THE IDEA OF TORAH IN JUDAISM

by George Foot Moore

in Menorah Journal vol. 8, pp. 1-14. Copyright 1922.

 

The word and idea most characteristic of Judaism in all its history is "Torah," and when your committee did me the honor to invite me to deliver the Leopold Zunz Lecture, casting about me for a subject fitting the occasion and the purpose of the foundation, I could think of none more appropriate than just this central and, so to speak, constitutive idea.

I have used the Hebrew "Torah," not out of any predilection for foreign phrase but because I have no English for it. It is a common observation that terms in different languages do not cover one another in extension. There is, for example, no one English word that corresponds to the French droit, as we should find it used in a treatise on law. The case is much worse with Torah. For Judaism is implicit in that word. It means what it means because it belongs to a group, or system, of religious concepts which as such are peculiar to Judaism; it arouses feelings that come out of the peculiar history and religious experience of the Jewish people. The words by which we may try to represent it in another language-whether it be the Greek nomos, the Latin lex, the German Gesetz, or the English "law"-are not equivalent because they lack these implications and bring with them other and quite different associations. Even for the external aspect of Torah, nomos, lex, Gesetz, "law" are inadequate: they convey the idea of normative authority derived from the custom of the community, the edict of a ruler, or the statute of a legislative body; none of them suggest the divine origin and authority which is inseparable from Torah. Moreover, the word Torah itself does not mean "law," in the juristic sense, but something more like "instruction, direction"; nor is the Torah exclusively or even predominantly legal. The instructions or responses of the priests are Torah; the message of the prophets is Torah; the counsel of the wise is Torah; a Psalmist introduces his review of the great deeds of God, "Give ear, my people, to my Torah"; in the Pentateuch, Genesis is as truly Torah as Leviticus, the story of the Exodus and the wandering, the exhortations of Moses in Deuteronomy, as truly as the strictly legislative parts of the books.

Still less do these various terms for "law" express the content of Torah, which may be concisely defined as revealed religion, with the further weighty implications, first, that the whole Torah is a revelation of religion; second, that all religion is explicitly or implicitly contained in the revelation; and finally, that revealed religion embraces the whole life of the individual and the nation; there' is no partition between secular and religious; righteousness and holiness are the principles of civil and social life as well as of that which we set off as specifically religious, of morals as well as of piety, of ceremonial purity as well as moral integrity.

Scripture was a written deposit of Torah the authenticity of which was guaranteed by the fact that the writers had the holy spirit of prophecy. The fact was universally assumed, but there was no theory of the mode of inspiration; the Platonic conception which Philo adopted has no parallel in rabbinical sources.

The Rabbinical Attitude Toward the Scriptures

Where a religion possesses Scriptures to which divine authority is attributed, it sooner or later becomes necessary to determine what these Scriptures are, or to put it in the way in which the necessity actually arises, to exclude the writings to which this character is erroneously attributed. This process is commonly called the formation of a canon (list) of Sacred Scripture. This stage was reached in Judaism in the generation before the destruction of the Temple. By that time the custom had long prevailed of reading lessons in the synagogues from the Pentateuch and the Prophets, and their right, thus protected by liturgical use, was undisputed. Serious difference of opinion seems to have existed only concerning Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, upon which about the turn of the century an authoritative decision was pronounced favorable to both. In the next generation a similar decision was reached to the effect that the book of Sirach was not Sacred Scripture, nor did this quality attach to the Gospel and other writings of the heretics (minim).

