“The Meaning of Jewish History” From Humanistic Judaism, Spring 1986.
For the Jewish people, Jewish history has been more than a history. It has also been a course in philosophy.
For more than three thousand years, priests, prophets, poets, rabbis, and scholars have used the Jewish experience to “prove” their vision of the world. The events of the Jewish saga became “evidence” for certain beliefs about the nature of God and the universe. The exodus from Egypt was more than an exodus. In priestly and rabbinic hands, it became the demonstration of divine power and divine justice.
The meaning of Jewish history is the set of answers to important questions about God, the world, and people, which observers derive from the Jewish experience. Four questions, in particular, became the dominant themes of this evaluation. What does Jewish history demonstrate about:
The nature of the universe?
The power of human beings?
The evolution of human experience?
The essence of Jewish identity?
Rabbinic Judaism, which was the establishment ideology of the Jewish people for more than two thousand years, used the events of the Jewish story to answer these four questions. The answers of the rabbis became the “official” meaning of the Jewish experience. Rabbinic literature derived its character from this unique perspective.
What were the answers of the rabbis?
From the rabbinic point of view, the existence, experiences, and survival of the Jewish people demonstrated the presence in the universe of an all-powerful, loving, and just God, who punished the wicked and rewarded the good, and who was attentive to the hopes and aspirations of all humanity. The world was a well ordered place in which a divine intelligence was actively concerned with the moral agenda of human beings. Therefore, whatever happened in the world—no matter how seemingly unjust— happened for the good. In the end, even the suffering of the innocent would be vindicated by divine rewards.
Jewish history, according to the rabbis, demonstrated that human power was extremely limited; that human beings, relying on their own power alone, could accomplish very little. Time after time, according to the Bible and the Talmud, the Jewish people were rescued from disaster and from the embarrassment of their own inadequacy by divine intervention. The message of the priests and the prophets was that reliance on human effort and on human ingenuity was as effective as leaning on a “weak reed.” The wise man recognized that human happiness was possible only with supernatural help.
Jewish history also revealed that the quality of human life was gradually declining. The present was inferior to the past, and the future would be inferior to the present. Similarly, the teachers of the present were inferior to the teachers of the past, and the teachers of the future would be inferior to the teachers of the present. The patriarchs, the prophets, and the rabbinic fathers were wiser, more saintly, and more inspired than any sages that would follow. Modern-day saints and scholars would be mental and spiritual pygmies in comparison with their ancient predecessors. God’s conversations with humanity, and the time of divine revelation, had come to an end with the prophet Malachi. The world would sink into corruption and violence until only the messianic intervention of God would rescue humankind.
As to the nature and character of the Jewish people, the rabbis were very definite in their answer. The Jewish people was inseparable from the Torah and the religion it embodied. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its essence and its unique personality. Without the Torah, the Jewish people would lose its motivation to survive as a distinct nation and would quickly be absorbed by the Gentile world. The Jews and rabbinic Judaism were pragmatically one.
The Humanist Critique
The meaning of Jewish history, as it was conceived by the rabbis, presents many problems for Humanistic Jews.
Supernatural guidance of natural events is not a credible idea for rational secularists. The assumption that what happens in this world is caused by decisions made in another is without valid evidence. If there are natural events, they have natural causes.
The discoveries of the past are important. But there is no evidence that the experts of the present are inferior to the experts of the past. In the world of science and technology, the information of the present is far superior to that of the past. There is no reason to assume that the development of religions and philosophic truths has been any different.
Religious personalities have been important in Jewish history. But to maintain that priests, prophets, and rabbis were the chief actors in the Jewish drama is to ignore the secular dimension of the Jewish experience. The authors of the Bible and the Talmud may not have chosen to record the achievements of the merchants, bankers, and artisans. Yet these achievements, economic and cultural, may have been just as influential in molding the Jewish character.
Traditional scholars make no distinction between the experience of the Jewish people and the descriptions of that experience that appear in the official texts of sacred literature. They simply assume that what the Bible and the Talmud claim to have happened did happen. If the Book of Exodus maintains that the Red Sea split before the fleeing Hebrews, then there was a split. If the anonymous Talmudic storyteller declares that a one-day supply of holy oil lasted for eight days, then this extraordinary event was real. There is no awareness of the fact, so amply confirmed by modem scientific criticism, that the real history of the Jews is vastly different from the saga presented by the rabbinic tradition.
In the light of these objections to the rabbinic approach to Jewish history, Humanistic Jews provide different answers to the four questions.
A Humanistic Perspective: World View
From a humanistic perspective, the existence, experience, and survival of the Jewish people hardly demonstrate the existence of a loving, just God who is compassionately involved with the moral agenda of human beings. On the contrary, the very opposite is indicated. In the century of the Holocaust, after twenty centuries of continuous, unprovoked Jew hatred, the experience of the Jewish people points to the absence of God.
A humanistic Judaism finds a totally different meaning in Jewish history from that proposed by traditional Judaism. A believer in future supernatural rewards and punishments would be hard put to justify the scenarios of Jewish sorrow and suffering from a morally divine perspective. No good God would arrange or allow a Holocaust of six million innocent victims. A thousand glorious resurrections would never provide moral compensation.
If Jewish history has any message abut the nature of the universe, it is that the universe is indifferent to our suffering or happiness, that it cares nothing about the moral concerns of the human struggle. The Jewish experience points to the absurdity of the world. Events happen in accordance with physical laws, not in accordance with ethical ones. Earthquakes and wars cannot defy the law of gravity; they can easily defy the Golden Rule.
The cosmic implication of Jewish history is that you cannot rely on the kindness of the universe. In the end, if human beings want justice, they will have to arrange for it. If they want happiness and dignity, they will have to arrange for them, too. And there is no messianic guarantee that we will achieve what we strive to achieve. Uncertainty is the stuff of an absurd universe.
