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With the Assyrian conquest of Israel, the Jews came into their own. The demise of the northern Hebrew kingdom left its southern counterpart as the only independent Hebrew state. Although the people of Israel had survived, it was not the same. Its leaders were deported. Its cities were devastated. A foreign army remained in occupation. A foreign population was transported from other Assyrian conquests and took up residence in the land, diluting the Hebrew and Canaanite character of the Israelite kingdom. Having lost its native rulers, Israel was reduced to a province of the Assyrian empire. An Assyrian governor, responsible to the Assyrian king, dominated public life.
Judah had survived because it had refused to join the rebellion against the Assyrians. The Jews had, in fact, endured an Israelite invasion because of their loyalty to the Assyrian king. As long as they paid their tribute, they were temporarily safe from direct control by an Assyrian governor.
The Assyrian conquest of Israel had been brutal and traumatic. While some Israelites remained where they lived, many were forcibly exiled and many more fled. The nearest refuge for those in flight was Judah. Hundreds of them crossed the border into Jewish territory. Among the refugees were the Levites of Shiloh and the leaders of the Protest Movement. They settled near Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish state.
The cult of Yahweh was important to the Jews. Yahweh was the chief god of the Jewish pantheon. As in Israel, his worship had been deeply influenced by Canaanite ritual. But its chief priests were Zadokites, rivals of the Mushites (House of Moses), who were now refugees in Judah.
The tragedy of Israel pushed the Mushites into the camp of the Protest Movement. The suffering of the Israelites seemed to confirm the dire predictions of the movement leaders. Continuous pronouncements of doom were part of their Yahwistic propaganda. When doom arrived, it seemed to testify to the anger and power of Yahweh. Only a return to the shepherd traditions of their Hebrew ancestors could avert further catastrophe. Out of this conversion would come the first tracts of the Bible. It was in Judah that the ideology of the Protest Movement was refined into a coherent and powerful doctrine. If attachment to the ideals of the nomadic past was merged with passion for Yahweh, then Yahweh had to be powerful enough to control the Assyrians. Being a national god was not enough. Only a world god would have the might to use the Assyrians to punish the Israelites and the Jews. Out of this necessity was born what today is called monotheism.
The elevation of Yahweh to world domination was ironic. It was not the victory of the Israelites that proved the power of Yahweh. It was their defeat. The prophets of the Protest Movement denied what the Assyrians affirmed—that the victory of the Assyrians demonstrated the superiority of the Assyrian gods. They claimed that Assyria was only the instrument of Yahweh’s desire to punish the Israelites for their abandonment of Yahweh and the ways of their ancestors.
Thus the god of a small nation was rescued from humiliation and elevated to world supremacy. Defeat enhanced the reputation of Yahweh. The genius of the Protest Movement was its ability to extract victory from the jaws of disaster.
Israelite and Jewish monotheism emerged from political and religious despair, not from philosophic speculation. It always retained a parochial edge. The one god of the world had the name Yahweh, the national god of the Jews. Yahweh responded only to that name. He was chiefly obsessed with the behavior of the Jews, who became his chosen people. All world events derived their significance from their connection to the events of Jewish history. The cult of Yahweh was still the cult of Yahweh, with Yahweh promoted to greater power. Although he was now presumed to be the chief manager of the universe, he found time to provide legislation for only two small nations.
Certain events in the history of every nation are turning points. They produce changes out of proportion to the size of their stimulus. Just as in organic evolution, long periods of no change are followed by short explosions of major transformation, so, in human history, quantum leaps of change succeed quiet times of stability. The trigger of transformation is usually catastrophe. In the one case, meteors strike the earth. In the other, powerful invaders overwhelm the nation. The Assyrian conquest was the meteor of Jewish history.
Loving deities is not easy. After all, an emotion that began with the intimate relations of parents and children, men and women is not easily transferred to intimidating gods. But “love” movements have arisen in many religions. Their cause is the need of many devotees to establish relationships with the gods that mirror the intense personal relationships of family. What we call mysticism flows from this need; the Baal Shem Tov, Jesus and the Bhakhti gurus of Hinduism manifest this development. The assumption is that the god returns the love which the devotee offers. Certainly, the fear that most gods have inspired is reduced if we can imagine them behaving as loving parents.
What is most puzzling is commanding a feeling. Love certainly includes behavior, but it starts with feeling. Commanding feeling is impossible. We feel what we feel. Our behavior we can control, but not our feelings. Ordering somebody to love you borders on absurdity. “You shall obey your god” is more reasonable. Early religion focused more on behavior than on feeling.
Humanistic Judaism is a new alternative in Jewish life. Self-aware secular and humanistic Jews have been around for less than a century. But their roots are deeper and older than their self-awareness. They have strong connections with important events that preceded their public debut.
While the Orthodox rabbinic tradition with its trinity of Bible, Talmud, and Siddur contains isolated statements of humanistic value, the premises of this tradition are hostile to humanism. They cannot serve as the basis for a humanistic Jewish outlook. On the contrary, the assault on this tradition is the root of secular Judaism.
Two major historic forces have assaulted the tradition. The first was subtle, unconscious, and nondeliberate. It was the experience of the Jewish people through centuries of undeserved suffering and oppression. The inconsistency of that experience with the official ideology of divine justice laid the emotional foundation for Jewish skepticism. The second force was overt, conscious, and deliberate. It was the impact of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, on the belief system of traditional Jews. The leaders of the Haskala were the precursors of Humanistic Judaism. Their writings became the intellectual groundwork for a secular approach to Jewish identity.
The Jewish Enlightenment was part of a wider movement that radically transformed the world view of the European intellectual elite. The original Enlightenment did not begin with the Jews. It began with non-Jewish philosophers and scientists who lived in Holland and England in the middle of the seventeenth century. Later it was embraced by Jewish enthusiasts who used its energies to refashion Judaism.
The European Enlightenment
The European Enlightenment was the intellectual expression of profound social and economic changes that were taking place in the countries of northwestern Europe. City life was replacing village life. Manufacturing was becoming the rival of agriculture. Affluence was softening the struggle for survival. Revolutionary new ideas were a reflection of revolutionary new styles of living. At a time when human beings were increasingly experiencing their own power, philosophy had to follow suit.
The Enlightenment was reinforced by religious developments in Western Europe. In the Germanic countries of the north, the Protestant Reformation succeeded in sweeping away the priestly structures of the Roman Catholic Church. Although the ideas of the Reformers were hardly consistent with those of the Enlightenment philosophers, the Protestant emphasis on literacy and individual conscience provided the soil in which more radical belief systems could grow. While the Catholic Counter Reformation held southern Europe in the thrall of censorship and physical intimidation, the Protestant ideology mobilized the northern bourgeoisie for secular success.
Holland and England were two strongly Protestant countries that became “homelands” of the Enlightenment. Amsterdam and London sent their merchant fleets to the four corners of the earth and became the financial centers of the world. Money and investment rivaled the Bible as consuming passions. The new capitalism proved a stimulus to science. And the new affluence made people less desperate for the rewards of the afterlife and more eager for the pleasures of this world.
In this energized environment of trade and exploration, with its bizarre mixture of Biblical fundamentalism and secular science, a radical new world view emerged. The people who hated its ideas called it the work of Satan. The people who embraced it called it the Enlightenment.
The intellectuals, both professional and non-professional, who articulated the ideas of the Enlightenment were not organized in some militant fraternity. They were solo scientists and philosophers with unique personal styles, who made their attacks on the enemy with very little awareness that they were part of an ideological movement. Later on, when the Enlightenment reached France in the eighteenth century, an authoritarian state and church aroused more solidarity and more militancy.
Hindsight has recruited many “soloists” for the work of the Enlightenment. Spinoza, Grotius, and Descartes worked in Holland. Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, Butler, Johnson, and Hume graced the British scene. Voltaire, Diderot, de Condorcet, d’Holbach, and Rousseau were the “stars” of the French campaign. Germany featured Leibniz, Kant, and Lessing. Although there were many disagreements among these ideologues, certain central ideas were common to all of them. These ideas are the message of the Enlightenment.
Most of these thinkers were committed to a method for the discovery of truth, which they called reason. Reason meant different things to different philosophers. But on the whole, there was a shared meaning, which included the autonomy of the human mind, skepticism with regard to faith and tradition, attention to the evidence of human experience, and a preference for consistency. Although the inductive reasoning of John Locke and the deductive reasoning of Rene Descartes may seem worlds apart, they were united in the new affirmation of the power of the human mind.
Most of these thinkers believed in the essential goodness of humanity. Rejecting the thesis of Christianity that people were inherently sinful and anti-social, they argued that ignorance, not defectiveness, was the cause of immorality, and that the proper cure was education, not repentance and grace—which, in fact, now seemed quite irrelevant.
Most of these thinkers firmly believed in human progress and imagined that the age of reason was the prelude to the redemption of humanity. The age of religion that preceded was viewed as a time of primitive superstition. And the age of science that would follow was anticipated as a time of utopian happiness. While the philosophers of the Enlightenment did inherit the nostalgic Renaissance fondness for the cultures of Greece and Rome, they really believed that the present was better than the past and that the future would be better than the present.
The message of the Enlightenment was no idle intellectual exercise. It was used for practical political purposes to assault existing institutions and to reform society.
The first victim was traditional religion. Although most of the early Enlightenment thinkers were deists (like Newton and Voltaire), they despised orthodox Christianity and the priesthood that sustained it. They sought to remove education from the hands of the clergy and to separate religion from government. Anti-clericalism was a major theme of the political Enlightenment. When the French revolutionaries disestablished the church and secularized the state, they were carrying out the dictates of their Enlightenment mentors.
The second victim was the feudal system of hierarchy and privilege. While many of the new thinkers identified very strongly with a Whiggish aristocracy, they undermined the stability of the very system they enjoyed by destroying the credibility of traditional authority. In the end, kings were no better than bishops. Their divine certificates were equally invalid. Unwitting liberal aristocrats, who loved the world of elitist salons, laid the foundations for democratic revolutions. They could not mock their own peers without, in turn, subverting their own privileges.
In the middle of the seventeenth century, the leaders of the Enlightenment were cautious religionists and timid reformers. By the end of the eighteenth century, many of them had become devout atheists and democratic revolutionaries.
The Jewish Enlightenment
The Jews of Western Europe—although few in number—could not escape the Enlightenment. Their bourgeois affinities and their political vested interests drew them irresistibly into the controversy.
