JPost.com » Opinion » Op-Ed Contributors » Nov 5, 2007 20:09 Updated Nov 6, 2007
The Jewish gift to Humanity By SHMULEY BOTEACH A few weeks ago I debated philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a self-declared atheist, and Noah Feldman, arguably America's foremost 30-something legal mind, on whether Jews - based on their values - are different from other nations.
Are Jews distinct based on the values we cherish, or are we like everyone else? To be sure, Jews are fiercely devoted to their identities. Even when they marry out they still never give up the title "Jew," and they rarely convert to the religion of their non-Jewish spouse. It's as if Jews feel innately that there is something infinitely meaningful in the simple title "Jew."
But can we identify values that make Jewish identity so consequential to so many? I believe we can.
FIRST, THERE are the values that the Jewish people gave the world, that have since been co-opted by other faiths and for which we have lost a copyright. Since these values have been adopted by other nations who do not credit the Jews with their origin, this makes many believe that the only Jewish legacy is one of suffering and death.
In thinking of golden civilizations the average secular Jew will conjure up images of pontificating Greek philosophers, Roman legions shimmering in the golden sun, and the artistic wonders of the Renaissance masters. Tell him that in terms of world history the Jews have outshone all these civilizations, and he will break into giggles. The Jews, he thinks to himself, are the ones who were defeated by the Romans, slaughtered by the Crusaders, expelled by the Spaniards, disemboweled by the Cossacks, and cremated by the Nazis. Every Jewish child studies in school about how each nation lived, and how the Jews died.
This is, sadly, due to the fact that the many gifts of the Jews now go by unrecognizable names.
We gave the world the one, true God. Today the name is Jesus and Allah. The Hebrew Bible's idea that all men are created as equals today goes by the name democracy. The idea of a brotherhood of nations, rooted in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, today goes by the name United Nations.
Consider also that the teaching of Leviticus 19:18, that one must love one's fellow man as oneself, is today called the Golden Rule and attributed to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.
British historian Paul Johnson puts it this way: "To [the Jews] we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person; of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews it might have been a much emptier place.
BUT THERE is a second tier of values, values which remain wholly Jewish, which have not been embraced by the world, and which can bring great healing if they were to be disseminated.
In America, the age of Judaism has arrived. Why? Because Christianity and Islam mostly focus on the big questions of how one gets into heaven and where one goes after death. But Judaism, instead, focuses on the small questions of everyday existence, at which most people today fail: how do I stay married, how do I inspire my children, and how do I live a life of spiritual purpose that is not dominated by corrosive materialism?
There are six central values that are uniquely Jewish and which the world desperately needs in order to heal. Their perpetuation among Jews only will be to the earth's detriment. And it should be our objective to mainstream these values everywhere. They are, in acrostic form, DREAMS:
1. Destiny: Unlike the Greeks, who believed in the "awesome power of fate," the Jews are messianists. For Christians messianism is a spiritual concept which speaks of mankind's redemption from the original sin. But for Jews messianism is a physical concept which connotes mankind's capacity to make the world a nearly perfect place. Jews believe in humankind's promised destiny of an era in which peace will reign over the earth and "the wolf shall lie with the lamb" and the predatory streak in man and in nations will be purged.
In short, we believe in the perfectibility of mankind. We are even willing to wrestle with God Himself, battling whatever divine plans He may have for afflictions, and instead bring healing to the world. Abraham argued with God to save the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses debated with the Creator to rescue the Jews after the sin of the Golden Calf. And they did so in the knowledge that it was the will of the Creator that they seek to rescind the devastating divine decree.
Whereas Christians believe in a leap of faith, and Islam translates, literally, as submitting to God in faith, the word Israel means "he who wrestles with God." This explains why Jews always struggle to improve the society into which they are immersed. This also explains why so many Jews have founded utopian movements aimed at social justice and the equal distribution of wealth. SOME ACADEMICS attribute universal Jewish achievement to social Darwinism; that less intelligent, less able Jews, may have been killed off by anti-Semites, leaving only the best to survive. Others believe that Jews have higher IQs than most. But such endeavors at eugenics would leave us as lost as James Watson - who in 1953 along with Francis Crick identified the structure of DNA - who recently suggested that Africans are not as smart as whites.
Watson's ideas, for which he apologized, are repugnant to us in the extreme. We do not believe that we are in any way racially better or smarter than other nations. But we do believe that we have superior values, and our belief in the destiny of mankind is one of those superior values that the entire world ought to embrace.
