ask whether one ought to remain a Jew — but it does have a new angle. It talks of assimilation not because of Jewish hardship but because of Jewish success. It argues that we no longer need retain our separateness as a people because our values are now cherished by all men. We have, they say, fulfilled our mission; by assimilating we would not only spare ourselves much misunderstanding but would also contribute to the ultimate unity of all mankind.
To this I make reply but not without stating in advance that just as Hamlet was emotionally ill when he asked “To be or not to be,” so the younger generation may be Jewishly deficient when it asks “to be or not to be Jewish.” A mentally healthy individual chooses life and seeks to live it as abundantly as he can. Similarly, one who is knowledgeable Jewishly, and spiritually secure, chooses to live Jewishly because his Jewishness is as natural to him as his humanity. I no more want to run away from my heritage than I want to cease breathing. My desire to live Jewishly is as natural to me as my basic will to live.
Nonetheless, today’s youth does not share this feeling and wants a rationalist, rather than a naturalist, response.
I will try to make one available.
I would like to submit that even if all the values which are part of our heritage as Jews were presently universal values, even if our values of freedom, justice, spiritual excellence, were cherished by most civilized human beings, nonetheless, Jews would want to live these values and express them in their historic Jewish context, in their historic Jewish form. We not only want to do this — we must do this. We feel morally compelled to do this by our own personal existential situation.
A Jew once said that he loves being Jewish because it is the least difficult way he knows to be human. His ultimate value was to be human and the way he found most natural and human for himself was to live a characteristically Jewish life. Most of us also want to be human, but for many of us, to live a Jewish life is unnatural. Our environments warrant non-Jewish patterns of behavior, non-Jewish symbols, heroes, and concerns. Yet even for such of us as would find it easier to be human in a completely assimilated status there ought to be the desire, the drive, and the compulsion to fulfill the values of life in an authentic Jewish frame. Why? Simply because one of the most cherished of universal values is individuality, personal uniqueness. Judaism always stressed this value and humanists cherish it, too. Mother nature is ambivalent with respect to it. She makes us alike and different at the same time. Ours is the choice to lose our identity in a pool of sameness with other human beings, or to accentuate difference even as we maintain mutual respect for all mankind because of that which all of us have in common — our inviolable endowment of personality.
Even as a Jew among Jews, most of us want to retain our individuality, our uniqueness. Even as we share a common core of Jewishness with each other, we also want to give expression to our own tastes, styles, feelings, views, and interpretations. By the same token, as human beings among humans, Jews cannot permit themselves to surrender to those social and cultural forces which would make them altogether like everybody else in their environments.
Political philosophers always dreaded the effects that democracy would have on individuality. And in our day, preoccupation with, and the worship of, science and technology are a greater threat than democracy ever was. Science has internationalized thought and enterprise, which is good, but at the same time the very internationalism and universality of its discourse and its symbols are a threat to the diversity of personal and uniquely human expressions of thought and feeling such as poets were wont to give us. Technology has been even more of a leveler. And by being human in a Jewish way of life we enrich the diversity which aggrandizes man’s ultimate freedom to know and be himself.
The history of Judaism with which we are identified, and whose course we still want to help steer, is an inspiring record of this emphasis on personal freedom and uniqueness. Abraham elected to withdraw and be different. Moses sanctified his people by differentiating them from others. Prophets resisted kings who sought to acculturate with pagans. The Maccabees warred with Hellenists for freedom to worship God in their own way. Talmudic genius and acumen helped Jews maintain their identity against two world religions whose adherents outnumbered them by astronomical proportions. Zionism itself was an answer to those who urged Jews to lose their identity. And we today, when democracy, science, and materialism reign supreme, can find in our Jewish past the goals and the inspiration to defend the most priceless ingredient of our humanity—our individuality and our uniqueness. Our very desire to be human should force us to live Jewishly. Otherwise, we would forfeit some of our humanity and we ought to choose to forfeit none of it.
However, I also find the Jewish frame for universally cherished values to be not only the most ancient, the most tested and tried, the most pervasive, but also the most enjoyable. For me. Sabbath peace is not only the most remarkable way ever conceived to achieve withdrawal from the pressures and tensions of one’s economic situation with its emphasis on gain, greed, and envy, but also an inspiring medium to stress the value of freedom — our transcendence of enslaving preoccupations — and our surrender to gracious living and preoccupation with our families and the ends of life, rather than its means. Sabbaths and festivals are liberating forces — their very restrictions liberate one for delights not otherwise readily attainable.
Dr. Abraham Heschel, in his The Earth Is the Lord’s, tells of a pious Israeli woman whose son was a chalutz. She observed the commandments; he did not. This upset her and she sought the aid of her rabbi. “Rebbe, ” she said, “I do not worry that my son may not have a share in the world to come because he performs no mitzvot. I am absolutely certain that his sacrifices as a chalutz will entitle him to greater share of olarn haba than I will have. What does worry me is that he is missing so much on this earth when he does not have the simple joy of living a traditional Jewish life.”
