Studies in Renewal (3) – The Secret of Continuity

Published 1 August 1993
MagenDavid continuity

This is the third of five pamphlets written by Rabbi Sacks in 1993. The series is entitled “Studies in Renewal”.

The Secret of Jewish Continuity

“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous, dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the smallness of his numbers. He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendour, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. 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, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

Thus Mark Twain in 1898. It is a marvellous tribute, but it ends with a question, the right question. What is the secret of Jewish continuity? No ordinary answer will suffice, because Jewish history has been altogether extraordinary. Jews remained a distinctive nation without land, power, territory or a shared culture. They were dispersed and almost everywhere a minority. For the most part they refused active efforts to convert them, and they resisted the passive pull of assimilation. No other people has kept its identity intact for so long under such circumstances. How then did they do so?”

A Religion of Continuity

Many theories have been advanced, but only one is convincing. The secret of Jewish continuity is that no people has ever devoted more of its energies to continuity. The focal point of Jewish life is the transmission of a heritage across the generations. Judaism’s focus is its children. Abraham’s first words to God are, “What can You give me, if I am without children?” Rachel says, “Give me children, for without them it is as if I am dead.” To be a Jew is to be a link in the chain of generations. It is to be a child and then a parent, to receive a heritage and to hand it on. Moses “received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on… ” and so must we. Judaism is a religion of continuity.

We who have grown up with Judaism are so familiar with this idea that we take it as self-evident, but it is not. It is exceptional, even unique. The first command in the Torah is not to believe, but to have children. Abraham is chosen not because he is righteous (only Noah is described as that) but because “he will instruct his children and his household after him.” On the brink of the exodus from Egypt, Moses does not spend time telling the Israelites about the land of milk and honey that awaits them across the Jordan. Instead he instructs them about how they should teach future generations. Three times he returns to the theme: “And when your children ask you … ,” “In days to come, when your son asks you … ” “On that day you shall tell your son … ” Not yet liberated, they are about to become a nation of educators.

From the very outset, Judaism predicated its survival on education. Not education in the narrow, formal sense of the acquisition of knowledge but something altogether more vast. Indeed the word ‘education’ is altogether inadequate to describe Judaism’s culture of study and debate, its absorption in texts, commentaries and counter-commentaries, its devotion to literacy and life-long learning. Descartes said: I think, therefore I am. A Jew would have said: I learn, therefore I am. If there is one leitmotif, one dominant theme linking the various eras of the people of Israel it is the enthronement of education as the sovereign Jewish value.

In one of the most famous verses of the Torah Moses commands: “You shall teach these things diligently to your children, speaking of them when you stay at home or when you travel on a journey, when you lie down and when you rise up.” The first Psalm describes the happy human being as one who “studies Torah day and night.” In an astonishing comment the rabbis said “Greater is an illegitimate scholar than an ignorant High Priest.”

The central, burning, incandescent passion of Jews was study. Their citadels were schools. Their religious leaders were Sages: the word rabbi does not mean priest or holy man but teacher. Even when they were racked by poverty, they ensured that their children were educated. In twelfth century France a Christian scholar noted: “A Jew, however poor, if he has ten sons, will put them all to letters, not for gain as the Christians do, but for the understanding of God’s law – and not only his sons but his daughters too.”

In the shtetl of Eastern Europe, learning conferred prestige, status, authority, respect. Men of wealth were honoured, but scholars were honoured more. It was they who occupied the seats of rank along the synagogue’s eastern wall. In their delightful study of the culture of the shtetl, Life is with People, Zborowski and Herzog describe Jewish family priorities: “The mother, who has charge of household accounts, will cut the family food costs to the limit if necessary, in order to pay for her son’s schooling. If the worst comes to the worst, she will pawn her cherished pearls in order to pay for the school term. The boy must study, the boy must become a good Jew-for her the two are synonymous.”