Amid the most tragic history, the Jews remain eternal optimists. Most of all, this explains Zionism and the establishment of modern Israel. Just three years after the Holocaust the Jews returned to their homeland, and this when so many other nations succumbed to calamities much less serious. Because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said, the burning fire to return to the land of their fathers could not be snuffed out even by the raging crematoria of Auschwitz
2. Redemption: Christians and Muslims believe in salvation. The need for man to become spiritual, refine his character and earn a place in heaven. But Jews believe that world redemption precedes personal salvation.
The betterment of the community must always outweigh the perfection of the individual. Repairing the world is more important than repairing oneself. Communal needs precede personal needs.
Judaism has never had a monastic tradition. Less so do we pray on our own, but in a quorum of at least 10. There is no strong meditative tradition in Judaism. Everything is geared toward outward, communal involvement. Jews are raised with a collective rather than a personal conscience.
3. Action: What you do is more important than what you believe. Good deeds always supersede good dogma, which is why a great man like Michael Steinhardt can be an atheist and still be infinitely committed to his people, saving thousands of lives and educating tens of thousands more through his philanthropy.
Jews believe that what we become in our lifetime is dependent entirely on the choices we make rather than the ideas by which we live. Man possesses freedom of choice at all times. Therefore, we must choose righteousness.
Christianity put faith above acts. Many strains of Christianity believe in predetermination. Even modern day science believes in genetic predisposition. Not Judaism. We believe in the power of a single good deed to vastly change a person's life and the world at-large, which is why the concept of mitzva is the most central Jewish value of all.
We believe that giving money to the poor is tzedaka - justice, rather than charity, an affair of the heart, motivated by strong feelings for the underprivileged. We do not care whether one feels anything for the poor. They must still give.
4. Enlightenment: Jews believe in the illumination that comes from the pursuit of knowledge. We are the people of the book because of our deep reverence for study. Unlike other civilizations that believe that knowledge's purpose is its application to everyday problems, the Jews believe in knowledge for knowledge's sake. To live in ignorance is, for the Jew, to live in the dark pit of hell. Being raised Jewish is being raised to always want to know. We are an infinitely curious people and believe that the great bane of existence, boredom, can only be cured by knowledge.
5. Marriage: By marriage, I do not only mean the institution, but rather that we Jews believe in the softening of the masculine by exposure to the feminine, the amelioration of the aggressive by synthesizing it with the passive. No nation has been so passionate about the need to curb masculine aggression with feminine nurturing.
Judaism insists on curbing the desire for conquest with the desire for peace. Judaism is an inherently feminine faith, and Jews an inherently feminine people. We glorify the Sabbath, a passive day of peace and rest, as our holiest day. We have strict prohibitions on eating blood, and we are prohibited from eating animals or birds of prey.
The ancient world glorified warriors like Odysseus, Agamemnon, Hannibal, and Caesar. But the Jews glorify Abraham, who is praised in the Bible for being a caterer, Jacob who pardons the angel with whom he struggles, and Joseph, who forgives his brothers their attempt at fratricide.
Even King David, our greatest warrior, is celebrated not for his military triumphs but for playing harp and lyre and authoring the moving Psalms. Even so, David could not build the Temple because he was a man of war.
Jewish families are strong because Jewish men have been domesticated for thousands of years. They have been taught not to be womanizers but to commit to one woman and to commit at a young age.
6. Struggle: It is wrestling with our nature, rather than perfection, which constitutes true righteousness. The Christian model of righteousness is Jesus, who is perfect. The same is true of Muhammad for Muslims. Criticizing the prophet is blasphemy. But Jews look up to Abraham, who made mistakes in his parenting of Ishmael. Jacob is criticized for favoring Joseph. Moses was so imperfect that he was not allowed to enter the promised land. What, then, made these men great? It was their capacity to wrestle with their nature and do the right thing amid a predilection to do otherwise. Jews believe in struggle. The angelic model of he for whom goodness is intuitive is not compelling to Jews. Rather, we admire those who act altruistically amid the pull to behave with selfishness.
Therefore, Jews, while of course condemning hypocrisy, still understand the concept in a totally different way. Most people are inconsistent rather than hypocrites. They preach one thing and practice another not because they don't believe in goodness, but because they cannot always master their natures to do the right thing. No matter. Imperfect people can still vastly contribute to the perfection of the world. All it takes is one good deed. The writer, the host of TLC's Shalom in the Home, has just launched The Jewish Values Network, aimed at bringing Jewish Values to mainstream, American culture.