Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Revolution: change and the Jews - Irving Levitas

The The Chronicle Papers - views of American Life, page 70
The Chronicle Papers: A collection of newspaper articles originally carried by The Yonkers Jewish Chronicle (1976-1979) by Dr. Irving Levitas, 1910 - 1987.

The word "revolution" is originally derived from astronomy [astrology], wherein the early star-gazers spoke of the "circles" [circuits] of the planets made around the earth. This conveys an original idea of revolution, namely, that it is an attempt to "return to original sources. No revolutionist saw such ever spoke in other terms. To him, a "revolution" was an attempt to return to what had been "originally" the social situation before institutionalization had "corrupted" the original source. Thus, there is always in a revolution the idea the overthrow of the state of affairs at the time of revolution is a good thing. It means that overthrow, the original purity of the social life will be constituted.


During the Renaissance and Reformation, certain ideas were born and nurtured. One of the most basic of these ideas was called "sensualism." Today, that word is in bad repute, but this was not the case two or three hundred years ago. What the term meant then was that all our knowledge comes from our five senses, from what we see, hear, feel, touch or smell. Thus whatever we know is something that came from the five senses and nowhere else. This meant that anyone who claimed that he had knowledge from revelation or through heredity or by some non-sensory means, was either a liar or, worse, was desirous of entrapping men in some nefarious scheme.

This became the famous theory of John Locke, the philosopher of the revolutions of the eighteenth century, that when was born, their minds were like a blank writing-board, a "tabula rasa." On that writing board, experiences wrote in each individual case; whatever one person saw, heard, felt, touched or smelled made its mark on the board, and only those marks made up knowledge. And French thinkers like Condillac and de Tracy were to transform Locke into a theory of revolution, just as Locke was the "philosopher" of the American Revolution of 1776.


In political terms, what this implied was that organized religion as then practiced, with the clergy reading to parishioners from a book they couldn't read, was not the best was to learn truths. Better to learn that truth yourself through personal experiences than to just listen to someone talk about them. Besides, and this was to be most significant, experiences someone else had were "second-hand," and not as reliable as experiences you yourself could or have had. That was the import of the Protestant Reformation, both in its Lutheran and Calvinist variety; read the Bible yourself; don't depend on someone else reading it for you. What helped that Reformation (and Revolutions that were to follow) was the invention of printing, which made that Bible and other books available to everyone who could read, and in their own languages, too, thus removing the elite that could read Latin(or Hebrew) where the others could not.

And of equal importance was the neutral (if not negative) attitude this philosophy encouraged towards the immediate past, the past between the original state of affairs before corruption had entered, when people who used authority for their statements used it to become powerful. Then came these people (kings, nobility, clergy, etc.) who abused that authority based on their "more than sense-knowledge," such as birth, or revelation, or some non-natural cause, who "corrupted" society. That period of "corruption" was a huge mistake to the revolutionists and was to be eradicated from history; they called it "the Dark Ages," usually meaning the Middle Ages.

Now, the effect on the Jews of these ideas of the Revolutions in America in 1776 and in France in 1789 were to be tremendous. By emphasizing equal opportunities to get sense-experiences, they were to break down the ghettos and let Jews out to get these necessary experiences. By demoting elitist authority (the clergy), they were to open the door to individual interpretations of the Tannach (witness Spinoza). And, by making the political expression of this philosophy a democratic society, they were to offer the Jews an opportunity to take part in a general social group, not isolated in a ghetto, or Pale or Settlement. Where the Renaissance had opened the way to a non-Christian culture, which was to benefit Jewish emancipation, and the Reformation was to divide Christianity, which also helped that emancipation, the Revolutions in America and France were to open the doors to political and social change.

Modern Jewish history begins then with these two Revolutions. In the American Revolution, a course of action to result in the development of the largest Jewish community gathered in one country in all of Jewish history; the French Revolution was to lead to changes directly in Jewish social and intellectual structure, to be brought over to the Jewish community of the United States later, but within Europe itself, to lead to Jewish Reform. Jewish Orthodoxy (Jewish Conservatism is entirely an American product), Jewish Socialism (and Communism), Zionism (Jewish Nationalism), and Jewish Secularism. All of these latter movements were to find a home here in the United States, ... .

The two Revolutions are the climax of the Renaissance and the Reformation, of Nationalism and Liberalism, all of which were to be born before the 1750's. But it was after that period 1776 and 1789, that the results were to be felt. And they are still with us today.


Phil Johnson said...

Thanks for the interesting post.
But these two sentences are a little confusing to me. Maybe you could restate what you mean more clearly?
"Now, the effect on the Jews of these ideas of the Revolutions in America in 1776 and in France in 1789 were to be tremendous. By emphasizing equal opportunities to get sense-experiences, they were to break down the ghettos and let Jews out to get these necessary experiences."
I know that ghetto life was pretty much self imposed and that Spinoza is credited as the father of secular Judaism and, maybe, the first Jew to openly relate with Gentiles in the liberal Amsterdam society.

Ray Soller said...

Pinky, I'm sorry, but I can only guess. The entire article was written by a former friend, Dr. Irving Levitas, 1910 - 1987.

I suppose Irving is trying to say that the American and French Revolutions created an environment in which Jews saw themselves free to participate as full members in the prevailing culture. In the past, those in the Ghetto were like a turtle withrawn into its shell, but the two revolutions allowed inquisitive Jews to explore the outside world.