Sinai and What Makes Us Jewish
Gertel, Elliot B., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
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 the Jews, we learn to love fellow Jews, and, thereby, to love humanity, through the Covenant. One needs the Covenant, as well, in order to love God. It is the structure for arguing with God,(5) for seeking Him.
Indeed, the attitude of self-hatred is but the flipside posture of a second attitude of some Jews about the Jewish People -- namely, that we are somehow better than others. When one reads the writings of Rabbi Meir Kahane, for example, one would conclude that Judaism has never learned from other peoples, that, the more Jews live in a vacuum, the more authentic and pure and uncontaminated their Judaism will be. There definitely has been an attitude in certain periods and in certain places that anything Gentile is impure, evil, and un-Jewish, and that Gentiles are, somehow, less moral, less intelligent, less worthy than Jews. It may be true that, in ages past, our ancestors had reason to regard Gentiles as menacing and violent and as morally not as disciplined as they were themselves. That may have been true of certain cultures in which Jews found themselves, but there was never a doctrine in Judaism that, somehow, Jews were born with greater morality and intelligence. Indeed, the Torah makes the point over and over that the people must keep up their side of the Covenant by obeying God's commandments and trusting in God. In Hebrew, faith, emunah, means being faithful: both God and Israel must be faithful to the Covenant.
The Book of Deuteronomy insists on observing that, when the people of Israel received the commandments, they could not tolerate the Voice of God, and begged Moses to spare them from direct contact with His Voice (Deut. 18:15). An ancient midrash of our Sages says that the experience was so overwhelming that the people literally lost their souls, and God had to revive them.(6) No people was equipped to face the Divine Charge. Another Rabbinic legend says that, when the Israelites came out of Egypt, they were broken-down, blemished, bruised, a sorry bunch after all the years of slavery, with every physical affliction. God had to heal them on the spot so that they would be up to what happened at Sinai (Numbers Rabbah 7:1). The implication is that they were not chosen because they were super people or in any way perfect specimens. Indeed, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that it was because they were small and helpless that God found them an appropriate vehicle (Deut. 7:7), so that no one would believe that they were powerful and clever enough to develop an advanced culture on their own which might be ascribed to them instead of to God.
As for Gentiles, our tradition maintained that, through the Covenant that God made with Noah, they were expected to lead moral lives and to shun idolatry, and that all who lived decent lives would have salvation and Divine support.(7) There is no competition between Jews and Gentiles to see who is more moral. The role of Israel was to point the way, but not to corner the market on morality and wisdom. Indeed, the Torah reading in which the Ten Commandments appear is named after Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, who is described as pious and God-fearing and who, though he was not Jewish, had much to teach to Moses (Exodus 18). The Torah itself teaches us that Jews have much to learn from Gentiles, even though Jews hold special perspectives and teachings in trust for all the world. The wisdom of the Gentiles has always enhanced Jewish thought and culture. There is even a special blessing to be recited by the Jew when he meets a wise person of any background. If Jews, as a people, have developed special qualities of learning, compassion, and moral perspective over the centuries, it is only because of the Covenant with God. The moment we leave the orbit of our spiritual resources, we are in danger of falling into hollow chauvinism that is but a step away from self-hatred. If we lose the spiritual resources of that Covenant, we distance ourselves from values and qualities that our ancestors had no choice but to cultivate. As Professor Eliezer Berkovits observed, in describing what he considers an orthodox view of "chosenness:" "God never chose the Jews; but any people whom God chose was bound to become the Jewish People."(8)
If some Jews in the modern Western experience have vacillated between inferiority complexes and delusions of grandeur, it has not been entirely their fault. Perhaps the fault is much less theirs than they imagine. Christianity has had much to do with it because of the unhealthy attitude of the early Christians, especially Paul, who were Jews, and had decided that Jews are both inferior and superior to Gentiles. This strange juxtaposition of opposites, this grotesque ambivalence toward Jews with which Jews have had to live and cope for some 2,000 years, is the result of Paul's desire to remain Jewish and, yet, to replace the Covenant at Sinai which established the Jewish People as a people.
