An Unorthodox View of Jewish History:
Why are Jews still here at all and why aren’t there more of us?
- An Orthodox Parallax: Shifting the Perspective on Jewish History.
These are the two most amazing facts about Jewish history: First, that there is any Jewish history at all and, in particular, that Jews have survived as a people during the last two thousand years. Second, that there are so few Jews in the world today, only some fourteen million.
Considering the circumstances in which Jews have lived for most of the last two millennia, it is remarkable that we still exist as a people. The prehistory of the Jewish people begins with the Biblical Hebrews, who ostensibly lived in ancient Palestine beginning some three thousand years ago. Although the Hebrews and their story in the Bible are almost certainly mythological, it is a matter of historical record that Israelites lived in Palestine during the eighth and seventh centuries. These Israelites are the historical ancestors of present day Jews.
But the Israelites were exiled from Palestine. The so-called Ten Lost Tribes who lived in northern Palestine were expelled by the Assyrians around 725 BCE, and disappeared from history. Then in 586 BCE, the remaining two tribes of Israelites were taken into captivity by the Babylonians. They were, however, able to retain their identity as a people, and some were later permitted to move back to Palestine. But from the time of the Babylonian Captivity to the present day, the great majority of Jews have been dispersed around the world. They have lived in disparate places in which they have invariably been a minority, and even a marginal, population. And from the second century CE, when the minority of Jews who lived in Palestine were expelled by the Romans, to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews were without a place they could consider a homeland.
In circumstances such as these, most ethnic groups have simply disappeared, and their religions have either disappeared or become cult relics. This happened, for example, with the Parthians. From around 225 BCE to 225 CE, the Parthians inhabited most of western Asia, including what is today Iran, in one of the largest geographical empires in history. Conflict with the Roman Empire and internal strife led to the dissolution of the Parthian Empire, and no one has heard of them since. In turn, Zoroastrianism, which was the official religion of the Parthian Empire, became an obscure cult. Given the similarity of circumstances, how are we to explain the survival of Judaism and the Jews as a people?
As remarkable as it is that Jews have survived as a people, it is also remarkable that for most of the last two thousand years there have been so few Jews. Jews thrived and multiplied their numbers in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea from the Hellenistic Period around 300 BCE through the Roman Period of the first century CE. It has been estimated that anywhere from 10% to 30% of people in this region considered themselves Jews during this time. And Jewish merchants and workmen followed the Roman armies in their conquests throughout Europe, so that Jews spread out beyond the Mediterranean basin. Given this starting point in ancient times, natural population growth should have resulted in there being hundreds of millions of Jews in the world today instead of merely some fourteen million. How are we to explain this?
Over the last one hundred years, an orthodox narrative has developed that claims to explain these two phenomena. This orthodox view claims that Jews have survived as a people because of their adherence to Orthodox Jewish religious beliefs and practices. According to this view, if Jews had not adhered to Orthodoxy, they would have disappeared as a people. This orthodox view also claims that there are so few Jews in the world because Jews have experienced continuous persecution during the last two thousand years, first by Christians and then also by Muslims. The murderous Russian pogroms of the late nineteenth century and the genocidal Nazi Holocaust of the mid-twentieth century are portrayed as the norm in Jewish history.
This narrative of Jewish history has been almost unanimously accepted by Jews, including those who eschew Orthodoxy and adhere to Conservative, Reform, and secular Judaism. This is a mistake. In so doing, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews essentially demean themselves, and undermine their claim to represent a viable alternative to Orthodoxy. This historical self-disrespect is, however, consistent with the ways in which most non-Orthodox Jews generally portray themselves. Conservative and Reform Jews generally speak of themselves as less orthodox, less strict, or less traditional than Orthodox Jews. The operative term is “less,” as though they are lesser than Orthodox Jews. Likewise, secular Jews generally speak of themselves as non-religious Jews. Again the emphasis is on what they are not instead of what they are. Rather than defining themselves in positive ways that differ from Orthodox Judaism, as proponents of a distinctive and progressive Jewish culture, most secular Jews present themselves as somehow diminished from Orthodoxy.
The purpose of this essay is to suggest a view of Jewish history that is significantly different than the orthodox/Orthodox view. Writing as a secular Jew myself, I intend to try to demonstrate that secular Judaism has deep historical roots, and offers the best prospects for the future of Judaism. Toward this end, I will emphasize the importance of looking at history as a process of people making choices, rather than as merely a chain of causation or mere happenstance. I will also focus on the way orthodox Jewish history has been written, and who has generally written it.