The Scriptures were conceived not only to be as a whole a revelation from God, but to be such in every single word and phrase, and to be everywhere pregnant with religious meaning; for religion, by precept or example, is the sole content of revelation. This led, as it has done wherever similar opinions have been entertained, to a fractional method of interpretation which found regulation, instruction, and edification in words and phrases isolated from their context and combined by analogy with similar words and phrases in wholly different contexts, and to subtle deductions from peculiarities of expression. To a student indoctrinated in modem philological methods, the exegesis of the rabbis and the hermeneutic principles formulated from their practice and as a regulative for it often seem ingeniously perverse; but we must do them the justice to remember that not only their premises but their end was entirely different from ours. We propose to ourselves to find out what the author meant, and what those whom he addressed understood from what he said; and to this end we not only interpret his words in their relation to the whole context and tenor of the writing in which they stand, but endeavor to reconstruct the historical context-the time, place, circumstance, and occasion of the utterance, its position in the religious development, and whatever else is necessary to put ourselves, so far as possible, in the situation of contemporaries. The aim of the rabbis, on the contrary, was to find out what God, the sole author of revelation, meant by these particular words, not in a particular moment and for particular persons, but for all men and all time. What they actually did was, speaking broadly, to interpret everything in the Scriptures in the sense of their own highest religious conceptions, derived from the Scriptures or developed beyond them in the progress of the intervening centuries. Thus they not only deduced piles of halakhot from every tittle of the Torah, like Akiba, with a subtlety that was quite beyond Moses' comprehension and almost made him faint, but found everywhere the enlightening truths and edifying lessons which they put into the text to take out again. But that has always been the method of religious exegesis as distinguished from historical.

The Written and the Unwritten Torah

The Scripture was for them a revelation of God, complete, and wholly consistent in all its parts and in every utterance. That it contains an imperfect record of the historical development of a religion, or in theological phrase, the record of a progressive revelation for the education of the human race-such modem ideas, if they could have understood them at all, would have seemed a plain denial that the Torah is from Heaven.

Torah was not coterminous with Scripture. Only the smaller part of God's revelation had ever been written down; the unwritten Torah handed on from generation to generation by tradition was much more voluminous. That the written Torah was from the beginning and all through accompanied by a living tradition is unquestionable. A large part of what we call the legislation in the Pentateuch could never have been carried out in practice, or even understood, apart from domestic and social tradition, the ritual tradition of the priests, and the juristic tradition of the elders and the judges. Indeed the lapidary conciseness of the formulation in the written law itself presumes such a concomitant. We are not here concerned with the history either of the written or the unwritten Torah as modern scholars endeavor to construct it, but only with the consistent doctrine of Judaism about them, in which the historical idea of development in our sense has no place. This did not, of course, prevent the recognition of certain epochs in the history of the Torah, such as the work of Ezra and the Men of the Great Synagogue, or the decisions and regulations of the Soferim, but what they did was conceived to be the restoration of Torah that had fallen into desuetude and oblivion, or the bringing to light what was implicitly contained in it.

The Chain of Tradition

From this point of view the unwritten Torah handed down by tradition was revealed no less than the written Torah-it would not otherwise be Torah; and inasmuch as the universal belief at the beginning of the Christian era, and doubtless long before, was that the whole religion of Israel, in idea and act, with all its distinctive institutions and observances, was revealed to Moses at Sinai, it necessarily followed that this revelation included the unwritten as well as the written Torah, down to its last refinements, and even to the last question an acute pupil might ask his teacher.

The written Torah in Scripture had by a singular divine providence been transmitted without the minutest change, even in the spelling since its origin. A similar guarantee of the authenticity of the unwritten Torah was necessary, and this was found in the chain of tradition: it had been transmitted from Moses, through Joshua and the Elders and an unbroken succession of prophets, down to the days of the Great Synagogue among whose members were several prophets, and there after through the "Pairs" to Hillel and Shammai, from whom it passed into the carefully guarded tradition of the schools. The genuineness of tradition as a whole and in particulars could only be assured if in every generation it had been in the custody of trustworthy men, especially qualified for the task. Similarly in Christian theory, the bishops were the keepers and transmitters of the Apostolic tradition.

Authority in Jewish Tradition: Scholastic-Not Ecclesiastical

The principal task of the schools in the first and second centuries of the Christian era falls under two heads: Midrash, the study of the Scripture by which the harmony of the written and the unwritten law, and of the one with the other, was established-and Halakhah, the precise formulation of obligations and prohibitions, practical regulations for observance in all spheres of life, and many cautionary ordinances designed to keep man at a safe distance from the unwitting infraction of a law. The Midrash was not in theory and intention a derivation of the unwritten law from the written or a discovery of authority for the unwritten law in Scripture; and whatever increment the unwritten law received from this source was, in the apprehension of those who made it, only a bringing to light of the unity of revelation.