Paul decided that salvation could come only the way cults in his native Tarsus and throughout the world had regarded salvation as coming -- through a savior who dies and rises to bring people close to a distant deity.(9) The Jews had never had a problem with God being close to all human beings who call upon Him (see Psalm 145); Jews never regarded God as far away. Yet, the Greek mind, which penetrated Tarsus, believed it undignified for a god to be too close, and felt most comfortable with salvation and mystery cults to reach the highest deities through other beings. Obsessed with the Greek notion that human beings were incapable of pleasing the gods without any special favor; weighted down with a sense of original sin, a Greek notion rather than a Biblical one, that human beings were totally depraved from birth; convinced that the commandments were too lofty to be fulfilled by human beings even though the Hebrew Bible had explicitly said that the commandments were very near to the people, who must observe them as best as their ability allows (Deut. 30:11-14); Paul and the early Christians, who were all of Jewish background, decided that God had given the Torah on Sinai not to provide a way to the good life and salvation, but to show that people had to get their salvation another way, through another covenant (Romans 5:20, Galatians 3:10-12). Paul went so far as to say that if the Ten Commandments had not said, "Thou shalt not covet," people could not covet (Romans 7:7-8). The Law makes them sin so that they realize they can find salvation only in a savior who frees them from their sins and from the laws! Thus, Paul would be saying, in more contemporary terms, that if there were no speed limits, people would not be tempted to speed!
Torn between a chauvinistic feeling of Jewish superiority and an uncontrollable rage against his fellow Jews for resisting his notion of salvation because of their loyalty to the Covenant at Sinai, Paul decided that he would turn to the Gentiles and save them in order to make the Jews "jealous" (Romans 11:13-16). He came to insist that the Jews would always be "chosen" in the sense that their existence would bring salvation to the Gentiles, even though the Jews themselves would be "cursed" until they found "salvation" and, thereby, reached their potential of being better, more desirable, Christians than the Gentile Christians (See Romans 9). Is this not a chauvinistic distortion of the Jewish concept of "chosenness," a distortion insulting to both Jews and Gentiles alike?
Paul knew exactly which buttons to push, using Rabbinic methods of Bible interpretation (midrash) to read his own agenda into the Hebrew Bible. And when the so-called "Messianic Jews" or "Jews for Jesus" of today assert that they accept only a "Jewish" savior, and that Jews make the best Evangelical Christians, one shudders at every echo of Paul. One shudders not only at the chauvinism which does violence to the Covenant at Sinai, but, also, at the historical fact that many Christians down through the centuries, often incited to violence by priests and bishops and so-called "reformers," did not have any patience for the fine points of theology and for the clever hermeneutics in which Paul couched his program for the replacement of the Sinai Covenant.
Paul believed that he had support in the Biblical concept that the Jews would be God's "treasure" (Exodus 19:5) only if they accepted the commandments. If you believe that the commandments are inadequate or replaced, then the Jews are replaced, or at least are a special people for reasons which they are the last to understand. They are, therefore, both superior and inferior, a special "race," but too stubborn to understand why, because they are bogged down in an "old covenant."
The problem with Paul's concept of God and of the Jewish People, and with his very concept of original sin, is that it is unfair. It is not fair that God would create imperfect beings and then damn them for being imperfect unless they all accepted one specific savior about whom most of humanity had no way of hearing, let alone knowing about.(10) It is not fair that God would reveal Himself to the Jewish People at Sinai and give them teachings and laws, only to change the rules of the game at a later point because of certain things that Paul felt and believed. It is not fair to use words in the Hebrew Bible like "faith," "salvation" and "sin" and give them a whole new meaning in Greek.
The Hebrew word for faith, emunah, means "faithfulness" in obedience to the Covenant. It means that we can trust God to be fair to us, to show us love and mercy and salvation if we do our best to follow His mizvot, or commandments, and that God should be able to trust us to be faithful to Him. Yet, because God is fair, He understands the weakness of human beings, including the Jewish People. The whole point of the story of the Golden Calf in the Bible is to show that when God was new to the Covenant, even God had to learn that the People of the covenant could fail, and that to destroy that people in anger or to back out of the Covenant or to make a new covenant would have been, as it were, a Divine embarrassment before the world, for it would have told the world that God is incapable of being faithful when the going gets tough (see Exodus 32:12).
