IT IS ALWAYS INSPIRING AND EXCITING TO read the majestic narrative in Exodus 20 which tells of God's Revelation to the Israelites on Mount Sinai, entering into a Covenant with an entire people and stipulating laws to that people amidst thunder and lightning. The giving and receiving of those commandments is described as a cosmic event, merging nature and humanity, heaven and earth. The ancient Rabbis have many significant and meaningful legends about it and there is a substantial genre of Jewish humor about it as well. Much of that humor is actually quite serious and quite sarcastic and almost always involves a history lesson. Consider, for example, the experience of Benjamin Disraeli who, when he was appointed to high office in Britain, was the object of anti-Semitic diatribes in Parliament. Disraeli, ever the superb wit, answered his attackers by observing that when his ancestors, the Jews, received the Torah on Sinai, their ancestors were naked barbarians roving the Anglo-Saxon woodlands. A similar story is told of the Jew in America who was told by an old Yankee woman, who obviously regarded him as an outsider: "My ancestors came over on the Mayflower." The Jewish man, who rightfully felt as much of an American as she, responded: "My ancestors stood on Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments."
There is very little that is light-hearted about these jokes. They are jokes or witticisms of pain, of the pain of Jewish individuals who, responding to Gentile attempts to make them feel inferior, as well as to their own discomfort at being and feeling "different," return with the suggestion that Jews may even be a bit superior.
In the Sinai narrative, in fact, God tells the people: "Now, therefore, if ye will harken to My voice, indeed, and keep my Covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people" (Exodus 19:5-6).
Does this concept of a priestly people, a holy people, mean that Jews must regard themselves as somehow better or superior to others? Note that God's "election" of the Israelites is contingent upon their accepting the Covenant and its commandments. There is no reason given for God's "choice." There is no accounting for taste, not even God's. The point is simply made in Scripture that God owns the world and, thus, can choose anyone for any purpose.
Yet, it does seem that some perspective on the role of Jews in the world and on the meaning of being Jewish is offered in the Covenant narrative in Exodus -- not only a perspective, but the perspective.
With the frequent talk and argument about "Who is a Jew," or "What is a Jew" -- a perennial issue in Israel -- and with all of our own questions about "Why be Jewish?" and the answers that each of us gives, not to mention all the debates as to which are the "authentic" answers, it is certainly worth considering the Biblical account of the Covenant, in order to assess some attitudes of Jews, both modern and ancient, on the meaning of Jewishness.
We begin with the most negative possible (and happily, out of style) attitude of Jews -- namely, Jewish self-hatred, a belief that Jews are, somehow, inferior to others. Self-hatred abounded when the ghetto walls collapsed in the last century and Jews emerged into the enlightened, Western world. They were objects of contempt even in so-called secularized society,(1) and were themselves embarrassed that they had not yet acquired the culture, art, sciences, or the manners of the Western World. Worse yet, many Jews were self-conscious about the commandments and holy deeds, the knowledge of sacred literature and of the spiritual dimension of life, in which their parents had excelled. Christianity seemed so much more cultured -- assuming, of course, that one needed religion at all.
In 1945, Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote a book, A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem, in order to confront precisely this kind of Jewish self-hatred which was so prevalent from the nineteenth century to well into the twentieth. In that volume, he described the diary of a Jewish woman in Germany, early in our century, who wrote of the "painful, hateful, deadly ... consciousness of my |Jewish~ descent" which she compared to leprosy and cancer! "As little as a dog or pig can cast off its dogishness or swinishness," she wrote, so "little can I tear myself from the ties that bind me to that stage of existence that lies between man and beast -- the Jews." She added that, for murder or theft she could find forgiveness, but never for the "sin" and "curse" of Jewishness.(2)
Fortunately, that kind of self-hatred is not so prevalent today. Neither do we speak of a "Jewish problem," for it is now recognized that the so-called "Jewish problem" is really the problem of anti-Semites or a psychological disorder in some Jews. We live in a time when ethnic pride is fashionable. We agree quite readily with Rabbi Steinberg when we read his protests, made in the 1930s and 1940s, that "the Jew who is a hollow shell, a Jewish Zero, a Hebraic cipher, a vacuum, is flooded inevitably with hostile notions about Jews. The anti-Semite convinces him." We agree with his observation that a "living Judaism" delivers the Jewish man or woman from being a worm, and provides self-respect.(3) Through the achievements of the American Jewish community and the State of Israel, we have learned to be proud of Jewishness. But we are still in danger of hollow pride, which is no substitute for spiritual vision. For when spiritual vision is chauvinism, self-hatred can return. When the Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that the Commandments are the wisdom of the Jewish People both in our eyes and in the eyes of other peoples (Deut. 4:6). The Biblical vision is that we Jews are not sustained by pride, but that we become a treasure among the nations, both to ourselves and to others, when we maintain a certain perspective on our relationship with God, the Covenant between us.
Covenant, in turn, provides a structure both of perspective and growth for the people, a structure for teaching the people as well as for forgiving them.(4) For if, as Solomon Schechter observed, it is not always easy to love …