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"...for truth wants to be known. It exerts pressure on the knower to share his vision of it with his peers." (Isma'il R. al-Faruqi)

HomeBooksIslam and the Problem of IsraelChapter III: The Emancipation and its Aftermath

Chapter III: The Emancipation and its Aftermath

11 min.

From Chapter 3: “The Emancipation and its Aftermath” in Ismail Raji al Faruqi, “Islam and the Problem of Israel”, Islamic Council of Europe (1980)

A. Revelation vs. Reason

The revelation which came to Muhammad (SAAW) summoned reason to prove the thesis of Islam. It never asserted its truths in defiance of reason, nor did it ever seek to overwhelm the noetic function of the mind. On the contrary, it always sought to convince its audience in harmony and unity with reason. When the Mu’tazilah sought to give reason an edge over revelation, or the Murji’ah to give revelation an edge over reason, the Muslim mind demurred and held its original position tenaciously, namely, that no contradiction between reason and revelation is final; that no disparity between them is beyond overarching and composition by reconsidering the meanings of revelation which might have been misunderstood, or the conclusions of reason which might have gone astray. From al Ma’mun to al Mutawakkil (197-232 A.H./813-847 A.C.), the three decades of Mu’tazilah ascendency, the problem acquired crisis proportions and was then solved forever.

Unlike Islam, Christianity was deeply committed to one side. Jesus’ cool argumentation with his disciples quickly gave way to Paul’s outcry that Athens had nothing to do with Jerusalem. “The Greeks seek after wisdom. But we teach Christ crucified unto the Jews a scandalon and unto the Greeks foolishness . . . God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; .. . the weak . .. the base … despised things … things which are not to bring to naught the things which are”1. Islam’s rational wind had to blow on Christian Europe for a long time before it awakened her gradually from her dogmatic slumber. Thomas of Aquinas had to be excommunicated for his rationalist “Averroism” before he regained acceptance; and Bruno, Galileo and countless others had to suffer persecution or death for daring to oppose reason to revelation. In Islam, revelation stood alone and had no institution divinely appointed to guard it. It had to speak for itself, to convince its audience and safeguard its truth by its sheer power to win the assent of the free mind. In Christianity, the Church was the guardian of its revelation by divine appointment, and it fought ferociously to save its domain against attack by reason and its stepdaughter, natural science. However detracted or resisted, the forces of reason gradually won. The magisterium of the Church was slowly but surely ignored, and her prestige in the circles of learning and science suffered terrible blows, as any history of science in the West would show.

B. The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, which animated intellectual life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries served as the basis for much of science and culture in the West. It was a movement which adopted the standpoint of reason in reordering the worldview of a Christian man. Priority was taken away from faith and the Church and restored to reason. Reason was declared a public prerogative of everyone who cared to cultivate it. No one could be excommunicated from its realm. It could not be combated by authority, but by itself and under its own rules. Its cultivation and use became the criteria of truth, virtue and merit, not one’s affiliation to the Church. Human beings came to be recognised as rational by nature; and it is this nature, rather than revelation or the teaching of the Church, that became the basis of human association, of government and social order. “Religious tutelage,” the most degrading of all, as Kant had called it, was replaced by a new freedom in which rules were self-imposed and where all men — Jews included — were recognised as possessing an innate right to participate. Overnight, the Jews who had hitherto existed on sufferance, as aliens in the land, became equal citizens of a universal community of humans based on their participation in the realm of reason. Their actual enfranchisement however had to await the political reconstitution of Europe.

C. Emancipation, at Last!

This did not tarry. France, where the new rationalist spirit had been fermenting since and even before Descartes, burst into the new era under the war cry of the Revolution: Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite! It exported the new ideology to Europe as its revolutionary (later, imperial) army swept away one European monarchy after another. As French soldiers entered a city, the walls of its Jewish ghetto came tumbling down. The Jews emerged as equal citizens of the new regime everywhere. Laying aside all their legal and social incapacities, the Jews of Europe plunged headlong into the new paradise whose gates were now flung wide open before them. It was a genuine “emancipation.”

