Meaning in History (Judaism)

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

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

Judaism focused on evolution in this world from a historical perspective; while, Hinduism focused on spiritual evolution from the perspective of infinity.

Let us begin with a contrast. “According to most classical philosophies and religions,” a historian writes, “ultimate reality is disclosed when man, either by rational contemplation or mystic ascent, goes beyond the flow of events which we call ‘history.’ The goal is the apprehension of an order of reality unaffected by the unpredictable fortunes of mankind. In Hinduism, for instance, the world of sense experience is regarded as maya, illusion; the religious man, therefore, seeks release from the wheel of life in order that his individuality may fade out into the World-Soul, Brahma. Or, Greek philosophers looked upon the world as a natural process which, like the rotation of the seasons, always follows the same rational scheme. The philosopher, however, could soar above the recurring cycles of history by fixing his mind upon the unchanging absolute which belongs to the eternal order. Both of these views are vastly different from the Biblical claim that God is found within the limitations of the world of change and struggle, and especially that he reveals himself in events which are unique, particular, and unrepeatable. For the Bible, history is neither maya nor a circular process of nature; it is the arena of God’s purposive activity.”

For the Bible, history is neither maya nor a circular process of nature; it is the arena of God’s purposive activity.”

What is at stake when we ask if there is meaning in history? At stake is our whole attitude toward the social order and collective life within it. If we decide that history is meaningless, it follows that the social, political, and cultural contexts of life do not warrant active concern. Life’s pivotal problems will be judged to lie elsewhere, in the extent to which we can rise above circumstances and triumph over them. To the extent that we see things this way, we shall take little interest in, and feel little responsibility for, the problems that beset societies, cultures, and civilizations. 

If we decide that history is meaningless, it follows that the social, political, and cultural contexts of life do not warrant active concern.

The Hebrew estimate of history was the exact opposite of this attitude of indifference. To the Jews history was of towering significance. It was important, first, because they were convinced that the context in which life is lived affects that life in every way, setting up its problems, delineating its opportunities, conditioning its outcomes. It is impossible to talk about Adam and Noah (the same may be said of every major biblical character) apart from the particular circumstances—in this case Eden and the Flood—that enveloped them and in response to which their lives took form. The events the Hebrew Bible relates are profoundly contextual. 

To the Jews history was of towering significance. The events the Hebrew Bible relates are profoundly contextual. 

Second, if contexts are crucial for life, so is collective action; social action as we usually call it. There are times when the only way to get things changed is by working together—planning, organizing, and then acting in concert. The destiny of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt is not depicted as depending on the extent to which they individually “rose above” their slavery by cultivating a liberty of spirit that could tolerate physical chains. They needed to stand up collectively and break for the desert. 

If contexts are crucial for life, so is collective or social action. The way to get things changed is by working together.

Third, history was important for the Jews because they saw it as a field of opportunity. As it was ruled by God—the “theater of God’s glory,” John Calvin claimed, extrapolating from this Old Testament base—nothing in history happens accidentally. Yahweh’s hand was at work in every event—in Eden, the Flood, the Exodus, the Babylonian Exile—shaping each sequence into a teaching experience for his people.

History was important for the Jews because they saw it as a field of opportunity—nothing in history happens accidentally. 

Finally, history was important because life’s opportunities are not monotonously alike. Events, all of them important, are not equally important. It is not the case that anyone, anywhere and at any time, can turn to history and find awaiting an opportunity equivalent to all others in time and place. Each opportunity is unique, but some are decisive: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” History must, therefore, be attended to carefully, for when opportunities pass they are gone forever. 

Judaism takes a closer and detailed view of life compared to Hinduism; which takes a universal and broad view. Both views are important.

This uniqueness of events is epitomized in the Hebrew notions (a) of God’s direct intervention in history at certain critical points, and (b) of a chosen people as recipients of God’s unique challenges. Both are vividly illustrated in the epic of Abraham. This epic is introduced by a remarkable prologue, Genesis 1–11, which describes the steady deterioration of the world from its original, pristine goodness. Disobedience (eating the forbidden fruit) is followed by murder (Cain of Abel), promiscuity (the sons of God and the daughters of men), incest (the sons of Noah), until a flood is needed to sluice out the mess. In the midst of the corruption, God is not inactive. Against its backdrop, in the last days of the Sumeric universal state, God calls Abraham. He is to go forth into a new land to establish a new people. The moment is decisive. Because Abraham answers its call, he ceases to be anonymous. He becomes the first Hebrew, the first of a “chosen people.” 

