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A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion

A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion

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by Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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Jews have long defined themselves in light of the bad things that have happened to them. The Jewish people have survived catastrophe after catastrophe and remained a thriving and vibrant community. How, in the face of such adversity, has Judaism remained and flourished, making a mark on human history out of all proportion to its numbers?


Jews have long defined themselves in light of the bad things that have happened to them. The Jewish people have survived catastrophe after catastrophe and remained a thriving and vibrant community. How, in the face of such adversity, has Judaism remained and flourished, making a mark on human history out of all proportion to its numbers?

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
At least half of young Jews today are turning their backs on their Jewish heritage, notes Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth and author of Faith in the Future and a number of other books. Tracing some of the milestones in Jewish history, he poses questions for these Jews: "What are the claims that Jewish identity makes upon me?" "What is the nature of the collective Jewish journey that I am asked to continue?" "How did we lose the way?" He is proud to be a Jew because of Judaism's moral purpose, commitment to the poor and oppressed, faith in freedom, belief in the Torah, and continuing tradition. He urges young Jews to continue the journey, to pass it on to their children, to be a "letter in the scroll" of the eternal people. A most profound and eloquently expressed meditation, this is highly recommended for all Jews as well as for non-Jews looking to better understand the Jewish legacy and commitment.--Marcia Welsh, formerly with Guilford Free Lib., CT Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Rather than dwelling on the darkside of Jewish history, the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth gives his answer to why Judaism has survived and flourished in this book, which was written as a wedding gift to his son. Sacks draws upon Biblical texts, history, comparative religion analysis, his life experience, and the Hasidic metaphor that every Jew is an irreplaceable letter in a living Torah scroll. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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One people risked its very existence on the proposition that our common humanity exists in and through our differences; that the human person itself, regardless of faith, independent of race, is in the image of God; and that the unity of God expresses itself in the diversity of creation and human culture. With this we come to one of the most controversial of Jewish beliefs, one that has cost the children of Abraham much anguish and suffering: the idea of a chosen people.

What lies behind the idea of a chosen people? The answer is given by the Bible itself in the two stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel. Imperialism, the desire to place all peoples under a single rule, ends either in a "world filled with violence" (the Flood) or in a civilization that arrogates to itself godlike powers (Babel). Doubtless Israel's historical experience played a large part in this critique ofempires.

Most simply, chosenness follows from the sheer logic of the monotheistic idea. If God is the reality of the personal, then God loves the way a person loves, each one separately, for their differences, not their sameness. God is not a Platonist, loving the abstract form of things. Nor is God an imperialist, ruling the world through power and forcing mankind into a single image. God, creator of diversity, loves difference. That is why, though there is One God, there are different ways of finding Him. Every relationship between persons is unique.

The Hebrew Bible speaks of a God who not only loves, but who loves precisely those who are otherwise unloved — the younger rather than the elder; the weak, not the strong; the few, not the many. From this flow all acts of chosenness in the Bible: Abel, not Cain; Abraham, not a nation; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Israel the slaves, rather than Egypt the masters. To be sure, no one is rejected. Divine choice does not mean that God is with this person, not that; with one nation, not another. God — who tells Moses that His name is "I will be where I will be" — cannot be confined to one sector of humanity. That is the point of His remarkable command to the Israelites: "Do not hate an Egyptian. You were strangers in his land." God blesses Ishmael and Esau — they too will become great nations. There is nothing exclusive about the patriarchal covenant: "Through you shall all the families of the earth be blessed." But there is nonetheless an insistence on the integrity of diversity, the dignity of difference; the preciousness to God of those whom the world ignores or mistreats. God sets His image on the only creature for whom difference is a source of identity, namely man. And to exemplify this truth, He chooses Israel, the people who are called on to be different, to show that for God, difference matters.

The covenant with Abraham and Israel is a calculated and far-reaching rejection of two other forms of civilization, tribalism and universalism. Tribalism assumes that there is one god for each nation. Universalism contends that there is one god for all humanity and only one way in which He is to be served. Judaism argues that despite the irreducible differences between faiths and cultures, all people are the children of one God. According to the Talmud, when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, God stopped the angels from singing a song of triumph: "My creatures are drowning, and you wish to sing a song?"