My theses are twofold: First, that Judaism has survived in small part because of Orthodoxy, but in larger part despite Orthodoxy. And second, that the persistence of Orthodoxy is the main reason there are so few Jews. My conclusion is that if Judaism is to thrive, and not merely survive as a quaint cult, it will be based largely on the creativity and leadership of secular Jews.
- Defining Judaism: The Torah as Question and Quandary.
Who and what is a Jew are highly contentious questions among Jews, with one’s answers depending largely on whether one is Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular. There is, however, one thing that almost all Jews of every persuasion will agree upon, and that is that Jews are a people whose identity starts with a book, the Torah. Although the term Torah is also contested among Jews — it is used narrowly by some to describe the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch, that make up the first five books of the Bible, and used by others more broadly, as I will use it in this essay, to describe all of the books that make up the Jewish Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament — there is widespread consensus that Jewish identity is connected somehow to the Torah. But that is pretty much where the consensus ends.
Most Orthodox Jews see the Bible as the Word of God and the literal Truth, even if it is sometimes so obscure as to be almost impossible to fathom. They pore over the Torah and Talmudic commentaries on the Torah seeking to uncover the answers to all of life’s important questions. Conservative and Reform Jews generally approach the Bible as part history, part myth, and part metaphor. Some claim that the Bible is divinely inspired, even if it is not literally true. Secular Jews generally regard the Bible as a collection of largely fictional stories. These stories portray the paradigmatic ethical dilemmas and existential problems that our ancestors faced, and that we still face today. Secular Jews approach the Bible as a source book of important questions about life, rather than a fount of definitive answers. The Torah is an important text for Christians and Muslims, as well as for Jews. Among Christians and Muslims, as among Jews, there are similar disagreements on how to approach the Bible, as literal truth, myth, or metaphor.
The Jewish Bible is made up of many narrative strands that were passed down for centuries by word of mouth until around 800 BCE, when versions of some of it were first written down. The initial development of the Bible was oral, and was something like a game of telephone in which a person whispers something in the ear of a neighbor who in turn whispers it to a neighbor, and so forth for dozens of generations. What was eventually written down at the end of the process as the Bible seems unlikely to have been the same as what was said in the beginning.
The version of the Jewish Bible with which we are familiar today was seemingly compiled during the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. The editors of the Bible apparently had a large body of materials from which to choose, and they included some, excluded others, in compiling the book. This process itself makes the Bible a debatable proposition. Even if one accepts the Orthodox view that the editors were divinely inspired, and that the choices of what to include were essentially God’s, debatable questions still remain as to what were the reasons for the choices. The editors apparently realized the tenuous historicity of their materials, since they included in the Pentateuch at least two different versions of every significant event and pronouncement. There are even two versions of the creation story within the first few pages of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, thereby immediately confronting readers with the fact that the Bible cannot be taken literally and must be interpreted.
The Bible is also debatable because the editors included in the text incidents that portray almost every one of the major characters — from Adam to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and Solomon, and almost every Jewish King thereafter — as guilty of serious misbehavior. The misbehavior ranges from Abraham prostituting his wife, to David arranging the death of a rival for the affections of a woman. Even the Hebrew God is portrayed as having made mistakes, which He admits when he destroys most of His creation in the Flood. He is also portrayed as having behaved cruelly, for example, when He inflicts the ten plagues on innocent Egyptians as a means of influencing their ruler, the Pharaoh. The inclusion of this misbehavior in the Torah inevitably leads to debatable questions as to what we are supposed to think of these figures, even the Hebrew God. Most of the stories in the Pentateuch, including the story of Passover in which the Hebrews quickly turn from being oppressed into oppressors, seem to be negative references, albeit in pursuit of a positive ideal. In sum, the editors, whether or not inspired by God, seem to have desired the Bible to be a document about which people would argue, and disagree.
The editors of the Jewish Bible seem, in fact, to have approached their materials in essentially the same way most Greeks of that period were treating the Iliad and other stories about the Greeks’ ancestors and their gods. While some Greeks took the stories literally and prescriptively, as describing the ways they must live and worship, most Greeks, including the major dramatists and philosophers, treated the stories as fictions that described the basic human condition and human problems. The Greeks’ stories portrayed their Hellene ancestors as people very different from themselves, and as people who solved their problems in ways very different from the ways contemporary Greeks would solve similar problems. This appears to be the approach of the Bible’s editors, who seemingly would not have endorsed much of the behavior of either the Hebrews or the Hebrew God in the Pentateuch. And this is also the approach of secular Jews.
