In has been estimated that one-third of our Western civilization bears the
marks of its Jewish ancestry. We feel its force in the names we give to
our children: Adam Smith, Noah Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton,
Rebecca West, Sarah Teasdale, Grandma Moses. Michelangelo felt it when he
chiseled his “David” and painted the Sistine Ceiling; Dante when he wrote
the Divine Comedy and Milton, Paradise Lost.
In time span the Hebrews were latecomers on the stage of history. By 3000
B.C.E. Egypt already had her pyramids, and Sumer and Akkad were
world empires. By 1400 Phoenicia was colonizing. And where were the Jews
in the midst of these mighty eddies? They were overlooked. A tiny band of
nomads milling around the upper regions of the Arabian desert, they were
too inconspicuous for the great powers even to notice.
When they finally settled down, the land they chose was equally
unimpressive. One hundred and fifty miles in length from Dan to Beersheba,
about fifty miles across at Jerusalem but much less at most places, Canaan
was a postage stamp of a country, about one-eighth the size of Illinois.
What lifted the Jews from obscurity to permanent religious greatness was
their passion for meaning.
Meaning in God
“In the beginning God.…” From beginning to end, the Jewish quest for
meaning was rooted in their understanding of God.
It is easy to smile at the anthropomorphism of the early Hebrews, who
could imagine ultimate reality as a person walking in the garden of Eden
in the cool of the morning. But when we make our way through the poetic
concreteness of the perspective to its underlying claim— that in the final
analysis ultimate reality is more like a person than like a thing, more
like a mind than like a machine— we must ask ourselves two questions.
First, what is the evidence against this hypothesis? It seems to be so
completely lacking that as knowledgeable a philosopher-scientist as Alfred
North Whitehead could embrace the hypothesis without reserve. Second, is
the concept intrinsically less exalted than its alternative?
Where the Jews differed from their neighbors was not in envisioning the
Other as personal but in focusing its personalism in a single, supreme,
nature-transcending will. For the Egyptians, Babylonians, Syrians, and
lesser Mediterranean peoples of the day, each major power of nature was a
When we turn to the Hebrew Bible we find ourselves in a completely
different atmosphere. Nature here is an expression of a single Lord of all
Though the Hebrew Bible contains references to gods other than Yahweh
(misread Jehovah in many translations), this does not upset the claim that
the basic contribution of Judaism to the religious thought of the Middle
East was monotheism.
Meaning in Creation
Ivan is not alone
in finding God, perhaps , good, but the world not. Entire philosophies
have done the same—Cynicism in Greece, Jainism in India. Judaism, by
contrast, affirms the world’s goodness, arriving at that conclusion
through its assumption that God created it.
Meaning in Human Existence
freedom of Israel’s thought and her refusal to repress doubts when she
felt them, it is not surprising to find that there were moments when they
suspected that “human beings… are only animals. For the fate of humans and
the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other”
(Ecclesiastes 3: 18– 19). Here is a biological interpretation of the human
species as uncompromising as any the nineteenth century ever produced.
The striking feature of the Jewish view of human nature is that without
blinking its frailty, it went on to affirm its unspeakable grandeur. We
are a blend of dust and divinity.
We shall not have plumbed the full scope of its realism, however, until we
add that they saw the basic human limitation as moral rather than
physical. Human beings are not only frail; they are sinners: “I was born
guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51: 5). It is totally
false to claim this verse for the defense of either the doctrine of total
human depravity or the notion that sex is evil.
Meaning in History
For the Bible,
history is neither maya nor a circular process of nature; it is the arena
of God’s purposive activity.”
The Hebrew estimate of history was the exact opposite of this attitude of
indifference. To the Jews history was of towering significance.
Meaning in Morality
There are four
danger zones in human life that can cause unlimited trouble if they get
out of hand: force, wealth, sex, and speech .
In this sense the Ten Commandments are to the social order what the
opening chapter of Genesis is to the natural order; without each there is
only a formless void. Whereas Genesis structures (and thereby creates) the
physical world, the Ten Commandments structure (and thereby make possible)
a social world.