The result was that Jews knew. They knew who they were and why. They knew their history. They knew their traditions. They knew where they came from and where their hearts belonged. They had a sense of identity and pride. They knew Abraham and Moses and Isaiah and Hillel and Akiva and Rashi and Maimonides, for they had studied their words and argued over their meaning. The Torah was the portable homeland of the Jew, and they knew its landscape, its mountains and valleys, better than the local scenery outside their windows. Jerusalem lay in ruins, but they were familiar with its streets from the prophets and the Talmud and they walked in the golden city of the mind.

Nowhere else was literacy, scholarship and high culture so widely diffused, so highly prized as among this people of the book. Paul Johnson describes traditional Jewish life as an “ancient and highly efficient social machine for the production of intellectuals.” It was an aristocracy of the spirit and mind. Not everyone, said Maimonides, can be a Priest or a King. But the crown of Torah – the greatest of all crowns – is available to all.

The Formation of Identity

Identity is a delicate thing. It is reality internalised, how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us. For most people at most times, identity is not a problem. It is provided by the surrounding culture and its institutions. For Jews, however, it has been a problem at most times and places throughout our history. The reason is simple. Jewish identity was not provided by the surrounding culture, for Jews were a minority in a non-Jewish environment. Most minorities eventually give up the uneven struggle of maintaining their identities. Based as they are on tradition, memory and habit, they gradually assimilate as tradition weakens, memory fades and habits are eclipsed by adjustment to the ways of the majority. It takes time -several generations -for this to happen. But almost invariably it does.

Jews were different, for they saw their identity not as an accident of history (who they happened to be) but as a religious vocation (who they were called on to be). From the very outset they did not rest content with tradition, memory and habit, the legacy of the past. They renewed and recreated the past in each successive generation. A Jewish child, on Pesach, tastes the unleavened bread and bitter herbs of Egyptian slavery. On Succot she joins her ancestors in their tabernacles as they journey precariously through the desert. On Tisha be’ Av he sits with the author of Lamentations and mourns the destruction of the Temple. In the most vivid way, Jews handed on their memories to their children.

Not only their memories but their way of life. Since the days of Moses, Jews had lived distinctively according to the laws set forth in the Torah. Had this rested on habit alone it would slowly have disappeared once Jews were exiled and dispersed. But Jews were never content with habit. They believed not only in keeping the law but in studying it as well. Rabbinic Judaism is the only civilisation in the world in which every citizen is expected not just to obey the law but to become a lawyer, a student and exponent of the law. Jews were ­to use David Reisman’s terms – not tradition-directed but inner-directed individuals. The “thou shalt”s and “thou shalt not”s of the Torah were not an external code but an internalised discipline, part of identity itself. That is how Jews were able to hand on their way of life to their children.

Even this might not have sufficed were it not for one other thing.  Perhaps the most precious heritage Jews gave their children was hope. From the outset Israel has been a remarkably future-oriented people. The story of Abraham begins with the promise of a land, but by the end of the book of Genesis it has still not been fulfilled. The book of Exodus begins with the Israelites leaving Egypt and travelling towards the land of milk and honey, but by the end of Deuteronomy they have still not arrived. In contrast with almost every other faith, Judaism’s golden age lies not in the past but in the future, just over the horizon.

As a result, at every moment of crisis -the Babylonian exile, the Roman destruction, the Spanish expulsion – Prophets, Sages and mystics were able to rescue a people from despair by messianic intimations. Jews remembered their future as actively as they recalled their past. They prayed towards Jerusalem and mentioned it constantly because they knew it would one day be rebuilt, and they or their children would return. It is said that Napoleon, passing a synagogue on Tisha be’ A v in 1806 and hearing sounds of weeping, asked what tragedy had just occurred. He was told: the destruction of Jerusalem seventeen centuries before. He replied: a people that can mourn a city for so long will one day have it restored. He was right. Jewish memory, because of its peculiar character, kept Jewish hope alive. This too led Jews to live for the future, which meant for and through their children.