Orthodox Jews endlessly scrutinize the Torah looking for answers to life’s questions among the book’s contradictory pronouncements, many of which are long out of date and just plain embarrassing. If the Torah is the Word of God that reflects God’s Will, what is one to make, for example, of the Pentateuch’s requirement that adulterers be stoned to death? If the Hebrew God in the Pentateuch is the God of peace and justice that Orthodox Jews ostensibly worship today, what is one to make of the Hebrew God’s ordering the genocidal slaughter of the Midianites and Canaanites? If the Torah is literally true, what is one to make of the detailed specifications provided by the Hebrew God in the Pentateuch for making altars and other religious items with which He is supposed to be worshiped, but that cannot actually be followed? The instructions just do not work, and they include materials and other things that were not available to Hebrews at the time God ostensibly gave these orders.
Jews today do not believe in stoning adulterers to death or in committing genocide. And few try to build the alters specified in the Pentateuch. The Torah is filled with internal inconsistencies, and with conflicts between what is required therein and what Jews, including Orthodox Jews, actually believe and do. Orthodox Jews who take the Bible literally are hard put to rationalize these things. Even Conservative and Reform Jews end up resorting to apologetics in trying to explain away the Bible’s incongruities and, thereby, save what they see as the sanctity of the Bible. Christians who take a literal view of the Old Testament face a similar problem, and are forced into similar apologetics. More broadly, this is an example of the problems that can arise when people take a text literally, and treat it as the answer to all of life’s important questions, whether the text be the Bible, Das Capital or Winnie the Pooh.
Secular Jews have no such problems because they approach the Bible as a starting point for discussion, rather than an ending point. And they conclude that given the conflicts and contradictions in the Bible, and the unfathomable questions that it raises, even if the Bible is the Word of God or has been divinely inspired, God seems to agree with the secularists.
- Defining Judaism: The Minyan as Metaphor and Model.
In addition to accepting the Torah as a starting point of Jewish identity, a second thing that defines someone as a Jew is the person’s participation in a Jewish community. Judaism is a communal credo. Whether one considers Jewishness in the Orthodox way as a religion with ethnic characteristics, or in the secular way as an ethnicity and culture with a religious background, there is general agreement among Jews that one cannot be a Jew all by oneself. This fraternalism is symbolized by the religious requirement of at least ten people (men for the Orthodox, men and/or women for the Reform) in order to conduct a prayer service.
Jewish communalism can be either broadly humanitarian or narrowly clannish depending on how one defines the community. Most Orthodox, and even many Conservative and some Reform Jews, for example, claim that Jews are “the Chosen People,” based on the favoritism that God showed to Abraham and the Hebrews in the Bible. Many also claim, for this same reason, that Jews have an exclusive right today to occupy Palestine. The Hebrews were God’s people, they say, and God gave Palestine to them and their descendants, who are the Jews of today.
Using the Jewish Bible to establish the supposedly superior position of the Jews is a form of bootstrapping argument. There is no historical evidence in support of the claim that God specially chose the Hebrews and gave them Palestine. In fact, there is no historical evidence for any of the stories in the Pentateuch, and these stories are almost certainly mythological. That is, they were invented by later Jews in order to shed light on the meaning of Judaism. In any case, even if one accepts the Torah’s account of God’s favoritism to the Hebrews as actual history, or as a divinely inspired myth that reflects holy truth, there are at least two additional problems with the argument that Jews are “the Chosen People” who have exclusive rights to Palestine.
First, while the Hebrews may be predecessors of the Jews, the Jews are not Hebrews, and the differences between the two peoples are decisive. They can be described as similar to the differences between Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens in human evolution. They were two different, albeit related, species. The Pentateuch tells the story of the Hebrews from their origins in Abraham to their escape from Egypt and approach to Palestine. These Hebrews worshiped a fierce tribal god very different from the image of the benevolent universal God worshiped by most Jews. Hebrew worship centered around animal and vegetable sacrifices on an altar and in a temple, whereas Jewish religion centers around prayer and study that takes place in a synagogue. The Hebrews’ religion was led by priests who were considered special people with a special relationship to God. Judaism is led by rabbis who are essentially just teachers. The differences between Hebrews and Jews are so great that it does not seem plausible that promises made to Abraham and the Hebrews could carry over to the Jews. The promises certainly do not have the appearance of a legally enforceable contract.
