Living up to The Truth

7: Jewish Survival - the Fact and its Implications

by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
The Color of HeavenArtscroll
Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4 | Section 5 | Section 6

This chapter will finish the survey of the evidence. So far, we have seen the prediction of Deuteronomy 28-30, a brief survey of the archaeological evidence, and an argument for the Biblical description of miraculous events. We will now see three more pieces of evidence and then draw the conclusion.

Jewish survival has long enjoyed widespread attention. It is clear to all that the Jewish historical experience is unique in ways which cannot easily be explained. This has attracted the ambition of historians of all stripes to try the mettle of their favorite theories on this extraordinarily difficult historical problem. For Jews, this fact has more personal implications. It sets them apart from the common human experience and gives them a point of pride in their connection to an indestructible people. In spite of all this professional and personal interest, the message of Jewish survival has been doubly missed by historians and (non-traditional) laymen, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

First, the nature of the fact itself has not been appreciated. Its extent - over 3000 years admitted even by the most severe critics - and the uniqueness of the enormous historical pressures which should have caused the disappearance of the Jewish people, are not analyzed in detail. The result is that the superficial suggestions offered to explain Jewish survival are taken seriously, when attention to the details would show them to be clearly incompetent. Second, there is a failure to focus specifically on WHAT has survived. In particular, no account is taken of the many experiments of large populations of Jews with other cultural forms which have not survived. The purpose of this chapter is to rectify both of these mistakes. We will start with a survey of the features which make Jewish survival so difficult to explain. Then the most popular theories designed to explain Jewish survival will be tested against those fact(s).

Jewish history can be divided into two major periods: from its inception to the destruction of the second Temple, and from that date to the present. Each period presents its own obstacles to historical explanation. We start with a survey of the unique features of each.

Ancient Jewish history comprises at the very least 1000 years from the time of king David to the destruction of the second Temple.11 For approximately ninety percent of this period, i.e. for all but the exile in Babylon, there was a large concentration of Jewish population and an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel.12

What is striking about this period is the unparalleled uniqueness of Jewish belief. Principles shared by virtually every ancient culture contrast sharply with Jewish sources. The general agreement among other cultures is due to two factors. First, their beliefs reflect common circumstances (the constants in the human condition in the ancient world - birth, death, war and peace, dependence upon poorly understood natural phenomena, etc.). Second, cultures in contact affect one another: ideas are borrowed and mutually modified. Judaism is assumed to have shared the first factor with all other cultures13, and its geographical position ("the crossroads of three continents") made it extraordinarily susceptible to the second. Its uniqueness is thus very difficult to explain. What follows are six examples of distinctive Jewish beliefs14.

1. Monotheism. Polytheistic idolatry is the rule in ancient religions. The restriction of worship to a single deity is almost unknown3 . The reason is simple: natural phenomena are so disparate that they are inevitably assigned to different deities, and then each of those deities must be served or else the natural forces under their control will injure the errant community. The uncompromising commitment of Judaism to one G-d only is without parallel in the ancient world.

2. Exclusivity. Each ancient nation had its own pantheon of gods. But each recognized the appropriateness of other nations worshipping its own pantheon. The universalism, and consequent exclusivity of Judaism are absent from ancient religions15. Thus, aside from Antiochus' attempt to eliminate Judaism, there are no religious wars in the ancient world16! When one country conquered another the second was usually required to acknowledge the chief god of the conqueror, and the conquered were usually happy to comply: the very fact that they lost the war proved that the others' chief god was very powerful. The rest of the religion of the conquered nation was left intact. Only the Jews proclaimed a universal and exclusive concept of deity: our G-d is the only one, all others are fantasy.

3. Spirituality. Ancient religions associated gods very closely with physical objects and/or phenomena. They abound in nature deities: gods of the sun, moon, sea, fertility, death etc. Often the gods are given human form. The only ancient religion to declare that G-d has no physical embodiment, form or likeness is Judaism.

4. G-d as absolute. Ancient religions picture the gods as limited in power. Many start with a genealogy of the gods. That means that certain powers predate them and are out of their control. Only Judaism understands G-d as the creator of all that exists and completely unlimited in His power over creation.