The idea that the world steadily deteriorated from its original, pristine goodness is arbitrary and unsustainable. We seem to be looking at an evolution from animal state of programmed reaction to human state of thinking with its unique set of problems.

We shall need to return to this “chosen people” theme, but for the present we must ask what gave the Jews their insight into history’s significance. We have noted the kind of meaning they found in history. What enabled them to see history as embodying this meaning? 

For India, human destiny lies outside history altogether. There the world that houses humanity is (as we have seen) the “middle world.” Good and evil, pleasure and pain, right and wrong are woven into it in relatively equal proportions as its warp and weft. And so things will remain. All thought of cleaning up the world and changing its character appreciably is mistaken in principle. The nature religions of Israel’s neighbors reached the same conclusion by a different route. For them, human destiny lay within history all right, but in history as currently constituted, not as it might become. We can see why change—specifically change for the better—did not suggest itself to nature religionists. If one’s eye is on nature preeminently, one does not look beyond it for fulfillment elsewhere. But neither—and this is the point—does one dream of improving nature or the social order that is its extension, for these are assumed to be ingrained in the nature of things and not subject to human alteration. The Egyptian no more asked whether the sun god Ra was shining as he should shine than the modern astronomer asks whether the sun is expending itself at a proper rate; for in nature the accent is on what is, not what should be—the is rather than the ought

For Jews history was significant; whereas, for Hindus human destiny lies outside history altogether. For nature religions, human destiny lay in history as currently constituted, not as it might become. Therefore, change for the better did not suggest itself to nature religionists.

The Israelites’ historical outlook differed from that of India and Middle Eastern polytheism because they had a different idea of God. Had the issue been raised to the level of conscious debate, they would have argued against India that God would not have created people as material beings if matter were adventitious to their destiny. Against the nature polytheists the Jews would have argued that nature is not self-sufficient. Because nature was created by God, God cannot be assimilated to it. The consequence of keeping God and nature distinct is momentous, for it means that the “ought” cannot be assimilated to the “is”—God’s will transcends (and can differ from) immanent actuality. By the double stroke of involving human life with the natural order but not confining it to that order, Judaism established history as both important and subject to critique. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. 

Change for the better was significant for Jews because the material world was intrinsic part of human destiny and nature, by itself, was not self-sufficient.

The nature polytheisms that surrounded Judaism all buttressed the status quo. Conditions might not be all the heart desired, but what impressed the polytheist was that they could be a lot worse. For if the powers of nature reside in many gods—in Mesopotamia their number reached into the thousands—there was always the danger that these gods might fall out among themselves with resulting chaos. So religion’s attention was directed toward keeping things as they were. Egyptian religion repeatedly contrasted “passionate people” to “silent people,” extolling the latter because they didn’t cause trouble. Small wonder that no nature polytheism ever spawned a principled revolution. Traditionally, Indian religion likewise had a conservative cast; for if polytheisms feared change, Hinduism considered substantive social change to be impossible. 

If polytheisms feared change, Hinduism considered substantive social change to be impossible. 

In Judaism, by contrast, history is in tension between its divine possibilities and its manifest frustrations. A sharp tension exists between the ought and the is. Consequently, Judaism laid the groundwork for social protest. When things are not as they should be, change in some form is in order. The idea bore fruit. It is in the lands that have been affected by the Jewish historical perspective, one that influenced Christianity and to some extent Islam, that the chief thrusts for social betterment have occurred. The prophets set the pattern. “Protected by religious sanctions, the prophets of Judah were a reforming political force which has never been surpassed and perhaps never equalled in subsequent world history.” On fire with the conviction that things were not as they should be, they created in the name of the God for whom they spoke an atmosphere of reform that “put Hyde Park and the best days of muckraking newspapers to shame.”

It is in the lands that have been affected by the Jewish historical perspective that the chief thrusts for social betterment have occurred.

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