Jewish Identity in the Diaspora

There is nothing inevitable about Jewish identity in the diaspora, and there never was. In Israel things are different. There, one is Jewish by living in a Jewish state, surrounded by a Jewish culture and Jewish institutions. The language is Hebrew. The calendar is Jewish. The days of rest and celebration arc those of the Bible. “The air of Israel,” said the Sages, “makes one wise,” because the very air of Israel is saturated with the Jewish past. Here are the towns in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob pitched their tents. There is Jerusalem, the city of David. And there, beyond, is the landscape of the Psalms. Only in Israel does being Jewish mean going with the grain of public culture. Only in Israel is Jewishness a matter of what you can see and touch and breathe.

In the diaspora, being Jewish has always meant going against the grain, being counter-cultural. The most natural form of identity is to say, I belong to the here-and-now, to the people around me and the landscape I see every morning. Jews chose a more complex identity, and had they not done so they would have disappeared. Since the days of Jeremiah they knew that their responsibility as citizens was to “seek the peace of the city to which I have carried you into exile, and pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” So, whenever permitted, they entered into the life of Cairo and Cordova, Vilna and Vitebsk and left it enriched. But that was where they were, not who they were. Who they were was the very opposite of the here-and-now. It was a breathtaking identity spanning time and space, centuries and continents. Jews were defined by a network of relationships stretching back to the biblical past and forward to the messianic future, linked in a common destiny with Jews across the globe.

Diaspora Jewish identity was and is a matter of the mind, not the senses. It belongs to nurture, not nature. We live through what we learn. If we do not learn what it is to be a Jew, nothing in our environment, except antisemitism, will tell us. And anti­semitism, while it may remind us that we are Jews, provides no reason for us to want our children to be Jewish. Jews survived, quite simply, because they devoted their best energies to education, their money to schools, their admiration to scholars, their spare hours to study, and their first concern to the tuition of their children. Their identity was constantly learned and relearned, enacted and reinforced, and passed on as a precious gift to the next generation. The secret of Jewish continuity is that Jews cared about it. They created continuity by making the transmission of tradition their first duty and greatest joy.

Testing the Hypothesis

The hypothesis is therefore this: that Jewish continuity in the diaspora that depends on Jewish education. This for our ancestors, was an item of faith. The question is, can we submit it to critical evaluation? What would constitute testing the conjecture? Let me suggest two criteria: the test of history, and the test of the latest available research. First, history.

The Jewish people has survived. But at significant moments that survival lay in doubt. Catastrophe struck and there was no obvious route to a secure future. The prophets declared that Israel would be an eternal people. But there were times when that seemed desperately unlikely. There were moments when it might have been otherwise. These critical junctures repay close attention.  What saved the people and faith of Israel from the might-have-been oblivion? Consider three such moments.

The first came in the fifth century B.C.E. Several centuries earlier, the northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians. The population was dispersed and rapidly assimilated into neighbouring cultures. Ten of the twelve Israelite tribes disappeared from history. In 586 B.C.E. the southern kingdom of Judah too was overcome, this time by Babylonians. The Temple was destroyed, and the elite of the people taken into captivity. There they too might have disintegrated as a group, were it not for the insistent message of the prophets urging that hope was not lost.

Under Cyrus, king of Persia, a new and more benign regime took shape and some of the exiles were allowed to return. Eventually the leadership of Nehemiah the statesman-governor under and Ezra the priestly scribe, a Jewish renaissance began to take shape. But it faced formidable difficulties. On their arrival in Israel the two leaders found a devastating situation. Those who had remained had lost their identity. They had intermarried. The Sabbath was publicly desecrated. Religious laws lay in disuse.

The book of Nehemiah describes the event which was to prove to be the turning point.  The people gathered in Jerusalem where Ezra, standing on a wooden platform, read to the assembled crowd from the Torah. A group of Levites acted as instructors to the people, “reading from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that people could understand what was being read.” The population entered into a binding agreement to keep the terms of the Torah.  The covenant, which had been in danger of being forgotten, was renewed.  A new era of Jewish history began.  From then on for the next five centuries, though there were crises when significant segments of the population became acculturated and Judaism was at risk of dissolving through Hellenisation, there always a group loyal to Judaic principles who eventually prevailed.

