Category Archives: History

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.”


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First mention of Israel in extrabiblical sources

Merneptah Stele

Merneptah Stele

I’m currently reading Exploring Exodus by Nahum Sarna. The book is extremely interesting and I recommend reading it. I came across an interesting passage recently that I thought would be worth sharing:

The fascination that the “Stele of Merneptah” holds is due to the fact that it features the first mention of the people of Israel to be found in any extrabiblical source, and the only one, so far, to occur in any Egyptian text. It is ironic and instructive that this should be an obituary notice: “Israel is laid waste, his seed is not!” Curiously, the second mention of Israel in any extrabiblical source – that in the triumphal inscription of Mesha, king of Moab – is of a similar character. It pronounces the verdict, in the ninth century B.C.E., that “Israel has perished forever!”

Ironic indeed.

(In recent news, there are scholars claiming that an even earlier mention of Israel can be found in an Egyptian inscription dating back to around 1400BC. See here to read more.)

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A bit about Maoz Tzur

Here’s a bit about Maoz Tzur from the Koren Sacks siddur:

Maoz Tzur was composed in Germany in the thirteenth century. The first letters of the verses spell Mordekhai, other than this we cannot identify the author. The first verse recalls the dedication of the Temple and looks forward to its future restoration. The next four verses describe, sequentially, four crises and deliverances of Jewish history – slavery in Egypt, the Babylonian exile, Purim and Chanuka itself.

Maoz Tzur is an inspirational song. It takes us through some of the key events of Jewish history. Of how peoples throughout the ages rose up to destroy us but we managed to survive. It’s astonishing how many attempts have been made to wipe the Jewish people off the map but somehow we’ve survived and we’re as strong as ever. (Although Israel is under threat on all borders and many would love to see us gone).

Another amazing part of the song is the belief that one day things will be better. That one day we will return to the land God promised our forefathers. This isn’t the only prayer that speaks of the future restoration of the Temple and our return to Israel. It’s hard to find a prayer that doesn’t mention this belief and the Bible is full of promises of a future redemption, but we sometimes forget how extraordinary it is that our ancestors stayed strong to their beliefs and that, eventually, the Jewish people actually returned to its homeland. I ask myself whether I would have kept faith of a future return of the Jewish people to Israel in twelfth century Spain, France or Egypt. A millenium after the destruction after the destruction of the second Temple and almost another millenium to go till the Jewish people would actually return to its roots.

Maimonides in his Epistle to Yemen and Epistle on Martyrdom encourages the people to keep their faith. Would you have kept your faith in those dire conditions? Forced conversions, massacres, false Messiahs, not a hope in the world of returning to Israel. But they kept their faith and over eight hundred years later we’ve returned.

Chanuka Sameach and may we witness the rebuilding of the Temple soon.

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Tomorrow night is the first night of Chanuka. Here’s a nice video about the holiday:

Chanuka Sameach!

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The 7 Wonders of the Jewish World

Here’s a nice post from

The Seven Wonders of the Jewish World

(A rather poorly-edited version of this article appears in today’s edition of The Jerusalem Post.)

Since ancient times, cultures have perceived significance in the number seven. In antiquity, a list was compiled of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the nineteenth century, lists were compiled of the Seven Wonders of the Middle Ages and the Seven Wonders of the Medieval Mind. Mohandas Gandhi made a list of the Seven Blunders of the World. And disappointment reigned amongst many supporters of Israel this week, when the Dead Sea did not win enough votes to make the new list of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Meanwhile, the Israel Tourism Ministry is arranging a vote for the Seven Wonders of Israel. But I would like to propose a different list: The Seven Wonders of the Jewish World, with “world” not being a geographical location, but rather the full realm of the Jewish experience.

1. Monotheism

There is an old ditty which says, “How odd of God, to choose the Jews.” One of the many rejoinders is “It’s not so odd; the Jews chose God.” Yet it is that very choosing of God which is odd and remarkable! As Henri Frankfort, archeologist and Egyptologist, wrote: “The dominant tenet of Hebrew thought is the absolute transcendence of God. God is not in nature. Neither earth nor sun nor heaven is divine; even the most potent natural phenomena are but reflections of God’s greatness… it needs an effort of the imagination to realize the shattering boldness of a contempt for imagery at the time, and in the particular historical setting, of the Hebrews.” Aside from its role in shaping religion, monotheism also laid the foundation for the rise of science; as several historians of science have noted, the idea that disparate phenomena all follow fundamental “laws” flowed from monotheism. And the billions of adherents of Christianity and Islam are all adopting a monotheism initiated by the Jewish People.

2. The Land of Israel

The land of Israel, promised to Abraham, is small. It does not host the greatest waterfalls or the tallest mountains. But it is nevertheless remarkable within the natural world. Geographically, the land of Israel is at the junction of three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Within its tiny area, it houses an incredible diversity of landscapes: snowy slopes, tropical beaches, arid deserts and green forests. As a result of all this, the land of Israel is home to an astonishingly diverse range of flora and fauna. It is the southernmost range of many northern species, the westernmost range of eastern species, and the northernmost range of southern species. As the Midrash states, Israel is the center of the world.

3. Torah

Literally meaning “teaching,” the word Torah is often used in the narrow sense of referring to the Five Books of Moses. But in its broadest sense, it refers to the entire gamut of Jewish teachings. This marvelous body of literature chronicles a nation’s efforts over millennia to connect with the Divine, to improve the individual, to regulate society and to stretch the mind. Scripture, Talmud, midrash, philosophy, mysticism, law, ethics—it encompasses every intellectual taste and every aspect of our lives.

