Testament: A Personal Statement
Delivered in the Plum Street Temple, Cincinnati, Ohio, June 1989 on the occasion of the Centennial Assembly of the Central Conference of American Rabbis

I am grateful in spirit and thankful in heart to the Central Conference of American Rabbis for inviting me to address them in this their centennial year. You are all my immortality; you have kept me alive. Now you know why I believe in Tehiyas Ha-mesim, resurrection. It is a privilege to talk to this conference, the oldest and certainly the most liberal rabbinical assembly in the world. We are absolutely free, under no authority except the dictates of our own conscience. That is why we are great. We glory in the knowledge that we are today the largest liberal religious movement in the world. We preach a gospel of ethics and rationality. When I realize what the Jews have done for this great republic I am happy. The whole course of American history would have changed if the Egyptians had survived in the Red Sea and we had been drowned.

We live in great times, in the greatest country in the world. Politically we are powerful; the State of Israel lives through the breath of the American Jew. We are affluent and generous. Every year we send $500,000,000 across the seas to help fellow Jews; relatively speaking, this is the greatest philanthropic feat in all history. Our cultural achievements in this land are almost incredible. Fifty thousand Jewish men and women teach in the colleges of America; Nobel Prize winners abound. Three hundred universities list Hebrew and Judaic studies in their catalogues. There are more Jewish books in the United States than in all Israel; one Reform congregation alone in the Far West has a library of 25,000 volumes. There are over 10,000 Jewish organizations in this country. Thank God, every member of this conference can hope some day to become a president.

The Third Jewish Commonwealth has been established; Israel is the only country in the world where a Jew can go as a right. This is truly a golden age. How fortunate you are to be alive in this the most glorious moment in all-Jewish history. Ronu le-yaakov simhoh, sing with gladness for Jacob
(JER.31: 6).

In the lifetime of many of the adults in this conference, in the early 1930's, there was only one other country as liberal as the United States. This was Weimar Germany; a Jew was the primary architect of its constitution. There it was, in 1932, that 11,737,185 German citizens cast their ballots for a candidate who had dedicated himself to the destruction of World Jewry. Just about a decade later, these Germans began the murder of at least 5,000,000 Jews. It is the most horrible crime in all history. In effect, in what purported to be a Christian state, the rulers said: suffer the little ones to come unto us and we will lead them into the incinerators. This nation, the most cultured in all Europe, murdered its Jewish God, its symbol of love and compassion. Many years ago Isaac Mayer Wise, who occupied this pulpit from which I now speak, wrote the following sentence: "The world has sinned more against the Jew than 100 Christs could atone for on the cross."

I grew up believing in the Messiah. When I cupped my ear I could almost hear the clop-clop of the hooves of his white steed as it galloped into the sunlight. I knew exactly what he would look like. He would be six feet four inches tall; he would have a long thin white beard, he would wear a stovepipe hat, his cutaway and trousers would be red, white, and blue. Poor Uncle Sam! In 1903 when he passed through Kishineff, the Russians clubbed him to his knees; in 1943 when he finally reached Central Europe, the good citizens of Germany cremated him. The Messiah did not die alone; Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln perished with him. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Congress, the State Department held life and death in their hands; they chose death. The United States Government closed its gates to potentially the most gifted émigrés who had ever knocked at its doors. In the grand design of defeating the Germans, the Jews were expendable.

In 1920 when I was appointed an instructor in rabbinics at the Hebrew Union College I taught Pirke Ovos, The Sayings of the Fathers: "Who is wise? He who foresees the future." We are not paranoid, but what happened in Europe, in Germany, makes us wary. A philosopher once said: "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." The message of the Holocaust is implicit; let us draw our conclusions. If it could happen in liberal Weimar Germany it can happen anywhere in the world. Recall what I taught many of you in my classes: ultimately no land in all Jewish history has ever spared Jews. There are no guarantees for survival; there never were; there never will be. As rabbis, leaders, the azile bene yisroel, the Princes of the House of Israel, envisaging the millennial future of our people, what shall we tell our children?