The faith of Israel declares the oneness of God and the plurality of man. This declaration constitutes a protest against tribalism on the one hand, and universal solutions to the human situation on the other. Neither does justice to the human "other," the "stranger," who is not in my image but is nevertheless in God's image. Tribalism denies rights to the outsider. Universalism grants rights if and only if the outsider converts. Tribalism turns the concept of a chosen people into that of a master race. Universalism turns the truth of a single culture into the measure of all humanity. The results are often tragic, and always an affront to human dignity.

It has often been thought that the greatest moral principle of the Bible is, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." I used to believe so myself. But I have found that there is a yet greater principle: "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger — you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt." Or again: "When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not ill-treat him. The stranger who lives with you shall be treated like the native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God." In the century of the Holocaust these commands echo with unrequited force.

It is easy to love our neighbor. It is difficult to love the stranger. That is why the Torah commands us only once to love our neighbor, but on thirty-six occasions commands us to love the stranger. A neighbor is one we love because he is like us. A stranger is one we are taught to love precisely because he is not like us. That is the Torah's repeated and most powerful command. I believe it to be the greatest religious truth articulated in the past four thousand years. Throughout history, Jews were the archetypal strangers. Abraham says to the Hittites, "I am a stranger and a sojourner among you." The Israelites were "strangers" in Egypt. Moses said, on the birth of his first son, "I am a stranger in a strange land." They were strangers to teach that God loves the stranger. They were different, yet God set on them His love, to teach the dignity of difference.

Two ideas have sounded like siren calls through the ages, leading men to shed the blood of other men. The first is that God is on the side of the strong, the many, the established power. That is why God chose a people who were weak, and few, and homeless. The second is that there is somewhere a truth so universal that it is to be imposed on all mankind. Behind all religious persecutions is the idea that it is acceptable to harm other people's bodies to save their souls. In forcing them to accept certain beliefs, the persecutor is acting for their good, serving God through violence to the image of God. Both ideas lend rationale to why God chose a particular people as His own: He chose the powerless to teach that He is not to be found in power, and a people who neither shared the faith of others nor imposed their faith on others to teach that there is not one way to His presence, but many.

Historically, Israel paid a high price for its religious vocation. Time and again Jews became the test case of a civilization. Were they tolerated? Were they protected under law? Were they granted basic civil rights? Refusing to assimilate, insisting on their right to be different, Jews experienced the full force of hatred of the "stranger." Those who persecuted Jews showed that they could not tolerate difference, and a civilization that does not tolerate difference fails a basic moral requirement of humanity. A world that cannot live with strangers is a world not yet redeemed.

What, then, is a redeemed world? The prophet Micah gives the answer:
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
Nor will they train for war any more.
Every man will sit under his own vine
And under his own fig tree,
And no one will make them afraid,
For the Lord Almighty has spoken.
For all the peoples walk
Each in the name of its god,
But we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
For ever and ever.

These words are so familiar today that we need to remind ourselves how radical they were and still are. Every other culture in the ancient world valued victory. Its heroes were military leaders, its ethic was one of conquest and power. The prophets of Israel were the first human beings to conceive of peace, not victory, as an ideal. They were not pacifists, and they recognized the necessity for wars of self-defense. But it remains stunning to discover that God tells David he may not build the Temple because "you have shed much blood." His military prowess, which would have made him the ideal person to build a temple in any other country, is a disqualification here.

The value of peace flows directly from that of difference. For peace in the Judaic sense will come not when all nations are conquered (as in tribalism) or converted (as in universalism) but when, under God's sacred canopy, different nations and faiths make space for one another. No other religion has shared this idea, of a single God with many names, who has set His image on each of us, but with whom we talk, each faith in its own language, each in its own way.

It remains difficult fully to comprehend the vision at the heart of the Hebrew Bible, namely that religious truth is not universal, nor relative, but covenantal. God reaches out to each people, faith and culture, asking it to be true to itself while recognizing that it is not the exclusive possessor of truth. Great harm has always been done to the world by religions when they seek to impose their truth on others by force, or when they treat those who do not share that truth as less than equal citizens.