Some Jews were attracted to the ideas of the Enlightenment because of self-interest. Even if they were personally traditional, they were oppressed by the same Christian authorities that were threatened by the new ideology. Conservative Jews and radical humanists shared the same political enemies and, therefore, the same political agenda. While Torah Judaism maintained the unity of religion and government, its devotees, as a vulnerable minority in Gentile countries, found no immediate value in theocracy. Secular governments were better for Jews—even religious Jews—than Christian ones.
Some Jews were attracted to the ideas of the Enlightenment because their involvement in the capitalist revolution made them open to a rational critique of traditional religion. Eager for secular education and impatient with their own reactionary rabbinic authorities, they were drawn to an ideology that promised liberation from the tyranny of tradition. These Jews became the forerunners of humanism in Jewish life.
It took more than a century for a full-fledged humanism to emerge in the European Enlightenment. The same is true of the Jewish Enlightenment. Starting in the middle of the eighteenth century, the Jewish devotees of reason needed more than a hundred years to produce an unashamed secular point of view.
The first Jewish responses were ambivalent. Centered in Germany, where the only substantial Jewish community in Western Europe resided, the Haskala (as the Jewish Enlightenment was known in Hebrew) was a fairly timid venture. Its chief ideologue was Moses Mendelssohn, the darling of the liberal German intelligentsia. Mendelssohn claimed to be both a rationalist and a traditional Jew. Making an arbitrary distinction between philosophy and religious practice, he assigned the first to reason and the second to divine revelation. The first was discussable; the second was not.
Out of this ideological mish-mash came a strategy for modernizing the Jews. Mendelssohn was assisted by an ardent reformer named Naphtale Herz Wessely. The strategy included the following projects: the establishment of free secular schools with secular studies for Jewish youth, the training of Jewish teachers in secular seminaries, and the revival of the Hebrew language as a secular language for literary inspiration. Later, after Mendelssohn’s death, the commitment to traditional religious practice was abandoned and conscious attempts to reform Judaism in the spirit of the Enlightenment were undertaken.
In time the Haskala recruited thousands of Jews and produced a vast body of literature. Its scholars were called maskilim, and they presented themselves to their respective communities as the vanguard of the Enlightenment and the enemies of superstition.
The primary achievement of the maskilim was the creation and development of what Leopold Zunz called the Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Science of Judaism. This bold project was an attempt to provide a substitute for the naive traditional-supernatural presentation of Jewish history. In its place emerged a secular, naturalistic view of the Jewish past, appropriate to the new historical style inspired by the Enlightenment.
The new history had very clear secular and humanistic implications. Once you remove divine intervention from Jewish history you are left with Judaism as a human creation. But most of the maskilim were not prepared to affirm these implications. Most of them were fairly traditional. Their ideas were more radical than their personal lifestyles.
Some of them preserved the dichotomy of Mendelssohn, attempting to separate their historical research from their religious commitments. They remained religiously observant and religiously conservative.
Some of them tried to redefine God in naturalistic terms. Like [early Reform rabbi] Abraham Geiger, they now saw the hand of God in the natural development of the Jewish people. This accommodation gave rise to the Reform movement.
Some of them tried to remain scholars alone, making no connection between their research and the struggle of the Jewish people to deal with the new ideas of the Enlightenment and the traumatic effects of political emancipation.
A few of them followed reason to its inevitable end. If the history of the Jews that tradition had presented was no longer valid, then the religious ideas that flowed from it were no longer valid.
Not all the new historians, then, were consistently naturalistic. Neither Graetz nor Frankel nor Geiger nor Krochmal was able to fully divorce his religion from his research. But their achievements were significant. A new way of looking at Jewish history had been born, which turned the legendary story of Judaism into a this-worldly saga. Facts, rather than faith, became the arbiter of our roots. The myth of the superior past and the inferior present was replaced by a more reasoned, realistic view of Jewish progress.
The secular and humanistic Jewish thinkers, Yiddishist and Zionist, who emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and who boldly and explicitly voiced their humanistic beliefs, were the heirs of this Jewish Enlightenment. Both the timid and the more radical maskilim laid the foundation for their humanism. These thinkers were “step two” to the Haskala’s “step one.”
As humanistic Jews, we are the “descendants” of the Enlightenment. Without it we would never have been able to see the Jewish experience in a humanistic way.
It is true that some of the Enlightenment ideology was naive. Experience has taught us that wickedness is not simply the child of ignorance and that human progress may not be quite so inevitable. But we cannot even reach these conclusions without the realistic tool of reason. And reason, in all its glory, is the special legacy of the Enlightenment.
Hester Street. Eighty years ago.
They came by the thousands. The greatest mass migration in the history of the Jewish people.
They came from Minsk and Pinsk. They came from Zhitomir and Berdichev. They came from Lodz and Bialystok.
Most of them were pious and Orthodox, obsessed by the rituals of shtetl life. Many of them were secular and socialist, impatient with poverty and dreamers of the proletarian revolution.
Eastern Europe was the homeland of the Ashkenazic Jew. Eighty percent of world Jewry was squeezed into the ghetto of Western Russia, Galicia, Slovakia and Transylvania.
By 1945 the “homeland” was ten thousand miles away. Emigration and holocaust were the movers. America became the new center of Ashkenazic life. English replaced Yiddish as the major language of Western Jews. Six million Americans represented half of world Jewry.
Collins Avenue. The faded focus of a new migration. An internal migration.
They came from New York and Pittsburgh. They go to Miami and Fort Lauderdale. They come from Detroit and Chicago. They go to Los Angeles and San Diego. Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cleveland are old Jewish words. Houston, Phoenix and Aspen are new Jewish words.
The second migration is different from the first one. The Jews are different. In a short span of eighty years the Western Jew was transformed by the most dramatic revolution in Jewish history. Never before had any Jew been changed so much so quickly.
Secular capitalism did it. It undermined traditional Christianity. It undermined the Jewish life style. It “destroyed” —not by being mean. It subverted—by being so very nice.
All the characteristics of the historic Jew, which feudal society deplored and condemned, applauded and rewarded.
Jews had a head start for survival in a capitalistic society. They had skills that other people lacked.
Capitalism sponsors a mobile society. Rooted peasant people find moving traumatic. Jews are addicted to wandering. Because of antisemitism, they had to defend themselves against a heavy emotional investment in any place (except the fantasy land of Israel). Long before the bourgeoisie made a distinction between ancestral land and real estate, the Jews had experienced the difference. Feudal society condemned them for their rootlessness. The industrial world rewards their mobile skills with wealth.
Capitalism admires verbal abilities. Language is the intellectual vehicle for science and technology. Language is the way you educate workers in schools for new professions and jobs. Language is the tool of salesmanship—the art of convincing consumers to consume. If Jews are anything, they are verbal. They had to be. Deprived of all physical means of self-defense, they had, to train their mouth to do what weapons do for most people. The Jewish mouth became a formidable instrument of war and protection. Hostile, non-verbal peasants find this characteristic frightening and unattractive. The\urban bourgeoisie pay a lot of money to acquire it. Lawyers, writers and academicians become the conspicuous edge of an industrial culture. Jews take to these professions like birds to air.
Capitalism adores aggressiveness. How else can you sell? How else can you promote new ideas and sponsor new products? Peasants and feudal lords hate pushiness. It is so inconsistent with the tranquil and stable life of village and manor. But urban survival demands aggressiveness. The passive waiter is a winner in the eternal scheme of the feudal world. He is a guaranteed loser in the urban scene. Jews are pushy because they were never able to relax. Antisemitism produced a continuous state of alert. Jews were never safe enough to be less than nervous. Now nervous pushiness may not be the most attractive aggressive style. But, in a capitalistic world, it is better than dull passivity.
Capitalism was the first environment to reward the very Jewish characteristics which the feudal antisemite found intolerable.
No Jewish community, in the long history of the Jewish people, has been as wealthy, educated and politically powerful as the American Jewish community.
The radical changes in contemporary Judaism, whether conservative, liberal or humanistic—which make it a distinct religion from traditional Judaism—are the results of a revolutionary adjustment. Secular capitalism has created a new Jewish religion. What is it? What is it becoming?
Judaism in America.
It is unlike any Judaism that ever came before
It is a radical break with the past and with the life style of the Jewish tradition.
It is a product of western capitalism and the urban industrial society which capitalism spawned.
Western capitalism presented the Jew with social realities that violated the essence of Jewish piety.
It sponsored female liberation. An expanding industrial economy provided women with options other than motherhood and wifehood. Female freedom is the consequence of money power and financial alternatives
Western capitalism sponsored secularism. The industrial state was built on the premise that the most readily available power for economic expansion was natural— not supernatural. Divine power was so secondary that it could be relegated to private choice. The state could not be bothered with religious controversy because no essential power was being provided anymore by religious institutions and by clerical professionals.
Western capitalism sponsored the right to happiness. Divine justice had decreed that, given Jewish behavior and Jewish disobedience, suffering and death were deserved. If the Messiah came, it would be an act of divine mercy, a gracious Yom Kippur style act of a sentimental deity. But the capitalist consumer culture cannot be built on the right to suffer.
The growing industrial state needs the citizen conviction that pleasure is appropriate and that happiness is deserved. The early stages of development can use masochistic thrift. But the later stages require massive spending.
Western capitalism sponsored individualism. The traditional family unit makes sense in an agrarian environment where children are free labor and protectors of the aged. In an urban culture the most efficient labor unit is the mobile individual. Individualism is the social product of this economic reality.
Judaism in America cannot survive unless it affirms these four realities of an industrial economy. It does not have the power to repudiate the social reality.
It must reject male chauvinism and affirm female liberation.
It must reject the primary significance of supernatural power and affirm that the essential available energies are secular, human and natural.
It must reject the ethics of sacrifice and suffering and affirm the right of men and women to personal fulfillment now.
It must reject the primacy of the family unit and affirm the significance of individual identity in all relationships—whether marriage or work. The revolutionary consequence is the endorsement of temporary relations as kosher.
The life style of this new Judaism is not a gradual evolution of the old life style. It is a radical and traumatic break with the past.
When the majority of American Jews will be able to accept this reality, official Judaism will stop playing around with the nostalgia and will be able to use its creative energies to celebrate the new life style.
From the early Semites to the global economy is a stretch of eight thousand years. From the emergence of Israel and Judah to the present, at least three thousand years intervene. The Jewish reality has been around for a long time.
