Judaism by Israel Abrahams - HTML preview

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The feature of Judaism which first attracts an outsider's attention, and

which claims a front place in this survey, is its 'Nomism' or 'Legalism.'

Life was placed under the control of Law. Not only morality, but religion

also, was codified. 'Nomism,' it has been truly said, 'has always

formed a fundamental trait of Judaism, one of whose chief aims has ever

been to mould life in al its varying relations according to the Law,

and to make obedience to the commandments a necessity and a custom'

(Lauterbach, _Jewish Encyclopedia_, ix. 326). Only the latest

development of Judaism is away from this direction. Individualism is

nowadays replacing the olden solidarity. Thus, at the Central Conference

of American Rabbis, held in July 1906 at Indianapolis, a project to

formulate a system of laws for modern use was promptly rejected. The

chief modern problem in Jewish life is just this: To what extent, and

in what manner, can Judaism stil place itself under the reign of Law?

But for many centuries, certainly up to the French Revolution, Religion

as Law was the dominant conception in Judaism. Before examining the

validity of this conception a word is necessary as to the mode in which

it expressed itself. Conduct, social and individual, moral and ritual,

was regulated in the minutest details. As the Dayan M. Hyamson has

said, the maxim _De minimis non curat lex_ was not applicable to

the Jewish Law. This Law was a system of opinion and of practice and of

feeling in which the great principles of morality, the deepest concerns of

spiritual religion, the genuinely essential requirements of ritual, al

found a prominent place. To assert that Pharisaism included the small

and excluded the great, that it enforced rules and forgot principles,

that it exalted the letter and neglected the spirit, is a palpable libel.

Pharisaism was founded on God. On this foundation was erected a structure

which embraced the eternal principles of religion. But the system, it

must be added, went far beyond this. It held that there was a right and

a wrong way of doing things in themselves trivial. Prescription ruled

in a stupendous array of matters which other systems deliberately left to

the fancy, the judgment, the conscience of the individual. Law seized upon

the whole life, both in its inward experiences and outward manifestations.

Harnack characterises the system harshly enough. Christianity did not add

to Judaism, it subtracted. Expanding a famous epigram of Wel hausen's,

Harnack admits that everything taught in the Gospels 'was also to be

found in the Prophets, and even in the Jewish tradition of their time. The

Pharisees themselves were in possession of it; but, unfortunately, they

were in possession of much else besides. With them it was weighted,

darkened, distorted, rendered ineffective and deprived of its force by a

thousand things which they also held to be religious, and every whit as

important as mercy and judgment. They reduced everything into one fabric;

the good and holy was only one woof in a broad earthly warp' (_What

is Christianity?_ p. 47). It is necessary to qualify this judgment,

but it does bring out the al -pervadingness of Law in Judaism. 'And thou

shalt speak of them when thou sittest in thine house, when thou walkest by

the way, when thou liest down and when thou risest up' (Deut. vi. 7). The

Word of God was to occupy the Jew's thoughts constantly; in his daily

employment and during his manifold activities; when at work and when

at rest. And as a correlative, the Law must direct this complex life,

the Code must authorise action or forbid it, must turn the thoughts and

emotions in one direction and divert them from another.

Nothing in the history of religions can be cited as a complete parallel to

this. But incomplete parallels abound. A very large portion of al men's

lives is regulated from without: by the Bible and other sacred books; by

the institutions and rites of religion; by the law of the land; by the

imposed rules of accepted guides, poets, philosophers, physicians; and

above al by social conventions, current fashions, and popular maxims.

Only in the rarest case is an exceptional man the monstrosity which,

we are told, every Israelite was in the epoch of the Judges--a law

unto himself.

But in Judaism, until the period of modern reform, this fact of human

life was not merely an unconscious truism, it was consciously admitted.

And it was realised in a Code.

Or rather in a series of Codes. First came the _Mishnah_, a Code

compiled at about the year 200 A.D., but the result of a Pharisaic

activity extending over more than two centuries. While Christianity was

producing the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament--the work in large

part of Jews, or of men born in the circle of Judaism--Judaism in its

other manifestation was working at the Code known as the _Mishnah_.

This word means 'repetition,' or 'teaching by repetition'; it was an

oral tradition reduced to writing long after much of its contents had

been sifted in the discussions of the schools. In part earlier and in

part later than the _Mishnah_ was the _Midrash_ ('inquiry,'

'interpretation'), not a Code, but a two-fold exposition of Scripture;

homiletic with copious use of parable, and legalistic with an eye

to the regulation of conduct. Then came the _Talmud_ in two

recensions, the Palestinian and the Babylonian, the latter completed

about 500 A.D. For some centuries afterwards the Geonim (heads of the

Rabbinical Universities in Persia) continued to analyse and define

the legal prescriptions and ritual of Judaism, adding and changing in

accord with the needs of the day; for Tradition was a living, fluid

thing. Then in the eleventh century Isaac of Fez (Alfasi) formulated

a guide to Talmudic Law, and about a hundred years later (1180)