Ezra represented a new kind of Jewish personality, one who was to shape the character of the Jewish people from that time to this.  Not a law-giver or a prophet, a king or a judge, neither a political nor a military leader, Ezra was the prototype of the teacher as hero.

Under his influence the ancient ideal of a people of the Torah became institutionalised.  Public readings and explanations of the sacred texts became more widespread. By the second century B.C.E., a system of community-funded schools of developed. Universal education, the first of its kind in the world, had begun.

The might-have-been is clear. The two tribes might have gone the way of the other ten. They too were conquered, sent into exile and exposed to the danger of assimilation into a larger empire. But they did not. They remained distinct, intact, a singular people. How was the might­-have-been avoided? The lesson of the lost ten tribes had been learned. If the Jewish people was to survive, it needed to create a set of institutions through which its character could be sustained against the attrition of cultures. It sought and found the  structures of continuity. Jews discovered a fundamental truth, that has remained its unique characteristic among religious civilisations. The best, indeed the only, defence of a religious people is not military or political but educational.

Surviving Destruction

In the first century C.E a second crisis struck with devastating force.  An ill-advised rebellion against Rome brought savage retaliation.  The Roman forces led by Vespasian descended on the centres of Jewish resistance. In 70 C.E. Vespasian’ s son Titus brought the campaign to its climax with a siege against Jerusalem The city was captured. The second Temple was destroyed. It was a fateful moment, though few of those who lived through it could have known how long Jews would suffer its consequences. It was the beginning of the longest exile Israel has ever known. Not until the twentieth century would Jews again experience what it was like to be a sovereign people in their own land.

The catastrophe, driven home sixty-five years later with the suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion, was almost total. The basis of Jewish life lay in ruins. The Temple, symbol and centre of the nation, was gone. There were to be no more kings or prophets, serving priests or sacrifices within the foreseeable future. The loss of the first Temple had been accompanied by hope. There were prophets who foretold return and reconstruction. Now there were no such visions, at least none that carried immediate promise. The loss of the second Temple brought the danger of hopelessness.

Jewish tradition has rightly identified one moment as a symbol of the turning point. The Talmud tells of how the Sage Johanan ben Zakkai stood out against the Jews of his day. During the siege of Jerusalem, leaders within the city believed that they could prevail against Rome. Johanan knew they were mistaken and argued unsuccessfully for peace. Others believed that they would be saved by Divine intervention. The Messiah was about to come. Against them Johanan taught, “If you have a sapling in your hand, and people say to you, ‘Behold, there is the Messiah’ -go on with your planting and only then go out and receive him.” Johanan was a religious realist in an age of dangerous military and apocalyptic dreams.

Johanan, according to the Talmud, had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem and was taken to Vespasian. He told the general that he would shortly achieve greatness (in 69 C.E., Vespasian was made Emperor of Rome) and made one request. “I ask nothing of you except Yavneh, where I might go and teach my disciples and there establish a house of study and perform all the commandments.” Johanan predicated Jewish survival not on military victory or the messianic age but on a house of study and a group of teachers: Yavneh and its Sages.

Few decisions have had more lasting effects. For seventeen hundred years Jews became a people held together by a single thread: study of Judaism’s holy texts. In place of the temple came the synagogue, the yeshiva and the bet Midrash. In place of sacrifices came prayer, learning and the performance of good deeds. The mantle of leadership passed from kings, priests and prophets to the Sage, the teacher who “raised up many disciples.” Exiled, dispersed and deprived of power, a shattered nation was rebuilt through one instrumentality: education.

We are in an unusually good position to test Johanan ben Zakkai’s strategy because his was not the only version of Jewish life. We know from Josephus and other sources that there were several tendencies in Jewish life in the Second Commonwealth. Johanan represented the group known as the Pharisees, who gave rise to the Rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud. There was a second and more powerful group known as the Sadducees, who were in general wealthier and more closely associated with the Temple and priesthood. Josephus calls the third group the Essenes. They lived quasi­monastic lives in small separatist communities of which the Qumran sect, known to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls, may have been one.