In the light of four thousand years of continuous reproduction, Jewish survival is not so dramatic. Look at the Chinese, the Hindus, and the Greeks, who are equally ancient. Look at the Arabs, our Semitic rivals. Whatever gods took care of them did a far better job than Yahveh.
A Humanistic Perspective: Human Power
The rabbinic answer to the question of human power is inadequate and contrived. To assume that every human failure is due to human weakness and that every human success is due to divine assistance is to build the desired conclusion into the premise. From a naturalistic point of view, human success is the result of human effort and human ingenuity. If the achievement occasionally seems “divine,” that is a tribute to human potential. Sometimes adversity evokes extraordinary results.
The Exodus from Egypt (if it is indeed a historical event) was a human happening that used human power to arrange for human freedom. The resistance of the Maccabees was a “human” rebellion that used human ingenuity to defeat the Greeks.
The survival of the Jews through fifteen centuries of unremitting persecution is no testimony to divine benevolence. It is a witness to the continuous ability of the Jews to invent new reasons for their enemies to let them live. If their religious ideas were offensive, their economic skills remained indispensable. The Zionist enter-prise was a determined effort on the part of secular Jews to reject the historic passivity of the pious, with all its messianic waiting, and to assume conscious responsibility for the Jewish fate.
Jewish history testifies to the power of human ingenuity to cope with the cruelty of destiny. While Jewish suffering was more destructive than helpful, it did hone Jewish survival skills and stimulated the development of group solidarity and ambition.
A Humanistic Perspective: Progress
The rabbinic vision of human development, its answer to the question of human progress, is a distortion of reality. The belief that the best, the smartest, and the most charismatic lived long ago and that succeeding generations of religious experts and moralists can only manage to be less brilliant and less inspiring would be a charming myth if it did not have such harmful consequences.
The helplessness of modem Orthodoxy to find legal and moral relief for its overburdened adherents is the result of this doctrine. If contemporary scholars are overwhelmingly inferior to Moses and
Jeremiah, Hillel and Akiba, they have no moral authority to change what the superior ones have sanctioned. If divine revelation is con-fined to the distant past, nothing in the present can override its commands. Religion is reduced to the worship of the past.
Even modem liberal expressions of rabbinic Judaism such as Conservatism, Reform, and Reconstructionism, which accept some form of contemporary revelation, suffer from this view. They still vigorously seek to find sanction in the Bible and the Talmud for the changes they institute. Without the “kosherizing” of the past, present decisions lack validity.
Nostalgia for the pious past pervades the historic perspective of contemporary Jewish leaders. Most of these commentators on the Jewish scene see modem Western urban Jewry as less “Jewish” and less exciting than the pietists of earlier generations. They imagine that the age of the Secular Revolution has devastated the Jewish people through skepticism, assimilation, and intermarriage.
For Humanistic Jews, this nostalgia is deplorable. From our perspective, the Secular Revolution was the best thing that ever happened to the Jewish people. It removed the tyrannical religious monopoly of the traditional rabbis. It opened the Jewish mind to scientific inquiry and naturalism. It provided Jews with a more realistic understanding of the Jewish past and the evolution of Jewish culture. It introduced Jews to secular studies and to the intellectual pursuits that enabled them to make their mark on the revolutionary rethinking of the human condition. It provided them with a free economy and a democratic political structure that enabled them to reach unprecedented heights of prosperity and community involvement. It rescued them from religious passivity and gave them the confidence to assume responsibility for the Jewish fate.
Despite wars and massacres, the human condition and the Jewish condition have vastly improved. Few contemporary Jews, if offered the option, would volunteer to return to the Age of the Patriarchs.
Jewish wisdom and creativity in the twentieth century does not have to take a back seat to the legacy of the distant past. The Jews of this century are, probably, the most interesting, the most challenging, and the most creative generations of Jews that ever lived. Einstein was not inferior to Moses. And Freud did not have to offer reverence to Isaiah. Bialik and Tchernikhovsky are the equals of the psalmists. Herzl and Nordau are more relevant than Leviticus.
None of us need the sanction of the Torah or of the rabbis to be Jewishly valid. The worship of the past is replaced by respectful listening.
A Humanistic Perspective: Jewish Identity
The rabbinic answer to the question of Jewish identity is simply untrue. Jewish identity and Torah allegiance are not wed to one another. As the Zionist ideologue Ahad Ha’am pointed out, the Jewish people existed before Judaism, and the ethnic will to live preceded any theological formulations that justified it.
From the humanistic point of view, rabbinic Judaism did not create the national determination to survive. It provided a respectable public justification of it. In modem times, secular Zionism is an equally successful expression of the same ethnic drive.
The constant in Jewish identity is not theological conviction or Torah allegiance but Jewish peoplehood. In every age, the urge to survive—universal among nations—motivated Jews to find appropriate ways to satisfy it. In a religious age, they found religious strategies. In a secular age, they have found secular strategies.
The experience of Jewish ethnicity is the heart of Jewish identity. Even today, returnees to traditional Judaism do not first come to it out of theological conviction but out of a profound (if misleading) conviction that it is the best means of guaranteeing Jewish ethnic survival.
The meaning of Jewish history is radically different for Humanistic Jews from what it is for traditional or even liberal Jews.
The moral universe of the rabbis dissolves into the indifferent universe of the post-Holocaust era. The depreciation of human power and ingenuity is replaced by an appropriate tribute to the surprise of the human potential. The gloomy vision of a world declining in wisdom yields to a reassuring recognition of human progress. The rigid equating of Jewishness with religiosity gives way to recognition of the creative power of the Jewish will to live.
This new meaning is an important message we must share with the Jewish world.