Second, even if one accepts that Jews have a right to call themselves a “Chosen People” and to occupy Palestine based on God’s promises to Abraham, then so too do Christians and Muslims. The Torah, or Old Testament, is one of the sacred books of Christians and Muslims, and they revere Abraham as the father of their religions. They would, therefore, have reason to claim to be God’s “Chosen People” and to have the right to occupy Palestine. And this right would seemingly include the present-day Palestinians, with whom the Jewish Israelis are contesting the land of Palestine. So, even if one accepts the premises of the Orthodox, one cannot accept their arbitrary conclusions. In turn, the right to occupy Palestine would seemingly be a fit subject for negotiation and compromise, rather than unilateral religious fiat.
Jewish communalism can also, however, be broadly humanitarian, rather than narrowly sectarian. The Torah describes the development over time of an ethic that both binds Jews to each other and connects Jews with the rest of humankind. The prophets Isaiah and Amos, for example, preached in favor of social justice, and the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humankind. Theirs was an ethic that Rabbi Hillel encapsulated in his summary of the Torah with a version of the Golden Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Versions of the Golden Rule are promoted by some eighty major religions and philosophies. From the version of Hillel’s contemporary Jesus –“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — to Kant’s later Categorical Imperative — “Act as though the principle of your action is a universal prescription” — the Golden Rule is well nigh a universal principle. It is the ethic that has prompted disproportionate numbers of European and American Jews to participate in humanitarian civic and political movements over the last one hundred and seventy-five years. And it is a founding principle of secular Judaism.
- Delineating Secular Judaism: Not Religious but not Atheist Either.
Secular Judaism is defined by the same two starting points as the other forms of Judaism: the Jewish Bible and Jewish communalism. Although secular Jews generally regard the Torah stories as mythological rather than historical, the Torah is still seen by secularists as the foundation of Jewish history, Jewish views of God and the universe, and Jewish ethics.
There is no historical evidence for the existence of the Hebrews or any of the events in the Pentateuch, and there is only scant evidence for some of the other persons and events in the rest of the Bible. There is no evidence, for example, for Moses or the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, let alone the Tower of Babel and all those patriarchs who lived for hundreds of years. There is also no historical evidence for the existence of David or Solomon or Solomon’s empire. But the Biblical stories provide Jews with a sense of how their predecessors felt about themselves and how they envisioned a trajectory for their history. Jews can then develop their own course of history based on accepting or rejecting the values of the Biblical characters and answering the questions raised by the Biblical stories. How do we as Jews envision the arc of history? How can we contribute to a humanitarian future of the sort imagined by Isaiah and Amos, rather than a vicious cycle of violence of the sort we see, for example, in the interplay between Moses and the Pharaoh in the Exodus story?
Despite the claims of the Orthodox that they revere and follow the Torah, Jews have not practiced most of the rituals prescribed in the Torah for at least two thousand years and their image of God is very different from that presented in the Pentateuch. Jews, including the Orthodox, have long since abandoned the animal sacrifices required in the Pentateuch. And Jews, including the Orthodox, have long since rejected the Pentateuch’s image of a murderous God who, for example, summarily killed a Hebrew who accidentally got one of those animal sacrifices slightly wrong. But the rituals described in the Torah and the varying images of God — sometimes jealous and murderous tribal god, sometimes generous and beneficent god of humanity, sometimes abstract principle of benevolence and/or justice that pervades the universe — provide Jews with a starting point and framework for discussing questions about God and the pros and cons of religion. How can we think about life, the world and the possibility of God in ways that are consistent with the humanitarianism described in many of the Psalms? How do we avoid the anger, narrowness and vengefulness that we see in other places in the Torah?
Finally, although Jews have not followed most of the Torah’s ethical injunctions for at least two thousand years — even the Orthodox, have, for example, long since rejected the Pentateuch’s requirement that disobedient children be stoned to death — there are important ethical guidelines that can be derived from the Torah. The arc of the Torah stories suggests the development of a broad humanitarian ethic of the sort that Rabbi Hillel summarized in his version of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is, however, not an answer. It is merely a benchmark for thinking about ethical questions. How do we organize our daily lives and our social institutions so that everyone is treated fairly? The Golden Rule provides a framework for discussing ethical issues that are derived from the Torah, but do not require belief in the Torah’s literal truth.