Paul conveniently ignored the teaching of the Hebrew Prophets that, because God is God, God's responsibility to be faithful to the Covenant is even greater than the responsibility of the Jewish People, for human being are frail and prone to test even God constantly, and, therefore, are liable to Divine chastisements. Yet, God would preserve a "faithful remnant" of the People Israel to remind the world that God's Covenant is eternal because God is Eternal (See Isaiah 4:3, 7:6, 10:20-21, and Jeremiah 31:7).(11) If God were to change the rules of the Covenant, if God were to cause the Jewish People to regard themselves as somehow "racially" privileged, but damned as a people, because of their loyalty to the Covenant at Sinai, then God would be grossly unfaithful to the Covenant.
Our ancient Sages observed that when the Torah speaks of additional sacrifices for most major festivals, a sin offering is included. But, in connection with Shavuot (Pentecost), which commemorates the Giving and Receiving of the Torah on Sinai, no sin offering is mentioned (Song of Songs Rabbah 4:4). Could this not be their way of saying that, if individuals like Paul become too obsessed with human sin and imperfection, they fall into the danger of forgetting the message of the Sinai Covenant that human beings are capable of following God's commandments? The teaching of Judaism is that God multiplied commandments for the Jewish People in order to show human beings that they can do more than they believe themselves capable of doing, and that God offers them inspiration and encouragement and salvation -- or grace, if you will -- just for doing their best to live decent and righteous lives.
If the Jews are not inferior to others and are not superior to others, and if Christianity would have us vacillate between the two extremes, how do we explain Jewish uniqueness? How do we explain the miracle of our survival, and of our remarkable deeds and thoughts, and of our return to our Homeland? A fourth attitude on the part of many Jews is simply that Jews are like everyone else, only more so. Some Jews say: "Jews are. Period. And the best way to explain it is simply to explain why other peoples exist."
Mordecai Kaplan founded Reconstructionist Judaism in the 1920s because he felt that Jews should be proud of their heritage but should not regard themselves as too special or as supernaturally chosen. To him, their heritage was a civilization like all others, which grew out of a cosmic impulse or Power that drives all civilizations to survive and, it is hoped, to work for a better world. The ways of Jewish civilization, Kaplan said, are no longer to be regarded as Divine commandments, but as folkways, similar to folkways in other civilizations, but, in the case of Jews, especially insightful folkways, religiously speaking, for the "evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people" has simply "pioneered" in demonstrating the human potential to muster a "collective religious experience" and, thereby, to motivate people and nations to achieve "ethical nationhood" or "international cooperation."(12) In other words, Jews are like everyone else, only a little faster -- in the religious realm.
In the 19th century, the father of German Reform Judaism, Abraham Geiger, said that Jews had a special "genuis" for religion, just like other peoples have special talents.(13) Of course, the Prophets did not see that special genius when the people rebelled against God and fell into idolatry, but maybe the Israelites did not use their genius as carefully in the seventh century B.C.E. as they did in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, however, we are offered a new theory for Jewish uniqueness. "Humanist Judaism" has become a "movement," with Rabbi Sherwin Wine in Detroit, and has now found roots in a few other places. The Jews, we are told, are special because they are skilled at humanism. As one self-avowed "humanist" rabbi put it, Jews do not need to believe in God to remain Jews because Jewish religion, culture and history have already made Jews different, "not in their genes but in their history," giving Jews a unique "striving to achieve a moral posture in an immoral world."(14) Is one humanism or history more spiritual than another? It is one thing to believe that God can call different people in different ways for mysterious purposes. It is quite another to believe that your humanism is somehow a more spiritual or more moral striving than other humanisms when you don't believe in a God Who does the calling.
If we say that Jews are like everyone else, only more so, we really end up saying, "My ethical nationhood is more advanced than yours; I have religious genius and you don't; my humanism is better than your humanism." The Psalmist showed far more perspective when he observed, "Not unto us, not unto us, O Lord, but unto Thy Name give glory" (Psalm 115). The great moments of our people, moments inspired by Sinai, were when we realized that there was a greater Wisdom working through us, but not because of us. Our Sages taught that the Torah was given at Sinai because Sinai was the most humble of places, because it was not in any one land and no one people could claim to own it.(15) Wasn't that their way of saying that part of the responsibility for being the Jewish People is to acknowledge that there is more to our experience than we can understand or claim credit for?
