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Thursday, January 26, 2012

"Jews Old and New"

Jews Old and New
The Speaker, March 2, 1901

The Ancient Scriptures And The Modern Jew. By David Baron. London: Hodder and Stoughton

It is certainly a singular fact that the more mysterious a matter is the more popular it is with the mass of humanity: this fact is perhaps the root of religions and is at any rate a very gratifying thing. Pure matters of fact which any one could find out who took the trouble, such as the number of Lord Roberts's proclamations or the number of lamp-posts in the Borough Road, are treated with a semi-mystical terror and respect, as the prerogatives of a priesthood of specialists. But the things which are inscrutable and immeasurable in themselves- as enigmatic in a hard-boiled egg as in an Eocene rock, in a Star poster as in a row of Egyptian hieroglyphics- in these everybody feels at home. The cheapest, the most numerous, the most personal and frivolous class of books are probably those dealing with the Bible, the most tremendous of works on the most tremendous of subjects. The greater the book the more the average man feels himself capable of editing it. The man who turns out a little tract on Daniel or Saul every month would be worried if asked to interpret Spenser, completely embarrassed if asked to interpret Maeterlinck, and struck with mere grovelling terror if asked to interpret Mr. Stephen Phillips. Thus Mr. David Baron has written an interesting book called The Ancient Scriptures and the Modern Jew, in the whole course of which it never seems to strike him for a moment that he is dealing with a riddle of ethics and history compared with which squaring the circle would be trivial; that if there is one thing that is more dark and remote to us than even the Ancient Scriptures, that thing is the Modern Jew.

He never seems to realise, even for one dazzling instant, the idea that a bland, black-coated Aryan gentleman sitting in his arm-chair with a creed formulated at the Reformation and a political system diluted from the ideas of 1740, may possibly not be in complete possession of all the abysmal spiritual divisions and eternal spiritual energies which alone could finally throw light on the destiny of an immemorial people, whose strange discoveries in the world of the soul, discoveries embedded whole and often undeciphered in our later systems, were made under strange stars and lost temples, as alien as the landscapes of another planet.

The first part of Mr. Baron's work deals with the ancient writings, on which he argues ingeniously enough, but about which he ignores two small points- first, that they are ancient, and, secondly, that they are writings. A man cannot comprehend even the form and language of the Psalms without a literary sense. For what are the essential facts? A great though rude and wandering people lived thousands of years ago who had, by what, from any point of view, may truly be called an inspiration, a sudden and startling glimpse of an enormous philosophic truth. These bloodthirsty Bedouins realised the last word of scientific thought, the unity of creation. Opulent empires and brilliant republics all round them were still in the nets of polytheism; but this band of outlaws knew better. This is the immortality of the Jews. Them we can never dethrone: they discovered the one central thing no modern man can help believing: whatever we think, or do, or say we are all bound to the wheel of the stars which can only have a single centre.

This awful simplification of things they discovered, as it has since been discovered by innumerable sages. But their unique historic interest lies in this: that by a strange circumstance, that has every resemblance to a miracle, they discovered it in the morning of the world, in an age when men had and needed no philosophic language. Hence they threw it into poetical language. They spoke of this startling speculative theory with the same bold, brisk, plain-coloured imagery with which primitive ballads commonly speak of war and hunting, women and gold. If we imagine Spinoza's philosophy written with enormous vividness in the literary style of "Chevy Chace," we shall have some idea of that confounding marvel which is called the Old Testament. But Mr. Baron, in attempting an estimate of the relation of the Jews to the Old Testament, is merely interested in the theological and dogmatic side of the matter. He does not seem to be aware that the Bible is rather a fine book. He deals with the central interest of the whole matter, the gradual emergence (in Job and the Prophets) of this sublime monism out of a tribal creed and still under the literary forms of a tribal poem: but he does not seem to see it. He thinks, like all conventional dogmatists, that a sentence or two in the style of the Daily Telegraph will "elucidate" the style of Scripture, which is as straightforward as a nursery rhyme. He really supposes that to say that God is not "under obligation" for an "animal sacrifice" contains all that is contained in such a daring, simple, and unfathomable sentence as "If I were hungry, I would not tell thee."

