Students of jurisprudence know (and who knows so well as the Jew?) that the laws and statutes of every nation are not all observed and obeyed at all times in the same degree; that in all countries and in all ages there are certain laws, be they new or old, which are perfectly valid according to the statue book, and are yet disregarded by those who administer justice, and are wholly or largely ineffective in practice.
If one examines a law of this kind, one will always find that its spirit is opposed to the spirit that prevails at the time in the moral and political life of society. If it is a new law, it will be found to have come into existence before its time, to have been the work of lawgivers whose spiritual development was in advance of that of the general body of society. If it is an old law, we shall find that its day is past, that society in its spiritual development has left behind it the spirit of those old lawgivers. In either case, this particular law, being out of harmony with the spirit that governs the progress of life in that particular age, may be valued and honored like all the other laws, but has no power to make itself felt in practice.
And yet reformers act quite rightly when they anticipate the course of events, and put laws on the statue book before the time has come when they can be practically effective; and conservatives also act rightly when they secure the survival in the statute books of laws whose time has gone by. Both parties know that they are doing good service, each for its own cause. They both understand that the spirit of society moves in a circle, now forwards, now backwards, and that in this circular movement it may arrive, sooner or later, at the stage of development that these laws represent. When that time comes, it will be a matter of importance whether the laws are there in readiness or not. If they are, the spirit of society will quickly enter into them, as a soul enters into a body, and will inform them with life, and make them active forces, while they will be for the spirit a definite, material form, through which its preeminence will be secured. But if there is not this material form waiting for the spirit to enter into it; if the spirit is compelled to wander bodiless until it can create for itself a new corporeal vesture, then there is danger that, before the spirit can gain a firm footing where it desires to stay, the wheel may turn again, and the favorable moment be lost.
This is true not only of written laws and statues, but also of the unwritten ideas and judgments of the human mind. In every age you will find certain isolated beliefs and opinions, out of all relation to the ruling principles on which the life of that age is built. They lie hidden in a water-tight compartment of the mind, and have no effect whatever on the course of practical life. Ideas such as these are mostly survivals, inherited from earlier generations. In their own time they were founded on current conceptions and actual needs of life; but gradually the spirit of society has changed: the foundations on which these ideas rested have been removed, and the ideas stand by a miracle. Their appearance of life is illusory: it is no real life of motion and activity, but the passive life of an old man whose "moisture is gone, and his natural force abated." Anthropologists (such as Tylor and many after him) have found aged creatures of this description in every branch of life; and they live sometimes to a remarkable age.
So much for the survivals. But there are here also anticipations, children who have not reached their full strength--ideas born in the minds of a few men of finer mould, who stand above their generation, and whom favoring circumstances have enabled to disseminate their ideas, and to win acceptance for them, before their time: that is, before the age is fully able to understand and assimilate them. These ideas, being only learned parrot-wise, and being out of harmony with the prevailing spirit, are left, like the survivals, outside the sphere of active forces. Their life is that of the babe and the suckling. Grown men fondle them, take pleasure in their childish prattle, sometimes play with them; but never ask their advice on a practical question.
And yet, so long as the breath of life remains in them, there is hope both for the anticipations and for the survivals: for the one in the forward march of the spirit, for the other in its backward trend. And so here also we must say that philosophers have done well to work for the dissemination of their new opinions, or the strengthening of the old opinions to which they have been attached, without caring whether the age was fit to receive them, whether it received them for their own sake or for the sake of something else, whether it could find in them a mode of life and a guide in practice. These philosophers know that a live weakling is better than a dead Hercules; that so long as an idea lives in the human mind, be it but in a strange and distorted form, be its life but a passive life confined to some dim, narrow chamber of the mind-- so long it may hope in the fulness of time to find its true embodiment; so long it may hope, when the right day dawns, to fill the souls of men, to become the living spirit that informs all thoughts and all actions.
For an instance of an anticipation, take the idea of the Unity of God among the Jews in the period of the Judges and the Kings, until the Babylonian Exile.
Hume and his followers have proved conclusively that what first aroused man to a recognition of his Creator was not his wonder at the beauty of nature and her marvels, but his dread of the untoward accidents of life. Primitive man, wandering about the earth in search of food, without shelter from the rain or protection against the cold, persecuted unsparingly by the tricks of nature and by wild beasts, was not in a position to take note of the laws of creation, to gaze awe-struck at the beauty of the world, and to ponder the question "whether such a world could be without a guide." [Midrash, Lek Leka, 39]. All his impulses, feelings and thoughts were concentrated on a single desire, the desire for life; in the light of that desire he saw but two things in all nature--good and evil: that which helped and that which hindered in his struggle for existence. as for the good, he strove to extract from it all possible benefit, without much preliminary thought about its source. But evil was more common and more readily perceptible than good: and how escape from evil? This question gave his mind no rest; it was this question that first awoke in him, almost unconsciously, the great idea that every natural phenomenon has a lord, who can be appeased by words and won over by gifts to hold evil in check. Yes, and also--the idea developed of itself--to bestow good. Thus all the common phenomena of nature became gods, in more or less close contact with hum an life and happiness; the earth became as full of deities as nature of good things and evil.
