Secularism Denied

Tradition and Reality: The Impact of History on Modern Jewish Thought.
by Nathan Rotenstreich.
Random House. 145 pp. $6.95.

The conviction that the Jews possess a fixed and unchanging tradition is woven into the very fabric of classical Judaism. The Mishnah teaches that Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it over to Joshua, who in turn handed it over to the “elders” who in turn transmitted it to the generations. The Torah which Moses received was, moreover, according to established doctrine, not only the Pentateuch, but the whole of the Oral Law. Indeed, classical Judaism holds that all sound Jewish teaching was included in the original revelation. As a familiar midrash puts it, “Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, Tosefta, Aggadah, and even everything that an assiduous student will say at any time in the future in the presence of his teacher—all of this was already spoken to Moses at Sinai.”

Over the centuries, the elevation of all Jewish lore to the status of original revelation has had two consequences. On the one hand, it has had a liberating effect. Since the original revealed text is seen as open and malleable, both doctrine and practice can be correspondingly flexible rather than dogmatically rigid. This is why Judaism has been able over the centuries to accommodate such an astonishing variety of theological doctrines, while generating so remarkably few heretics and heresies. It is also why the law could function for so long and in so many places and circumstances as a living instrument for the ordering of individual and communal Jewish life. Yet, at the same time, the attachment to tradition imposed certain limits. Doctrine was open, but not infinitely so. Law was flexible, but within fixed boundaries.

So long as Jews lived in isolation from the main currents of modern thought, their attachment to Jewish tradition remained safe and unchallenged. But when this isolation came to its inevitable end, and the twin forces of modern secularism and historicism began to affect Jewish thinking, the stable world of tradition was soon shaken from its moorings. A secular orientation undermined the validity even of the original revelation, to say nothing of its devastating effects on the claim that all of later Jewish doctrine and practice had also been revealed at Sinai. Modern methods of textual study contributed further to this collapse by robbing the written word of its authority. Finally, the more the Jews concerned themselves with history, and especially the more they began to search out and reconstruct their own history, the less were they able to accept and submit to the demands of tradition. The attempt to understand the Jewish tradition from a historical perspective soon turned out to contain a major threat to the survival of that tradition.

Is this development as irreversible as it has seemed over the past hundred and fifty years, or is there a possibility that modernism and the Jewish tradition can be reconciled? To lay the groundwork for his own answer to the question—by far the more rewarding part of the present book—Professor Rotenstreich first offers a compact but subtle analysis of how six of the main figures of Jewish thought and scholarship in the modern period dealt with the problem: Leopold Zunz, Nachman Krochmal, Heinrich Graetz, Simon Dubnow, Ahad Ha'am, and Chaim Nachman Bialik. What all these thinkers had in common, notwithstanding the diversity of their views, was the conviction that the tradition could no longer be seen as binding to the modern Jew in the way it had been for his forebears.

Leopold Zunz was perhaps the most outspoken proponent of this view. As the father of Wissenschaft des Judentums, with its rigorously scientific orientation to the Jewish past, he based his work “on the assumption that the severance of all connections with the world of tradition was an accomplished, incontrovertible fact.” Krochmal was not so dogmatic as Zunz. A historian in the speculative, metaphysical mode, he acknowledged the presence of certain eternal features in Judaism, and it was his hope that these metaphysical elements, or essences, might come to be seen as the unshakable foundations of Jewish faith. Yet for Krochmal, as for Zunz, all the rest was simply the result of historically conditioned circumstances, and therefore transitory.

Heinrich Graetz, the third scholar with whom Rotenstreich deals, went to the opposite extreme, denying the very possibility of a distinction between Judaism and history. For Graetz, as Rotenstreich expresses it, “Judaism as history and Judaism as religion coincide . . . since Jewish history is a manifestation of the substance of Jewish religion.” Differing radically though he did from Krochmal in his rigid rejection of all mystical, non-rationalist elements, Graetz was, however, no less obsessed with history. Indeed, the concern with history dominated the work of all three of these thinkers to such an extent that they seemed far more interested in developing a “scientific” understanding of Judaism than in salvaging the Jewish tradition as a viable way of life.

Dubnow, Ahad Ha'am, and Bialik, the three remaining figures discussed by Rotenstreich, were, on the other hand, above all Jewish survivalists, intensely concerned if not with the survival of Judaism itself, then at least with the survival of the Jewish people. Convinced that the Jewish religious tradition was at an end, they proposed to replace it with an overriding concern for Jewish culture and Jewish national existence. Thus, Dubnow's proposals for social and cultural—though not political or territorial—autonomy, Ahad Ha'am's vision of Palestine as a Jewish spiritual center, and Bialik's conviction that the Hebrew language was of preeminent importance for Jewish survival. All three responded in their separate ways to a common perception of historical reality: since religion was dead, and Jewish tradition was no longer a present reality, the choice lay between accepting with equanimity the end of Jewish existence, or taking up the search for new and viable ways to restore the Jewish people to a meaningful national life.


