Monday, January 2, 2012

Why Study Jewish History? Part 3 - Strengthening Our Emunah

The study of Jewish history has an important role in strengthening our emunah – our belief in God and His Torah. The lesson we are supposed to learn from history is that God is running the world. Indeed, one of the primary tasks of the Jewish people is to demonstrate to the world through its history that God controls the events of history. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:[1]

While mankind was to be taught by experience, and from its fate it was to gain knowledge about God and itself, the attainment of this aim was to be assured and furthered by a special arrangement. …There would be introduced into the ranks of nations one people which would demonstrate by its history and way of life that the sole foundation of life is God alone; that life’s only purpose is the fulfillment of His Will; and that the formal expression of this Will, specifically addressed to this people, serves as the exclusive bond of its unity. This objective required a nation that was poor in everything upon which the rest of mankind builds its greatness and the entire structure of its life. To all appearances being at the mercy of nations armed with self-reliant might, it was to be directly sustained by God Himself, so that, in manifestly overcoming all opposing forces, God would stand revealed as the sole Creator, Judge and Master of history and nature.
Thus, the existence and unity of the Jewish people, after thousands of years of oppression and dispersion, proves beyond any doubt that HaShem controls the events of history. Rabbi Yakov Emden (1698-1776) writes:[2]
ואיך לא יבוש הכופר בהשגחה ויעמוד נכלם מי שיעיין ביחוד עניננו ומעמדנו בעולם, אנחנו האומה הגולה שה פזורה. אחר כל מה שעבר עלינו מהצרות והתמורות אלפים מהשנים ואין אומה בעולם נרדפת כמונו, מה רבים היו צרינו, מה עצמו נשאו ראש הקמים עלינו מנעורינו להשמידנו לעקרנו לשרשנו מפני השנאה שסבתה הקנאה רבת צררונו גם לא יכלו לנו לאבדנו ולכלותנו, כל האומות הקדומות העצומות אבד זכרם, בטל סברם, סר צלם, ואנו הדבקים בה' כולנו חיים היום לא נפקד ממנו בכל תוקף אריכות גלותינו אפילו אות וניקוד אחד מתורה שבכתב וכל דברי חכמים קיימים לא יטה לארץ מנלם, לא שלט בהם יד הזמן ולא כלם, מה יענה בזה פילוסוף חריף, היד מקרה עשתה כל אלה? חי נפשי, כי בהתבונני בנפלאות אלה, גדלו אצלי יותר מכל נסים ונפלאות שעשה השי"ת לאבותנו במצרים ובמדבר ובארץ ישראל, וכל מה שארך הגלות יותר נתאמת הנס יותר ונודע מעשה תקפו וגבורתו, בשגם כל הנביאים כבר ראו עומקו והתאוננו והתלוננו על אריכותו הנפלא בטרם היותו, והנה לא נפל מכל דבריהם ארצה, איה פי המכחיש וכו'

How can the denier of Divine Providence not be embarrassed and ashamed when he thinks about our unique status and circumstance in the world? We, the exiled nation, the lost sheep, [even] after all the oppressions and changes which have happened to us over thousands of years—there is no nation that is pursued as we are, how numerous are our oppressors, how aggressively do they turn against us, since the time of our youth, to destroy, overturn, and uproot us, with a hatred motivated by jealousy—yet, despite our numerous oppressors, they were unable to destroy us and wipe us out. All of the mighty ancient nations, their memory has been lost, their countenance has been nullified, their image has been removed, but we, who cleave to God, are all alive today. Through all the powerful, long exile, we have not lost even one letter or dot from our Written Torah, and all the words of the Sages remain standing, not one of them has fallen. The hand of time has had no dominion over them, and they have not been destroyed. What response can you make to this, brilliant philosopher? Has all of this been achieved by accident? By the life of my soul! When I consider these wonders, they appear greater to me than all the miracles and wonders that God did for our ancestors in Egypt, and in the wilderness, and in the land of Israel.[3] And the longer the exile lasts, the more verified the miracle becomes, and His might and power are made known. Especially because all of the prophets had already seen the depth [of the exile] and they mourned and bemoaned its great duration before it happened, and not one of their words has failed to be fulfilled. Where is the mouth that can deny? …
Many non-Jews have indeed noticed this unique characteristic of the Jews. In a very famous and widely quoted passage, Mark Twain writes:[4]

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent. of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.   Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendour, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?
Similarly, the great French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), wrote:[5]

This family, or people, is the most ancient within human knowledge, a fact which seems to me to inspire a peculiar veneration for it, especially in view of our present inquiry; since if God had from all time revealed Himself to men, it is to these we must turn for knowledge of the tradition.
This people is not eminent solely by their antiquity, but is also singular by their duration, which has always continued from their origin till now. For whereas the nations of Greece and of Italy, of Lacedæmon, of Athens and of Rome, and others who came long after, have long since perished, these ever remain, and in spite of the endeavours of many powerful kings who have a hundred times tried to destroy them, as their historians testify, and as it is easy to conjecture from the natural order of things during so long a space of years, they have nevertheless been preserved (and this preservation has been foretold); and extending from the earliest times to the latest, their history comprehends in its duration all our histories [which it preceded by a long time].
Yet, while many writers have recognized the unique survival of the Jews, most of these writers, unlike Pascal, fail to take the next logical step of acknowledging the Source of that survival.[6] Some, like Mark Twain, simply leave the topic as a mystery. Other’s attempt to explain it away or to deny its true uniqueness. Arnold Toynbee, the famous historian, is an example of the latter. In his book, A Study of History, he discusses the case of the Jews:[7]