That is why my first point is that we owe it to our posterity to transmit Jewish values in their authentic frame — the frame of Jewish life and experience. No matter how universally accepted these values now are, or may hereafter become, my children have the right to learn freedom through Passover and to learn justice and peace through the insights of the Bible and the Talmud. And you and I must ponder ways to achieve the transmittal of these values in Jewish forms and moulds. They cannot be transmitted only as abstractions. They must be transmitted by doing — and why should I not choose to do them in a Jewish frame.
However, I submit — and this is my second point — that there are uniquely Jewish values with which I want to enrich humanity and it may be centuries or millennia before these are universally accepted. My daily preoccupation with Torah is for the sake of discovering these insights and hardly a study period in my life passes without their discovery.
The first value I might suggest is the love of mankind. The major premise of today’s argument for assimilation is that all mankind cherishes Jewish values. But does mankind cherish Jews? Do we not yet remain the perennial butt of their hatred? If we choose to assimilate to spare ourselves this hatred, then are we not declaring ab initio that even the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self has not yet taken hold?
Furthermore, the Jewish people are committed to values of human personality which differ from those of the majority of mankind, including the values of other world religions and even the dominant values of East and West. If we, for example, have achieved, throughout our millennial history, an incomparable regard for every member of the family within the family unit, the result is due to unique concepts of personality which Jewish law fostered. Ours is still the only major religious tradition that sanctifies the total human being — his body and his soul, his intellectual prowess as well as his natural appetites. Nothing about the human being created in the divine image is inherently evil. Even the instincts are dignified and sanctified and can be harnessed for good or evil.
It is especially interesting that despite the initial damage done to the Jewish tradition by Freud, there is already a revolt against many of Freud’s teachings and the core of the Jewish position is now gaining respect in the very circles which once demeaned it. Dr. Nathaniel S. Lehnnan, a prominent American psychoanalyst, once described the different attitudes toward sex that have prevailed in human history. He wrote in the Journal of Religion and Health that there are three basic approaches. One he called the celibate, religious-suppressive, standard of which Christianity was the most representative exponent. Many of the guilt feelings that plague modems, and that even give rise to such bizarre and destructive revolutions as Hitler inspired, can be traced to standards which are not biblical or talmudic in origin. Furthermore, what this analyst called the comfortable, psychological, permissive standard of many modems is doing damage to men and women, and especially women whose so-called sexual emancipation has not been an unmitigated blessing. Judaism, with its connubial, religious-responsible, standard is the ideal which he says “establishes a high family-centered sexual goal to which every human being can aspire, and that most can actually achieve: in a sense it makes available to all the pursuit of sexual excellence.”
Now, if the proponents of mental health are discovering that Judaism is committed to a concept of man which is yielding the greatest good, then can we be so wasteful as to discard it?
I see in the complete pattern of Jewish law regarding both food and sex not simply folkways or primitive taboos, but a remarkable, divinely ordained prescription for the dignification and sanctification of every drive and impulse of man — endowing even his most basic drives with a divine dimension. Man may be an animal. He has appetites which must be satisfied. But Judaism never regarded instincts as evil. Even sex was not evil. The so-called fall of man is not an authentic Jewish idea. If God had wanted the complete repression of appetites, he would have created man differently.
What God asks of man is rather that the satisfaction of his natural desires shall be achieved on a higher plane. In sexual intercourse our erotic tastes and deportment are more refined — we hope — than those of beasts. And what the Halacha sought to achieve was to add considerations of holiness to the aesthetic. Satisfy the appetite, but do it in accordance with the divine will. The gratification of the instinct is thus transformed from an animal-like performance to one charged with dignity and sanctity. To the value of the beautiful we add the value of the holy. Eat and sleep and clothe yourself — even shave and build your home — as God willed you to. Be aware of God even as you fulfill your basic needs and requirements. In that way you will transform acts that are presumably without spiritual value into acts that are religious in character — acts that link you with the Infinite. In that way, too, you will avoid those feelings of guilt and even disgust with yourself that frequently accompany the satisfaction of appetites.
It is principally in the area of civil and criminal law that one discovers how high is the value placed by Judaism on the dignity and sanctity of human personality. In our political and social philosophy, this value is reflected in every instance. Let us take one example, the right against self-incrimination, which is cherished in the democracies of the West.
Forced confessions have become the principal basis for convictions behind the iron curtain in crimes of a political nature, and to some degree also in the United States in crimes of violence, particularly when members of racial minorities are involved.
