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The Jew in noble isolation

Gertrude Stein wrote the twenty-five-page manuscript, “The Modern Jew Who Has Given Up the Faith of His Fathers Can Reasonably and Consistently Believe in Isolation,” while a student at Radcliffe in 1896. “The essay is distinctly occasional and reads like an early work. It is, nonetheless, one of the few known pieces in which Stein treats directly the question of Jewish identity and the only one to link that question to a specifically political description of the public sphere.” (From p. 416 in Feinstein’s PMLA article, which see extensive notes.) Most of Stein’s misspellings have been preserved.


Third Forensic
Mch. 7 1896
Gertrude Stein
The Modem Jew who has given up
the Faith of his fathers can
reasonably and consistently believe in isolation.
The modem Jew who has given up the faith of his fathers can reasonably and consistently believe in isolation.

Before we begin our discussion of the Jewish problem in its modern aspect, it will doubtless be well to come to some kind of agreement as to what we mean by our terms. Such words as Jewish faith, reasonable and consistent, isolation are all too vague and general in their meaning for us to be able to use them and make our argument clear and intelligible. We wish to know whether the modern Jew who has left the faith of his fathers can consistently believe in isolation. We all know who the modem Jew is, let us therefor begin our enquiry by asking what the Jewish Faith is.

If one ask a number of Jews to tell what the Jewish Faith really means, he gets answers as diverse as are the number of the questioned. On the one hand a man laying stress only on form will reply, that only a man who keeps the law believes in Judaism. If he ride on Saturday he is no Jew, if he eat of meat not Kosher (unclean, not killed according to law) he is no Jew. Another will tell you that the observance of Yom Kippur (the day of atonement) is the last bulwark of religion, another will cite still some other custom as being the final mark of faith and so on. The only unanimity in this class is that Judaism depends on law, custom and observances. On the other hand we have the extreme liberal, the so-called Reform-Jew who tells you that as long as you are born a Jew and believe in a God all is well, another tells you that even a belief in a personal God is not essential to the Jewish Faith, if you only believe in a Matthew Arnold sort of “force that makes for righteousness” it will suffice.

We must attempt to take some medium ground for our basis and I propose that we here consider the Jewish Faith to mean a belief in a personal or quasi-personal God such as is described in the Old Testament, a belief in the Revelation of the law by the Lord through Moses and the prophets and in the faith that the people of Israel are the chosen people of the Lord and in the observance of such laws and customs as are prescribed in the old Testament, such as the Passover etc.

When we come to consider what we mean by isolation we find very little diversity and a very strong unanimity. Isolation means no intermarriage with an alien. The Jew shall marry only the Jew. He may have business friends among the Gentiles, he may mix with them in their work and in their pleasures, he will go to their schools and receive their instructions, but in the sacred precincts of the home, in the close union of family and of kinsfolk he must be a Jew with Jews[;] the Gentile has no place there.

On this point all are agreed, the most liberal and the most orthodox alike hold non-intermarriage to be the sine qua non of Judaism; and justly, for inter-marriage would be the deathblow of the race. The children of the second generation are Gentiles with Jewish blood and in the third generation all trace of Judaism is gone and the Jew has become the Gentile. This is then where all agree, the differences of opinion are merely as to the greater or less degree of social intercourse that is compatible with the keeping of the observances and the laws.

And now finally what do I mean by reasonable and consistent. I have no intention of aiming at any high-flown ideal logical consistency. All I wish to show is that there are fairly good and reasonable grounds for the attitude of a non-believing Jew who stands for isolation, and that these reasons are consistent and reasonable I am willing to leave to any unprejudiced reader to decide after he has finished this paper.


[I must here digress a little in order to bring out a point, that if I were addressing Jewish ears alone, would be unnecessary, but as this paper is intended also for those who are not so intimately concerned with these problems and who are probably not aware of the peculiar significance of this present time for such a discussion as this paper is devoted to, I will attempt briefly to explain this to such a reader.]