The unity of the Torah in its two branches was always assumed. The authority of all parts of it was the same; for the divine revelation was one, complete and final, from which nothing could be subtracted, and to which nothing was to be added-nothing had been kept back in heaven. In theory and intention purely conservative, the work of the schools in the interpretation of Scripture and the formulation of tradition was in fact the way of progress; through it the unchangeable Torah was adapted to changing conditions.

As in other religions which recognize tradition as a concurrent authority with Scripture-in Christianity and Mohammedanism, for example-not only is a guarantee of the authenticity of tradition necessary, but an authoritative definition, exposition, and application of tradition. But in comparison with Christianity, it is a significant difference that in Judaism and in Mohammedanism this authority is not ecclesiastical but scholastic; it was the learned who were the voice of tradition, and this, it may not be superfluous to observe, in the sphere of the Halakhah only. Dogmas, in the proper sense of the word, are only the fundamental articles of Judaism, the unity of God and the revelation of religion in the Torah, to which was now added the resurrection of the dead. The Haggadic tradition, however highly esteemed, is not binding.

The Identification of Religion With Education

Since God has made a revelation of his character, of his will for man's conduct in all the relations of life, and of his purpose for the nation and the world, the study of this revelation in its twofold form is the first of obligations, the worthiest of occupations. When pursued for its own sake, such study is a religious exercise and a means of grace. Theman whose "delight is in the Torah of the Lord, and in His Torah, doth he meditate day and night," is the ideal not merely of the scholar but of the religious man. Study, as well as prayer, is 'abodah, like the service of the altar. Familiar is the eulogy attributed to R. Meir in an appendix to Aboth: "He who studies the Torah for its own sake not only attains many good things, but deserves the whole world. He is called friend (of God), beloved, lover of God, lover of mankind; he delights God and men. It clothes him with humility and reverence, qualifies him to become righteous, pious, honest, and trustworthy. It keeps him far from sin and draws him near to virtue. Others have from him the benefit of good counsel, wisdom, understanding, and power, as it is said, 'Counsel is mine and sound wisdom; I am understanding, power is mine' (Prov. 8. 14). It gives him royalty and dominion and discernment in judgment; to him the mysteries of Torah are revealed; and he is made like a welling fountain and like a river that never fails. He is modest and self-controlled, and forgiving of insult. It magnifies and exalts him above all the creatures."

It would be easy to accumulate examples to show that the zeal of learning in the rabbis is a religious enthusiasm, and that the true end of learning is character. This conception of individual and collective study as a form of divine service has persisted in Judaism through all ages, and has made not only the learned by profession but men of humble callings in life assiduous students of the Talmud as the pursuit of the highest branch of religious learning and the most meritorious of good works.

The religion God had revealed was a religion for every man and for the whole of life, and the condition of the religious life, inward and outward, was knowledge of this revelation, that is of the Torah. This led to an effort, unexampled in antiquity, to educate the whole people in religion upon the basis of its sacred Scriptures. Elsewhere the religious tradition was preserved by a priesthood which made no attempt to instruct others in it and sometimes jealously kept it from the knowledge of the laity. This was true not only of the art and mystery of the cultus, but in even higher degree of the meaning of the cultus and of the esoteric theologies and philosophies which were evolved by priestly speculation, The profounder truths of religion were-in the view of those who possessed them-not only beyond the capacity of the multitude, but were mysteries that would be profaned by vulgar access. Egypt and India in different ways may be taken as illustrations of this attitude. In Judaism, on the contrary, the ideal was a people completely instructed not only in the observances of individual and household religion, and in the form and meaning of the rites of public worship, but in the highest conceptions of the character of God, His righteous will, and His beneficent pupose, to the end that all classes of the community might do intelligently and from the right motive what God required of them, and that every individual might share in those blessings which come from the occupation of mind and heart with religion. The instrumentalities created for this end eventually constituted what we should call a complete system of education, from the elementary stage to the most advanced professional training of the doctor of theology.