There is yet a final attitude of some Jews which must be considered, and which is widely and emotionally held. Though not usually verbalized, at least in much detail, it was articulated quite cleverly by Philip Roth in a recent memoir, The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography. Here, Roth argues simply that, when it comes to being Jewish, no one else matters. Jewishness is just something you are and something you experience, no more and no less. It is not a matter of being inferior or superior or both or only more so. It is just a birthmark, pure and simple.
In this memoir, Roth waxes nostalgic about his Jewish childhood in Newark, New Jersey, the highlight of which was a "nervous forcefulness decidedly irrepressible" that "pulsated through our daily life" despite "all our taboos and prohibitions and our vaunted self denial."(16) For Roth, then, one is a Jew whether Jews have the commandments or not, and part of being a Jew, he further suggests, is knowing how to get around the commandments, or at least not to be stifled by them.(17) As long as you are a proud Jew, as long as your parents are still proud of you, or at least like you, and you were "circumcised and bar mitzvahed" (sic), you are a good Jew no matter what you write about Jews or about the commandments.
Judaism, to Roth, is a nostalgic family bond that is impervious to the divorce rate or to wife-beating or other problems in modern society. As he puts it, "the Jewish family was an inviolate haven against every form of menace, from personal isolation to gentile hostility. Regardless of internal friction and strife, it was assumed to be an indissoluble consolidation. Hear, O Israel, the family is God, the family is one."(18) In making the idealized Jewish family of his childhood his God, Roth conveniently ignores that the values of the traditional Jewish family were believed to be based on God's commandments, that the Jewish family was built on religious foundations, that Judaism itself provided commandments and a religious perspective even for the heartbreak of divorce.
Roth goes even further. He defines Judaism not only as nostalgia and not only as a given, but as a kind of nachas-system. As long as you are really proud of being Jewish, which Roth regards as pride in your parents, and as long as your parents are really proud of you, then it doesn't matter what you have written about the Jews or how you have written it, for you are still a good Jew and no one can take that away from you.
He recalls that his parents had been proud of his stories even when the Anti-Defamation League got upset with him, for, after all, his parents had seen him "circumcised and bar mitzvahed," had sent him for three years to "one of our neighborhood's humble Hebrew Schools," and all his closest friends had been Jewish boys. "About being Jewish," Roth posits,
there was nothing more to say than there was about having two arms and two legs. It would have seemed to us strange not to be Jewish -- stranger still, to hear someone announce that he wished he weren't a Jew or that he intended not to be in the future.(19)
Roth tells us that he felt very Jewish, except that whereas his "Orthodox" grandfather found solace in "the familiar leathery odor of the flesh-worn straps of the old phylacteries in which he wrapped himself each morning," the little Philip Roth found that same solace in the smell of his baseball mitt.(20) And now the "mature" Philip Roth finds solace in the concept, "Once a Jew, always a Jew."
And, so, we come the full circle in attitudes of Jews about Judaism. Philip Roth has decided that being Jewish has nothing to do with Gentiles, but he still comes up with the same hollow pride of Jews who believe that they are superior to, (or perhaps, just different from) others, yet often with rhetoric similar to those who see Jews as vulgar and inferior, even though we now know (actually, I think, we always knew) that he never regarded Jews as inferior. Roth even gives sermons in his memoirs about how Jewish fraternities offered only ethnic support but did not keep the dietary laws that he knew as a child. The purpose of the sermons, however, is not to show that Jews should respect the commandments, but to show that Jews will be Jews, with or without the commandments.
The implication of the perverse credo, Jews will be Jews, with or without the commandments, is the vulgar notion that the commandments do not make or define the Jews, that only birth does. The monstrous outgrowth of Philip Roth's definition of Jewishness is his attitude toward the conversion to Judaism of one of his wives -- and toward conversion in general.
