Skip to main content

Full text of "The National Idea in Judaism"

See other formats


STOP 



Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world by JSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 
purposes. 

Read more about Early Journal Content at http://about.jstor.org/participate-jstor/individuals/early- 
journal-content . 



JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 
contact support@jstor.org. 



The National Idea in Judaism. 353 



THE NATIONAL IDEA IN JUDAISM. 

Once find a man's ideals, it has been well said, and the rest is 
easy ; and undoubtedly to get at any true notion of character, 
one must discover these. They may be covered with close con- 
ventionalities, or jealously hidden, like buried treasures, from 
unsympathetic eyes; but the patient search is well worth while, 
since it is his ideals — and not his words nor his deeds, which a 
thousand circumstances influence and decide — which show us 
the real man as known to his Maker. And true as this is of 
the individual, it is true in a deeper and a larger sense of the 
nations, and most true of all of that people in whom for cen- 
turies speech was impolitic and action impossible. With 
articulate expression so long denied to them, the national 
ideals must be always to the student of history the truest 
revelation of Judaism ; and it is curious and interesting to 
trace their development, and to recognise the crown and apex 
of them all in battlefield and in " Vineyard," in Ghetto and in 
mart, unchanged among the changes, and practically the same 
as in the days of the desert. The germ was set in the wil- 
derness, when, amid the thunders and lightnings of Sinai, a 
crowd of frightened, freshly-rescued slaves were made " wit- 
nesses " to a living God, and guardians of a " Law " which 
demonstrated his existence. Very new and strange, and 
but dimly understanded of the people it must have been. 
" The lights of sunset and of sunrise mixed." The fierce vivid 
glow under which they had bent and basked in Egypt had 
scarcely faded, when they were bid look up in the grey dawn 
of the desert to receive their trust. There was worthy stuff 
in the descendants of the man who had left father and friends 
and easy sensuous idolatry to follow after an ideal of righteous- 
ness; and they who had but just escaped from the bondage of 
centuries, rose to the occasion. They accepted their mission ; 
" All that the Lord has spoken we will do," came up a 
responsive cry from " all the people answering together," and 
in that supreme moment the ill-fed and so recently ill-treated 
groups were transformed into a nation. " I will make of thee 
a great people ; " " Through thee shall all families of the earth 

BB 



354 Tlie Jewish Quarterly Review. 

be blessed ; " the meaning of such predictions was borne in 
upon them in one bewildering flash, and in that light the 
national idea of Judaism found its dawn ; they, the despised 
and the down-trodden, were to become trustees of civili- 
zation. 

As the glow died down, however, a very rudimentary sort of 
civilization the wilderness must have presented to these 
builders of the temples and the treasure cities by the Nile, 
and to the vigorous resourceful Hebrew women. As day after 
day, and year after year, the clcud moved onward, darkening 
the road which it directed, as they gathered the manna 
and longed for the fleshpots, it could have been only the few 
and finer spirits among those listless groups who were able to 
discern that a civilization based upon the Decalogue, shorn 
though it was of all present pleasantness and ease, had a 
promise about it that was lacking to a culture " learned in all 
the wisdom of the Egyptians." It was life reduced to its 
elements ; Sinai and Pisgah stood so far apart, and such long 
level stretches of dull sand lay between the heights. One 
imagines the women, skilled like their men-folk in all manner 
of cunning workmanship, eagerly, generously ransacking their 
stores of purple and fine linen to decorate the Tabernacle, 
and spinning and embroidering with a desperately delighted 
sense of recovered refinements, which, as much perhaps as their 
fervour of religious enthusiasm, led them to bring their gifts 
till " restrained from bringing." The trust was accepted in 
the wilderness but grudgingly, with many a faint-hearted 
protest, and to some minds in some moods slavery must have 
seemed less insistent in its demands than trusteeship. 

The conquest of Canaan was the next experience, and as 
sinfulness and idolatry were relentlessly washed away in 
rivers of blood, one doubts if the impressionable descendants 
of Jacob, to whom it was given to overcome, might not per- 
chance have preferred to endure. But such choice was not 
given to them ; the trust had to be realised before it could 
be transmitted, and its value tested by its cost. With Pales- 
tine at last in possession of the chosen people, the civilization 
of which they were the guardians by slow degrees, became 
manifest. Samuel lived it, and David sang it, and Isaiah 
preached it, and the nation clung to it, individual men and 
women, stumbling and failing often, but dying each, when 
need came, a hundred deaths in its defence ; perhaps finding 
it on occasion less difficult to die for an idea than to live up 
to it. 