A Complete System of Religious Education for All

For the Jews in the dispersion, who had lost their knowledge of the ancient tongue, the Scriptures were translated into Greek; the lessons in the synagogues were read in this translation, and the expository homily or other discourse was delivered in the same language. We are so familiar with translations of the Scriptures as well as of other books into all manner of languages that it takes some effort to realize how radical this step was. The Greek translation of the Pentateuch is the oldest piece of translation on a large scale of which we have any knowledge; and even if the age had been more given to translation of secular books than it was, the translation of sacred books has always encountered strenuous opposition not only from the jealousy of the learned but on religious grounds: the words of sacred Scripture in the original are the very words of revelation, and this quality cannot be communicated to the words of another, language, no matter how faithful the version may be. That this way of thinking and feeling was shared by the Jews is evident not so much from the occasional depreciation or condemnation of the Septuagint in utterances of Palestinian rabbis, as in the Alexandrian legends which en deavor to confer upon the translation the authenticity of the original by means of a divine supervision over the translation or the miraculous unanimity of the translators. But if the religious instruction of the masses in Greek-speaking countries was not to be abandoned altogether, it roust be given in a language they understood; before this imperative necessity all scruples had to give way.

In Palestine, and doubtless in Syria and Babylonia, the lessons were, in conformity with long established custom, read in Hebrew, and interpreted piecemeal in the Aramaic vernacular of the land; and in the same language the exposition followed.

The synagogue is a unique institution in ancient religion. Its services had no resemblance to the public worship in the temples; there were no offerings, no priesthood, no pompous ritual. Still less were they like the salvationist sects of the time, the mysteries, with their initiations and the impenetrable secrecy which enveloped their doctrines and their doings. To the Greeks the synagogue with its open doors, its venerable books, the discourses of its teachers on theology and ethics, seemed to be a school of some peculiar philosophy. A school it was in Jewish apprehension also-a school of revealed religion, which was itself for Hellenistic Jews like Philo the true philosophy.

Elementary schools for boys were early established, some supported by the community, some private enterprises. It was from the Hebrew Bible that the pupils learned to read. The lessons in the synagogue were read by members of the congregation, and the regulations for this part of the service which we have from the latter part of the second century assume that ordinarily there would be several present competent to participate in it-an indirect testimony to the existence and efficiency of the Bible schools. Many, doubtless, did notprogress beyond this stage; but others continued their studies until they had acquired a more extensive knowledge of the Bible, for which the Bet ha-Midrash, where the better educated part of the community gathered, especially on Sabbath afternoons, afforded additional opportunity. Those who aspired to what we should call the academic career frequented the rabbinical schools, in which they learned Halakhah and Midrash, and at a more advanced stage Talmud (in the older sense of that word). These studies demanded unusual accuracy of memory and an acute intelligence, and many fell out by the way; only the elect few carried their learning to the point where they were recognized as qualified masters of the law and received the venia docendi et decernendi. A Midrash on Eccl. 7.28 ("I have found one man of a thousand") tells us: "Such is the usual way of the world; a thousand enter the Bible school a hundred pass from it to the study of Mishna, ten of them go on to Talmuld study, and only one of them arrives at the doctor's degree. Through the higher education was ensured a succession of qualified teachers in every stage; edifying homilists for the synagogues, and in the scholars and their academies a decisive authority for the definition and application of the norms of the Halakhah.

That this system of education as we know it in sources dated rom the second century of the Christian era was in reality much older, whatever changes in form may have taken place in the meantime, is to be seen very clearly in Ben Sira, whose reputation as a coiner of aphorisms for the conduct of life sometimes makes us forget that he was an eminent member of the class of soferim, professional scholars.

The Universal Aspect of the Torah as Divine Wisdom

The Torah had, however, yet another aspect. For Judaism, while in history and in actuality a national religion, the religion of one of the smaller peoples of the earth, was in idea and in destiny universal. As there is but one true God, one revelation of His character and will, so in the future all mankind shall acknowledge the sovereignty of God, the malkut shammaim, embrace the true religion, and live in accordance with its precepts.

The revelation of religion, the Torah, is universal. A significant expression of this idea is the identification of Torah with Wisdom. It is the peculiar wisdom of Israel. Moses says of the statutes and ordinances which by God's command he delivered to the people: "Observe therefore and do them, for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, that when they hear all these statutes shall say, surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (Deut. 4.6). But it is this because Torah is divine wisdom, or to put it in the way the rabbis conceived it, the Wisdom that speaks in the eighth chapter of Proverbs is the Torah. The identification is a commonplace in the rabbinical literature, and l many passages of Scripture referring to wisdom are interpreted in this sense; it appears in Sifre as a universally accepted truth. We can, however, trace it much farther back. In Sirach 24, 23 ff., after a eulogy of wisdom pronounced by itself as in Prov. 8, the passage concludes: "All this (that is, all the great things that he has said of wisdom) is the Book of the Covenant of the Most High God, the Law which He commanded Moses, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob."