The modern Jew has to-day in great measure departed from the faith of his fathers. This is due to several causes. Firstly, because the general skeptical spirit prevalent at this period of the world’s history among all classes has powerfully affected the Jewish community, [for,] owing to the high average of brain-power and the extreme formalism of their religion, they naturally have a strong tendency to embrace revolutionary ideas and skepticism in all its forms. The more religiously inclined temperamentally have also from a different stand-point begun to depart from their old faith. They are beginning to change not because of skepticism but because the strenuous religiousness of their souls makes them wish to escape from a religion which has become a hard-shell of formalism with all the soul fled and the living substance gone.

Added to these spiritual causes for desertion is the practical impossibility in this bustling nineteenth-century life to keep up the observance of the Saturday Sabbath, the holidays, the fasts, the long prayers, the particular preparation of foods and the care of the household utensils according to the law, in short all those family ceremonials that have done so much to keep the race together.

These tendencies are to-day rapidly bringing the condition and future of the race to a crucial point. The Jew has become now, through his financial ability and his great clannishness, a great power[,] and in consequence while[,] on the one hand, the doors of Christendom have been a little opened to him and the Gentile has become glad to have him for his friend[,] on the other, the great influence of the race is raising against them a new wave of the old prejudice and we seem to be on the eve of a worse antisemitic crisis than ever before. To illustrate this one need but to draw the attention of the reader to the spirit prevalent in Germany, the recent anti-semitic riot in Paris and the not so very distant exodus in Russia.

These two different attitudes toward them are leading the Jews themselves into two adverse paths.

One part of them are attempting to identify themselves entirely with the Christians and turning their backs on their own people. Instances of this sort are numerous in the German universities and are also to be found in our land. [Case in point to be discovered a few years later: Otto Weininger.] Even here in Harvard we have had at least three such instances, here where to be a Jew is the least burden on the individual of any spot on earth.

Opposed to this spirit we are just now witnessing a strong revival of Jewish feeling. We see it in the writings of such men as Zangwill and in the founding of a Jewish Publication Society in America. In the recent congress of the B’nai B’rith lodge of Jewish young men the idea of a Jewish university was taken up with enthusiasm. We see signs of such a revival in the many and well-attended recent Jewish women’s conferences and, in the movement just newly begun to reintroduce the use of Hebrew into the synagogues.

All these signs of the times distinctly point to this present moment as being peculiarly the fitting time to seriously consider whether with our modern conditions the policy of isolation is or is not consistent and reasonable. And now let us see what the modern Jew can say in defense of such a policy.

When the non-believing Jew sets up his claim to Judaism in spite of the fact that he cannot say that in religious faith he is a Jew, he is immediately told that Judaism without faith is meaningless, that in the origin of the race, religion is an essential part of its beginning. He is told again and again that the People of Israel


were the Chosen people given the mission to spread among all nations the belief in the oneness of God and the purification of religion* and that when the mission is no longer upheld, the race has no longer an existence or a meaning; they are no longer a Holy People and a Nation of Priests† as God bade them be.

But is this the true account of the origin of this nation? I think not; for, although one is ready to admit that the idea of a religious mission was introduced into the life of the nation at a later period[;] in the beginning, in the days of the Patriarchs, we have uttered the prophecy that Israel shall be a great nation without any reference to a religious mission,‡ and with only an appeal to an ethical ideal. And God said unto Abrahm, “I am the almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect and thou shalt be the father of many nations.[”]§ It was this feeling of a great destiny in the sense of being a great power, a nation standing by itself, ethical, civilizing, blessing other nations¶ but apart from them. These ideas were at the basis of the formation of the Jewish race, not a nation formed to disseminate a particular creed or type of worship, but a nation to stand apart, to be with nations but not of them, to be ever in the fore-front of progress and enlightenment but not to mingle with others. [This singular role—as perennial outsider and a beneficent one at that—is intolerable to some Jewish writers (e.g., E. Wiesel, T. Lessing, S. Gilman): at least as commonly, it is viewed askance, a twist of the mirror and it becomes Jewish selbsthas. But there is a strong sympathy for it in Stein, Weininger, Wittgenstein, Kafka, Schoenberg, Simone Weil, and even I. B. Singer, to list a few. For more on its deep ethical roots see Steven Beller…]