5. Morality. The gods of the ancient world are pictured as petty tyrants acting out their all-too-human desires in conflict with men and with one another. No condition of absolute moral perfection applies to those gods. Only the Jewish G-d is defined as meeting that description.

6. Anti-homosexuality. All ancient cultures permitted some forms of homosexuality, and for many it had religious application. The only exception is Judaism which opposed all forms of homosexuality, whether religious or merely hedonistic17.

To ancient cultures, these Jewish beliefs appeared absurd. They contradicted the common experience and convictions of all mankind. Maintaining them branded Jews as quixotic outcasts. The historical problem is to explain how a people originated and preserved so extreme a set of beliefs without being overwhelmed by the unanimous consensus of all other nations.

This problem cannot be solved by appeal to the general success of Jewish cultural achievement. The Jewish nation did not enjoy any outstanding secular success which could have served as the means of preserving Judaism. There was no far-flung Jewish empire, no revolutionary innovations in mathematics, medicine, economics, architecture, the arts, philosophy etc. Had there been such, we might have explained the survival of Judaism as a mere accompaniment of an otherwise successful society.

One final characteristic of ancient Judaism must be noted. Throughout the ancient period Jews experimented with other forms of religious belief and practice. The prophets testify to Jewish idol worship. (This must be understood as syncretism: not an abandonment of Judaism in toto but an amalgamation to local conditions. "The Jewish G-d took us out of Egypt, so He is very powerful, so of course we celebrate Passover. However, if you want your garden to prosper, a sacrifice to the local baal will help!") During the Babylonian exile a significant percentage of Jews intermarried and adapted their beliefs to the Babylonian milieu. When Greek culture became dominant in the Middle East many Jews became Hellenized. During the end of the second Temple, the Sadducees rejected the traditional Oral Law and substituted their own adaptations of Jewish practice. Needless to say, all these efforts eventually failed. Thus the survival of Judaism stands in contrast with those competing Jewish cultural forms which expired.


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Now we turn to the second period of Jewish history: from the destruction of the second Temple to the present. During this period, Jewish communities were widely spread among a variety of antagonistic majority cultures, without any central authority or control. What ought to be expected of Judaism under such conditions? From the experience of other cultures, we should expect large-scale cultural borrowing and influence. Yemenite Jews should show the influence of Arab-Moslem culture and religion, French Jews the influence of Catholicism, Russian Jews the influence of Eastern Orthodoxy, etc. Each community should show the the influences of the geography of its physical environment. How critical should these influences be?

Let us take as a comparison the development of Christianity during the same period. At present there are hundreds of different Christian sects, each with its own version of the original doctrines and events of early Christianity. The Trinity is understood in widely different ways by Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Unitarians. The Eucharist is the real consumption of the blood and flesh of the founder of Christianity for some, a symbolic representation for others, and dispensed with entirely by others. This wide variation means that the original information cannot be reliably recovered.18

Now this occurred to a religion which was in a majority position from the time of Constantine, with both central authority and control. Whatever the details of the historical forces which lead to the loss of their origins, those forces should have applied to Judaism with infinitely more power. In fact, what happened is the opposite: there is no disagreement concerning the fundamentals of Jewish belief, practice and experience of 1900 years ago. Thus the survival of Judaism during this period is utterly unexpected, violating the normal process of cultural transformation.

(Here we must be careful not to misunderstand the contemporary division among the "branches of Judaism". They do not differ concerning what Jews of 1900 years ago believed and practiced: there is no doubt that Shabbos was celebrated on Saturday, that pork was forbidden, that the coming of the messiah and the rebuilding of the Temple were the goals of Jewish history, and that they believed every letter of the five books of Moses to have been dictated by G-d at Sinai. They differ only concerning how much of the Judaism of 1900 years ago should be practiced today. This is not at all parallel to Christianity in which matters of equal centrality are very much in debate.)

