The book of Vayikra ends with one of the most terrifying passages in literature. It describes what will happen to the Israelites if, having made their covenant with G-d, they break its terms:
"If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you, and I myself will punish you for your sins seven times over . . . I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. I will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins . . . As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them." (Leviticus 26: 28-36)
To this day we read the passage - traditionally known as the Tochachah, "the admonition" - sotto voce, so fearful is it and so difficult to internalize and imagine. It is all the more fearful given what we know of later Jewish history.
Tragically, more than once, it came true. The Jewish people has had more than its share of sufferings and persecutions. Its commitment to the terms of the covenant - to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" - was and still is anything but safe, an easy option, a low-risk strategy. Of the people He claimed as His own, G-d is demanding. When Israel do His will, they are lifted to great heights. When they do not, they are plunged into great depths. The way of holiness is supremely challenging.
Yet at the very climax of this long list of curses, there comes a passage surpassing in its assurance:
. . . but when the time finally comes that their stubborn spirit is humbled, I will forgive their sin. I will remember my covenant with Jacob, as well as my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land . . . Thus, even when they are in their enemy's land, I will not reject them or spurn them, bringing them to an end and breaking My covenant with them, because I am the Lord their G-d. (Leviticus 26: 41-44)
The people of the eternal G-d will itself be eternal. There is, in the Mosaic books, no greater promise than this.
It is repeated in the prophetic literature by the man often thought of as the most pessimistic of the prophets, Jeremiah. Jeremiah spent much of his career as a prophet warning the people of impending disaster. It was an unpopular message, and he was imprisoned and nearly killed for it. Yet he too, in the midst of his gloom, told the people that they would never be destroyed:
This is what the Lord says,
He who appoints the sun to shine by day,
who decrees the moon and stars to shine by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar-
the Lord Almighty is His name:
"Only if these decrees vanish from My sight," declares the Lord,
"will the descendants of Israel ever cease to be a nation before Me." (Jeremiah 31: 35-36)
In the Cairo Museum stands a giant slab of black granite known as the Merneptah stele. Originally installed by Pharaoh Amenhotep III in his temple in western Thebes, it was removed by a later ruler of Egypt, Merneptah, who reigned in the thirteenth century BCE. Inscribed with hieroglyphics, it contains a record of Merneptah's military victories. Its interest might have been confined to students of ancient civilizations, were it not for one fact: the stele contains the first reference outside the Bible to the people of Israel. The inscription lists the various powers crushed by Merneptah and his army. It concludes:
All lands together, they are pacified;
Everyone who was restless, he has been bound
By the king of Upper and Lower Egypt . . .
Among those who were restless were a small people otherwise not mentioned in the early Egyptian texts. Merneptah or his chroniclers believed that they were now a mere footnote to history. They had not simply been defeated. They had been obliterated. This is what the stele says:
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not.
The first reference to Israel outside the Bible is an obituary notice.
Ironically, so is the second. This is contained in a basalt slab dating from the 9th century BCE which today stands in the Louvre. Known as the Mesha stele, it records the triumphs of Mesha, king of Moab. The king thanks his deity Chemosh for handing victory to the Moabites in their wars, our lights in the war is, and speaks thus: "As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab for many years, for Chemosh was angry with his land. And his son followed him, and he also said, 'I will humble Moab.' In my time he spoke thus, but I have triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel has perished for ever."
The great mathematician and later Christian theologian Blaise Pascal wrote this:
It is certain that in certain parts of the world we can see a peculiar people, separated from the other peoples of the world, and this is called the Jewish people… This people is not only of remarkable antiquity but has also lasted for a singularly long time… For whereas the peoples of Greece and Italy, of Sparta, Athens and Rome, and others who came so much later have perished so long ago, these still exist, despite the efforts of so many powerful kings who have tried a hundred times to wipe them out, as their historians testify, and as can easily be judged by the natural order of things over such a long spell of years. They have always been preserved, however, and their preservation was foretold… My encounter with his people amazes me.
Many attempts have been made, over the course of the centuries, to prove the existence of G-d. Theologians have argued on the basis of philosophy, and in some cases the natural sciences (the "argument from design"). Yet the Torah speaks of a different kind of proof altogether: the history of Israel.
There is pain in this history. At times it was written in tears. Yet it remains astonishing. The curses of the Tokhachah came true - but so did the consolation. No nation was attacked so often. None attracted so much irrational hostility. Empire after empire pronounced their destruction. Yet they have vanished into oblivion while the people Israel still lives, small, vulnerable, sometimes fractious and rebellious, yet still there, defying all the natural laws that govern the history of nations. There is a mystery here, as Pascal so clearly saw. Yet its basic formulation is clear, and despite all the odds it came true: the people of the eternal G-d became the people of eternity.
