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“A Definable Jewish Character”


ISSUE:  Autumn 1999
Jews: The Essence and Character of a People, by Arthur Hertzberg and Aron Hirt-Manheimer. HarperCollins. $25.00.

One way to explain the survival of the Jews over the past 2,000 years is to understand the primary role religion has played in maintaining the unity of the Jewish people. Following the exile of the Jews after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, religious study replaced weapons as the means by which Jews were able to preserve themselves in the hostile environments which they found themselves in throughout Christian Europe. Always a minority in the diaspora and hated for their unwillingness to accept Jesus as the Christ, Jews used religious observance and education as means of keeping the idea of nationhood alive even during the worse periods of persecution. The observance of many religious holidays, which had more to do with history than religion, the use of Hebrew as the language of prayer, and the paramount importance of the Torah and the Talmud as guides to maintaining Jewish identity, all played a role in sustaining the Jewish people. That the Jews, who at one time in their own homeland were as much a nation of warriors as they were a religious fellowship, would become a people of the book in exile is testimony to their adaptative nature. Until the period of the Enlightenement, ritual, tradition, and folklore all combined to insulate the Jews from the majority culture which either sought their conversion or, at its worst, tried to annihilate them. That distinctive Jewish traits, born from their precarious history in Christian Europe, became secularized during the past two centuries is not surprising and certainly is one way of understanding the course of Jewish history,

In their provocative and interesting book, the authors of Jews disclaim the above view of Jewish history. In addition to his reputation as an intellectual gadfly, Rabbi Hertzberg is a well known scholar, as well as an outspoken supporter of the Middle East peace process. Hirt-Manheimer is the editor of Reform Judaism, but it is Hertzberg who is the primary author of the book, which is bound to add to his reputation for controversy.

What makes a Jew a Jew? The authors reject the argument that much of what is distinctive about Jews has been shaped by their history or religion. Rather, they contend that a definable Jewish character which began with Abraham was fixed some 4,000 years ago. The Jewish character, according to the authors, consists of three prime concepts; The Jew as the “chosen,” the outsider, and the factious. Regardless of whether Jews identified themselves through their religion or attempted to assimilate into the majority culture, these characteristics have defined Jews as different as the Baal Shem Tov and Walter Rathenau.

Probably no concept has done more harm to Jews than has the idea of the Jews as a chosen people. Although most Jews would find it difficult defining the meaning of the “chosen people,” and would reject the implication that Jews are better than anyone else, in the hands of the anti-Semites, chosenness was interpreted to mean that Jews were bent on world domination. For the authors, however, the idea of Jews as a chosen people is the central affirmation of the Jewish religion. Among Orthodox Jews, the belief holds that God entered into a covenant with the Jewish people, whereby they would follow his Commandments, and in return, His people would multiply and prosper. Whereas among the Orthodox this translated into the full-time study of Torah, and the performance of mitzvot (good deeds), for others the concept of chosenness, meant that Jews were ordained to become a model for the redemption of humanity. As the authors explain, “God expects Jews to live intensely, creatively, decently, in the moral vanguard of humankind. . . .”

In the post-Enlightenment age, however, the religious idea of chosenness and the incumbent duty to perfect humankind, was secularized among many “emancipated” Jews and found its way into the Western tradition. We note this in the emphasis which Reform Judaism placed on the ethical mitvot as well as its focus on the moral teachings of the Prophets. But it was also found among the Jews who gravitated to the “Left.” What the 16th-century cabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, and the baptized Karl Marx shared in common was the idea of tikkun olam, the redemption of the world. Marx, who would have dismissed cabbalistic thought as some remnant of a superstitious past, nevertheless, championed the cause of a classless society in which social and economic justice would prevail. Much of Jews is written in this spirit, whereby the authors argue that Jewish personalities, ranging from the Vilna Gaon and Baruch Spinoza to David Ben-Gurion, shared the idea of the redemption of mankind. Even among self-hating Jews, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, one discerns this deeply rooted Jewish character trait of chosenness.

That the Gentile world has distorted the meaning of chosenness does not mean that anti-Semitism is a product of ignorance. The authors contend that Jews have, historically contributed to Judeophobia, by remaining the quintessential outsider. In rejecting Jesus, Jews call into question the majority faith and culture. As the authors write, “it is the fierce and often murderous anger of a majority against a people whose very existence keep calling their verities into question.” In the modern age, Jews such as Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein, among others, were accused of undermining the moral and ethical foundations of society. Certainly the Nazi war against the Jews was, in part, a war against what Joseph Goebbels called the “Jewish sensibility.” The Nazis blamed all that was experimental and improvisational on the Jews and sought its elimination by exterminating them. In rejecting Jean Paul Sartre’s contention that Jews do not have an independent existence and are an invention of their enemies, the authors contend that “Jews have deep within them the determination to remain “other” and to live, often precariously, as a minority, on the margins of alien cultures.” Yet what occurred in Germany during the Hitler years belies this argument. Many Jewish intellectuals, and activists may have been outsiders, but in Germany most Jews attempted to assimilate into the overall society and displayed attitudes no different from their Gentile countrymen. The tragedy of German Jewry was not that they maintained their distance from the overall society (many, in fact, were willing to be baptized if this was the price of admission into the majority culture) but that the Nazis would not allow even baptized Jews to become part of the nation. It was the Nazis who defined the Jews as the “other,” because they believed that it was not character traits but the racial nature of the Jews that made them a threat to Germany, and by extension to the world.

More persuasive is the authors’ contention that there is as much division among Jews as there is between Jews and the majority culture. The authors attribute this to the factious nature of the Jewish people. Much of the book is devoted to examples whereby Jews have clashed with one another in disputes which have often resulted in tragic consequences. Nowhere, however, is this trait of factionalism so evident, as in the present where the authors accuse the new “messianists” (those Israelis who refuse to surrender territory on the West Bank for reasons having to do with their belief in the imminent coming of the Messiah) and the ultra-Orthodox of not only destroying the peace process but also threatening to split the Jewish world as a whole.

It is at this point that Jews becomes more a polemic than a thesis and one can readily hear Hertzberg’s anger. Jews, states the author, have always found ways to accommodate their differences; between the Orthodox and the secularists, the Zionists and the non-Zionists, as examples. But presently the new “Shabbateans” (referring to the Shabbatai Sevi, the 17th-century false messiah),

“Have denounced their opponents—that is, most Jews—as the enemies of God. Some of the ultra-Orthodox (chiefly the followers of the Lubavitcher rebbe) have joined the messianists in insisting that the West bank must be held by Jews For that is God’s will. The bulk of the ultra-Orthodox . . .insist that they are the only true Jews.”

The division among Jews over the West Bank and the peace process, however, is symptomatic of a greater crisis that exists between the Orthodox and the rest of the Jewish community. Hertzberg rejects the Orthodox contention that only the Torah-true faithful will sustain Judaism and that the Godless heretics will vanish from the Jewish fold. Rather, history shows that the Jewish people have never been a monolith and that even before the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews were composed of factions and sects.

The authors’ prescription for the restoration of unity among contemporary Jews focuses on a pluralism in which secular non-believing Jew and believers tolerate one another on the basis of asserting their Jewishness in deeds; “people who do not believe in one another’s Jewish legitimacy in theory are nevertheless partners in practice.” What counts, states Hertzberg is not what Jews believe, in the religious sense, but what they teach their children that they must do to continue to be Jews.

Part history, part polemic, the Jews, is a controversial book that challenges many of our assumptions about the nature of being Jewish. Many will disagree with the authors arguments or in the way Jewish history is presented, but it is nevertheless an important book that deserves a wide audience.

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