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The Body Politic

The Body Politic

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Published by glennpease

Studies in Life from Jewish Proverbs

Studies in Life from Jewish Proverbs

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Published by: glennpease on Jun 15, 2013
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The Body PoliticBY W. A. L. ELMSLIE, M.A.Studies in Life from Jewish ProverbsThe art of hurling texts dies out of fashion, is almost dead,perhaps because it yielded the delight of victory so seldom,but for deeper reasons also. It was ever a game at whichtwo could play ; the Scriptures proving so rich a quarrythat your skilled antagonist would quote you text for text.Both Socialist and Individualist have found thereinammunition in plenty for their long quarrel, by reason of the disconcerting manner in which the Bible preaches bothdoctrines and gives its sanction to neither. Thus it neverso much as questions the propriety of individual ownership,yet on the other hand continually and with awe-inspiringvehemence it is found denouncing the wickedness of indi-vidual owners and the wrongs arising from their sins andnegligences. So for the unreflecting text -hunter confusionwas apt to grow worse confounded. The existence of thisimpasse, which in reality pointed only to an error in method,has helped to create the notion, characteristic of the presenttime, that the Bible having failed to settle the difficulty,we ought to consider our problems entirely without itsaid. So completely are we now supposed to be the solearbiters of our conduct that, even if the Bible had been foundto enjoin (or forbid) explicitly and beyond all possibilityof doubt certain socialistic measures, it would in no wayfollow that what may have been right in Jerusalem long agois right now, or what was wrong then wrong now. Up to apoint this attitude is sound : not to consider our duties248The Body Politicfor ourselves, as if our ancestors or any external authoritycould rightly determine them for us without our activeconsent, is to fall into a sin that, however innocently com-mitted, sooner or later benumbs the conscience and, if historical experience has any lesson whatsoever to teach,
paralyses social progress.But the legitimate distrust which the modernist feels formere text-hunting can be, and often is, pushed too far.To construe it as a mandate contemptuously to ignore thethinking and ideals of the past is to be guilty of as foolisha blunder as ever was involved in the old method of deter-mining an issue by proof-texts ; for the relation betweeneven the Old Testament and the social affairs of any moderncommunity is far too valuable to be disregarded withimpunity ; and on these three grounds at least. First, theexperiences of the Israelitish people constitute incomparablythe most amazing national career the world has witnessed ;and the story of their fortunes testifies for all time that onenation, situated in no secluded and sheltered corner of theglobe, but occupying a little land encircled by vast and jealous Empires and covered time and again by the surge of successive civilisations, prolonged its life and in all essentialrespects maintained its identity, not by bread alone, but bywords that proceeded out of the mouth of God. For,imdeniably, Israel has preserved its continuity not merelythrough the stormy fourteen hundred years of which theBiblical records tell, but subsequently throughout theChristian era, in virtue of distinctive moral and religiousqualities ; and whatever view a man may hold regardingthe truth of rehgion and the vahdity of morals, no seriousstudent of human affairs can afford to overlook theirpractical effect in the history of the Jews. Secondly, inthe course of that history (limiting our attention to theOld Testament literature) there appeared certain greatpersonalities, in particular the true prophets, whose insight249Studies in Life from Jewish Proverbsinto the problems of society, whose enthusiasm for thewelfare of men, and whose burning invective against allforms of injustice and oppression, ought to be familiar toevery man who feels within him the sense of social obli-gation. The example of the Prophets of Israel and also,though less brilliantly, of her Psalmists, her Law-makersand her Wise-men, is a magnificent incentive to duty,quickening the conscience, stimulating one's resolutionunder difficulties, and encouraging to good hope. In the
third place, the record of these men's thoughts frequentlydeserves our intellectual consideration. Modern indus-trialism has created unsolved problems of organisation andproduction, upon which it would be idle to contend thatthe conditions of life in the Judaean highlands offervaluable comment ; but since modern commerce, for all itsmarvellous development of wealth and resources, has sig-nally failed to remove the vast inequalities between manand man, indeed has only accentuated them and made thecontrast still more bitter for the unskilled, the weakly, andthe unfortunate, it follows that from the standpoint of human happiness the social problem is in its essenceunchanged : the poor, in fact, are still with us, with theirgreat virtues and also their shortcomings, their pathetic lack of opportunity, and often their failure to profit when theymight, and above all, with their capacity for joy and sorrowand aspiration, which things they share with the richest inthe land. o wonder that he who reads the Old Testamentwith intelligence and sympathy will constantly feel itswords on the social needs of men not merely pricking hisconscience but holding and challenging the intellect — ^howwealth is made, how rightly used, how kept, how lost ;what it feels like to be poor ; of the duties of him thathath to him that hath not ; by what things a city is pre-served, and of the power we each possess to make or unmakeone another's joy in life.250The Body PoliticOn these and kindred subjects the Jewish proverbs have avast deal to say that is worthy of attention, but an outhneof their comments and pleadings has been given in thedescription of the Wise-men's ideals (Chap. VIII.). It maybe hoped that the foregoing remarks will help to make moreclear the bearing on present social duty of the teachingthere related in reference to a distant past. Here thenfollow only a few considerations which will suggest how thesubject might be developed, and will at the same time giveopportunity for the quotation of some fine proverbs notmentioned in Chapter VIII.

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