Friday, January 11, 2013

Our Islands of Civilization



"View of Fort Pierre," Dakota Territory, 1855

I clearly recall that as a fourteen year old gentile living in New City, NY, one of the first things which impressed me about Judaism was the lack of violence and substance abuse apparent in the Orthodox Jewish communities. This very much reminded me of a chain of colonial European forts, small islands of civilization, fixed in the midst of a sea of primitive barbarians. This was the first indication which I had that Judaism was not natural but supernatural, not man made but divinely created.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I was not the first person to make this comparison. Israel Zangwill was a British Jew who was raised in Victorian England. Although he did have some Jewish education, he was thoroughly secularized and married a gentile woman.

Nevertheless, in 1892 he wrote the following about the Whitechapel area of London in his book Children of the Ghetto: A Study of a Peculiar People at the end of Book 1 Chapter 18:

The roaring Sambatyon of life was at rest in the Ghetto; on thousands of squalid homes the light of Sinai shone. The Sabbath Angels whispered words of hope and comfort to the foot-sore hawker and the aching machinist, and refreshed their parched souls with celestial anodyne and made them kings of the hour, with leisure to dream of the golden chairs that awaited them in Paradise.

The Ghetto welcomed the Bride with proud song and humble feast, and sped her parting with optimistic symbolisms of fire and wine, of spice and light and shadow. All around their neighbors sought distraction in the blazing public-houses, and their tipsy bellowings resounded through the streets and mingled with the Hebrew hymns. Here and there the voice of a beaten woman rose on the air. But no Son of the Covenant was among the revellers or the wife-beaters; the Jews remained a chosen race, a peculiar people, faulty enough, but redeemed at least from the grosser vices, a little human islet won from the waters of animalism by the genius of ancient engineers. For while the genius of the Greek or the Roman, the Egyptian or the Phoenician, survives but in word and stone, the Hebrew word alone was made flesh.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Mormons have no alcohol, cigarettes, or caffeine. Don’t know about the violence. And they’ve grown from six members in the 1830s to about eleven million today. Supernatural?

Tuvia

jewish philosopher said...

About violence, unfortunately the Mormons may be a little bit weaker

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Hofmann

however obviously the more closely gentiles mimic Jews, the better they are. Keep in mind that about half of mankind, including Mormons, believe that one God exists, He created the world and He chose the Jews and gave them His Torah in a revelation at Mount Sinai.

Dave said...

Unfortunately, if Zangvill had been observing the Jews during most of the period of the first and second temple period, he would have seen quite a different picture-- civil strife, wars, and corruption.

Our state of being a small, hated, and powerless minority had something to do with our good behavior in the diaspora, don't you think?

jewish philosopher said...

"if Zangvill had been observing the Jews during most of the period of the first and second temple period, he would have seen quite a different picture"

I don't think we have very accurate crime statistics from those periods. However we do know that at a time when the rabbis were abolishing the death penalty

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_and_capital_punishment#Judaism

the most popular gentile entertainment was gladiatorial combat

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladiator#Peak

"Our state of being a small, hated, and powerless minority had something to do with our good behavior in the diaspora, don't you think?"

Well, the African American community has never been the most popular ethnic group, however I haven't heard anything about their being a shining example of peace and sobriety either.

natschuster said...

Dave:

Remember that the Bible covered a period of some eight hundred years.
I think if you look at any other people over a similar time span, the Jews come out ahead.

Dave said...

We can always find examples and counter-examples. The main observation is that the Jews became peaceful AFTER they were exiled. Until then they were a divided and violent society. The tribes and different sects couldn't get along with and killed each other. Kings were assassinated. The priests, the people, and the kings all hated and distrusted each other. They were at constant war with outside parties. Just read the Bible and Josephus.

I think that the Heredi world (also reflected in your "about me" statement) has an idealized but distorted historical memory of some idyllic time when yeshivas and rabbinic scholars supposedly dominated an enlightened Jewish world. This was a time when, in fact, most Jews were ignorant and poor (as were most gentiles as well), and lived a subsistence life, punctuated by expulsions, pogroms and slaughters. There are of course a few exceptional times when Jews lived under Islamic rule, or, during the emancipation.

And, BTW, during those periods everybody WORKED. Nobody sat in Kollel living off the public dole.

I personally have no desire to return in time.

jewish philosopher said...

We know little about the day to day lives in ancient times. However as I cited above regarding the death penalty, the Jewish respect for human life seems to have been light years beyond the society in which they lived.

Incidentally, I would expect that being brutally oppressed would tend to make people more violent and brutal themselves, not more humane.

Dave said...

"I would expect that being brutally oppressed would tend to make people more violent and brutal themselves"

I would think that would depend on how powerless and vulnerable you are.

I am not denying that a pacifist stream dominated rabbinic thinking after the exile. I agree that this had a positive effect. I think that the rabbis learned the historical lessons and avoided repeating the mistakes made during the temple periods.

