The Dignity of a Purpose

I recently started reading Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews. There are some nice quotes from the Prologue that I’d like to share:

“Why have I written a history of the Jews? There are four reasons. The first is sheer curiosity….

My second reason was the excitement I found in the sheer span of Jewish history. From the time of Abraham up to the present covers the best part of four millennia. That is more than three-quarters of the entire history of civilized humanity. I am a historian that believes in long continuities and delights in tracing them.

The Jews created a separate and specific identity earlier than almost any other people which still survives. They have maintained it, amid appalling adversities, right up to the present.

Whence came this extraordinary endurance? What was the particular strength of the all-consuming idea which made the Jews different and kept them homogeneous? Did its continuing power lie in its essential immutability, or its capacity to adapt, or both? These are sinewy themes with which to grapple.

My third reason was that Jewish history covers not only vast tracts of time but huge areas.

The Jews have penetrated many societies and left their mark on all of them.

Writing a history of the Jews is almost like writing a history of the world, but from a highly peculiar angle of vision. It is world history seen from the view point of a learned and intelligent victim….


Finally the book gave me the chance to reconsider objectively, in the light of a study covering nearly 4,000 years, the most intractable of all human questions: what are we on earth for? Is history merely a series of events whose sum is meaningless? Is there no fundamental moral difference between the history of the human race and the history, say, of ants? Or is there a providential plan of which we are, however humbly, the agents?

No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny.

At a very early stage in their collective existence they believed they had detected a divine scheme for the human race,of which their own society was to be a pilot. They worked out their role in immense detail. They clung to it with heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering. Many of them believe it still. Others transmuted it into Promethean endeavours to raise our condition by purely human means. The Jewish vision became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man-made.

The Jews therefore stand right at the centre of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.

Does their own history suggest that such attempts are worth making? Or does it reveal their essential futility? The account, that follows, the result of my own inquiry, will I hope help its readers to answer these questions for themselves.”


1 Comment

Filed under Books, History, Israel

One response to “The Dignity of a Purpose

  1. Ruth Schapira

    Thanks for calling attention to a book often forgotten, and especially for publicizing the miracle of the Jewish people! We need constant reminding otherwise we forget where we’ve been in history, what we’ve endured, and what we’ve accomplished.

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