Along the way the Jewish nation has acquired or created the structure and pieces of a resilient and adaptive culture. There have been many languages, many social institutions, many family practices, many rituals and celebrations, many dominant ideologies, many strategies for group survival and many historical memories interwoven into the fabric of Jewish identity. Since the Jews have never been an imperial power, their national culture reflects the diversity that conquering civilizations have left.
Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced three powerful social and economic transformations. The Jews began as herdsmen and gradually entered the agricultural world of farmers and villages. They then moved from the farmer side of the agricultural world to the emerging urban and commercial side of the same world. And finally they were swept up in the many revolutions of the urban industrial upheaval, which radically changed the material and social conditions of their historic existence. Each of these transformations produced massive internal confrontations. The conservatives who resisted change fought the liberals who welcomed it. The Protest Movement of the nostalgic prophets, the anti-Hellenist fervor of the Rabbis and the present dramatic dichotomy between the ultra-Orthodox and the secularized masses testify to the power of these changes.
Along the way, the Jewish nation experienced a dramatic shift in management and leadership. Tribal warrior chiefs were replaced by warrior kings. And, more importantly, warrior kings were replaced by the clergy. Theocracies, government by the clergy, became the norm for most of Jewish history. The replacement of the Zadokite priests by the rabbis was a significant change, but it did not alter the reality of clerical domination. Not until the nineteenth century were the rabbis deposed and turned into employees of the new secular professionals, whofollowed in the wake of the urban industrial revolution. The success of Zionism has now placed the secular leaders of the Jewish State in the role of informal spokespeople for the Jews.
Along the way the Jewish nation has hosted many powerful ideologies. There was the cultic mythology of the El, Asherah and Baal religion. There was the theology of the protest prophets and their monotheistic devotion to Yahweh. There was the ideology of the Zadokite priests that celebrated the Jews as the chosen people of God, the Jerusalem Temple as his residence on earth and the Torah as the embodiment of divine wisdom. There was the belief system of the Rabbis, which expanded divine revelation to the Tal-mud and offered the prospect of a happy individual immortality. There was the mystical tradition of the Kabbalah, shared with Eastern philosophy, which promised the ecstasy of a personal union with the Deity. There was the “rational theology” of the Hellenized philosophers like Maimonides, who exalted reason as the path to truth and an “Aristotelian God” to guarantee the order of the universe. There was the Enlightenment enthusiasm of the radical Haskalah, which championed science, humanism and a utilitarian ethics. There was the Marxist ideology of the radical socialists, which replaced religious devotion with revolutionary fervor. There was the liberal philosophy of bourgeois capitalism, which championed individual rights and consigned God to the role of ethics endorser. There was the self-affirmation of New Age religion, which rendered every introspective individual an authentic voice of spirituality. None of these ideologies was compatible with any of the others. All of them had counterparts in other cultures. All of them were Jewish—because they were embraced in time by large numbers of Jews. An ethnic culture—filled with diversity—embraced them all.
Along the way, the Jewish nation also became intensely provocative. Being Jewish was not like being Swedish. For millions of people, the Jews aroused emotions of intense fear, hatred and genocidal rage. The hostility was not only racial contempt directed toward those considered social inferiors. It was not only the exclusionary fear that was directed by most nations toward strangers. The hostility almost always acknowledged the cleverness and power of the Jews. This demonization of the Jew as the source of evil power lay in two places—the historic hostility of the Christian clergy to Rabbinic Judaism and the assumption by enterprising Jews of an economic role that was provocative. Of the two sources, the role of the Jew in the world of commerce and money was the more provocative.
Along the way, the Jews split into two main branches—an Eastern and a Western. For most of Jewish history, the Eastern Diaspora was dominant. In recent centuries, the Western Diaspora took first place. The center of the Jewish world shifted from territory to territory. Judea, Chaldea, Spain, Turkey, Poland, America and Israel have all featured major expressions of Jewish cultural vitality.
Along the way, the Jews became a small nation with extraordinary influence. The sacred scriptures of Zadokite and Rabbinic Judaism were appropriated by the imperial Christian civilization of the Greco-Roman world. Jewish merchants and bankers helped to lay the foundation of the urban industrial world. Secular Jewish intellectuals became major figures in the scientific revolution. The number of Jews who today function prominently at the top financial, cultural and intellectual institutions of the emerging international culture is out of proportion to their numbers in the world population. The Jews, in modern times, have become an ethnic and cultural phenomenon.
The traditional rabbinic view of Jewish history identified the greatest era of Jewish existence with the distant past. Since the rabbis deemed religion to be the most important achievement of the Jewish people, the age of the greatest religious teachers was the “Golden Age” of the Jews. Some-where between 1800 BCE and 500 CE, there supposedly appeared the noble prophets, the devoted priests and the wise rabbis. Inspired by God, they produced the incomparable Bible and Talmud and revealed the path to personal and national salvation. After the Enlightenment, most of the new secular and secularized scholars of the Jewish world ironically preserved this evaluation. Having transferred the Jewish genius from God to Jewish thinkers, they still persisted in maintaining that the greatest gift of the Jews to the world was monotheism and the Bible. The success of Jews, and Christianity, became proof of Jewish success, even though the old Christianity was rapidly fading away in the new secular world. For the old rabbis, Jewish life and Jewish wisdom had gone downhill after the completion of the Talmud. Modern times exemplified Jewish decadence. For the new scholars, the genius of the Jewish present was only derived from the special genius of the Jewish past.
But the opposite is actually true. The greatest era of Jewish life is the present. Despite the Holocaust, never before have the Jews, both individually and collectively, possessed more wealth, more power and more influence. The global economy, which the Jews helped to pioneer, now embraces the planet, including regional cultures that lie beyond the domains of Judaism and Christianity. The realm of science, in which Jews have ex-celled far beyond their numbers, has now replaced religious faith as the dominant source of intellectual power in the countries that possess military and economic strength. The legacy of Jewish Nobel Prize winners out-shines the prophets and sages of the religious past; it is science that now has the power to transform human existence. None of the insights of the biblical past have cured disease, lengthened life, triggered a dynamic economy or forged the technology to unite humanity. In fact, the hard core of religious fundamentalists who hate the modern world and the world of science derive their inspiration from the “wisdom” of that era. The emerging global culture, which rests on the achievements of science, has dramatically raised the standard of living for over one-half of the people on our plan-et. Most of the readers of this book would not be alive to read any book without the successes and special contributions of Jewish medical scientists.
The greatest era of Jewish history is now. Neither antisemitism nor the Holocaust can diminish the glory of the Jewish present. In fact, their virulence, including the virulence of religious fundamentalism, pays tribute to the provocative power and influence of the Jew and to the success of the Jew in a new and unsettling environment. Modern antisemites do not hate Jews because of their intense religious faith. They accuse the Jews of being the fomenters of atheism and radical change. They define them as devilish inventors of the global culture. Not even Zionism and the state of Israel have been able to undermine the image of the “International Jew” who conspires to undermine traditional values and structures of the old society. Jews are associated, in the public mind, with the destabilizing effects of money, urbanization, international trade and racial mixing. Everybody agrees that the Jews are smart. But not everybody agrees that they are good for the world.
Antisemitism and the Holocaust have made Jews uncomfortable with Jewish success. In America, the fact that it is known that Jews wield enormous power in both the Democratic and Republican parties does not stimulate Jewish pride; it stimulates Jewish fear. Jews are perfectly comfortable discussing Jewish power in private. But they are hostile to anybody who dares to discuss Jewish power in public. Jews are reluctant to display their power and their wealth, even though they have achieved the distinction of being one of the most affluent and best educated ethnic groups in the world. Jews prefer—and given their history, justifiably—to present them-selves as victims. The popularity of Holocaust centers and Holocaust studies in Jewish life is not only a protest against ruthless genocide. It is also a function of Jewish anxiety. Victimhood is a safer image than power. Jews are uncomfortable being seen at the top of the world in money and intelligence. They prefer to present themselves as the inventors and role models of humane ethics, even though the non-Jewish world does not perceive them that way.
When socialism came to Jewish life in the aftermath of the rise of the new antisemitism, Jewish socialists were uncomfortable with the existing Jewish profile. Neither the image of the affluent Jew as a successful entrepreneur nor the image of the poor Jew as an unsuccessful entrepreneur were perceptions that Jewish socialists were comfortable with. The Jewish worker and the Jewish farmer were more desirable paradigms. With the rise of the textile industry in both Eastern Europe and North America, a Jewish working class “fortunately” emerged for a short while. Labor un-ions and strikes now placed Jews on the “right” side of the struggle. Zion-ism created the image of the Jewish farmer, strong lover of the land and manual labor. But within two generations the children of the working class and the kibbutzim abandoned their work profile and their socialism. All that remains are stories about the Jewish working class that Jews on the Left cultivate as a new nostalgia. Bobes (Grandmas) and Zeides (Grandpas) are now turned into worker heroes, while the achievements of their bourgeois grandchildren are overlooked, certainly not praised or idealized. Even the prophets of the past are turned into precursors of a radical socialism. The truly radical transformation of the Jews into a people of power and influence conveniently goes unnoticed. Individual heroes like Einstein and Freud can be honored for their success, but never the modern Jews collectively.
In the religious centers of Jewish capitalist success, the synagogues and temples of Reform and Conservative Judaism, the public presentation of contemporary Jews always hovers at the level of the interfaith banquet. Jews are either presented as the victims of antisemitism or as the inventors of utopian and Messianic visions of social reform. The intellectual contribution of the Jew to the modern world is praised, but it is always subordinated to the Jewish genius for religion. Jews are touted as the people of the Book, rather than the people of the books. What most Jews really read and value is never admitted publicly. Jews are reduced to a distortion in order to counter antisemitism. What really needs to be said—that the Jews have become the vanguard for the radical transformation of society through the power of science and its global vision—is just too provocative for Jews to handle.2
The future of the Jewish ethnic nation, like that of all nations, is problematic. The urban industrial world, with its emerging international culture, is not friendly to exclusive national identities. There is too much merging, mobility and intermarriage to allow for rigid boundaries between ethnic groups and cultures. Only a deliberate effort of separation, a repudiation of the major rewards of the new system—from money to personal freedom— can enable old cultures to survive with some purity. The price of this disciplined separation is militancy, a perpetual state of war with the dominant culture.
In the new world of continuous and rapid change, with its counterpart of continuous and rapid technological innovation and obsolescence, the future becomes almost impossible to predict. But certain lasting or emerging features of Jewish life have a good chance of defining the Jewish future.