Anglo-Jewry at 350
Who wrote the following words about the 350th anniversary of Anglo-Jewry – a Jew or a non-Jew? “The Jewish concept of mitzvah, on which David Cameron dwelt when he made a speech celebrating the 350 years last week, means a good deed done for its own sake. Such deeds are visible in the importance Jews attach to charity and to education. British society needs a lot more mitzvahs.”
The question is what Americans call a no-brainer. It was a non-Jew: Charles Moore writing in The Telegraph last Saturday. Non-Jews remember what we all too often forget, that greater than the contribution of Jews to British society has been the contribution of Judaism. They know that what has made the Jewish community distinctive has been its faith, its value-system, its way of life. Subtract religion from the Jewish people and in the long run little remains.
The re-admission of Jews to England in 1656 was primarily a matter of religion. Yes, there was an issue of pragmatism. Cromwell knew, as Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel reminded him, that the presence of Jews in the sceptred isle would bring economic advantage. Out of historical necessity Jews had become masters of trade and finance. Their presence made a significant difference to Venice in the 16th century and the Netherlands in the 17th. But this was secondary.
At the heart of Rabbi Manasseh’s essay The Hope of Israel (1650), the first move in the Jewish appeal for re-admission, was the curious argument that the Messiah would only come once Jews had been scattered to every country on earth. A traveller to Ecuador, Antonio Montezinos, had claimed to have discovered an Indian tribe descended from the lost tribes of Israel. The one country that had no Jews was England. It was therefore a standing obstacle to Divine redemption. It was defying God’s script for human history.
It is easy to dismiss this as pious circumlocution and to assume that Cromwell was more interested in economics than theology. Easy but fallacious. The greatest historian of 17th century England, Christopher Hill, has made it clear through a series of brilliant studies, that the single most important influence on society at that time was the Bible. Michael Walzer argued likewise in his early work, The Revolution of the Saints.
Three factors came together to transform Europe from the Middle Ages to the birth of the modern: the invention of the printing press, the Reformation, and the appearance of Bibles in the vernacular – from Tyndale to Coverdale to the great King James translation of 1611. For the first time large numbers of people were able to read the Hebrew Bible for themselves without the mediation of priests. What they discovered was the very opposite of the “Divine right of kings”.
Tanakh was, and probably always will be, a radical political document, testifying to the right of prophets to criticize kings, the inalienable dignity of the human person regardless of wealth and status, and most importantly for the history of freedom: a clear sense of the moral limits of power. The seventeenth century architects of constitutional liberty in England and America were Puritans. According to the great sociologist Max Weber, they were also the founders of the market economy. Puritanism – profoundly influenced by the Hebrew Bible – is the closest Christianity has ever come to Judaism.
For Jews themselves the religious dimension was fundamental. Indeed the word “re-admission” is misleading. There were Jews in seventeenth century England before 1656. They were marranos, Jews who practised Judaism in secret. What they sought was not the right to live in England but rather, as Manasseh ben Israel put it, the permission to “have our synagogues, and free exercise of our religion”.
So it was two centuries later when they sought entry to Parliament. For eleven years, between 1847 and 1858, Lionel de Rothschild was repeatedly elected as an M.P. for the City of London but did not take his seat until he was permitted to do so without taking a Christian oath. The late Jacob Herzog wrote that when he was finally granted the right to enter Parliament as a Jew, he uttered a prayer that “this elevation” would not lead to a “diminution of our faith”.
Until relatively recently, Jews and non-Jews alike knew that what made Jews different was not the “hardware” but the “software” – not any special genetic endowment but rather the faith and way of life to which we are called. To this day, the wider society respects Judaism, not just Jews: its love of family and community, its passion for education and the life of the mind, its commitment to tzedakah and the way it combines personal responsibility (“If I am not for myself, who will be?”) with responsibility for others (“If I am only for myself, what am I?”)
In an insightful article in The Observer six years ago, Andrew Marr commented on the proposal of an Anglo-Jewish think-tank to redefine Jews as an ethnic group, not a religious community. He wrote: “All this is shallow water, and the further you wade the shallower it gets.” The greatness of Jews, he argued, lay in their religious heritage. Jews, he said, “really have been different. They have enriched the world and challenged it.” What others never forgot, we must strive to remember: that Jewish life cannot be secularised without losing the greater part of its contribution to humankind. How beautiful, yet how ironic, that it took Charles Moore to say: “British society needs a lot more mitzvahs”.