A Look at Judaism

Reference: Judaism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

It has been estimated that one-third of our Western civilization bears the marks of its Jewish ancestry. We feel its force in the names we give to our children: Adam Smith, Noah Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Rebecca West, Sarah Teasdale, Grandma Moses. Michelangelo felt it when he chiseled his “David” and painted the Sistine Ceiling; Dante when he wrote the Divine Comedy and Milton, Paradise Lost. The United States carries the indelible stamp of its Jewish heritage in its collective life: the phrase “by their Creator” in the Declaration of Independence; the words “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land” on the Liberty Bell. The real impact of the ancient Jews, however, lies in the extent to which Western civilization took over their angle of vision on the deepest questions life poses. 

Compared to Hinduism, which didn’t espouse any particular viewpoint, Judaism seems to espouse a certain viewpoint from the beginning.

When, mindful of the impact the Jewish perspective has had on Western culture, we go back to the land, the people, and the history that made this impact, we are in for a shock. We might expect these to be as impressive as their influence, but they are not. In time span the Hebrews were latecomers on the stage of history. By 3000 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era, as Jews prefer to render the period B.C.), Egypt already had her pyramids, and Sumer and Akkad were world empires. By 1400 Phoenicia was colonizing. And where were the Jews in the midst of these mighty eddies? They were overlooked. A tiny band of nomads milling around the upper regions of the Arabian desert, they were too inconspicuous for the great powers even to notice.

Jews were late comers. There was civilization there already.

When they finally settled down, the land they chose was equally unimpressive. One hundred and fifty miles in length from Dan to Beersheba, about fifty miles across at Jerusalem but much less at most places, Canaan was a postage stamp of a country, about one-eighth the size of Illinois. Nor does the terrain make up for what the region lacks in size. Visitors to Greece who climb Mount Olympus find it easy to imagine that the gods chose to live there. Canaan, by contrast, was a “mild and monotonous land. Did the Prophets flash their lightning of conviction from these quiet hills where everything is open to the sky?” Edmund Wilson asked on a visit to the Holy Land. “Were the savage wars of Scripture fought here? How very unlikely it seems that [the Bible emerged] from the history of these calm little hills, dotted with stones and flocks, under pale and transparent skies.” Even Jewish history, when viewed from without, amounts to little. It is certainly not dull history, but by external standards it is very much like the histories of countless other little peoples, the people of the Balkans, say, or possibly the Native tribes of North America. Small peoples are always getting pushed around. They get shoved out of their lands and try desperately to scramble back into them. Compared with the histories of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and Syria, Jewish history is strictly minor league.

Compared with the histories of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and Syria, Jewish history is strictly minor league.

If the key to the achievement of the Jews lies neither in their antiquity nor in the proportions of their land and history, where does it lie? This is one of the greatest puzzles of history, and a number of answers have been proposed. The lead that we shall follow is this: What lifted the Jews from obscurity to permanent religious greatness was their passion for meaning.

What lifted the Jews from obscurity to permanent religious greatness? Was it their passion for meaning?

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