The expanding secularization of Jewish life will continue. Most Jews complain about urban and suburban life, the materialism of the consumer culture and the stress of competition. But they do not want to give up the rewards of the new world; nor does effective separation seem either attractive or feasible. The new global economic system is very powerful and seductive. Only a few “wounded” people will have the desire and will-power to separate from it. Israel is now as much a part of this system as the Diaspora.
On the whole, Jews will remain near the top of the economic hierarchy. Education is the key to success in the information age. Jews have a surfeit of it. Of course, they will not be alone. There will be the remaining European elites in Europe and North America, as well as the rising presence of East and South Asians. Jews may cease to be extraordinary. But they will still be rich in comparison to other peoples of the world. Only the unfortunate Eastern Jews of Israel—lost in the corruption and failure of Orthodoxy and the state school system—will remain on the other side of the prosperity line.
The world Jewish population will shrink. Prosperity in an urban world lowers the birthrate and ages the nation. Neither the substantial reproduction rates of both secular Israelis and Orthodox Jews will be able to compensate for the dramatic shrinkage in North America and Europe. Jewish youth will become a scarcer commodity. Programs and facilities for older Jews will achieve a greater presence. None of this means extinction, just a different balance of young and old.
The distinctions between Eastern and Western Jews will gradually fade away. Both groups have now been appropriated by the new economy and the new international culture. Intermarriage in Israel between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim will accelerate. The mix will not change the direction of things. Mizrahim may be two centuries behind the Ashkenazim in their recruitment for urban culture. But they are heading in the same direction. The rift between secularized and ultra-Orthodox Jews will widen into a major dichotomy. Not only radically different lifestyles will promote this split. Intermarriage especially will make the divide unbridgeable. The ultra-Orthodox will remain about ten percent of the Jewish population, their fabulous birthrate balanced by inevitable defections. But they will be well-organized, aggressive and demanding—and never open to compromise. They will continue to infiltrate establishment institutions with the young “cheap labor” of teachers and communal workers they will be able to pro-duce. Confrontation will be frequent. Just as the Orthodox and the Hasidim united to battle the new secularism, so will Conservative, Reform and secular Jews band together to oppose the “enemy.” Modern Orthodox Jews will be sucked into the militancy of ultra-Orthodoxy. Increasingly, in the Diaspora, the face of Judaism for non-Jews will look more and more Orthodox. However, the check on Orthodox power will be their inability to go beyond the ten percent mark. Militant segregation—the only way Orthodoxy can work in the modern world—is too high a price for most Jews to pay for Jewish survival. The Orthodox will be conspicuous, but not triumphant. Like all fundamentalism, they will be a chronic condition in Jewish general life, an annoying anachronism in the rapidly changing global civilization.
Reform and Conservative Judaism will change places in the Diaspora. Once the dominant movement of North American Jewish life, Conservatism will shrink. Jews interested in returning to tradition will be attracted to the new dynamism of militant Orthodoxy. Those interested in a conservative Reform can now find it in Reform—with less of the scolding that the ambivalent Conservative movement still provides. Reform Jews will re-main heavily secularized, with periodic indulgences in traditional behavior as a way to reinforce family connection.
Most Jews in the Diaspora will pursue the individualist agenda of the global culture. Marriage will continue to evolve into partnerships of love and personal fulfillment, with all the attendant pleasure and instability that such partnerships bring. Children will be stressful and divorce will be frequent. Family loyalty will be less significant than individual happiness. Even besieged Israel will not be immune to this development. Lonely individuals and couples will seek community with people who share their work, their leisure interests and their convictions. Others will choose non-affiliation on all levels, preferring to pay for services rather than joining communities. A large number of rabbis, ceremonialists and teachers will provide rites, classes, and inspirational weekends for Jews who seek them out. The unaffiliated, in terms of marriage, children and congregation will play an important role in Jewish life. They will radically change the institutional ways that Jews are served as Jews.
Diversity in Jewish life will increase. With so many individuals freely making individual choices, the number of Jewish religious and cultural options will grow. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform have already added Reconstructionist, Renewal and Humanistic. More Jewish choices will inevitably appear. Conventional Jewish choices will shrink in number. Un-conventional connections will increase. Individual Jews, in their search for personal fulfillment, may prefer to be eclectic, tasting a wide variety of Jewish options.
With the exception of the militant Orthodox, the boundaries between the Jewish and non-Jewish world will be less fixed, more fluid. A shared global culture and world languages will enable people from ethnic enclaves to mix freely with people from other ethnic places. This development is taking place right now. There are three manifestations of this development. The first is the emergence of a smorgasbord of literature, music, food, holidays and celebrations that is now available to any educated person. Jews choose many non-Jewish items for their intellectual, cultural and ceremonial life. Non-Jews increasingly find Jewish cultural creations as attractive options. Jewish identity is far more open and porous than conventional Jewish leaders can tolerate.
The second manifestation is growing intermarriage. Most of this marriage is not interfaith, a difference of beliefs and values. Most of this marriage is intercultural, a difference of ancestors and ceremonies. Neither scolding nor denunciation by Jewish leaders manages to change this reality. Intermarriage is the inevitable consequence of living in a mixed ethnic environment where personal freedom prevails and where the secular values of an emerging global culture dominate personal choices. While the racial profile of Israelis is getting “darker” because of intermarriage between Eastern and Western Jews, the racial profile of North American Jews is getting “lighter” because of intermarriage between Jews and Anglo-Saxons. Ultimately African, Asian and Hispanic genes will also make a dramatic appearance. Ethnic attachment and ethnic stereotypes are beginning to coincide less and less. Even Israel, with its enormous number of intermarried Russian immigrants, is confronting the same challenge. Only abolishing the new economy or militant segregation can change this reality. Many contemporary Jews have more than one ethnic connection. And future Jews will, too.
The third manifestation of an open society is that for many loyal Jews, Jewish identity and Jewish culture will not be their primary commitment. They love being Jewish and they want to participate in Jewish family life. But they have other commitments in the areas of personal relations, friend-ships, work and leisure that are more compelling. Even in Israel, many young Jews are weary of persistent appeals to nationalism and patriotism. The old, all-encompassing collectivism of family and tribe has lost its power for many Jews. Not even guilt can alter this new behavior. The Jewish world functions with increasing numbers of Jews who do not place their Jewish commitments in first place.
One of the future realities in Jewish life will be the growing importance of Israel in Jewish self-awareness. Given the military power of the Jewish state, it is highly unlikely that its enemies will be able to destroy it in the near future. Despite the shrinking of Jewish immigration to the Jewish state, within two decades the majority of the Jews in the world will be living in Israel. The new center of Jewish life may even become bigger than the dispersion. Inevitably, the external and internal problems of Israel will remain an important part of the Jewish national agenda. The culture war between the secularists and the Orthodox in Israel will feed the same war in the Diaspora. And the place of Israeli literature, music and film in Diaspora life will only increase.
Antisemitism will continue to be a significant force in Jewish life. Whatever its origins, the Jews continue to be a provocative people, demonized by both the Right and the Left. The grievances arising from life in a global economy and an emerging global culture feed the hatred of a people who are perceived as winners in the trial of global transformation. While Zionism has restored a vibrant center to the Jewish nation, it has simultaneously provoked an intense antisemitism in the Muslim world. This Jew-hatred will continue to endanger the survival of the Jewish state, even if some kind of accommodation between Israelis and Arab Palestinians is achieved. The imagined solution to antisemitism has only produced more. Of course, a continued antisemitism will continue to keep Diaspora Jews interested in preserving their Jewish identity and will contribute to Jewish group survival.
The consequence of this connection will be the movement of Jewish establishment political life to the Right. The defense of Israel and the defense of Jewish economic interests will finally coincide. The Jews, in modern times, chose the Left as the best guarantee against antisemitism. The future will feature increasing Leftist discomfort with the existence of the Jewish State. But the Right is also problematic for the Jews. Much of it is still antisemitic. And much of it is now religiously fundamentalist, an odd ally for a people that is overwhelmingly secularized or secular. This last development will keep many Jews uncomfortably on the Left. Even if a future American government forces peace by compelling the Israeli government to return to something close to the 1967 borders, persistent Muslim fundamentalism and Third World ambivalence will leave the Jews hovering between the Right and the Left.
Perhaps the most astounding development of the Jewish future will be the relevance of the Jewish Diaspora model to all nations. With national populations shifting and changing, especially in the First World of Europe and North America, the United States, Britain, France and Germany are turning into multi-national states in which racial and ethnic homogeneity has vanished. African, Asian and Mestizo populations are becoming local majorities in many western venues. Aging white populations are importing thousands of necessary young non-whites to sustain their economies. In America, the notion of a multi-cultural society is taking hold. In a time when technology can connect us instantly to any place in the world, dispersed communities can be tied together by the bonds of new communication and transportation which defy distance. Nothing is far away any more —neither South Africa, Japan nor Israel.
Even Israel is changing. The size of the population of Israeli Arabs and foreign workers is growing. The Jewish state is going through the same trauma as Europe and North America. It, too, is part of the dynamic First World. It, too, is experiencing itself as a multi-cultural or multi-national society. The future will only aggravate this development. Perhaps the age of the ethnically pure state is ending. Nations and states no longer coincide. States are territorial units accommodating people of a wide variety of national identities. Perhaps, in such a global society, state citizenship will be separated from national identity. The Chinese in America can be Chinese by nationality and American by citizenship. They can be loyal to the historic family to which they belong and loyal to the state that is their home. They can speak both Chinese and English and feel no discomfort in a multilingual global society. If it is possible for the Chinese, it is also possible for the Jews. As for the Jewish State, it will be like every other First World state, a mixture of several nations. In a global economy, Israelis will produce their own Diaspora, and necessary foreign workers will find their way to Israel. In a mobile world, forcing immigrants to conform to a single territorial model will no longer work. Israel will remain the center of the Jewish world. But it will never become a fully Jewish state.
It is quite possible that territorial nationalism, which is still very strong, will be undermined by the very economic and technological development that territorial nations embrace. By the end of the twenty-first century, the mixing of people will be so universal that old nations will turn into world-wide dispersions. When that happens, not Zionism, but the old Jewish ethnic model of a dispersed people will again become relevant.