To me, being a Jew had to do with a real historical predicament into which you were born and not with some identity you choose to don after reading a dozen books. I could as easily have turned into a subject of the Crown by presenting my master's degree in English literature to Winston Churchill as my new wife could become a Jew by studying with |Rabbi~ Jack Cohen, sensible and dedicated as he was, for the rest of her life.(21)
And, so, Philip Roth, who is testing out a "nice Jewish boy" voice in the literary world, announces that he is making teshuvah (becoming penitent) not, God forbid, by affirming the Covenant or the commandments, but by exposing Gentile anti-Semitism and romanticizing the Jewish home, by finding cultural moorings in a childhood in which his only friends were Jews, and by violently opposing the very idea of conversion to Judaism. Most disturbing about Roth's notion that being a Jew is simply a matter of being born a Jew, is that too many "ethnic" American Jews take refuge in at least some of Roth's smug notions when it suits them.
When we read in the Torah of the Giving and Receiving of the Commandments at Sinai, and reaffirm that Covenant on Shavuot, we stand at Sinai with generations past and generations yet unborn (Deut. 29:13-14). We experience the awe of encountering the God of the Covenant, and bear witness to the event at Sinai which, in the words of Abraham Heschel, is "like no other event in the history of man."(22) To understand its significance, the true meaning of the commandments and the very meaning of inferior or superior, we have to get beyond our attitudes that Jews are inferior or superior, like everyone else or more so, or simply Jews by birth or ethnic stamp. We must stop vacillating among chauvinism, inferiority complexes, and ethnic nostalgia, and understand the true meaning of Sinai.
The meaning of Sinai was articulated well by the Jewish theologian, Rabbi
What finally makes Jewish life unique for people such as me is that ... we remain involved with God as individuals and as a people. Were we consciously to face up to our relationship with God and live by it, the uniqueness of our way of life would become far more manifest.(23)
Borowitz offers an authentic theology of Covenant which enables us, as Jews, to avoid the various pitfalls of "Jewishness" without a sense of Covenant. But there is a dimension of authentic Judaism which must be stressed as much as a Jew's relationship with God, and that is, simply, the sense of physical belonging to the People of the Covenant. This other crucial dimension of Jewish spirituality, and of healthy perspective on Jewishness, is what Michael Wyschogrod has called the "theology of the Jewish body."(24) Wyschogrod notes that Judaism is "the election of a biological people rather than, as in Christianity, of a community of faith," which thus "puts into service of the redemptive plan both soul and body of the elected people," even when the people do not understand or operate in consciousness of their mission.(25)
Though it must be emphasized again that Jews who practice authentic Judaism have never regarded themselves as a race or closed order, Wyschogrod's affirmation that the foundation of Judaism is the "family identity of the Jewish people" serves as a compelling and important corrective to any theology which would neglect the "family" aspect of Jewishness. But this has never presented theological obstacles to conversion to Judaism, even to as strong a believer of Jews as a biological family as Yehudah Halevi.(26)
Indeed, Jewish openness to conversion, which has persisted since Biblical times, and with various degrees of ambivalence determined by social, historical and philosophical vicissitudes, has enabled Judaism to transcend chauvinism and isolationism on the one hand, and syncretism and assimilation on the other. In fact, the paradox and beauty of the centrality of peoplehood to a healthy Jewish sense of Covenant is best articulated in the Bible in Ruth's words to Naomi:
Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you (Ruth 1:16-17).(27)
It is precisely because Judaism is transmitted through a physical people that the people must welcome, through halahkah, those who will become part of it and part of that transmission. Halakhah, or religious law (practice), has authority both in Divine revelation and in the expression of the Covenantal relationship with God in which individual and community are involved.(28)
Wyschogrod is on solid ground, theologically and historically speaking, when he observes that whatever else is added to the family identity of the Jewish People must be seen as
growing out of and related to the basic identity of the Jewish people as the seed of Abraham elected by God through descent from Abraham. This is the crux of the mystery of Israel's election. Seen through the eyes of man, a divine election of a group defined by some ideological criterion would have been far more plausible. It would have been far more understandable had God elected all those who feed the hungry and clothe the naked or, if our sensibilities are more contemplative than active, all those who have grasped the Absolute or achieved Nirvana ... But being born into a particular family is hardly an achievement for which anyone deserves either credit or blame ... And yet, in spite of all this ... the God of Abraham chose this people as his vehicle in history ... While God remains Absolute, as the God of history made known to man in revelation, he has made himself a partner in the fate of the Jewish people, whose vicissitudes do not leave him unaffected. Jewish theology can therefore be God-centered, but it must also be Israel-centered because if God is thought about in isolation from the people of Israel, the grave risk arises that the God so conceived is not the true God, namely, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.(29)
Wyschogrod presents the inescapable theological bottom line in his conclusion that, being a Jew means that we who have been born Jewish or who have embraced Judaism have never really "earned" it, and must realize that we Jews, especially, "cannot sit in judgment over God" in trying to understand this "carnal election that is transmitted through the body" before and beyond the spirit.(30) His conclusion rings true, though it must be guarded from unhealthy distortion. And the only way so to guard the integrity and the privilege and obligation of being a Jew is to affirm, in the felicitous phrasing of Arthur Hertzberg, that the Jewish faith "is of lasting importance, and it is an ultimate sin to abandon it, only if it be conceived as divinely ordained; else what men have made they can unmake and the communities into which they are born are mere accidents."(31)
ELLIOT B. GERTEL is Rabbi of Congregation Rodfei Zedek, in Chicago, and is on the editorial boards of Conservative Judaism and The Jewish Spectator.
