Category Archives: Philosophy

Higher Criticism Higher Anti-Semitism

An important address by Solomon Schechter the architect of the Conservative Jewish movement in America. (Source: ====

Below is the full text of Solomon Schechter’s address, “Higher Criticism—Higher Anti-Semitism”, delivered at the Judaean Banquet, given in honor of Dr. Kaufman Kohler, March 26, 1903. The text is from Seminary Address and Other Papers (Cincinnati: Ark Publishing, 1915), 35-39.

My acquaintance with Dr. Kohler dates from the year 1901, when he did me the honor of paying me a visit at Cambridge, England. There is no scarcity in that ancient seat of learning, “full of sages and scribes,” of learned conversation. But the day with Dr. Kohler was one of the most delightful I have ever experienced in that place. The day was spent in roaming over the contents of the Genizah and in conversation. Our thoughts were turned to Judaism and the subjects which occupied our minds were all of a theological or historical nature. We probably differed in a good many points, and please God we shall differ in many more—but this did not prevent our short acquaintance from ripening at once into what might approach friendship. I felt that I was in the presence of a scholar and a seeker after truth. His is an intellect devoted entirely to what he considers the truth, and his is a heart deeply affected by every spiritual sensation which is in the air. He also delights to engage in what he considers the “Battles oo the Lord,” and Judaism has need for men of valor.

To speak more clearly: Since the so-called emancipation, the Jews of the civilized world have been lulled into a fancied security which events have not justified. It is true that through the revelation in the Dreyfus case, anti-Semitism of the vulgar sort has become odious, and no lady or gentleman dares now to use the old weapons of the times of Drumont and Stoecker. But the arch-enemy has entered upon a new phase, which Boerne might have called “the philosophic ‘Hep-Hep.’ ” And this is the more dangerous phase because it is of a spiritual kind, and thus means the “excision of the soul,” leaving us no hope for immortality. I remember when I used to come home from the Cheder, bleeding and crying from the wounds inflicted upon me by the Christian boys, my father used to say, “My child, we are in Galuth (exile), and we must submit to God’s will.” And he made me understand that this is only a passing stage in history, as we Jews belong to eternity, when God will comfort His people. Thus the pain was only physical, but my real suffering began later in life, when I emigrated from Roumania to so-called civilized countries and found there what I might call the Higher anti-Semitism, which burns the soul though it leaves the body unhurt. The genesis of this Higher anti-Semitism is partly, though not entirely—for a man like Kuenen belongs to an entirely different class—contemporaneous with the genesis of the so-called Higher criticism of the Bible. Wellhausen’s Prolegomena and History are teeming with aperçes full of venom against Judaism, and you cannot wonder that he was rewarded by one of the highest orders which the Prussian Government had to bestow. Afterwards Harnack entered the arena with his “Wesen des Christenthums,” in which he showed not so much his hatred as his ignorance of Judaism. But this Higher anti-Semitism has now reached its climax when every discovery of recent years is called to bear witness against us and to accuse us of spiritual larceny.

Some time ago I saw in one of the numerous sheets of this country a reference to the Hammurabi Code, concluding with the words, “this means a blow to Orthodoxy.” I hold no brief for Orthodoxy in this country or elsewhere. But, may I ask: Is there any wing in Judaism which is prepared to confirm the reproach of Carlyle, who, in one of his anti-Semitic fits, exclaimed, “The Jews are always dealing in old clothes; spiritual or material.” We are here between ourselves, so we may frankly make the confession that we did not invent the art of printing; we did not discover America, in spite of Kayserling; we did not inaugurate the French Revolution, in spite of some one else; we were not the first to utilize the power of steam or electricity, in spite of any future Kayserling. Our great claim to the gratitude of mankind is that we gave to the world the word of God, the Bible. We have stormed heaven to snatch down this heavenly gift, as the Paitanic expression is; we threw ourselves into the breach and covered it with our bodies against every attack; we allowed ourselves to be slain by hundreds and thousands rather than become unfaithful to it; and we bore witness to its truth and watched over its purity in the face of a hostile world. The Bible is our sole raison d’être, and it is just this which the Higher anti-Semitism is seeking to destroy, denying all our claims for the past, and leaving us without hope for the future.