At the same time if you look at modern Israel you will see the opposite process-- as Jews again become empowered there is more of a tendency towards abuse of power and violence. (regardless of your political position)

jewish philosopher said...

Apparently victims of violence (such as persecuted Jews) are more likely to become violent.

14% of all men in prison in the USA were abused as children.

36% of all women in prison were abused as children.

Children who experience child abuse & neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime.

http://www.childhelp.org/pages/statistics

Fidelity to the Torah was an antidote to this. Absent that, we see how Israelis are now oppressors.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/may/24/israel1

Survivors of the Holocaust, probably 90% of whom were secular, may have been effected in ways many would rather not think about.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_the_Israeli_government#Comparisons_with_Nazi_Germany

Ironmistress said...

Let's say the more tight-knit a religious society is, the generally more happier the members and the less social problems. In this respect both Jacob's and Tuvia's observations are correct.

It wasn't just the alumni of Helsinki University of Technology who made the Nokia miracle in Finland. It were also the surplus sons of the Laestadian Lutherans who, having grown in large families (Laestadians do not approve contraception nor abortion) and having no future at countryside instead went studying to Oulu University and then got hired by Nokia. Oulu was one of the main research and development sites of Nokia, and one of the strongest Laestadian bastions in Finland.

Unfortunately, such societies can be also real snake pits. All it needs is one psychopath at right place at wrong time. I doubt neither Judaism, Mormonism nor Laestadianism have been devoid of those wolves in sheeps clothing.

Acording to Cracked.com, there are five things which definitely do NOT make one happy:

1) Fame. It is more often than not merely substitute for parental love the famous person never got.

2) Wealth. While a little is good, a lot is NOT excellent. Wealth is source of envy and backstabbing.

3) Beauty. Not only it is ephemeral, but also beautiful people are seldom appreciated for their true substance. And it hurts the beautiful.

4) Genius. Not only it isolates you from the ordinary people, but there are also chances it will come together with mental problems.

5) Power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

What makes one happy? According to Time.com, Altruism, friendship, spirituality and participation.

Ironmistress said...

I don't think we have very accurate crime statistics from those periods. However we do know that at a time when the rabbis were abolishing the death penalty

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_and_capital_punishment#Judaism

the most popular gentile entertainment was gladiatorial combat

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gladiator#Peak


Monotheism in general tends to make people more civilized and nice than Polytheism. No matter how dark were the Dark Ages in Europe, at least they did not burn the widows nor practise human sacrifices.

Cyrus the Great, who was Zoroastrian (Monotheist religion), prohibited slavery in the whole Persian Empire. Polytheist Romans never did it. It was only some 1,000 years later when slavery was abolished in the Byzantine Empire.

Dave said...

There are different ways to skin a cat, and the Torah does not have an exclusive patent on the good life.

Besides, when I look at the lives people live in Williamsburgh or Bnei Brak, if feel no jealousy or desire whatsoever for their lifestyle. In fact, I get kind of resentful if my taxes support their unproductive and cloistered lifestyle. And their poverty, is a poverty of choice, not of necessity, which makes it even less worthy of my support.

jewish philosopher said...

I would put it like this.

Let's say we would take two children, Child A and Child B, who are identical in every respect except for one. Child A is taught that there is a God, he has an eternal soul and if he commits a violent crime he will surely be punished in the afterlife. Child B is taught that evolution created him, there is no God and he has no soul. It is obvious that Child B is more likely at some point to commit a violent crime than Child A.

Now atheists will claim that this is proven false by the fact that in Sweden there are per capita fewer church goers than in the United States however there is also per capita less violent crime. This argument however is fallacious because Sweden is culturally and ethnically entirely different than the United States. For example, the best of my knowledge there are no slums in Sweden.

http://www.city-data.com/forum/europe/235412-there-any-european-cities-w-lot.html

Orthodox Judaism however goes beyond just teaching kids to fear God. Judaism includes a complete educational system to constantly remind us of God and morality.

http://www.torahphilosophy.com/2009/02/genius-of-judaism-total-educational.html

And you don't have to be poor to be orthodox. I am not poor and few people that I know are.

Ironmistress said...

Let's say also that in Sweden education has always been of very high importance as has communality.

Since the 16th century, the Swedish Lutheran church was obliged to teach all Swedish, Estonian and Finnish children to read and write - also at countryside. You could not get married if you were illiterate - the church would not wed you. Where schooling was unfeasible, the fathers of the family were obliged to teach their children. The Swedish state was almost 100% literate already in 1700.

That at the time when half of the rest of the Europe was completely illiterate.

Literacy, education and encouraging children to read and write instead of ganging and toying with guns, drugs and alcohol is a way to keep them off the crime. As far as I know, Jews have been pretty good on this.