Very early in their history, the Jews tasted the possibility of becoming a world people. This development may be their most enduring contribution to the world. Many historians will still maintain that monotheism and a compassionate ethics were the major contributions of the Jews. But monotheism is an increasingly problematic ideology in a secular world, and philosophic monotheism has its roots in many cultures. As for compassionate ethics, it is neither ethical nor empirically responsible for any nation to designate itself the inventor of ethics.
Given their history and influence, the Jews have been and remain a provocative and extraordinary people, the unwitting precursors of a global world they helped to invent.
By the end of the second century CE the Jewish population of the Roman Empire and the Western Diaspora, despite all the setbacks, stood at seven million.* In the eyes of the Romans, the Jews were still annoying troublemakers; but they were still too numerous to destroy. Hadrian’s successors would have to find a new way to control them.
In the second century, the Empire was at the peak of its power, with the best system of imperial management that had yet been devised. The Flavian dynasty of Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian, yielded to a stronger alternative—succession by merit. Three emperors in a row chose successors who were not members of their family, but military men who commanded the respect of the army and the administration. Trajan chose Hadrian, Hadrian chose Antoninus Pius; and Antoninus Pius chose Marcus Aurelius (98-161 CE). All three emperors wanted to solve the Jewish problem.
After their second defeat by the Romans, the Jews (for all practical purposes) had ceased to be a territorial nation. They were still a nation, both in their own view and in the eyes of their neighbors—but a dispersed nation. This nation lived in two empires which were hostile to each other. Most lived in the Western Diaspora, under Roman control. Many lived in the Eastern Empire, which was under Parthian control. Western Jews lived with the challenge of the Greek world and the attractiveness of the Hellenistic option. Eastern Jews experienced a world where the old authoritarianism of the Semitic and Persian worlds prevailed. In the Jewish mind the Jews, wherever they lived, were one and the same people. But time and distance would aggravate the differences between East and West.
The Romans were confronted with the problem of taming the Jews. Forced Hellenization was no longer a feasible alternative. The only credible leadership group that survived the two messianic wars was the rabbis. There was nobody else left, not even a few Alexandria Jewish philosophers. And the leader of the rabbis was a presumed descendant of Hillel, a famous Pharisaic scholar whofounded a dynasty of rabbis, many of whom became the chiefs of the Sanhedrin. His name was Judah (170-220 CE).
In the middle of the second century, the presidency of the rabbinic Sanhedrin was permanently assumed by the House of Hillel. What David was to the monarchy, what Zadok was to the High Priesthood, so was Hillel to the “chief rabbinate.” Until 429 CE every “chief rabbi” was a descendant of Hillel.
Judah was the great-grandson of Gamaliel II. He had grown up in the turmoil of the Second Jewish War. He had witnessed the failure of the Akiba administration. He saw the devastation and demoralization of the Jews. He knew that the stability of Jewish life was only possible through an effective central control and through a long-run accommodation with the Romans.
The Romans wanted law and order from the Jews. They wanted centralized control with effective management. What was needed was a Jewish “emperor” who would tame Jews in the West and who would be directly responsible to Roman authority. A new job gradually emerged called the Nasi (Prince). The Nasi might have a Sanhedrin to whom he would defer. But from the Roman perspective, the ultimate authority would not be the council; it would be the Nasi.
The Nasi became the effective king of all the Western Jews. He became responsible for their good behavior. He became responsible for their payment of the special “Jew tax.” The Jew tax was the price that Jews paid to receive exemption from the impossible requirement of emperor worship. A king and pope wrapped into one, the Nasi was a royal personage, belonging to the “royal” family of Hillel, which now joined the house of David and the house of Zadok as an ultimate Jewish pedigree. It was rumored that Hillel himself was descended from David.
From the Roman perspective, the role of the Nasi was to check messianism. The rabbis were to return to their former Pharisee carefulness—a Messiah yes, but not for a long time. The Jews must remain a well-behaved minority nation under the control of their clergy. The Persians had authorized the Zadokite theocracy. The Romans now authorized the rabbinic theocracy, or government by the rabbis. The Nasi established rabbinic courts and ordained rabbis to serve in them. The certification of rabbis was now formalized (semikha). All legitimacy now depended on the Nasi.
The residence of the Nasi was in Galilee, the surviving center of Jewish life in Roman Palestine. The Nasi first resided in the Western Galilee in Beth Shearim, not toofar from the big city of Sepphoris. Later on the court of the Nasi moved to Tiberias in the Eastern Galilee. For two centuries Tiberias was the capital of the Jewish world. There the Nasi held court. There he lived in splendor. There he revived the politically obedient posture of the former Zadokite High Priests. But his jurisdiction was no longer little Judea. It was the boundaries of the Roman world.
The power and prestige of the Nasi did not emerge immediately. It took over two centuries to perfect them. First, the Romans had to recover from their anger. Then the rabbis had to reorganize themselves in Galilee. And then the Nasi had to create the institutions that would give reality to this power. The most important institution would be the yeshiva (Torah academy). At the heart of the yeshiva would be a new document, a Second Torah, which the Nasi himself would create.
The Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple had rendered useless the old Zadokite clergy. They had been the masters of the Temple. They had been hoisted on their own petard. The Torah which they had championed did not allow them to build a Yahweh temple in any place but the sacred hill of Jerusalem. They had foolishly arranged for their own demise. The new clergy, the rabbis, cleverly attached themselves to a portable symbol of God’s presence, the Torah book itself. They were the masters of the book. This book, which their Zadokite competitors had created, was tied to no single place. It praised and exalted Jerusalem, but it did not need it. The rabbis sincerely mourned the loss of Jerusalem. Yet, ironically, the loss of Jerusalem eliminated their competition and gave them undisputed power. The book was the very voice of God, and the rabbis were now the only people who understood what this voice was saying.
If the challenge of a temple religion is to determine which temples are “kosher,” then the challenge of a book religion is to determine which books are “kosher.” A kosher book is a book which is clearly the work of God. Human books have human authors. Divine books have divine authors. In Zadokite times, nine books had already been acknowledged as sacred— Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the Twelve. By dividing the Torah intofive books, the Greek Jews had already made it thirteen. But the Hellenistic centuries had produced a whole series of new books that their devotees also claimed were divine, each of them attributed to a prophet who served as the secretary of Yahweh. There were the songs used by the Levites in the Jerusalem Temple (Psalms). There were Hellenistic books like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Ben Sira. There were anti-Hellenistic books like Daniel and Jubilees. There were Zadokite histories like Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. There were anti-Zadokite books like Ruth and Job. There were pro-Maccabee books like Maccabees I, II and III. There were anti-Maccabee books like Esther. There were even leftover Asherah books like the Song of Songs.
The Zadokite priests had been reluctant to add books to the Torah. But the rabbis, with their messianic and Davidic agenda, had been eager to do so. The collapse of the temple regime gave them the freedom to do what-ever they wanted. What they wanted was to impose their own ideology on Jewish life in the same way that the Zadokites had done in their time. The rabbis were still eager to add books if they fit the Pharisee belief system. But they were also now eager to ban books which they saw as doctrinally dangerous. Books were instruments not only of devotion but also of instruction.
The selection process for the Bible took place at one of the most catastrophic times for the Jews. The Temple had just been destroyed and the rabbinate was rallying to assert its control over Jewish life in Yavneh. The symbol of their new power was a council of rabbis in Yavneh (90 CE), which fixed for all time the “word of God.” There were dozens of competing books to choose from. A set of stated and unstated criteria guided their decision making. The first was that all prophecy had ended. Malachi (c. 515 BCE) was the last prophet. Any legitimate book needed an author who lived before Malachi. The rabbis, like the Zadokite priests, wanted no new prophets to challenge their authority, especially at a time when hundreds of men were running around claiming to be prophets and claiming to be better messianists that the rabbis were. Of course, at one time there had been prophets. But now there were only rabbis to interpret their words. In other words, anybody claiming to be a new prophet was a false prophet. And whatever Yahweh had wanted to say to the Jews he had already said. The rabbis were now, as the official interpreters of the Divine Book of the Divine Word, the sole spokesmen for God.
The second criterion was that every book must have a legitimate prophet as its “secretary.” Since most of the books had been written long after Malachi, finding suitable transmitters provided an ideological strain. Two ancient warrior kings (who were certainly illiterate)—David and Solomon—were now turned intofamous authors, composing everything from songs to sex poetry to Hellenistic proverbs and philosophy. The age of illiteracy was transformed by the rabbis into the age of literary giants. But, of course, that made no difference. The only author was God himself.
The third criterion was that texts must be Messiah friendly. But that was not enough. They must also never suggest that a Messiah other than the one from the house of David was legitimate. Messianic texts that celebrated a Zadokite or priestly Messiah were not kosher.
The fourth criterion was that nothing positive about the Maccabees must be included. The less said about the Maccabees the better. The rabbis detested the Hellenizing Maccabees with great passion. The two great holidays celebrating Maccabee victories, Hanukka (Kislev 25) and Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13), were anathema to them. The story of Hanukka in the Books of the Maccabees was excluded. And the more important Nicanor’s Day, the celebration of the victory of Judah Maccabee over a mighty Greek army, was cleverly replaced by the Fast of Esther and Purim. The story of Purim in the Book of Esther was declared divine, even though the book was very problematic, with no mention of Yahweh and with two chief characters who have the names of Babylonian gods: Marduk (Mordecai) and Ishtar (Esther). On its own it would never have been included in the rabbinic Bible. But the rabbis hated the Maccabees. The chief holiday of the Maccabees was Nicanor’s Day (Adar 13). Purim was Adar 14. The rabbis adopted Purim and the Book of Esther and turned Nicanor’s Day, the day before Purim, into a preparatory fast day called the Fast of Esther. Purim and the Book of Esther were the gifts of the Maccabee-hating rabbis. Of course, the rabbis were already covered by their principle that all prophecy had ended with Malachi, 350 years before the Maccabees appeared. No story about the Maccabees could, therefore, be divine.
By the time the selection process was over, only eleven new books passed muster—Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles. The rest were consigned to destruction. What emerged was a collection of twenty-four books which we call the Hebrew Bible. For the rabbis they were the revelation of Yahweh to the Jews and the world. Nothing might be subtracted. Nothing might be added. Whatever Yahweh had wanted to say he had said in these books. And their true meaning and their true implications were in the hands of the rabbis. The books without the rabbis—and the rabbis without the books—were incomplete.