In Proverbs, Wisdom was present at the creation of the world, not as a passive onlooker, but as a participant in the making and in the joy of the Maker. She was at God's side as a skilled artificer, or artist. Identifying Wisdom with Torah, and taking the word amon in the sense of instrument, Akiba speaks of the Torah as the instrument with which the world was created. According to others it was the plan, or pattern, after which the world was made. Or again, the world was created for the sake of the Torah. It is permissible to modernize the last words: The world was created for religion; a stage on which, under the guidance of revelation, the right relation between God and men might be realized.

The identification of Torah with divine wisdom and its connection with creation made it premundane: "The Lord made me as the beginning of his way, the first of his works of old." For the Torah was created, however long ago; Judaism has no parallel to the eternal Koran of Moslem dogma, rival of the eternity of God. And since God foresaw that men would sin by transgression or neglect, He at once created repentance as the remedy. Without that provision He would never have created the world and frail man in it.

The Torah which was before the world is unchangeable for all time. In the World to Come, indeed, certain prescriptions for the law will have no application because the conditions they suppose cannot occur; but there is no abrogation and no supplement, only perfect fulfillment. And since perfect fulfillment supposes perfect understanding, God Himself will be the teacher there. The wisdom God has searched out and given to Israel is "the book of the commandments of God and the Law that exists to eternity" (Bar. 4.1). "Until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter (a yod), not an apex on a letter (one qotz in the Tagin), shall pass away from the Law till it all be done" (Matt. 5.18); "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one apex of the Law to fall" (Luke 16.47).

The Torah Intended for All Nations

The Torah was in nature and intention for all men. How then did it come that it was the exclusive possession of the Jews? God of all mankind could not have been so partial in His revelation. The fundamentals of the Torah, it was taught, had been given to Adam; with one addition (eber min ha-Hai) they had been renewed to Noah for all branches of his posterity. At Sinai, in the desert that was no man's land or every man's land, the Law had been offered to all nations in their several languages or in the four international languages, and been refused by them because it condemned their favorite sins; Israel alone accepted it. "All that the Lord hath spoken will we do and obey," was the response of the people at the foot of Sinai when Moses delivered to them the revelation of God's will he had received (Exod. 24.7; cf. 3). There for the first time the sovereignty of God, which hitherto had been acknowledged only by individuals, was confessed by a whole people. The Kingdom of Heaven in its national form was founded.

Of greater religious significance than the offering of the Torah in the remote past to the forefathers of all the Gentiles is the emphatic teaching that the Torah, by virtue of its origin and nature, is for every man. R. Meir found this in Lev. 18.5; "My statutes and my ordinances, which if a man do, he shall live by them." It is not said, "priests, Levites, lay Israelites," but "a man," therefore even a Gentile; nay, such a Gentile who labors in the Torah (or, does the Torah) is in that respect on an equality with the high priest. Other texts are quoted in the same sense; for example, 2 Sam. 7.19, "This is the Torah of mankind, Lord God"; Isa. 26.2, "Open the gates that a righteous Gentile (goi saddik) preserving fidelity, may enter in thereby" (cf. Psalm 118.20).

The Jews were the only people in antiquity who divided religions into true and false, affirming that Judaism was the only true religion and that it was destined to prevail over all the rest and become universal. Their pretensions and the manner in which they asserted them, especially their mordant satire on polytheism and idolatry, were resented by people of other races and religions, and contributed not a little to the general prejudice against the Jews that was so widespread in the Hellenistic and Roman world. If, as Philo complains, Judaism was alone excepted from the universal religious toleration of the times, it is fair to the heathen to say that Jewish intolerance toward other religions gave great provocation. Early Christianity, it may be added, inherited the attitude, and suffered the same consequences.