The ambiguities, contradictions, and archaisms in the Torah require Jews to continually debate ideas about history, ethics, God and humankind’s place in the universe. As a result, the Jewish community has historically been a debating society. Among the Orthodox, the debate has been about how to find definitive answers in the Torah, and how to sustain an insular purified Jewish community. Among secularists, the debate has been more broadly about how to maintain a Jewish culture and community, while interacting with the wider non-Jewish society. The secular debate focuses on the needs of humankind, not merely on what is best for the Jews, and on the goal of implementing the Golden Rule, not merely performing religious rituals to please God. And it is this broader secular debate, rather than the narrowly religious debate, that has historically been most productive for Jews.
Secular Jews do not necessarily deny the existence of God or deny that faith in God might be meaningful to people. It is important to distinguish between secularism, agnosticism, and anti-theism (what most people call atheism). Secularists generally raise two main objections to organized religion. First, they claim that there are so many different ways of envisioning God and God’s will, and so little evidence of anything having to do with God, that no good can come of involving God in decisions on how to organize and operate our societies. Secularists want to keep debates about God’s will out of discussions of interpersonal relations and decisions about public policy. They conclude that people must work through social issues cooperatively, without any individuals or groups insisting that their way is best because they have a mandate from God.
Second, secularists claim that it is a waste of time and effort attempting to find God’s will or to court God’s favor by poring over ostensibly sacred documents or performing elaborate rituals. There are so many different religious documents and ways of interpreting them, and so many different rituals, that no good can come of insisting on a particular document, interpretation, or ritual. Secular Jews are especially critical of religious requirements, such as keeping Kosher or keeping the Sabbath on Saturday, that arbitrarily cut Jews off from the wider community in which they live. But secularism does not itself denote any position on whether God does or does not exist, or whether people ought to consider God in their personal decisions.
Agnostics are secularists who take their concerns about God’s existence to the next step. They claim that there is so much uncertainty about God’s existence, and about God’s will, that we ought to keep God out of even our personal decisions. Agnostics do not deny the existence of God, but merely contend that one must live as though there is no God. To do otherwise, they conclude, is to leave one open to irrational and unwise decisions based on faith without reason.
Agnostics often distinguish between belief in God — belief being a thought that implies evidence and reason — and faith in God — faith being a feeling that exists without evidence or reason. They eschew belief in God because they claim there is a lack of solid evidence and sound reasons for such a belief. At the same time, agnostics generally recognize that many people will experience a faith in God, even though those people do not have sufficient ground for actual belief. The feeling that there must be a God is almost a reflex with some people. Agnostics contend, however, that people should keep their faith to themselves and act only on the basis of sufficient evidence and adequate reasons. Blind faith is not a legitimate basis for action. While agnostics are secularists, not all secularists are agnostics.
Anti-theists or atheists claim that there is no God, and that any belief or faith in God can lead to no good. They claim that action based on belief or faith in God is wrong-headed and likely wrong. Anti-theists are secularists, but most secularists are not anti-theists.
Although secular Jews reject organized religious practices for themselves, they do not necessarily oppose organized religion, so long as religion involves only worship and does not extend its reach into social policy. Secularists are not intolerant of religious people, but oppose religious people who are intolerant of others.
The Origins of Orthodoxy: Jews for and against Jesus.
Judaism was a popular and populist religion in the pre-Christian era. This was in large part because of its broad ethical emphasis and relatively loose ritual practices. Who and what was considered a Jew were liberally construed. It seems that in most places one was considered Jewish if one attended a synagogue, believed in a universal God, and perused the Torah. Males generally did not have to be circumcised. Kosher food rules were relaxed. Sabbath restrictions were loose. Most people who considered themselves Jews seemingly practiced what we would today consider to be Reform or secular Judaism.
Following the death of Jesus and the expulsion of Jews by the Romans from Jerusalem in the first century CE, Jews and Christians became competitors for adherents. All of the first Christians were Jews, and many Jews became believers in Jesus as the Messiah. Many of them considered themselves to still be Jews, and even argued that since Jesus was himself a Jew, one had to first become a Jew in order to follow Jesus.
This “Jews for Jesus” position did not appeal to early Christian leaders such as Paul, who wanted to appeal to a broader population than merely Jews. He decreed that Christianity was a new beginning, and that one did not have to be a Jew to be a Christian. Paul also defined Christianity as primarily a matter of beliefs rather than laws. In abrogating the Jewish requirements of male circumcision and keeping Kosher, he effectively made it easier to become a Christian than it was to be an Orthodox Jew, while at the same time tapping into the popular beliefs in a universal God and the Golden Rule ethics promoted by the Jews.