But it was not only from nature and her blind forces that primitive man had to suffer. The hand of his fellow-man too was against him. In those days there were no states or kingdoms, no fixed rules of life or ordinances of justice. The human race was divided into families, each living its own life, and each engaged in an endless war of extinction with its neighbor. The evil cased by man to man was sometimes even more terrible than the hostility of nature. And her also man sought and found help in a divine power; only in this case he did not turn to the gods of nature, who were common to himself and his enemies. Each family looked for help to its own special god, a god who had no care in the world but itself, no purpose but to protect it from its enemies. Thus, when in course of time these families grew into nations living a settled life, and the war of man against man took on a more general form; when the individual man was able to sit at peace with his household in the midst of his people, and the process of merciless destruction was carried on by nation against nation, not by family against family: then the family gods disappeared, or sank to the level of household spirits; but their place was filled by national gods, one god for each nation, whose function it was to watch over it in time of peace, and to punish its enemies in time of war.
This double polytheism, natural and national, has its source, therefore, not in an accidental error of judgment, but in the real needs of the human soul and the conditions of human life in primitive ages. Since these needs and these conditions did not idffer materially in different countries, it is no matter for wonder that among all ancient peoples we find the same faith (though names and external forms vary): a faith in nature-gods, who help man in his war with nature, and in national gods, who help the nation in its war with other nations. But in some cases the belief in the nature-gods is more prominent, in others the belief in the national godsl this is determined by the character and history of the particular nation, by its relation to nature and its status among other peoples.
Hence, when the abstract idea of the Unity of God arose and spread among the Israelites in early days, it could not possibly be anything but an anticipation. Only a select few had a true and living comprehension of the idea, compelling the heart fo feel and the will to follow. The masses, although they heard the idea preached times without number by their Prophets, and thought that they believed in it, had only an external knowledge of it; and their belief was an isolated belief, not linked with actual life, adn without influence in practice. It was in vain that the Prophets labored to breathe the spirit of life into this belief. It was so far removed from the contemporary current of ideas and feelings, that it could not possibly rood itself firmly in the heart, or find a spiritual thread by which to link itself with actual life.
The author of the Book of Judges has a way of complaining of the fickleness of our ancestors in those days. In time of trouble they always turned to the God of their forefathers; but when he had saved them from their enemies, they regularly returned to the service of toerh gods, "and remembered not the Lord their God who had delivered them from all their enemies round about." But, in fact, our ancestors were not so fickle as to change their faith like a coat, and alternate between two opposed religions. They had always one faith-- the early double polytheism. Hence, in time of national trouble, of war and persecution at the hands of other nations, "the children of Israel cried unto the Lord their God." It was not that they repented, in the Prophetic sense, and resolved to live henceforth as believers in absolute Unity. They turned to the God of their ancestors, to their own special national God, and prayed Him to fight their enemies. When the external danger was over, and the national trouble gave way to the individual troubles of each man and each household, they returned to the everyday gods of nature.
It was only after the destruction of the Temple, when the spirit of the exiled people had changed sufficiently to admit of a belief in the Unity, that the Prophets of the time found it easy to uproot the popular faith, and to make the idea of the Unity supreme throughout the whole range of the people's life. it was not that the people suddenly looked upwards and was struck with the force of the "argument from design;" but the national disaster had strengthened the national feeling, and raised it to such a pitch that individual sorrows vanished before the national trouble. The people, with all its thoughts and feelings concentrated on this one sorrow, was compelled to hold fast to its one remaining hope: its faith in its national God and in the greatness of His power to save His people, not merely in its own country but also on foreign soil. But this hope could subsist only on condition that the victory of the Babylonian king was not regarded as the victory of the Babylonian gods. Not they, but the God of Israel, who was also the God of the world, had given all countries over to the king of Babylon; and He who had given would take away. For all the earth was His: "He created it, and gave it to whoso seemed right in His eyes." [Rashi on Gen.i.I]. Thus at length the people understood and felt the sublime teaching, which hitherto it had known from afar, with mere lip-knowledge. The seed which the earlier Prophets had sown on the barren rock burst into fruit now that its time had come. When the Prophet of the Exile cried in the name of the Lord, "To whom will ye liken Me and make Me equal?...I am God, and there is none else," his words were in accord with the wishes of the people and its national hope; and so they sank into the heart of the people., and wiped out every trace of the earlier outlook and manner of life.
