Two weeks ago I debated Michael Steinhardt, the renowned philanthropist and self-declared atheist, and Prof. Noah Feldman, arguably America’s foremost thirty-something legal mind, on the subject of whether or not Jews are different based on their values. Are we as a people 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 assimilate and/or marry out, they still never give up the title “Jew,” as they rarely ever convert to the religion of their non-Jewish spouse. It’s as if they feel innately that there is something infinitely meaningful in the simple title “Jew.”
But can we identify the values that make Jewish identity so consequential to so many people?
In my remarks, I approached the subject with a two-tiered system of Jewish values. First, there are the values 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 and high points in history, the average secular Jew will conjure up images of pontificating Greek philosophers, Roman legions shimmering in the bright 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 a fit of 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 other names. The Jews gave the world the idea of one God. Today that concept is known to billions of people as Allah or Jesus. The Hebrew Bible’s idea that all men are created equal today goes by the term “democracy.” The idea of a brotherhood of nationalities, rooted in the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, today is known 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 almost universally attributed to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.
British historian Paul Johnson, in his A History of the Jews, 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 that remain wholly Jewish, that have not been embraced by the world and that could bring great healing if only 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. 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? 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 that the world desperately needs in order to heal. Their exclusive perpetuation among Jews will be to the earth’s detriment. It therefore should be our objective to mainstream these values everywhere. They are, in acrostic form, DREAMS.
Unlike the Greeks, who believed in the “awesome power of fate,” Jews are messianists. For Christians, messianism is a spiritual concept that speaks to mankind’s redemption from original sin. But for Jews, messianism is a physical concept that 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, the wolf will 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 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 with the knowledge that it was God’s will that they seek to rescind the divine decree.
We Jews have always struggled against impossible odds to establish a more just and moral world. 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.” We struggle against fate. We thunder against the heavens.
Jews have always fought to improve the societies in which they’ve lived. So many of them have founded utopian movements aimed at social justice and the equal distribution of wealth precisely because Jews won’t accept imperfection.
Some academics attribute the universal Jewish record of achievement to social Darwinism – the notion 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 IQ’s than most. But such endeavors at eugenics would leave us as lost as Prof. James Watson, who recently suggested that Africans are not as smart as whites.
We Jews are not racists, and Prof. Watson’s statements, for which he apologized, are to us repugnant in the extreme. We do not believe we are in any way better or smarter than other nations. But we do believe we have better values, and our belief in the destiny of mankind – born from thousands of years of Jewish messianic promises of an era of world peace and the end of hunger and disease – is one of those superior values the entire world ought to embrace.
Jews – despite our tragic history – remain eternal optimists.
(Like the Jews, America – historically based on Old Testament messianism and promise – has prospered. It’s no coincidence that Americans have always spoken of their country in strong messianic terms, with phrases like “manifest destiny” used to express the belief in American inevitability.)
Jewish optimism certainly explains Zionism and the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Just three years after the Holocaust, Jews returned to their homeland – and this when so many other nations succumbed to calamities far less serious – because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik stated, the burning fire to return to the land of their fathers could not be snuffed out even by the raging crematoria of Auschwitz.
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 ten. There is no strong meditative tradition in Judaism. Everything is geared outward toward communal involvement. This explains why Jewish communities, wherever they are found, are always the strongest of anything comparable. Jews are raised with a collective rather than a personal conscience.
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 the purpose of knowledge is its application to everyday problems, 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 our existence, boredom, can only be cured by knowledge.
What you do is more important than what you believe. Good deeds always supersede good dogma, which is why a man like Michael Steinhardt can be an atheist and still be deeply committed to his people, saving thousands of lives and educating tens of thousands more with 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.
Not only does Christianity put faith above acts, many strains of Christianity even believe in predestination – i.e., that certain souls are selected for heaven regardless of action. This was certainly the belief of the Puritans who originally colonized the United States.
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 mitzvah is the most central Jewish value of all. We believe that giving money to the poor is tzedakah, justice, rather than charity, an affair of the heart motivated by strong feelings for the underprivileged. We do not care whether a person feels anything for the poor – he still must give.
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 other nation has been so passionate about the need to curb masculine aggression with feminine nurturing. Whether it’s the obligation on a man to marry, or Isaiah’s promise that the world is headed toward a time when the wolf shall lie with the lamb, Judaism insists on curbing the desire for conquest with the yearning for peace.
Judaism is an inherently feminine religion, and Jews are 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 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 singing the moving Psalms. David was not permitted to 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 do so at a young age.
It is in the process of wrestling with our nature that true righteousness can be found. The Christian model of righteousness is Jesus, whom Christians consider 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 cited unfavorably 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 despite 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 battle themselves every day to act altruistically and overcome the pull to behave with selfishness.
Therefore, Jews, while of course condemning hypocrisy, understand the concept in a manner that differs from the conventional view. Most people are inconsistent rather than hypocritical. 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 make important contributions to the perfection of the world.
All it takes is one good deed.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, 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. His upcoming book is “The Broken American Male, And How to Fix Him” (St. Martin’s Press). His website is www.shmuley.com.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach