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ALEXANDER KOHUT 1 

The body of this book, from which it derives its name, is 
a series of fifteen discourses, based on the first chapter of the 
Pirke Aboth, which were preached by Dr. Alexander A. Kohut 
shortly after his arrival in America. These sermons constituted 
a first attempt on the part of the eminent scholar to give a popular 
exposition of his standpoint regarding the great controversy 
between orthodoxy and reform which was then raging. 

The introductory material in this volume consists of a 
' Memoir of Alexander Kohut ' by Barnett A. Elzas, an essay on 
'Alexander Kohut's Contribution to Jewish Scholarship' by 
Gotthard Deutsch, ' An Estimate of Dr. Alexander Kohut's Place 
in the History of American Judaism ' by Maurice H. Harris, and 
' Some Memoirs of Alexander Kohut ' by Max Cohen. 

With regard to the history, present form, and value of the 
discourses now collected under the title Ethics of the Fathers, 
the editor's preface has this to say : ' Heard by very large audiences, 
they were eagerly read and discussed throughout the length and 
breadth of the land when they appeared, week by week, in the 
columns of the American Hebrew, in hastily prepared translations 
by his friend Max Cohen, the Librarian of the then Maimonides 
Free Library. They were afterwards published in book form.' 

' Though the utterances of a stranger, barely familiar with his 
new surroundings, his words have still a living message to 
American Jewry. This is the only reason for re-printing this 
little volume that has been out of print for twenty years. It has 
been practically rewritten by the editor, who has endeavoured to 
be as true as possible to the spirit of the original.' 

1 The Ethics of the Fathers. By Dr. Alexander Kohut. Edited and 
Revised by Barnett A. Elzas, M.D., LL.D. with Memoir and Apprecia- 
tions by Various Writers. Privately Printed New York : 1920, pp. cx + 127. 

252 



ALEXANDER KOHUT — KOHN 253 

Though the editor's statement lessons the value of the work 
as a criterion by which to judge the author's homiletic style or 
diction, it does not obscure the aim or significance of the task 
therein undertaken or the wealth of Talmudic learning wherewith 
the author elaborates his theme. The editor is quite right in his 
belief that these sermons ' have still a living message to American 
Jewry ', for though new issues have arisen which overshadow the 
old controversy and give it a new turn, it yet abides with us and 
it remains as difficult as of old to express and formulate the 
position held by those who are not prepared to surrender to 
either wing. 

Dr. Kohut's opposition to the findings of the Pittsburg 
Conference, held in November 1885, moved him to ally himself 
with Sabata Morais and others to establish the Jewish Theological 
Seminary of America, but his general attitude is, I believe, fairly 
stated by Dr. Elzas as follows : ' He was in fact a conservative 
Reformer, "offering the old and the new in happily blended 
union . . ." To sum up his position in a word, he sought neither 
" the way of fire " nor " the way of snow ", to walk in either of 
which, according to the parable of the ancients, meant death. 
He sought "the middle way", to walk in which meant life'. 

Dr. Harris speaks of Dr. Kohut as ' the leading exponent in 
his day of Conservative Judaism' and makes this attempt to 
sketch the conservative trend versus Orthodoxy and Reform. 
' How shall we define the place of Conservatism between these 
two main schools? We may say first that it accepts the old 
doctrines, but not quite in the old way. It grants a wider liberty 
in belief while urging conformity in practice ; though even there 
it permits some modifications and abridgment in the elaborate 
ceremonial of the synagogue evolved in the process of ages' 
(p. lxxxi). 

Dr. Harris finds a distinguishing characteristic of Kohut's 
point of view in that, though acknowledging the principle of 
development to a limited extent, it 'stoutly maintained that we 
must accept the orthodox view of the doctrine of Revelation' 
(p. lxxxv). 

s a 



254 THE JEWISH QUARTERLY REVIEW 

One cannot fail to note in a careful reading of The Ethics 
how the author was groping for a position which could not be 
adequately defined by the word ' conservative ', because it has not 
the static or purely conciliatory implications of that word. 
Witness: 'A reform which seeks to progress without the Mosaic- 
rabbinical tradition is a deformity— a skeleton without flesh and 
sinew, without spirit and heart. It is a suicide; and suicide is 
not reform. We desire a Judaism full of life. We desire to 
worship the living God, in forms full of life and beauty ; Jewish, 
yet breathing the modern spirit. Only a Judaism true to itself 
and its past, yet receptive of the ideas of the present, accepting 
the good and the beautiful from whatever source it may come, 
can command respect and recognition ' (p. 7). The paragraph 
concluding the first sermon approaches more nearly to an attempt 
to find a suitable name for the author's position : ' I do not know 
whether it will be my good fortune to have your sympathy in my 
religious attitude — that of Mosaic-rabbinical Judaism, freshened 
with the spirit of progress, a Judaism of the healthy golden mean. 
I hope I shall. For such a Judaism I plead. Unfurl, then, you; 
banner of reasonable progress. You must. I know you will ' 
(p. 9). The words 'reasonable progress' are italicized in the 
text, and I believe they come nearer the heart of the matter 
than any other phrase used in the book or by later contro- 
versialists. 

In the second of the discourses, dealing with 'The Fence 
around the Law ', the author clarifies this standpoint as follows : 
' " Remember the days of old," said Moses, " and have regard to 
the changes of each generation" (Deut. 23. 7). The teaching of 
the ancients we must make our starting-point, but we must 
hot lose sight of what is needed in every generation' (p. 15). 
' And as these Elder did, so can — yes, so must — we, the later 
Epigoni, do in the exigencies of our own day. If the power to 
make changes was granted to the Elders, is not the power given 
equally to us? "But they were giants", we are told, "and we, 
compared with them, are mere pigmies." Perhaps so ; let us not 



ALEXANDER KOHUT — KOHN 255 

forget, however, that a pigmy on a giant's shoulder can see 
farther than the giant himself (p. 16). 

In the same vein, note the following in the eleventh dis- 
course : ' As long as man lives, he must be active, and only as he 
is active, does he live. Progress is the law of life. . . . The 
question for us is, What shall we call Progress in Religion and 
how can we best conserve our energies ? If " Progress " is to be 
evidenced 6y destruction and not by construction ; if it merely 
means the giving up of ancient and venerable customs, that have 
been honoured by long usage and which bring comfort to 
the soul, and offers nothing in their place, then every well- 
meaning Jew will call such "Progress" retrogression. . . . Only 
when the Rabbis of this country shall be moved by a common 
endeavour for wise moderation, unaffrighted at the " Backwards " 
cry — which may, after all, be beneficent progress ; only when 
Religion shall again have been restored to the home, where it 
now lies, sadly neglected ; and, speaking generally, only when 
conservative progress, rather than ungovernable speed, shall 
characterize our religious movement, can the outlook for Judaism 
be hopeful ' (pp. 88, 89, 92). The words ' conservative progress ' 
in the last paragraph are evidently a companion phrase to the 
expression ' reasonable progress ' quoted above. 

It is true that Kohut, like Isaac M. Wise, who is often spoken 
of as the father of American Reform, confined the sphere of 
development in Jewish Law to the post-Biblical material, but it is 
not quite true that, in opposition to the subsequent attitude of 
reformed Judaism, he maintained the orthodox point of view with 
regard to Divine Revelation. ' We regard the Torah ', he says, 
' as that which is commanded in the teachings of Moses, looking, 
however, to its spirit and its significance for the culture of 
mankind' (p. 15). One cannot avoid the feeling that, when 
Revelation is evaluated according to its spirit and its cultural 
significance, it cannot be quite fitted to the old orthodox 
categories. 

What Kohut says with regard to a Prayer Book finds an echo 
in modern Jewish controversy. There are still conservatives who, 



256 THE JEWISH QUARTERLY REVIEW 

for various reasons, are not reconciled to the Union Prayer Book, 
published subsequent to the date of these discourses, and who do 
not feel themselves spiritually at home in the orthodox ritual. 
To them these words of Dr. Kohut seem, not reminiscent, but 
prophetic : ' Opinions alter and manners change ; we must take 
account of altered conditions .... Let me illustrate this by the 
question of the Prayer Book that is now raging in our midst. 
The old Siddur no longer satisfies us. We need a new one and 
many are they who are ready to supply the demand. But how ? 
One would remove all traces of Hebrew ; another would allow 
some Hebrew, endeared to many, to remain — a plin? "Df; still 
another would improve the good old Biblical expressions, and so 
on to the end of the chapter. 

' If we could arrange a Prayer Book in the language and on 
the lines of the old, that would appeal to modern taste, a Prayer 
Book that would be acceptable to and adopted by modern con- 
gregations, we might legitimately make concessions to the spirit 
of the times. . . . Words, after all, only express the feelings of the 
heart, and many passages could safely be omitted from the old 
Prayer Book, because they do not express devotional feeling. 
A uniform Prayer Book would at once put an end to one great 
source of strife and contention in our midst, and be a prelude to 
a lasting peace' (pp. 122-3). 

The Ethics of the Fathers contains many thoughts not dealing 
directly with the central theme, but related to it. It constitutes 
a strong plea for positive Judaism, for increased Jewish observance 
in the home and in the synagogue, for greater learning and 
intelligence in and out of the pulpit and shows the scholar's 
scorn of shallow pseudo-science, pseudo-philosophy, and pseudo- 
progress. 

Jacob Kohn. 

New York.