As they entered into their new lives, they first had to learn the vernacular language of the land. This they did with such vehemence that in one generation their masses in Central and Western Europe forgot Hebrew or Yiddish, their own ghetto language, and appropriated the vernacular languages of Europe as their own. Their sons could now enter the universities, join the national army, or serve in public office. Every section of society was now open to them. Their previous inexperience in agriculture prompted them to live in the cities, and to invest their efforts in industry, trade, finance, the profess¬ions, communications and city development. Their social recovery was amazingly strong and swift. By 1797, they began to find their place even in the elected legislative bodies of Europe. Rather than a tolerated stranger, the Jew found himself perfectly at home in the expanding, industrialising, nation-states of Europe. His religious difference from the rest lost its importance in the new wave of secularism in all matters. In traditional normative Christian doctrine, no relevance of religion to civic life was claimed. This was the “realm of Caesar.” If in actual practice this was not the case, and the Church did interfere and oft dominated, its power had been shaken by the Reformation and completely swept away by the nationalising British monarchy, the rationalising Enlightenment, and finally, the secularising French Revolution. Now, reason alone — hence national utilitarianism — in which all men participate in degrees independently of their religious affiliation, was declared the basis of all civic decisions. Therefore, it was reasoned, the Jew may freely join in the new life of Europe on equal par with the Christian.

D. Assimilation and Reform

The greatest advocate of Jewish assimilation in Europe was Moses Mendelssohn, who lived before the French Revolution and helped to spread the “Enlightenment” mentality in Germany. He translated the Talmud into German for the double purpose of acquainting the Germans with Judaism, and the Jews who had already forgotten Hebrew, with their own faith. His classic counsel to his fellow Jews was to Germanise themselves in every respect and remain loyal to the Jewish faith which he conceived as something applicable to the religious sphere, a realm reduced to the internal relation of self to God, not unlike Christianity. However, Mendelssohn insisted that whereas Judaism is not a creed – the mind of a Jew being free to accept any conclusion of reason – the Jew ought to follow Jewish law. This was easier said than done. Mendelssohn founded a periodical in Hebrew to bring assimilation and the new culture to the conservatives who still lingered and hesitated.

How to apply Jewish law to the external deed and, at the same time, to observe European custom and social ethic was never solved. The Europeans, for their part, expected the Jews to obliterate all that distinguished them from Christians. When the Jews resisted, the Christians compelled them to do so, no more in the name of religion, but in that of nationalism and national culture. Even their names, the Jews had to change or have them arbitrarily changed for them.

Assimilation generated its own momentum. The Jews’ exposure to the cultural and religious life of Europe produced in them an inferiority complex towards their Christian neighbors which they began to emulate even in the religious field. This emulation is the foundation of Reform Judaism, a new sect whose very name is indicative of the Christianised Jewish outlook. “Reform” has changed the liturgy, legitimised liturgical use of the vernacular languages instead of Hebrew, eliminated the long recitation of piyyutim and Torah, introduced the choir and playing of musical instruments in the synagogues. Some of these reforms were introduced into the Adat Jeshurun Synagogue in Amsterdam in 1796, and they were adopted in toto by the synagogues of Seesen in 1810, and of Hamburg in 1818. Slowly but surely, the new “Reform” spread to most other synagogues of Western Europe.

Emancipation and its consequence, assimilation, continued to produce problems for Judaism. Above all, it exposed Judaism to the same rending strains to which Christianity was already exposed, especially, Biblical criticism. Detached, objective examination of scripture had previously exploded the claim that the Pentateuch was the writing of Moses, or that any part of the Hebrew scripture was revealed by God verbatim. Historical textual analysis had established that the scripture had come from widely different traditions and disparate periods of time. It uncovered many discrepancies and mistakes in the Biblical text. All of this had forced the Christians to alter their theory of revelation. Partly, they recoursed to allegorical interpretation to fit the text into Christian doctrine; and partly, since the whole of Jewish history was for them a propadeutic to the incarnation, they began to regard the scripture as a profane history of a profane people, a text whose holiness lies not in every word or page, or in every event or statement it recorded, but in the general movement of history it expressed, the movement which culminated in the advent of Jesus.

