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
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
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 problemnot oppression to be
surebut 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 surviveand we arewe 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 ourselvesthat
is a counsel of perfectionbut 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).