REFLECTIONS ON JUDAISM & THE JEWS
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Adapted with permission of the publisher from THE HINGES OF HISTORY, Volume II: THE GIFTS OF THE JEWS: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, by Thomas Cahill (Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, New York, 1998, pp. 3-6; for online information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, see Internet Website http://www.randomhouse.com).
The Jews started it all - and by "it" I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick.  Without the Jews, we would see the world with different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings.  And not only would our sensorium, the screen through which we receive the world, be different: we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us.  And we would set  a different course for our lives.

By "we" I mean the usual "we" of late-twentieth-century writing: the people of the Western world, whose peculiar but vital mentality has come to infect every culture on earth, so that, in a startlingly precise sense, all humanity is now willy-nilly caught up in this "we."  For better or worse, the role of the West in humanity's history is singular.  Because of this, the role of the Jews, the inventors of Western culture, is also singular: there is simply no one else remotely like them; theirs is a unique vocation.  Indeed, as we shall see, the very idea of vocation, of a personal destiny, is a Jewish idea.

Our history is replete with examples of those who have refused to see what the Jews are really about, who - through intellectual blindness, racial chauvinism, xenophobia, or just plain evil - have been unable to give this oddball tribe, this raggle-taggle band, this race of wanderers who are the progenitors of the Western world, their due.  Indeed, at the end of this bloodiest of centuries, we can all too easily look back on scenes of unthinkable horror perpetrated by those who would do anything rather than give the Jews their due.

But I must ask my readers to erase from their minds not only the horrors of history - modern, medieval, and ancient - but (so far as one can) the very notion of history itself.  More especially, we must erase from our minds all the suppositions on which our world is built - the whole intricate edifice of actions and ideas that are our intellectual and emotional patrimony.  We must reimagine ourselves in the form of humanity that lived and moved on this planet before the first word of the Bible was written down, before it was spoken, before it was even dreamed ...

... All evidence points to there having been, in the earliest religious thought, a vision of the cosmos that was profoundly cyclical.  The assumptions that early man made about the world were, in all their essentials, little different from the assumptions that later and more sophisticated societies, like Greece and India, would make in a more elaborate manner.  As Henri-Charles Puech says of Greek thought in his seminal Man and Time: "No event is unique, nothing is enacted but once ... every event has been enacted, is enacted, and will be enacted perpetually; the same individuals have appeared, appear, and will appear at every turn of the circle."

The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had.  But their world view has become so much a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as a genetic code.  We find it so impossible to shed - even for a brief experiment - that it is now the cosmic vision of all other peoples that appears to us exotic and strange.





Adapted with permission of the publisher from A History of the Jews, by Paul Johnson (HarperCollins, New York, 1987, p. 585; http://www.harpercollins.com).

In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus describes Abraham as 'a man of great sagacity' who had 'higher notions of virtue than others of his time'.  He therefore 'determined to change completely the views which all then had about God'.  One way of summing up 4,000 years of Jewish history is to ask ourselves what would have happened to the human race if Abraham had not been a man of great sagacity, or if he had stayed in Ur and kept his higher notions to himself, and no specific Jewish people had come into being.  Certainly the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place.  Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights.  But we cannot be sure.  All the great conceptual discoveries of the intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they have been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time.  The Jews had this gift.  To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience, and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience, and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items that constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.  Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.  Above all, the Jews taught us how to rationalize the unknown.  The result was monotheism...




 
Adapted with permission of the publisher from On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, by Michael Novak (Encounter Books, San Francisco, CA, 2002, pp. 8-12; http://www.encounterbooks.com).

"The Bible was the one book that literate Americans in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries could be expected to know well," Robert Bellah has written.  "Biblical imagery provided the basic framework for imaginative thought in America up until quite recent times and, unconsciously, its control is still formidable."  As a design for the Seal of the United States, Jefferson suggested "a representation of the children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night."  He later concluded his second inaugural address with this same image: "I shall need ... the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life."  The image of "God's American Israel" made available four fresh perspectives, brought to intense focus by the Americans in a new and historically original way.

The first of these new perspectives was a narrative of purpose and progress.  The Gentiles of the ancient world believed in cycles of time as regular (they thought) as the circular movements of the stars.  They believed in eternal recurrence.  But the Americans of 1770-1799 did not believe that time is cyclical, going nowhere, spinning in circles pointlessly.  They believed that history had a beginning and was guided by Providence for a purpose... Time (in the view of the founders) was created for the unfolding of human liberty, for human emancipation.  This purpose requires humans to choose for or against building cities worthy of the ideals God sets before them: liberty, justice, equality, self-government, and brotherhood...