Today, as Western civilization recoils from the Holocaust, it has moved to the opposite extreme, of declaring that truth is relative and that no way of life is better than any other. This too is false. If moral truth is relative, then so are the sanctity of life, the dignity of the individual, the imperative of peace, the duties we owe future generations as guardians of the planet, and the responsibilities we owe one another as members of the extended family called man. They are not relative. They are the absolute moral preconditions of human life.

Moral truths are absolute but not universal. They are covenantal, meaning, we are called to live them out, not in the same way, but each culture and faith in its own way. God reaches out to us as Jews, asking us to be true to the covenant of Sinai, bringing the Divine presence into the world through the lives we lead, the relationships we form, the homes we build, the communities we create, and the ideals we pass on to those we bring into the world. Ours is not the only way to live, but it is the Jewish way — the particular example that illustrates the general rule that you can be different and yet human, strangers and yet the beloved children of God. I know of no other faith that has taught this principle so clearly, so consistently, so courageously. The Jewish people in its very being constitutes a living protest against a world of hatred, violence and war — the world of the palace in flames.

"When I was young," said Rabbi Israel Salanter, "I wanted to change the world. I tried, but the world did not change. So I concentrated on changing my town, but my town did not change. Then I turned to my family, but my family did not change. Then I realized: first I must change myself." This is the authentic moral voice that has sounded throughout Jewish life since the days of Abraham and Sarah. We can change the world because we can change ourselves. That is the birthplace of hope. We are called on to change the world. That is the imperative of faith. It was and still is a compelling vision.

I have tried to convey to you the continuing power of the Judaic vision, radically different as it is from the conventional idea of faith. It is not a way of understanding or accepting or being reconciled to the world. To the contrary, it is a protest against the world that is, in the name of the world that ought to be. From this refusal-to-accept eventually emerged the most sustained of all man's attempts to create a social order based on individual freedom and collective grace, a society of equal access to dignity and hope.

Judaism is an ongoing moral revolution that began by challenging the great empires of the ancient world. Technologically supreme though they were, they failed the human test. The ziggurats and temples of the ancient world were built by a social order that worshiped the few and enslaved the many. They were neither free nor equal. For Judaism, then and now, the criterion of the good society is not wealth, power or prowess but the simple question: does it respect the individual as image of God?

Judaism is also religious revolution. Alone among the great religions, it argues that there is one God and many faiths — and only one world in which to live together in peace. That means that for Judaism the great spiritual challenge is not so much finding God within oneself as finding God within the other, the stranger. In an age of ethnic wars and religious conflict, that remains a monumental and still-urgent challenge.

To arrive at this unique vision of monotheistic religious pluralism, Judaism had to contain not one religious vision but two. There is the covenant with all humanity through Noah, and the covenant with one particular family, that of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. This remains a difficult idea to understand. To give a simple analogy: there are universal features of language, but there is no universal language. All languages contain sentence structures, subjects, predicates, nouns, verbs, markers differentiating statements from questions, and so on. But to be able to speak, we need to possess one particular language — one, not all. And to believe that one language is true, the others false, is absurd. So, too, to believe the idea that one religion is true and the others false is equally absurd.

Not only is Judaism structurally different from the other monotheistic faiths. It is also different from the other great attempt to understand the human condition: philosophy, the invention of ancient Greece. The Greek idea is of truth as system. The Jewish idea is of truth as story. The philosophical quest has at most times been the search for truth that is timeless and universal. For Judaism, this systematically omits the most important features of the human situation, time and perspective. Time is the medium through which we learn, in which we make the long, slow journey from violence to justice, oppression to freedom, hierarchy to equality. Perspective is the dimension through which we discover that there are points of view different from, and not reducible to, our own.

These are not minor differences. They are among the most consequential we know. There were revolutions based on philosophy — the French (on Enlightenment rationalism) and the Russian (on Marxist theory). These began in hope and ended in the suppression of human rights. Nor were the social orders created by nonpluralist monotheisms — the Christian and Islamic empires of the Middle Ages — always better. Religious minorities suffered persecution, coercion, expulsion and sometimes religiously inspired massacre. They lacked civil equality.

