Rabbi Emil Hirsch

The most vocal Jews at the Parliament were leaders of the emerging liberal Reform tradition, such as Kaufmann Kohler and Emil C. Hirsch, a Chicago rabbi, who addressed the “Elements of a Universal Religion.”

The domain of religion is co-extensive with the confines of humanity…Man alone in the wide sweep of creation builds altars. And wherever man may tent there also will curve upward the burning incense of his sacrifice, or the sweeter savor of his aspirations after the better, the diviner, light. However rude the form of society in which he moves, or however refined and complex the social organism, religion never fails to be among the determining forces one of the most potent. It, under all types of social architecture, will be active as one of the decisive influences rounding out individual life, and lifting it into significance for and under the swifter and stronger current of the social relations. Climatic and historical accidents may modify, and do, the action of this allpervading energy. But under every sky it is vital, and under all temporary conjunctures it is quick…A society without religion has nowhere yet been discovered. Religion may then, in very truth, be said to be the universal distinction of man.

Still the universal religion has as yet not been evolved in the procession of the suns. It is one of the blessings yet to come. There are now even known to men and revered by them great religious systems which pretend to universality. And who would deny that Buddhism, Christianity, and the faith of Islam present many of the characteristic elements of the universal faith? In its ideas and ideals the religion of the prophets, notably as enlarged by those of the Babylonian exile, also deserves to be numbered among the proclamations of a wider outlook and a higher uplook. These systems are no longer ethnic. . . They have advanced far on the road leading to the ideal goal; and modern man, in his quest for the elements of the still broader universal faith, will never again retrace his steps to go back to the mile-posts these have left behind on their climb up the heights. The three great religions have emancipated themselves from the bondage of racial tests and national divisions. Race and nationality can not circumscribe the fellowship of the larger communion of the faithful, a communion destined to embrace in one covenant all the children of man.

Race is accidental, not essential, in manhood. Color is indeed only skin deep. No caste or tribe, even were we to concede the absolute purity of the blood flowing in the arteries, an assumption which could in no case be verified by the actual facts of the case, can lay claim to superior sanctity. None is nearer the heart of God than another…Ezra, with his insistence that citizenship in God’s people is dependent on Abrahamic pedigree, and, therefore, on the superior sanctity which by very birth the seed of the patriarch enjoys as Zea Kodesh, does not voice the broader and truer views of those that would prophesy of the universal faith. Indeed, the apostles of Christianity after Paul, the Pundits of Buddhism, the Imams of Islam, and last, though not least, the rabbis of modern Judaism, have abandoned the narrow to serve as foundation stones for the temple of all humanity.

The day of national religions is past. The God of the universe speaks to all mankind. He is not the God of Israel alone, not that of Moab, of Egypt, Greece, or America. He is not domiciled in Palestine. The Jordan devout may be baptized unto His service and redemption. “Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Whither flee from Thy presence?” exclaims the old Hebrew bard. And before his wandering gaze unrolled itself the awful certainty that the heavenly divisions of morning and night were obliterated in the all-embracing sweep of divine law and love. If the wide expanses of the skies and the abysses of the deep can not shut out from the divine presence, can the pigmy barriers erected by man and preserved by political intrigues and national pride dam in the mighty stream of divine love? The Prophet of Islam repeats the old Hebrew singer’s joy when he says: “The East is God’s and the West is His,” as indeed the apostle true to the spirit of the prophetic message of Messianic Judaism refused to tolerate the line of cleavage marked by language or national affinity. Greek and Jew are invited by Him to citizenship of kingdom come.

The church universal must have the pentecostal gift of the many flaming tongues in it, as the rabbis say was the case at Sinai. God’s revelation must be sounded in every language to every land. But, and this is essential as marking a new advance, the universal religion for all the children of Adam will not palisade its courts by the pointed and forbidding stakes of a creed. Creeds in time to come will be recognized to be indeed cruel barbedwire fences, wounding those who would stray to broader pastures, and hurting others who would come in. Will it for this be a Godless church? Ah, no; it will have much more of God than the churches and synagogues with their dogmatic definitions now possess.

Says Maimonides, greatest thinker of the many Jewish philosophers of the middle ages: “Of God we may merely assert that He is; what He is in Himself we can not know. ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways.’” This prophetic caution will resound in clear notes in the ears of all who will worship in the days to come at the universal shrine. They will cease their futile efforts to give a definition of Him who can not be defined in human symbols. They will certainly be astonished at our persistence—in their eyes very blasphemy—to describe by article of faith God, as though He were a fugitive from justice, and a Pinkerton detective should be enabled to capture Him by the identification laid down in the catalogue of His attributes. The religion universal will not presume to regulate God’s government of this world by circumscribing the sphere of His possible salvation and declaring as though He had taken us into His counsel whom He must save and whom He may not save. The universal religion will once more make the God idea a vital principle of human life. It will teach men to find Him in their own heart and to have him with them in whatever they may do. No mortal has seen God’s face, but he who opens his heart to the message will, like Moses on the lonely rock, behold Him pass and hear the solemn proclamation.

…Will there be prayer in the universal religion? Man will worship, but in the beauty of holiness his prayer will be the prelude to his prayerful action. Silence is more reverential and worshipful than a wild torrent of words breathing forth, not adoration but greedy requests for favors to self. Can an unforgiving heart pray “forgive as we forgive?” Can one ask for daily bread when he refuses to break his bread with the hungry? Did not the prayer of the great Master of Nazareth thus teach all men and all ages that prayer must be the stirring to love?

Had not that little waif caught the inspiration of our universal prayer, who, when first taught its sublime phrases, persisted in changing the opening words to “Your Father which is in heaven?” Rebuked time and again by the teacher, he finally broke out: “Well, if it is Our Father, why, I am your brother.” Yea, the gates of prayer in the church to rise will lead to the recognition of the universal brotherhood of men.

Will this new faith have its Bible? It will. It retains the old bibles of mankind, but gives them a new luster by remembering that “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” Religion is not a question of literature but of life. God’s revelation is continuous, not contained in tablets of stone or sacred parchment. He speaks to-day yet to those that would hear Him. A book is inspired when it inspires. Religion made the Bible, not the book religion.

And what will be the name of this church? It will be known not by its founders but by its fruits. God replies to him who insists upon knowing His name, “I am He who I am.” The church will be. If any name it will have, it will be “the Church of God,” because it will be the church of man.

When Jacob, so runs an old rabbinical legend, weary and footsore the first night of his sojourn away from home, would lay him down to sleep under the canopy of the star-set skies, all the stones of the field exclaimed: “Take me for thy pillow.” And because all were ready to serve him all were miraculously turned into one stone. This became Beth El, the gate of heaven. So will all religions, because eager to become the pillow of man, dreaming of God and beholding the ladder joining earth to heaven, be transformed into one great rock which the ages can not move, a foundation stone for the all-embracing temple of humanity united to do God’s will with one accord.

[From Walter R. Houghton, ed., Neely’s History of the Parliament of Religions  (Chicago: Neely Publishing Company, 1894), 816-20.]