TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE
By Rev. David de Sola Pool
From Why I am a Jew (Beacon Press: Boston, 1957; pp. 189-198)
Recently I came across this book by Rev. David de Sola Pool, and I found many of his words refreshing and exhilarating. It also reminded me that his eloquence and informed passion is so much in short supply in our days. Above all, the selfless message of service and purpose of the Jewish people he desperately tries to put forward is so rare to find today, one can immediately feel the rhetorical abysmal-rift of the state of Judaism then and now.
DeSola’s words still ring current, as much as what he said then could apply to our confusing times now. If he saw a devastating landscape back in 1957, I wonder what would he make of today. Yet, as he earnestly pleads us in his words, it remains our collective responsibility to build a better world.
— David Ramírez
WHY AM I A JEW and feel it as a sacred destiny to be one? How has an accident of birth become my choice? Why in the face of all difficulties that it has involved have the Jewish people persisted in their desire to maintain their Jewish selfhood? Why have they hearkened through blood and tears to the behest of the wise master of Proverbs (22:28): “Remove not the ancient landmark which your fathers have set” and made loyalty a signet seal of Judaism?
A thousand years ago the Gaon Saadiah seeing the sufferings of his people said that one who ridicules us because of our faith, and who thinks us fools for enduring so much when we could readily find happiness by leaving the fold, is truly lacking in understanding. He may be compared with a man who had never seen the sowing of precious seeds of grain. Such a man would laugh at someone whom he saw toiling to throw them out over a field, for he would not understand that the harvest would follow, and bring in many times more precious food than that which has been cast out.
The Jew has been called God’s experiment with man. It is for him however humbly to help bring in God’s harvest on earth. He wills fervently to play his part in the great epic known as Jewish history. Nineteen centuries ago Rabbi Tarfon said that though it is not incumbent on one to finish the work to be done, none is free to evade doing his part. Man cannot live for himself alone.
The Jew takes his place in a great tradition, a tradition not of conquest, subjugation and empire building, but of a compelling charge to share in God’s work on earth. By being a Jew one is potentially serving a cause infinitely greater than oneself. Jewish history furnishes the most striking eugenic experiment in human selection. It has been motivated for a hundred generations by a conscious urge towards a specific spiritual norm. The whole of that history is the record of the struggle of a consecrated will to preserve those spiritual values. From the days of Abraham when the choice was made between an Isaac who would bear the heritage and an Ishmael who would not; from the days of Isaac, when Jacob accepted the mission for which Esau was unfit, this unique process of selection has continued. Many faltered and many abandoned their people at all the crossroads of their history. From the days of Moses there have been those who clamored for the fleshpots of Egypt. The loyal remnant of Joshuas and Calebs survived to enter the Promised Land. The handful of Maccabean stalwarts rekindled the pure flame on the altar and assured the survival of Judaism.
Under the onslaught of the fanatical forces of early Islam, the bloody sword of the Crusaders, and the flames of the autos-da-fe, countless Jews went down to their death. But among the survivors there were always resolute standard bearers who continued to live as Jews. Among the most inspiringly loyal to their religious traditions were those living in lands most marked by anti-Jewish violence and pogroms. In our own generation we have seen how the unspeakable holocaust perpetrated by Hitler both strengthened the resolve of the loyal and of times aroused in the passive Jews greater will to uphold their Judaism. Persecution has caused some peoples to disappear from the face of the earth. Yet I can say with millions of others the firm words of Mattathias (I Maccabees 2:19, 20), “Though all the peoples . . . fall away every one from the religion of their fathers . . . yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers.”
Being a Jew has meant being a member of a people which consciously and willingly chose to accept the Ten Commandments, and which over the ages has been willing if necessary to be the world’s martyr people, despised and rejected by men, knowing sorrows and acquainted with grief. As the Jew sees the challenge presented by the dark pages of today, the call becomes all the more compelling for him to serve his fellow men by being true to himself.
In the United States, freedom to be oneself was built up by heroes who dared fight the battle for religious individuality and liberty of conscience. America is the cradle of cultural and religious pluralism. The Pilgrim Fathers, the Huguenot refugees, the Quaker devotees, and others, braved every difficulty and danger to assert their right to religious selfhood. The Jew also has taken his place with dignity in this noble chapter of the American story, and so must he continue to do. The tradition of American democracy and freedom is strengthened and honored by spiritual loyalty, independence, forthright adherence to one’s religious, ethical and cultural heritage rather than by the blurring of one’s individuality in a monotonous sameness.
The Jew who lacks conscious knowledge of his past and the will for Jewish survival becomes a meaningless deviant from the majority. But the Jew who knows why he is one and why he wishes to remain one stands out as consciously embodying three to four thousand years of faith-finding tradition. It is his unique distinction to be of the people who at the tumultuous shore of the Red Sea plunged forward with new-born aspirations for freedom. He can face the world as one of the people who at Mount Sinai received for all mankind the law of justice, love, and moral grandeur.