In addition, as in the ancient period, this second period saw Jews experimenting with modifications of Judaism. The Karaites repeated the Sadduces denial of the traditional Oral Law. The Marranos tried to deal with the Inquisition by feigning Christian practice in public while living as Jews privately. Both of these experiments were historical failures: the Marranos have disappeared from the Jewish people, and the Karaites are a scattered and dying sect. (The more modern experiments at modifying traditional Judaism still exist and thus strictly speaking we cannot yet judge their historical fate. But if past experiments are any guide....) The survival of Judaism as we know it was not without competition from other Jewish allegiances.


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Now let us use these aspects of the historical record to test the adequacy of the popular explanations of Jewish survival. The most common theory of Jewish survival is persecution: the will to spite the oppressor's goal to annihilate one's people and culture.19 The idea is that Jews' resolve to maintain their unique identity is a response to their being defined as alien by the non-Jewish world. If Jews would only be accepted as equals and given access to non-Jewish society, Judaism would disappear.

This theory fails on three counts. First, it does not even apply to the period of national independence. Persecution does not preserve the culture of an independent nation. Second, we are not the only culture which has been conquered and persecuted. Christianity and Islam both became world religions by the sword. When the Roman empire became Christian, the scores of local cultures under their control were given the choice: Chrisitanity or death. Islam gave the same choice to the cultrues of the Arabian pinunnsula, North Africa and the East: Islam or death. Hundreds of local cultures diappeared under that pressure. Why did persecution not produce their survival? (Or is the theory that only the Jews spiteful enoughto want their cultture to survive.?)

Third, the last 1900 years has not been a period of uniformly severe persecution. Judaism survived the "golden age" of Spain, and traditional Judaism is enjoying a renaissance in contemporary America. According to the theory, we should have expected the group with the strongest Jewish identity disappear the fastest in the absence of persecution as the prop for its existence; this is precisely what is not happening.

A second theory to explain Jewish survival asserts that Jews simply have a special ability to preserve their culture. Each culture has its own special gifts. Americans connsistently invent new technology, Russians produce great novels, Italy invented the opera, etc. Perhaps it is just a Jewish cultural gift to produce long-lasting cultural products. (Whether this ability it genetic or acquired - a gene or a genius - the theory does not say.) Even so vague a suggestion can be refuted by the historical record: if there were such an ability, why did it not enable all the Jewish experiments at modifying traditional Judaism to survive also? Where are the Jewish polytheists of the first Temple, the Babylonian and Hellenistic Jews, the Sadduces, Karaites and Marranos? If it is a cultural gift of the Jewish people, it ought to work more than once.

A third type of theory holds that certain aspects of Judaism - beliefs, values, laws, customs, social forms, etc. - have enabled it to survive. For example, it is asserted that dietary restrictions serve to separate Jews from non-Jews and help the former to preserve their identity. The same holds for unique styles of dress, religiouspractices, language, etc. The commitment to literacy and scholarship creates a cultural barrier isoalting Jews from foreign influence. In short, the content of Jewish culture gives a natural explanation for Jewish survival.

This type of theory fails for three reasons. First, other cultures had their own unique styles, some including dietary restrictions, costumes, religious practices, etc. We would need a survey of extinct cultures in order to check that the features of Jewish practice and values are really unique to Judaism. If they are not unique, then they cannot be used to explain survival, since cultures which had them did not survive.

Second,20 no reason is given to think that the cited aspects of Judaism should contribute to survival, rather than being irrelevant or even harmful. That only Judaism has survived and only Judaism has a particular feature A, does not imply that A contributes to Judaism's survival. (Compare: Why was Roger Bannister the first person to run the mile in less than four minutes? Because his name was Roger Bannister!) We would need independent evidence which shows that A contributes to survival.

In the case of dietary restrictions, a small group of immigrants could find them an embarrassment. Imagine an immigrant to the lower East side of New York, living side by side with Irish, Greek, Polish, Italian and other immigrants. Some are friendly, many are not. A local Italian invites the Jewish immigrant for dinner as a gesture of friendship. Can the Jew afford to turn him down? He needs local allies. And if he goes and eats their non-kosher meal, he has violated a religious practice and this weakened his connection to the religion as a whole. However, if Judaism did not have kosher restrictions, then the Jew could eat the meal and have the rest of his religious practice unaffected. The tension of being socially isolated could thus lead to abandoning kashrus, which would then weaken observance generally and thus hasten assimilation. Thus we cannot simply assume that dietary restrictions will promote survival.

