Category Archives: Books

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….

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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.”

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A quotation from God, Man and History

God, Man and History, Eliezer Berkovits, pages 29-31:

God, Man and History cover

Nor does the witness of prophecy stand alone. Of far greater importance is the witness of Israel, the testimony of the Jewish people. Israel is not merely an ethnic group that also happens to hold certain religious view. Israel has been made a people by its religion. We need not enter into a discussion with the anthropologists on that account; their opinions on the tribal origins of the Jews are besides the point. Of course, there were origins there always are. But whatever the origins, the Jews became the Israel of history because of what they held to be true about their biblical history with God. The story of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the revelation at Sinai, the journey through the wilderness, the prophets’ struggle with the obstinacy of the people – for the Jews, these were not legends to which they gave some naive consent. They were events in their own history, which obligated the people for all generations. They lived either in conformity with these events or in rebellion against them, but at all times the events determined their national consciousness. All through their history, Jews were judged by their leaders and teachers, and often by themselves, in light of the biblical record of their encounter with God. Through the ages, they understood themselves in the light of the record; it set their standards of behaviour, it formulated their goals, it expressed their historic purpose.

The Jewish encounter with God determined the entire course of Jewish history. Because of it, Israel never surrendered to other religions or civilizations. Acceptance of the meaning of their meeting with God shaped and preserved their identity. It was the source of the fortitude of their numberless martyrs. It has been their comfort, their hope, and their promise in all generations.

There was never a time in Jewish history when this was not the case. This is not to say that all Jews at all times adhered to the obligations that follow from Israel’s encounter with God, but at all times there were those whose entire lives were determined by those obligations. And at all times, those who rebelled had to rebel against the meaning of that encounter in order to pass for Jewish rebels. But it was not through rebellion that this people preserved: However far back we go in Jewish history, there never existed a generation in which some Jewish fathers did not teach their children how to live in loyalty to the meaning of the Jewish encounter with God. We are dealing here not with dogmas of a church, but rather with events that for thousands of years have exercised the most powerful influence in the history of a living people. Jewish children were not taught: “These are the things we Jews believe in,” but “These are the things that happened to us and made us what we are.” Take away the encounter with God, and the existence of the Jewish people becomes in explicable, its history inconceivable. “You are my witnesses, says the Eternal…” Indeed Israel itself is the witness. The existence, the history, and the survival of the Jewish people are themselves the most imposing witnesses to the Jewish encounter with God.

Nor is it of small significance that the witness of Israel bears a testimony that concerns not only the past. The encounter as, as told in the Biblical record, is unique in its nation-founding and nation-preserving significance. At the same time, Israel is the witness of the Eternal because there hardly ever lived a generation of Jews in which some outstanding individuals, and at times whole communities, did not have some immediate awareness of the Presence, and were not sustained by the direct knowledge of God’s concern for them. The possibility of the encounter is never exhausted. Israel bears witness not only to the actual encounter in the past, but also to its ever-present possibility.

I highly recommend reading the entire book which is about philosophy and ethics. You can buy it at Amazon.

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