Thursday, March 08, 2007
[from the Washington Haggadah, written in Bonn, Germany 1478]
"Who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth" (Sam. II 7:23)
From a careful and unbiased study of Jewish history, it is clear that the Jewish people were, indeed, raised to an extraordinary spiritual level 3300 years ago at Mt. Sinai.
It is no exaggeration to say that the survival of the Jewish people as one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world is an open miracle. Where are the ancient Moabites, Hittites and Philistines today? How many thousands of years ago did they disappear, absorbed by other, more dominant cultures, changing completely their language and religion time and again according to political and social pressures? This is natural and normal and a constant process in world history, as one culture is absorbed or destroyed by another. Why have the Jews been so strangely, uniquely immune to this, at least up until the last century?
Note the physical situation of the Jewish people. They are not a huge nation living in total isolation like, for example, the Chinese or the Hindus. They began as a small nation in the eastern Mediterranean, easy prey for neighboring empires. Two thousand four hundred years ago they were conquered and dispersed. Almost invariably they were forced to live as a minority among other nations; constantly in contact with and completely at the mercy of the dominant majority. To remain distinctive and preserve such a radically different life-style, inviting almost constant ostracism, financial sacrifice as well as outright massacre for so many centuries is incomprehensible, psychologically as well as historically. Why did few choose to assimilate, right down to modern times? To be sentimental about ones ancestral traditions is understandable. For an entire nation to calmly face martyrdom for over 2000 years for their traditions is inexplicable.
Important to note as well is the amazing vitality of the Jewish people. One would logically have expected the Jews to be reduced long ago to a few isolated, primitive villages in the mountains of Iraq (if they survived at all). Instead they have created flourishing, vigorous communities throughout Europe and the Middle East. Their piety, kindness and intellectualism have been extraordinary. They published libraries of sacred literature (they had no other type) during centuries of poverty and persecution. When few gentiles were literate, an illiterate Jew was a rarity. Jews generally made up the middle class of craftsmen, physicians, merchants and bankers and therefore were (reluctantly) tolerated by the surrounding gentiles. It is known that in medieval Europe many Christian noblemen demanded Jewish doctors and treasurers in spite of how much they were despised. Even following secularization this vitality has been clearly apparent, at least for several generations until assimilation is total. Witness the fact that approximately 20% of Nobel Prize winners have been Jews, although Jews make up merely .2% of the world population, and in spite of the fact that in the first half of this century the Jewish people were largely devastated by the chaos and genocide of World War I and World War II. In the cases of Jesus, Marx, Freud and Einstein we see how even Jews who were far removed from authentic Judaism achieved tremendous recognition in world history. Witness as well the creation of Israel, which demonstrates how even more or less secularized Jews, after over 2000 years of exile, retained such a strong attachment to the ancient Jewish homeland and language. (Can anyone imagine the ancient Hittites, for example, reestablishing in the 20th century an independent state, complete with their ancient language?)
All the above was nicely summarized by Mark Twain in an essay entitled "Concerning the Jews", published 1898:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded into dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
Consider also the tremendous unity of Judaism throughout the centuries. The Jews were scattered in thousands of independent and, to some extant, isolated communities from Afghanistan to Morocco and from Lithuania to Yemen. It would have been natural for them all to remain unanimous on certain basic principles (e.g. the Scriptures, monotheism, not eating pork, Sabbath observance) while diverging in everything else, adapting and changing the tradition to fit in with their needs and situation. We would expect to find very distinct and independent Yemenite Judaism, Polish Judaism, Persian Judaism, Moroccan Judaism, German Judaism, etc. each with its own ritual and theology. This is taken for granted in other religions (e.g. an Episcopalian Christian has very little in common with an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian). Jews however, until very recently never disagreed on anything significant. Two hundred years ago a Jew from Amsterdam could have married a Jew from Baghdad with no change in theology, no important change in ritual and certainly no feeling of converting to a different sect for either of them. (It should be noted as well that deviant Jewish, or psuedo-Jewish, sects such as the Karaites, Sadducces or Samaritans never, as far as anyone knows, constituted more than a very small minority compared to mainstream, rabbinical Judaism). This extraordinary unity testifies to the incredible loyalty of the Jews to their traditions. [The phylacteries found with the Dead Sea scrolls also give us an idea of the authenticity of Jewish tradition - not only did they conform to the specifications written in the Talmud 500 years later but they even conformed to the opinions of Talmudic commentaries written over 1000 years later in far-away France!]
Consider also the five levels of Jewish sacred literature. The authors of the Mishnah never contradicted the prophets. The authors of the Talmud likewise stood in awe of the authors of the Mishnah. The early Talmudic commentators would never contradict the Talmud. The later commentators with very rare exception never contradict the earlier ones. This phenomenon clearly indicates the gradual decline of the Jewish people from a great original spiritual level.
All this points to the reality of the Mt. Sinai revelation, which lifted the Jews far above the rest of mankind. It also demonstrates the integrity of the Torah tradition - since the Jewish people were raised to such a high level it is clear that until recently none except a few of the most ignorant would have deviated from the genuine tradition.
Posted by jewish philosopher at 9:56 AM