... History, in this sense - open, purposive, contingent in liberty - is not a Greek or Roman idea.  It is Hebraic; its source springs from the Biblical historians and prophets.  Probably most of the humans who had ever lived before the arrival of Judaism on the world stage never even heard of "progress."  The literature of Greece and Rome looks backwards, to golden ages of the past; the movement of time is circular.  For Jews and Christians, by contrast, history is heading somewhere new: toward the New Kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and love and peace, a new city on a hill...

... Second, Hebrew metaphysics held that everything in creation in all its workings and purposes is intelligible - suffused with reason, not absurd - in the eyes of a divine and loving Creator, Who created from nothing everything that is, and saw that it was good, and loved it; a Creator Who is more powerful than earthquakes, floods, erupting volcanos, hurricanes or anything else in the world, and different from them.  One should not mistake this God for any part of His creation - as the Mayan Indians seem to have done, identifying God with rain and snakes and frogs and jackals (powerful forces in the dark, all of them).  On the one hand, the world is not in itself divine.  On the other, its Creator cannot be touched, tasted, heard, seen, or smelled.  The Creator is independent of the world; therefore, the world can be looked into, investigated, and experimented with without infringing on His divinity.  Strictly speaking, the Creator is beyond human categories, cannot be expressed in words that are like other words, imagined from the things of this world, or named as other things are named.  He is not part of the material world.  Seeking Him, it is better to aim one's mind in the direction of Spirit and Truth rather than matter, toward an Ineffable One Whom we do not name...

...Third, cherishing humble and weak things most of all, the Creator made at least two creatures to know Him, to love Him, and in total freedom (and not as slaves) to walk with Him - "male and female, He made them" (Genesis 1:27).  "The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time," Jefferson wrote summarizing the Biblical metaphysic.  Liberty is the human condition established by the Bible, nearly every chapter of which turns upon its axis.  What will Adam, King David, Peter, Saul, do next?  Liberty is the axis of the universe, the ground of the possibility of love, human and divine...  Moreover, the American tradition clearly distinguished a false idea of liberty - license - from the true liberty exercised in reflection and deliberate choice.  Despite this high calling, men and women fail often, are vulnerable to human weakness, and are in want of checks and balances against their frailties.

Fourth, in Hebrew metaphysics the brief span of a human life is experienced as a time of suffering, testing whether humans can remain faithful to God's purposes in creating them - whether we will (or will not) show grace under pressure.  In the Bible, the bright red thread of human history is not just liberty but liberty on trial...

...This drama of liberty gave birth to two "whig" theories of history, one Protestant and one Catholic.  Nowadays, even secular people interpret history in the light of progress, rights, and liberty.  Yet unbelievers received these concepts neither from the Greeks and Romans nor from Enlightened Reason, but via the preaching of Jesus Christ, from whom the Gentiles learned the essential outlook of the Hebrews: that the Creator gave humans a special place among all other creatures, and made them free, and endowed them with incomparable responsibility and dignity.

This sequence of related conceptions - that time had a beginning and is measured for progress (or decline) by God's standards; that everything in the world is intelligible, and that to inquire, invent, and discover is an impulse of faith as well as of reason; that the Creator endowed us with liberty and inviolable dignity, while the Divine Judge shows concern for the weak and the humble; that life is a time of duty and trial; and that history is to be grasped as the drama of human liberty - all these are the background that make sense of the Declaration of Independence.  America and Israel, the first Israel and the second, shed light on each other...




G. K. Chesterton once wrote that in breaking away from England, ''America was not thinking so much of her wrongs as a colony, but already of her rights as a republic...  [The English] did not really drive away the American colonists, nor were they driven.  The [Americans] were led on by a light that went before.''  That light was a Biblical light, which the English Bible had given them: the idea of the equality of man.  But no one faith could claim it as its own.  It was the idea of the sacred and equal importance of every man, as made in the image of God.

-- Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired
(Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001, p. 297 )

No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny... The Jews, therefore, stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.

-- Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (HarperCollins, New York, 1987, p. 2 )



 

Adapted with permission of the publisher from The Dawn: Political Teachings of the Book of Esther, by Yoram Hazony (Shalem Press, Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 255-262; http://www.shalem.org.il).

Although they are separated by nearly twenty centuries, Mordechai lives in a world much like that of Machiavelli.  God has hidden his face and it appears that the course of human events runs on inexorably without purpose and without hope of guidance, either from heaven or earth.  In such a world, there is little hope that any man can achieve any good at all, and it is against such a nihilistic view that both Mordechai and Machiavelli set forth their principles of investment and boldness.  With these, even a man utterly alone in an endless, godless anarchy can hope to project his own direction onto the tides of history, at times emerging the victor.  But there is a third principle of politics that fails to appear in Machiavelli, thereby crippling his politics and stunting his world: The principle of faith, submitted by Mordechai in the assertion that without Esther's intervention to save the Jews, "relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from elsewhere..."