The “Jews for Jesus” position also did not appeal to Jewish leaders, who responded to the apostasy of some Jews and the competition with Christians for adherents by tightening up Jewish regulations and restrictions. These rabbis sought, thereby, to initiate a reign of orthodoxy and Orthodoxy in which Jews would all follow the same strict rules. Their purpose was seemingly to sharply distinguish Jews from Christians so as to help keep Jews from becoming Christians, and to exert greater control over the Jewish population. The rabbis would require those who wanted to be Jews to make a serious commitment. But instead of helping them compete with Christians, these reforms essentially ensured defeat.
The rabbis’ Orthodox reforms had the purpose and effect of isolating Jews from the rest of the population, but also limiting the number of people who would want to become Jews. They absolutely required circumcision for males. Circumcision in those days was a significant operation to perform on an infant and a horrendous procedure for an adult. With this emphasis on circumcision, Jewish leaders effectively foreclosed the conversion of adult males to Judaism which had swelled the ranks of Jews in the pre-Christian era.
Likewise, a strict adherence to Sabbath restrictions required Jews to live within short walking distance of a synagogue. This requirement had the effect of creating Jewish neighborhoods and towns which were physically separate from non-Jewish areas. Strictly enforcing Saturday Sabbath regulations similarly resulted in a separate Jewish workweek that was out-of-step with that of Christians. This had the effect of creating a Jewish workforce that worked in Jewish businesses, with Jewish businessmen and workers in a separate world of work from non-Jews. In turn, Kosher laws effectively kept Jews from eating with non-Jews and, thereby, kept Jews from socializing with non-Jews.
The rabbis’ turn to Orthodoxy in the Christian era may have in some sense purified Judaism, but it left Jews with a leadership whose primary purpose seemed to be to keep a small flock intact and under control, rather than to maintain, let alone expand, their numbers or get involved in the wider society. With the support of non-Jewish political rulers, they were able to make this so.
- Rabbis and Businessmen: The Reign of Orthodoxy…or Not.
During the Middle Ages, Christianity and Islam became the predominant religions and cultures within Europe and the Middle East. During this time, a pattern of Jewish settlement developed that played out in similar ways throughout these regions for some fifteen hundred years. Christian and Muslim rulers found Jews to be useful, especially in business and economic matters. As a result, Christian and Muslim rulers generally tolerated, and even encouraged, Jews to settle in largely segregated communities within their lands.
Jews were willing and able to perform commercial services that Christians and Muslims would not do, or could not do as well as Jews. Catholics, for example, were forbidden to lend money at interest. As commerce developed during the Middle Ages, money lending became crucial for economic development, so Jews were employed in that capacity. More important, the insularity and clannishness of Jews made them invaluable for long distance business transactions.
Prior to the communications revolution of the mid-nineteenth century, during which the telegraph, railroad and steamship were developed, commercial transactions largely depended on people knowing and trusting each other. Personal contact and connections were critical. This was especially true of transactions between parties separated by long distance, and a few dozen miles could be a long distance in those days. Agents of distant businesses or governments would have to be recognized and accepted by local people as reliable and trustworthy business partners. Despite what became a common stereotype among Christians and Muslims of the Jew as a shyster, Jews were ideally suited to play the role of business agent because they could be trusted.
For one thing, Jews constituted a small fraternal group who tended to be related by extended family connections, and distanced by only a few degrees of separation, no matter how far they lived from each other. As such, there was a built-in basis of trust among Jews toward each other that did not exist among the much larger and diverse populations of Christians and Muslims. Unlike Christian and Muslim businessmen, Jewish businessmen living in different parts of Europe and Asia were often related to each other or knew each others’ families. If Jews could trust each other, then non-Jewish businessmen and government officials could have some confidence that business transactions conducted for them by Jews would not be hijacked by conmen and shysters.
Orthodoxy helped in establishing this confidence among Jews. It was relatively easy for a person to fake his credentials as a Christian or Muslim. He merely had to profess his belief and be familiar with a few rituals. But it was very difficult for an impostor or conman to pass himself off as an Orthodox Jew. Orthodox Jews could easily distinguish someone who was one of their kind, and therefore could be trusted, from someone who was not. As a consequence, Orthodox Jews could more easily and safely conduct business both for themselves and on behalf of Christian and Muslim clients. In turn, the tenuous status of small groups of Jews living among large groups of Christians and Muslims made the Jews more trustworthy business associates for the non-Jews. Christian and Muslim businessmen and rulers could rely on the threat of confiscation of Jewish property, and expulsion of the Jews from their lands, to help keep Jewish businessmen from taking advantage of them.