We have no way of knowing what Jews would have done in similar circumstances. The Jewish writer Sholom Asch once thanked God that his people had not been given the opportunity to commit against others the crimes that had been committed against it. Perhaps every nation, once it has power, abuses it. All we can say is this: the conceptual structure of Judaism, with its belief in one God and many faiths, is as near as we have yet come to a world view that does justice to diversity while at the same time acknowledging the universal human condition.

Judaism has a more challenging view of the human individual than any other faith I know. Where Christianity sees man as in need of being saved, and Islam calls on him to submit to the will of God, Judaism advances the daring idea that man and God are partners in the work of creation. Faith is the call to human responsibility.

Nowhere is this set out more strikingly than in the biblical contrast between Noah and Abraham. Noah is "a righteous man, perfect in his generations," a man who "walked with God." Throughout the entire narrative of the Flood, Noah does not say a single word to God. Instead, four times we are told that "Noah did everything just as God commanded him." God instructs, Noah obeys. The Flood comes, life is swept away, and Noah utters no prayer, no word of protest. He accepts the will and word of God. Yet in the closing scene of Noah's life we see him drunk and disheveled, a man who has lost the respect of his children. Noah fails. Noah is the paradigm of religious obedience.

The example of Abraham tells us that obedience is not enough. When God proposes to punish Sodom and the other cities of the plain, Abraham replies:

Will You sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Far be it for You to do such a thing — to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?

Unlike Noah, Abraham challenges the Divine decree. This note — the rabbis called it hutzpah kelapei shemaya, "audacity towards heaven" — sounds again and again in the history of Jewish spirituality: in Moses, Jeremiah and Job, in early rabbinic midrash, the elegies of the Middle Ages, and most recently in the literature of the Holocaust. I know of no counterpart in any other religious culture. Even today the idea that man, "dust of the earth," can debate with God, creator of infinite space, sounds strange and on the brink of blasphemy. Yet it is precisely those who challenge most strongly who are the great exemplars of faith.

To be a Jew is to argue with heaven for the sake of heaven. Jewish faith does not lie in the acceptance of suffering or the escape from it but in seeing it for what it is and contending with it, even if this means contending with God Himself. In this dialogue there are no answers. To expect them is to misunderstand what the conversation is about. If there were answers, we would be reconciled to the world as it is. We would be at peace with a world in which there was sickness, hunger, persecution and violence, for we would be forced to say, "Such is the will of God." The point of the dialogue between earth and heaven is not to receive answers. It is to acquire, through our encounter with God, the strength to carry on, to reengage with life, to build, rescue and heal. In Judaism, God is not in the answer but in the question. There is no answer to the question, "Why do the innocent suffer?" at the level of thought. The only adequate answer is at the level of deed, in the long journey toward a world in which the innocent no longer suffer. To be sure, there is acceptance in Judaism. We call this tzidduk ha-din, coming to terms with suffering and loss, saying that "all that God does is for the best." But Jewish law asks us to accept only that which cannot be changed, and there is no evil in the future that cannot be changed.

The significance of this is fundamental. The great literary genre of ancient Greece was tragedy, and tragedy is born in the idea that there is a fate (moira) that is inexorable. Man struggles against it and is always doomed to failure. Tragedy in the Greek sense is a concept that simply cannot be translated into biblical Hebrew. Not only is there no such word; there could not be, for in Judaism there is no fate that is inevitable. The very concept of prophecy is the warning of a future that will happen unless — unless there is a change of heart. Israel had prophets; Greece had oracles. The difference between them is that an oracle predicts the future, while a prophet warns against it. If the foretold future comes to pass, the oracle has succeeded, but the prophet has failed. Judaism is therefore the systematic rejection of tragedy in the name of hope.

But does this make a difference now? I think it does — all the difference in the world. We might think that the great Jewish concepts — individual rights, moral freedom, religious pluralism — have been incorporated into the civilization of the West and there is no more work for Judaism to do. I believe the opposite is true. The twentieth century saw a regression from Judaic values, not an advance beyond them.

The whole thrust of modern thought has been toward reducing the sphere of individual moral responsibility. Human behavior is increasingly seen as the product of impersonal forces — economic (Marx), social (Durkheim), or socio-biological (the neo-Darwinians). We are what we are because of things over which we have no control, from the distribution of power to the "selfish gene." Therefore, if we want to change ourselves we first have, through political or technological revolution, to change the world.