The securities were shifted, the terms of the trusteeship 
changed when the people of the Land became the people 



The National Idea in Judaism. 355 

of the Book. The civilization which they guarded grew 
narrowed in its issues and limited in its outlook, till, as the 
years rolled into the centuries, it was hard to recognize the 
" witnesses " of God in the hunted outcasts of man. Yet to 
the student of history, who reads the hieroglyph of the 
Egyptian into the postcard of to-day, it is not difficult to see 
the civilization of Sinai shining under the folds of the 
gaberdine or of the san benito. It was taught in the schools 
and it was lived in the homes, and the Ghetto could not 
altogether degrade it, nor the Holy Office effectually disguise 
it. Jews sank sometimes to the lower level of the sad lives 
they led, but Judaism remained unconquerably buoyant. 
Judaism, as they believed in it, was a Personal Force, making 
for righteousness, a Law which knew no change, the promise 
of a period when the earth should be filled with the know- 
ledge of the Lord ; and the " witnesses " stuck to this their 
trust, through good repute and through evil repute, with a 
simple doggedness which disarms all superficial criticism. The 
glamour of the cause, through which a Barcochba loomed 
heroic to an Akiba, the utter absence of self-consciousness or 
of self-seeking, which made Judas in his fight for freedom 
pin the Lord's name on his flag, and which, with the king- 
dom lost, made the scrolls of the Law the spoil with which 
Ben Zaccai retreated, — this was at the root of the national 
idea, and its impersonality gives the secret of its strength. 
" Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name ! " 
This vivid sense of being the trustees of civilization was 
wholly dissociated from any feeling of conceit either in the 
leaders or in the rank and file of the Jewish nation. It is 
curious indeed to realize how so intense a conviction of the 
survival of the fittest could be held in so intensely un- 
modernized a spirit. 

The idea of their trusteeship was a sheet anchor to the Jews 
as the waves and the billows passed over them. In the fifteen 
hundred years' tragedy of their history there have been no 
entr'actes of frenzied stampede or of revolutionary revengeful 
conspiracy. A resolute endurance, which, characteristically 
enough, rarely approaches asceticism, marks the depth and 
strength and buoyancy of the national idea. Trustees of civili- 
zation might not sigh nor sing in solitudes; nor with the feel- 
ing so keen that " a thousand years in Thy sight are but as a 
day," was it worth while to plot or plan against the oppressors 
of the moment. Time was on their side, and " that which 
shapes it to some perfect end." And this attitude explains, 
possibly, some unattractive phases of it, since however honestly 
the individual consciousness may be absorbed in a national 

bb 2 



356 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

conscience, yet the individual will generally, in some way, 
manage to express himself, and the self is not always quite 
up to the ideal, nor indeed is it always in harmony with 
those who would interpret it. When a David dances before 
the Ark it needs other than a daughter of Saul to understand 
him. There have been Jews in David's case, their enthusiasm 
mocked at ; and there have been Jews indifferent to their trust, 
and Jews who have betrayed it, and Jews too, and these not a 
few, who have pushed it into prominence with undue display. 
The infinite changes of circumstance and surrounding in 
Jewish fortunes no less than differences in individual cha- 
racter have induced a considerable divergence in the practical 
politics of the national idea. The persecuted have been 
exclusive over it, and the prosperous careless ; it has been 
vulgarized by superstition, and ignored by indifferentism, till 
modern " rational " thinkers now and again question whether 
Palestine be indeed the goal of Jewish separateness, and make 
it a matter for academic discussion whether " Jews " mean a 
sect of cosmopolitan citizens with religious customs more or less 
in common, or a people whose religion has a national origin 
and a national purpose in its observances. With questioners 
such as these, Revelation, possibly, would not be admitted as 
sound evidence in reply, or the promise " Ye shall be to me a 
kingdom of priests and a holy nation " would, one might 
think, show a design that ritual by itself does not fulfil. It 
was no sect with " tribal " customs, but a " nation " and a 
" kingdom " who were to be " holy to the Lord." But though 
texts may be inadmissible with those who prefer their sermons 
in stones, yet the records of the ages are little less impartial 
and unimpassioned than the records of the rocks, and doubters 
might find their answer in the insistent tones of history 
when she tells of the results of occasional unnatural divorce 
between religion and nationality among Jews. 

