Page 164 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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problem for the individual was to construct for himself a moral
guide in a time of the perplexed. To build a new social order
—the hope of the thirties—seemed neither feasible nor even
pertinent. And the emphasis shifted from the indictment of
a destructive and exploiting world to the search for an ethic
that could bring meaning, dignity, and humanity in a morally
corrupt and bankrupt world. I t is in this context that the current
group of Jewish writers appeared. And because they began,
with varying degrees of conscious intention, to draw upon their
own past, to rediscover the traditional Jewish ethical heritage,
they seemed to acquire the coherence of a movement. In varying
degrees they began to reaffirm that ethic which East-European
Jewry had inherited, developed, and to an amazing extent lived,
the ethic which saw the moral fulfillment of man in the ideal
which it referred to as
men tsh lekhkayt.
To rehearse these
ethical values is to spell out the moral platform of contem-
porary Jewish writing and to define its essential Jewishness. In
the ethic of mentshlekhkayt these writers discovered a life-giv-
ing universality in the midst of a death-dealing world; in the
assertion of the necessity for man to be a
mentsh
lies the moral
impact of contemporary Jewish writing.
The Ideal of Mentshlekhkayt
In the context of the world where mentshlekhkayt reflected
the moral self-image of a culture, the term embodied a complex
totality of premises and values, aims and obligations, which,
though not uniquely Jewish as individual statements, are dis-
tinctively so as a total constellation. Its basic premise was the
native innocence of man. I t saw no taint eternal as the legacy
of the Fall. It saw instead a conflict within man of two opposing
tendencies, the temptation of evil and the yearning for good,
a conflict in which man was wholly free to choose. And despite
its awareness of the enormity of man's evil and of his capacity
for evil, it rested its ultimate faith on the hunger for good and
on man's exercise of his freedom to choose good. I t insisted on
the primacy of action as the means to moral redemption and
rejected any notion of salvation that rested on faith in a savior.
It placed its reliance on the fulfillment of man’s obligations
to man, on the good deeds which, according to the
E thics of
the Fathers,
constituted one of the three pillars of the universe.
I t exhorted to gentleness and to respect for the uniqueness of
the individual and his right to life. I t extended its reverence
for life to all living creatures, embodying in the principle of
tsar baaley hayim
the repugnance to inflicting needless pain.
The sport of hunting it left to the Esaus of the world, and to
them it left the exercise of violence which it considered brutal­