Not only is this the polar opposite of the Judaic vision. It is ultimately a despairing vision, because it locates change outside of the individual. It makes us dependent on things beyond our control. A secular ethic will always fail to do justice to the human condition, because it will always see man as part of nature, and nature itself as ultimately impersonal, indifferent to our purposes, blind to our hopes. It will fail fully to understand man as a meaning-seeking, environment-creating animal, driven not by causes but by purposes, shaped not by genetic or social engineering but by free acts of the will.

There are two possible outcomes. The first, which dominated the first half of the twentieth century, turns the Jewish vision upside down. It says that we change the individual by changing the world. The individual becomes subsidiary to the mass, the nation, the state. There have been two such experiments this century — the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. They were also the most brutal tyrannies known to man.

The second, which now dominates the late twentieth century, gives up on change altogether. Ours is an age of eastern and New Age mysticisms and therapies of various kinds. Mysticism is a way of accepting the world by rising above it. Therapy is a way of accepting myself as I am. Both are ways of reconciling ourselves to a world we believe we cannot change, and both, from a Jewish point of view, are inadequate accounts of what it is to be human. Acceptance of what is, is a failure to hear the call of what ought to be. Judaism has its moments of serenity, such as the Sabbath. But these are mere resting places on the journey; pauses of withdrawal before reengaging with the world.

A secular universe is an impersonal universe, and thus, far from being an advance on monotheism, it in fact puts us back into the world of myth, where man is at the mercy of impersonal forces. To be sure, our view of those forces has changed. In ancient times they were climatic — the sun, the wind, the rain, the storm. Today they are more likely to be economic, political or technological — the globalization of industry, the internationalization of terror, or the erosion of the biosphere. Structurally, though, they are the same. They constitute a view of the universe as a set of forces indifferent to us as individuals, and that none of us, acting alone, can change.

Against this, four thousand years ago, there emerged a different view of human life. It suggested that individuals are not powerless in the face of the impersonal. We can create families, communities, even societies, around the ideals of love, faithfulness and trust. We can change ourselves, and through covenantal relationships with others, we can change the world. Far from being obsolete, this view is as challenging today as it was then. The idols have changed, but they have not ceased to be idols. An idolatrous culture is one that sees reality in terms of impersonal forces. A Jewish culture is one that insists on the ultimate reality of the personal. The abolition of God leads, slowly and imperceptibly, to what C. S. Lewis called the abolition of man.

The first half of our journey has taken us from Abraham's vision of the palace in flames through a series of intellectual discoveries that led to the idea of man, the moral animal, capable of changing the world in the light of freedom, diversity and peace. Necessarily, though, there had to be a second stage. The Judaic vision of social justice could not, even in principle, be achieved by one family alone. The minimum requirement is a society. The Greeks called the basic unit of society a polis, a city-state, and from this we derive the word political. At this point, therefore, the Judaic vision shifts from the moral to the political, and to that most daring of ideas, a society under the sovereignty of God. At this point Genesis turns into Exodus, the moment at which a family became a nation and covenantal politics — the politics of hope — was born.

Copyright © 2000 by Jonathan Sacks

Meet the Author

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has been the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth since 1991. Educated at Cambridge and Oxford, he has held professorial chairs and congregational pulpits in England, Israel, and the United States. The author of eleven previous books, including Arguments for the Sake of Heaven and The Politics of Hope, he lives in London, England.

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A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A lovely, well written book. Very meaningful and one  i will read again.  The only issue I had with the book is that the author says "...most liberal democracies today are self-consciously pluralist, multiethnic and religiously diverse.  That does not mean anti-semitism no longer exists: it does. But neither now nor in the forseeable future can it hold center stage in the political arena. The days when die Judenfrage, "the Jewish Question", ....are gone."  Well, I had to look at when this book was written, and it was in 2000.  A lot has changed in ten years, a lot has changed in two years. I am finding "the Israeli-Jewish question" is rearing it's ugly head, even in America.  Same old mythologies about the Jewish people are finding a new audience, especially as people seem to not be able to differentiate between fact and fiction...Hollywood and history. Here we go again I suppose.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey copper. Nice to meet you