He is called on to remain a Jew in order to help maintain these values and teachings for himself and for the world. As one conscious of this God-given mission he has to help preserve a sense of high Jewish purpose. To remain a Jew through unthinking momentum or in obstinate reaction to the pinpricks of anti-Semitism would be unworthy and in large measure unmeaning. There is no special virtue in standing alone where no principle is involved. But where high purpose is sought, one must preserve individuality with its elements of difference from others, however arduously taxing this determined maintenance of selfhood may be. “This above all, to thine own self be true . . .”
For three thousand and more years Jews have achieved the miracle of survival by daring to be true to their heritage and conserving and transmitting the eternal principles of their religion. Judaism has not been only a theological system; it is the whole historical, social, moral and religious culture of the Jewish people, going back to the cosmic religious sense of the founder, Abraham. By heroic loyalty to their Judaism they did not allow this vision to be blotted out by Babylonians, Canaanites, Egyptians, Amorites, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, Syrians, Greeks, Romans, in a world of idolatry. Their loyalty to this unique tradition preserved their spiritual integrity for themselves, and thereby a vision of God for all men. While not a few weakened and were lost on the way, even if at times there was only a saving remnant, the Jewish people preserved and followed this high purpose whatever persecution or martyrdom may have been brought down on them, when but a word of renunciation could have won for them freedom from age-long agony.
History is a continuum; it knows no stopping place. The Jew has to help mold tomorrow by continued loyalty to his ideals inherited from a long yesterday. Neither persecution nor happy freedom has written a colophonic finis to the Jewish story. Judaism is not a song that is sung; it is a continuing symphony which each Jew may either swell with harmony or mar with discord. It is a symphony which echoes forth to the world Judaism’s faith in man’s possibilities of good and his power of regeneration to a nobler future. The past is a foundation on which Jews have to continue building and developing in loyal keeping with what has been achieved by the master builders of the past. It is that past which compellingly gives us the dedicated purpose to remain a people for the present and the future. Noblesse oblige. The past is my heritage, the present my responsibility, the future my challenge as a Jew.
I have to be a Jew in order to try to reenact in my own life what I can of the God-given purpose of my Jewish people. In the measure that I endeavor to carry out the specific observances of my Judaism with their message for today and their contribution to the realization of the ultimate Messianic promise shall I be truly serving my purpose as a Jew.
Through Moses this word came to his people concerning the teachings of their religion: “Keep and practice them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” (Deuteronomy 4:6). Only as the Jew preserves his Torah does the Torah preserve the Jew for his fulfillment in the present day and his ultimate world mission. I have to carry on the millennial spiritual tradition that has been entrusted to me so that in my turn I may help make a reality of the ancient word of God (Isaiah 59:21): “My spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth nor out of the mouth of your children, nor out of the mouth of your children’s children, henceforth evermore.”
The Talmud recalls an incident in the life of a well-known figure, Honi, (Onias), the Rip Van Winkle of the rabbis. One day he chanced to see an aged man planting a slowly growing carob tree. He asked the old man, “Do you expect to gather the fruit from this tree seventy years hence?” The reply was given, “When I came into this world I found and enjoyed fruit from trees which my father and his father had planted long, long ago. Shall I not now plant for those who are to come long after me?”
We have achieved today a fabulous control over stupendous forces of physical matter, and have created streamlined instruments of effortless living with unprecedented mass production of every form of human wealth. Man’s brain has gone from triumph to triumph in building machinery of incredible creativeness, in attaining magical new skills, in scientific agriculture, in destroying distance, in moving with supersonic swiftness, and in a thousand ways making possible a hitherto unimagined enrichment, broadening and deepening of living. Yet we look out on our world of today with an almost paralyzing sinking of the heart when we see the terrifying inadequacy of the human material into whose hands is entrusted this world of marvelous, potential power and beauty. For at the same time there have been made possible today’s and tomorrow’s machines for mass annihilation which threaten the ultimate horror of total destructiveness through nuclear fission. Annihilation by war and the terrors of our peace are not the result of any limitations in man’s intellectual powers, which Prometheus-like, can storm the very heavens. The climactic crisis is caused by failure in the soul of man. There can be no real happiness and no security for ourselves and our children except in the measure that we are ruled by what men of all denominations call religion. On this there is new and striking unanimity of testimony.
The multiplication of laws by the state cannot of itself purify society, purge away improbity and corruption, make us more law-abiding, more true and more just to our fellow men. Schools and other secular organizations and institutions must needs fail to bring guidance and salvation to men unless the teachings of religion educate the moral will. Scientific knowledge can lead man to more hideously destructive wars and catastrophic weakening of our fiber, unless Biblical ideals of morality, large-visioned social brotherhood, and human love strengthen our souls and teach us control of the power which technical achievement is placing in our hands.
