Over the next few days we’ll be posting some nice quotes about Jews that come up in the Chief Rabbi’s Letters to the Next Generation 2. The letters are well worth a read. Inspiring.
The first quote is from Alfred Leslie Rowse:
If there is any honour in all the world that I should like, it would be to be an honorary Jewish citizen.
Here’s the Cheif Rabbi’s second letter where the quote comes up:
Letter 2: A historian’s honour
DEAR RUTH, DEAR MICHAEL, I said yesterday that I would try to give you an answer to the question why stay Jewish. There are many answers, and to understand them is the work of a lifetime. But we have to start somewhere and probably the more unexpected the starting point, the better.
Like you I studied at university, so I knew vaguely about an eccentric Oxford don, a historian and a writer about English literature. He was a Fellow of All Souls, which meant that he was one of the brightest minds of his generation.
His name was A. L. Rowse and he was best known for his theory about the identity of the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He died in 1997, and shortly before that, in 1995, he published a book called Historians I Have Known. I was reading it one day and I came to the last page.
There – it was the penultimate sentence of the book – I came across a remark that left me open mouthed with amazement. Nothing had prepared me for it. A. L. Rowse was not Jewish and as far as I know he had no connection with Jews other than those he knew at university.
This is what he wrote. “If there is any honour in all the world that I should like, it would be to be an honorary Jewish citizen.” What an extraordinary remark from a wise man nearing the end of his life, reflecting on all that life, especially history, had taught him.
The British know about honours. So I could understand an Oxford don who had written over a hundred books admitting that a medal, an award, a knighthood would not go amiss. But “to be an honorary Jewish citizen” and to count that not just as an honour, but the one above all he would like to have – that was an extraordinary thing to say.
Why did he say it? I never met him. I did not know anyone who had. And by the time I read the book he was no longer alive. So I can only speculate.
Was it that Jews more than any other people in history cared about learning, education and the life of the mind? That they had contributed, vastly out of proportion to their numbers, many of the greatest intellects of the modern world?
Was it that they were the first monotheists, the first to believe in a God who transcended the universe, creating it in forgiveness and love, making humanity in His image and endowing us with a dignity no other faith has ever equalled?
Was it that they had survived for so long – twice as long as Christianity, three times as long as Islam – and under some of the most adverse conditions ever experienced by a people? Was it, given that Rowse was a historian, the fact that Jews were the first historians, the first to see God in history, the first even to think in terms of history?
Was it, given that he was a writer on literature, the fact that the Hebrew Bible is the greatest work of literature ever written?Was it the vision of Moses, the poetry of psalms, the social conscience of Amos, the hope of Isaiah, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, the passion of the Song of Songs? Or that Jews had given humanity its most basic moral concepts: freewill, responsibility, justice and the rule of law, chessed and the rule of compassion, tzedakah and the principle of equity?
Who knows? But I know this – that if they offered to make you a dame, Ruth, or a knight, Michael, you wouldn’t refuse. You wouldn’t consider it trivial or irrelevant. But if Rowse was right, it turns out that you have already been given an honour greater than these. Don’t forget it or give it away.