1. On the contempt for Jews in so-called "Enlightened" circles, which merely translated into secular terms the old Christian prejudices, see Arthur Hertzberg, The French Enlightenment and the Jews (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1968).
2. Cited in Milton Steinberg, A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945).
3. Milton Steinberg, A Believing Jew, ed. Edith A. Steinberg (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1951), pp. 128-9.
4. See Exodus 33:12-23 and Exodus 34:4-10 and the fine Hertz commentaries on these passages, as well as Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (N.Y.: Harper and Row, 1988), p. 143. Cf. also, Michael Wyschogrod's observation, "While sin is a reality, the eternal election of Israel is a greater reality," in Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983), p. 213.
5. See Genesis 18:22-33 and, also, Levenson, chapter 12. See, also, Elliot B. Gertel, "Evil and Covenant," Jewish Spectator, Summer 1975.
6. Pesikta Rabbati 20:4.
7. See David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: An Historical and Constructive Study of the Noahide Laws (N.Y. and Toronto, 1983). Novak summarizes some of his conclusions in Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification (N.Y. and Oxford University Press, 1989), chapter 1.
8. Eliezer Berkovits, God, Man and History: A Jewish Interpretation (N.Y.: Jonathan David, 1959), p. 142.
9. See Charles Guigenebert, The Early History of Christianity (N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, reissue of 1927 translation), pp. 71 ff., and, especially, pp. 74-77.
10. See George Foote Moore,Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927), vol. I, p. 495: "Paul's definition of righteousness as perfect conformity to the law of God would never had been conceded by a Jewish opponent, to whom it would have been equivalent to admitting that God had mocked man by offering to him salvation on terms they both knew to be impossible -- God, because he had made man a creature of the dust with all his human frailties (Psalm 103, 14) and implanted in him the 'evil impulse'; man, above all the conscientious man, through his daily experience. God was too good, too reasonable, to demand a perfection of which he had created man incapable." On salvation in Judaism, see, also, vol. II, p. 94.
11. On the "remnant of Israel," see John Bright, A History of Israel (Phil.: Westminster Press, 1972), p. 289 ff.
12. See Mordecai M. Kaplan, The Religion of Ethical Nationhood (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1970).
13. In Max Wiener, Abraham Geiger and Liberal Judaism: The Challenge of the Nineteenth Century (Phil.: Jewish Publication Society, 1962), "Revelation," pp. 179-82.
14. Rober E. Goldburg, "Comment," Working Papers, May-June 1983, p. 4. Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine, the major apostle of "Humanistic Judaism," observes in his small book by that title, Humanistic Judaism (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1978) that the Jews are the "best adapted of modern peoples to life in urban civilization" (p. 13). Jews are best off as humanists, without the complication of theology, he says, because Jewish identity is "nonideological and familial;" it is tribal memories. Since the Jewish family will exist as long as tribal memories exist and, more significantly, as long as external hostility to Jews persists (p. 62), Jews might as well affirm their role as the "vanguard of a humanistic outlook on life" (p. 89), as the first people to be "successfully urbanized" (p. 101) and the best at it, and as the harbingers of "internationality" and cosmopolitan culture (p. 94). It is hard to believe that Wine can seriously assert, and simultaneously, that Jews are both tribe/family and the best cosmopolitans! And, historically speaking, his view that Jews were the first successfully urbanized people is chauvinistic and laughable.