Meaning in Justice
It is to a
remarkable group of men whom we call the prophets more than to any others
that Western civilization owes its convictions (1) that the future of any
people depends in large part on the justice of its social order, and (2)
that individuals are responsible for the social structures of their
society as well as for their direct personal dealings.
We have spoken of the Prophetic Guilds and the Individual Pre-Writing
Prophets. The third and climactic phase of the prophetic movement arrived
with the great Writing Prophets: Amos, Hosea, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and
Danger within was matched by danger from without; for , sandwiched between
the colossal empires of Assyria and Babylonia to the east, Egypt to the
south, and Phoenicia and Syria to the north, Israel and Judah were in
danger of being crushed.
The prophets of Israel and Judah are one of the most amazing groups of
individuals in all history. In the midst of the moral desert in which they
found themselves, they spoke words the world has never been able to
forget. Amos, a simple shepherd but no straw blown north by accident;
instead, a man with a mission, stern and rugged as the desert from which
he came; a man with all his wits about him and every faculty alert, crying
in the crass marketplace of Bethel, “Let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Meaning in Suffering
From the eighth
to the sixth centuries B.C.E., during which Israel and Judah tottered
before the aggressive power of Syria, Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon, the
prophets found meaning in their predicament by seeing it as God’s way of
underscoring the demand for righteousness.
The climax, however, is yet to come. Defeat was not averted. In 721 B.C.E.
Assyria “ came down like a wolf on the fold” and wiped the Northern
Kingdom from the map forever, converting its people into “the Ten Lost
Tribes of Israel.” In 586 Judah, the Southern Kingdom, was conquered,
though in this case its leadership remained intact as Nebuchadnezzar
marched it collectively into captivity in Babylonia.
A prophet who wrote in sixth century Babylonia where his people were
captives— his name has been lost, but his words come down to us in the
latter chapters of the book of Isaiah— argued that Yahweh had not been
worsted by the Babylonian god Marduk; history was still Yahweh’s province.
When Cyrus, King of Persia, conquered Babylon in 538 and permitted the
Jews to return to Palestine, the prophets saw another lesson that only
suffering can fully impart: the lesson that those who remain faithful in
adversity will be vindicated.
Meaning in Messianism
Hope has more
purchase on the human heart when it is rendered concrete, so eventually
Jewish hope came to be personified in the figure of a coming Messiah.
During the Babylonian Exile the Jews began to hope for a redeemer who
would effect the “ingathering of the exiles” to their native homeland.
After the second destruction of the Temple (70 C.E.), the honorific title
“Messiah” was used to designate the person who would rescue them from that
Apocalypticism, elements of which are visible in the prophets themselves,
replaced hopes for military victory. The Messianic Age would break in at
any moment, abruptly and cataclysmically. Mountains would crumble and the
The Hallowing of
We must consider
Jewish ceremonies and observances, for it is generally agreed that Judaism
is less an orthodoxy than an orthopraxis; Jews are united more by what
they do than by what they think. One evidence of this is that Jews have
never promulgated an official creed that must be accepted to belong to
this faith. Observance, on the other hand— the circumcision of males , for
example— is decisive.
Yet with all its arbitrariness and seeming waste, ritual plays a part in
life that nothing else can fill, a part that is by no means confined to
religion. From the triviality of an introduction to the trauma of
death, ritual smooths life’s transitions as perhaps nothing else can.
The name for this right approach to life and the world is piety, carefully
distinguished from piosity, its counterfeit. In Judaism piety prepares the
way for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth: the time when everything
will be redeemed and sanctified and the holiness of all God’s creation
will be transparently evident.
If we ask how this sense of the sanctity of all things is to be preserved
against the backwash of the world’s routine, the Jew’s chief answer is:
The basic manual for the hallowing of life is this Law, the first five
books of the Bible, the Torah.
For the Jews God
revealed himself first and foremost in actions— not words but deeds.
It is true that Genesis describes a number of divine revelations that
preceded the Exodus, but the accounts of them were written later in the
light of the decisive Exodus event. That God was a direct party to their
escape from Pharaoh, the Jews did not doubt.
Vividly cognizant of God’s saving power in the Exodus, the Jews proceeded
to review their earlier history in the light of this divine intervention .
