The Future of the American Jew

By Mordecai M. Kaplan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN
CONTINUITY AND CHANCE IN THE JEWISH TRADITION

1
CHANGE IN ATTITUDE TOWARD THE PAST

For a people to survive, it must face the future with confidence. This does not mean that Jews should have no interest in their people's past, or that each generation must produce out of its own immediate experience, without the benefit of the acquired wisdom of past generations, the faith which enables it to meet the issues of life. It means rather that Jews must not merely remember the past and try to perpetuate it, but that they must use past experience to help them meet presentday problems in a manner which will assure them a future, a future that, in its fulfillment of present needs, shall represent a richer and more abundant life. Jews cannot afford to be those of whom it has been said that "in trying to warm their hands by the ashes of a dead past, they only freeze in the process."

In the past, Israel always knew God as "He who has hallowed us by His precepts," that is to say, who has manifested Himself in those ideals and in that discipline of life by which Jews hoped to attain salvation or life abundant. The various memorials and symbols of the Jewish past were employed to inspire our people with confidence in their future, as the people through whom God would one day assert His rule of righteousness and peace over all the earth.

In the modern attitude of most Jews toward the Jewish past, even of most Jews who are interested in that past, including many great scholars who have contributed important researches into Jewish antiquities, there is little evidence of this motivation. The impulse for preserving our ancient heritage in modern times has been not so much to provide inspiration or wisdom with which to shape the Jewish life of the future as to provide the apologetics with which to justify our survival as a people. Ever since the Emancipation, when the promise of freedom and equality was dangled before the eyes of the Jews, Jewish scholars have engaged in research into the past of their people to justify to themselves and to others its right to survive. The possibility of incorporation into the body politic of the modern nations has made the Jews sensitive, to the point of morbidity, to the opinion of the

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