Occasionally, you read something so strong, so close to you, so transformative, that it stays with you forever. You find yourself referring back to it time and again as you warm to its truth, passing it along to others with a growing sense of urgency as the years go by.
Thirty odd years ago, while living in northern California, I picked up a San Francisco Chronicle one day and stumbled upon Herb Caen (as in candy cane). Herb Caen wrote a gossipy, but never snarky, daily column (for fifty-eight years!) that was a conglomeration of everything going on, especially in San Francisco but also in the world at large, together with observations, sprinkled liberally throughout, on the passing political and cultural scene. Among Caen’s claims to fame were the introduction of “beatnik” into the lexicon and a Pulitzer Prize. Caen had a goofy sense of humor and you never knew when it might make its presence felt, often by separating completely unrelated items solely by means of three dot ellipses.
. . . a message from Herb Caen . . .
Suddenly, as if launched from a set of those three dots, flying through the column like a shooting star, and finally disappearing into another set of dots, was the following: “. . . Everyone knows that Jews are the chosen people except, of course, the Jews. . .”
Now that was something to think about. In those days, with my own Jewish self-awareness still rather dim, I completely got the part about Jews not seeing themselves as exceptional since many of them, including myself, would only reluctantly identify as Jews, if at all. It was the first part about the universal recognition of Jewish uniqueness that astonished me. I thought that the only distinguishing feature of Jews, as far as other people were concerned, was the target on their backs. Yes, Jews were chosen, I might concede, but only as objects of derision. The fact that they were recognized in the eyes of others as chosen in a positive sense, for that was clearly Caen’s understanding of the matter, was a revelation to me.
Caen was the perfect vehicle for delivery of this message. Born to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, he mixed comfortably in every social circle even though, in the words of a long time acquaintance, “he felt Jewish.”
Proof That G-d Exists
Here are four parallel encounters, some of them fictionalized perhaps, that underscore, nevertheless, an appreciation for Jewish uniqueness among non-Jews:
King Louis XIV of France asked Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, to give him proof that miracles exist. Pascal answered: “Why, the Jews, your Majesty ― the Jews.”
When King Frederick the Great asked his physician, Johan Georg Zimmermann, to name a single proof for the existence of G-d, Zimmermann replied, “Your majesty, the Jews.”
In a similar vein, when the Kaiser of Prussia asked his chief adviser, Otto Von Bismarck, if he could prove the existence of G-d, Bismarck responded, “The Jews, sir, the Jews.”
Finally, when Queen Victoria asked Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli what evidence he could provide for the existence of God, Disraeli thought for a moment and then replied, “The Jew, your majesty.” (Although baptized as a child, along with his siblings, since his parents thought that would improve his prospects in life, Disraeli’s parents were actually Jews themselves.)
If you search the above encounters on the Internet, you will notice that they frequently make appearances on web sites devoted to Christian thought. The reactions expressed on those sites, in response to the idea that Jews are proof of G-d’s existence, are consistently positive. So Caen’s observation holds true, at least the first part regarding a chosen status for Jews on the part of non-Jews.
Mark Twain’s Tribute
Mark Twain summed it up like this: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, 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, beat 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?”
The Secret of Jewish Immortality
The secret of Jewish immortality is the written Torah (5 books comprising the Pentateuch), the other 19 books of the Hebrew Bible, and the oral Torah or Talmud. The Talmud, written down around 200 A.D., consists of 63 tractates, comprising 2,711 two-sided pages, that form a detailed, argument laden guidebook to Jewish living, with inspiring tales, often bordering on the miraculous, included for good measure. The oral Torah has equal status with the written Torah, each originating as a transmission from G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai.
The Hebrew word for a page of Talmud is daf, which is also the word for a wooden plank or board. It was this divinely fashioned board, a supernal life raft, upon which we stayed afloat, throughout the generations, despite the turbulent seas of persecution that threatened to engulf us.
As Twain indicates, the powerful peoples or nations of the world have disappeared but the Jews remain. It might be argued that the reason for this is that the elements that bind Jews into a nation are stronger than those that have existed for other peoples.
Israel’s Land, Language, History & Faith are Recorded in G-d’s Book
Yet the elements that bind Jews together are the same that bind together any group of people that lays claim to nationhood: a land, a language, a history, and a faith. But there is a significant difference. Where Jews are concerned, these elements are clearly visible in the Torah, a living document that anyone can consult, which was authored by G-d Himself.
If you enter a synagogue and see the Torah being taken from the ark, you will quickly understand the Torah’s central importance to the Jewish nation when you see everyone rise. No nation in the world, except for the Jews, stands up for a book.
Let’s now revisit Herb Caen’s statement: “Everyone knows that Jews are the chosen people except, of course, the Jews.” Although the second part of this statement could be understood as an assessment of a nation that is self-critical to the point of wishing to assimilate into the surrounding culture, it could be construed in another way as well.
Jewish Survival Does not Depend on Merit, but on G-d’s Unconditional Love
Jacob Emden (1697-1776), a prominent German rabbi and scholar, would have concurred that the Jews have no claim to a special status. Emden held that Jews were no more meritorious than other peoples and, based on their behavior alone, had no more right to longevity than any other nation. Rather, he maintained, there was only one ultimate explanation for Jewish survival: G-d’s unconditional love for the Jewish people. It’s as simple as a father’s unconditional love for his children. No matter how many times they mess up, he still loves them, maybe even more than when they were good, and he still just likes having them around.
G-d’s unconditional love for the nation of Israel is reciprocated through Israel’s unconditional love for G-d. When Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac, he did not hesitate to follow G-d’s command. Abraham “rose early the next morning” (Genesis 22:3) to start the journey to Mount Moriah.
Self-deprecation, Leadership & Survival
Emden’s self-deprecating attitude is essential to Jewish leadership, if not to Jewish national survival itself. Your best qualities are those of which you are least aware and the greatest Jews have never been triumphal, patently denying any claim to chosenness. No memorable Jewish leader ever wanted to be one, starting with Moses — the only man who spoke with G-d “face to face” (Exodus 33:11) — himself. Moses kept trying to back out of assuming the mantle of leadership, but G-d would not have it any other way. Yet, through it all, Moses remained “very humble, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3)
Menachem Mendel Morgensztern (later known as the Kotzker rebbe), in the early 1800’s, after searching far and wide for a town in which to serve as a rabbi, finally decided on Kotzk (in eastern Poland) when, upon his arrival there, the residents pelted him with rocks. “Here is where I want to be,” the rabbi remarked, “since at least the people here have passion.”
We Don’t Even Know Their Names
The names of the great rabbis of previous generations are not known to the general public but, through their writings and personalities, they remain the exalted luminaries of the nation of Israel. The names of these self-effacing rabbis are not known to the vast majority of Jews, either. Instead, the rabbis in question are recognized by an abbreviated version of their names (Rashi and Rambam, for example), by names associated with towns where they lived (see Kotzker rebbe above), or by the titles of their written works (such as Chofetz Chaim and Mesilat Yesharim). Imagine that Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were known to the general public as “Declaration of Independence” and “Common Sense,” but that few people associated the names of Jefferson and Paine with these works.
The highest compliment a Jew can receive is to be called a talmid chacham, a “wise student.” Truly wise students are forever passionately striving and never rest on past achievements or success. There is always something more to learn. In the end, perhaps it is this unparalleled passion to keep learning, with a healthy measure of self-deprecation that invariably goes along with such a pursuit, that has preserved the nation of Israel.