Max Beer January 1909

Studies in historic Materialism

Chapter II - The rise of Jewish Monotheism (continued.)

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XIII, No. 1, January 15, 1909, pp.15-18;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Into the Babylonian exile were carried away from the kingdom of Judah the aristocratic and cultured families and the spiritual leaders of the people. Their fate was different from that of the Israelites of the northern kingdom who, a century before, were expatriated to Assyria. The families of Judah did not merge and disappear in the population of the Babylonian empire, as the “Ten Tribes” did in the Assyrian empire. The cause of the conservation of Judah in contradistinction to the disappearance of Israel was spiritual. The mental type of Judah had more time to differentiate and had, therefore, been able to withstand assimilation. The catastrophe of the fall of Jerusalem helped to crystallise all those floating mental traits that had been called into being by the economic changes, the class struggle, the wars, and the exhortations and teachings of the prophets. It appeared to be a terrible confirmation of the truths enunciated by Amos, Micah, Isaiah the first, and Jeremiah. Chastened, repentant, and receptive, the expatriated Jews settled on the waters of Babylon, and there they saw the climax and consummation of the religious revolution that had begun on the waters of the Jordan. The new religious conception was consolidated by Ezekiel and Isaiah the second, both of whom lived in the exile.

Ezekiel, the prophet-priest, was constructive and dogmatic, building up the Jewish Utopia of a future independent State, and promulgating the rules of its every-day life. He was not satisfied with sublime ideas and sentiments of God and morality, but desired to create a body for the new soul of the nation. His was a synthetic and practical mind. The past work of prophetism gave him monotheism, humanity, and new ethics; the traditions of priesthood handed down to him the idea of rule and order, of a religious practice. To him Yahve was the father of mankind, and the Jew a son of man, and the man an individual responsible to his maker. He was the first Jewish teacher who consciously did away with the old tribal tradition of collective responsibility, collective sin, and collective punishment. He taught man to be a moral individual. “Behold,” he teaches in the name of Yahve, “all souls are mine, as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die. But if a man be just, and do which is lawful and right …. he shall surely live.” The Jews, however, could not yet grasp individualism in morality, though they had long practised individualism in economic affairs; the old mental remnants of .tribal conceptions still lingered among them. And they replied: “Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father?” Ezekiel met those questionings in his elaborate and casuistic manner and explained individual responsibility. The wicked man is only responsible for his own actions. Moreover, there is no fatal guilt inherited from generation to generation. “if the wicked will turn from all his sins he hath committed …. he shall not die. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith Yahve God, And not that he should return from his ways and live? …. Therefore, I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways. Repent and turn yourselves from all your transgressions, so iniquity shall not be your ruin …. make you, a new heart and a new spirit."

In its clear, incisive exposition this teaching of individual responsibility was utterly new to the Jews. It could never have arisen under a communal mode of life where the individual is merged in society. It had only become possible after a long and painful evolution from collective to private property.

His final vision (chapters 40-48) was a Jewish Utopia, where the people should live a saintly, righteous, and humane life. And not only the Jews: “And it shall come to pass, that ye shall divide the land by lot for an inheritance unto you, and to the strangers that sojourn among you, which shall beget children among you; and they shall be unto you as born in the country among the children of Israel; they shall have inheritance with you …. saith Yahve God."

This Utopia is not new. No Utopia is. All imaginary constructions of future States are but the idealisations of the past and present. Ezekiel's was partly reactionary. He desired to efface the centuries of the disintegrating communal life and to reconstruct the old tribal system, giving it, however, the higher morality and the higher religious conceptions that were produced under individual economy. His Utopia remained a vision, but his religious and ethical views went to make History.

Of a different type, and more like the prophets of old, was that inspired and fire-tongued visionary and teacher whom we know as Isaiah the second. The evolution of monotheism from polytheism through new moral conceptions, as they arose in the struggle of the disinherited, found the clearest expression in his exhortations and speeches. The inarticulate sentiments of the dispossessed were transformed, in his mind, into ringing sentences. Moral conduct is religious service. Not sacrifice of animals, but self-sacrifice for the good of mankind; not prayers and fasting, but social service and the readiness to die for the salvation of man. “Yahve God hath given me the tongue of the learned that I should know how to speak a word in season for him that is weary …. Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet and show my people their transgression. Yet they seek me daily, and delight to know my ways …. Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the hand of wickedness …. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? Is not this the fast that I have chosen - to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” And the purer his ethics, the more universal and sublime is his idea of God. In no other prophet is the logical nexus between the ethical character of God and the universality and oneness of God so visible as in Isaiah the second: “Thus saith Yahve, the heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool."

His vivid mind, fully immersed in these views of true religion, worked out the ideal of the religious man as he thought him and as the disinherited and oppressed desired to see him. This ideal is described in the famous chapter 53, the realisation of which the Jewish labourers, artisans, and small craftsmen of later centuries thought to see in Jesus Christ.

The spirit of Isaiah the second is still living among the poorer classes in Jewry. And to it I ascribe the astonishing ease with which Jewish workmen can be turned into social revolutionaries. It surely was one of the great formative forces of early Christianity in the Jewish communities.


(To be continued.)