Can any section among us afford to concede to this professorial and imperial anti-Semitism and confess “for a truth we and our ancestors have sinned’” we have lived on false pretenses and were the worst shams in the world? Forget not that we live in an historical age in which everybody must show his credentials from the past. The Bible is our patent of nobility granted to us by the Almighty God, and if we disown the Bible, leaving it to the tender mercies of a Wellhausen, Stade and Duhm, and other beautiful souls working away at diminishing the “nimbus of the Chosen Peope,” the world will disown us. There is no room in it for spiritual parvenus. But this intellectual persecution can only be fought by intellectual weapons and unless we make an effort to recover our Bible and to think out our theology for ourselves, we are irrevocably lost from both worlds. A mere protest in the pulpit or a vigorous editorial in a paper, or an amateur essay in a monthly, or even a special monograph will not help us. We have to create a really living, great literature, and do the same for the subjects of theology and the Bible that Europe has done for Jewish history and philology. It is in view of this fact that I hail Dr. Kohler’s election to the Presidency of the Hebrew Union College as a happy event in the annals of American Jewry; for under his guidance I am sure Cincinnati will, in good time, contribute its share to this great “battle of duty.” Some amiable persons predict jealousy and strife between the two colleges, and are already preparing to enjoy the fight as disinterested spectators. I am certain that they will prove false prophets, for the old dictum that the students of the Torah increase peace in the world, holds good also in our day. But let me say to you that this yearning after peace, on my part, is not to be taken as a sign of my entertaining any doubt as to the soundness of my theological position, or fear of a strenuous life. I am, as a rule, not given to mental squinting, nor have I ever shunned a fight. But I honor and admire Dr. Kohler too much to take up the position of an antagonist. Besides, you have probably heard the story of that Methodist parson who rebuked one of his parishioners who occasionally indulged in wife-beating, with the words: “How can you spend your time in fighting your wife, when you both should be fighting the devil?” In fact, I feel that we are standing now before a crisis which would stigmatize the indulgence in such a fight as treason to the cause of Judaism; we must gather our forces and fight the enemy; and Dr. Kohler, by his wide learning, contagious enthusiasm and noble character, is the right man in the right place to marshal a part of these forces, which may, by the blessing of God, help us to victory.

Schechter’s “philosophic Hep-Hep” refers to the Hep-Hep Riots of 1819 beginning in Würzburg and spreading to other areas. It was the most widespread Western European pogrom in modern times until the Holocaust, and was instigated by those opposing emancipation (i.e., an equality of civil rights) for the Jews.


Divrei Yoel: Making G-d Personal

Making G-d personal.
This is a subject that requires much elucidation. It might seem obvious to the simple mind that maintains an enduring faith, lasting through storms and expressed in bright days. For him, G-d is an embracing experience that hugs you during the turbulence of life. A G-d who cries when you cry, who smiles when you smile, and is highly curious of your expectations, just as you are. However, it might seem perplexing to the intellectually oriented mind whom attempts to explain away existence in principles and absolute formulas. For him, G-d is an Absolute par excellence, who knows no boundaries, unbreakable, unchangeable, an unfathomable Perfection. To the former, G-d is near. To the latter, G-d is remotely distant.These two seemingly contradictory personalities that embrace life, I believe, can be reconciled. They might not be as distant from you as they may seem.

Moses Maimonides [Moshe ben Maimon], known famously as the Rambam (Rahm-Bahm), was a preeminent medieval Rabbi, Philosopher and Physician (born in 1135 in Cordova, Spain). Beyond any doubt, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers who has embraced planet earth. The Rambam catered to a Jewish community that was heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. Predominantly, Aristotelian philosophy. The Rambam confidently attempted to demonstrate the validity of Judaic principles and philosophy against the Greek mind. In his magnum opus, the Guide for the Perplexed, the Rambam offers various proofs to demonstrate G-d’s existence, His in-corporeality, His omniscience, His omnipotence and Absolute Perfection. When attempting to explain G-d to the human mind, the Rambam states:

What, then, can be the result of our efforts, when we try to obtain knowledge of a Being that is free from substance, that is most simple, whose existence is absolute, and not due to any cause, to whose perfect essence nothing can be superadded, and whose perfection consists, as we have shown, in the absence of all defects. All we understand is the fact that He exists, that He is a Being to whom none of His creatures is similar, who has nothing in common with them, who does not include plurality, who is never too feeble to produce other beings, and whose relation to the universe is that of a steerman to a boat; and even this is not a real relation, a real simile, but serves only to convey to us the idea that G-d rules the universe; that is, the He gives it duration, and preserves its necessary arrangement…In the contemplation of His essence, our comprehension and knowledge prove insufficient; in the examination of His works, how they necessarily result from His will, our knowledge proves to be ignorance, and in the endeavor to extol Him in words, all our efforts in speech are mere weakness and failure!(Guide: Section I, Chapter LIX)

For the Rambam, G-d is distant, unreachable and forever superior. G-d is absolute perfection that is infinitely superior to His finite creature. The Rambam’s philosophical explanation of G-d seems to be in contradiction to what another prominent Rabbi and Philosopher advances in his commentary to the Torah (Hebrew Bible). This being Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch was a German rabbi, a supreme intellectual and a heroic figure who lived in the 1800’s. Rabbi Hirsch vigorously attempted to save thousands of Jews who were being swept away in the tide of assimilation in Enlightened Europe, abandoning their rich tradition. Rabbi Hirsch wrote volumes of work expressing the beauty and depth of Judaism to a generation of Jews who seemed to look elsewhere for intellectual, spiritual and emotional fulfillment. In his famous commentary on the Ten Commandments in the Book of Shemot (Exodus), Rabbi Hirsch offers a more personal, approachable and fathomable explanation of G-d:

The so-called “belief in the existence of G-d,” as ancient and modern theological philosophers like to express the idea of the “first commandment,” is miles away from what this fundamental verse of Jewish thought and Jewish existence demands from Jewish thought and Jewish life.Not the fact that there is a G-d, also not that there is only one G-d, but that this One, unique, true G-d is to be my G-d, that He created and formed me, placed me where I am, and goes on creating and forming me, keeps me, watches over me, leads me and guides me; not that my connection with Him should be through ten thousand intermediaries as a chance product of a universe which He brought into being aeons ago, but that every present breath I draw and every coming moment of my existence is to be a direct gift of His Almight and Love, and that I have to live every present and future second of my life solely in His service – in a word, not the knowledge of the existence of G-d, but the acknowledgment of G-d as my G-d, as the exclusive One in whose hands is the disposal of all my fate, and as the exclusive One guide of all my acts, it is only with this, only with acceptance of this Truth, that I can lay the foundation of a Jewish life. (Hirsch, Exodus)

The divergent point of views seem to be addressing two different personalities who carry two different relationships with G-d. However, I believe that this dual understanding of G-d is not meant for two different people with different trains of thought, rather, it is meant for one person with two distinct entities, the mind and the heart, the I and the Thou. For the human mind is bold and courageous. The mind is reason responsive. The mind is demanding of extrapolating the universe in a systemic process that caters to his/her understanding of reality. The mind is a powerful tool that can be used to promote, rationalize and justify darkness, hate and prioritize the self at the exclusion of others. Therefore, the human mind needs its limitations. Be bold, be courageous, explore the intellectual depth bestowed to you by G-d, but always remain cognizant of the fact that there is Something Greater, more powerful than yourself. When the situation arises where the intellect becomes your own personal enemy and the arch nemesis of society, it needs to know it can be defeated by a Greater, More Powerful, and Infinitely Superior Intellect, the Mind of G-d.

The human heart is the seat of emotions. The organ of life. The heart is highly affectionate, emotionally demanding and physically aggressive. It rages with instincts, it demands constant attention and it begs for the company of the other. The heart is ultimately one minded, dealing with extremes. It is not reason responsive. It is either broken or passionate, heavy as a stone or burning with illumination. Therefore, the heart needs to become cognizant of its exclusive relationship with G-d. That G-d is near, G-d cares, G-d can be felt, hugged and kissed. G-d is not different to your pains and existential loneliness. G-d cares and is forever close. The habitual heart has to become aware of the constant presence of G-d. This is achieved through repetitive engagement in religious practice. The repetitive notions makes a motionless heart join union with a Loving G-d. This dual relationship with G-d, the Transcendental and the Immanent, caters to the human condition, to your heart and mind. The same G-d that defeated you when your mind got the best of you is the same G-d who embraces you and helps put the pieces of your broken heart back together.