Normally the establishment of a universal state, even for no longer than a single spell, has resulted in a permanent obliteration of the identities of the local states and people that have been incorporated in it. … Yet, without the political framework of a state or the territorial basis of a home, the Jews have managed to preserve their separate identity, as a people, from 586 BC – the year that saw the obliteration of the Kingdom of Judah – down to the present day. They have preserved it as a scattered minority (diaspora) living among non-Jewish majorities in countries outside the former frontiers of the extinct Kingdom of Judah and hundreds or thousands of miles away from its historic capital, Jerusalem.
This feat is remarkable and exceptional, but it is not unique. The Jews are not the only uprooted people who have achieved it. …
Thus, after detailing the amazing – "remarkable and exceptional" – survival of the Jewish people, Toynbee attempts to diminish its significance by claiming that other groups have achieved the same thing. However, if we look at the actual examples he gives, none of them are even closely comparable to the Jews. Among the groups he mentions are the Parsees,[8] the Monophysite and Nestorian Christians,[9] the Molokane, Skoptsy, and Dukhobors,[10] the Quakers,[11] and the Huguenots.[12]
None of these groups is comparable to the Jews for several obvious reasons. Firstly, every one of these groups is of relatively recent origin, the oldest being the Parsees, which is less than 1,500 years old. By contrast, the Jewish diaspora is at least 2,000 years old, and about 2,500 years if we begin counting from the destruction of the Kingdom of Judah, as Toynbee does. Secondly, none of these other groups are of great prominence in the world, they are simply small religious groups of little interest to the world at large. The Jews, however, are extremely prominent, often to their great dismay, and are the focus of grossly disproportionate amount of attention on the world scene. And, finally, none of these groups were oppressed with the same aggressiveness and persistence with which the Jews have been oppressed. Toynbee himself actually acknowledges all of these factors later, when he states:
Of all the diasporas in our list [the Jewish diaspora] is the most famous, the most influential, and also perhaps the most unhappy, at least so far, in its relations with the gentile majorities among whom it has been living. It has also been in existence longer than any of the others, and has been more completely divorced from the cultivation of the land in its original home.
The story is told that King Frederick the Great once asked his pastor to provide him with a very brief proof of the truth of religion. The pastor answered simply, "The Jews, your majesty."[13] For the Jewish people, the existence of God is not simply a matter for philosophical discussion; His hand has been present throughout our history. Our Sages tell us that the Roman emperor Hadrian once said to Rabbi Yehoshua, “Great is the lamb [the Jewish people] who survives amongst seventy wolves [the seventy nations]!” Rabbi Yehoshua responded, “Great is the Shepherd, who rescues and protects her, and breaks them [the nations] before her!”[14]

We repeat this theme on Pesach at the Seder when we recite “V’He Sh’Amdah”:
This is what has stood up for our fathers and for us,
For not only one has stood up against us to destroy us,
But in every generation they rise up to destroy us,
And the Holy One, Blessed Be He, saves us from their hands.

A historically conscious Jew cannot help but be amazed by the open miracle of Jewish survival. In a world that often appears to be totally mundane, the mere existence of a Jew is a miracle. I have often told my students, "If you want to see an open miracle, look in a mirror!" Yet, it is a miracle that one can easily overlook, if you are lacking the historical knowledge to put it in context. Studying Jewish history is, therefore, a vital and powerful means of strengthening our Jewish belief.

This understanding, that the study of Jewish history can strengthen our emunah, brings us to a related issue. Because Jewish history provides such a powerful testimony to the existence and power of God, those who wish to deny Him or to deny the authority of the Torah will frequently attempt to revise history. The secular study of history is dominated by people with a strong ideological bias against emunah, who will rewrite history to fit with their prior misconceptions or to provide support for their false teachings. The Sages (Avos 2:14) teach us, דע מה שתשיב לאפיקורס – “Know what to answer to an heretic.” It is important for us to know how to respond to such claims.

[1] The Nineteen Letters, Letter Seven

[2] In Sulam Beis El, printed at the beginning of his Siddur, in the first section of חווק ב'.

[3] Emphasis added.

[4] Closing paragraph of his essay,"Concerning the Jews".

[5] Pensées 619

[6] And even Pascal, and other Christian thinkers, failed to recognize the full implications.

[8] A Zoroastrian group that fled from Islamic persecution in Iran (Persia) in the 7th Century and settled in India. Today, there are about 100,000 Parsees worldwide, most in India and Iran, and the population is steadily declining.

[9] Two Middle-Eastern Christian sects that separated from “mainstream” Christianity in the Fifth Century.

[10] Three Russian Christian sects that separated from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th Century.

[11] A Christian sect that began in England in 1647.

[12] French Protestants who were persecuted in the struggles between the Catholics and Protestants.

[13] This story exists in a wide range of versions, but most are between Frederick the Great and an anonymous pastor. Some versions identify the speaker as the Marquis d'Argens (1704-1771), a French philosopher who was a friend of Moses Mendelssohn. Of course, in these stories, the supernatural survival of the Jews is cited as a proof for the truth of Christianity, which just goes to show that even open miracles can be misinterpreted.

[14] Tanchuma, Toldos 5

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