It is not only the Jews that have come out of the Ghetto but Judaism has come out too. For Jews the exodus is confined to Western countries and is due to toleration; but Judaism has come out (or is coming out) of its own accord wherever it has come into contact with modem culture. This contact overturns defenses of Judaism from within, so that Judaism can no longer remain isolated and live apart. The spirit of the Jewish people strives for development; it wants to absorb those elements of general culture which reach it from outside, as it has done in other periods of history.
What did he mean by overturns Jewish defenses “from within”? This remains somewhat mysterious, of course; but he obviously meant to imply that modernity was organized around principles that Diaspora Jews intuitively recognized, felt vaguely to be their own, and reinforced their critical faculties, such that traditional life in the Pale, well, paled.
It was almost as if Achad Haam were warning that modernity, the emancipation, was a perfected version of what Jews, marinated in Judaism, intuitively believed; that the frictions of Jewish civilization were a kind of rough draft for an approach to really human ways of being, now implied by, but not fully realized in, the rabbinic tradition; that the Haskalah had brought what was in the back of minds to the tip of tongues.
"Since the day we left the Ghetto," Achad Haam writes in the “Transvaluation of Values,” “and started to partake of the world’s life and its civilization, we cannot help seeing that our superiority is potential merely. Actually we are not superior to other nations, even in the sphere of morality. We have been unable to fulfill our mission in exile, because we could not make our lives a true expression of our own character, independent of the will of others.”
Then again—surely he knew but did not say—who is ever free of the will of others? And what do we have to give that has not already been given? How, in other words, to modernize Judaism?
Not—at least, not immediately—with an independent state, as Herzl had proclaimed at the Congress. Not by adopting agonal conceptions of nationhood implied by admirers of Nietzsche’s superman. Not by giving in to biological conceptions of tribe, or halachic conceptions of exclusiveness, or pathetic notions of the world—you know, that the goyim would never let you assimilate. The sadder truth was that they would, and Judaism was defenseless against what “the West” would offer.