Sinai and What Makes Us Jewish

Article excerpt

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.

I.

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. …