The Bible began with the Protest Movement and was refined by the Zadokites. But in its final form, it was a rabbinic document. We know it to be a human document with serious problems—historical inaccuracies, contradictions, anachronisms and a parochial ethics and world view. But for the rabbis, it was perfection, superior to all other literature, the presence of God on earth and the message of God to the Jews and the world. Although the Temple had been destroyed, the rabbis had fashioned a document that would replace the Temple. The study of Torah and its nineteen supplementary books would be, like the Sabbath, an alternative sacrifice to meat and incense, a sacrifice of time and devotion.
Yet the completion of the Bible did not provide the rabbis with the constitution that they needed. There was no clear and explicit articulation of rabbinic ideology. The Torah was overwhelmingly a Zadokite document. And while the prophets of the supplementary books were often deliciously anti-priestly, they never spoke about rabbis and synagogues and yeshivas. The heart of rabbinic Yahvism did not comfortably lie there. The Bible as a codebook was an inadequate foundation for a new rabbinic theocracy.
An alternative to the Bible already existed. It was the 250 years of legal decisions which the rabbis had issued both as teachers and as judges. Sometimes these decisions cited support from the Bible; sometimes they did not. There was a defiant rabbinic strain that was trans-biblical. It was the doctrine of the “Second Torah,” the bold claim that most of the decisions of the rabbis did not derive their authority from the Bible. They came directly from God, Moses and Mount Sinai. The rabbis needed their own Torah, especially now when their supremacy had been achieved.
The rabbis enhanced the mystery of this Torah by keeping it “oral.” It existed only in the memory of the rabbis who transmitted it from teacher to disciple. No lay person had access to it unless he/she consulted the rabbis. The advantage of the system was that it conveyed an ancient pre-writing authenticity to the statements. The disadvantage of the system was the bur-den of memorizing.
There is no doubt that some of the teachings of this “Second Torah” had their origins in ancient stories and practices that the Zadokites priests and even the Protest Movement prophets had excluded in their zeal. There was a folk anti-elitist edge to some of it. But most of it was comparatively recent, a vast collection of teachings derived from the schools of many rabbinic masters. The language of this transmission was Hebrew, even though the common language of the Jews was Aramaic—but not the Hebrew of the Bible; a more elegant and flexible Hebrew that had evolved in the rabbinic academies. Pharisaic ideology forbade these teachers from calling themselves prophets. But they were inventors of a new lifestyle, a pious lifestyle that was trying to adapt the severe message of a shepherd Protest Movement to the demands of an urban Hellenistic world.
Out of this struggle came the foundations of the traditional Judaism with which we are familiar. The Torah lifestyle was modified tofit the world of craftsmen and merchants, as well as farmers and herdsmen—the world of bourgeois families as well as peasants in huts and shepherds in tents—the world of literacy as well as the world of trances and ecstasies. Sabbath lights and synagogue prayers, Passover seders and commercial transactions—all take their place on the Jewish stage as though they were perfectly traditional. And the rabbis make it all kosher with their wonderful oral transmissions.
The great rabbinic masters, the founders of important schools, were called tannaim (repeaters), and their teachings or repetitions were called mishnayot (mishnah in the singular form). By the time of Judah the Prince, there were thousands of these transmissions floating around the rabbinic world. If they could only be collected, if they could only be written down, they would become an effective “second constitution” for the new rabbinic establishment.
Attempts had been made to relieve the burden of memorization by writing down the teachings to facilitate study and judicial decision making. But there was strong resistance from conservatives who feared innovation and who also feared that it would undermine rabbinic authority. In the second century, before the Bar Kochba rebellion (and even after), famous rabbis like Akiba and Meir encouraged the recording out of fear that the destruction of the rabbis through Roman persecution would lead to the loss of the transmitted teachings.
Judah the Prince bit the bullet. As the first Nasi of a new Jewish regime, as a new High Priest without the Temple, he saw the necessity of the “Second Torah,” a visible constitution for the new Jewish government. The Bible held a primary place of honor but was too disconnected from the behavior and lifestyle of the evolving rabbinic world to be useful. Having just been finalized, it was already obsolete, even for the pious. Something in the language and style of the rabbis was required.
The monumental task of collecting and editing the mishnayot began. It was fed by the energy of the Jewish government, by the victory of propagandists who warned that the legacy would otherwise be lost and by the excitement of finally transcending the disasters of the recent past. By 200 CE it was complete. Once completed, it would become the major document of Jewish life until modern times. The Bible, like the Aaronide priests, would always be granted first honors. But the stuff out of which government and scholarship emerged was to be found in the new constitution.
The name conferred on the document was Mishnah. It turned out to be an anthology of sixty-three books organized into six sections. Each section dealt with a different area of Jewish concern—farming, holidays, family, crime, worship and purity. The organization of the Mishnah was different from that of the Bible. At the heart of the Bible was a rambling narrative with laws inserted. The Mishnah was a law book with stories inserted. The Mishnah, although its spirit was anti-Hellenistic, reflected the Hellenistic penchant for order and classification. It was sometimes more Greek that it wanted to be.*
In many cases, where rabbinic masters disagreed, the Mishnah cited both the majority and dissenting opinions, but, in general, the prevailing law was stated simply and clearly without the frills of biblical Hebrew. The anthology was all-encompassing. It recognized no boundary between state and religion. Religion was not a department of state as it was in the Greek and Roman world. The state was a department of religion, as it was in the mentality of salvation religion. Since the Jews at this time were a dispersed minority, a nation without territory, the Mishnah focused more on family, work and worship than on political administration. The Temple had its own section, a powerful reminder of its continuing hold on Jewish imagination and patriotism. But it remained the most neglected part of the Mishnah.
Of course, there were defects. Many teachings of many masters were excluded either deliberately or because they were not available. Hasty collecting was bound to leave out many candidates. Where there was no controversy, laws were frequently not included. Underlying the document was the existence of a world of shared culture and general consensus where everything did not need to be spelled out for the reader. The order was often less than Greeks would demand. It would require future code breakers to make the information in the Mishnah consumer accessible. But it was, in many respects, a workable compromise between Hellenistic reason and Semitic problem solving.
The Mishnah had one book devoted to ideology. It was called Avot (rabbinic Fathers) and clearly articulated the philosophy of salvation so dear to the hearts of the Messianists and Pharisees. This world was but an antechamber to the next. Every deed was observed and recorded. The final Judgment Day hovered over all reality. Justice would prevail. The ultimate reward was the presence of God. The taste of that presence on earth was the study of Torah (read Mishnah). The opening of the Book of Avot is the most important ideological statement in the entire Mishnah—that God di-vided the Torah into a written and oral one; the first he gave to the Zadokite priests. The second he gave to Moses and Joshua, who ultimately transmitted it to the rabbis.* Loud and clear!
The Mishnah became the foundation of the new Jewish government. It transformed the Jewish culture of the Western Diaspora, and ultimately that of the Eastern Diaspora as well. It became the foundation of the new rabbinic academies in the Galilee. Mastering the Mishnah was the avenue to ordination to the rabbinate. The rabbinate became the most prestigious Jewish profession. Rabbinic appointees and missionaries were placed all over the Roman world, enhancing the prestige and power of the Nasi. As the Hellenistic Jewish world retreated, it was embraced by this new Jewish authority. Government by the clergy returned to Jewish life.
In the third century, the Roman government dramatically underwent an ethnic transformation. Greek shared with Latin an equal authority. The merit system for the emperors broke down. Ambitious soldiers, chiefly of non-Roman origin, seized power. One of them was the child of a Syrian Baal priestess. Ultimately all the inhabitants of the Empire, including the Jews, received citizenship (212 CE). In a less Roman and more oriental empire, the Jews felt perfectly comfortable, even though Greek antisemitism would not go away. Citizenship arrived just as the economy began to decline from too much taxation and too much disorder. Salvation cults from the East poured in, catering to imperial citizens who were withdrawing from public life and turning to personal salvation. The messianic idea of impending catastrophe and rescue grew in popularity. The Jews found themselves in an ideological world where the Mishnah message was not so strange. The trauma of the last century faded away. The power and prestige of the Nasi increased. Like multicultural America with a problematic economy of self-absorbed consumers, Jews in the Roman world achieved the security of becoming a multicultural option.
In the rabbinic academies of Galilee, the Mishnah became the focal point of discussion and judicial debate. A new set of Mishnah masters appeared. They were the Amoraim. In typical religious and ancestral worship fashion, they viewed themselves as inferior to the Tannaim who preceded them. They were simply scholars, not transmitters. Questions from the Diaspora were referred to their academies. Disputes over the meaning of the texts then ensued. Disciples recorded the discussions of their masters. Succeeding generations referred to them and added their own commentary.
From time to time, challengers wanted to know whether the laws of the Second Torah could be found in the first one. There was a continuous insecurity in the Mishnah world over the equality of the Mishnah with the Bible. Much time was spent pursuing this search for “appropriate” Bible quotations. Along the way, much of the dialogue was recorded. After one hundred years, most mishnayot in the Mishnah had footnotes ten times as long as the original text. In the world of the rabbinic academies, nothing could stop this endless digression. What began as a pragmatic search for practical answers was now turned into a stream-of-consciousness doctoral dissertation.
At the beginning of the third century, an important event occurred. A Galilean master by the name of Rav (c. 220 CE) crossed over the eastern border of the Roman Empire to Parthian Chaldea and brought the Mishnah yeshiva with him. Rav was one of the most important teachers in the rabbinic world of his day, which was centered in Galilee. But the Jews of the Eastern Diaspora in Chaldea, who were numerous and populous, lacked the institutions and scholarship of Galilee. Rav’s decision to move to Chaldea was not the result of persecution or the anticipated collapse of the Roman Empire. It was an opportunity to incorporate the Eastern world (Jews of the Parthian Empire) more tightly into the rabbinic system.
Judea was an economically difficult place. The Yahweh cult provided the basis for its economic survival, if not prosperity. At the heart of the Yahweh cult was the ancient world’s version of tourism—religious pilgrimage. Judea was so small that it functioned pretty much as suburban Jerusalem. And the basis of the Jerusalem economy under the Zadokites was religious pilgrimage. Jerusalem became a shrine city, very much what it is today.
This shrine city featured a famous sanctuary, an impressive clergy, elaborate ritual, rites of purification and the aura of holiness. The city of warrior monarchs was transformed into a city of priests. Jerusalem took on the persona of a minor Vatican City. At its head ruled the High Priest in all his splendor. Below him were the administrative clergy. And below them were clergy who dealt with the public.