Having given over the larger part of his book to explicating the major theoretical positions of Jewish modernist thinking, Rotenstreich in the concluding section devotes his best energies to refuting them. To begin with, he calls for a recognition that we have come to the end of an era. No longer, in his view, can we find adequate guidance in the doctrines and policies of those Jewish thinkers who, in response to what they saw as the imperatives of the modern age, cut themselves off from the tradition. Their theories were, to be sure, frequently of a very high intellectual order. But in the very teeth of their theoretical brilliance, Jewish experience itself, time and again in the course of the past century, refuted their view that the tradition was dead. “Confronted with the possibility of striking roots in non-Jewish cultures and enjoying their advantage,” he writes, “Jews always remained concerned with preserving their identity as Jews in terms of a tradition which linked them together.” Even when the tradition was argued away, it somehow stubbornly went on existing.

In Rotenstreich's view, this tradition has always been more than a matter of historical memory, or common culture, or shared folkways, or any of the other constructs which the secular thinkers of the late 19th- and early 20th centuries invoked in their attempts to account for Jewish cohesiveness without acknowledging the centrality of religious belief. Indeed, such tenuous concepts are precisely what, in Rotenstreich's view, made their stratagems for Jewish survival futile and empty. For Rotenstreich, by contrast, there exists now only one true grounding for that return to the tradition which he considers mandatory if the Jews are to survive: the imperative of divine commandment. The tradition which Rotenstreich affirms here is, in other words, a faithful version of the same body of shared religious belief and practice which for many centuries constituted the vital core of Jewish existence.


Rotenstreich does not ask that we commit ourselves to the tradition and its imperative merely out of piety toward our past, or concern for our future survival. Instead, he argues persuasively for the claim that Jewish tradition offers a serious and tenable option to contemporary man in his present dilemma. As inhabitants of scientific-technological societies, we live today, according to Rotenstreich, in a world devoid of the richness of texture and the accompanying modes of symbolic expression which gave color and value to the life of past societies. More important, our world is also barren of moral guidelines. Rotenstreich recognizes that no contemporary man who respects reason can reject scientific thought, but he believes that it is possible, without any compromise of intellectual integrity, to accept and even contribute to the scientific enterprise while at the same time cherishing and nurturing the moral precepts, as well as the special symbols and patterns, of the Jewish tradition.

In Rotenstreich's view, Jewish tradition, understood as a guide to conduct, rests above all on the Halachah, the code of Jewish law and practice which represents the only distinctively Jewish pattern of exercising human responsibility. He is fully aware of the difficulties this view poses, above all the problem of living today under a rigid code that in many of its details still reflects the social and technological realities of an earlier age. But he remains convinced that, “although such inner problems are of the greatest gravity, the Halachah, as a system of norms of human conduct in all areas, remains the key to the solution of the crisis of modern Judaism.” He makes no plea for an unchanging law tied only to the past. Rather, he thinks the Halachah must be both traditional and open, for unless it is traditional, it will risk being arbitrary and unconnected with historical Jewish modes of response; and unless open, it will risk destroying individual human responsibility by becoming mechanized in its fixity. The ideal then is a Halachah which, though formed in its essentials by classical Jewish norms, yet leaves room for responsiveness both to changing times and to the diversity of individuals.

But how does one put together, in a single theoretical structure, a concept of law which is fixed, yet open; a law which makes man accountable above all to God, the ultimate judge, while demanding that he be free to “subscribe only to norms which are consistent with his highest ideals, his intelligence and knowledge”? A key to the answer may be suggested in the dedication of Rotenstreich's book, which reads: “For Gershom Scholem, Master and Source of Inspiration.” Is Rotenstreich urging us to consider the way of Kabbalah as a proper implementation of tradition? As in the Mishnaic passage cited at the beginning, “tradition,” Masoret, emphasizes the integrity of that which has been handed down; the stress is on what is given. But Kabbalah, as the term itself suggests, lays equal stress on the receiver—the man who responds in his particularity to the tradition that is given him. If I have read Rotenstreich correctly, he is urging that contemporary Jewry devise the means to live within this dialectical tension. In the absence of tradition there is flux but no continuity, historical memory but no living Judaism. With a tradition so fixed that it relieves us of all individual responsibility, so rigid that it turns us into automata, there may be Judaism, but no Jews worthy of the name. With the perceptiveness of a distinguished philosopher, Rotenstreich has seen the problem, illuminated the issues, and opened the way for further fruitful reflection.

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