As a means of organizing and regulating the settlement of Jews in their lands, Christian and Muslim rulers would generally recognize and authorize Orthodox rabbis and businessmen as the elite leaders of the Jewish communities. Given the insularity of Orthodox Jews, Orthodox leaders could be relied upon to keep ordinary Jews from infecting the Christian and Muslim populations with Jewish religious ideas. The isolation from the wider society that Orthodox Sabbath and Kosher rules effected was a positive for the Christian and Muslim rulers. In turn, Jewish communities operated nominally under Orthodox rules and regulation. I say “nominally” because the only historical evidence we have of what happened in these communities consists of documents written and left by the Orthodox rabbis and businessmen who ran these communities.
The reliability of Orthodox versions of what went on in their communities must be questioned. While the rabbis would have been able to require their constituents to perform Orthodox public observances, they could not control their constituents’ thoughts or most of their private activities. One is reminded of the slave owners in the ante-bellum American South who reported that their slaves were happy and satisfied with their lot as slaves. These reports may have been sincere, but they were not accurate. The same is likely to be the case with Orthodox versions of Jewish history. That is, most Jews were not Orthodox, and were likely what we would call Reform or secular Jews, even though they lived in ostensibly Orthodox communities. The weak hold that Orthodoxy had on ordinary Jews is evidenced by the weak population numbers of Jews.
It has been estimated that in order to account for the small number of Jews in the world today, an average of some fifty percent of each generation of those who were born as Jews over the last two thousand years must have stopped being Jewish. For the most part, these people were not defectors who left the fold because Jews were being persecuted, nor were they murdered. The persecution of Jews has not been historically continuous. It has been sporadic, even though sometimes horrific, and it has generally been no worse than the persecution of other minorities.
The sporadic persecution of Jews by Christians and Muslims has to be put in the context of the wide range of persecutions and massacres during medieval and modern times. These include the persecutions and massacres of Muslims by Christians and vice versa, and the persecutions and massacres of each other by Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims, and by Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians. They also include the persecution and slaughter of so-called heretics (Nestorians, Albigensians, Hussites, and Anabaptists, just to name a few) by Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims. In addition, if you accept the Bible stories as history, the Hebrews repeatedly engaged in religious persecutions and massacres of other peoples. History is all too full of sectarian religious persecutions and massacres by people who claim to know God’s will and to be His Chosen People, right up to the present day. In any case, persecution does not seem to be the major reason there have been so few Jews.
The main reason seems to be more mundane. Most Jews were not rabbis, merchants or bankers. They were workers and small farmers, who for the most part served the needs of the Jewish community, especially including the rabbis, merchants and bankers. Orthodoxy was not inherently advantageous to the social and economic positions of ordinary Jews, as it was to the merchants and bankers. So, many of them defected because being part of an Orthodox Jewish community was difficult in itself, what with all the Sabbath and Kosher restrictions, and because it cut them off from economic and social opportunities in the wider society. That there have historically been fewer Jews than one would expect is for the most part not because of persecution by non-Jews, but because of the narrowness of life in Orthodox Jewish communities.
There is also reason to believe that most of those who remained Jews and stayed within their Jewish communities were not Orthodox in their beliefs or their private practices. They may have been required by their leaders to publicly obey Orthodox Sabbath rules and other regulations, but that does not mean they held Orthodox beliefs. Unlike the defectors from Judaism, they remained Jews probably out of family loyalty, ethnic solidarity, commitment to the Torah, and/or just plain inertia. The satisfactions they derived from Jewish culture and the support they received from the Jewish community were sufficient to keep them within the fold. But it is not unlikely they were reformist or secularist in their beliefs and private practices. Since ordinary Jews did not leave many records of their beliefs or lives — the histories were written by the Orthodox rabbis — the evidence for this conclusion is necessarily circumstantial and speculative.
One piece of circumstantial evidence is the enthusiastic rejection of Orthodox principles and practices by the overwhelming majority of European Jews during the course of the nineteenth century when Jews were no longer required by their Christian and Muslim overlords to live in ghettos ruled by Orthodox rabbis and businessmen. Conservative, Reform and secular Judaism flourished once Jews were allowed to express themselves, and Orthodoxy became a small minority position among Jews as it remains today. The reaction of Jews to liberation from their Orthodox ghettos was similar to that of the Russian and Mexican peasants following the Russian and Mexican Revolutions of the early twentieth century. Russian and Mexican peasants had long been considered by their rulers and by outside observers to be devoted Orthodox Catholics and Roman Catholics, respectively. But they abandoned their respective churches in droves when given the opportunity, and for the most part have not come back even in the wake of the disappointment and failure of both revolutions.