As their liberation had obviously been engineered by God, what of the
sequence that led up to it?
From the perspective of the Exodus, everything fell into place. From the
beginning God had been leading, protecting, and shaping his people for the
decisive Exodus event that made of the Israelites a nation.
Given these three basic disclosures of the Exodus— of God’s power,
goodness, and concern for history— the Jews’ other insights into God’s
nature followed readily.
The entire gestalt, when it burst upon the Jews, took shape around the
idea of the covenant. A covenant is a contract, but more. Whereas a
contract (to build a house, for example) concerns only a part of the lives
of those who enter into it, a covenant (such as marriage) involves the
pledging of total selves. Another difference is that a contract usually
has a termination date, whereas a covenant lasts till death.
The Chosen People
There is a familiar quatrain that runs: How odd Of God To choose The Jews.
idea that a universal God decided that the divine nature should be
uniquely and incomparably disclosed to a single people is among the most
difficult notions to take seriously in the entire study of religion.
For unlike other peoples, the Jews did not see themselves as singled out
for privileges. They were chosen to serve, and to suffer the trials that
service would often exact.
How different from the usual doctrine of election this Jewish version
turns out to be! How much more demanding; how unattractive to normal
Our search for what led the Jews to believe that they were chosen will
carry us past an obvious possibility—national arrogance— to the facts of
their history that we have already rehearsed. Israel came into being as a
nation through an extraordinary occurrence, in which a milling band of
slaves broke the shackles of the tyrant of their day and were lifted to
the status of a free and self-respecting people.
So the specialness of the Jewish experience must have derived from God’s
having chosen them. A concept that appears at first to be arrogant turns
out to be the humblest interpretation the Jews could give to the facts of
their origin and survival.
Today Jewish opinion is divided on the doctrine of the election. Some Jews
believe that it has outgrown whatever usefulness or objective validity it
may have had in biblical times. Other Jews believe that until the world’s
redemption is complete, God continues to need people who are set apart,
peculiar in the sense of being God’s task force in history.
Judaism cannot be
reduced to its biblical period. What happened was this. In 70 C.E. the
Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem that the Jews had rebuilt on
returning from their Babylonian exile, and the focus of Judaism shifted
from the sacrificial rite of the Temple to the study of the Torah and its
accompanying Oral Tradition in academies and synagogues . Thenceforth it
was not the priests, who were no longer functional, but the rabbis
(literally teachers) who held Judaism together, for their synagogues
became centers not only for study but for worship and congregational life
Since the French Revolution the issue of Jewish identity has become
something of a problem. With the emancipation of the Jews and their entry
into the political, professional, and cultural life of the countries in
which they live, the world no longer requires that their identity be
Marx, Einstein, and Freud have contributed enormously to modern thought.
It seems reasonable to assume that their Jewishness had something to do
with making them great.
Generally speaking, the four great sectors of Judaism that constitute its
spiritual anatomy are faith, observance, culture , and nation.
|The Torah is followed by the Talmud, a vast compendium of history, law,
folklore, and commentary that is the basis of post-biblical Judaism. This
in turn is supplemented by the midrashim, an almost equal collection of
legend, exegesis, and homily, which began to develop before the biblical
canon was fixed and reached its completion in the late Middle Ages.
The reasons leading to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in
1948 are complex. Beyond the powerful religious pull toward return, the
chief contributing motifs were four.
1. The argument from security. They needed a place where their wounded and
terrorized, still fortunate to be among the living, might gather to
breathe the air of freedom and security.
2. The psychological argument. Some were convinced that it was
psychologically unhealthy for the Jews to be everywhere in minority
status; that this was breeding in them a subservience and self-rejection
that only a nation of their own could correct.
3. The cultural argument. The stuff of Judaism was running thin and its
tradition was bleeding to death. Somewhere in the world there needed to be
a land where Judaism was the dominant ethos.
4. The social, utopian argument. Somewhere in the world there should be a
nation dedicated to the historical realization of prophetic ideals and
ethics— a better way of life in its totality, including economic
structures, than history had yet evinced.
between Palestinian national rights and Israeli security is acute and