But it is replied, even if this be true, are not at least the laws and observances an integral part of Judaism? Is it possible to be a Jew and not to keep the Sabbath as was commanded by the Lord from Sinai? Can one claim any meaning in the existence of a race which disregards the laws and observances commanded to it by its greatest prophet? Yes; I think we may justly answer that it is possible to still be a Jew and yet to do none of these things. Before the Sab-

*Deuteronomy X, 12.
†Ex. XIX, 6.
‡Genesis XII, 2. XVII, 4,1. XVIII, 19. XXVI, 4. XXXV, 11.
§Genesis XVII.
¶Genesis XXVI, 4.

bath had been declared, [before the eating of unclean meat, shell-fish etc. had been prohibited, before the keeping of the Pasover had been described and the treatment of the diseased had been ordained,] the race had become a nation: the three great founders of it Abraham Issac and Jacob had already lived and died. Furthermore it must be remembered that these laws of Moses were largely sanitary laws, useless in our day and generation and certainly not such as a great nation should date its rise and fall from. No; the race existed before these laws it will also exist when they have ceased to be essential to it. [Stein’s willingness to abstract from parochialism but only to better understand it, not to run from it as though it meant nothing. Her arguments with Bertrand Russell, much as Wittgenstein’s, turned on the Russell’s incomprehension of what was necessary about superstition. Russell’s moral naiveté was at times monumental.]

As for the observances, the ceremonials, in remembrance of great events in the nation’s history, beautiful and meaningful as they are, they still cannot be said to affect the existence of a race of whose past great moments they are but the beautiful symbols.

Finally we are asked is it possible to be a Jew and not to believe in a personal God. How can one look back proudly to the origin of a race based on a covenant with God when the belief in that God has departed? What do you mean by declaring yourselves the Chosen People when you deny the existence of the Chooser?

Let us remember that in answer to this we may plead nineteenth century interpretations of the Scriptures and yet not have them lose their meaning for us. The covenant with God described in the Old Testament may well be a poetical description of the rise of a race, strong in a hereditary clan feeling, standing by each other as brothers and thus by the strength of their union, remaining uncrushed in the clash of nations round about them and having thus truly a covenant with God which has made them endure. The spiritual meaning of the Chosen People may well signify a race having inborn a strongly ethical and spiritual nature ever fostered and increased among themselves, thus making them in the very highest meaning of the words, a Chosen People chosen for high purposes.


Important as is this question of origin and meaning that we have been so long discussing, there are still other aspects of the case that are even more important. We must carefully consider before we give our final judgment, the practical results of the policy of exclusion and the moral attitude that the modern Jew must take in either accepting or rejecting such a policy.

It is often said that a man cannot serve two masters. If he be a German first and an American only secondly, he can be no true and loyal American. So with the Jew. By keeping up this strong race-feeling he must inevitably be only half-hearted in his loyalty to his country. He is a Jew first and an American only afterwards.

What can we answer to this strong objection? In the first place let us remember that we have expressly said that the Jew’s loyalty to Judaism is not that of obedience to any temporal power, nor to a formation of any kind of government. It is a race-feeling, an enlargement of the family tie. No man will say that a man cannot be loyal to his country because he loves his family and would give his life to do them good. Such is the type of feeling of a Jew for Judaism. It is the feeling of kinsfolk and does not in any sense clash with the loyalty of a man to his nation. It was not as Jews that so many of the race fought in the late war but as Americans. Their Judaism had nothing to do with the case: that feeling is for their home-life, their social life and their charities. It does not interfere with their citizenship.

Again it is said that such exclusiveness dwarfs the sympathies, makes men care only for their own and neglect everything else.

This has never been true of the Jewish people. [At least some of them some of the time… The “never” here can only be aspirational. Would that it were true of any people.] They have ever had within themselves the force and brain-power to make them leaders. This has made them a great power to spur others on and this great power, which would be lost to the world if exclusion were not persisted in, this great power they have ever been willing to devote to all mankind. Who are the leaders of the great socialist movement? LaSall and Karl Marx[,] both Jews. Who in all our great cities is the first to answer the call of charity? The Jew, and this charity is not for their own people alone but for the Christian as well. To illustrate this we need only to mention the name of Montifiore, Rothschild, and Baron Hirsch or call attention to the working-man’s school of New York founded by Felix Adler a Jew or to refer the reader to the charity reports of New York, San Francisco etc. So we might go on at great length but this is sufficient to show that the strength and power that is the heritage of the race has not been devoted to their own to the exclusion of others.