Judaism as a Proselyting Religion

But if some of the methods employed to turn the heathen from the error of their ways had a prejudicial effect, on the other hand the faith of Judaism in its truth and universal destiny made of it the first proselyting religion in the Mediterranean world. The universality of the true religion, in the age when "the Lord shall be one and His name one," and "the Lord shall be king over all the earth," was not, indeed, expected to come by human instrumentality or through historical evolution, but in a great revolution wrought by God himself, a catastrophic intervention such as the prophets had so often foretold. Meanwhile, however, the Jews had a twofold task in preparation for that great event; first, to make the reign of God a reality for themselves individually and as a people; and, second, to make known to the Gentiles the true God and his righteous will and convert them to the true religion. This conception of the prophetic mission of Israel among the nations had been set forth by the prophet in Isaiah 42 and 49: Israel is to be a light to the nations, that God's salvation may reach to the end of the earth; and not only reflection but the logic of the situation led to the same result.

In the two or three centuries on either side of the Christian era Judaism made great numbers of converts throughout the wide dispersion. Various Oriental religions in that age were offering the secret and the assurance of a blessed immortality through initiation into their mysteries, and drew into their mystic societies many seekers of salvation. Judaism on the contrary, as we have seen, appeared to ancient observers to be not a mystery but a philosophy. It had a high doctrine about God which was publicly taught in its synagogue schools, a rule of life, and venerable scriptures in which both the doctrine and the rule were contained; and it sought to make converts by rational persuasion. In this aspect Judaism is sometimes called a missionary religion; but if the phrase is used it must be understood that it was a missionary religion without an organization for propaganda and without professional missionaries. The open doors of the synagogue, a noteworthy apologetic literature, and the individual efforts of Jews in their various social spheres to win over their neighbors, were the only instrumentalities in the conversion of the Gentiles.

Polytheism and idolatry were the salient characteristics of the religions in the midst of which the Jews in the dispersion lived. More intelligent Gentiles, instructed by the prevailing philosophies, regarded both as popular errors, but made no effort to combat them, and were not hindered by their personal convictions from taking part in the rites and festivals of their cities or of the state. Judaism alone was uncompromising. The worship of gods that were no gods was not merely an intellectual error but the sin of sins against the true God, the sin from which all others sprang. Its monotheism was not a philosophical theory of the unity of deity in the abstract, but a theological doctrine of the nature and character of God drawn from His revelation of Himself. There was nothing He was so intolerant of as the acknowledgement of other gods and the worship of vain idols: "I am the Lord, that is my name; and my glory will I not give to another, neither my praise to graven images" (Isa. 42.8).

To convert men from polytheism and idolatry was therefore the prime effort of Judaism among the Gentiles, and it might well seem that the renunciation of these from religious conviction was in principle the abandonment of heathenism and acceptance of Judaism. Even from Palestinian teachers come such utterances as, "Whoever professes heathen religion is as one who rejects the whole Torah, and whoever rejects heathen religion is as one who professes the whole Torah" (Sifre, Deut. 54, end; ibid. Num. 111, f. 31b. end).

The One Treasure That Could Not Be Destroyed

Next to this the emphasis was laid upon morality, which in Judaism--one of its singularities-was an integral part of religion, and especially on the avoidance of those vices which the Scriptures persistently associate with heathenism-'abodah zarah and 'arayot.'[1] If to this was added observance of the Sabbath and of certain of the rules about forbidden food, and attendance in the synagogue, a man might well be regarded as a convert to Judaism, even though he had not formally been admitted a member of the Jewish people by circumcision and baptism nor assumed as a proselyte the obligations, hereditary for born Jews, of the whole written and unwritten Torah. The number of such "religious persons" was large, and through them the leaven of Judaism was more and more penetrating the mass of Gentile society. Thus the Kingdom of Heaven was growing in the world and preparing for its consummation.