4. The Calendar

The wonder of the Jewish calendar is not limited to the way in which it manages to synchronize three entirely unrelated natural phenomena: the rotation of the earth on its axis, the revolution of the moon around the earth, and the revolution of the earth around the sun. The very contents of the Jewish calendar are so much richer than in the joke which describes it as consisting of two types of events: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat,” and “They tried to kill us, we didn’t win, let’s not eat.” We celebrate national salvation and religious freedom; we observe days of solemnity, repentance and introspection; and we mourn the loss of people and precious elements of our heritage. Most wonderful of all is Shabbat, during which, miraculously, I am able to resist checking my e-mail for a full twenty-four hours.

5. Jewish Survival

The Jewish People, never large in number, have been faced with hatred for over three thousand years. We have been exiled from our home and forced into servitude and exile amongst hostile nations. We have suffered persecution in every one of the numerous countries in which we have lived. Nations faced with far fewer existential threats have disappeared, and yet we have survived. Mark Twain famously asked, “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then… passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed. 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… What is the secret of his immortality?” And we made it back to our homeland after two thousand years of exile, an event completely unparalleled in world history.

6. The State of Israel

Like every citizen of Israel, and especially like every oleh, I could rant endlessly about the shortcomings of the State of Israel (though unlike the citizens of our neighboring countries, I could do so without fear of being thrown in prison). But this would be a small-minded perspective that does not take into account the incredible challenges that the state overcomes. Despite having to absorb an enormous number of immigrants in a short span of time, and having to devote a ridiculously large amount of resources to national defense, Israel has managed to create a vibrant democracy, an oasis of prosperity, producing astonishing accomplishments in every field, all while successfully repelling repeated attempts at annihilation.

7. Global Significance

Although numbering only 0.2% of the total world population today, and never having numbered much more than that, the Jewish People have always had an inexplicably large impact upon the world. The spread of monotheism is the most significant example, but we have also made disproportionate contributions in every sphere of knowledge and endeavor. Meanwhile, the United Nations are obsessed with Israel, condemning it more than every other country put together (!). If anything, we are too significant for our own good.

Those are the Seven Wonders of the Jewish World as I see them, which I think are much more wonderful than the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Colossus, schmolossus.

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The Creation Myths and Deluge Epics

There are many similarities between the first chapters of the book of Genesis and other writings from the Ancient Near East.

Examples are the Mesopotamian creation myth Enuma Elish which has similarities to the first chapter of Genesis and the Epic of Gilgamesh which tells of a flood story, very similar to the flood that happened to Noah in Genesis.

To read the full text of Enuma Elish in english see here.

To read the full text of Gilgamesh epic see here.

On the one hand, the similarities between the Mesopotamian texts and Genesis pose many problems for religious Jews, but on the other hand, it reveals another aspect of the Jewish miracle.

Comparing the texts we see how far advanced the Israelites were compared to their neighbours. The Israelites believed in monotheism. Everybody else believed in polytheism. It is truly amazing that among all the pagan nations, a people would arise that believed in a single God. Not only that, the Hebrew believed that there was an order to nature and that God was in control and created the rules of nature. The other peoples of the world saw no order to nature, but merely the chaos produced by many gods with different personalities. The Hebrews believed in a just and moral God. No such belief is present in the other cultures of the Ancient Near East. There are other amazing differences that point to the specialness of the Israelites. I leave them to you to find (or see the reading list below).

Today the Mesopotamian texts seem laughable. Nobody would read them nowadays, other than for the purpose of studying the history of man and how he used to think about the world. This isn’t the case with the Bible. It is a book that has stood the test of time. It is the most read book of all time. It has been read by so many different types of people throughout the world and it continues to be printed by the millions to this day. Christianity and Islam are both outgrowths of Judaism and that is something like half the population of the planet. My point is that whether one agrees with the teachings of the Bible or not, everybody would agree that much of its teachings are still very relevant till today. Polytheism is a crazy belief, but the belief in the God of the Bible is still a valid belief till this day – whether or not you agree with such a belief.

I am not attempting to “prove” the truth of the Bible. I also realise the many problems the Genesis narratives cause for modern man. How is one to reconcile 14 billion year old universe with the 6000 year old universe which Genesis speaks of? How is one to reconcile the scientific understanding of the development of the universe with that told in Genesis? These are difficult questions and I personally believe they cannot be reconciled and would only say in defence of the Bible that it is not a scientific or historical text. It is a book that teaches man how to live a Godly life. Genesis and the Bible as whole teaches man theological truths.

All I am trying to argue is that the Israelites were extremely advanced in their beliefs. So advanced that one may describe it as miraculous or amazing. I expect even an Atheist to agree with me on this point.

So in the very serious questions we find on traditional Judaism that we find in these texts, we also find another, astounding miracle of Jewish history. The Jewish people truly seems to be a special people on a very important mission.

If the similarities between these texts and the Bible bother you, read the Rationalist Judaism blog post “Dealing with the Deluge“. I recommend reading Nahum Sarna, Understand Genesis and Umberto Cassuto, From Adam to Noah. (I haven’t read all the books/articles on the reading list, I’m sure they all shed some light on the topic). Rav Kook and R Nadel also have very important points to make. A central one being that the Torah is not a history book or a science text book, but a book that teaches man how to be a Godly and ethical person.

In the future I intend to write a more detailed post on this topic.

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Great video summarizing the Jewish miracle

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