And now for the purely practical side of the question. Will the Jew gain more or lose more by merging himself into the ranks of Christendom?

In the first place the prejudice against the race will never die down as long as they keep separate. A wealthy race holding itself apart from the rest of the nation they belong to, is too convenient a political scapegoat to ever hope to be left alone. So long as the Jews keep themselves isolated so long are they bound to be subject to persecution to a greater or less extent. We must ask whether they gain enough by this exclusion to make it worth while to be in this attitude of separateness and persecution. Yes. I think they do! To be a Jew is of great practical benefit. Wherever a Jew goes no matter into what strange lands and he meets another Jew, he has found a friend. Appeal to a Jew in behalf of another Jew and he will never say you nay. Ask any Israelite no matter how liberal, no matter how numerous and intimate are his Christian friends; ask him to tell you to whom he would rather appeal if he were in any need either spiritual or material, whether he would rather go to a perfect stranger a Jew or to his most intimate Christian friend and without hesitation he will reply, “To the Jew every time.”

Thus it is now and has ever been. A bond of love and of duty exists between perfect strangers members of the one race too strong to be broken, they are as brothers, to love, to help and to


bear the burdens one of the other, and such a relation carries with it too much joy, too much of good for even the fear of persecution to be enough to dissolve it.

Moreover every strong feeling every spiritual legacy to the modern Jew, from a race of sturdy independent forefathers cries aloud for continuance in isolation. A Jew admitted into the society of Gentiles is admitted on sufferance only. As long as they like him personally all is well, but the instant he does aught that is blameworthy, swiftly comes opprobation, not only to the man but to his race. People say of him, what can you expect he is only a Jew. “Only a Jew” Has he any right to so trail his birth-right in the dust? Can he dare with the inheritance that is his, to tamely submit to being tolerated when he can make himself respected as a power?

It is a degradation to be forced into isolation or to be suffered to escape from it. It is a noble and worthy attitude, to embrace isolation and make the race felt as a great and noble power, ever working toward the highest and noblest in the vanguard of nations.

Let the Jew be true to the strongest instinct within him, that feeling that makes the most skeptical the most liberal even when asked, “but do you really feel yourselves to be a chosen people,” makes even such a Jew cry out in a burst of enthusiasm “We are, we were and we ever shall be.”

A feeling that has become so strong that it is a well-spring of action and is so deeply ingrained in the soul that a departure from it makes one feel a dastard and a renegade and that the most advanced opinions cannot root out, such a feeling is too great, to be wantonly cast away. No, let the modern Jew accept this isolation as his birthright. Let him not attempt to escape from it and thus to do violence to the noblest part of him; let him rather turn this feeling to great purposes and give his race a new mission, of disseminating the broadest ideals the noblest brotherhood of man. Let him thus still be a Jew although his Judaism is no longer a creed, but a religion of endeavor. Let Judaism mean a banding together of a people making of themselves a brotherhood devoted to noble aims and great deeds.

Thus will the Jew still be a Jew fulfilling a great mission.

[Cf. the spirit and tone of this with the closing lines of Weininger’s Sex and Character. There, Weininger spells out exactly what emancipation for women must mean. But it is clear the very idea of “emancipation” Weininger uses—a veritable ejaculation from the cosmos as opposed to liberation from political oppression—is utterly foreign to the feminine principle both he and most feminists describe. The ambiguity plays into the hands of a welcoming stupidity in the common reader. This is something, again, Stein would agree with: it is not always the responsibility of the writer to relieve the reader of a share in the work of understanding.]

Forensic III
Mch. 7 1896
Gertrude Stein.
The Modern Jew who has given up
the faith of his fathers can
reasonably and consistently stand for isolation.


Posted by luno in Stein, anti-Semitism, Weininger (Sunday May 10, 2009 at 12:51 pm)

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