For the Sadducees, the central dimension of Jewish life was the state and its institutions: the Sanhedrin and the Temple. For the Essenes it was the messianic age, for it appears that they lived in imminent expectation of an apocalypse which would shake the foundations of the world. For the Pharisees, as we have seen, it was education. Their key institution was the school. Their figure of authority was the scholar. Their touchstone of Jewish identity was individual learning and observance of the Torah.

Neither Sadducces nor Essenes survived. Of their memory, only the most fragmentary traces remain. There was a time when both groups flourished and when each was convinced it held the key to the Jewish future. But history ruled otherwise. Once again, education proved the only route to continuity.

After Auschwitz

The third crisis brings us to the present century and to what, in human terms, is the greatest tragedy ever to have struck the people of the covenant: the Holocaust. At the beginning of the twentieth century four out of every five Jews lived in Europe. By the end of the· Second World War the vast heartlands of European Jewry had been destroyed . The great powerhouses of rabbinic learning – Vilna, Volozhyn, Ponevez, Mir – were gone. The citadels of the Jewish spirit had been reduced to ashes. Jewry’ s religious leaders and the communities from which they came from had been murdered.  At most, the survivors were “a brand plucked from the burning fire”.  Never had Judaism’s everlasting light come closer to being extinguished.

What, spiritually, was left? Russian Jewry, the largest surviving Jewish group in Europe, lived under political and religious repression. America, though it was tolerant of Jews, had proved disastrous for Judaism. One wave of Jewish immigrants after another – first Spanish, then German, then East European – had acculturated, assimilated and disappeared. The new State of Israel, though it meant everything in physical and political terms, was aggressively secular. Ben Gurion had granted concessions to religious groups, but was confident that within a generation they would have disappeared.

What happened next will one day be told as one of the great acts of reconstruction in the religious history of mankind. A handful of Holocaust survivors and refugees set about rebuilding on new soil the world they had seen go up in flames. Rabbis Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, Aaron Kotler, Jacob Kamenetzky, Shragai Mendlowitz, Joseph Soloveitchik and others like them refused to yield to despair. While others responded to the Holocaust by building memorials, endowing lectureships, convening conferences and writing books, they urged their followers to marry and have children. They built schools and communities and yeshivot. They said: our world has been shattered but not destroyed. They said: Hitler brought death into the world, therefore let us bring life. Within a generation Mir and Ponevez, Lubavitch and Belz lived again, no longer in Europe but in Israel and America.

In the past half-century, traditional Jewry has risen from the ashes to become the fastest growing and most influential force in Jewish life. It has achieved what all observers had hitherto thought impossible. It has shown that Torah can flourish in a secular Israel and an open America. It has proved that Jews in today’s diaspora can experience demographic growth. It has brought about a revival in talmudic study that has no precedent since the great days of Babylonian Jewry. But it has done more. It has demonstrated in our time that the classic Jewish response to crisis remains the most powerful. Like Ezra, the yeshiva and Hasidic leaders concentrated on teaching.

Like Johanan ben Zakkai they devoted themselves to raising up disciples.

Theirs – to repeat- was not the only response to the Holocaust. Other groups reacted differently. They built museums and monuments, funded chairs and periodicals, wrote Holocaust theology and sponsored visits to Auschwitz. A generation of young Jews, those who grew up in the seventies and eighties, has been liberally exposed to literature, films and lectures about the Holocaust, and it this generation which is choosing to marry out of Judaism at the rate of one in two. The reason is not hard to find. As one Holocaust historian, disturbed by the obsessive interest in the Shoah, put it: our children will learn about the Greeks and how they lived, the Romans and how they lived, and the Jews and how they died. Unlike traditional Jewish education, Holocaust education in itself offers no meaning, no hope, no way of life. Unaccompanied by faith, it recapitulates the error of Lot’s wife. The Holocaust is a black hole in human history, and if we stare at it too long we will turn to stone.