There were times not a few, whilst their own judges ruled, 
and whilst their own kings reigned in Palestine, when with a 
firm grip on the land but a loose hold on the law, Israel was 
well nigh lost and absorbed in the idolatrous peoples by whom 
they were surrounded ; when the race, which was ceasing to 
worship at the national altars, was in danger of ceasing to 
exist as a nation. Exile taught them to value by loss what 
was possession. " How shall we sing the Lord's song in a 
strange land ?" was the passionate cry in Babylon. Was it 
not the feeling that the land was " strange," which gave that 
new fervour to the songs, choking off utterance and finding 
adequate expression only in the Return ? Did Judas, the 
Maccabee, understand something of this as he led his patriotic 



The National Idea in Judaism, 357 

" zealous " troops to victory ? Did Mendelssohn forget it 
v/hen, nineteen hundred years later, he emancipated his 
people from the results of worse than Syrian oppression, at 
the cost of so many, his own children among the rest, shak- 
ing off memories and duties as lightly as they shook off re- 
straints ? Over and over again in the wonderful history of 
the Jews, does religion without nationality prove itself as im- 
possible as nationality without religion to serve for a sustain- 
ing force in Judaism. The people who, while " the city of 
palm trees " was yet their own, could set up strange gods in 
the groves were not one whit more false to their faith, nor 
more harmful to their people than those later representatives 
of the opposite type, Hellenists, as history calls them, who 
built a temple, and read the law and observed the precepts, 
whilst their very priests changed their good Jewish names 
for Greek sounding ones in contemptuous and contemptible 
deprecation of their Jewish nationality. One inclines, per- 
haps, to accentuate the facts of history and to moralise over 
the might-have-beens where these fit into a theory ; but so 
much as this at least seems indisputable — that those who 
would dissociate the national from the religious, or the reli- 
gious from the national element in Judaism attempt the im- 
possible. The ideal of the Jews must always be " from Zion 
shall come forth instruction, and the word of God from Jeru- 
salem ; " and to this end — " that all people of the earth may 
know thy name, as do thy people Israel." This is the goal 
of Jewish separateness. The separateness may have been part 
of the Divine plan, as distinctive practices and customs are 
due in the first place to the Divine command ; but they are 
also and none the less a means of strengthening the national 
character of the Jews. Jewish religion neither " happens " to 
have a national origin, nor does Jewish nationality " happen " 
to have religious customs. The Jewish nation has become a 
nation and has been preserved as a nation for the distinct pur- 
pose of religion. This is the lesson of history. And this is 
its consolation : that the faithful few who see the fulfilment 
of history and of prophecy in a restored and localised 
nationality — a Jerusalem reinstated as the joy of the whole 
earth; the careless many who, in comfortable complacency, 
are well content to await it indefinitely, in dispersion ; the 
loyal many, who believe that a political restoration would be 
a retrogressive step, narrowing and embarrassing the wider 
issues ; the children of light and the children of the world, the 
spiritual and the spirituel element in Israel, alike, if unequally, 
have each their share in spreading the civilisation of Sinai, as 
surely as " fire and hail and snow and mist and stormy wind " 



358 The Jewish Quarterly Review. 

all " fulfil His word." The seed that was sown in the sands of 
the desert has germinated through the ages, and its fruition is 
foretold. The promise to the Patriarch, " I will make of thee 
a great nation," foreshadowed that his descendants were to 
be trustees, " through them shall all families of the earth be 
blessed." There are those who would read into this national 
idea a taint of arrogance or of exclusiveness, as there are 
some scientifically minded folks, a trifle slow perhaps, to apply 
their own favoured dogma of evolution, who can see in the 
Exodus only a capriciously selected band of slaves, led forth to 
serve a tribal deity. But the history of the Jews, which is 
inseparable from the religion of the Jews, rebukes those who 
would thus halt midway and stumble over the evidences. It 
lifts the veil, it flashes the light on dark places, it unriddles 
the weary puzzle of the travailing ages, leaving only indif- 
ferentism unsolvable, as it shows clear how the Lord, the 
Spirit of all flesh, the universal Father, brought Israel out of 
Egypt and gave them name and place to be his witnesses, and 
the means he chose whereby " all families of the earth should 
be blessed." 

Katie Magnus.