Another curious example of facile argument on an insufficient comprehension of the spirit of the matter under discussion lies in Mr. Baron's arguments for a second Advent vitally different from the first. This is not the place, nor are we the arbiters, for the decision of such a matter in its religious aspect. But Mr. Baron's own particular arguments show, in the literary aspect, a singular failure to grasp the nature of Jewish expression. He argues that, because there are prophecies which refer to a deliverer coming "in glory," as well as those referring to a deliverer coming in simplicity, there must be another appearance of the Divine besides the historic appearance of Jesus. Never was there so irrational or, we may add, so common a misinterpretation of the tone of Christ's utterances. The idea that Christ did not invariably act and speak "in glory " is simply a mark of being unable to read. He walked always with the full glory of heroic life; His habits were happy and liberal; His spirit was high and eloquent; His very literary imagery was (though no one seems to see it) large and impetuous, full of devils falling from heaven and mountains cast into the sea. Does Mr. Baron really think He would have been more "glorious" if He had sat on a hill and waved a sceptre? There was never anything ignominious about the Son of Man. He died upon the Cross; but He was not born on it, as some theologians would seem to imply.

The second part of Mr. Baron's work, that which deals with the modern Jew, is infinitely more satisfactory. It would be quite unfair to Mr. Baron to say that this was because it contains two very interesting articles contributed by other people, for his own remarks on the Semitic problem of to-day are genuinely good in themselves. But he has certainly elucidated the problem in no small degree by including two chapters in quotation marks, one by a distinguished Jew, and another by a distinguished Christian. The modern Jew is unpopular in Europe, but chiefly, we fear, for his virtues. No one has the pleasure of the friendship of any Jews who has not noticed that almost weird domesticity, that terrible contentment which makes the life of parlour and nursery quite satisfactory to a Jew of the calibre of spirit and intellect which, if he were a Gentile, would make it a devouring necessity to him to "see life."

It is this formidable normality that constitutes the real power of the Jew. It is the survival of the blinding simplification of existence of which we have spoken. It is no mere accident that the most brilliant Jew of this age is Dr. Max Nordau; a man with whom, to speak paradoxically, sanity has become a madness. He spares nothing in his application of the religion of commonsense, the law that is written in men's bones. Neither the hardness of Tolstoi nor the fragility of Maeterlinck; neither the bitter simplicity of Ibsen nor the drunken glory of Whitman can lure this old Hebrew from the strait path of judgment. Dr. Max Nordau, in the passage which Mr. Baron quotes, speaks with splendid scorn of decadents even of his own race- and the decadents of his own race are, in his opinion, the Jewish millionaires. No Gentile certainly would dare to speak of them as they are spoken of by a Jew
"These money-pols who despise what we honour and honour what we despise. Many of them forsake Judaism and we wish them God-speed, only regretting that they are at all of Jewish blood, though but of the dregs."
In connection with this matter of the awful and indestructible sanity in the Jewish people, which strikes us chiefly, we must protest against some of the remarks of Mr. Baron's Christian witness, Mr. C. A. Schonberger, as to the spirit of the Jewish Law. For the sake of backing up a particular Evangelical doctrine (with which, of course, we have nothing to do) Mr. Schonberger says:-
"It (the Law) was not given for life, but for death, to bring people to despair about the depravity of their moral nature. In one word it was given that the heart should be broken and not that it should become proud."
We can only say that is not the impression left on any rational man by the Old Testament. "The law of the Lord is right, rejoicing the heart!"- "My delight is in Thy statutes;" we believe we could overwhelm Mr. Schonberger with quotations merely from memory. The truth is that the very soul of the Jewish Scriptures is in this idea of the rapture of cleanliness and obedience; the idea that if a man once gets into the right path he may dance down it all the way.

There is one lesson that remains to be drawn, more especially from the case of those Semitic plutocrats of whom Dr. Max Nordau speaks so disdainfully:-
"In an ordinary independent Jewish community,"....he says with sharp, but just sarcasm, "they would not receive titles of honour such as those by which they are decorated by Christian societies."
But the real lesson of the Jewish plutocratic problem seems to us a simple one, and one very much needed at present. It is the lesson of the utter futility of attempting to crush a fine race. In science men know that no force is ever destroyed; but the fact has yet to be learnt in politics. There are a thousand things that a wronged people may become- a rival, like America; a clog, like Ireland; an internal disease, like Jewish commerce; but it always becomes something. We forbade to the Jews all natural callings except commerce, and to-day commerce is what might be expected from being eternally recruited with all the most intellectual sons of a most intellectual people. We pray that the error may not be repeated in certain corners of the earth. To avoid a repetition of it would be far worthier than that frivolous Continental anti-Semitism which can find no answer to Jewish triumphs, except to flourish tauntingly the image of a martyred Jew upon an Aryan gibbet.

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