This rapid expansion was arrested by the climactic disasters that befell the Jews in the three-quarters of a century from Nero to Hadrian. But when everything else seemed to be lost, Judaism clung the more tenaciously to the one treasure that could not be taken from it, the Torah. The Temple might be destroyed and with it the whole sacrificial worship abolished, but in the study of the Torah and in good works it had the realities of which the ritual institutes of atonement were but symbols. Hadrian might suppress the schools and put the great teachers to death; the mere possession of a roll of the Law might invite the same fate; but persecution for its sake only made the Torah, sanctified by the blood of the martyrs, more inestimably precious. The disciples of the martyrs perpetuated and ordered the tradition of their teaching; and if one had to name the age in which the study of the Torah was pursued with the greatest zeal and the most epoch-making results, he would, I suppose, take the two or three generations between the catastrophe of the Bar Kokhba war and the death of the Patriarch Judah. It was the supreme proof of faith in the Torah God had given to his people and in God's purpose in it. Nor has Judaism ever lost this faith in itself and in the universal nature and destiny of the true religion whose prophet and martyr Israel has been through the centuries.

The Adaptation of Judaism to Changing Conditions

Today the situation of Judaism is again somewhat similar to that which it occupied in the Hellenistic world or in the Moslem world of the Middle Ages. In the lands of the modern Diaspora, and above all in America, it has, like contemporary Christianity, Catholic and Protestant, the conflict within itself of modernism and reaction. At bottom it is the question whether the finality of a religion lies in the tenacity with which it conserves forms that it has inherited from the past, or in its capacity for indefinite progress wherein its very fidelity to its constitutive ideas enables it to adapt itself to the present and to shape the future. The great epochs in the history of Judaism have been those in which it conceived its nature and mission in the latter way. It was so, as we have seen, in the Hellenistic age, when, in the midst of polytheism and idolatry and the vices of heathen society, it presented its Torah essentially as pure monotheism and a high morality, with the authority not only of revelation but of universal human reason and conscience. Philo interpreted Judaism in the light of the religious philosophies of his time, and expounded its theology and ethics to educated men as the highest and best philosophy.

The work of the Tannaim, which appears to be the deliberate antithesis of this Hellenizing tendency, was itself a no less far-reaching adaptation of Judaism to the conditions which ensued upon the destruction of Jerusalem with the cessation of the Temple worship and the calamities that befell the nation under Trajan and Hadrian. The preceding period had been characterized by an adaptation to expansion, with the ideal of universality; now threatened with dissolution in the surrounding world, rabbinical Judaism became by force of circumstances an adaptation to self-preservation, and made of the unwritten Torah, with all its distinctive institutions and observances, not only a wall of defense without, but the organic bond of unity within. The survival of Judaism through all the vicissitudes of its subsequent history is proof of the thoroughness of this adaptation.

In the Middle Ages, again, from the tenth century to the thirteenth, the Jews, especially in Moslem lands, took an eager part in the intellectual life of the times. Scholars and thinkers equipped with all the scientific and philosophical learning of the time set themselves not only to prove the truth of the religion as revealed in its Torah but its eminent rationality. This movement, of which Maimonides is the conspicuous exponent, was again an adaptation to a new intellectual environment in the progress of the times.

Finally, when, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Jews of central and western Europe emerged from their intellectual isolation, the same capacity for adaptation manifested itself not only in the assimilation of contemporary philosophy, as in Mendelssohn, but in the field of critical and historical investigation, of which Leopold Zunz, whose name we honor tonight, was one of the shining lights. Through these studies the way was made to a new apprehension of the ancient Torah. It had been accepted as a unitary revelation, which shared in its way the timelessness of its author; it had been interpreted in the sense and spirit of Hellenistic, or Greco-Arabic, or modern philosophies; it was now to be understood as an historical growth. This way of apprehending it led to a discrimination not only in the Talmud but in the Torah itself between forms and ideas that belonged to outgrown stages of the development and what is of permanent validity and worth, and so to the conception of a progressive development of the latter elements in the future.

But, however apprehended and interpreted, Torah remains the characteristic word and idea of Judaism. The much debated question, race or religion? is a false alternative. The Jews are a race constituted by its religion-a case of which there is more than one other example. Those who fell away from the religion were in the end eliminated from the people; while multitudes of converts of the most diverse ethnic origins have been absorbed in the race and assimilated to it by the religion. External pressure would not have held the Jews together through these centuries without the internal cohesion of religion-a living and progressive religion; and apart from religion no temporary exaltation of national feeling can in the end perpetuate the unity and peculiarity of the race.

 



[1] Idolatry and immorality.