Thursday, April 06, 2006
The Mystery of Jewish Survival
Many people have pondered how the Jews, always remaining small in number have survived. I once heard the Jewish people described as an historical anomaly.
Dov Greenberg ponders the question further....
Imagine we could travel back in time and say to the great Pharaoh, “There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that one of the people alive today will survive and change the moral landscape of the world. The bad news is: it won't be your people. It will be that group of Hebrew slaves out there, building your glorious monuments, the Children of Israel.”
Nothing would sound more absurd. The Egypt of Pharaoh’s time was the greatest empire of the ancient world, brilliant in arts and sciences, formidable in war. The Israelites were a landless people - powerless and oppressed. The Egyptians believed that the Israelites were already on the verge of extinction. The first reference to Israel outside the Bible is an obituary of the Jewish people. It is inscribed on a huge slab of black granite, known as the Mernephta stele dating from the thirteenth century BCE, which stands today in the Cairo Museum. It reads “Israel is laid waste. His seed is no more.”
The story of Jewish survival is so exceptional that it challenges our imagination to the limit. In our own century, the two great powers that announced, “Israel is laid waste” – Hitler’s Third Reich and the Soviet Union - have been crushed. But the people of Israel live.
Many thinkers and social scientists have tried, and still try, to account for the survival of a people, a faith, and a heritage through three millennia of nearly impossible historical conditions. The Dalai Lama, leader of a group far removed from Judaism, who lives in exile with hundreds of thousands of Tibetan refugees, recognized that there is something unparalleled in the Jewish capacity to survive dispersion. Hence, in 1990, he invited a group of Jewish scholars to India. He felt that the Jews, experts in survival, would offer valuable advice to his own people.
Perhaps we can take our answer from the great empirical thinkers of our time, the scientists. They tell us that when a scientist seeks to ascertain the laws governing a certain phenomenon, or to discover the essential properties of an element of nature, he must undertake a series of experiments under the most varied conditions to discover those properties or laws which under all conditions are alike.
The same principle should be applied to Jewish survival. It is one of the oldest in the world, beginning its’ national history with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai over three thousand years ago. In the course of these centuries, Jews have lived under extremely varied conditions. They were dispersed across the world. They had multiple languages, absorbed a diversity of cultures. For example, Rashi lived in Christian France. Maimonides was born in Islamic Spain. Rabbi Akiva lived under Roman rule; the Talmudic sages under Babylonian power. Their societies were utterly different. All that linked them across space and time was a faith, a Torah way of life.