In the confusion, crisis and chaos of our days, some have desperately sought to find formulas, principles, and affirmations other than religion to save mankind from what may be imminent self-destruction. All too soon it is discovered that neither political formulae, nor forms of democracy, nor the technical organization of United Nations and world government, can rise higher than the soul of the people who constitute them. Mankind’s welfare demands a religious transformation of the individual men and women who make up peoples and nations.
Economists and social thinkers have attempted to analyze the racial antagonisms, the crippling strikes, the class strife, and the economic nationalisms that are shaking our world to its foundations. They tell us that we can never have security so long as the power groups of nations and those within nations are moved by a conscienceless greedy self-interest without regard to the rights and the welfare of others. They also declare that ultimately legislative enactments or solemn covenants can never assure social peace and a just economic order so long as men are unworthy. When the social order is endangered there is needed the active constructive collaboration of all. When the hull of a ship is pierced, the traditional cry is not just for the captain and the officers, but for all hands to the pumps. When flood threatens the fields and villages at a river’s bank, the call is not just for an engineer, but for every available man, woman, and even child, to build up the levee in fevered race with the torrent. When wind driven flames roar toward the forest, every able-bodied person is summoned to help the fire wardens check the fury of the onrush. Each individual must feel within himself a sense of importance in the complex of united action for protection against evil and for the creation of a better life. Mankind can have an assurance of peaceful cooperative living in brotherhood only through a widespread and popular rebirth of social justice. Such passionate stirring of social conscience can arise only out of a more general religious recognition of moral law and the basic teaching of love of neighbor.
Practical men of affairs as well as realistic philosophers have looked upon the supreme challenge of war. From all too bitter experience in two world wars we know that we cannot find peace through national preparedness for war, international military forces, mutual security conferences, or legal pacts for the renunciation of war. We cannot rely on even the best-intentioned and most idealistic political leaders to assure us peace. We can achieve lasting peace only through the religious re-education of the people as a whole. We can find the ultimate hope for a warless world only in a new religious education of the soul of men everywhere.
Today it is not only official spokesmen of synagogue and church who call on men to save human society by living with one another in the spirit of religion. This summons, first sounded by the prophets of Israel, is today re-echoed by leading thinkers in colleges, laboratories, and legislatures. They are often men who heretofore have not been notably identified with affairs of faith. Yet in impressive unison more and more of them bid us control amoral intellectualism and antisocial forces among us by religiously inspired social morality lest we go down to imminent chaos and self-destruction. They tell us that technology and the fantastically triumphant machine must be overmastered by the spiritual truths of religion lest human life become a delirious nightmare. They solemnly warn us to control the cult of force by religiously inspired love of neighbor lest man drop calamitously to subhuman standards of existence.
What is called for is something stronger and more vibrant than a tepid ethicism. Nothing less than a new birth of passionate spiritual conviction is needed if mankind is to be saved. The soulless mind is the greatest enemy that twentieth century man must overcome. Only when fired by religious vision of the possibilities of the spirit can we hope to win the dire battle with evil.
Every morning, seeing man’s failures to live up to his best possibilities, we say in our prayers, “What are we? What is our life? What our goodness? What our righteousness? What our helpfulness? What our strength? What our power? . . . Are not the mightiest as naught before Thee, men of renown as if they were not, the wise as if without knowledge, the intelligent as if lacking in understanding? For so much of our days is confusion, and the days of our life are as vanity before Thee.” But our prayer does not stop there. We go on, “Yet we are Thy people, children of Thy covenant. We are the children of Abraham who loved Thee, to whom Thou gavest Thy promise on Mount Moriah. We are the seed of Isaac who was bound on the altar. We are the community of Jacob . . . Therefore must we needs give thanks to Thee, praise and glorify Thee, bless and sanctify Thee, and offer song and thanksgiving to Thy great name …”
Out of the depths of tested faith and as a commanding voice from ages past, there comes to all men the call to rise above the vanities, confusion and threats of our materialistic society. What of the recurring evidence of repeated moral breakdown, the culminating crisis of our atomic days—”to be or not to be”—the unprecedented challenge to religion, philosophy and science? Judaism compels me to proclaim daily man’s greater possibility for good than for evil and his power of self-regeneration. The Golden Age is not a dream of the past. It will be molded out of the ashes of yesterday and the rubble of today. It must be made a reality through our own efforts, our own travail. Here among men on earth we can create the Messianic Age. This is the fundamental philosophy of Judaism. This is religion’s challenge and goal.
Armed with faith we can fight soulless knowledge and self-destroying technology; fascist aggression and military violence; racial hatreds, class bitterness and annihilating international strife. We know no better way. We know no other way if we are to build a world in which “none shall hurt, none destroy, … for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)
Why I am a Jew? I have tried to answer why I am, and resolutely will continue to be a Jew.