... For Machiavelli is, in this sense, a "modern" thinker: He believes in the existence of an objective world outside of man, which is in its essence a dry and unyielding surface on which he plays and dies.  Reality does not respond to his actions, does not concern itself with his actions.  At best, it may be forced to submit to them.  Whether fortune is a river or a lady, Machiavelli's prince wages his battles against her rages alone.  He can count on the provisions he himself has made against her, the favors he has done and the allies he has acquired, the advice he has sought out and heeded, the resources he has set aside for bad times, and the contingency plans which he has laid against the possibility of catastrophe - yet all these are only extensions of his own reach.  Other men may be useful to him, but only in the sense that other things are useful: One may manipulate them according to the internal rules which govern them, and according to the dictates of one's own will.  The prince ultimately believes in no one and nothing but himself, the only thing warm and alive on the cold tundra of a dead, objectified universe.  Since reality is dead, it can respond to man in only two ways: It can ignore him and let him perish, or it can be forced to yield to his actions and his conscious will that he may live.  In either case, it is for him an opponent, an enemy.

But for all that is new and strange in Esther, Mordechai understands reality from a vantage different from Machiavelli's, one in which all that is of interest and significance to man is to be guided aright in the subjective world in which he in practice thinks, lives, and acts.  In this world, reality is warm and alive, a love and a friend.  It supports man from underneath and above, comprising not only objects to be manipulated, but having direction and tendency of its own as well.  It gives to man his life and his consciousness, the capacities to imagine and create, to learn and to remember, freedom to make judgments, and strength and spirit to stand for them, a body responsive to his spirit, an environment that feeds it and nurtures it year upon year, and daily resurrections from sleep, forgetfulness, and pain.  But more than this, reality is filled with other minds, other men, familiar and unfamiliar, who are not objects but wills, whose relationship to the subjective is responsive and giving: From those who, unbidden, choose to bring one into the world, to those who, unbidden, seek to carry on one's struggles and ideas after death.  These others have their interests, but many of them are in fact interested by eternal truths, so that the more one approaches the dedication to these truths, the greater is the host of wills, future and past, which stand behind one's every effort.  For those such as Mordechai, who live listening to the urgings of these wills and crying out to them in turn, it is never unexpected when one such as Esther breaks ranks with the cold and the hard, the wood and the stone, and moved by the truth responds - taking the initiative to be second to the true King and pursue his interest; walking in all his ways that she may grow righteous and strong; piercing the blackness and illuminating the night...

... [Machiavelli's world is] formless, directionless, anarchical, liquid, void, an utmost darkness.  Not much has changed since Genesis: Man's place is perpetually to live in ships on the surface of the water, on the edge of the abyss.  Machiavelli's politics, and especially that of Nietzsche after him, looks out across the waves and calls on man to cease from his despair: He must impose that order which he himself decrees.  He must recognize the vastness of the sea, and yet for all this, weigh anchor, engage those oarsmen whom he can command, and strive with his every fiber to give his craft direction and purpose, that it may make its way a distance across the emptiness, of its own power, before the end of it.  But Mordechai speaks to us of another politics, and a greater one: Of one in which a spirit blows unseen across the surface of the water, allowing it direction, tendency, order, rule, purposiveness, light.  Perhaps this is no great wind; one can hardly feel it when one walks across the deck.  Indeed, it is so still that when man disregards it, his ship may lie dead on the sea for a thousand years in spite of it, as though it did not exist.  And yet he need only hoist a sail to see how this wind fills the world, as it has since creation.  And if he has correctly aimed his craft, he then feels it shudder into motion as God answers.

In Esther, God has ceased to call man in the streets and marketplaces, he has withdrawn from dictating political action and decreeing divine law.  His shout is no more, and so our own shouts drown out his voice as a matter of course.  But this does not mean we act in isolation.  Beyond the investments and acts of boldness and might which the individual can muster, there is infinite strength in a living reality which seeks to move in the same direction, and which can respond ten-fold, ten-thousand-fold, if our aims are towards the true and eternal, towards that which is commanded.  Reality does not need to be conquered, but it needs to be excited, ignited, pushed to erupt with all its latent powers in directions which man cannot possibly predict with accuracy, yet for which we are all of us responsible.  We do not play against reality, but with it.  We believe that if we do our part, everything that is possible according to powers that can be mustered on earth, the world is such that there will be others, there will be "elsewheres" which will react to our cries and our acts and do theirs.  If we do our part, God will do his.




Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.
                                                                                Zechariah 4:6
Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off.  It is not in the heavens, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to the heavens, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?'  Neither is it beyond the sea that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?'  But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.  See, I have set before thee this day life and prosperity, and death and adversity, in that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His ordinances; then thou shalt live and multiply, and the Lord thy God shall bless thee ...
Deuteronomy 30:11-16

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; to love the Lord thy God, to hearken to His voice, and to cleave unto Him; for that is thy life, and the length of thy days ...
                                                                Deuteronomy 30:19-20





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