Traditional Jewish law held any and all confessions — no matter how voluntarily offered — to be without legal effect as far as the state was concerned. Confessions of debts or thefts might obligate one to make payment or restitution to an aggrieved party at the latter’s insistence. But the confessions were nullities in criminal proceedings. As a matter of fact, the person making the confession could not even be impeached as a witness in a subsequent and different proceeding on the ground that he had confessed to the commission of an immoral act.
The Talmud establishes this rule against self-incrimination by means of a syllogism. Relatives are incompetent to testify against each other. A man is a relative to himself. Nonetheless, one does find that a man may make admissions against his interest which might give rise to suits for money judgments by persons in whose favor the admission was made. Logically, the same syllogism ought to apply. Yet the Talmud indicates that with regard to financial obligations, an admission might create a liability in the maker of the admission and a power to sue in the party for whose benefit the admission was made. It is only the state that is barred from enjoying this advantage.
What is of special interest, however, is the rationale of the Jewish rule. The confession is a nullity because of the incompetency of the confessor to testify. In the United States, in a federal investigation, a man was once forced to incriminate himself with regard to an act which is a crime under state law, but not under federal law. The immunity against self-incrimination guaranteed by the federal constitution then applied only to self-incrimination under federal law. This decision has since been overruled. The Jewish rule would bar any self-incrimination whatever because of the incompetency of the confessor. In addition, the immunity guaranteed by the federal constitution applies only to crimes, and not to matters which are not punishable by law, such as membership in a legal but unpopular organization.
The truth is that while law-enforcing agencies have been aided by the gradual contraction of the immunity against self-incrimination, personal freedom has also suffered. Jewish law, on the other hand, gave legal recognition to admissions against interest when they involved the waiver of one’s wealth. One could not, however, waive one’s flesh or freedom.
Jewish law generally seeks to stress what modem capitalism reluctantly accepts and what Russian communism vociferously rejects — that human life is more sacred than property. Human life is cheaper in the Soviet Union than state property. You get the death penalty more readily for sabotage against the latter than murder against the former. The rabbis in the Talmud, however, even explained that the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” applies not to property but rather to kidnapping. We may not steal human beings and sell them into slavery. A prohibition against stealing property is important but not important enough for inclusion in the Ten Commandments.
Thus, our heritage has unique insights with regard to values and it becomes our duty to conserve that heritage for the benefit of mankind.
It is my third and last point that will evoke the most vigorous dissent. However, even if all cannot accept it, everyone should remember that it is the historic Jewish position and that millions of Jews still embrace it. Young people have a moral obligation to help those millions survive as a people that they might give expression to their thesis even as those who reject it might continue to ponder it and perhaps ultimately fathom its merit. It is the unique commitment of Jews that Jewish values are valid and worthy of pursuit because they are the will of a transcendent Being who in fact revealed His will.
Thus, even as I maintain that we Jews ought to live and transmit universal values in the context of our own cultural heritage, and even as I maintain that our values often have a different and uniquely Jewish component which warrants pursuit, articulation, and implementation, so do I maintain that the philosophical validation of our values is such that it alone can induce commitment. Not all accept my position which is the position of a Jew committed to halachah. But Jews have not been relativists in ethics. For Jews, as Professor Carl Friedrich once expressed it, law is the will of God. The right, the just, the good, are not man-made. They are ordained by God. Needless to say, to affirm this position requires an act of faith. But this is Judaism’s historic position. And it warrants the most earnest consideration of young people.
One asks, What is the good life? In our day the life expectancy of every human being has been increased. Child mortality has been reduced considerably and there is the likelihood that more and more people will live to be one hundred years of age. Yet, can it be said that there has been a comparable achievement with regard to the good life? Does one have to cite statistics to indicate the extent to which precisely the people with economic means and physical security have to resort to some form of therapy or use of tranquilizers? These facts have been repeated often enough in the press and in other forms of mass communication to make us realize that simply to add years to life does not necessarily mean that medicine has succeeded in bringing to us the good life. Yet, in all fairness to the psychiatrists it must be said that they are pondering this question. They, too, want to know why it is that man, modem man, who is enjoying better health and more security than any generation of human beings ever did before, is not happy, is more neurotic and psychotic than ever. Now, one of the most significant of contributions made on this subject is by a very distinguished psychiatrist who was himself a victim of Nazi terror. He spent many years in a concentration camp and there he asked himself a fundamental question, Why did some survive while others perished? What gave some an incredible will to live while others could not withstand the indescribable agony about them? This man, Dr. Viktor Frankl, came to a remarkable discovery, but a discovery so simple that one wonders why it took genius to reveal it. Dr. Frankl came to the conclusion that earlier students of the human mind had not gone far enough. Freud studied the human being and felt that it was the pleasure principle that was responsible for all of man’s behavior. Man has certain needs and these needs create tension. When these needs are satisfied, man has pleasure because the release from tension is pleasure.