Liberated from the constraints of a narrow Orthodox intellectual regime that focused almost entirely on the study of the Torah and Talmud, secular Jews began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to make disproportionately large contributions to the intellectual and cultural life of the wider society. And they did so while still identifying themselves as Jews and dealing with Jewish issues and themes. These were people who inherited the Jewish tradition of debating important issues raised in the Torah, and who applied their critical thinking and creativity to broader issues and fields of human endeavor. They were people who absorbed the fraternalism of the Jewish community, and extended their humanitarianism to all of humankind. For starters, think of Einstein in physics, Freud in psychology, Bergson in philosophy, Durkheim in sociology, Boaz in anthropology, Kafka in literature, Chagall in art, Copeland in music. The list is enormous and it continues to the present day.
Another piece of circumstantial evidence is the fact that the views I am expressing in this essay are not new, even if they are unorthodox. The great majority of Jews over the past 175 years, as they have been liberated from the ghettos and shtetls, have rejected Orthodoxy, and many have asked the sorts of questions and entertained the sorts of views that I have been raising in this essay. There is no good reason to believe that Jews confined in prior times under Orthodox rule did not do likewise, even if they were not able to leave records of their views and did not make it into the records of their Orthodox rulers. It would be insulting to the memory of past Jews to believe that they were not capable of thinking critically and independently about these issues.
Orthodoxy may be a main reason that Jewish ghettos and other segregated Jewish communities survived, but Orthodoxy is not thereby the reason that Judaism has survived. Religious Jews contend that without the binding power of religion, Judaism would have disappeared in the past and will disappear in the future. They claim that secular Jewish philosophy, history, culture and ethics are not enough to sustain Judaism. Secular Judaism is self-defeating, they conclude.
But the history of the Jews seems to contradict these contentions, and the history of my own family over the last 125-150 years seems to support the staying power of secular Judaism. I speak as part of the middle generation of at least five generations of secular Jews in my family. My paternal great grandparents in Russia during the mid-nineteenth century may have been explicitly secular, but I am not sure. In any case, my paternal and maternal grandparents were secular Jews, first in Russia and then in America. My parents were secular Jews, as are my siblings and our children. And my grandson is being raised as a secular Jew. The overwhelming majority of my aunts, uncles and cousins and my cousins’ children have also been or are secular Jews. Many have married non-Jews, but have raised or are raising their children as secular Jews. In sum, my family is not merely maintaining but increasing the number of secular Jews.
“And yet it moves,” Galileo supposedly mumbled under his breath, referring to the earth when he was forced by the Catholic hierarchy to recant his proof that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa as it says in the Old Testament. The claims of Orthodox Jews that secularism is barren, and that theirs is the only way for Jews to survive as a people, are just not so. These are the sorts of claims that long-established social and cultural elites regularly make about challenges to their predominance, especially when orthodox religious leaders are confronted with a secular challenge to their dogma.
The Renaissance in the later Middle Ages, the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century were all condemned on this basis. In each case, apologists for the established elites warned that deviating from orthodoxy would destroy civilization, and in each case they were wrong. Each of these movements spawned significant secular developments in science, philosophy and the arts, and created new opportunities for liberty, equality and fraternity for more people. Rather than destroying Western society, these movements helped regenerate it. A secular and cultural approach to Judaism could have a similar effect on the Jewish community.
Although Jews are few in numbers, this could be an advantage at this relatively early stage of post-ghetto Jewish history. Small numbers makes it easier for more people to participate and to participate more fully in the community’s development. This was true, for example, of the community of patriots that founded the United States. But just as it was important for eighteenth century Americans to stop thinking of themselves as lesser Englishmen, it is important for secular Jews to stop seeing themselves as merely non-religious or ersatz Jews. And it is important for us to know and be able to present Judaism as more than just blintzes and bagels. We must see ourselves as real Jews carrying forward ancient traditions of critical debate rooted in the Torah, and progressively developing Hillel’s conception of the Golden Rule as the underlying meaning of the Torah. Such a program would be a way and a reason for Judaism to survive and thrive.