This national hope, as embodied in the idea of the return to Palestine, affords, in a much later age, an instance of a "survival."
It is a phenomenon of constant occurrence, that an object pursued first as a means comes afterwards to be pursued as an end. Originally it is sought after not for its own sake, but because of its connection with some othe robject of desire; but in course of time the habit of pursuing and esteeming the first object, though only for the sake of the second, creates a feeling of affaction for the first, which is quite independent of any ulterior aim; and this affection sometimes becomes so strong that the ulterior aim, which was its original justification, is sacrificed for its sake. Thus it is with the miser. He begins by loving money for the enjoyment that its use affords; he ends by forgetting his original object, and develops an insatiable thirst for money as such, which will not allow him even to make use of it for the purposes of enjoyment.
Similarly, the great religious idea, which, at the time of its revival, after the destruction of the first Temple, was meant to be only a foundation and support for the national hope, grew and developed in the period of the second Temple, until it became the whole content of the nation's spiritual life, and rose superior even to that national ideal from which it drew its being. Religion occupied the first place, and everything else became secondary; the Jews demanded scarcely anything except to be allowed to serve God in peace and quiet. When this was conceded, they were content to bear a foreign yoke silently and patiently; when it was not, they fought with the strength of lions, and knew no rest until they were again free to devote themselves uninterruptedly to the service of their Heavenly Father, whom they loved now not for the sake of any national reward, but with a whole-hearted affection, beside which life itself was of no account.
Thus it came about that, after the destruction of the second Temple. what the Jews felt most keenly was not the ruin of their country and their national life, but "the destruction of the House [of God]:" the loss of their religious center, of the power to serve God in His holy sanctuary, and to offer sacrifices at their appointed times. Their loss was spiritual, and the gap was to be filled by spiritual means. Prayers stood for sacrifices, the Synagogue for the Temple. the heavenly Jerusalem for the earthly, study of the Law for everything. Thus armed, the Jewish people set out on its long and arduous journey, on its wanderings "from nation to nation." It was a long exile of much study and much prayer, in which the national hope for the return to Zion was never forgotten. But this hope was not now, as in the days of the Babylonian exile, a hope that materialized in action, and produced a Zerubbabel, and Ezra, a Nehemiah; it was merely a source of spiritual consolation, enervating its possessor, and lulling him into a sleep of sweet dreams. For now that the religious ideal had conquered the national, the nation could no longer be satisfied with little, or be content to see in the return to Zion merely its own national salvation. "The land of Israel" must be "spread over all the lands." in order "to set the world right by the kingdom of the Eternal," in order that "all that have breath in their nostrils might say, The Lord God of Israel is King." And so, hoping for more than it could possibly, achieve, the nation ceased gradually to do even what it could achieve; and the idea of the return to Zion, wrapped in a cloud of phantasies and visions, withdrew from the world of action, and could no longer be a direct stimulus to practical effort. Yet, even so, it never ceased to live and to exert a spiritual influence; and hence it had sometimes an effect even on practical life, although insensibly and indirectly. At first our ancestors asked in all sincerity and simplicity, "May not the Messiah come today or tomorrow?" and ordered their lives accordingly. Afterwards their courage drooped; their belief in imminent salvation became weaker and weaker, and no longer dictated their everyday conduct; but even then it could occasionally be blown into flame by some visionary, and become embodied in a material form, as witness the so-called "Messianic" movements, in which the nation strove to attain its hope by practical methods, which were as spiritual and religious as the hope itself. But from the day when the last "Messiah" (Sabbatai Zebi) came to a bad end, and the spread of education made it impossible for any dreamer to capture thousands of followers, the bond between life and the national hope was broken; the hope ceased to exert even a spiritual influence on the people. to be even a source of comfort in time of trouble, and became an aged, doddering creature -- a survival.
It had almost become unthinkable that this outworn hope could renew its youth, and become again the mainspring of a new movement, least of all a rational and spontaneous movement. And yet that is what has happened. The revolutions of life's wheel have carried the spirit of our people from point to point on the circle, until now it begins to approach once more the healthy and natural condition of two thousand years ago. This ancient spirit, roused once more to life, has breathed life into the ancient ideal, has found in that ideal its fitting external form, and become to it as soul to body.
But it is not for us, who see "the love of Zion" in its new form, full of life and youthful hope, to treat with disrespect the aged survival of past generations. It is not for us to forget what the new spirit owes to this neglected and forgotten survival, which our ancestors hid away in a dim, narrow chamber of their hearts, to live its death-in-life until the present day. For, but for this survival, the new spirit would not have found straightway a suitable body with which to clothe itself; and then, perhaps, it might have gone as it came, and passed away without leaving any abiding trace in history.
Sources: Translated from the Hebrew by Leon Simon c 1912, Jewish Publication Society of America, Essential Texts of Zionism