The same applies to all the other features of Judaism which are suggested as naturally promoting survival. Dress, language and customs create social pressure on immigrants, and every Jewish community in the world started as immigrants. Scholarship can be a positive agent of assimilation in host cultures where scholarship is valued and the schools are open to Jews. In all cases we need independent evidence that the feature of Judaism which is supposed to explain survival will in fact do that. This independent evidence is never provided.

Third, this theory begs the question at issue in a subtle way. The point of the theory is to provide a naturalistic explanation of Jewish survival. Even if the aspects of Judaism cited by the theory do contribute to survival, we have to ask how they themselves came to be, and why they are unique to Judaism. If we have no naturalistic answer to these questions, then the theory is ultimately a failure. (Compare explaining why George is the only human to run the mile in three minutes by citing his extraordinary leg muscles. If we cannot explain why his legs are so uniquely strong, we still do not understand his achievement.)

Let us suppose that a list of features unique to Judaism can be found which can be seen to contribute to Jewish survival. How is it that only Judaism has such features? Surely other cultures had brilliant men capable of innovating such features for themselves? If not, surely others could have taken them from us? It will not do to argue, as does Yehezkel Kaufmann21, that the unique aspects of Judaism are due to Moses' genius, and that genius has no rules by which its products could be expected. In order to be appreciated as such, genius must produce recognizable solutions to recognized problems. Einsein's genius was recognized because physicists knew that physics was in trouble and Einstein showed them how to resolve the problem. If no one else can see the point of an innovation, it will not be labeled genius, but insanity. If the explanation of Judaism's unique aspects is Moses' genius, then others would definitely have learned his techniques from us.

Finally, there are those who would give up the hope to find a single explanation for Jewish survival. They argue that each of the cited explanations contribute some portion of the overall effect. Persecution does produce some will to resist; Jews are gifted at cultural longevity; some features of Judaism naturally contribute to survival and may have originated randomly. No one element by itself produces survival - that is the reason it was so easy to find counter-examples to the theories based on one explanation alone.

This approach also fails, on three counts. First, no evidence has been supplied that persecution, genius, and features of Jewish practice contribute to survival at all. Indeed, the evidence indicates that these factors do not promote survival. If persecution promotes survival then at least some of the other persecuted cultures should have survived. If there is a Jewish genius for survival then at least one of the cultural experiments should have succeeded. (Compare testing a drug to stop headaches. If the headaches of three out of a thousand tested do stop, we will not credit the drug with success.) And the naturalistic explanation of Judaism's unique possession of survival characteristics has not yet been provided. Thus in the light of the evidence we have three times zero.

Second, it is not clear that other cultures which disappeared did not share all three features. To assert without proof that none of the cultures which disappeared through persecution possessed people gifted at preserving traditions and features fostering survival, would be mere cultural parochialism. Third, without specifying the details of the combination of the elements of explanation, this approach is too vague to be taken as a serious attempt at explanation. What kinds and what extent of persecution contribute to survival? What gifts in particular enable people to preserve a culture? What features of a tradition contribute help it survive? ( This approach reminds me of the remark of one historian: "It is true that we cannot explain Jewish survival. But we will!" Translation: "I believe with perfect faith that everything can be explained naturalistically and therefore there is no need to believe in G-d!")


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The moral of this review of failed theories is clear: there is no serious candidate for a naturalistic explanation of Jewish survival. And let it not be suggested that our survival is not surprising since there are other ancient cultures which have also survived. The existence of Hinduism, Confucianism and other long-lasting cultures has no relevance to Jewish survival. The reason is that they existed under conditions in which survival is expected whereas we existed under conditions which should have caused us to disappear. Consider an analogy: at the beach one hundred people are sunbathing and twenty are in the water. A sudden undertow drags the twenty under the water for thirty minutes. Of the twenty, eighteen drown and two survive. Now it is no surprise that the one hundred on the beach survive, nor is it a surprise that the eighteen drown. Only the survival of the two who are under water for thirty minutes requires some special explanation. Other ancient cultures which survived did so in their own countries, as a large majority population with its own nation-state(s): Why should they not survive? They are the people on the beach. The Jews are the people under water. They survived conditions which destroyed all others which experienced them. Only Jewish survival needs a special explanation.

