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March 27, 2015 / 7 Nisan, 5775
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Mark Twain and Jewish Thought: Shared Perspectives

“What is the source of his (the Jew’s) immortality?
Mark Twain

Mark Twain has often been appropriately recognized as a friend, admirer and defender of the Jewish people. However, commonly overlooked has been his understanding of values and perspectives that are deeply ingrained in Jewish thought. This is a subject I will deal with here and which I believe will reveal some remarkable insights by Twain in his well acclaimed historical essay in Harpers, “Concerning the Jew.”

In the essay Twain delineates a number of characteristics of Jews reflective of their cultural heritage that he extols most highly. These include citizenship, family cohesion, honesty in business and an overall intelligence in business and life. One trait, however, that he doesn’t mention and which ironically is exhibited through his own life is a capacity for human or spiritual growth. In Judaism this is powered by “oral Torah” or the ongoing effort to interpret the Torah in expanded ways in light of continuing experiences. In his own life Twain experienced enormous growth through his life experiences which although infinitesimal compared to the cultural experiences of the Jews throughout time are nonetheless in the same direction. This is well reflected in his “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” where the character spiritually matures through his experiences.

Upon considering the first of these characteristics “citizenship” Twain in his essay remarks on the low crime and high sense of order within the Jewish community. Here we may observe that the Torah itself warns that one should not place a stumbling block in the path of the blind, which becomes a metaphorical model against exploiting the vulnerable of helpless. In one very illuminating( Deut 21, 1­8) where a slain victim is found outside a village, the elders within the nearest town must take an oath guaranteeing the law to their best efforts was upheld. In the Talmud (Part 5 ) a careful and sharp demarcation is drawn between civil and criminal codes, and in the case of any acclaimed witness, one is made aware of this distinction when he is warned that in the case of worldly goods (civil law) money may be redeemed, but not in the case of criminal action, where only the blood of the unjust may be redeemed . One is further warned that one who takes the life a single innocent person unjustly (as stated earlier by Hillel) is the same as one who destroyed the entire world.

Family cohesion, the second trait cited by Twain has a long history Jewish roots. The saga of Joseph culminates in the reconciliation of the 12 brothers through a moving interaction of Joseph with could hardly be more instructively dramatic. The Haguddah itself, reflecting the Torah contains allusions to parent child exchanges with the 4 questions as basic content. The lives of R. Meir, Rashi and Rambam provide incredible paradigms of this deeply rooted commitment.

Honesty in business, the next value, invoked by Twain is most forcefully revealed in the Talmudic midrash that upon entering the afterlife, the first question the Jew is addressed for final judgment is, “How did you conduct your life in business?” The issue of honesty in business ethics even has roots in the Torah itself, where in two passages the Israelites are urged to utilize honest weights and measures in transactions. In the final reference it is linked to survival where it is asserted that such weights and measures are required “ ..if you are to endure the soil your God is giving you.” This is further followed by right of self­defense against Amalek. In short it asserts it is critical to survival. This agrees well with the claim that Twain makes when he asserts that Jews could not be successful without it: “a business cannot thrive where parties to it cannot trust each other.” This truth, however, applies to the larger picture of general for a society rather than a particular business. Indeed this is reflected in the practice the Talmud of utilizing public inspectors for confirming proper weights and measures.

About the Author: Howard Zik is the author of Jewish Ideas. Creator of the Blog: Encountering Holiness and Philosophy


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One Response to “Mark Twain and Jewish Thought: Shared Perspectives”

  1. Very interesting and revealing. Michael Lerman,M.D., Ph.D.

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