Maimonides produced his _Strong Hand_, a Code of law and custom

which influenced Jewish life ever after. Other codifications were made;

but finally, in the sixteenth century, Joseph Caro (mystic and legalist)

compiled the _Table Prepared_ (_Shulchan Aruch_), which, with

masterly skill, collected the whole of the traditional law, arranged

it under convenient heads in chapters and paragraphs, and carried down

to our own day the Rabbinic conception of life. Under this Code, with

more or less relaxation, the great bulk of Jews stil live. But the

revolt against it, or emancipation from it, is progressing every year,

for the olden Jewish conception of religion and the old Jewish theory

of life are, as hinted above, becoming seriously undermined.

Now in what precedes there has been some intentional ambiguity in

the use of the word Law. Much of the misunderstanding of Judaism has

arisen from this ambiguity. 'Law' is in no adequate sense what the Jews

themselves understood by the nomism of their religion. In modern times

Law and Religion tend more and more to separate, and to speak of Judaism

as Law _eo ipso_ implies a divorce of Judaism from Religion. The

old antithesis between letter and spirit is but a phase of the same

criticism. Law must specify, and the lawyer interprets Acts of Parliament

by their letter; he refuses to be guided by the motives of the Act, he

is concerned with what the Act distinctly formulates in set terms. In

this sense Judaism never was a Legal Religion. It did most assiduously

seek to get to the underlying motives of the written laws, and all the

expansions of the Law were based on a desire more fully to realise the

meaning and intention of the written Code. In other words, the Law was

looked upon as the expression of the Wil of God. Man was to yield to

that Wil for two reasons. First, because God is the perfect ideal of

goodness. That ideal was for man to revere, and, so far as in him lay,

to imitate. 'As I am merciful, be thou merciful; because I am gracious,

be thou gracious.' The 'Imitation of God' is a notion which constantly

meets us in Rabbinic literature. It is based on the Scriptural text:

'Be ye holy, for I the Lord am holy.' 'God, the ideal of al morality,

is the founder of man's moral nature.' This is Professor Lazarus'

modern way of putting it. But in substance it is the Jewish conception

through all the ages. And there is a second reason. The Jew would not

have understood the possibility of any other expression of the Divine

Will than the expression which Judaism enshrined. For though he held that

the Law was something imposed from without, he identified this imposed

Law with the law which his own moral nature posited. The Rabbis tel us

that certain things in the written Law could have been reached by man

without the Law. The Law was in large part a correspondence to man's moral

nature. This Rabbinic idea Lazarus sums up in the epigram: 'Moral laws,

then, are not laws because they are written; they are written because

they are laws.' The moral principle is autonomous, but its archetype is

God. The ultimate reason, like the highest aim of morality, should be

in itself. The threat of punishment and the promise of reward are the

psychologic means to secure the fulfilment of laws, never the reasons for

the laws, nor the motives to action. It is easy and necessary sometimes

to praise and justify eudemonism, but, as Lazarus adds, 'Not a state to

be reached, not a good to be won, not an evil to be warded off, is the

impel ing force of morality, but itself furnishes the creative impulse,

the supreme commanding authority' (_Ethics of Judaism_, I. chap,

ii.). And so the Rabbi of the third century B.C., Antigonos of Socho, put

it in the memorable saying: 'Be not like servants who minister to their

master upon the condition of receiving a reward; but be like servants

who minister to their master without the condition of receiving a reward;

and let the Fear of heaven be upon you' (Aboth, i. 3).

Clearly the multiplication of rules obscures principles. The object of

codification, to get at the full meaning of principles, is defeated by

its own success. For it is always easier to fol ow rules than to apply

principles. Virtues are more attainable than virtue, characteristics than

character. And while it is false to assert that Judaism attached more

importance to ritual than to religion, yet, the two being placed on one

and the same plane, it is possible to find in co-existence ritual piety

and moral baseness. Such a combination is ugly, and people do not stop

to think whether the baseness would be more or less if the ritual piety

were absent instead of present. But it is the fact that on the whole

the Jewish codification of religion did not produce the evil results

possible or even likely to accrue. The Jew was always distinguished for

his domestic virtues, his purity of life, his sobriety, his charity,

his devotion. These were the immediate consequence of his Law-abiding

disposition and theory. Perhaps there was some lack of enthusiasm,

something too much of the temperate. But the facts of life always

brought their corrective. Martyrdom was the means by which the Jewish

consciousness was kept at a glowing heat. And as the Jew was constantly

called upon to die for his religion, the religion ennobled the life

which was wil ingly surrendered for the religion. The Messianic Hope

was vitalised by persecution. The Jew, devotee of practical ideals,

became also a dreamer. His visions of God were ever present to remind

him that the law which he codified was to him the Law of God.