If Jewish history cannot be understood naturalistically, then the blind application of naturalistic methodology to the details of Jewish experience is a mistake. Imagine a botanist studying the flora of a garden. After he examines and classifies the flowers, shrubs, grasses and trees, he comes across a butterfly. "What sort of plant is this?" he thinks. "It has no roots, it flies..." As long as he tries to apply the methods of botany to a butterfly, he will not understand! Similarly, an attempt to understand facets of Jewish history by comparison to those nations whose history is naturalistic cannot produce understanding. For example, to explain similarity of certain Jewish and non-Jewish ideas by asserting that we must have taken our ideas from others just as all other nations do, will be a totally unjustified comparison. If we were subject to cultural influence like all other nations then we would not be here!

Thus the supernatural element of Jewish survival must be squarely faced. Since there is no reasonable naturalistic explanation, the unbiased investigator must at least seriously entertain the possibility of a supernatural explanation and examine it with as much objectivity as he can muster. We must reject the attitude of the attitude of the philosopher who said that, had he personally heard G-d speak at Sinai, he would have sought out the nearest psychiatrist, since there cannot be a G-d, so his experience would proove that he is crazy. When a consistent phenomenon defies all recognized explanations, other avenues must be courageously explored. In this way a Jew will finally discover the ultimate Source of Jewish survival.


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At this point we need to remember the evidence presented in chapter I showing the superior quality of life enjoyed by Jewish communities. After all, it is not enough to merely survive; the conditions of life must be good enough to make it worthwhile to survive! In the case of Jewish survival, the evidence shows that this requirement is amply fulfilled. Indeed, the quality of life is superior to that of our neighbors. (Of course, this must be measured in terms of areas of common concern. It would be absurd to claim superior quality of life on the grounds that Jews keep kosher - no one else wants to keep kosher!) Success in dealing with family life, addictions, crime, literacy and education sets the Jewish community apart from its neighbors - even those living in the same physical, economic and political environments.

[Comparison with the Amish and other similar communities is not to the point here. They may enjoy a high quality of life, but they achieve it at the price of isolation. Only under their strictly controlled, isolated conditions do they achieve their success. It may be true that any culture can achieve high quality of life under strictly controlled and isolated conditions. This does not reveal the contribution of the culture to the quality of life. The point about Traditional Judaism is that it enjoys its superior quality of life under the same conditions in which the host culture does not achieve a similar quality of life.]

Now, these two features of Jewish history that I have mentioned - survival and quality of life - constitute an unparalleled pragmatic success of high quality survival. We have been able to survive and we have been able to produce consistently higher quality of life under conditions in which no other civilization, no other culture, no other religion has been able to function.

How is it that a civilization survives and flourishes? I am not going to say anything profound now. I only wish I had a profound answer to this question! Rather, I am just going to give you a way of describing the phenomena.

A civilization is a modus operandi; it is a set of rules for living. (Many of those rules are not taught formally, but are implicit in the way people behave.) Those rules need to be adapted to the conditions of life. If they are well adapted, society will flourish. If not, there are two possibilities. Either the society modifies its practice, or the civilization disintegrates. If a civilization is too rigid, and the conditions under which it lives change radically, then it will simply fall apart. If it is more flexible, then it can perhaps change its character to meet the new conditions.

Now here you have a civilization, Traditional Judaism, which has lived under the most widely separated conditions that mankind has ever experienced. There was Traditional Judaism during periods of success when we had our own kingdom. There was Traditional Judaism under conditions when we were conquered by outside powers and were under the sphere of influence by those outside powers. There was Traditional Judaism under conditions of exile; centralized exile as it was in the Babylonian period and enormously scattered exile under the conditions of the last two thousand years.