We have two options: the geopolitical and the religiospiritual. For the geopolitical, I offer you a new word, which I have introduced into the English language. It has eighteen letters: omniterritoriality. I discovered this word in the Talmud, in Pesahim 87b, thirty-five lines down from the top of the page: God showed his goodness to the Jews by scattering them among the nations. The comment of the medieval scholar Rashi is enlightening: "If they are scattered they cannot all be annihilated at one fell stroke." Over the centuries, omniterritoriality has saved Jewry. There must be no land without some Jews.

Then there is the religiospiritual option. Let us disregard the persecutions of the past 1900 years. Maybe God will perform a miracle and we here will never experience any disaster. I am fully aware that most of the polls indicate that a substantial minority of Americans do not like Jews. Nevertheless, it is obvious in this centennial year that our lines have fallen in pleasant places. Thank God for fortress America.

However, we face a serious problem—not oppression to be sure—but constant attrition, assimilation. Yes we are assimilating, declining numerically. Don't draw any false conclusions. Do not misread Jewish history. In the last three to four thousand years there was never a day when the majority of Jews were practicing religionists, not even in ancient Israel in the ninth century before the Christian era. The majority of all Jews in Palestine were then virtual pagans. In the days of Elijah there were only 7,000 practicing Jews in all Israel, men and women who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Today we are few not because we were murdered throughout the ages but because we seceded, acculturated, voluntarily. I surmise that most Jews in history assimilated, succumbed to the attractive appeal of the host culture. Otherwise we would not be a mere 13,000,000 but 1,000,000,000, as numerous as the Chinese. In all the centuries the handful who survived was the norm. Jochanan ben Zakkai was no fool; when he defected to the Romans all he asked for was a little schoolhouse and a few disciples. Forget about numbers. Numbers are a myth. We have always lived through a few, a saving remnant.

Jewish history points a statistical moral. If we are determined to survive—and we are—we must cultivate those few who are devoted to our religion, our culture. When you survey your congregation on a Friday night, don't count bodies, count souls. These chosen few, this elect, has a job to do: these Jews are our future; they have to save us; even more they have something to tell the whole world, to distill for all humanity what the Jew has learned after 3,000 years of bitter experience. We are presumptuous enough to bring our gift to the Gentiles, to those who, we believe, are desperately in need of what we have to offer. We do not wish to missionize the nations; we want to humanize them.

And what is this that we have learned; what are the implacable, the inexorable verities? It is our hope to further traditional values, not traditions as such. We must become proud exponents of the best in our Jewish heritage. That legacy reached its height in the ethical demands of the Hebrew prophets. They taught us to abhor hatred, violence, brutality, to avoid every aspect of any concept that manifests itself in contempt for fellow human beings. Let us be men and women of dignity, kindliness, learning, gentility, moral courage. It is imperative that we respect the sanctity of every human soul. Let us never forget that the weapons of the Jew are truth and the irrefutable logic of decency. We emphasize the cosmopolitan, the universal; we insist on social justice, on political and religious freedom. It may well be that we cannot love our neighbor as we love ourselves—that is a counsel of perfection—but the least we can do is to tolerate him and his differences. Never lower your ethical sights. If we are not a moral people, then we are like so many others, billions of pounds of organic matter, nothing else. Our ultimate goal is to strive for a universal society, which will require political states to maintain the same ethical standards that distinguish moral individuals. We Jews pride ourselves that we are a civilized humanitarian folk. Let us manifest it in all of our actions. Our history demands that we continue our quest for Zion. Zion is our highest Jewish self in projection; it is the ideal we seek but we can only glimpse.

Rabbi Marcus, divre nehomoh? Comfort? The true nehomoh is to face reality. We address ourselves to eternity. We have an enduring faith. We have no choice; for this were we created. The bodies consumed in Auschwitz may yet light up a world that lives in darkness. "Our ancestors received the law on Sinai's mount amidst thunder and lightning and cloud and flame, and amidst thunder and lightning and cloud and flame we will keep it."

Our prophetic exhortations are the last and best hope of humanity. If we raise but a handful of disciples who treasure our ideals we will survive. We are an am olom, an eternal people; the world can never, never destroy all of us. And in that fateful moment when the earth begins to shatter, when the very heavens tremble, when the sun, the moon and the stars turn dark, when the last bomb falls and the last mushroom cloud evaporates, we, we will emerge erect, undaunted, dedicated to the hope that a day will yet come when "they shall not hurt or destroy in all my Holy Mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (ISA.II: 9).