Dr. Frankl said that this description of man could basically be described in two words, “man is,” or by a declaration of man, “I am what I am. I have needs and these needs must be satisfied.”
After Freud, another group of psychiatrists realized that man is more than a bundle of physical wants and needs. Man also has a desire to fulfill himself. He wants to advance and achieve recognition. He has a potential intellectually, socially, economically, and is driven to achieve status as he seeks respect for that which he can accomplish. There came Jung and Adler and they stressed, for example, the desire of a younger child to have the same status in the family that the older child has. They referred to the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, between Esau and Jacob. These conflicts they regarded as symptomatic of what goes on through life. These psychologists stressed the search for status and recognition as one of the most important factors in human motivation and human behavior. Just as Freud made the problem of what man is his central concern, so they made the problem of what man can become the focus of all their attention. For Freud the central statement was “I am”; for Jung and Adler the central statement was “I can be” or “I can become.” But Dr. Frankl recognized that neither is enough. There was something more required for the good life than simply the satisfaction of wants, and even more than the achievement of self-fulfillment. Who knows this better than Americans? We do not want for food, shelter, or clothing. What is more, even with regard to sex there has been such a breakdown of moral standards that very few are frustrated in this connection. Furthermore, the very people who have achieved status and recognition, like celebrities in cinema, art, and letters, are among the most unhappy. And Frankl discovered in concentration camps that man craves not only self-development and self-fulfillment, but an additional dimension. Not only does man say, “I am” and “I can become”; he also says “I ought to be.”
To live man requires the “ought.” But what other than something beyond the self provides the “ought”? If it is the self alone that yields it, then man’s response to it leaves him in the second dimension of self-fulfillment. The third dimension requires a transcendent source to which are related man’s moral imperatives. It is because of this source that not every ethical position is equally valid or correct. Nazi morality was not just as relatively right for Nazis as Jewish morality is relatively right for Jews.
The Greeks and the Romans sought the answer in natural law. In Judaism, it was the creator who was also the supreme legislator. Indeed, I find it very difficult to explain why millions of people are perfectly content to accept the idea that God created the universe but are reluctant to accept the idea that God revealed His will to man at one point in universal history. The truth is that if we do not accept the idea of revelation we have no sound basis for accepting the idea of creation. No nation, no ethnic group, no religious community held the idea of creation before it was expounded in the Bible. The idea of creation is uniquely and exclusively Jewish. Indeed, Aristotle rejected it, and Maimonides was hard put to disprove Aristotle’s thesis. It requires an act of faith in order to maintain that the world was created. Certainly the oriental religions did not subscribe to it. That the world now embraces the idea is due to the fact that it was revealed to Moses and from Moses it entered the philosophical tradition of the West so that scientists and philosophers alike seek evidence to support it even though the evidence cannot possibly be conclusive. Nonetheless, because of an act of faith, most of us assume that the world was created. Why, however, should we reject the rest of the biblical document which postulates creation and refuses to believe that the same creator made His will known to man? The revelation of that will is still the principal source of our knowledge of what is right and wrong, what is good and what is evil, what is just and unjust. Creation and revelation are one in Judaism. Both derive from the same authority, the authority of the Bible or the authority of faith. That we are ready to accept one side of the coin and not the other is explicable only in terms of the evil in human nature. We accept what we like and what is irrelevant to our behavior — the idea of creation, and we reject what must govern our behavior — the idea of revelation. The authority of the law makes demands upon us; the idea of creation makes no such demands. However, this position is not defensible intellectually or morally.
Now, ours is an age when basic values and beliefs are either disintegrating or are largely gone. Emile Durkheim calls it a state of “anomie.” At such a time it is more imperative than ever that some form of order be maintained — some form of constitutional loyalty — lest there be a total breakdown of the social and legal order. The only constitutional loyalty which Jews had in their millennial history was to the sovereign of the universe. He endowed our values with their ultimate validation. Yet even if many of us find a return to Him impossible, we ought not be unmindful of the losses that will be ours if we fail to respect those who want to return and those who have never abandoned Him. We must help them to survive as a people, as a religious fellowship, as a covenanted folk.
For me, therefore, the road is clear. I cannot abandon Judaism because I cherish her values. I must transmit these values in their historic frame; I must continue to discover the uniquely Jewish components in Jewish values; and I must ponder the source, and the divine, absolute, validity of our values as they emanate from God. Let others choose a different road. I will respect their choice. I pray them, however, to remember and respect the approach I have described which is trebly charged to achieve the survival of Judaism and the more abundant living of Jews.
…I find it difficult to explain why people are content to accept the idea that God created the universe but are reluctant to accept the idea that God revealed His will to man—
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