15. On the Sinai legends, see Philip Goodman, The Shavuot Anthology (Phil.: Jewish Publication Society, 1974), pp. 30-33, 38-9.
16. Philip Roth, The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988), p. 122.
17. Ibid., pp. 121-2.
18. Ibid., p. 14.
19. Ibid., p. 31.
20. Ibid., p. 32.
21. Ibid., p. 126. On Roth's disapproval of Gentile women disguising or renouncing "gentileness," see p. 137.
22. Abraham J. Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955), p. 189.
23. Eugene Borowitz, Reform Judaism Today. Book Three: How We Live (N.Y.: Behrman House, 1978), p. 147.
24. Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith, p. 28.
25. Ibid., p. 24.
26. The Kuzari (New York: Schocken, 1964). Wyschogrod goes a bit far when he describes the People Israel as the sacrament to replace sacrifices (Op. Cit., p. 25) -- as much a misreading of the Biblical theology of sacrifices (best described by Jacob Millgrom) as Christian polemics. Likewise, when he describes the Jewish People as the "incarnation of Torah" (p. 211). It seems that he enjoys the shock value of using Christian terminology. One finds other extremes, sweeping observations, such as the assertion that no theology per se is possible in Judaism because of the element of Jewish "incarnation," but that "Jewish thought" is possible (pp. 173 ff.). Yet, Wyschogrod feels perfectly comfortable making the sweeping observation that the "whole philosophic enterprise" takes its cue from Jewishness (p. 159). Perhaps his most provocative point, however, is that Jewish existence takes precedence over the ethical (p. 223).
It is surprising that Wyschogrod never invokes or even mentions Yehudah Halevi's concept that Jews possess a "special seed" to insure the continuity and authenticity of Torah-interpretation (Kuzari I, secs. 94 ff.). While moderns cringe at "biological" and "genetic" theories -- and rightly so -- Halevi did not present a racist theory here, but an innocent medieval effort to account for authority and continuity in the interpretation of Jewish Law despite changing historical circumstances. If anything, it was an intuitive effort at circumscribing the problems of historicism and theology of history at a time which approached philosophical and theological problems from "natural" rather than "historical" angles. Besides, as Julius Guttman notes in Philosophies of Judaism, David W. Silverman tr. (N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1973), pp. 143-3, Halevi ascribes to Jews no special intellectual or moral powers, only the gift of "religious disposition" -- something, we might add, which Abraham Geiger did centuries later. See also, Lippman Bodoff, "Was Yehudah Halevi Racist." JUDAISM 38, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 174-184.
27. New Jewish Publication Society translation.
28. See David Hartman, A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (N.Y.: The Free Press-Macmillan, 1985), p. 200.
29. Wyschogrod, p. 57. See his observations regarding God's dwelling in and among the Jewish People, p. 103. Actually, he qualifies his statements by observing that the Jewish People is not to be deified or regarded as an incarnation in the Christian sense (p. 212).
30. Ibid., p. 176.
31. Arthur Hertzberg, Being Jewish in America (N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1979), pp. 22-3. The essay is reprinted from Milton Himmelfarb, ed., The Condition of Jewish Belief (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1966). See also the essays in the Himmelfarb volume by Seymour Siegel and Eugene Borowitz. The best essay to date on the "chosen people" concept is that by Arthur Hertzberg, "On Jewish Chosenness," in Jewish Heritage Reader, ed. Morris Adler and Lily Edelman (N.Y.: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1965). See, as well, S. Daniel Breslauer, Covenant and Community in Modern Judaism (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1989), and Arnold M. Eisen, The Chosen People in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983).…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Sinai and What Makes Us Jewish. Contributors: Gertel, Elliot B. - Author. Magazine title: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought. Volume: 42. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 1993. Page number: 29+. © American Jewish Congress Fall 1996. COPYRIGHT 1993 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.