Jews never forgot the destruction of the first Temple, or the second. We mourn them on the Ninth of Av, and at every Jewish wedding we still break a glass in memory. It is 2,500 years since the first event and 1,900 since the second. So too, as Jong as Jews Jive, we will remember Auschwitz and Treblinka, Bergen Belsen and Sobibor. But there is a Jewish way of remembering. For every tragedy there is the promise of redemption. Every nightmare is succeeded by hope. We were never paralysed by our past, because we lived toward the future. That is why the Jewish response to catastrophe was to have children and build schools and create a Jewish future. The children of the yeshiva and Hasidic communities are their Holocaust memorials, made not of stone but of new life.

These three moments are seminal to an understanding of Jewish history. At each of them, the Jewish people confronted its own mortality. In none was the response that eventually proved successful by any means the obvious one. Who in his right mind would have suggested that the answer to the Babylonian conquest, the might of Rome or the Holocaust lay in schools, teachers and houses of study? Yet Judaism’s great visionaries, the architects of its survival, said just that. Alternatives were tried. They failed. The ten tribes of the Northern kingdom disappeared. So did the Sadducees and Essenes. In our time, those diaspora communities that have failed to place Jewish education at the centre of their lives are disappearing too. In each case the survivors were ostensibly the weakest group. The southern kingdom of Judah was small in comparison to the kingdom of the north. The Pharisees were poorer and less powerful than the Sadducees. After the Shoah, the Hasidic and yeshiva communities were a fragment of their former glory. But in each case Zechariah’s prophetic maxim proved true. Jewish continuity happens “not by might nor by power but by My spirit.”

Recent research findings

Thus far the test of history. What of current research? Can we quantify the impact of Jewish education on Jewish identity? The answer is that we can.

The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey in the United States is the most comprehensive study of a diaspora community undertaken in recent years. Its results are still being analysed. But in March 1993 the first findings emerged of the effect of education on Jewish commitment, using the survey data. The study, by Sylvia Barack Fishman and Alice Goldstein, divided educational experience into four categories:

[1] no Jewish education
[2] minimal education (less than three years of Jewish school or up to five of Sunday­only classes)
[3] moderate education (three to five years of supplementary or day school, or six years of Sunday-­only classes), and
[4] substantial education (six or more years of supplementary or day school).

Its findings were these. In the 25-44 year-old age group, those who had substantial Jewish education were between six and ten times more likely to observe Jewish ritual than those whose Jewish education was minimal or non-existent. They were nearly three times more likely to belong to a Jewish organisation, three times more likely to be members of a synagogue and twenty per cent more likely to contribute to Jewish causes. They have more Jewish friends, are more opposed to intermarriage and are significantly less likely to marry out. Of those with no Jewish education, only three out of ten are in-married. Of those with substantial Jewish education, the figure is eight out of ten. The authors conclude:

The 1990 NJPS data show us the strong correlation of Jewish education and enhanced Jewish identification. The mere fact of having received some Jewish education in childhood has little impact on Jewish attitudes and behaviours during the adult years. However, extensive Jewish education is definitively associated with higher measures of adult Jewish identification. Its impact is demonstrated in almost every area of public and private life.

Here then is further confirmation of the thesis that the fate of the Jews in the diaspora was, is and predictably will be, determined by their approach to education. This proposition had been subjected to two tests, one involving critical moments in Jewish history the other using the latest and best available research. Together they show that Jewry’s triumphs are triumphs of education.  Our renewal depends on education.  Our traditional strength, our greatest gift, our highest value is education.

Professor Daniel Elazar, in his encyclopaedic survey of world Jewry, People and Polity, draws the simple conclusion:

The history of the Jews has been a history of communities built around schools. They are the key institutions because they convey earning. Greek civilisation survived for five hundred years after the Roman conquest of the Greek city-states, because the Greeks, like the Jews, had developed academies and they could live around those academies. When the academies failed, Greek civilisation disappeared. The Jewish people has never allowed its academies to fail.

That is the secret of our collective immortality.