For the Jews, this posed a terrible dilemma. To hold their old view of scripture as revealed verbatim to and written by Moses is to go counter to science, history and reason. To accept the findings of science and history is to sack the foundation of the Jewish faith. None of the luminaries of the period — Isaac Jost, Leopold Zunz, Solomon Steinheim, Samuel Holdheim — could find a way out. The inevitable conclusion pressed itself upon the minds of Jews: If the law of Judaism is the work of men — talented but human — of different times and places, it could not escape the relativity of history. Its validity, therefore, is relative too, and hence, restricted. Indeed, there is little or no reason why its cumbersomeness may not be removed and its provisions altered to fit the new situation. The whole normativeness of the law fell into question and the law was altered or violated with impunity.

With Abraham Geiger, the greatest of Reform thinkers, the last step was taken when he raised the question of the relation of Judaism to the ethnic entity of the Jews. His Hegelianism suggested to him that universalism and ethnocentrism were two contradictory theses whose dialectical opposition was necessary for human progress. Ethnocentrism, he reasoned, had fulfilled its purpose in the past. In modern times, it should have no place in the Jewish heart. Therefore, Geiger counselled, all references in the Bible to the election, distinctiveness or particularism of the Jews, must be excised and repudiated. He reinterpreted Jewish messianism as referring not to a national saviour but to an age where all humans would cooperate together for their greater happiness and felicity.

To the question of what course should a Reform congregation pursue, Samuel Adler, noted American Reform Jew, answered: “The first and most important step … is to free its service of shocking lies, to remove from it . . . things and wishes which we would not utter if it had to be done in an intelligible manner. Such are the lamentations about oppression and persecution, the prayer for the restoration of the sacrificial cult, for the return of Israel to Palestine, the hope for a personal messiah, and for the resurrection of the body. . .”2. All the above-mentioned recommendations of Reform leaders the Pittsburgh Conference of 1885 enacted as a constitution for Reform Judaism; notably, legitimising the Jew’s rejection of verbatim revelation of the Bible, of all Jewish laws not adapted to modern civilisation, dietary laws, laws concerning priestly purity, and of Jewish exclusivism on the religious, cultural and social levels.

It is not surprising that Reform thinking reached its most daring level in America where there was no “ghetto” tradition. It was hence unavoidable that American Jews would assimilate most, that assimilation would continue to corrode Jewish identity until hardly anything of it is left. As one American rabbi observant of the scene put it: “America is a terrible drain on Jewish identity; but the American university is for it a disaster area.” The fact is that under the corrosive influence of secularism and assimilation, Judaism became in America little more than the arbitrary decision of the Jew to be different, not in fact to be different, but only to think of himself as different.

Reaction to the Reform line of thinking was strong but had little to offer besides conservatism, or the will to preserve the tradition. Intellectually this is not a happy alternative; for the contradiction essential to the nature of Judaism and that of modernity is not solved, but an attempt is made to live with it in complacency. Modernity, with its scientific objectivity and relativism of all history, has brought an irreversible orientation to the mind of the Jew. For him to hold to the letter of scripture as well as to the gains of modernity constitutes an insoluble dilemma. Max Lilienthal, David Einhorn and Bernard Felsenthal have all put it most aptly, in a language reminiscent of Theodore Parker, the father of unitarianism. Law, they held, has a spirit and a body. The former is the decalogue, or the moral law innate to man’s consciousness. The rest is the body. The Talmud is that body. It can be only buried once the spirit has left it. Furthermore, if we ought to deny the divine laws themselves once they have lost their spirit and effectiveness, we ought to deny, a fortiori, the Talmudic laws which we know to have been the dated – and hence dead – works of human rabbis of bygone ages.

Had this trend continued to develop in Europe and America without interruption, Judaism might well have become a religious movement little distinguishable from the numerous other forms of pietism engendered by the “Radical Reformers” of Christianity. As might be expected, there would have always remained some conservatives who could live with the contradiction. But with the overwhelming majority of Jews in West Europe and America subscribing to Reform thinking, the major currents of Jewish life and thought would have followed the same course. The Russian Revolution of 1918 would have given this movement tremendous impetus because the goals of Reform Judaism would have accorded beautifully with the total assimilation objective of Russia, as well as with its goal of secular revolutionary progress.

History, however, had other goals.

  1. I Corinthians, 1 ??
  2. David Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism, New York, Macmillan, 1907, p. 483 ??


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