Enduring because of our values

Jewish Family Identity Forum

Candace R. Kwiatek

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

Shelley’s powerful sonnet Ozymandias describes the fragmented statue of a long-ago king abandoned in a barren desert. On its pedestal the sculptor had carved, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans…their once-great civilizations, their ancient identities, are long gone. Only one ancient people still exists, its holy texts, language, religion, and traditions recognizable from bygone eras: the Jews.

Insignificant in number and limited in military might, the Jews are also the only people that has been exiled from its land and leaders, scattered in every continent, and beset by enemies in every generation, and yet has survived, prospered, and incomparably enriched the world.

Why did the Jewish people endure when so many others fell by the wayside? History gives us many answers, but among the most significant are the following.

From magic to memory and menschlichkeit. Ancient religions centered on ritual not prayer and their prescribed behaviors — human sacrifice, fertility orgies, food offerings, drug use, and dance performances among others — were designed to influence or control the gods, to make them appear or respond or do one’s bidding. They were a kind of magic performed by intermediaries: shamans, magicians, priests and even pharaohs.

Judaism has rituals. But from their very beginnings, those rituals have been about memory and menschlichkeit rather than magic. Jews didn’t blow silver-encrusted horns to chase away evil winter spirits or sound conches to summon a deity during drug-induced ceremonies. The tekiah of the ram’s horn was transformed: a call to humans to remember the creation of the world, reflect on its Creator, recall past deeds, and repent.

Jews didn’t burn midwinter fires to chase away demons of darkness or make the gods happy so they would bring back the sun. Instead, those flames became a celebration memorializing the miraculous Maccabee victory over the Hellenizers, and the rededication of the Temple. Jews didn’t sacrifice beautiful maidens or enemy prisoners to appease or thank the gods. Rather, each year the Jewish people retell the parable of the Akedah (Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac), a rejection of such practices and an affirmation of the sanctity of human life. Judaism revolutionized ancient pagan rites, redirecting them from magical control over the gods to self-control through memory and values.

From Temple to Torah to Talmud. Almost 2,600 years ago, when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and exiled its Jews, they ultimately uprooted three foundational ideas of Judaism common to all ancient religions: God is place-specific, communication with the Divine is through sacrifice, and ritual is the province of priestly intermediaries.

But with their land laid waste, their Temple destroyed, their sacrifices unfeasible, and their priests jobless, the Jews had a choice: continue to “sit and weep along the rivers of Babylon” or imagine a new kind of relationship with the deity that didn’t depend on place, sacrifice, or priest.

Survival meant adapting to changing circumstances, so the Jews in Babylon created a new portable Judaism. They elevated the role of the Torah, eventually setting up a system of regular public readings. They designed communal gathering places, synagogues, for study and prayer instead of Temple-based sacrifice. They transformed the home into a mini-sanctuary, putting religious practice into the hands of the people, making religion a personal engagement. They celebrated scholarship rather than heredity, switching religious leadership from priests to rabbis, whose commentaries and rulings still develop from the lively ongoing dialogue among the people.

With these transformations in place, the ability of the Jews to adapt to new times and places was ensured as the Diaspora spread across six continents.

From book to bank and business. With the centrality of text, scholarship, and personal religious responsibility, it is no wonder that the Jews were the first to require universal primary education. This innovation impacted Jewish life in a surprising and totally unexpected manner. “With the notion of Jewish identity now tied directly to literacy,” writes Steven Weiss in The Chosen Few, “…raising one’s children as Jews required a substantial investment in Jewish education. To be able to justify that investment, one had to be either or both an especially devoted Jew or someone hoping to find a profession for his children where literacy was an advantage, like trade, crafts, and money lending.”

New research suggests that Jewish education — not antisemitism or professional barriers or periodic expulsions — launched the Jews into the forefronts of banking, investment, commerce, medicine, accounting, translation, map-making, and science, long before their European counterparts. Having valuable and portable skills gave the Jews the courage and wherewithal to tackle new ventures, move to new communities, and explore new lands.

Education also gave Jews the aptitude for learning new skills in response to job restrictions or fashionable technologies: printing, silk manufacturing, diamond cutting. While Jewish literacy was the key to Jewish identity, it was also the solution to survival and advancement in the world of the Diaspora.

So what does history teach us about why — despite being uprooted, persecuted, exiled, restricted, marginalized, and exterminated — the Jewish people has survived and prospered, and continues to enrich the world? A text of communal memory and ethical obligations. A willingness to adapt but not assimilate. A tradition of personal religious responsibility. A celebration of scholarship. A desire for learning. A commitment to survival. A quality of courage. A willingness to be different. The Jewish people has endured because of its values.

Family Discussion: Who or what in history does Ozymandias represent? Which trait(s) of Jewish civilization do you think other civilizations lacked, contributing to their downfall?

Literature to share
Lily Renee, Escape Artist by Trina Robbins: This highly-rated graphic novel for older elementary ages and young teens is a clever biography of a Kindertransport Holocaust survivor who becomes a comic book pioneer — creating strong female characters in a profession only newly-opened to women. Excellent and highly engaging background information is offered as an addendum. A must read even for adults.

The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six by Jonathon Keats: Impossible to put down, this set of 12 short fairy tales about the “lamed-vavniks” — the mystical 36 uniquely righteous individuals in each generation whose presence keeps the world going — is a treasure of Jewish folklore. A perfect Shabbat afternoon indulgence.

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