Some of the state revenue came from taxation and the profits of Zadokite-owned land that grew in size over time. Most of it came from the Diaspora, from prosperous Jews who made substantial gifts to the Temple treasury and from the thousands of Diaspora pilgrims who lived outside Judea but spent their money on what was now more than the homeland. It was the Holy Land. The emergence of the Diaspora and the beginnings of the Jewish middle class enabled Judea and Jerusalem to survive in a manner that its local economy would never have allowed. The cult of Yahweh helped to preserve Jewish national identity outside of Judea.
The Zadokite administration confronted several serious problems. The first problem was the presence of competing scriptures. Over the years, the Protest Movement and the schools of Yahweh prophets had produced many books about Yahweh and his connection with the Jewish people for which their devotees claimed divine origin. The most prominent troublesome books had been part of the “D” narrative and had been excluded from the Torah because they anticipated or exalted the house of David. Today we call these books Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. In these books the story of the Protest Movement is told.
Because of the residual affection for both the royal house of David and the Protest Movement in Judea, the Zadokites reluctantly accepted these books as the word of Yahweh. But they consigned them to a status inferior to the Torah, claiming that the revelation at Sinai was far more important than the teachings of “later” prophets. In fact, these prophets were only repeating what had already been revealed in the Torah. The Zadokites reversed the order of reality. They asserted that the Torah was the inspiration for the “protest prophets,” when indeed the truth was the opposite. The protest prophets were the distant parents of the Torah.
The “book” problem was only a symptom of a larger problem of public dissatisfaction with Zadokite rule. The Zadokites had become an entrenched aristocracy who, together with their supporters, reaped most of the benefits from the wealth of a shrine city. They were pedigree snobs who excluded ambitious families rather than embraced them. The pedigree system was too narrow a foundation for an expanding shrine city.
The pedigree issue was the trigger for the second problem of racism. As the Yahweh cult expanded in the Diaspora, non-Jews were attracted to the religion of the Jews. But racial criteria excluded them from joining. These non-Jews were willing to accept the fact that becoming Yahwists meant that they would have to become Jews and to repudiate their birth nationality. But the Ezra restrictions provided them with no possible way to become Jews. In time, the Ezra system broke down in the Diaspora. Non-Jews were admitted to the Jewish nation. But Jewish public opinion was ambiguous. It still is. Converts still have difficulty being fully accepted as Jews. What is most interesting about this development was the rising non-Jewish interest in the cult of Yahweh. Was it the monotheism of the cult? Was it the iconoclastic severity? Was it the discipline of its devotees? The Jews as a nation had found a way to increase their numbers independent of reproduction and territorial conquest.
The third problem of the Zadokites was their ideology. Yahweh had no devil to accept responsibility for evil—and no other gods to blame for dis-aster. In a world filled with evil and injustice the only defense of Yahweh became the notion that all suffering is a function of sin, and that the blame falls on human beings. The reward system in the Torah is clearly this-worldly: long life, prosperity and many children. If you view punishment as collective, there is always somebody’s sin floating around for which you can be justifiably punished. But in an age when individual self-awareness was growing, it was only just that every individual should suffer for his own sin. The suffering of the innocent was intolerable. That is the lament of Job, the protagonist in one of those trouble-making new books which challenged the Zadokites. Clearly, in a world where the good suffer and the wicked prosper, a “this-worldly” reward system is not enough. It needed overhauling.
The overhauling would lead to trouble for the Zadokites. Their staid little system of unavailable rewards, especially for the common people, inspired religious resistance. This resistance featured visions of spectacular rewards in a life after death. Unjustified suffering was the result of evil forces in the universe which Yahweh had not yet subdued. But a time was coming very soon when a final battle between Good and Evil would take place. At this time Evil would be crushed, God would triumph, the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished. Even the dead would rise from their graves to face judgment. The Kingdom of God would be established. By implication the government of the Zadokites would cease to exist.
Some of the teachers who embraced this “unorthodox” Final Judgment were, most likely, former leaders who bore personal grievances against the Zadokites. One of these groups may have come from the Levites, the relatives of the family of Moses, who had been deprived of their historic priesthood by the triumphant Zadokites. They now functioned as assistants to the Zadokites, pushed away from the altar to the choir. Closer to the spirit of the Protest Movement and its warnings of doom—and op-pressed by the loss of their jobs and status—the disgruntled Levites were natural candidates to be leaders of this ideological opposition. As religious propaganda, this vision of a dramatic “end of days” was more powerful than a pedestrian system of little rewards and punishments that did not work.
The last problem of the Zadokites was the plague of interpreters. The Torah, like the Constitution of the United States of America, was a collection of words. The words would mean what the prevailing authority and public opinion would allow them to mean. The idea that a final written document would dispense with disagreement was naïve. Believing in the Bible as an ultimate authority solved no problem, especially if there were three thousand different interpretations of the Bible. Once you had dispensed with prophets, what replaced them were interpreters. The scholar-interpreters, like any supreme court, proceed to tell you “what the text really means.”
The Zadokites could not avoid interpreters. They needed judges to ad-minister the law. Since no human authority could pass any more laws, every new regulation to deal with new circumstances had to be derived from the text of the Torah. Zadokite judges inevitably had to become scholar-interpreters or find scholar-interpreters as consultants. The system became an absurd exercise where most energy was devoted tofinding textual justification for a conclusion that had already been reached—instead of simply seeking the best way to solve the problem.
Most of the judge/interpreters, the soferim (Masters of the Book),* were part of the priestly establishment. With increasing frequency, however, tolerated outsiders were most likely included, simply because hereditary systems decline with time. Thus a new non-hereditary clergy emerged. In time, the judges disagreed on major issues. They formed factions. Some factions were liberal, some conservative—some universalistic, some parochial—some open to the vision of the Final Judgment and some unalterably opposed. The Zadokite government was vulnerable if a compelling issue would assault the establishment.
That issue was created by a new conqueror and a powerful new culture that challenged the culture of the Torah and its Zadokite defenders—the Greeks.
The first significant archeological signs of urbanization and power appear in the reign of Omri (884-873 BCE) and his son Ahab (873-852 BCE). Omri transformed Israel into a credible military power. Under Omri, the backward northern highlands became a center of military and political intimidation. But the Jewish writers and editors of the Bible viewed him with scorn. They detested his political policies, especially his alliance with the Phoenicians. They also abhorred his toleration of the religious practices of the Canaanites, who were almost one-half of Israel’s inhabitants. That Omri and Ahab vastly expanded the nation’s borders, that they enhanced the economy with their two-way trade between Israel and Phoenicia, that they repelled both the Arameans and the Assyrians—all of that was irrelevant to the Yahweh-worshiping Jews. Ahab had dared to marry the Phoenician princess Jezebel and to subsidize the Phoenician Baal cult. His impiety cancelled out all political and economic achievements. The Biblical lens distorted the importance of the secular work of the House of Omri. The marriage of a foreign princess was of great concern to later editors of the Bible (see Solomon). It was of no concern to most of the people of Israel, who were used to mixed societies and religious toleration.
The Phoenicians were coastal Canaanites who chose manufacturing trade and commerce as their specialty. Shrewd and competent businessmen, they turned the Mediterranean Sea into a Phoenician lake. Israel became their agricultural hinterland, providing olives, wheat and wine. If you can recover from your antipathy to Baal, the alliance between Israel and the Canaanite Phoenicians was made in heaven.
Before we explore the value of Jewish identity in a secular age, we need to clarify what Jewish identity is.
We need to evaluate certain words that people use to describe Jews. Religious, racial, cultural, national are common designations. They have been used frequently by both friends and enemies.
What friends and enemies think is not irrelevant. Useful labels are public creations. They belong to a world of shared meaning. Groups have boundaries. What those boundaries are for Jews is determined not only by Jews but also by those who stand on the other side of the boundary. We are not only what we say we are. We are also what others say we are.
Sometimes what we think about ourselves and what others think about us is not part of our awareness. It is unconscious and can only be detected through behavior. Our actions are always more interesting than our words. They reveal what we really believe about ourselves. If we want to understand the nature of Jewish identity, we have to watch how Jews behave, not just how they choose to present themselves to others.
Are the Jews a religious group?
Certainly, in the countries of the Western world, that designation is the most convenient. It avoids the accusation of dual nationality and identifies Jews with a community activity that is viewed as positive. In Eastern Europe, it is less convenient. Seventy-five years of Communism secularized most Jews. In Israel, a definition of the Jews as a religious denomination would subvert the reason for a Jewish state. Theological fraternities do not need countries of their own.
The truth of the matter is that while many Jews do religion, many do not. No common set of theological beliefs unites all Jews. Many have no theological beliefs. Many openly denounce religion. Many espouse atheism. But their Jewish identity remains intact. Jews are proud to claim both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein as members of the tribe.
The Reformers’ attempt to define the Jews as a religious denomination—and nothing more—failed. It excluded too many people who were obviously Jews. A definition that cannot accommodate Theodor Herzl and Golda Meir is less than convincing. Even the Rejectionists, who defend rabbinic Judaism, live by the criterion that the children of a Jewish mother are Jewish and remain Jewish, no matter what they believe or do.
When the Israeli Supreme Court denied Jewish status to Brother Daniel, a bom-Jew who had become a Catholic monk, they did not behave appropriately.1 They had no difficulty giving Jewish Marxists what they had denied to him. Was the fact that Brother Daniel had suffered as a Jew in wartime Poland, despite his religious beliefs, irrelevant?
In fact, anti-Semites always ignore Jewish religious behavior. Conversions to Catholicism meant nothing to the persecutors of the Marranos. And the Nazi bullies never believed in “former” Jews. In their eyes, credal statements could neither make nor unmake a Jew.
It is quite clear that the Jewish status of a Mr. Cohen is usually determined long before anybody bothers to ask him what his religion is. In the secular age, as a Jew, he has many options—both religious and secular.
Are the Jews a racial group?
Ever since Hitler, Jews have avoided this designation. It reeks of persecution and concentration camps. Jews go to great length to prove the diversity of physical form that exists among Jews. The differences between Western and Oriental Jews, so apparent in Israel, are obvious examples.
But it is quite clear that the Jews, at the very beginning of their history, enjoyed some form of racial conformity. They were a collection of Semitic tribes. They were part of the gene pools of Western Asia. They viewed themselves as the descendants of a single ancestor called Abraham.
In the nineteenth century, the word race was loosely used to describe a group of people who shared a common origin and who behaved as a nation. But in the twentieth century, the word has been given a more precise scientific meaning. Physical characteristics, more than pedigree, are the criteria.
After twenty centuries of breeding with slaves, converts, and outsiders, the original Semitic mix has been diluted. And the new rage for intermarriage in Europe and North America will make any racial classification more difficult.
Oddly enough—or not so oddly—Rejectionists, like the Lubav- itchers, retain the racial outlook of the biblical editors who view outbreeding as religiously dangerous. They maintain that Jews have an inherited disposition to spirituality. Even if well-intentioned Gentiles want to become Jewish, their desire is a hopeless one. They lack the genetic equipment to become what they want to be. Racial theories are not confined to Nazis.
Are the Jews a national group?
The Zionists think so. The authors of the Bible think so. And the rabbinic fathers concur.
A nation, in ancient times, was a confederation of tribes who shared a common language and a common territory. Outside Judea, rabbinic Jews believed that they were in exile, that they were not part of the nations among whom they lived, and that they would return someday to their territorial homeland. Their hostile hosts agreed with them and gave them the status of aliens.
But very early, the dispersion of the Jews created subnations. Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic faded away. New territorial enclaves with unique Jewish languages emerged. Northern Europe produced Yiddish. Spain invented Ladino. Jewish Arabic united the Jews of the Near East. And Jewish Persian became the mother tongue of Jewish Central Asia.
Were the speakers of Yiddish and Jewish Arabic one nation because the Bible said so and because they shared Hebrew as their devotional language? Or were they separate nations, distinct from their neighbors and distinct from each other? The coming together of Western and Oriental Jews in modem Israel is similar to the experience of Anglo-Saxon and Italian ethnics on the streets of Boston. If there is an Israeli nation today, it is being molded by secular Hebrew, Arab hostility, and “intermarriage.”
The Jews were a single nation. They divided up into several smaller nations. And now some of them are creating a new Hebrew-speaking nation. But the majority of the Jews of the world have abandoned unique Jewish speech to adopt the language of their local environment. In America, Jews are pragmatically identified with the white subnation, those Americans who share American English and who are visibly neither black nor Chicano.
For most of their history, Jews were part of unique Jewish nations because they spoke unique Jewish languages, even though they did not possess territory of their own. Today, linguistic assimilation has undermined Jewish nationality in most parts of the world. If many Israelis did not speak English, American Jewish tourists would feel less sentimental about Israel.
Nations without territory are possible. (Look at the Yiddish nation.) But nations without either language or territory are illusions. Communities of Hebrew-speaking Jews form the only viable Jewish nation today. Israel is a Jewish nation. But not all Jews are part of that nation.
Israel is a unique phenomenon. Its roots lie in the Diaspora. It is the creation of the Diaspora. Other diasporas are the creation of their homeland. They have their roots there. They have their linguistic memories there. Israelis have to deal with their past in the same way that most Americans do. They have to think about Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have to deal with the fact that their families are recent arrivals. They have to confront the fact that their grandparents speak Hebrew less fluently than they do.
Italian-Americans look back to their homeland. Israeli Jews look back to their Diaspora. The importance of the Bible in Israel is related to this strange reversal. By emphasizing the Bible, the early Zionists wanted to negate the two thousand years of the dispersion. They wanted to create the illusion that the roots of modern Israel are in the ancient kingdom of David and Solomon. But the connection is tenuous. The real connection is with that disturbing Diaspora that refuses to disappear or to come home. Jewish identity in Israel can never be “normal” in the same way that English identity is taken for granted in England because the creation of Israel was abnormal. No invading illiterate barbarian tribes invented it. Israel was the planned project of urban sophisticates with long written memories. Some Jews today are part of a Jewish nation. But it is highly unlikely that most of them ever will be.
Are the Jews a cultural group?
Many secular Jews like to refer to themselves as cultural Jews. By that description, they mean to suggest that while they no longer have any attachment to rabbinic theology, they do have a sentimental connection with Jewish holidays, Jewish music, Jewish food, and Jewish symbols. They may even enjoy Jewish literature and dance Jewish dances. They may even dabble in Jewish languages.
Cultural attachments are what survive when linguistic and religious behavior disappear. They survive on pick and choose. They can often be done in translation.
But cultural attachments are different from living cultures. Vital cultures are the merging of language with lifestyle and daily activity. They require their own unique space and exclude others. Hasidic Jews and Shiite Persians understand that reality. American Jews who eat matsa and dance the hora have Jewish cultural attachments. But they do not live in Jewish culture.
In the perspective of Jewish history, Judaism can be viewed as a civilization. There was no single Jewish national culture. There was Ashkenazic Jewish culture. There was Sephardic Jewish culture. Each culture was defined by a unique Jewish language written in Hebrew letters. A civilization is a collection of nations united by symbols and lifestyle. In that sense, Hellenism, Christianity, Islam, and Confucianism were also civilizations—but on a much grander scale. Yet all of these civilizations are now yielding to a new one, the emerging new civilization of western capitalism. And the urban Jew is at the center of this development.
The culture of most Jews today is Western European secular culture, which has been refined by North America and which is spreading all over the world. Modem technology and modem architecture have no real nationality. They are international in the same way that science is. World languages like English, French, and Spanish unite the educated elites of all participating nations. Even the insular Japanese patronize symphony orchestras and collect Renoirs.
Modem Israel is nationally distinct. But it is not really culturally distinct from North America. A world of shared artifacts and shared education does not breed separate cultures. Tourists today are getting less for their money. They are finding it harder to visit quaint nations and to view charming local customs. Even the natives find it demeaning to be quaint, and they are cynical enough to turn local customs into tourist traps. Jewish visitors to Israel prefer Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. But Tel Aviv is where the action is.
Some Jews, Rejectionist Jews who live behind the walls of segregation, have their own culture. But most Jews, including Israeli Jews, have become part of a culture that is not uniquely Jewish. Western culture, as a consumer culture with many options, allows for cultural attachments. American Jews can choose Passover and Hebrew classes. But they can also choose Chinese food, karate, and French lessons.
Some people may deplore the disappearance of grand old cultures and the emergence of an international style with cultural options. But the old cultures will survive only as segregated islands. The wonders of the new culture are too attractive.
As for many Jews, they do not choose to indulge any of the Jewish cultural options that are available. But they still are Jews. And some of them value their Jewish identity.
It is quite obvious that Jewish identity includes religious, racial, national, and cultural behavior. But it cannot be adequately defined by any one of them. A broader and more inclusive concept is required.
What realities should this concept embrace? What are the parameters that surround all Jews, whether they choose to engage in uniquely Jewish activity or do not choose to do so, whether they value their Jewish identity or do not value it?
Jewish identity, first of all, means a sense of shared ancestry. The Jews began as a nation, an ethnic federation of tribes. Their epic literature, which has become part of the sacred scriptures of the Christian world, speaks of their common ancestors. Whether Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob were real personalities or personifications of tribal invasions is irrelevant to the issue. The Jews saw themselves (and their neighbors saw them) as a true nation, a people united by “blood” ties and family loyalty. Even in talmudic times, joining the Jews was never a mere religious conversion. It was an “adoption.” New Jews severed all connections with their old families and adopted the ancestry of Abraham and Sarah.3
The Jewish people was dispersed from its homeland and became a family of new nations. But Jews never lost their sense of kinship. No matter where they lived, no matter what language they spoke, no matter what culture they adopted, no matter what racial elements they incorporated—they believed (and their neighbors believed) that they were united by a bond of “blood.” Nineteenth century writers would not have hesitated to use the word race to describe this awareness—even the most pro-Semitic. But the dangers of that word in the twentieth century forbid its use. The more benign word kinship may be more discreet. Or the phrase family sense.
All Jews—even those who hate being Jewish—have this awareness of other Jews being their “relatives.” New Jews, those who choose to become Jewish, also sense that they are joining a family fraternity where enthusiasm may confer fewer privileges than birth. Outsiders, too, both the pros and the antis, have this view of tribal connection. The phrase member of the tribe, although offensive to some, captures the awareness of a condition that is less than national but more than ideological.
The second parameter of Jewish identity is shared memories. Kinship means family roots and family history. The story of the Jews, whether positive or negative, fills the popular culture in the Western world. Christians give the Jews center stage in their drama. Muslims assign them a more peripheral role. But both traditions force Jews—even Jews who want to run away from their history or who are indifferent to or ignorant of it—to confront their past. The Jews have a secure place in the popular memory. Announcing that you are a Jew is different from announcing that you are a Swedenborgian. Receivers of the news can fit you into their cultural memory Even the peasant folk who have “never met a Jew before” know that Jews are not novelties. Even Jews who claim that they “know nothing about Judaism” know that they have a secure place in the history of any Western culture.
The third parameter of Jewish identity is shared danger. Jews are a vulnerable family. For whatever historical reasons, we are surrounded by hostility. The potential of anti-Semitism is part of the self-awareness of all Jews. It is also part of the awareness of Gentiles who deal with Jews. The events of the twentieth century have reinforced this apprehension. The Holocaust has tied Jewish identity to such fundamental emotions as fear, anger, loyalty, and pride. Frequently, Jews and Jewish leaders complain about the overemphasis on the negative side of Jewish existence. But Jewish anxiety and Jewish behavior do not pay any attention to this warning. Most parents who seek a Jewish education for their children want their sons and daughters to feel “proud” of their Jewish connection. They are obviously afraid that someone will make them feel less than proud. Being defensive is part of the Jewish condition.
Vulnerable kinship is an imperfect classification of Jewish identity. But it is more accurate than the words religion, race, nation, or culture. The word people is a convenient designation. Yet its usefulness is its vagueness. You can make it mean whatever you want it to mean. The word is part of public relations, not clarification. If a people can be a vulnerable international family—then fine.
Jewish identity is not an enigma. It is not a mystery. Vulnerable kinships exist elsewhere. Gypsies are an example. They are lower in the social scale than we would prefer as a parallel. But they are less than a nation and more than an economic function. And they know that when they announce themselves, they are in danger.
Apprehensive international families can provide many positive benefits. Danger—if it is not physical—can be an exciting condition. It keeps you on the alert and forces you to be very aware of your environment. It trains you in the survival skills of flight, appeasement, and confrontation. It persuades you to try cooperation and group solidarity. It makes you always envision alternatives to what you are doing presently. If anti-Semitism is not overt, Jews have one of the best training programs for survival in the modem urban world.