How can a civilization survive under such widely differing conditions? If it were rigid and unable to change to meet the new conditions, then it would simply fall apart. If it were flexible and able to meet the new conditions, then there ought to be dozens of different "Traditional" Judasims today. Why? Because, we were living under such widely differing conditions, that if we adapted to meet those new conditions, then we ought to have widely different forms of "Traditional" Judaism. Neither of these scenarios occurred. How can this be explained?

The only way to explain it is as follows. Traditional Judaism is not adapted to the variables in human existence. Traditional Judaism is adapted to the constants in human existence. It is not adapted to the conditions of life that change, it is adapted only to the conditions of life that do not change. Because, if Traditional Judaism adapted itself to living in the mountains, then you would have a radically different Traditional Judaism in the mountains than you have in the plains or in the deserts. If Traditional Judaism adapted itself to a successful economic period, then you would have radically different Traditional Judaism in poorer economic periods. If Traditional Judaism adapted itself to peaceful conditions, then when Jews lived under war, you would have to have another type of Traditional Judaism. If Traditional Judaism adapted itself to living under Moslems, then you would have to have a radically different Traditional Judaism living under Christians.

If Traditional Judaism had adapted itself to the local conditions, then history ought to have caused the development of many forms of Traditional Judaism today because historically the local conditions varied widely. Traditional Judaism would then look something like contemporary Christianity. If you have one basic form of Traditional Judaism throughout the world believing in the same basic principles, able to marry one another's children, eat in one another's' homes, praying in one another's synagogues, then Traditional Judaism cannot be adapted to local conditions. Traditional Judaism is adapted only to the universal conditions of human existence.

The existence of many non-Traditional forms of Judaism does not affect this point. If we had followed the norms of human experience there would be no single, recognizable, world-wide Judaism which defines itself as representing the historically continuous principles of Judaism. That other groups have decided to change the historical tradition is true but irrelevant. The surprise is not unanimous agreement on Jewish practice, but that the diverse conditions of Jewish existence have allowed any continuity in representing the historical foundations of Judaism.

But that in itself is a puzzle. Why is it? What would lead a civilization to forgo the advantages of local adaptation? No one else did it. Everyone else adapted to the local conditions in order to get more fruitful interaction with local conditions. How is it that Traditional Judaism should be the only civilization that resists adaptation to local conditions and maintains its pristine purity of adaptation only to the constants of human existence? I have no naturalistic answer to this question. It is another unique feature of Jewish history.


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Finally, I think it can be argued that Traditional Judaism has had a bigger impact on world civilization than any other culture. This tiny, numerically insignificant group of people has transformed world beliefs, world values, the world's basic view of existence more so than any other group.

Think of what the world was like three thousand years ago and imagine a rough progress of development to the present day. The world has been getting more and more Jewish as time goes on. Three thousand years ago everyone was polytheistic. Today, there are many less polytheists. Perhaps Hinduism qualifies as real bona fide polytheism. Perhaps some strains of Christianity qualify as polytheism, perhaps not. But, from a time when the whole world was polytheistic, the world has become largely rid of that particular distortion. The ancient world in which the gods were simply super humans with all the frailties and the problems of mankind - fighting with one another and so forth - has largely been overcome. If you take the Christians and the Moslems together, you have considerably more than one and a half billion people who regard our Bible as divine in some sense (even though in many cases they misinterpret and misapply it).

The concept of justice is essentially a Biblical concept. In fact, it could be argued that morality itself is a Biblical invention. In the ancient world there was no concept of morality. And in so far as morality has become a modern idea to which the vast majority of mankind attaches itself, at least as an idea (practice is another matter!) is also the Judaising of world civilization.

Now all this is an enormous surprise. Even the Greeks' contributions to world civilization are outgrown. Greek science has now been replaced by modern science. In fact much of what had to be done in the Renaissance was to outgrow Greek science. Greek philosophy? There are still some who study the ancient Greek thinkers. But as an impact or as a contribution to the living ideology of mankind, the Greeks have largely been passed, as the Romans have been passed, and as the medieval period and the Renaissance and all the rest have passed. Only Traditional Judaism is still making contributions to the present day quality or conditions of life of world civilization as a whole.



Next: Chapter VIII - Summary and Conclusion
Previous: Chapter VI - Revelation and Miracles - the Kuzari Principle

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